Even in the Desert

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA

March 6 2022

Luke 4:1-13 

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Both texts for the first day of Lent are about wandering. Whether it is 40 years, in the case of Israel, or 40 days in the case of Jesus, both of them beg the question—what does wandering in the wilderness prepare you to inherit?

And Luke’s gospel is forever struggling with the question—who do you say that Jesus is?

This text shows the devil asking that question—if you are the son of God—then let’s see what you can do…

But Jesus refuses to let the tempter define his mission.
He will not make bread out of stones.
He will not accept worldly power.
He will not jump off the temple into the waiting arms of angels.

Notice that the things the devil asks him to do are not bad, in and of themselves—making bread out of stones would allow him to feed a whole lot of hungry people, after all. But if Jesus is to be the son of God, he realizes that there is only one voice he can obey, and it isn’t the Devil’s.

Jesus will go on to feed the hungry later in the gospel. He will go on to proclaim God’s Kingdom. And he will head to the cross with the confidence that the angels will, indeed catch him on the other side. But he will only do those things for God’s purposes, not to impress the Tempter.

Jesus makes it through his period of wilderness wandering with a clearer sense of his identity as the Son of God and with a clearer understanding of his mission and confidence in the voice he will follow.

Wilderness wandering is rarely as successful for us, however. It took the Hebrew people 40 years of wandering, of being lost before they finally could see the Promised Land on the horizon. Forty YEARS!

And as they stand at the threshold, they are given some instruction for what they shall do as people who have been delivered, as people who are no longer wandering.

First, they are called to give thanks and to give back, take a share of the first fruit of the harvest and offer it to God in gratitude and praise. And as they do that, they are to recall their story, to remember the journey they have been on.
The act of giving thanks and offering is intricately connected with the act of remembering.

And you know what they say about remembering—those who forget the past are doomed to fail History class.

No, that’s not it.

Those who forget the past are bound to repeat it.

But the act of remembering the past is not just to remember the ‘good ol’ days’. We remember the past to create a new and better future.

Remembering subverts the world of death and pain in which we often find ourselves by insisting that the God to whom we give our praise and thanks is not done with creation.  God has provided help for God’s people in the past. And God is the God whose steadfast love endures forever. So, we’re called to remember as an act of faith for a future in which God will deliver and save again.

I spoke on Ash Wednesday about paying attention to how we tell the stories of our lives. This is a great illustration of how to do it. Listen again:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Let’s look at the story the Deuteronomist wants us to remember.

It begins with “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor”. This would be Jacob. And the word “wandering” in Hebrew implies that he was wandering because he wouldn’t pull off the freeway and ask for directions, even though his 4 wives told him to do so!

He was wandering because he was lost and his own resources weren’t getting him to his destination. So, we begin our story with the acknowledgement that we come from a long line of “wanderers”, of people who are lost and who needed God’s help to get where they were going.

There is also the acknowledgement of the difficult and painful part of their past—they were slaves in Egypt—mistreated and oppressed.

Remembering doesn’t require to you to whitewash the past, erasing the pain and sadness and loss. There is an acknowledgement here that the “Good ol’ Days” were not uniformly good. But notice that the story continues, explaining the deliverance of the people by the mighty hand of God. So remembering the deliverance of the past helps us look for deliverance now and in the future.

So at the moment of offering the first fruits, the people are acknowledging that the faithfulness of God has brought them to this moment in history. That they are where they are because of the provision and gifts of God.

And they have been given this land to possess. But the land is not theirs. It is still God’s. And so the act of offering the first fruits is a reminder for them. Did you hear how much the passage referred to the acts of the Lord your God?

We need those reminders. Because we look around at what we have, and our human tendency is to feel proud for what we have done. Look at this great land we possess! All this milk and honey! Aren’t we amazing!?

The discipline of offering our first fruits to God helps us remember that pride in our successes doesn’t lead us into the Promised Land. Pride in our own success leaves us wandering.

But the other truth implied in offering first fruits is that you can’t offer fruits of a harvest if you are wandering. You have to be settled to grow crops, to tend orchards.

I mentioned last week in the congregational meeting that because of Covid and all it has wrought, I think we are more in a ‘wandering in the wilderness’ phase of our story than in the Promised Land. The truth is, both, of course.

Calvary has deep roots in this community, and deep resources of people, money, and faith to share. Compared to the experience of many other churches right now, we are absolutely a Promised Land church.

But I think we still have some wandering to do before we’re done.

So perhaps our question in Lent is this—how can we work on being settled, even if it is being settled into the continued existence of the wilderness? Physically, spiritually? How grounded and rooted are you in your life right now?

Covid has been hard. Even for those of us who have come through it with jobs and health relatively intact, it has been a time of deep spiritual exhaustion. All of the unknowns can un-moor us. While there is grace and provision in desert wilderness wandering, we don’t want to become completely lost, and lose track of who we are and whose we are while we’re doing it.

How can we, as individuals and a community, be settled enough that we can put down roots, clear weeds and rocks from our fields, nurture the seedlings, water the crops, and harvest the abundance?

The end of our passage from Deuteronomy is about a community in celebration, about taking the abundant harvest in the land God has given us to possess and inherit, and sharing it with our neighbors. The two groups specified—the Levites and the aliens who reside among you—are illustrations of two groups who wouldn’t have had land of their own.

The Levites would have been tending to the temple while the other branches of the family had been given land to tend the fields. And the foreigners may have been day laborers, working in the fields, but the harvest didn’t belong to them. There is a clear call in this text for the community to celebrate together, not just individually.

How are we called to be involved in our community? God didn’t give the Hebrew people land to inherit and possess so that they could get rich and give themselves million dollar bonuses. The land is theirs to inherit and possess for the welfare of the community.

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, he had to know who he was, and what he’d been called to do, and who he’d been called to care for. Otherwise, the offers of the tempter would have seemed appealing. He wasn’t going to set down roots in the wilderness but he had to be rooted in himself to make it through the temptations.

So, as we consider how we can root ourselves during a time of wilderness provision, I want to leave you with the words of the poet David Whyte, from his poem, “Self Portrait”.

I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you.
If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.

I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward the center of your longing.

As we move into this season of Lent, consider your own identity, your own calling, your own confidence in the love of God who created you. Let us, like our Hebrew ancestors at the edge of the wilderness, remember that even in the desert wilderness wandering, God is providing abundance for us. But we can only accept that abundance that allows us to be rooted deep in ourselves if we trust in the one who made us and called us and is, even now, providing for us. Let us remember who we are. Let us remember from whence we have come. Let us work for the welfare of our community. Even in the desert there is abundant life.

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