Israel Redux

Text: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Date: Lent I + 2/14/16

This past Ash Wednesday we entered the holy season of Lent. The purpose of Lent is personal renewal in repentance and faith; contrition over our continued battle against sin, death and the devil, and faith in the only One who has fought for us and is delivering us to life and fellowship with God. Lent has always been accompanied by certain activities or disciplines: repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love. Some people talk of giving up something for Lent. But this first Sunday in Lent stands to remind us that the point is not our actions or works, or lack of them, but on the One who came to save us and gives us new life as pure gift. As today we see our Lord’s very first act of “binding the strong man” (Mark 3:27), rendering the old, evil foe, the devil, now to be in the complete control of and obedience to Jesus, we are bidden to see that in His earthly ministry our Savior is the perfect Israel, fulfilling God’s Law for us and the whole world in order that He can thereby give up Himself as the only pure and effective sacrifice sent to destroy sin and death and bring forgiveness, life and salvation to all who are brought to faith in Him.

Our text from the last book of Moses is more than a mere history of the commanded attitude of gratitude of Israel as they were to enter and take possession of the promised land from God. These words, as with all scripture, proclaim the Savior Jesus Christ and the fact that our salvation is totally a gift of God not because of our works or anything we do. Not that we don’t do anything in Lent and in the Christian Life. But what we do does not earn anything from God but is rather the fruit of faith planted in our heart. In these words of Moses, therefore, we can be encouraged in our Lenten discipline but more in the faith that our Savior has redeemed us and presents us to the Father as the fruit of His labor.

God’s people were commanded that when they came to inhabit the promised land they were to present the first fruits of the ground, first as proof or evidence that they had indeed settled in the land but secondly as thanksgiving to God who gave them both the land and the fruits, saying to the priest, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.”

This was to be followed by a recitation of the mighty acts of God on their behalf, sounding almost like a creed. It begins with the confession, “A wandering Aramean was my father.” This is as much as to say I am by my very nature an alien to God, even as we are by our fallen, sinful nature. The father refers to Jacob and not only his long travels in Aramaea (Gen 29-31), and that he got wives and children from there (Hos 12), but the word translated “wandering” signifies not only going astray but actually in danger of perishing. This reminds us of “the threatening perils of our sins” about which we prayed on the very First Sunday of the Church Year, how the devil, the world and our own sinful flesh can actually lead us astray and put us in danger of perishing both here and also in eternity. Lent calls us to renewed awareness of this threat and rallies us to fight the good fight of the faith.

“A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” God’s people increased in number even though “the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor.” Isn’t that an apt description of what our sin does to us? We experience the harshness and suffering of life in this sinful world. We stand not proudly but humiliated before God because of our slavery to sin.

The commanded prayer, however, turns to confess a creed of what God has done for us. “Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers,” that is, the only true God, “and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” God is not unaware of our suffering and our true need for His gift of life. As the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Today in the wilderness of temptation we remember how Jesus endured the attacks of the devil for us.

“And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. “He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried.” Such is our confession of faith in the mighty acts of God for us, all crowned with honor and success in the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son. “Yes, devil, you know it and He knows it, Jesus is the Son of God. He could command stones to become bread, He will not be so soon enticed to worship anyone but God alone, and He will not misuse God’s word and promises for His own benefit but go as it is written of Him in scripture to be the crucified and risen Savior of the world.”

Our confession of faith is important. It is the second half of what true repentance is all about. But there is even more here.

Consider that Moses is actually writing about what Jesus will do for us and for our salvation. Jesus has come to take as His inheritance the whole world. And as the apostle Paul wrote, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). He has offered to God Himself as the price and payment for our liberation from sin, death and the devil. But if He is the first fruit, then He now also offers you, each and every believer as the fruit of His labor to God. He is the first fruit, the guarantee that the rest of the crop will come in. He says, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book” (Heb 10:7).

His Father was no wandering Aramean but the One, Eternal God who sent His only Son to go down not into Egypt but into the very depths of sin and death. Not the Egyptians but we have treated Him harshly and humiliated Him in His obedience “to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

But now that He is risen and ascended to His seat of divine majesty there is but one thing left from our point of view, His return to bring us to the land flowing with milk and honey, the eternal kingdom of God in the day of the resurrection of all flesh. This is what we are reminded of every Lord’s Day even in the season of Lent. This is the vision that is before us as we confidently confess our sins and our faith, listening to the voice of our Savior calling us to life even now before we get to the fullness.

“And you shall worship before the Lord your God.”