Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13
Every year, at the beginning of the season of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus and his 40 days in the wilderness. The Judean desert is not a friendly place. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, you’ll have a sense of what it was like. Tall cliffs of sandy rock, dust dry – the kind that leaves you covered from head to toe in ashy dirt; scrubby trees and brief patches of prickly grass, cement-like clumps of hardened clay and boulders of every size. This is where Jesus went, driven by the Holy Spirit, to fast and pray at the beginning of his ministry. It was here that he faced what may have been the greatest temptation of his life – the voice that urged him to use his status as God’s Beloved for his own glory, for his own power, even, most basically, for his own survival! These temptations echo the temptations he must have faced later in his life: when the people wanted to make him their king, when they asked him to perform miracles to prove who he really was, when they urged him to lead a revolution against the Romans, and finally to save himself from his horrendous death on the cross. All of these he faced, in that intense time of spiritual struggle – when he went to the depths of who he was as a human being, and the harsh light of the desert exposed everything that was in his soul.
The great thing about reading Scripture is that each time we read it, something different emerges. What struck me this time was that Jesus found strength for resistance in his knowledge of the scriptures and traditions of his people. He was able to defy each of the temptations by quoting the stories and writings of what we call the Hebrew Bible. These were as much a part of him as his own flesh and bone. As a child he would have heard the stories and sayings at his parents’ knees. As a teenager and adult, he would have studied Scripture with the elders. He knew the traditions of his people inside and out, and in them he found strong words for living.
I wonder how many of you had to memorize passages from the Bible when you were younger? I remember going to a Baptist Vacation Bible School, and they gave prizes for the children who memorized the most verses. I came in second, and received a Bible, which I still had until recently. (At the time, I would have preferred the Holly Hobby doll that was first prize!) Memorization has gone out of fashion in Christian Education, and I think that’s too bad. It’s too bad, because it means that many of us do not have access to those strong words the way Jesus did. When trouble comes, as it inevitably does, not only can few us remember the words of Scripture that might strengthen us, many us would have trouble finding those words in the Bible.
I was glad to see how many of you were able to share phrases and passages of Scripture with me. Here are some of the passages that have meant something to you, in the translations you gave them to me:
Mark 8:25 And then Jesus touched his eyes a second time and the man saw as Jesus saw.
Luke 2:52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
John 11:35 Jesus wept.
John 14: 2, 3 In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you….that where I am there ye may be also.
2 Surely I am too stupid to be human;
I do not have human understanding.
3 I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I knowledge of the holy ones.
4 Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of the hand?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is the person’s name?
And what is the name of the person’s child?
Surely you know!
Psalm 121:1 I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence comes my help.
Ruth 1: 16 Entreat me not to leave thee nor to depart from following after thee; for whether thou goest I will go and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.
Isaiah 40: 27-31
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Micah 6:8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Other passages might come to mind that you’ve learned from songs and hymns based on Scripture:
1 Samuel 3:5b Here I am, for you called me.
Psalm 100:1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth
Psalm 23 The Lord’s my shepherd, I shall not want – and so on.
Having Scripture set to a tune is a wonderful way of memorizing a passage from the Bible. You can make up your own little tune, if it helps! I want to invite you to choose a passage each week – not a long one – and try to memorize it. I’m going to put a short passage in each bulletin, and then the next week we’ll try to say it together. Of course, you’re not restricted to one passage, and you can choose a different passage to remember. But I invite you this day to make Scripture as much a part of your flesh and bone as it was for Jesus – so that one day when you are in need of strong words, they will come back to you. Remember though, as we can see from the Gospel reading, quoting Scripture doesn’t mean you live by it – as the old saying goes and our story describes “Even the devil can quote Scripture!”. Knowing Scripture is a start; living by it is the goal!
Today I invite you to memorize these words with me – a teaching of Jesus that echoes the teaching of the 10 commandments and the rabbis before him:
Luke 10.27: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’
As the Psalms so clearly say, “God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119) As we walk this Christian path together, and especially in this season of Lent, I hope that Scripture will give you strength for the journey. Amen.