Old Testament: Deuteronomy (26:1-11)
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.
The Response: Psalm (91:1-2, 9-16)
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 He shall say to the Lord,
“You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust.”
9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge, *
and the Most High your habitation,
10 There shall no evil happen to you, *
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.
12 They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
13 You shall tread upon the lion and adder; *
you shall trample the young lion
and the serpent under your feet.
14 Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; *
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation.
The Epistle: Romans (10:8b-13)
“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The Gospel: Luke (4:1-13)
[After his baptism,] 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.
by the Rev. Mike Kreutzer
At first glance, it seems like a lot has changed in our worship space and in our worship service itself since last Sunday, when we concluded the Epiphany season. The green of the hangings and vestments has been replaced by violet. The flowers behind the altar are gone. The rich banner with the image of the St. Mark’s lion from the Book of Kells has been replaced with one displaying three simple crosses and a crown of thorns. The music has taken on a more somber tone. And instead of focusing on the glorious scene of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop, today’s prayers speak of temptation and weakness and a need to repent. It seems like everything has changed.
But if we look at a more-than-surface level, we just might find continuity here. Last Sunday, we concluded this year’s long Epiphany season by singing the hymn “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise,” which recounts the many ways that we had been celebrating God being made manifest in Jesus. Today’s first reading picks up that same “thankfulness and praise” theme, approaching it from a different angle.
The core of the book of Deuteronomy is comprised of 15 chapters of “statutes and ordinances” to govern the life of Israel once they have come into the Promised Land. Today’s first reading concludes that section; but it places all those instructions within the context of a service of thanksgiving for all that God has done for the people and for all that God continues to provide for the people. That is the reason for the statutes and ordinances, for the particular way of life to which Israel is called. It is a lived response of thanksgiving for all that God has given. And to make sure that we don’t miss that point, the author of today’s reading uses various forms of the word “given” six times in these eleven verses.
The message is clear: everything is a gift; all is grace. And the way of life to which the people of Israel are called by God is intended to enable them to live the gift fully: to experience and enjoy the fullness of life that is God’s intent for them and for all people.
As the liturgy for Ash Wednesday reminded us, the season of Lent, which we have just begun, is a season for repentance and a change of heart. But despite the way that Lent is sometimes viewed, that repentance and change of heart are not intended to constrain us under a series of restrictions that limit our freedom. Instead, they are intended to open us up to a greater freedom and to a greater fullness of life.
These forty days invite us to look intentionally at all the many ways that God has blessed us and continues to bless us and to respond in gratitude and thanksgiving. We do that in our own service of thanksgiving, week by week, because the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” Each Sunday we gather here to recall and celebrate and give thanks for all of God’s many gifts. Our first readings over the next several weeks will remind us of God’s saving deeds through history as they recall God’s covenant with Abraham, the work of God in setting Israel free in the Exodus, the gift of the land during the time of Joshua, and God’s promise in the book of Isaiah of new and far greater life and freedom in the future.
But in order to be genuine, thanksgiving cannot just be spoken; it must be lived. That is where the ritual described in the reading from Deuteronomy leads. The service described begins with the oldest creed in the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. It recounts God’s work, beginning with the descent into Egypt of “a wandering Aramean,” namely, Jacob or Israel. It continues with the story of the Exodus and the settlement in the land of promise; and it concludes with the many blessings of the harvest in the land.
But then comes the key point, the focus of the whole reading, the “So now”: “So now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” Genuine thanksgiving calls for action. The genuinely grateful person is to bring to God the first of everything that he or she has received as a thanksgiving offering. But that gift doesn’t stay there, and it certainly doesn’t go back to the giver alone to enjoy. Instead, the one who acknowledges God’s gifts is sent to share those gifts together with the Levites – those who do not have the resources to provide for themselves – and with “the aliens who reside among you.” God’s gifts are for friends and strangers alike.
That is where the season of Lent calls us: to genuine thanksgiving, to a life in which our gratitude to God for all of God’s countless blessings leads us to respond by a life of sharing whatever blessings we have with those in need, with friends and strangers alike. For it is only when we live that kind of life that we have truly responded to God’s call to repentance and a change of heart. It is only then that we have genuinely allowed God to transform us in such a way that we are enabled to live life to its fullest.
For many people, if they think about this season at all, they look at it simply as a time to “give up something for Lent.” That “something” tends to be some small thing that we enjoy; and, to be honest, doing without it probably does nothing to change our lives or the lives of others.
The 16th-century, Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, once asked pointedly: “What does it profit you to give God one thing if [God] asks of you another? Consider what it is that God wants, and then do it. You will, as a result, better satisfy your own heart than with that toward which you yourself are inclined.”
As we begin the season of Lent, we might modify that question to ask: “What does it profit you to tell God that you are going to give up candy for Lent, when God is asking you to go out and feed the hungry? What does it profit you to promise to skip a favorite TV show, when God is asking you to use your time volunteering to help people learn to read, or serving at a retirement community, or visiting people in an assisted-living facility or nursing home? Sometimes, our approach to Lent is almost like a con game, in which God asks one thing of us, but we try to make a quick switch in an attempt to distract God with something else: something that’s a lot less costly and lot easier for us to do. When we do that, we fail to live up to our God-given potential.
If, on the other hand, we commit ourselves to a genuine life of thanksgiving, one that leads us to serving God and other people more faithfully, then Lent becomes a time of transformation and of living out more fully the faith that we profess.