When the topic is Lent, more than a few people reflexively ask, “What are you giving up?”
I suppose that’s understandable, although I think it misses the mark. Perhaps a better question would be something like this: “What are you pondering and examining within yourself this year, now that you’ve allowed some extra time/space because you’re not doing whatever it is you did before Ash Wednesday?” I know that’s a little wordy and awkward but maybe you can get where I’m coming from anyway.
This week’s Gospel reading from Luke and the first reading from the Old Testament appear to have one thing in common: wilderness plays a part in both. But that’s where the similarity ends. Here’s Luke’s recounting of Jesus’ temptation narrative in the wilderness:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. –Luke 4:1-13 NRSV
And now the passage from Deuteronomy:
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “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. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house. Deuteronomy 26:1-11 NRSV
The Hebrew tribes had spent 40 years wandering in the Sinai wilderness, which no doubt occasioned more than a few thoughts of “What have we been doing this for?” and “What comes next?” Well, the core teaching here is that God had been leading them through that wilderness, just as God had led their ancestor Jacob (aka Israel), that wandering Aramean, on the trip to Egypt in the first place. God had been with them all those years and had raised up a prophet/leader named Moses to lead them out of slavery. Through all that they kept alive the image of the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore, look what God had done for them in the past and present–and remember in the future to put their relationship with God at the forefront.
Their proper response at the time of harvest should be to offer to God their first fruits, not the leftovers. We Christians shouldn’t have too much trouble making a connection between this passage in Deuteronomy and our Lenten experience: Where has God been in our past and present? Where are we going next? What is the condition of our relationship with God? How do we begin to respond?
Lent carries both communal and individual connotations. As a member of my denomination, Community of Christ, I join with others in preparing for our World Conference to be held at our International Headquarters in Independence, Missouri USA, beginning Friday, April 6. That day happens to mark the 25th anniversary of the Temple’s dedication, so there’s an additional component to ponder. Much has happened to us and to the world during the past 25 years. What does it mean now for us to be a Temple people?
Allow me, as well, to share a personal Lenten concern. For the past eight and a half years I’ve been writing this weekly blog focused on the Revised Common Lectionary scriptures. I started it because I felt led by the Spirit to do so, and it has been an extraordinary spiritual experience for me. But now I sense the need to reassess. Therefore, during the Lenten period ahead I will take a step back and ponder the way forward. To do that I will not be writing here. If there’s anyone out there who reads this blog regularly, I hope you’ll understand. After Easter I hope to have a better sense one way or another about what comes next. Thank you.
P.S. There’s been no ForeWords blog posting the past two weeks because I was in Denver for the birth of my grandson, Miles. It was a blessing to be at my daughter and son-in-law’s home to help out.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.</em