Scripture - Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (The Message)
26 1-5 Once you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance and take it over and settle down, you are to take some of all the firstfruits of what you grow in the land that God, your God, is giving you, put them in a basket and go to the place God, your God, sets apart for you to worship him. At that time, go to the priest who is there and say, “I announce to God, your God, today that I have entered the land that God promised our ancestors that he’d give to us.” The priest will take the basket from you and place it on the Altar of God, your God. And there in the Presence of God, your God, you will recite:
A wandering Aramean was my father,
he went down to Egypt and sojourned there,
he and just a handful of his brothers at first, but soon
they became a great nation, mighty and many.
The Egyptians abused and battered us,
in a cruel and savage slavery.
We cried out to God, the God-of-Our-Fathers:
He listened to our voice, he saw
our destitution, our trouble, our cruel plight.
And God took us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and long arm, terrible and great,
with signs and miracle-wonders.
And he brought us to this place,
gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
So here I am. I’ve brought the firstfruits
of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.
10-11 Then place it in the Presence of God, your God. Bow low in the Presence of God, your God. And rejoice! Celebrate all the good things that God, your God, has given you and your family; you and the Levite and the foreigner who lives with you.
Cultivating Faithfulness….Letting Go of Self-Reliance
It seems a little counterintuitive to share a passage about the end of desert, wilderness wanderings when we’re right at the beginning of the season of Lent - the season so often compared to going out into the wilderness to resist temptation, to stretch and test and try our spiritual muscles, to battle demons - or to sit and learn in those places of discomfort, as Ben preached about last week. Lent so often carries with it this image of depriving ourselves - of stubbornly resisting temptation - and here in Deuteronomy we’re presented with a full table, an abundant harvest, a feast that brings together friend and stranger and sojourner alike.
The Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land. They had been wandering for 40 years, living in tents, and here they find themselves overlooking the Jordan river with everything they had been working for, sacrificed for, wandering for just within reach. They had made it - and their whole world was about to change. They were about to go from being a nomadic people to cultivators of the land, a fundamental shift in how they understood themselves as a people.
Even as they enter this new phase of their history, God does not want them to forget their past. God instructs them to remember their heritage, remember the mighty acts of liberation God performed on their behalf, and to remember that it was God who brought them into this Promised Land. Above all, they are to remember God’s care and provision for them throughout their history even to the present day - and to cultivate faithfulness in response to the new responsibility of living as God’s people in a settled land. They would need reminders of God’s action and deliverance as again and again the Israelites wandered away to be like the surrounding nations, worshipping other gods, exploiting the poor, widow, and orphan - these words of bringing firstfruits would serve as a call to faithful and generous living in response to the God who saved them to a new life.
This also is a passage that reminds the Israelites - and us - that we can’t go on this journey alone - that it is God who moves before us, behind us, among us - God who opens the opportunities for us to enter and experience life. Liberation is not something that happens through our own merit, but by God’s strength. Growth is not something we eke out for ourselves, but comes through God’s grace. Our identity rests first and foremost as beloved children of God - apart from anything we try on our own merits. We rely not on our own strength or savvy or grit to make it through life - but on God’s care and provision for us. God invites us to let go of self-reliance...and cultivate faithfulness instead - a faithfulness that is rooted in our true selves as children of the Creator.
There’s a beautiful quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint. She writes:
“Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school - they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are.”
What if, this Lent, instead of denying ourselves the extra sweets or scaling back the social media - not that those aren’t good things in and of themselves - what if we let go of all the places where we try to define ourselves and go our own way - letting go of the voices that try to tell us who we are, the voices of “I’m not good enough”, “I don’t belong” “I’m not smart enough” “I don’t need help” or “You’re a failure” “You need better things to be worthy” - what if we let go of the notion that we can do life on our own, that we our value is determined by what we produce or by what we own or by the number of people in our social circle - what if we let go of that and invited God to cultivate faithful, generous lives - responding to the God who saves us again and again from our sins, who reminds us again and again that we are beloved, who calls us children?
Faithfulness takes seriously the claim that we belong to God - that is the heart of our response. We remember God’s action in our lives in the past, notice God’s movement in the present, and trust in God’s leadings for the future. Our actions, our decisions, our attitudes flow from this center. Faithfulness isn’t blind trust or performing spiritual acts to make ourselves look good or claiming to be holier than we are. Faithfulness doesn’t mean we aren’t scared or worried or question things. Faithfulness means that we look for God first and align our hearts and our lives around God’s love...God’s purposes...and God’s kingdom made real among us.
We are starting out Lent with this image of bounty - of firstfruits cultivated in a new land and laid as an offering before the one who created us, who came down as one of us in Jesus Christ, and who will never leave us abandoned. Let us think of this season as one of spiritual gardening. “We invite God to unearth in us what lies fallow, what needs to be tended, and what needs to die for new life to emerge.” We let go so that God can cultivate within us.
I want to close with this poem written by Rev. Sarah Are from A Sanctified Art: I want you to imagine God reading this letter to you - it’s entitled “A letter to someone I love.”
Dear loved one--
I hope you let go.
I hope you let go of holding yourself to impossible standards.
Lower the bar. Give yourself grace.
God delights in who you are.
And while you’re at it, I hope you let go of ignoring your beauty.
The mirror is tired of your harsh words, for you are made of star stuff and music.
You are the only you there is, and you. are. simply. stunning.
And I hope you’ll consider letting go of certainty.
For the sun will always rise and set, and you will always be loved.
What more do we really need to know than that?
So let go of your fear.
Let go of perfection.
Let go of busyness as a sign of your self worth,
And the notion that creativity is a luxury.
Be wild and free.
Plant roots like a redwood,
And a spine like a sunflower;
For the days are short, and you are beautiful.
I love nothing more than to see you happy.
So don’t be afraid to let go.
The only thing you cannot lose is God’s evergreen love.
Before we read our scripture passage today, I want you to think about everything that is wrong in your life. That seems a bit counter-intuitive, I know, but trust me on this. We’re going to do a kind of the antithesis of “Counting Your Blessings.” -- sort of like Alexander in the Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day….where basically everything goes wrong for poor Alexander and he wants to move to Australia, and at the end he realizes that people have bad days in Australia too - like, the grass is never any greener elsewhere.
So let’s get the list going -- I’ll start -- it’s really hard to wait my turn with the vaccine (or I haven’t seen my family in over 6 months or haven’t had a proper date with Ben in almost a year or…)
The passage that we’re about to hear today was written for the Israelites living in Babylon near the end of the exile. Just as a brief reminder of your Bible history, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem around 600 BCE and eventually conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, including the Temple. King Nebuchadnezzer deported much of the city’s population to Babylon.
The Jews living in Babylon had lost the Promised Land and had been living for generations in this new place. The Temple - their most sacred symbol of God’s presence among the people - had been destroyed. They were a people without a home, without a sense of identity, longing for and mourning what they had lost and had no idea if they would ever see themselves having a place and a purpose again. (Maybe that puts some of our things in perspective but it also means that those who heard and understood these words knew hardship and struggle).
So they were having a very long Terrible Horrible Very Bad Day.
It’s into that situation that the prophet Isaiah spoke. So keep that in mind - and keep what you’re carrying in mind as well as we hear Isaiah 40:21-31. We’ll hear it read from the Contemporary English Version.
Scripture - Isaiah 40:21-31
Isaiah 40:21-31 (CEV)
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
Isn’t it clear that God
created the world?
God is the one who rules
the whole earth,
and we that live here
are merely insects.
He spread out the heavens
like a curtain or an open tent.
God brings down rulers
and turns them into nothing.
They are like flowers
freshly sprung up
and starting to grow.
But when God blows on them,
and are carried off
like straw in a storm.
The holy God asks,
“Who compares with me?
Is anyone my equal?”
Look at the evening sky!
Who created the stars?
Who gave them each a name?
Who leads them like an army?
The Lord is so powerful
that none of the stars
are ever missing.
You people of Israel, say,
“God pays no attention to us!
He doesn’t care if we
are treated unjustly.”
But how can you say that?
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the eternal God,
Creator of the earth.
He never gets weary or tired;
his wisdom cannot be measured.
The Lord gives strength
to those who are weary.
Even young people get tired,
then stumble and fall.
But those who trust the Lord
will find new strength.
They will be strong like eagles
soaring upward on wings;
they will walk and run
without getting tired.
Part of me thinks I really should have had Ben preach part of this sermon, because one of the things that struck me as I was reading this text was that it’s written to a people at the end of exile who will be getting ready to go back to their homeland and rebuild….and here we are, in the midst of our own restoration project on Firehouse road.
I think most of you know what the inside of that place was like when we bought it over a year ago. I won’t go into full on detail about what it was like wading through the inside of this abandoned property - but let’s say that seeing beyond the piles of filth and neglect took some imagination. When we came to it, it was a sad little house, an overgrown property, an eyesore and a spot of grief for so many who remembered what it was like in happier times in the past.
Bit by bit, we - and I mostly mean Ben - have taken the time to clear it out, tend to the grounds, and have begun constructing a vision for what that place could be again - with fruit trees, children’s laughter, blossoming gardens, and dinner gatherings. Bit by bit - trash bag by trash bag, I can see the project take shape. It’s easy to see the unfolding of this vision as the house tangibly changes as a result of our work and effort.
What happens, though, when that rebuilding isn’t so tangible?
We have here words from the beginning of what is called the “Book of Consolation” in Isaiah - a book that provides encouragement and comfort to a people, preparing them to return to their homeland. Here in this passage, the questions spoken by God aren’t meant to be answered, but to remind the people who really is in charge, and to get them back into a different mindset -- one of hope for a future and a readiness to rebuild.
But I have to wonder how these words landed with those living in exile. Presumably, the older generation may have remembered what life had been like in their homeland, but newer generations did not. The generation that sees the end in this story - a return to Judah - wasn’t present for the beginning. Any memories or stories of Jerusalem were before their time in captivity in Babylon - and that world had been wiped away. What does restoration look like when you know that you can never truly go back to what was? What does hope look like then?
This passage serves to not only encourage them that they will be restored, but tells them that they can also withstand the pains of restoration.
We face in our reality a similar transition. We have certainly carried our own share of troubles in our very own national and global Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. The rollout of the vaccine promises a restoration of “normalcy” that many of us have been craving for almost a year, but supply and distribution continue to be problematic. We’re still reeling from partisan divisions - divisions that may have been exacerbated under the previous administration but that have not gone away. Truth, facts, and reality seem to be up for negotiation from huge segments of our country’s population. We’re still in the midst of the pandemic with its economic challenges and mental health difficulties of loneliness and isolation. The end is in sight for some of these things - but as we move forward, what does hope and restoration really look like as we take stock of all that we have lost? How can we get back to normal when normal is what landed us in this situation in the first place?
Sometimes, where you start is acknowledging the difficulty of your current reality, the challenge that lies ahead, and then stepping into the vision of what you hope will be….and trusting God’s work and movement in the midst of that.
This, I think, is the power in this passage. God reminds the people - and us - that God is involved and present throughout all of history - through the very creation of the cosmos. There is nothing that compares to God’s sovereignty - and God will continue to act in the world to bring healing and wholeness and restoration - not in the sense that things will be back to the way they were, but closer to the way God always intended them to be.
That’s not a project that will just suddenly happen. That world will not suddenly appear - that’s a project that needs hands and feet to enact.
God prepared the Israelites for the rebuilding of their homeland and the hard work ahead - they cannot go back to what was. God prepares us, too, for the work of rebuilding as we recover from the pandemic - and we, too, cannot go back.
I’ve heard so many people talk about what they hope will be different going forward - more priority on spending time with loved ones. Slowing down the frantic pace of life. Shopping more locally and with greater intention. Learning how to do without, or being more creative with the resources they have on hand. Paying more attention to how policies from our government or state affect vulnerable populations among us and our planet. Allowing more time for prayer and gratitude. Spending more time doing the things that honor God and God’s movement in their life.
As we come out of this unsettling, uncertain, and disorienting time - there is a wonderful opportunity to reorient ourselves in ways that give us life, that are aligned with God’s hopes and dreams for us and our world, that enable us to partner with God’s work in our community, giving life and hope to others. We have a chance to widen our spiritual imaginations to live and be in ways that witness to the healing and redemptive work of God in our lives and in the world. That’s something more than what name is on our sign or what denomination we’re a part of -- that’s something about who we are as individuals and as a community seeking after Jesus. It’s that vision that we should be yearning after with our whole being because we serve a God who cares about people over principles, who gives hope and strength to those who live in trust that God is weaving all things for God’s greater purposes for all of creation.
And so as we enter this time of transition - both as we rebuild as a community and as we approach the vote that impacts our relationship with the United Methodist Church - my prayer is that we look to God for faith and trust in the midst of the waiting...that we look to God for hope in the efforts of rebuilding...that we look to God for the vision to live and act as witness to the grace and truth present in Jesus Christ...that we follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in being people of abundant life and hope in service to others.
May God be with us as we move into these days together - may we look only to Jesus to guide our steps - and may the Spirit grant us strength and renewal in the time ahead. Amen.
We’re going to do some Bible study around our text for this morning, and before I read it - I have a question. What does it mean when someone speaks with authority on a topic? What about exercising authority toward others?
The passage that we’re going to read today gets at the heart of Jesus’s authority and how others reacted to his presence - and what that authority means for us as disciples of Jesus.
Scripture - Mark 1:21-28
Mark 1:21-28 (New Revised Standard Version)
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
A bit of background on this text before we move into some discussion- and much credit to the work of Faith Element for the background on this text.
We see Jesus teaching in Capernaum at the synagogue on the sabbath. We don’t know what he’s talking about or anything about the content of his teaching except that the people who were there were astounded. This is another area where the translation from Greek to English misses a lot of the nuance. The word exesplanto - which gets translated as astounded - doesn’t mean they were impressed with what Jesus had to say. It means astounded to the point of being overwhelmed, shocked, or panicked. Probably Jesus’s words were so moving that they struck people at the heart and perhaps made some of them uncomfortable. Jesus was not like any other teacher they had ever heard before.
Now the man with an unclean spirit comes on the scene - and cries out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us?” The spirit recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God and realizes that he could destroy them. And he does - he silences the spirit and banishes it - and the people were amazed - again we lose something in translation - the Greek word means amazed or terrified.
But what’s important here as well is that the people saw this act of healing as a new teaching with authority. Jesus’s teaching made the man whole. According to Nikki Hardiman at Faith Element, “Jesus did not teach like the other teachers. Jesus’s teachings were liberating and they brought wholeness.”
At the end of the passage, we read that Jesus' fame spread - his fame spread because of this new way of teaching with authority - his words and his actions bringing liberation and wholeness to the people. This is the important part of the story - that the authority of Jesus as the Holy One of God is bound up in the very nature of Jesus himself - that Jesus is the new teaching that liberates us and brings us to wholeness.
So let’s talk a little bit more about this passage together.
Do you think that Jesus’ authority came from the manner in which he spoke, or his content… or both?
Why might Jesus’ impressive teaching have triggered the episode with the unclean spirit?
Does our place as followers of Jesus give us the right to speak as people of authority too? Explain. If not, how should we speak?
When we speak and act on Jesus’ behalf today, will others automatically be drawn? What about our words and actions can point others to Jesus? (Work with video, if time or conversation leads in that direction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YztvjePz0uk&feature=youtu.be)
Jesus’ teachings are ones that liberate and bring wholeness. Where does Jesus need to work more fully in your life to lead you closer to wholeness?
I want that last question to lead us into our time of sharing joys and concerns - because those are the places we can be in prayer for each other for. We’re not on this journey alone - being a church means that we trust God to be present among us and that we can share our vulnerabilities with one another because we’re all on the journey together. Jesus continues to heal us through his word and his actions to restore us to greater wholeness and love. We can pray for and with one another in these moments.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.