Sermon
March 4, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

rule1.gif (2367 bytes)

Scripture Readings

Luke 4:1-13

    1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,
    2 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.
    3 The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."
    4 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.' "
    5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.
    6 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.
    7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."
    8 Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' "
    9 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,
    10 for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,'
    11 and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' "
    12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "
    13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (NRSV)


Deuteronomy 26:1-11
    1 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,
    2 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.
    3 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."
    4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God,
    5 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.
    6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,
    7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
    8 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;
    9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
    10 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.
    11 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. (NRSV)

rule1.gif (2336 bytes)

Sermon

To bring an offering before the Lord - and not just any offering, but the best that you have, the first fruits of your land and labor - this is an ancient and honorable act of worship to God. The offering, in fact, is the first act of worship recorded in the Bible - at the dawn of consciousness, before there was religious law, before there were temples, before there were priests - there was the offering to God.

In the early chapters of the Bible we read the story of the first children born of man and woman: Genesis 4:1-4
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have produced a man with the help of the LORD." Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.

Over time the offering would evolve, and one important step in that evolution is recorded in this mornings lesson. In addition offering first fruits of land and labor, the worshipper is told to make a confession of faith, a statement of God's mighty acts in history that were a blessing to the people and a cause of gratitude for the one bearing the gift.

And so the ancient Hebrew would recount the time when Abraham and Sarah left their home and gave birth to a family who ended up in Egypt, and when Moses and Miriam led the people of Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, and pointed them to the promised land.
"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.

The Christian, of course, follows this same pattern of worship. But our confession of faith centers on the saving work of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we could join together in remembering the ancient confession of the Apostles that binds all believers in one body and one faith. You can find a translation of this on page 359 in the Chalice Hymnal:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
The third day He arose again.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.

It is important to make a statement of faith along with our offering lest we forget that God has already given us so much more than we could ever offer back to God. Lent is a time for a special focus on the greatest offering that God gave us - the offering of his Son for our salvation.

In Christian tradition the observance of Lent is patterned on the time Christ spent in the wilderness after he was baptized but before he began his public ministry.
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 spirit of Lent is a spirit of self-examination, of confession, repentance, and acts of contrition. No passage of scripture better express the proper work of Lent better than the psalm we read together, Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

Thomas Merton wrote that for the Christian, the Psalms are "Bread in the Wilderness" - that same word of God which Jesus uses to defend himself from the temptation of the Devil:
The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "

The psalms are the prayers that God gives us so that we might enter fully into an awareness of his near presence and find not only communion with our own soul, but of our soul with God.

Sin, in the Bible, is the breakdown of that communion with soul and with God. Instead of nurturing our interior life, we worry about appearances and externals. The ego, not the soul, runs our show; pride, not love, dominates our will. The breakdown of communion with God leads to manifest evils. Then the evil becomes a barrier to communion with God. This is a powerful cycle, a downward spiral. The distance between our mind and our soul grows even as the distance between our soul and God grows. We, too, wander in the wilderness facing temptation and many opportunities to turn our back on God and believe in the promises of the devil.

Lent is a time to put God's word once again before us and use the power of that word to break the cycle. God's word at first glance may seem to judge and condemn, but in truth it is a saving word. We see this fully in the work of Jesus, and we remember it, as he commanded us, in our sacrament of Holy Communion.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

You might say that Jesus puts forgiveness on the table, that all who hunger for it might be fed and nourished. But forgiveness is not forced down our throats. We must come to the table ready to receive. We must admit our need for forgiveness and put aside pride and accomplishment and enter into a spirit of confession and repentance.

We don't even have to think up our own words for this, because the word of God already offers us words, the words in Psalm 51.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

I have to admit that I have had arguments with Psalm 51 over the years. We didn't read the whole Psalm together this morning, and I actually liked the way it was edited because they left out lines like:
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

The Psalm is attributed to David after he sinned with Bathsheba, the married woman next-door. David got Bathsheba pregnant and then sent her husband Uriah to certain death in battle to eliminate him as a rival.

This did not go unnoticed by God, so God sent the prophet Nathan to give David a word of correction - to say the least.

David's psalm is a realization of the depth of his depravity, and an affirmation of his trust in the power of God to redeem his life with a new heart and new spirit.

In the story, David didn't come to this realization because of moral qualms about the crime he committed - he came to it because he got caught and was forced to face his punishment.

People like David certainly need such an awakening, but I've always worried that it is people of a more sensitive nature who take these prayers of confession to heart. They probably suffer more for their little sins than the morally bankrupt person, who truly cheats, defrauds, defames, despoils, and degrades their neighbor and then has little inclination to make a prayer of confession. They probably think they deserve an award, not a chastisement.

But it's just a fact of life: everyone has a different sensitivity of conscience. Some are not ready to confess and some cannot admit to a need for saving grace. But for those who are ready, for those who hunger for forgiveness, for those who can enter into the spirit of Lent, God wants you to know right up front, right from the beginning, that your prayer has been heard before you could even think to speak it, and that the words of forgiveness have been spoken before you could even ask for them, and that the means of salvation have been prepared for you from the very first moment of creation.

We do go into the Lenten wilderness alone. We do not confront our shortcomings, mistakes, flaws, sins and evil in an empty landscape. God has supplied bread for this journey, and on the horizon of our landscape we can always see the cross raised up against the sky - the cross now empty because the one who died there for our forgiveness has been raised up by God from death to life, a taste of the inheritance he now delights to share with us.

God does not seek a confession to condemn us, but for the sake of freedom and forgiveness. As St. Paul wrote:
Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed prays for us.

Imagine that - we pray to Christ, but Christ prays for us. With all the love that we pray for the healing of our family, our parents, our children, our friends, the people we know in this church, the people of our community - with all that love, Christ prays for us, prays that we will be set free from all that hinders us, that destroys us, that separates us from God and from one another.

Jesus went to the cross out of love for each child of God's human creation. He offered his life to open for them a way out of the wilderness and into the presence of God, out of despair and into hope, out of a vision of life as short and brutal and full of desperation and into a faith that life is eternal and blessed and full of delight.

That is what led him to the table that night in the upper room. He wanted those followers to understand his death not as defeat but as their ultimate sign of hope. He wanted them to find courage in his courage and faith in his faith and forgiveness in his love.

That's why we come to this table. Because here Christ meets us and says to us - I give my life that you might be set free from the past in forgiveness and might face the future with hope in new life.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. Amen.