February 14, 2016 Sermon “First Fruits”

posted Jul 6, 2016, 4:12 PM by David Hawkins
Old Testament Reading: 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; 9and 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.

New Testament Reading: Luke 4:1-13

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.

Sermon: "First Fruits"             Rev. David Hawkins

Today is a day for remembering. Remembering who we are, and why we do the things we do. Remembering our first response, remembering our first hope, remembering our first faith, our first Lord.

Remembrance was at the heart of Hebrew worship. And it’s at the heart of our worship as well. I’m not sure that this is deliberate, but we kind of follow the same order of worship that is outlined in the Old Testament, don’t we? I mean, it starts with confession of Faith, which for the Israelite was, "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.” 

For us that confession might be the Apostles’ Creed, or perhaps one of the Church’s catechisms, or for this season at least, it might be part of the Belhar Confession of Faith from South Africa. My point is, the first part of this ancient ritual is the confession that we are here by God’s providence, not by our own power. 

And then, there was an offering. In Deuteronomy, this was the first part of the harvest, the first fruits. Before anything else was paid, or used, or eaten, a portion was taken out, and set aside for God. 

And we do this as well. We take a time in our worship service for responding to God’s grace with the giving our lives and our offerings. I’m not sure that all of us think about it terms of our first fruits. I know I have a hard time remembering theis. The reality is, sometimes, we end up offering God what we have after we’ve paid everybody else. 

But this isn’t a stewardship sermon, so I’m not going to go there. Well, I might, just a little bit later on. But that isn’t my point. 

After the offering, we hear the memory of a people. They remembered their beginnings as sons and daughters of Abraham, a wandering Aramean, an immigrant, an alien, who left his own country to seek life in a new land. They remembered their slavery in Egypt, and they remembered their deliverance from it. And in remembering, they gave thanks.

And we do the same thing. Especially during communion, we remember the ways that God has provided for his people, delivering them, calling to them, providing for them the, and then ultimately, coming to them in the person of Jesus Christ, to personally, and finally, show them the way home. 

In seminary, I learned that this act of memory is called, “Anamnesis,” a sort of living our past again, making it part of our present and our future. And after the anamnesis, after remembering all of God’s acts on our behalf, we, like the ancient Israelite, celebrate God’s providence, and we take part in the banquet of God’s love. And it’s not just us. It’s everyone. The people. The priests. The aliens who lived among them. You, me, them. Everyone has a place at the table. We all rejoice in the bounty of God’s grace. 

Like I said, I don’t think that it’s intentional, but it is amazing how our own liturgy for communion sort of reflects this Old Testament tradition: Confession, Offering, Remembering, Feasting. And it’s also amazing how inclusive this meal really is. 

Sometimes, we think that the Old Testament is all about exclusion, that we are supposed to build walls, we are supposed to separate ourselves from the outside world, and I won’t deny that there are those scriptures we can point to that tell us that we should isolate ourselves, that we should shun those who are not like us, but then, there are also these kinds of scriptures today that remind us of our common humanity, that all of us are wanderers, we all are strangers in a strange land, that all of us are dependent on God’s grace, and that all of us are invited to celebrate God’s goodness in our lives. And we need that reminder from time to time.

Now, in our New Testament scripture, it seems like our memory is out of whack. I mean, last week we were on the mountaintop with Jesus, Peter, James and John, witnessing the transfiguration. Before that, we were in his hometown for a couple of weeks, before that we were at the wedding in Cana. But now, we’re going back in time, before all of those things, to right after Jesus’ baptism. 

But there’s a reason to go back, and to remember these words from the 4th chapter of Luke. As we begin this season of Lent, as we begin our own forty days of reflection, meditation, and prayer in preparation of the resurrection, we need to go back and remember some things. 

We need to remember that Jesus knows all about what it feels like to be between a rock and hard place, to face difficult choices between what is good and what is best, between his own needs and the needs of the world around him. He knows all about offering his first and only allegiance to God. 

When we hear about Jesus in the desert, it might be easy to think that we will never face these kinds of temptation, and that if we did, they seem to be pretty easy to figure out, ethically speaking at least. 

But I’m not sure that’s the case. Each of these temptations, are choices between things that are good. It’s not a choice between good and bad. When Jesus is tempted to turn the rocks into food, that is a good thing. After all, God provided manna in the desert. There was widespread famine in the Mesopotamian region on a regular basis. Food was power. Food was authority. Food would burnish his credentials as the new Moses. And besides, if Jesus could make food out of rocks, well, that would prevent uncounted deaths from starvation. How is that a bad thing?

When Jesus is tempted by political power, he was given the opportunity to overturn the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Jesus could be the king, the emperor, the world leader. Of course, his reign would be just, fair, his kingship would benefit everyone. He’s Jesus! Why on earth would this be a bad thing? It sounds like something he should really think about. 

And the lure of religious power is great as well. The Temple priests had become corrupt. Worship had become commercial. There was money to be made, if you were in the right place at the right time, selling the right religious product. Why not take your rightful place, and clean up this unholy mess? 

And then the final test, the test of faith, that if you truly believe in God, you should throw yourself headlong into whatever situation you face, and he will save you. Send your last $50 dollars to this address in California, and God will bless you. Send a thousand dollars to this preacher in Dallas, and watch God multiply your seed a hundred-fold. Make no preparations for the future, live your live on the edge, take no care, because if you love God, and trust in him, then nothing bad will ever happen to you. 

The Devil knows his Bible. We even sang that in a Psalm earlier in the service. 

But to each of these temptations, Jesus said, ‘no’. Even as the devil quoted Scripture at Jesus, Jesus said, ‘no’. ‘No’ to political power. ‘No’ to religious power.  ‘No’ to being the next Caesar. ‘No’ to simply saying, “Jesus take the wheel,” and expecting everything to turn out right.

‘No’, because all these temptations meant that Jesus would surrender his first fruits to someone, or something, other than God. 

Now, the truth is, we won’t be tempted by the same things that Jesus was. We won’t be given the opportunity to rule the world. We’re not likely to turn stones into bread. It’s hard enough to do with actual flour, yeast and water. Most of us aren’t going to test the providence of God, unless of course the Lottery gets up to around a billion dollars again. 

We won’t be tempted by the same things, but we will be tempted in the same way. Our temptations will be between things that are good. The Devil will use language that appeals to our comfort, our ambition, our own needs and wants. 

And this is why memory is so important. We’ve been down this road before, we’ve heard these words before, we’ve felt this pressure before. And we don’t need to go there. Because Jesus has already gone that way for us. 

Jesus has been there for us. Jesus has been there in the desert, in the wilderness, in those lonely times when we feel like we’re alone. Jesus has been there: hungry, thirsty, desperate. Jesus has felt the tug of temptation. Even more than you or I have, he has known what it feels like to think about what it might be like if he simply lowered his expectations a little bit, compromised his beliefs just a little bit, adjusted his ethics just a little bit. 

And so, maybe, Lent more than just a time of giving something up. Maybe Lent is a time of giving something more. Of focusing on the way we respond to God’s grace. The way we give of our lives and our talents. To ask ourselves if we are really giving our first fruits, or whether we are giving whatever is left over. 

And most of all, Lent is a time to remember. To remember that God has gone this way before us, and for us. That Jesus Christ has experienced the worst of our human existence: temptation, pain, even death itself, and overcome it. We need not fear the easy seductive words of the Devil, because they hold no power over us. Jesus has said ‘no’ on behalf of all humanity. No to sin, no to guilt, no to shame, no to death. 

And that’s something worth remembering, over and over and over again.