1When 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, 2you 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. 3You 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."
4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5you 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. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The 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. 10So 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. 11Then 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.
1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where 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. 3The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." 4Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And 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. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." 8Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
9Then 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, 10for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' 11and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" 12Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
A lot of people say they are spiritual but not religious or that they believe in God but can’t get into organized religion. For many people it makes sense that there is a greater power out there looking after us in some way, but human rituals and institutions feel far away from the relationship we crave.
The thing is ritual gives us structure; it helps us remember what is important. Big ideas like God are hard for us. God is the source of everything around us and yet it’s easy to forget that our relationship with God is the foundation of everything else. Without regular practices and a community of faith we quickly drift into talking God for granted or forgetting about him entirely.
There are times when the experience of God’s presence breaks into our lives with power. Sometimes a gorgeous sunset or a sleeping baby stops us in our tracks and fills us with awe at the glory of God’s creation. Or a piece of art will remind us of the depth of Christ’s suffering for us and we will be cut to the heart. But most days sail along full of work and bills and demands and we lose sight of the ultimate in the thick trees of the everyday.
Israel is coming to the end of its forty years of wandering in the desert; they are coming to the boundary of the Promised Land and preparing for a new reality. In the desert God has fed them every day with manna from heaven. God has guided them in palpable, visible ways after rescuing them with power and drama from Egyptian oppression. While coming into the Promised Land is a fulfillment of God’s promise and the hope toward which they’ve been striving, it also means that this phase of God’s direct guidance will come to an end. Deuteronomy is a series of sermons preparing Israel for that change.
One of the major ideas in Deuteronomy, one that comes up over and over again is the danger of becoming complacent. Wandering in the desert has been hard, even though God’s been with them. When they come into the land their wandering will be over and they will finally be home. They’ll also have a fertile, rich land where food grows abundantly and life is good.
That sounds like a great thing and it is, but all good things come with their own danger. The danger Moses keeps warning the people about is that once all their needs are taken care of by the abundance of the land God is giving them, the people might forget where everything they have comes from. Moses worries that the people might fall into the trap of thinking they have good things mostly because they worked hard for them. They might start thinking they live in a wonderful land because they are wonderful people and they deserve the credit.
That’s an easy trap to fall into, isn’t it? We do work hard for the things we have and the things we want. The American dream is all about working hard and being rewarded for it. And there’s value to our classic work ethic; it is important to work hard and to plan for the future. The trouble is that the American work ethic easily slips into self-centeredness. Like the Israelites who cultivated the ground to grow their food the work is important, but it all begins with God’s gift. God gave them freedom and a land to cultivate; before that all their work was in vain since the produce only went to their oppressive slave-owners.
Our work starts with a gift as well. In the beginning God gave us the earth and in the beginning of our lives God gave us breath and life and talent. God gave us parents who helped enable the opportunities we’ve had to work with. God gave us strength to learn and work and grow; God gave us the freedoms of this land to believe as we choose and to work for ourselves instead of for others. It’s by God’s grace that we get up each morning and it’s by God’s grace that we lie down safely at night. We earn our living and the small luxuries of life, but the bigger story in all of that is God’s gifts, even though that’s easy to forget when our everyday concerns take up so much of our time and energy.
One of the main purposes of Deuteronomy, then, is to guard the people from taking God’s gifts for granted. Even in our passage you probably noticed the frequent repetition of the phrase, “The land the Lord your God is giving you.” That phrase and phrases like it echo throughout Deuteronomy, a refrain of gratitude reminding the people never to forget that the land is God’s gift, not their achievement.
But more than words, Moses gives the people practices to remind them of God’s gifts to them. Our passage this morning sets up a community practice, a religious ritual for the offering of the first fruits of the harvest. When the people enter the Promised Land and bring in their harvest, Moses gives them this celebration to commemorate the day. It’s not just a harvest celebration, not even just a celebration of thanksgiving like we have each November, though that’s a big part of it.
The first fruits celebration is about remembering the story of God’s mighty salvation. When they bring their offering to the priest at the alter, they recall the story of their ancestors, the story of Joseph going down to Egypt and being built up into a nation. It’s the story of God bringing Israel up out of Egypt again into a fertile land. Every household brings this offering to the altar and speaks the words of the story. When they do this they remember again and again that what they have is a gift from God, a gift that is not only food and home and plenty, but also freedom and safety and redemption. This is a ritual that reminds the people of who they are and how God made them who they are. It’s a ritual that reaffirms their foundation in God.
The celebration doesn’t just connect the people to God, but to other people as well. When they bring their offering to the altar in worship they offer it to God by celebrating with their family and the Levites and the strangers, the immigrants. Israel remembers that God took them from being wanderers and slaves and made them a prosperous nation by celebrating with those who are still wanderers, still vulnerable, still hungry. Worshiping God connects us to neighbors, even neighbors we don’t know.
So our first passage points us towards community practice, religious ritual that reminds us God’s grace is the foundation for everything else. The community of faith protects us from the temptation of thinking that we are the foundation of our own lives. We spent some good time this weekend at the retreat talking about how important it is for us to take time to nourish our individual relationship with God as well. Our second passage shows how that personal relationship can also protect us from temptation, even in a situation where God’s presence feels distant and temptation is right up close.
Satan comes at Jesus in three different ways. The first is the most straightforward: Jesus is hungry and the devil tempts him with food. Satan also tempts Jesus with power; finally the devil tempts Jesus with showing off. The temptations are different because the devil wears different disguises, but the defense is always the same: trusting God and finding our identity in relationship with him. Jesus withstands these temptations because he has already built a strong relationship with God through study and prayer. He knows who he is, and he knows he belongs to God.
If the beginning of Jesus’ life is any indication, the community practice of faith has also been important in building his faith. His parents were active in their faith and raised him the same way. When he starts his ministry he’s comfortable speaking in the synagogue, which probably means he’s spent plenty of time there before. In individual ways and communal ways Jesus has nurtured his relationship with God; he’s established his foundation of faith, and when temptation comes, he is ready.
Individual devotion and communal religious worship structure our response to God. They remind us that God is our foundation and protect us from the temptation of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe. The church reminds us of the story of faith and gives us opportunities to learn who we are and who God is; helping us to stay on track and encouraging us in our faith development. Ritual and community are important parts of that as is time alone in private or family devotion.
Today we celebrate one of the great rituals of the church as we bring a new sister into the body of Christ. In a moment we will gather at the font and welcome Evie Kaproth-Joslin into the family of faith. In the sacrament of baptism God claims Evie as his daughter and seals her with the Holy Spirit. Ivan and Katie have responded to God’s calling in their lives by raising their children in the faith and they have come here to find strength for the journey as parents and Christians. This sacrament reminds us that we are not alone because God calls us beloved children and because God joins us with brothers and sisters in the church. Through community worship and through encouraging us in our individual devotions the church strengthens our connection with God.
Our Christian identity begins in baptism and it is nurtured by individual faithfulness and community life. Our life and our community and our faith are gifts from God because God loves us. Our calling is to remember our identity and respond with gratitude in a world in need of the love we celebrate together.
Thanks be to God.