Deut 26:1-11, Psalm 91, Luke 4:1-13
Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to about 45 students at Cal Poly about Religion and Homosexuality. I was there with a very liberal colleague from another denomination. He was concerned that the group should understand that since the Bible was written in a totally different cultural context it should not be taken literally. There is, in his mind, no reason to believe in heaven and hell and Jesus did not die to save sinners but because his approach to life infuriated the authorities. Eventually one young man pointed out that he kept saying what he didn’t believe and asked him what he did believe. Personally I hate that kind of question because I have no way to summarize my own faith in a few words, so I was eager to hear what my progressive colleague would say.
He replied that Jesus told us to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves and that was the basis of his faith. Today’s readings are all about faith and faithfulness.
In the first reading we hear the faith statement of the ancient Hebrews, which many scholars believe is the oldest passage in Scripture,
"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.”
This statement is similar to our own creeds, because it outlines the faith of the people, but it is in narrative form rather than a list of things which ‘we believe’ – it is an account of God’s dealings with God’s people. Which is what my colleague yesterday was offering – a faith based in how we relate rather than based in statements of belief. But while his quick statement focused on how we relate to God, the Hebrew statement talks about God’s faithfulness in relationship to us.
It is that faithfulness which is the basis of Jesus’ response to the devil in the Gospel reading. Following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness - a reminder of the forty years the Israelites wondered in the wilderness before crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land – during that time he confronted sin and evil, personified by the devil. Each of the temptations that Luke outlines is a temptation to question God’s faithfulness.
Each is a temptation to take things into his own hands rather than trusting God.
Jesus is understandably hungry, and is tempted to use his supernatural power to turn stones into bread. We need to balance this story against the feeding of the 5,000 when he did use his abilities to provide bread. What’s the difference? In this story he is tempted to think that God will not provide adequately for him, and to take things into his own hands. In the feeding of the 5,000 God is providing through him, by using his abilities.
That is a difficult one for us, I think. When do we trust and when do we act? Do we trust that God will provide, sit back and wait to see what happens, or do we rush into activity using our own abilities to help God out? The key is surely in our relationship with God. Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and so it was probably easier for him to discern than it often is for us. He was able to rest in God, as the psalmist puts it,
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty.
That is our rightful place as faithful people, dwelling in the shelter of the Most High. When we dwell in that place then we can look at the challenges, the apparent lacks, the complexities of our lives, from the perspective of God’s faithfulness, and we can do what needs to be done without anxiety or fear. We can know when to wait and when to act. We will know when it’s OK to be hungry and when it’s time to make sandwiches. God made us a creative people and expects us to use our creativity in meeting the challenges of our lives, but not from a base of fear, rather from a base of the knowledge of God’s faithfulness.
I think that this is the very center of the gospel. We are free because nothing can separate us from the love of God. We no longer have to worry because whatever happens is just that, whatever happens. We can be at peace with ourselves and the circumstances of our lives because, again quoting from Psalm 91 – this is Yahweh speaking -
Because he is bound to me in love,therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble;I will rescue him and bring him to honor.
This does not mean that nothing bad ever happens to those who live in faithful and faithfilled relationship with the Most High. It does not mean that we never get sick, that we don’t experience pain, that we’re never short of money, that everything goes well. It doesn’t mean that at all.
What it means is that none of those things threaten who we really are, centered in God. Jesus is not swayed by the temptations that come to him. He can be hungry, unnoticed, powerless and marginalized because he knows that everything is ultimately OK. His Abba is faithful and will ultimately protect him. I think this is why the early Christians could face martyrdom with such equanimity; they knew that the most important, the most precious was the peace of dwelling with God on their innermost beings, and that knowledge freed them to face terrible deaths.
So much of our energy is spent in concern about what might happen or regret about what has happened. That is pointless. What is really important is what is happening here and now, and here and now God is with us. I want to suggest a spiritual practice for all of us this Lent. I want to suggest that we consciously practice ‘dwelling in the shelter of the Most High’.
Whenever you notice that you are anxious about the future or worrying about the past, whenever you are spending energy unnecessarily fussing about something over which you have no immediate control, remind yourself ‘I dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’
The spiritual writer Caroline Myss has said that it is as if everyday we start the day with a certain amount of energy, say fifty units. If we spend 16 of those worrying about the past, and 32 anticipating the future, we only have two left for today. When we ‘dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide under the shadow of the Almighty’ then we can release the future and the past into God’s hands and use our energy today.
For most of us our biggest temptation is fear in one of its many forms, insecurity, anxiety, depression, regret, jealousy, anger. When we notice that fear creeping in let us practice remembering, ‘I dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’
Let’s take just a moment now to use this as a breath prayer. Please close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Find that place inside you that feels like home. Now as you breath in say to yourself ‘I dwell in the shelter of the Most High” and as you breath out say ‘I abide under the shadow of the Almighty’.
I dwell in the shelter of the Most High… I abide under the shadow of the Almighty.’