This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 1st Sunday in Lent, 4 March 2001. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Deuteronomy 26: 1 – 11, Romans 10: 8 – 13, and Luke 4: 1 – 13.
When I was sophomore in high school, the boy next door was rapidly approaching sixteen. There is something in our culture that makes the turning of sixteen, for both boys and girls, a certain rite of passage. As the majority of us can remember when we turn sixteen, and perhaps more as parents of children who have or are about to do so, we know that with that birthday comes the right to get your driver’s license.
And the kid next door to us in Missouri was no exception. As the days got closer, he kept hounding and pestering his father to get him a car. And one day, the relentless pressure succeeded and the father told the son that he would get a car on his sixteenth birthday, provided that his grades were satisfactory and that he kept the grades satisfactory. This was a mutually agreed upon solution and all was well. That is, until after the passage of the next grading period, when the effect of having the car was immediately evident. As you might expect, with the new car, the boy did little studying and his grades suffered. This put the father in something of a dilemma. How would he take away the car and yet still have an incentive for the boy to study? The solution was immediately obvious. He did not take the car away; rather, he put it up on blocks in the back yard and took off the wheels. The kid could keep his car but until he got the grades back up, the wheels stayed in the shop.
When you gain rights, there are responsibilities. 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.
This story is certainly out of sync with the culture we live in today. Far too often we have allowed the attitude of getting something for nothing permeate who we are in terms of receiving gifts. Such an attitude mocks the story that we read today by trying 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.
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.
For us this day, the heart, soul, and power of this story is discovered in realizing that there really no such thing as a "free" gift. Any gift given freely ultimately implies a decision as to how one will respond to the gift being shared. While it is fine in the church today to help persons understand that God’s motivations for giving are free from any condition or expectation, we must also be honest and say that any gift given must be received.
What are we going to do with what God has given us?
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 it was the Cross that was 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.
The challenge before us is a great one. 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.