After escaping Pharaoh and wandering the desert for forty years, but before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses left them one final commandment. “Remember where you came from.” With this institutional memory, we enter this time of Lent in prayer and confession so that as Christ did in the wilderness, we say “no” to self-serving power and “yes” to power that serves the world.
Vicar Neal Cannon, First Sunday in Lent, year C; texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The story of the Jewish people is the story of the wandering Aramean. Arameans were nomadic group of sheepherders that bounced around the Middle East looking for pasture where they feed their flocks and stay safe. They were a homeless people. They were an oppressed people. They were a people who struggled to survive.
It’s difficult for us in America to know what it’s like to wander in the desert, to struggle to survive. Most of us, if not all of us, can get clean water from the tap, and fresh fruits and vegetables from the grocery store. We don’t have to fight for it or toil over it.
The narrative in America that is true for many but not all, is that if you work hard and study hard, you can get ahead. You can build a nice living for yourself. You can have a nice home with a white picket fence and raise your children in safety.
And that’s why I think it’s so hard for us to relate to this text in Deuteronomy today. We don’t know what it’s like struggle to grow food. We don’t know what it’s like to be homeless. We don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where climbing the ladder is not a possibility, no matter how hard we work.
But then again, maybe this story is not so foreign to us …
In this text, Moses and the Jewish people had wandered the desert for forty years, struggling to get by and surviving only by the grace of God. Moses at this point was very old, and as he was nearing the end of his life he realized that he was never going to see the Promised Land while he lived. So, as tradition tells us, Moses wrote down the laws and stories of the Jewish people as a way to remember their history.
Moses wants to capture everything that has happened to his people. He wants them to remember that their ancestors were wandering Arameans. He wants them to remember how God delivered them, so that when they get to the Promised Land they won’t forget how they’ve been treated.
So, Moses leaves instruction for his people for when they come into Promised Land. He says this: “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. 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 this is how Moses wraps up all the law, and the history of the Jewish people. He tells them to remember. Remember where you’ve been. Remember what it’s like to be oppressed. Remember what it’s like to struggle to survive. Remember what it’s like to be without a home.
That’s why Moses instructs us to welcome the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. That’s what God did for us. It’s in our history and it’s crucial to remember that God saved us when we were hungry, and homeless, and struggled, and in pain and sorrow. Moses says that you can’t forget or else when you get to the Promised Land, you’ll become the oppressors, you’ll do the very things God hated. We can’t let that happen.
But here’s the thing. It’s extremely difficult for us to remember things we’ve never experienced personally, even though the story of America is not that different from the story of the Jewish people.
Our story is the story of people from all over the world from all different backgrounds and traditions who were searching for a place to call home. We were wanderers, some people came here to escape religious discrimination, others came to find a home, and others were brought as slaves against their will. This story was so ground into who we are as a people that we wrote the constitution to guarantee life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and other freedoms.
Ironically, time after time after time we’ve interpreted these words to be only for us. We practiced slavery, oppressed the native, said no to the widow, and kept out the immigrant. We’ve said, “you can’t be here, this is our Promised Land, and we will make it in our image.”
So we use our power to protect what is ours. We build fences to keep our neighbors out. We create laws that benefit the wealthiest in society. We make in groups and out groups of all kinds. And what this tells me above all is that we forgot to do what Moses commanded. We forgot that our ancestors were wandering Arameans. We forgot our ancestors were once foreigners here. We forgot that their story is our story.
Now, I hope you don’t think that I’m blaming America for this problem. The problem is not an American problem, this is a human problem. Whenever people, throughout human history, have gone from having no power to having power, they’ve fallen to the temptation of saying, “this is mine and I am going to use my power to serve myself.”
And this is the exact temptation that Jesus encounters in the wilderness today. The Gospel tells us that Jesus spent forty days, wandering in the wilderness, without food. And at the end of these forty days, the devil comes to Jesus at his weakest point and he says an incredibly logical thing, “You know, you have power, use it to feed yourself. Use this for your own purposes. Take these stones and turn them into bread.”
And Jesus turns to the Devil, and he says, “No.”
I find this fascinating because I think any one of us would have said, “Why not? I’m hungry, I need bread, and I have the ability to create bread for myself, why wouldn’t I do this?” It’s too easy for us to say, “Sure, what’s the harm in that?” And this is the human choice, to take power and use it for ourselves.
Jesus is the only one who makes the choice that we couldn’t make. Jesus is the only one, who makes the Godly decision to use power to give life to the other, as opposed to give life to the self.
This choice is emphasized later in the Gospel as Jesus uses the exact same power that he denies himself during the forty days in the wilderness. Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two fish, and he uses his power to feed the 5,000. In this story Jesus uses his power and authority, not for his own purposes, but to feed the world.
In our Gospel today, Jesus turns down power to serve himself three times. In this, Jesus teaches us an important lesson. He teaches us to say “no” to self serving power and “yes” to power that feeds the world and welcomes the stranger.
In this no, Jesus says, “I remember”. Jesus remembers when people took power and used it for their own purposes. Jesus remembers that his people were once slaves in Israel. Jesus remembers what it’s like to be homeless and wandering in the desert for forty years. In fact, because our God is the God of all people, then Jesus remembers everyone’s story. Jesus knows every story of oppression, and violence in the name of self-service, and he says “no” to it because he sees all of time and he knows how that story ends. Our problem is that we can only see what’s right in front of us, and we’re afraid of losing it.
When we have gone through the wilderness ourselves our temptation when we get power is to serve only ourselves. We don’t trust the words “One doesn’t live by bread alone.” So when we are blessed in life with wealth, and privilege, and power we use our power for ourselves. Jesus calls us to use that power for the world.
And that’s what the discipline of Lent is all about. In Lent we reconnect to Christ through the giving up of worldly power, and in doing so, we remember in the same way as Christ not only our own history, but the history of all people. We remember that we share a common link, common DNA. We remember that our ancestors were wandering Arameans too.
And that’s why in Lent we spend time prayer and confession, because in prayer we remember our history. We remember that we were once strangers in a foreign land, we were once oppressed, and we confess that when we gained power and influence, we gave into the temptation of using our power for ourselves.
But it’s also in this confession we make room in our lives for something new to happen. We make room for God to change us. In confession we let go of the need to serve ourselves, and we are given a heart for serving the other.
That is why Lent is not the Christian equivalent of a New Year’s resolution which asks, “How can I better myself?” Lent asks, “How can I serve the world?”
So for this Lenten season, if we give up chocolate to lose five pounds, we’ve missed the point of Lent altogether. But if we give up chocolate and sweets to remind ourselves that people in this world go without food everyday, then we’ve connected with something bigger than ourselves.
And if we give up TV so we have more time to exercise, truly we have not accomplished God’s will on Earth. But if we give up TV so that we can have time to serve the homeless a hot meal, and remember what it is to go for days without one, then God’s will is done.
And if for Lent it is our goal to pray, and fast, and study scripture, and worship in order become more holy before God and honored before other people, we’ve wasted our time. But if we remember in these Christian practices what it is like to wander, and so welcome the alien into our community, and wash their weary feet as they enter our homes, truly we’ve encountered the almighty presence of the living God and we will shine before all people.
So as we enter this time of Lent together, let us say this with one voice, “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.”