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Sermon for March 10, 2019, First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (First Sunday in Lent—Series C)

“With a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT 

March 10, 2019

 

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our text is the Old Testament lesson recorded in Deuteronomy 26:

1When you come into the land which Yahweh your God is giving to you as an inheritance and you have taken possession of it and live in it, 2you will take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground which you harvest from your land which Yahweh your God is giving to you and you will put it in a basket and you will go to the place which Yahweh your God will choose to make His name dwell there. 3And you will go to the priest who is in office at that time and you will say to him, “I declare today to Yahweh your God that I have come into the land which Yahweh swore to our fathers to give to us.” 4And the priest will take the basket from your hand and he will set it down before the altar of Yahweh your God. 5And you will respond and say before Yahweh your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us and they laid on us hard labor. 7And we cried to Yahweh, the God of our fathers, and Yahweh heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. 8And Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9And He brought us to this place and gave to us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10And now, behold, I bring the first of the fruit of the ground which you have given to me, O Yahweh.” And you will set it down before Yahweh your God and worship before Yahweh your God. 11And you will rejoice in all the good which Yahweh your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.

 

          In the Address for Ash Wednesday, we heard these words to begin the Season of Lent, “On this day the Church begins a holy season of prayerful and penitential reflection.” Our modern Lenten practice shares some similarities with the reflection and remembrance that the Israelites were commanded to undertake when they finally arrived in the Promised Land, conquered it, and lived there. The ritual of offering the firstfruits of land each year would remind the worshiper that the Promised Land was God’s gracious gift that was to be received with joy-filled thanksgiving. In the liturgical rite of making that offering, the worshiper would remember where the Israelites had been and where they were going according to God’s grace.

          “My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us and they laid on us hard labor.” Four hundred years of slavery and bondage. Jacob and his sons and their families came to Egypt during the time of a great famine. Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, had risen to a position of prominence in the house of Pharaoh because God worked the evil done to him for good. The Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians under a Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8). And for centuries, this people languished under the rod of their oppressors. Yet, they flourished. The number of people grew and grew.

          “And we cried to Yahweh, the God of our fathers, and Yahweh heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. And Yahweh brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders.” The answer to the Israelites’ prayers was Moses. He and his brother Aaron were sent by God to Pharaoh to secure the release of God’s people. But Pharaoh would not let the people go. So, the Lord sent the terrors of the 10 plagues against the Egyptians. With those signs and wonders, Yahweh brought the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea waters, to meet Him at Mt. Sinai where Yahweh would establish His covenant promises with them—“I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod. 6:7).

          As the Israelite presented the firstfruits offering to the Lord, he would remember where they had been as slaves in Egypt. He would remember God’s great act of salvation in the Exodus, the Lord with a mighty hand and outstretched arm bringing His people out of slavery in order to be His covenant people. And the Israelite would remember their time in the desert. Because of their rebellion against God, the people would wander in the desert forty years until those 20 years and older, who had grumbled against the Lord, had died (Numbers 14:1-38). How much more thankful would this make the Israelite who would have food in abundance in a land “flowing with milk and honey”! According to His gracious promise, God “brought us to this place and gave to us this land.” And the Israelite would say, “And now, behold, I bring the first of the fruit of the ground which you have given to me, O Yahweh.” And the Israelite would rejoice in all the good which God had given to him and to his people and to his family.

          In all this, the Israelite was remembering and reflecting on what GOD had done. The whole Exodus event and the coming into the land of promise was God’s doing. It was first and foremost “the land which Yahweh your God” gave to the people of Israel as an inheritance. They were to take some of the firstfruits of “the land which Yahweh your God” gave to them. They would take the firstfruits offering to “the place which Yahweh your God will choose,” the place God would pick for His divine service to take place. Over and over, “Yahweh heard our voice. . . Yahweh brought us out of Egypt. . . He brought us to this place and gave to us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” And the result of this remembrance is a joy-filled celebration of all the good that Yahweh their God had done for them.

          I propose that we come to Lent with the same thinking. While “giving up” something for Lent can be a fine practice, it’s not the goal. It’s not the point. Lent is a time of prayerful and repentant reflection and remembrance on where we have been and where we are going because of what God has done for us according to His grace.

          Where you and I have been is similar to where Israel had been. At one time, all of us were slaves, slaves to sin. As Israel was enslaved before Pharaoh, you and I and all people were conceived and born in slavery to sin. Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” It is under the tyranny of sin that we came into this world corrupted by sin. This being the case, we had no way of setting ourselves free from sin and its punishment of death. We had no way of making ourselves better before God by anything that we could do, think, or say. Israel couldn’t get out of bondage in Egypt on its own and we couldn’t get out of slavery to sin on our own. We were held fast in the chains of our sin, bound in our slavery to our evil inclinations, and under the curse of God’s Law that condemns us to eternal death. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a).

          But God acted according to His grace and mercy. Out of love for His sin-filled, grumbling, unfaithful children of Israel, He led them out of Egyptian slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. He brought them into the land of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey. Out of love for His sin-filled, grumbling, unfaithful human creatures the world over, God led all people out of slavery to sin and death with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Only this time, it was not with the signs and wonders of the plagues against Egypt or the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. This rescue from slavery happened because God the Son took upon Himself human flesh and chose to take the sins of the world upon Himself as if they were His own. Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, suffered the punishment of death that all people should have endured because of their sin. For us, Jesus stretched out His arms and allowed His mighty hands to be nailed to a cross. These are the hands that healed the sick and raised the dead; the hands which rescued Israel from Egypt; the hands the formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

          In suffering and death, Jesus, with outstretched arms and pierced hands, offered Himself as the once-for-all perfect sacrifice to save all people from their slavery to sin and everlasting death. On the cross, the Savior bled and died to give us freedom in the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. And because of this, the greatest saving act of all time, we have a hope and a future. Listen to what Jesus says on the night before He purchased our freedom with His own blood: “’Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (Jn. 14:1-6 ESV). As St. Paul puts it, we will be “forever with the Lord” in the place that He has gone to prepare for us. We have a place in the land of promise, not an earthly land with milk and honey, but a heavenly inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. Because Jesus purchased and won the forgiveness of our sins, we are set from death. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). We are inheritors of everlasting life with Him in Paradise when we die. And when the Lord comes again on the Last Day, we will be raised from the dead and will enter with Him and the whole Christian Church into the glory of the new heavens and earth where we will be His people and the Triune God will forever be our God.

          The Lenten road that we travel again this year to the cross of Good Friday and the empty grave of Easter is a time given to us by God in His Church to remember and to reflect upon where we were. We were condemned slaves of sin, sentenced to death and hell for eternity. But God acted to save us through the gift of His only Son, Jesus Christ. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, Jesus rescued us from our sins and saved us from death through the shedding of His blood. Today, you stand forgiven of all your sins. You are covered in the blood of Lamb. You rejoice in what God has done for you in Jesus, for you know the place to where you are going. The Savior in love has prepared a heavenly home for you to await the day of the resurrection of all flesh when all the saints of God in light will be with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit forever in glory in a new creation. Therefore, go this day in peace; you are free. Amen.


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