This is the meditation I am sharing tonight for our community Lenten service.
1 When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket.
Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God.
5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. 7 Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.
8 So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey;
10and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.” Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. 11 And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.
God brings us down.
Jewish life is full of storytelling. The Passover is the most well-known example, when the youngest child asks the question, “Why is this night different from all others?” Then, among other things, the story of the exodus from Egypt is told, very much like this telling we have just read. But our passage tonight covers a lot of territory.
First, “My father was a wandering Aramean” probably refers to Abraham to connect the storyteller with the ancestry of all Jews. Aram and Chaldea were closely connected, although we don’t have time to go into that here. But this is probably an attempt to establish the story as authentically Jewish, and ancient.
Secondly, the father mentioned here didn’t just “go down to Egypt.” You remember the story of Joseph, I am sure. So, now the teller of this story skips Isaac, and goes right to Jacob and his offspring. Jacob’s favorite son was Joseph, of the coat of many colors fame. Joseph’s brothers were tired of Joseph’s arrogance and the favoritism he received for an aging Jacob, so they decided to kill him. And you thought you came from a difficult family!
But, cooler heads prevail and instead they throw him into a cistern, then sell him to a caravan headed toward Egypt. There Joseph has all kinds of adventures, many of which involved being thrown in jail. But, to make a long story short, Joseph earns Pharaoh’s trust, becomes second in command in Egypt, and is able to save his own family from the famine ravaging their homeland.
So, on this Lenten journey, we’re reminded that God brings us down, just as he did Joseph. Remember what Joseph said to his brothers? “You intended this to me for harm, but God intended it for good.” And good it was, because Joseph down in Egypt was able to keep his people from starving to death. And, in Egypt, the Hebrews grew to be a mighty nation within the nation of Egypt.
Have you ever had an experience that brought you down? Down to a place you did not want to be? Down to discouragement, disappointment, and disaster? Joseph knew what that was like when God brought him down to Egypt. But God brought Joseph down for his own sake, for the sake of his family, and for God’s own plan.
Have you ever noticed how we don’t learn anything when we’re flying high? Like Tiger Woods, or Toyota? There is something about our human nature that requires we be brought down a notch before we change, before we see God’s hand at work in our lives. Part of the Lenten journey is remembering the times that God brought us down.
God brings us out.
One of the most-telling verses in the Bible is Exodus 1:8 — “8Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.” Right there, you know something is about to change. For God had blessed the Hebrews in number, health, possessions, and influence. All of that was about to change. The saying, “There’s a new sheriff in town” described the situation with this new Pharaoh perfectly.
It no longer mattered what Joseph had done. It no longer mattered what good the Hebrews had done for Egyptian society. All of that was forgotten in the rush to deal with the problem of the Jews. So, things got bad. So bad, that God raised up Moses, a Hebrew raised in Pharaoh’s own household, to lead God’s people out of bondage into freedom.
Finally, after 10 plagues, each worse than the previous one, Pharaoh relents in a moment of weakness and frees the nation of Israel. And on the night that would come to be called Passover, the Jews get ready to make a hasty escape from Egypt. God brings them out. Out of bondage. Out of oppression. Out of unbelief. Out of Egypt.
So, God not only brings us down, God brings us out. Saves us from that which is about to take our lives. That which keeps us from God. And, of course, this whole Exodus story becomes a metaphor for the history of Israel, and our own Christian experience. During Lent, we need to remember that the God of the cross, is also the God of the empty tomb. God brings us out.
God brings us in.
Okay, so we’re out of Egypt, but what’s next? Next is a land of their own, the land of promise. It is not enough for God to bring us down, or God to bring us out, God also must bring us in. Into the land flowing with milk and honey. Into the land where, once they possess it, they will never need serve a foreign god or a foreign king. Into their own land where the nation of Israel can be safe, secure, and special.
Which is why land, particularly the land on which the nation of Israel is situated, is so important. The same story played out again and again for the Jews. Until World War II, and the Holocaust. Then, the determination to have their own country, their own land, where Jews could live in safety, security, and solidarity, was finally realized in the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948. Of course, it came at the expense of the nation of Palestine, which felt just as strongly about the land.
But the Bible story is about God bringing them into a special place, not just out of something. On your Lenten journey, what has God brought you into? Of course, Lent is about being freed from some things, and so we give up things for Lent. We get brought out of our bondage to some kind of attachment to food or TV or chocolate or something else we give up for Lent. But what is God bringing us into? What is our “land flowing with milk and honey?” Of course, if you’re giving up honey for Lent, that’s no good, but you get my point. We cannot be defined by what we’ve been brought out of. That’s kind of like the old schoolyard rhyme, “We don’t smoke and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.”
We bring the first-fruit to God.
Now all of this remembering was done during the offering portion of the service. Here at our church we just pray and sing the Doxology. But maybe we should remember our spiritual, and sometimes real-life, journey before we give our offering to God. But this isn’t just any offering. This is the first crop from the new land in which they are living. This is the culmination of the journey, the payoff, the harvest of heart-ache and hard work.
It’s not enough to just retrace our spiritual footsteps. The remembering has a point, and the point is to bring us back into the presence of God. In our sanctuary, our communion table has carved into the front of it the words, “In Remembrance of Me.” But, we don’t just think about God as a act of remembering. We don’t just take a stroll down a spiritual memory lane.
No, as an act of remembrance, we take bread and wine (at least the Episcopalians do; the rest of us settle for Welch’s), and we thank God for these gifts. Gifts that God has given us. Gifts that are represented of the first-fruit of salvation, Jesus. And we eat the bread and drink the cup, and offer ourselves to God all over again because we remember that God brings us down, God brings us out, and God brings us in.
So, during this Lenten season, remember your journey. Mark the acts of God in your life, then bring your basketful of blessings and set it before God, acknowledging God’s presence on our pathway.