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First Sunday of Lent 2019
What has a passage from Deuteronomy outlining the proper liturgical way to present first fruits in ancient Israel got to do with Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness? And what might either of those have to do with us in York today, at the start of Lent, but also at the start of the week ahead?
That’s our homework for this morning, but before we think about that I would like to say how very grateful I am for this kind invitation, and for very much besides, that Julie and I and our family have received from the Minster, this congregation and especially its choir. The notion of the ‘visiting preacher’ this morning stretches the meaning of ‘visiting’ almost to breaking point – as Michael said, when I am in a pulpit rather than a university lecture room it is in the church right next door. But that allows me to bring greetings from the congregation at St Michael le Belfrey, and to say that we value both our proximity and our partnership very greatly indeed.
It also gives me the chance to thank Robert Sharpe and the choir both for their continuous gift to all who come here of the very best musical road to worship and mission I know of, but also for the years that our daughter Rosie thrived as a chorister.
Music runs in our offspring rather more than in this parent – some of you know that Rosie’s elder sister is learning to be a Baroque oboe player in London, and for that reason this time last week we were at the Royal Academy of Music listening to a concert of Bach chorales. BWV 19 There was a war in Heaven contains a particularly striking aria for tenor singing words from the Book of Revelation. And in the background Bach writes answering phrases for the trumpet – which after a while the listener realizes are not simple echoes of the singer’s lines (though they are musically related to them) but are also the lines of another chorale – one about finally resting after a life of labour in peace with Abraham – that Bach’s Leipzig listeners could not fail to recognize. In a brilliant stroke of musical suggestion, Bach makes his listeners think of a second theological story while the singer relates the first. And the music does the job of holding them together, and joining them in a moment – when the sermon on it would have taken an hour.
Then I realized – this is exactly what Luke is doing in chapter 4. The tenor of the evangelist wants us to hear the first theme of Jesus meeting temptation and overcoming it, and of being prepared for his ministry of teaching, healing and ultimately sacrifice. But he is playing a trumpet as well – and that tune is the choral of Deuteronomy.
Think about Jesus’ replies to Satan: when invited to satisfy his 40-day hunger by turning stones to bread, Jesus quotes, ‘Man does not live be bread alone…’ , when invited to worship the deceiver, he recalls, ‘Worship the Lord only’; when offered the easy route to kingdom, he quotes ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Marah…’
All Jesus’ text are from – from Deuteronomy chapter 8. And there is more, for the story of the Jew’s wanderings in Sinai after the exodus from Egypt, which is the context for the Deuteronomy teachings, is echoed not only explicitly in Jesus words but in the very actions he is invited to perform.
Not just once in the 40 years of wandering between Egypt and Canaan did the people of Israel grumble that there was no bread. Nor did they resist the temptation to flirt with idolatry in that lonely and desiccated place. And they continually put God to the test.
Jesus 40 days in the wilderness become a sort of reenactment of the Exodus events, and the Deuteronomy teaching. Luke has written two trumpets playing that familiar tune against his song.
There is yet another consonance between the temptation scene and Deuteronomy – and to see that we need to pan out from the little vignette about bringing first-fruits as a gift, to almost the entire book. It’s part of an extended commentary on the 10 commandments that Moses is giving to the second generation of wandering Israelites. 40 years on from the Exodus, and just before they are to enter the Promised Land, he is recalling the events at Sinai that their parents witnessed. It all starts back in chapter 10 where he begins, ‘Now I had stayed on the mountain 40 days and nights …’ Where have we heard that before?
You see the rich and layered teaching for life in Deuteronomy that covers Passover, and eating, and looking after the poor, and what to do about Kings, and freeing servants, and how to celebrate festivals and what to do about war and murder, and giving tithes and welcoming the alien and the stranger … all that comes, as a gift, after Moses has spent 40 days fasting on the mountain.
This might help us to know how to use it in our own season of Lent. For although these Biblical periods of 40 days – of Moses and of Jesus – were, for sure, times of privation, they were more importantly times of preparation. And the discipline of those few weeks launches itself into the creation of fruitfulness along much longer and much bigger stories. Moses 40 days are clearly representative of the 40 years in Sinai. “My father was a wandering Aramean’ says the giver of the basket of first-fruits as he sets it down at the feet of the priest, recalling the story (of Jacob) that was already ancient history by Moses’ time.
And that great story of the Exodus, and the desert wanderings in hope of a new home – a land of milk and honey – was always itself a picture of a larger story still: the story of creation, fall, incarnation, resurrection itself and the pathways of human beings in it – the wilderness in which we wander now, learning obedience and enabled by God to make a world that too often seems like a desert without love or compassion of justice bloom in little oases into places of welcome and forgiveness and healing. Like, we hope, this place.
Lent recalls all these tunes, all these stories from the inside out so that by now the expanding wave of 40 days has caught up us within it. And the point about discipline, that of Moses on the mountain, of Jesus in the wilderness, of a whole generation of God’s people in Sinai, that of our 40 days of Lent – is not about some form of self-hatred, or a rejection of the physical, but quite the opposite. That is the point of the stress on first-fruitfulness. It is much more like learning to play an instrument, so that others might be delighted, or tending a garden, so that others may be welcomed and eat. It might be returning the gift of doing science in the increasing knowledge and understanding of the world that it takes to care for it properly. It is certainly becoming more deeply familiar with the Bible – but again so that we may point others to Jesus. It’s also not principally a time of turning inwards, but of welcome to newcomers and strangers.
So let our Lenten discipline be in every way one of learning a deeper familiarity with scripture, that it may be on our tongues as readily as it was on Christ’s, and one of prayer, so that like Moses we develop a clear and detailed understanding of what it means to be in our places of vocation, yet in the Kingdom of God at the same time. But let’s also make it a season of welcome so that, as our Old Testament reading concludes:
“And you and the priests and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given you and your household.”
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