Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Lent.
Normally, during the season of Lent, we tend to give something up. The problem with is that when Lent is over, we too often take back what we gave up.
How many of us would say that we are giving up chocolate for Lent, knowing that the last bit that we took on Shrove Tuesday was the last bit we would ever eat? How many of us are willing to curtail our watching of television to one hour a day if our favorite college basketball team plays in a tournament.
If we are going to give up something for Lent, then we should really give it up and not take it back when the season of Lent is over. That would definitely be a challenge.
Are we really ready to give up something? Since we are probably going to take back that which we gave up for Lent, why not simply focus on what we have and work with the gifts and abilities that we have. Would it not be better to look at whom we are and what we have, and begin focusing on using what we have, our gifts and our talents, to make this world a better place?
That is the great challenge before us. Think about it. Each of us has been given some gift, some talent. But what are our gifts? What gifts has God given us that we may use them in this world? Paul wrote,
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teachers, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. (1)
Do we use these gifts to bring people together or do we use them to keep people apart, choosing to exalt our own abilities above others? In perhaps his most famous chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul wrote:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (2)
If we use the gifts that we have given that only benefit ourselves, then the gifts are useless. We must begin looking at new ways to utilize our gifts and our talents. The time of Lent is a time of repentance, to give up the old ways and seek the new. The time of Lent is a time of preparation, of preparing to accept the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Part of the reason that Jesus went into the wilderness for those forty days was so that He could prepare for the ministry. In facing the devil and all the temptations that were put before Him, Jesus had to decide what path His ministry would take. For one thing, Jesus did not need the devil to remind Him of the powers that He held. Jesus fully knew that if He did have everything the devil suggested He would have compromised the very essence of His ministry.
By resisting the devil, Jesus showed that his allegiance was to God. He also showed that he would not operate independent of God. If Jesus had turned the stones in bread, as the devil suggested, then he would have shown a lack of dependence on the Father. Finally, if Jesus were to have taken the devils offer of all the kingdoms of the world, he would have taken the “easy way” to power but to do so would involve a detour around the Cross. And the Cross was always the goal.
Jesus knew what was ahead of Him; he knew what He had been given and He knew what he had to do in return. The result of Jesus’ ministry some two thousand years ago is the gift of freedom from sin and death, a gift of everlasting life. But with this gift comes the responsibility to help others receive that same gift.
May it is time that we did something. Paul pointed out that what we say with our lips would be what is in our hearts. If we believe that Jesus died to save us, if we believe that Jesus is our Savior, that is what we will say and what we will do. Truthfully, the gift was given without expectation and without any requirements. But, if we are to accept that gift in the spirit that it was given, we must help others to find that gift as well.
In today’s world, we have developed the attitude of getting something for nothing. Such an attitude mocks the Old Testament reading (3) for today as we try to manipulate both the giving and the receiving. We seek ways to get something for nothing or desire to have someone else do the work that we should undertake. The attitude of something for nothing is in direct conflict with biblical tradition of giving and receiving.
In the Old Testament reading for today, Moses instructed the Israelites on their responsibilities for having gotten the Promised Land from God. The Israelites had received the beautiful gift of land, the end result of many generations of patient waiting. The promise had finally come true and the people were ready to receive this most precious gift from God. But in this time of receiving, Moses took time to instruct them as to their response for receiving the gift.
This is a historical moment in the lives of God’s people as they lay claim to God’s promise. They represent a long history of generations that kept alive the idea of the Promised Land. This passage makes it clear that God’s gifts to us are received only when we respond and acknowledge such giving through our own sense of gratitude, symbolized by the sharing of the first fruits. It is not enough just to have the gift given; such giving demands some kind of response from us that we have received the gift with appreciation and joy.
God, through Moses, wanted those receiving the gift of the Promised Land to understand that an exchange between God and mankind was and is a sacred moment. Such an event in people’s lives demands a response of thanksgiving, joy, celebration, and a very sense of power of receiving the gift. To receive a gift and then do nothing demeans the gift, the giver of the gift, and certainly the one for whom the gift was given. The sharing of first fruits as a remembrance of the history of the sacred relationship to past generations centering on this promise of God is a most appropriate response by the people as a way of expressing joy, thanks, as well as responsibility, for this most cherished gift of land.
This is a time when our faith is tested. We see all sorts of temptations around us, temptations that lead us to abandon our faith. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we see chances to seemingly better ourselves. But these chances destroy our hopes of reconciliation with God. I fear that if we choose to use our gifts to protect or comfort ourselves, then we will not come closer to God but further away. I say this because I think this is the message many churches present today. It is a message of false hope that is designed to make one feel good but does little more.
If we respond to violence in this world with violence (and we most certainly have the talent and ability to do so), then violence will never go away. If we meet tyranny and oppression with tyranny and oppression (and we have), then there will always be tyranny and oppression. We may speak of loving our brothers and sisters here on earth but if we exclude some or mistreat others; if we treat others with disrespect, then racism and prejudice will never disappear.
Paul said that there was no distinction between Jew and Greek. All who believe shall be saved. But we still treat many people as second class citizens. And churches still exclude people from their services because of their race, their creed, their social standing, and their beliefs. So how can we say that we are using God’s gifts?
Too often, people turn away from the church because they don’t see the rewards that are offered. People are told that they will go to hell if they do not believe in Christ; that their life of sin will lead them only to death. But that is redundant; for a life in sin is a life in death and has no rewards. We should be telling people that a life in Christ is free from sin; that there is a greater reward beyond this earthly home. Ours should be a celebration of life, of community, knowing that there are responsibilities, the rewards are even greater.
We have been given many gifts. And now we are asked what we intend on doing with those gifts. Just as Jesus in the wilderness had to face the temptations that came with choosing between Satan and God, so too do we have to make the same choice. Will our gifts be used to further our goals or will our gifts be used to further God’s goals in this world?
(1) Romans 12: 6 – 8
(2) 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 3
(3) Deuteronomy 26: 1 – 11