Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 6, 2022
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Commentary
This passage is at once lyric and heartbreaking. It’s lyric for all the reasons I will detail below in terms of how handily these verses get at some very core spiritual truths regarding our lives within God’s creation. It’s heartbreaking because you sense that things never quite worked out this way once the people of Israel actually moved into the Promised Land.
All through Deuteronomy we hear Moses crying out over and over again, “Be careful, be careful, be careful! Remember and do not forget! Remember, remember, remember!” But anyone with an inkling of what is to come in Judges and then in the long history of Israel in the post-Solomon era knows full well how careless and forgetful the people of Israel will turn out to be. (And you’d like to chalk up all of that as only their problem way back when but . . .)
To begin, however, let’s focus on the lyric part. What is lovely here is the fact that if the people followed this liturgical procedure for dedicating the firstfruits of the land to God, they would have also a wonderful reminder of who is who in the cosmic grand scheme of things. The people would remember their history and how they stand on the shoulders of all those who came before and who were themselves the direct beneficiaries of the mighty acts of God in times past.
The people would be reminded also, therefore, to view the entirety of their lives as a gift. And that, of course, is a major emphasis of Deuteronomy just generally: life is a gift. The Promised Land was not a reward for meritorious service. It was not a right or perquisite or anything that the people could regard as belonging to the natural and ordinary way of the world. Life in the Promised Land was to be viewed as quite extraordinary, as amazing, as an unending source of delight and gratitude.
As an Old Testament reading for the First Sunday in Lent in Year C, this is a curious passage to ponder. Probably the intention is to see ourselves in the mirror of this text in order to perceive how well we line up with this picture. Do we see life as a gift? Do we see the things that surround us in life as being nothing short of multiple instantiations of divine grace? What’s more, how well can we rehearse the sacred history and the mighty acts of God in the past that have brought us to our current station in life?
Deuteronomy 26 is a needed slap in the face for us contemporary folks. Too many people deem the idea of being “a self-made individual” to be a good thing. Too many people act and live as though the world as we know it came into existence about 5 years ago and there’s really no great need to know much more about history other than what you can recall just by drawing off your own experience and memories. In fact, it can fairly be alleged that there are lots of people today who more-or-less prey on public ignorance about so many things, not the least of which is an ignorance of history and of the history of ideas. Could Richard Dawkins really get away with claiming the things he does about religious faith (and the supposed triumph of reason) if people had a greater awareness of the fact that discussions along these lines have been fruitfully held across many centuries’ worth of time and that perfectly credible and substantial counter-arguments have been mounted as well?
Even the realm of worship is not immune. I recently encountered a new church that had the intention—as an iron-clad rule for worship—that they would never sing a song or hymn older than 15 years old. Such an attitude is surely far more than a desire to avoid stodgy sounding lyrics or tunes that pre-date hip-hop. It evinces a wider attitude that says the past—even God’s sacred past with his people—has nothing to do with us, nothing to teach us.
But at the center of the Christian life—including most especially Christian life as it is encapsulated in worship—is a sacrament that insists we remember. We remember that we belong to God alone in both creation and redemption. We remember that our very lives are not our own but were purchased at great cost by Christ Jesus our Lord on a hill far away—a hill far away but never really “long ago” in that the sacramental life of the church insists that time is even more relative than Einstein thought. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the old spiritual asks. The correct answer is “Yes.” Or as the Apostle Paul will later put it, “I have been crucified with Christ such that it is no longer I that live but Christ lives in me.”
To that kind of spiritual and theological sentiment, Deuteronomy 26 shouts a very loud “Amen.” The only question—apropos for any time but certainly for the start of the Season of Lent—is whether we can see ourselves in that picture. Do we know who we are? Do we know whose we are? Do we know to Whom we owe absolutely everything?
Note: Our special Year C webpage for Lent and Holy Week Resources is now available. Please check out additional sermon ideas, sample sermons, and more by visiting this resource page.
Before he retired some years back as host of The Tonight Show, one of Jay Leno’s more popular segments was called “Jaywalking.” Leno would go out into the streets of Los Angeles or Burbank or some other American city and pull people aside to ask them what are, all things considered, not terribly difficult questions. So he may ask one person to name the vice-president and then another person will be asked how many dimes there are in a dollar. And, of course, the joke is that with relative ease Leno can find people who are either clueless on simple facts or who give ludicrously wrong answers.
So one man had no idea what year the bicentennial quarter had been issued. The wife of an Air Force pilot when George W. Bush was President was asked who the current Commander-in-Chief was. She said she had forgotten (and found no help when Jay gave her the hint that his first name was George). A college student was asked where people from Appalachia live and was sure it was either Africa or Chile. A man asked who Germany’s leader was during World War II correctly said “Hitler” but had no clue as to his first name. In the end he said it was just “Hitler” without any first name, kind of like with the singer Cher. Finally, a couple of people were asked how long ago Jesus lived. One said 500 years ago, another said millions of years ago. Yet another had no clue as to what the Friday before Easter is called or what it means. “Well, it’s a really good Friday,” Leno hinted hugely, “so what is it?” “I just don’t know,” the man replied.
It’s hard not to laugh at some of those things, but in the long run, it is difficult to resist the thought that the source of this humor may well be an example of that Neil Postman talked about in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In the kind of world-class ignorance that people so routinely display, we may discover something that is in the end no laughing matter at all.
We have no memory by which to anchor our lives to something more secure than this moment. But our concern should be more in-house than that and when we look at the contemporary church, we notice some accommodations to the culture. If people say they get impatient with sermons on the Apostles’ Creed or other overtly “doctrinal” matters, many churches say that’s just fine and so preach sermons that rarely advance much beyond the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books.
If you did a theological Jaywalk through the church and asked people, “What does it mean that we confess Jesus ‘descended into hell’?” or “How would you define the concept of ‘atonement?'” well, if people can’t answer or come up with loopy wrong answers, this elicits little more than a shrug. Sadly, some churchgoers may know more about the plot lines on Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones than they do about the story of Exodus or the work of Paul.
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