Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 10 March 2019.
It is strange how when we have just experienced some kind of high point, a success or a promotion, we find ourselves being tested by a reverse. It could be quite trivial – the failure of some household appliance – or it could be more significant.
Just when we thought we could enjoy the fruits of our labours and efforts, the scene is disturbed and we may have to think again.
In the lesson from Deuteronomy, an early test of Israel in the land was that they were to begin their enjoyment of the promised land by offering to God in worship the first of their crops. They would get to enjoy the rest later but the first thing was to give thanks to God, above and before all else, and do so sacrificially.
This was the feast of the first-fruits or of Pentecost, and it was a sign and a seal of a promise and an expectation of things yet to come. It was an expression of faith and commitment and it is a model for the church as we also celebrate the Feast of Pentecost as the first outpouring of gifts by God on the church.
In this sense it was God who was bestowing the first-fruits of Jesus’ resurrection on the body of disciples, and it was God’s visible and tangible commitment to the mission of those disciples as they gathered in that Upper Room.
Nevertheless, our lesson from Deuteronomy is in the dedication of the first-fruits to God in sacrifice and in worship.
For Paul the issues were also about commitment even if they came out differently. He started with the assurance and the promise of God:
‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ The message of God was already with the people and they did not have to go out in search of it.
And what was true of the church before the letters and accounts of the New Testament were written is true for us but with even more force. God has already acted and He has already spoken. When He speaks things happen for His words are never empty or powerless.
These words never fall to the ground but accomplish the purpose for which He intended them. And they are present for us to read and ponder and to act upon.
But there is something else for the Word of God does not just lie between the covers of the bible. It is there to be expressed and lived out. It is there to be known and loved and rejoiced in.
It is there to be proclaimed in whatever way we can manage and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
That is why we are also called to commit ourselves to the same message: ‘If we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved.’
Here also is the opportunity for us to make that verbal and public commitment in the places where we are set. And that can also mean stepping out not knowing where those steps may lead us.
The greatest time of testing and of commitment however was when Jesus was led into the wilderness after His baptism in the River Jordan.
This was right after that incredible moment when the Holy Spirit had come upon Him and when the voice of God had proclaimed Him.
While these tests are described simply enough they were devastating. First, Jesus was encouraged to doubt Himself and His ministry: ‘If you are the Son of God …’ then prove it.
Then He was tempted to do things to fulfil His ministry, but to do so avoiding the cross. Do anything: take political power, use your power to feed the masses, stage that spectacular demonstration.
To all of these Jesus replied with the same word as He submitted Himself to the scriptures: ‘It is written.’ No argument or discussion or exchange of views. No questions about form- critical methods to critique the text, or what were the real words of God. No discussion about archaeology, all of which may have been quite interesting and entertaining.
No, at the height of His temptations to avoid the cross Jesus was determined to submit Himself to the word of God, and to do so knowing where it would take Him.
For us the trials and temptations of these readings also ring true. We also are called to make our personal commitments in both the things that we earn and in how we publicly expose ourselves as we express our faith in Jesus Christ.
They are also there as we are led to doubt our own salvation, as if we could earn it in our works, and to doubt the uniqueness of Jesus and His crucifixion and resurrection.
We are led to doubt the authority of the scriptures as if they gave us a set of suggestions or serving suggestions on the godly and Christ-like life.
Then we are led to prefer all sorts of alternatives to the work of salvation that Jesus accomplished. Maybe political action or social engagement or plain entertainment spectaculars will do.
On their own, they never can be enough but when fully submitted in faith to God they may be part of the picture. But they will never take the place of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.