The First Sunday in Lent (Year C), 10 March 2019

March 10, 2019 | by Nathan Mattox

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16 Romans 10:8b-13 Luke 4:1-13

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
The command to make the first fruits an offering to God is rooted to the experience of the Hebrew people. According to Cobb, “process theology may refer to all forms of theology that emphasize event, occurrence, or becoming over against substance.” (Cobb Jr., John B. Process Theology as Political Theology. Manchester University Press, 1982. p. 19.) In the law of the presentation of first fruits, it is the story of salvation represented by the gift that is key. Presenting first fruits gives tribute to the one who provided the land, who brought the people to the land, and who has been the God of the people’s ancestors. God refers to the forefather Abraham as a “wandering Aramean” and an “alien in the land of Egypt.” God seems to remind the Hebrew people that “I am the reason you are here in the first place.” So, first fruits are the only appropriate gift. As is the case with process theology, what is emphasized is the event of the history of the Hebrew people, the occurrence of a harvest, and becoming a grateful people that is the focus on the law, not the substantial “being” of the gift itself.

How might our offerings tell our story? In the lectionary calendar, this is the first Sunday in Lent. It is a good time to be thinking about our first fruits of offering to God our own fasts and gifts during this season. Perhaps spiritual discipline takes on a more central place in our lives during this season. The framework of the command given might help us understand the first fruit offerings as part of our journey, part of our story.

Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16
Oddly, the lectionary includes the Psalm that Satan quotes to Jesus in the temptation narrative in the Gospel reading for the paired reading. That choice might give the process preacher the opportunity to speak about scripture itself as a “living conversation” with the person of faith rather than an “infallible guidebook” that applies in every circumstance. The context of scripture is important, and the application of scripture is important. Jesus answers Satan with scripture.

“Taking refuge in the most high” need not be a permanent escapist mentality, but at the beginning of this season of renewal and growth, it is helpful to remind congregations that Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness” for periods of strengthening his ministry. In the gospel accounts of Jesus being “full of the Holy Spirit” and being “led” or “driven” into the wilderness by the Spirit attest to the varying degrees we feel and respond to the pull toward isolation for spiritual renewal.  This Psalm in conversation with the Gospel reading attests to the truth that “taking refuge” in God’s renewing presence in “the wilderness” is not a guarantee against the struggles of temptation and “the adversary.” Correspondingly, Lent is a season of withdrawal, focus, and growth, but we should expect to be tempted, distracted, and challenged even “in the shelter of the Most High.”

Romans 10:8b-13
The notion that “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” chafes against several other presentations of genuine faith in the Bible, as well as the more social-justice orientation that many process preachers would no doubt articulate.  Taken in context, though, the larger theme of this scripture is that we rely on the work of God in God’s own word and the motivation of God to entice our faith.

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” says Paul, and because of this, “there is no distinction between Jew or Greek.” The radical equality that is the summation of this passage reflects a God progressing from being thought of as a tribal deity and more toward being a universal deity. We process preachers believe in a God in process. This God lures humanity beyond tribal understandings of exclusivity toward universal concepts of a broader humanity. Since the “word is near us,” found in all humanity, as Cobb and Griffin say, “The Holy Spirit in the universe has its impact upon our mode of existence, whether or not we consciously believe in it.” (Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, 32) Thus, the Spirit of unity is an undercurrent in our human population drawing us together to a common accord.

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness narrative sets the template for Lent every year. The process preacher might take an opportunity to expound on the 40 day length of Lent (patterned after this model of 40 days in the wilderness) as a gestational period in which we might grow and develop in our faith. Time period and numbers are wonderfully symbolic in the scriptures, and any time one encounters a 40 day or 40 year period in the Bible, it might reflect the gestational length of 40 weeks of pregnancy. We should be attuned to how the period in question is generative to the person or group involved in the narrative. (Once again, Lent comes from “Lencten,” a Germanic Old English word meaning “spring.”)

In this passage, we hear that Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit,” and thus “led into the wilderness.” John Cobb and David Ray Griffin describe God as the “source of unrest in the universe.” (Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, 59) In this scripture, God has compelled Jesus into the wilderness to unrest the sense of satisfaction that might have been felt at the Divine Announcement in the previous chapter. The different description in Mark 1, of the Spirit “driving Jesus” into the wilderness is notable. Luke’s description of the Spirit “leading” Jesus in the wilderness would have some process application in many of our contexts. Process speaks of the “lure” of God’s persuasive power. However, we can also affirm the truth that the Holy Spirit is a sanctifying power, and at times the Holy Dove has talons. Hard truths grip us with a persuasive power that compels us.

Lent is a season of unrest in the Christian calendar. We undertake or renew our commitment to unusual spiritual disciplines that might be a goad to us to a deeper relationship with God. Though we may be temporarily “denying ourselves a pleasure” in the various fasts that may be taken, we do so to promote growth like the springtime Old English origins of the word, “Lent” indicate. From a process perspective, we fast in order to enhance the enjoyment of the Easter Alleluia.

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four children, a dog and a cat.