“In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, Moses spoke to all the Israelites…” (Deuteronomy 1:3a) This is how the last scroll of the Torah begins. It has been a long journey, but they are finally almost there: thirty-nine years and eleven months since crossing the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit. As the Book of Deuteronomy begins, we are meant to imagine Moses and all of those refugees from Egypt standing there in the wilderness. They have almost arrived and they can see the Promised Land. They can practically taste the milk and honey that had been promised to them four decades earlier and now they are all huddled together, about to embark on something new.
What a great time for a long sermon! Because, as you will recall, Moses isn’t going with them. And so before they go, he has a whole lot of stuff he wants to say to them about the lessons of the wilderness and the challenges that lie ahead for God’s people. He is telling them what he thinks will be important to them as they make this transition without him as their leader. Now I’m no Moses, but this image has always captured my imagination and this Lent for reasons I’m sure you can appreciate, it has taken on a whole new level of meaning for me.
The basic premise is simple, and like all great preachers Moses keeps returning to the main themes again and again. It goes something like this: in our precariousness, we knew that we needed God. When you are in the desert praying for daily bread and water and you literally mean it, you learn to live life one day at a time. You rely on God, hour by hour. You know that you are utterly dependent upon God’s mercy. As hard as life is in the desert, in a way faith is easier. The desert brings people to their knees; it makes prayer almost natural. In the words of the book by Anne Lamott that Karen is exploring this Lent, those three prayers become a part of daily life: Help! Thanks! Wow!
Help, God! We have no food and we are really scared and we need you! And then of course there is miracle bread—whatchamacallit bread—manna. And it is enough. So thank you God. Or as Maya Angelou once put it: Thank you for your presence during the hard and mean days / For then we have you to lean upon. In the desert there are also plenty of opportunities to pray wow: at the parting of the waters at the Red Sea and that whole pyrotechnic show on Mount Sinai where Moses encounters the living God, but also in smaller ways each and every day that the sun comes up, and there is water, and there is bread.
Prayer flows more naturally in the desert, I think: help, thanks, and wow become part of the daily rhythm of life. And it isn’t all that different for us, is it? Difficult times like illness or loss or addiction or financial worries can all drive us to our knees and become occasions when we truly, really recognize that we are powerless over so many things, and perhaps even that our lives have become unmanageable. We come by God’s grace in such seasons to believe in a power greater than ourselves that can and does restore us to sanity. In our precariousness, we don’t need a seminar in how to pray: help, thanks, and wow flow out of our being…
But here is the thing: Moses knows that in a land flowing with milk and honey, in a promised land where there will be plenty of bakeries and an array of bread options to choose from, that it will be so much harder to remember God. And so he tells the people that the danger in the midst of affluence is going to be amnesia. They will be tempted to literally forget who they are and whose they are. They will be tempted to say to themselves: my hard work got me this bread and this milk and this honey and this nice house and this fast car. They may even be tempted to say, “to hell with my neighbor…he doesn’t work as hard as I do anyway.” And by the time all that happens, they will also have forgotten the Lord their God, because you cannot love God whom you cannot see if you do not love your neighbor who is right in front of you.
Self-reliant people don’t need to pray “help” because they don’t need any; like that little red hen they just do it themselves. Self-made people don’t need to say “thanks” to anyone; they just pat themselves on the back. Self-centered people forget to pray “wow” because their world gets smaller and smaller, leading to a kind of ennui where the most amazing things—like sunrises and a child’s laughter and a walk on the beach—are taken for granted.
Moses is relentless, however, in saying that this self-made and self-reliant stuff is a lie. And so he offers an antidote: remember, remember, remember. And you can remember best by teaching. So teach, teach, teach. Teach your children and your grandchildren. Tell them the stories again and again and again of what it was like under Pharaoh’s oppressive economy. Tell them what it was like to live in the Sinai for four decades. Tell them what it was like to have nothing and yet to have everything because God was with us and because God saved us and because God gave us Torah and because God gave us water and manna and because God gave us to be companions to each other—one day at a time. If you can remember all of that when you get to the promised land, then all will go well. But even so, it will still be much harder to be faithful there than it was in the Sinai Desert. Moses suggests that liturgy and prayer and faith practices are the ways to keep the lessons of the Sinai fresh. They will show God’s people how to remember from generation to generation. That is what we heard in the portion of this sermon that was read today:
When 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, you 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. You 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."
It’s a stewardship sermon. You take the first portion of what God has blessed you with and you give it back. Not just any portion—not what’s left over at the end of the week—because chances are that if we wait to see what’s left there won’t be anything. So take the first part, the best part—a tithe. Practice good stewardship not because God needs your money but because good stewardship reminds you that it was never yours in the first place. It helps us to remember that the word “mine” is as dangerous for adults as it is for three-year olds and that it is so much better for us to learn to share. In the Promised Land, we can suffer from amnesia and start to value our stuff more than our God. So Moses continues:
When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 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. (HELP!) 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 (WOW!) And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (THANKS!) So 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.
Now Jesus was raised a Jew, not a Christian. I know you all know this but it is so tempting for us as Christians to forget this. And yet I am convinced that we cannot begin to understand Jesus and his ministry until we begin at least to understand the traditions that shaped him. He was raised on the Five Books of Moses, not on a King James Bible that had all his lines printed in red! So his parents and grandparents no doubt told him the story, over and over and over again. Mary and Joseph told him about the forty years in the desert, about Egypt and the Promised Land, about remembering to pray Help! and Thanks! and Wow! The desert represents that place where you go to encounter the living God, the place where you go to remember.
And so it is not all that surprising that after his Baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days. Not three weeks, or two months, but forty days. He goes on a kind of vision quest (if it helps to think of it that way) in order to get in touch with the wisdom of the ancestors. He is tested there by the Evil One, just as his people had been tested so long ago. But in that testing (and in the resisting of temptation) he comes out stronger and clearer about who he is and whose he is and what he is called to be about.
The forty-day season of Lent is patterned on this same kind of journey. We have now embarked on that journey together, having been invited this past Wednesday into a holy Lent. We won’t literally be going to the desert, although I have sometimes wondered what it would be like for us if we could pack up this whole congregation and go out together to Arizona or the Judean wilderness or the Sinai Peninsula. What it would be like for us to learn to rely on each other there one day at a time?
I remember the one and only time in my adult life when my brother and I decided we should take our families camping. Our kids were young and we had definitely grown up in a non-camping family so we borrowed all the equipment. Actually I wanted to go out and buy all the equipment because I was convinced we would become a camping family, but my wife (always the voice of reason) wisely convinced me that it might be a good idea to try this once before making such an investment. Anyway, my brother Jim and I were trying to get the tents up and trust me, it was like a sit-com. We had no clue. Finally this very nice woman came over and took pity on us and helped us. She even tended to our fragile male egos as she offered this help, telling us she was sure we would have eventually figured it out. Maybe. But we didn’t care; we were idiots and we knew it. It’s hard to ask for help: from our neighbor and from God. Many of us, I think, are better at giving help than receiving it—especially in the “promised land” where we are tempted to think that we need no one but ourselves.
We aren’t going to Arizona, or Egypt, or Judea this Lent. But we are going on a journey. The desert is not just a literal place. In the spiritual life it is a metaphor. And it’s a tricky metaphor because most of us have some unlearning to do about Lent. But all will be well, because Moses and Jesus—who both knew something about the desert—point us in the right direction on this first Sunday of Lent. They invite us to remember once more the solace of fierce landscapes, those places where we encounter the living God and rediscover the truth about who we are and where we can remember how to pray help, thanks, and wow. Those three prayers will eventually lead us all the way to the cross, and ultimately to an empty tomb.