For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 1 – Deuteronomy 26:1-11
The last time I preached on this passage I called it ‘Harvest Festivals for Dummies’ or something like that. It was indeed Harvest Festival, and I explained that the passage contained God’s instructions as to how they were to celebrate Harvest, taking their firstfruits to the Temple, saying the creed, offering their gifts to God and rejoicing at his goodness. But why on earth are we reading this during Lent? Surely that’s a time for going without, for being generally mournful, for taking up some extra penitential Bible Study or something. What are we to make of a Harvest Festival passage as we begin Lent? The answer maybe is to remind ourselves that it’s all about grace.
Let’s have a look at those instructions again. Note first that they are for people who have arrived in the Promised Land. This isn’t about the arduous journey (which, by the way, is being explored in my ‘Wilderness Years’ podcasts elsewhere on this blog site). It’s for those who have made it. We often see Harvest Festivals as a great evangelistic opportunity, when those perhaps on the way towards God and faith can be tempted along to church for a more community-focussed event. But for Israel, it was a celebration for those who knew their God, who had journeyed with him for some time, who had some history among his people, and had seen his action in their lives.
Then there is this motif of ‘firstfruits’. Israel would have celebrated two harvest festivals. The first was when the very first of the crops appeared, the second some time later when all was safely gathered in. the second was about thankfulness to God for his provision, but the first was a declaration of faith in God that the full harvest would surely follow the first pickings. We may have settled in the Kingdom; we may know a relationship with God through Jesus, but what we see now is only the very first bits of what we believe God has in store for us. We may have known something of God’s peace, his joy, his presence, his healing, his blessing, but these are the mere tasters for what we believe by faith is coming for those who love him.
Then comes the equivalent of our Creed. We go to the place of worship and declare what God has done for us. It’s corporate (‘We believe …’) rather than individual, and it spans history as well as that answered prayer last week. Creeds are one of the most underrated parts of Anglican worship, I discovered during my research, but they are powerful reminders of the actions of God for us and for our salvation, and a real chance to count our blessings. They also, interestingly, allow us to count our cursings too, as the bad times are remembered along with the good. Slavery and oppression at the hands of Egypt are an important part of the credal statement, because they were important parts of the people’s history. This is no rewriting and whitewashing of history, but faces times of grief along with times of blessing.
Finally the gifts are offered amidst rejoicing, the kind of rejoicing which shows the hospitality of God and welcomes others into our family circle. Whilst this is a great menu for Harvest Festivals, it can also teach us some powerful lessons about the more penitential season of Lent. Of all the seasons of the Church Year, Lent is perhaps the one where we are most likely to feel that it’s up to us. We must stop eating chocolate; we must read the Bible more, or go out on a cold evening to some study group; we must generally try harder. This passage reminds us that we can no more try hard to be better than a farmer can try hard to grow crops. Yes, there is some work to do in preparation, but it is God who gives the growth. Maybe Lent is more about giving thanks for what God has already grown in us, and looking forward to what he will do in the future than it is about trying to make things happen by ourselves. One church leader told his people ‘You’re not sinless, but you are sinning less.’ And maybe it’s about reminding us that all is grace. We don’t deserve it, and we can’t force it, but God is at work in us anyway, and one day, when we arrive and settle in our Promised Land and see him face to face, we’ll realise that it was and always has been about his grace.
Have a grace-filled Lent!