This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 1st Sunday in Lent, 29 February 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Deuteronomy 26: 1 – 11, Romans 10: 8 – 13, and Luke 4: 1 – 13.
It is interesting to note that our Lenten journey this year begins with a celebration. The Old Testament passage from Deuteronomy recounts the commemoration of the Israelites for the generosity of God. God brought them out of Egypt and slavery and gave them the land "flowing with milk and honey." God freely gave these blessings to the Israelites. In return, the Israelites were to give up their false idols and trust in the liberation promised by God.
In our own journey through the wilderness, can you identify the gifts that God has given you? What talents do each of us have because of God’s generosity towards us. Remember what Paul wrote in Romans 12,
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. (Romans 12: 6 – 8)
But what do we do with these gifts? How do we use these talents? God gave us these gifts so that they could be used to build up the other members in the church. These gifts, though irrevocable, should still be pursued and developed. If Lent is a time of repentance and preparation, then perhaps we should think about how to answer those latter two questions.
Jesus began his ministry with a forty-day period of fasting and contemplation. Forty days is both symbolic of the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert and the forty days that Moses and Elijah both spent in the preparation for their own God-directed missions.
As the Gospel reading said, Jesus went into the desert on his own, directed by the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of this period it was probably very easy to focus on the coming mission and what was going to be required. But as the days passed and the body grew weak from the lack of food, the temptations began to increase and the drive to finish began to weaken. And, as we know, when the body is weak, so too is our spirit. We all fall quickly to the temptations around us when the body is weak. It must have been that way for Jesus.
And that is when Satan is at his best, when anyone of us is at our weakest. The same can be said for Jesus; otherwise, why would Satan have challenged Jesus as he did? And therein lies the key. Satan challenged Jesus when Jesus was at his weakest, when His ability to fight and resist was impaired. But what purpose would Jesus have gained by responding to Satan?
There is no doubt that Jesus could have done what Satan asked Him to do. Everything was in Jesus’ power. But each time that Satan presented one of the temptations, it was with a catch. Do it not for the betterment of man or to please God but for yourself. Use the talents, the skills, the gifts, and the ability that you have only for yourself. Give up what God has given to you for your own well being, not for others.
Paul speaks of the salvation that comes through faith. But this description and process is an internal process. There are two kinds of righteousness, one by works, the other by faith. One is inaccessible while the other is very accessible. Paul shows us today that righteousness by faith is neither far off nor inaccessible. In fact, it is as near as one’s mouth and heart. All one has to do is repent, believe in Jesus, and confess that belief.
But the condition for righteousness remains internal faith. The condition for salvation is external confession. You cannot have one without the other. If you confess but do not believe, then your confession is hollow and hypocritical. If you believe but do not confess, then nothing can happen.
Our gifts, our talents, our abilities come from God but if we use them for our own good, they are worthless. We hold them up for everyone to see but they are false gods.
How can we, like the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, call upon God when we have rejected Him because we keep our gifts and talents to ourselves? How can we, if we use our talents and abilities only for ourselves, turn to God from whom the gifts first came?
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, designed to make one feel good about themselves 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?
Think about it. Each of us has been given some gift, some talent. 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. (1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 3)
If we use the gifts that we have given that only benefits 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.
Jesus went into the wilderness. For forty days he faced temptations and self-doubt. Satan gave him many opportunities to counter the self-doubt, to remove the tempting forces. But to do so would have meant that Jesus would have to give up His ministry.
During this forty-day period of our lives I challenge you to think about the gifts that God has given you. Do you use them for yourself or to help others? Do you, through your actions, show the presence of the Holy Spirit in your heart?