Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1–11; Romans 10:4–13 & Luke 4:1–15
Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of the Season of Lent, a period of 40 days during which we recall the time that Jesus spent fasting in the desert and being tempted by the devil, before commencing his public ministry. Today’s gospel passage is Luke’s account of that experience.
Jesus had just been baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan River and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, he was led by that same Spirit into the wilderness, where he was tempted in several different ways to trust in the devil rather than in God. Jesus resisted those temptations, and Luke tells us that the devil departed from Jesus until an opportune time. That time was to come when Judas Iscariot, one of the original 12 apostles, betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
Traditionally, Lent is a time when many Christians commit to fasting, as well as giving up certain luxuries, copying the sacrifices that Jesus made during his time in the desert. This is all part of our preparation for Easter, when we remember the death of Jesus on the cross, and celebrate his resurrection. This preparation may include periods of time when we reflect on our life, and on our faith. It may also include an act of repentance, asking for forgiveness for our perceived sins or transgressions in our life. We can refer to this preparation as a form of “righteousness”, where we are hoping to be found “righteous” in the eyes of God, that will ultimately result in our salvation. And by salvation, I mean both being reconciled to God in the “here and now”, and also sharing in eternal life with God.
Jewish people at the time of Jesus believed that salvation could only be achieved by strict observance of the law, or Torah as it was also known. Indeed the Book of Leviticus, which the Apostle Paul quotes from in our second reading this morning, states, “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 18:5 NRSV)
In our second reading this morning, which is of course from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul contrasts two different types of “righteousness”. The first is righteousness that comes from the law, and this is where Paul quotes from Leviticus and says “the person who does these things will live by them”. The second is what describes as righteousness that comes from faith, which Paul argues, has superseded the righteousness that comes from the law.
When Paul talks of the righteousness that comes from faith, he is of course referring to believing that Jesus is the Messiah. Paul believes that being found righteous in the eyes of God does not depend on a person obeying all of the commandments and statutes that make up the law, but instead it depends on whether they believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
To support his argument, Paul once again quotes from the Old Testament, this time from the Book of Deuteronomy. Let me share with you the verses from Deuteronomy that Paul is referring to. ‘Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.’ (Deuteronomy 30:11–14 NRSV)
When Paul says, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”, he is talking about Jesus, and he goes on to say that Jesus is the word of faith that Christians proclaim. He explains that if Christians confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead, then they will be saved.
To put it in more simple language, if we truly believe that God became human in the person of Jesus, and that Jesus died on the cross and was then raised from the dead, we will therefore be reconciled to God in this life, and we will share eternal life with God in the life to come.
Paul argues that the most important thing a person can do is to have faith; to believe. He believes one’s faith is more important than one’s deeds. But he does add that they aren’t mutually exclusive. Elsewhere in the Letter to the Romans he explains that of course people should follow the instructions for living a good, moral life that came from the commandments that Moses passed on to the ancient Israelites. However he gives priority to faith in Jesus, and I believe that implies that people observe the commandments that Jesus proclaimed: to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.