March 10, 2019

1st Sunday of Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-12
Psalm 90:1-12


Bolzan was 47 years old when he slipped in the toilet of his office and his head hit the floor. He suffered from a severe case of retrograde amnesia as the result of the impact on his head. In English, it means that he couldn’t remember the past 46 years of his life!

 So, he had to be reintroduced to his family and friends again, including his wife of 25 years! Every day, he and his wife chose a pile of photos from their family albums to be reviewed. In other words, he embarked on a journey to relearn his life story and rebuild his sense of self-identity. He said that it’s like being lost. “I lost who I am,” he said.[1]

 “Memory is the substance of identity,” says one commentator.[2] “When we forget, we are diminished and our self shrivels.”

 It was the same with the people of Israel. They too needed to be reminded of their past. Without their understanding of their history, they would not appreciate their identity in the present.

 Our reading today from the book Deuteronomy was the central creed of the people of Israel. It ought to be recited every time someone offered the offering in the temple. And, this creed reminded Israel of who they were in the past.

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;
he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number ...”
(Exodus 26:50)

 Yes, they were wanderers with no permanent place that they could call as home. They were aliens in a land of strangers.

 But, the creed is not only about the people of Israel; it is also about God. The creed did not only remind Israel of who they were, but also of who God was in their life.

 God was the One who created them. As such, their identity could not be separated from God’s identity. Israel’s identity as a nation is forever linked to God. God was the one who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And God did that because God is the God of liberation, not oppression.

 As such, Israel must reflect the identity of their God once they had settled in a new land. They too must be agents of liberation, not oppression.

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome,
who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow,
and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
(Deuteronomy 10:17-19 - NRSV)

 This law appears again and again in the book of Deuteronomy. Without a doubt, this law was the foundation of Israel’s identity. The law must permeate every aspect of Israel’s’ life: what they said, did, and decided.

 Like the people of Israel, the Church can get a spiritual ‘amnesia’ as well. In the past, the Church had changed from a rejected community into a powerful community. When Emperor Constantine became a Christian, Christianity became the official religion in Rome. As such, it no longer lived on the periphery of the Empire. It now occupied the center of the Roman Empire. It was no longer a persecuted religion; it often became the religion of the persecutors.

 With the transformation, there was a price to pay. Being close to power, even identifying itself with it, the Church had often lost its message, even its soul. For centuries onwards, it had often become a tool of oppression not liberation any longer.

 Therefore, it is important that every generation of Christians remind themselves of their true identity. We are not followers of a powerful ruler who ruled with iron first and tyranny. We are followers of a Galilean peasant who wandered from village to village, proclaiming God’s Kingdom. We are followers of a Jewish Rabbi who was rejected by the rulers and the leaders of his time. We are followers of the Son of God who came down from heaven to heal the sick and the sinners. We are followers of the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head down.

 This is our true identity and we shall never forget who we are. Our identity requires us not to create the most beautiful cathedrals or church buildings. Our identify requires us to follow Him who was crucified on the cross and to carry our own cross.

 The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, once said that knowing oneself was the beginning of wisdom. But, we don’t need a famous classical philosopher to tell us that. Even the Devil knows that our understanding of who we are is a powerful thing.

 In our famous reading from Luke, the Devil tried to make Jesus forget who he was. The Devil tried to replace Jesus’ knowledge of himself with the Devil’s own creation. Indeed, not many things are more powerful than one’s understanding of oneself. During slavery, one powerful tool that the masters used to subdue their slaves was identity. The masters used to tell their slaves, again and again, that they were a submissive race and people.

 That’s why the Devil tried to undermine Jesus’ understanding of who he was. If Jesus had a flawed understanding of his own identity, his ministry would have failed from the start. Death on a cross could not derail his mission, but a false understanding of who he was would.

 That’s why, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels always began with God affirming his identity.

“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open
and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven:
“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
(Mark 1:9-11 NRSV)

 That’s also why Jesus pushed the devil back by quoting God’s words in the scripture. The Devil had no authority over Jesus as long as Jesus’ knew who he was.

 Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. It is the day when people make a sign of the cross on their forehead with ashes. The sign is accompanied with the words: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

 Indeed, we are dust and no passage in the Bible can remind us more about this than Psalm 90. It says:

“You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
(Psalm 90:3)

 The Psalm reminds us that, viewed from eternity, the length of our life is just like a breath.

“... our year come to an end like a sigh.”
(Psalm 90: 9 - NRSV)

 Indeed, the years of our life is like a dream that appears briefly then is forgotten; or like grass that is only alive for one day.

“they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.”
(Psalm 90:5-6- NRSV)

 Hearing Psalm 90 should put our life in perspective. It should take away the illusion of grandeur from our life. We are not as important as we think we are. Using modern words: we are to take ourselves seriously, but not too seriously. Arrogance should have no place in our life.

 But, the psalmist didn’t want us to fall into pessimism with no hope either. Yes, we are just dust, mortals, a fleeting dream and grass.

 Yet, we are not alone. God who is from everlasting to everlasting cares about us. God is a place where we can call home.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.”
(Psalm 90:1 – NRSV)

 Friends, to know who we are is important. Our identity influences the way we live. It permeates every aspect of our life.

As we begin our Lenten journey, may we remind ourselves of who we really are. May we find our significance not from the world, but from our God. And, our God is the God who came not to be served, but to serve. Even more: our God is the God who offered His life on the cross. May we reflect this God in our daily life during this Lenten season and beyond. Amen.

 Toby Keva

[1] Amnesiac Can’t Remember Last 46 Years, an article by Bowoodruff and Melia Patria on (April 19, 2010).

[2] Deuteronomy 26/1-11 2019 Commentary by Brian C. Jones - Working Preacher - Preaching This Week (RCL).