Wilderness Silence and Wilderness Bounty

Passage: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
Date: February 25, 2007
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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As we prepare to celebrate communion every Sunday from now until Easter Sunday in April, let us all take a moment to consider the bread on this table. Consider everything that bread represents. Bread is basic. In some form, it is a fundamental building block of most diets. Around the world. And maybe because of that it is also a reminder of poverty and injustice around the world. There are many places where bread is not plentiful. We acknowledge all of this when we gather around this table.

So now with that in mind, listen to the gospel reading for this morning.[ read Gospel Luke 4:1-13]

The gospel reading is a bleak wilderness story. Bread is a temptation. But that is not always the case. In the Old Testament reading there is a very different picture. So now I'd like us to think about how bountiful a table can be. Consider the hope we proclaim at this table, of a time when injustice will be made right. And poverty eliminated. And listen to the Old Testament reading...
[read Deut. 26:1-11 ]

I think that one of the central tensions in the lectionary readings for this morning is this: Will bread - be part of an image of the bountiful kingdom of God?
Or will the bread be a temptation?
And who gets to say?

The Old Testament text ends with a bountiful vision of the Kingdom of God. This bounty comes after 40 years in the wilderness, which hardly gets mentioned. The bountiful table, which no doubt contains bread and a whole lot more. And where Levites and aliens feast together. The bounty of God is central to the Old Testament reading.

The New Testament text contains a discussion between Jesus and the Devil about some bread. Jesus rejects the suggestion that he make bread. His rejection of bread comes after 40 days in the wilderness.
40 years in the wilderness, and then an image of bounty.
40 days in the wilderness, and a rejection of even a loaf of bread.

The difference is in who is telling the story, and how the conversation is framed.
Let's look at the New Testament text first.
You might ask, what's so bad about a loaf of bread? As far as I can tell, nothing.

Jesus uses bread later in the Gospel to be a central image for who he is. He reinterprets Passover bread to represent his body.

So if bread can be a good thing, what would be so bad about miraculously making one loaf now? After all the text says Jesus was hungry. And it says that his days in the wilderness are over. His fast is over. He is hungry. This is the END of the forty days. The temptations are at an end. I can imagine Jesus planning to head home and get something to eat to break the fast. Wrapping up after a successful spiritual retreat. I can even imagine Jesus planning to zap a stone on the way home and turn it into a dinner roll to eat. I mean, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with the general concept of miraculously making bread. One chapter later, Jesus feeds 5000 people by miraculously making loaves of bread and multiplying fish.

There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with miraculously making bread. So why not do it now? Answer: the devil has framed this conversation. The devil has made THIS conversation about temptation. The devil says, "use this bread to prove something to me". And Jesus says no. And so Jesus remains hungry. Possibly longer than he first expected to.

In the Old Testament reading, the conversation about bread comes at the bountiful table. The image of bounty comes at the end of the reading. I'll assume there is bread on a table. Bread is the basic building block of any meal. There's no doubt bread on that table - and a whole lot more. It is a feast.

This image of bounty is a contrast to the stone in the wilderness that Jesus won't turn into bread. It's almost the opposite image. And - it's an image of human community that crosses national boundaries. Strangers and foreigners sit together. It is hopeful and future looking. It transcends the boundaries and tensions, wars and violence of now, and looks to a future time when all will be as God wanted.

In this Old Testament text the time in the wilderness is almost forgotten. Unlike in the New Testament text in which the wilderness is central. In the New Testament text the wilderness is the setting for the whole thing. Jesus is just ending his time in the wilderness, but wilderness is still everywhere. The devil is not quite through with Jesus, in the New Testament text. But in the Old Testament text, bounty overshadows the wilderness. The wilderness seems nearly forgotten. Or at least it is set aside by a writer who wants to frame the wilderness experience with the idea of God's bounty.

There are Bibles in your pews. If you can reach one, open your Old Testaments to Deuteronomy 26 and look at the reading for this morning. Can you find verse 8 and 9? The word that begins verse 9 is "and". Verse 8 is an account of the exodus from Egypt. The struggle to be free from slavery. Moses leading his people out of oppression. And verse 9 is all about where they ended up. Milk and honey. But in between the milk and honey, and the slavery, there were 40 years in the wilderness. Here, those 40 years are referred to as, "and".

What is it about the magnificent bounty of God, that could be so amazing, that it could take 40 years of wandering and waiting in the wilderness, and turn that wilderness experience into the expression "and".

The writer of Deuteronomy, it seems, wanted to set the wilderness experience into a framework of bounty and hope.
And I believe that is sort of what Jesus was doing when he resisted the devil in the wilderness. Jesus reframed the Devil's request of him, three times. All three times, Jesus is tempted to prove something. Prove you are the "Son of God". The devil quotes scripture at Jesus to prove that his requests are valid. And Jesus quotes scripture back. And none of this proof-texting leads them out of the wilderness. And none of it convinces Jesus nor the Devil.

Jesus just is. He remains in the wilderness, past the time he was ready to leave, because it turns out not to be time yet. Jesus just remains there, in the wilderness until the temptations go away.

And one chapter later, Jesus is in a very different place. A lush hillside. Miraculously making bread for thousands.

What I take from these scripture texts this morning is this:
God's bounty is persistently available.
And the wilderness sometimes cannot be avoided.
And both are true.

So I ask you:
Where are your experiences of God's bounty?
& Where are your wilderness experiences?

In an article called, "The Sense of the Text", which was the basis for the Lenten preaching theme that Jim Laurie and I chose for this year, Elizabeth McGregor Simmons writes this, "I rather doubt that Jesus, who thrived on people and on people noise, wanted to head to the wilderness where it was quiet, oh so quiet. I don't think he wanted to go there at all. It could be, however, that my sense about Jesus not wanting to head to the wilderness has more to do with me than it does with Jesus, or Luke or Mark."

And so in a minute, in response to the implied challenge in this article, I invite us all into a time of silence. The invitation can hopefully be a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to work in us. Maybe a little like in the Gospel texts in which the Spirit either "led" or "drove" Jesus into the wilderness.

I'll admit that for me personally, as your called preacher, among other things, it's a little difficult to know what to make of this challenge to silence. But that is part of what I am trying to do.

In another place in the article, Elizabeth Simmons writes, "Being in silence can be a scary thing, but it is an important, and a necessary thing. The church has said, for 40 days we observe Lent. This is meant to be a time of desert quiet in our lives. It is, the church maintains, a first step toward repentance, that is, the first move in turning away from everything that keeps us separated from God and our own best selves."

So now, let us respond to this leading of the Holy Spirit. In a time of silence, let us consider God's bounty, and our wilderness.....

After 1 minute read Deut. 26:8-11
After 1 more minute read Psalm 91:9-12
After 1 more minute read Luke 4:9-13