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Even In the Desert

First Fruits by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman Inspired by Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Digital painting

Deuteronomy 26:1-11;Luke 4:1-13

Last week, we talked about a lifehack about reading the Bible; if a story takes place in or around a mountaintop, it is about encountering God. Here’s another one; if a story takes place in a wilderness or desert, it represents deprivation, spiritual loss or wandering from God in some way. The 40 years in the wilderness that the Israelites spend in the wilderness is probably the prime example of it, but we find it throughout the Old and New Testament. From Genesis to Exodus, the story of Jonah and the story of Jesus.

But inside every wilderness encounter, which we associate so closely with material loss, with want, with hunger, there are also signs of God’s incredible gifts, invitations into living authentically, expansively, and abundantly. Even in our times of greatest despair, God is there to provide us not with what we want, but what we need, not just some, but more than we can imagine.

Pastor Shane, we might think, why are we talking about god’s abundance and graciousness during Lent?

What comes to mind when we talk about Lent? Perhaps some sort of personal discipline, giving up something like chocolate or alcohol or social media. If you’re a Roman Catholic from a certain generation, it might be no meat on Fridays. Or even a practice of fasting in general.

There’s also typically a focus on human sin, introspection, of spiritual preparation.

That’s certainly one way to approach this season, one sort of traditional way to approach it.

But if we take a step back, and look at it in the context of our faith, this way of seeing lent certainly isn’t the only way, and indeed, might not be the best way.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that God’s love and grace are not things we can prepare for. We can’t bottle, and put up for sale love or make grace fit into a mold for mass production to pick up at our convenience.

That’s because God has a habit of taking us by surprise, by becoming most apparent when we least expect it.

In other words, how dare we believe that giving up chocolate for Lent will prepare us to see God more clearly, to be loved more dearly.

What hubris must we have to believe that we can truly be more ready to receive the irrational Good News of Easter Sunday through not eating meat on Fridays.

Professor Mark Douglas of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur Georgia, has this to say:

“I simply can’t make theological sense of the claim that any of us can do anything to prepare ourselves for the arrival of such grace on Easter Sunday. . . . Easter is a shock of divine goodness that reveals not the evidence of our worth or the magnitude of our efforts, but God’s astounding power, to which we can but whisper ‘Thank you,’ not ‘Okay: now I’m ready.’ Whatever work we do at learning to discipline our bodies and our lives, we do in response to God’s grace, not in preparation for it. But there, again this response—this disciplining—isn’t a seasonal exercise; it’s a lifelong one.”

So instead this Lenten season, we’re going to be recognizing abundance and striving not to become more ready to receive God’s love, but to strive instead for lives that are full. Lives that are full of the things that truly matter: hope, courage, joy, honesty, and grace.

So in that mindset, how might we approach our readings today?

Our first reading comes from the book of Deuteronomy, a condensed retelling of the story of Moses and the Hebrew people. This particular piece takes place in the desert, but talks about their future, full of hope and promise in that land of milk and honey. They have only recently escaped slavery, and are actively in the process of building the foundations for what we might anachronistically call a national identity.

The 12 tribes aren’t really all that united; the book of Exodus calls them a “mixed multitude.” Indeed, the very word Hebrew may even be related to the ancient word Habiru, which means dusty or dirty, and referred to outlaws, rebels, or laborers; the outcast, leftover, and the downtrodden.

Our translation refers to a wandering Aramean as the ancestor of the Hebrew people. But there’s another way to translate it that might be more meaningful to our modern ears. “A Syrian refugee” was my ancestor. Because the ancient Aramean people were from what is today Syria, and there are multiple meanings to that word translated here as wandering; one of which is refugee.

Even in the midst of the wandering of the desert, the people of God, not only those who are related by blood but also the aliens who reside among you- are called upon to remember their past, devote themselves to love of God and be bound together in bounty and abundance. In the midst of their wandering, they are called to gratitude for milk and honey. God will provide for the people, even in their troubled times, especially if they remember and embrace their authentic and real histories and identities and come together in solidarity for one another.

Our Gospel reading is the famous 40 days in the wilderness, the temptation of Christ by the devil. Here, Jesus is tempted in three different ways- to turn stone into bread, to receive glory and authority in exchange for subordination to the devil, and then to use his power in a showy display that would accomplish nothing but self-aggrandizement. All three of these temptations are fundamentally about power and the temptations it provides.

Yet Jesus is able to move beyond the temptation of power as a tool to dominate and rule and instead toward a posture of humility, toward the way of God’s love. He is able to endure because Jesus embodies God’s love for us, and is a model for how we should love.

This is not the fickle and naive love of Romeo and Juliet, but a mature love that knows who it is and whose it is. Because of this grounding, it is a love that does not flinch in the hard times, that endures, and is perhaps the last thing to survive. When all of our wealth has decayed, when we have lost all of our Instagram followers and facebook friends, when even our bodies start to fail us, our love, and God’s love for us, remains.

For that, we must give our thanks and praise.


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