This is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent us that period of time, 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays, that the Christian Church observes as a time of reflection and preparation for Easter. We don’t count Sundays as part of the observance of Lent, because Sunday, or the first day of the week, is the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Sunday is the day that we worship, and every time we worship, it should be, somehow, a celebration of Easter. We don’t always achieve that in our worship, but we ought to keep trying.
Lent was originally a time for fasting, and abstinence, and for some rather morose introspection into what rotten, miserable sinners that we really are. That kind of introspection wouldn’t be appropriate on a Sunday, when we’re celebrating resurrection and the new life that we have in Jesus Christ. And so during Lent, we don’t observe Sundays as days of fasting and abstinence; we observe them as days of celebration and feasting. And over the years, we’ve kind of gotten away from the morose introspection into what rotten miserable sinners we really are, because it is so depressing. Besides, we are rotten and miserable sinners, every one of us, and we all know this. And while it can be helpful to remind ourselves of this once in a while, it is equally helpful to keep in mind that in Jesus Christ, we are a new creation. When we sin, and when we seek forgiveness, God remembers our sin no more. God has a really bad memory when it comes to our forgiven sins, and that’s a good thing. God is merciful, and we had fast to that truth.
And so during Lent, rather than focus on how miserable and rotten we are, we set this time aside to remember and to reflect on the wonderful work of salvation that God has accomplished in us.
And this morning, we are going to a rather unlikely place to experience God’s mercy. We have stuck ourselves into the book of Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy is a collection of laws that governed the ancient people of Israel. It contains at least three types of laws. First of all it has some moral laws. And secondly it has some ritual laws, and finally it has some ceremonial laws. Moral laws have to do with what is right and what is wrong, and they are universal, and still binding on us today. Think of stuff like the Ten Commandments. Ritual laws have to do with every day living in and among God’s people and they have to do with making sure that our clothes aren’t made from a cotton and polyester blend, avoiding lobster and clams and canned peas, and pigs…that sort of thing. Ritual laws are not so much binding on us anymore. But they have value in encouraging us to live disciplined lifestyles. And then, finally, there are the ceremonial laws, and they have to do with worship.
In our passage this morning we are looking at a ceremonial law. Ceremonial laws are not binding on us either, but I will wager that already, many of us have noticed that ceremonial laws, even though they relate primarily to worship, also have a profound and intimate connection to every day life. And that is because worship, and every day life are completely inseparable. This was true for the ancient people of God, and it is absolutely true for every one of us here this morning. It is impossible to divorce our every day lives from our worship lives. many have tried, but all have been unsuccessful.
The particular ceremonial law that we are looking at this morning is the law of first-fruits. The law of first-fruits has to do with farming. I’m not a farmer, but most of the ancient Israelite people were. And when they grew stuff, no matter what it was, the first bit of anything that ripened, belonged not to the person who grew it, but instead, it belonged to God.
This may sound strange to us, but that’s OK. I’m pretty sure it made sense to the people of God, and we’ll get to that in a bit. Think way back through the winter to that first tomato that ripened last summer. What a joy it was to have that tomato and to enjoy eating it! Boy was it tasty! It never occurred to us, though, to bring that tomato to church and to drop it into the offering plate. I certainly did not bring my first tomato, and I don’t recall that anyone else did either. Although I’m pretty sure that after a fashion, some zucchini did make it here.
But for the ancient people of God, the act of bringing that first tomato or the grain or the wine, or whatever else it was, that was first, served as a powerful reminder of the great act of salvation that God had accomplished in their lives. Bringing the first fruits to the priest reminded them about where they had come from and how they had gotten to the place of God’s promise, but most importantly it reminded them that none of it had been because of their own doing. God’s people did not and could not survive on their own. Everything they had was a direct result of God’s grace and God’s love for them. And the first tomato was the deep and profound evidence of that.
And so when the farmer brought the tomato to the priest, as part of the worship, the farmer had something very important to say. And it all boiled down to this one sentence: “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.” There it is. It is all God’s doing, and I am here because of what God has done for me.
But of course, there is more. That is only the first step. It is one thing for me to say that I am here because of the grace of God. It is one thing to say that I have done nothing to deserve the grace and love of God. That’s a little tougher to say, because in a very real sense, I planted that tomato, I watered it, I picked the bugs off it, I worked hard to get to the place where I am in this life, I was careful, cautious, and did nothing rash, I have earned what I have. But when all is said and done, what I have is a ripe tomato. And that’s not very much. Anyone can have a ripe tomato if they put their minds and attention to it and the bugs don’t get to it first. I think that it is pretty clear that a ripe tomato isn’t going to give me or anyone else here eternal life.
And so, of course, it is not so much the tomato, as it is what the tomato represents. And what the tomato represents is very important, because the tomato represents salvation. And so I’m going to read again. But as I read, let’s try first to put ourselves in the sandals of the ancient farmer, because these verses are really his or her story, and they are what God has commanded him or her to remember. This is really the liturgy and the confession and the obedience to the covenant that God has made with the ancient farmer, but not just with the ancient farmer, because in a very real sense, the ancient farmer’s story is also our story. Our story begins exactly where his or her story began. We are very much a part of the ancient farmer’s family.
But as I read, let us begin to build a confession of our own. Let these words form the basis of a Christian liturgy for ourselves, and the foundation for a covenant that God has established between himself and us.
To help us think, try to recall what God has done in establishing the Christian church, both universally and locally. Remember the things that Jesus has commanded us to remember. And while every one of us here this morning will build a slightly different liturgy or confession or covenant, it ought to include the ringing tones of salvation as does this one from the Book of Deuteronomy. I also realize that for many of us, building this liturgy or confession or covenant will likely need to take much more time than the few moments that we have here this morning. But that is the beauty of the Scriptures. We will always have them before us. If we choose, we can work on this all week. To help us get started, it might be helpful to realize that a Christian liturgy or confession or covenant starts in the same place that the ancient farmer’s did. And so we could begin our own by saying, “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 he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
That’s a really good memory. This Lent, let’s spend some time together remembering all that God has done for us. And then, when Easter comes, we can celebrate it properly with joyful memories of God’s love and grace.