Monday, March 4, 2019

Wilderness Identity

Wilderness is central to our identity. Wilderness is where the identity of God's people was formed. Wilderness is where God manifested God's self to God's people. Wilderness is where Law was given, and hardship was endured, and salvation was provided. Wilderness is where we go with Jesus every year on the First Sunday in Lent. Wilderness is where we wander for the forty days of Lent. Still, I wonder whether we really know what wilderness is.

As we begin Lent this Sunday, we will read Moses' words to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 26 as he helps them prepare for life without him and without wilderness: "When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name..." The mention of first fruits makes this feel like a stewardship lesson, and it is. It is a lesson in the stewardship of memory through the stewardship of resources.

Notice that God isn't interested in the material possessions. God is inviting a renewed relationship. Moses told the Israelites what to say when they brought their offering to the Lord:
Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us...A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.
This is a corporate exercise in celebrating the past. What will be done with that offering? "Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house." This is a remembrance of the past, a recognition of the transformation, and a celebration of salvation. God wants God's people to throw a big party so that they will remember that they were once slaves, that they were set free, that God guided them through the wilderness, and that God brought them into a place where they could cultivate the land, live in security, and build a civilization.

That's the most basic stewardship lesson of all: we remember God's saving work in our lives by setting aside our first fruits and dedicated them to God. And if we don't? Read Judges. Read Jeremiah and Isaiah and Joel and Micah and any of the prophets. When we forget who we are as those whom God has saved, everything falls apart. Just ask the corporation that strays from its core principles. Just ask the famous athlete who forgets the people who supported him on his path to stardom. Just ask the person who, when crisis hits, discovers that she had been neglecting her friendships when things were good.

We practice stewardship to remember. Otherwise, the plenty around us fools us into forgetting where it all came from. This Lent, as we journey into the wilderness, remembering our mortality, we also look back at God's saving work. We respond to it as stewards of our time, our diet, our prayers, and our memory. Whatever you give up or take on this Lent, let it be an act of stewardship. Practice your spiritual discipline to remember that you belong to God--that you are who you are and you have what you have because God loves you.

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