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Bible readings:


Lent I Year C (February 14, 2016)                                  St James', Peace River

Put God first. That's a pretty simple message, and an appropriate one for the beginning of Lent. It's a message that each of our readings for today teaches, in its own way. Put God first. In a way it seems too basic. It's something we already know; we wouldn't be here if we didn't agree, and presumably each of us works at putting the principle into practice in our daily lives. So, why do we need to be told to put God first? Maybe that's actually what we need to think about today. Why do we need to be told, and told again, something so fundamental? And how do we get past lip service to the idea, to the point where we can actually recognize a direction in our lives that really does put God first?

Let's start by reviewing how the readings today demonstrate the principle. We began, unexpectedly, with something that is more familiar as a harvest reading – the instructions in Deuteronomy, on what to do when God's people settle in the land God is leading them to, and bring in their first crop. But that's not out of place here on this first Sunday of Lent either. Lent corresponds in many ways to Israel's journey through the wilderness. Our forty days symbolize their forty years. And as we will be reminded in the night before Easter dawns, there's a pattern that connects Israel coming out of Egypt through the desert into the promised land, and Jesus bringing us all over from death into resurrection life. At the start of the journey, they wanted to know where they were headed, and what they would do when they got there; and so do we – the picture of “putting God first” characterizes what new life will look like.

And make no mistake, Israel's journey through the wilderness is just as much a struggle over putting God first, as is our journey of discipleship. The journey from slavery to freedom was much more complicated than it should have been – that's why it ended up taking them forty years! The desert is where God's people doubted his care for them, challenged his leadership, worshipped the golden calf in his place, and disbelieved his promise that he would defeat their enemies for them. It was also where God fed them, gave them water and manna, kept them safe, pitched his tent with them, and gave them the amazing gift of God's Law. I guess we can either point our fingers and say, “After all they'd seen, how could they not put God first?” - or we can recognize ourselves in them, and say, “How is it that we know all that we know, and still find it so hard to put God first?” The entrance into the promised land, when we will know better, when we will willingly take the first of everything and give it back to God – it seems that is still ahead of us.

After that we heard from St Paul, well known words about how central our relationship with God is to our identity. “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.” That's another perspective on putting God first – putting God first in your convictions, in the way you live your life out loud, in the emotional centre and the trust which is at the core of your being. I'm pretty sure Paul doesn't mean it's just about saying some words and having a certain feeling – you can't magic yourself into this kind of relationship with God. But the way we believe affects our actions, and our actions both affect and demonstrate what we really believe; and if we're not putting God first, then we're putting something or someone else first, and that will be clear to everyone.

The gospel account of Jesus' temptations frames that in the clearest possible way. Once again we're in the wilderness, for forty days – see that connection again! Jesus is tested in some of the same ways the people of Israel were – it's almost as though he is rewriting the story to make it come out right this time. But the core issue is still, will you put God first. The first temptation is about letting something else get in the way – something necessary, something natural, but still, something else. By feeding himself, using his power to create for his own private ends, Jesus would short-circuit the purpose of his life and put something other than God first. “One does not live by bread alone”, he says – food may be an urgent need, but that doesn't mean it or anything else can squeeze out our true priorities.

The next temptation is about putting some-one other than God first. Worship me, says Satan, and you can have all the glory and authority in the world. This is a curious one to wrap our heads around. First of all, it's an unusual perspective on politics to say that all earthly power is in the devil's gift! (I'd love to hear the current crop of US presidential candidates give their take on that...) And it also seems too obvious a move, for the devil to say “Worship me.” But remember that at least one angle of Jesus' purpose really is the transformation of the world, and all its power structures, and its replacement by a kingdom where the last are first and the poor are blessed. So there is a real temptation here – a temptation to achieve what looks like the right goal, but once again short-circuiting the right way to get there. Placing your allegiance with someone other than God, to achieve even a good outcome, is fundamentally flawed.

That can happen in our lives, as we end up putting our faith in other leaders, or groups, or causes, to achieve what we want to see happen. And there is always a personal dimension to that move, too – I want to be on the winning side, I want to share in the glory when it all works out. This isn't just the case in party politics; it happens just as easily in the church itself, or in workplaces, or in trying to influence the way of life in the community we happen to live in. The group we want to belong to starts to suck up our time and dedication, and to compromise our own convictions en route to the hoped-for outcome. That doesn't mean you can't work with other people – but it does mean there are no substitutes for God, and for your and my direct accountability to the one who really can set us straight when we go wrong.

So we come to the third temptation. I don't know if you noticed that Luke's gospel flips the order here at the end. Matthew's more familiar version of the story puts the temptation to rule the world last – after all, what bigger temptation could there be? But Luke seems to think that the most primal temptation is to put yourself first – not something or someone else, not God, but yourself. Like the fellow in the light bulb joke, who holds up the light bulb and expects the world to revolve around him.... the devil invites Jesus to throw himself off the temple, stopping the whole story of the world dead in its tracks because God would have to step in and save him, wouldn't he? There's an insidious side to this temptation too, because it plays us both ways, appealing to Jesus' certainty that his Father does care for him, but also trying to squeeze in a little doubt, a little sense of how comforting it would be to know it for sure.

So for you and me, that temptation can be about expecting some proof from God that he will do what he says he will do; but it can also flip around, as that voice on your shoulder says, “since you can't know that God will look after you, you better start taking charge all by yourself.” Either way, though, it's still the same temptation – to put yourself first, not God. And by now I think we're starting to see how realistic it actually is for the Bible, and the church year both, to keep reminding us of that most basic of lessons in the Christian life. It's not that we don't know to put God first. It's more that we know, and choose not to, or find it too hard to attempt, or just forget and miss the opportunities to make it happen. Why does that happen? And what can we do about it?

I wonder if the coincidence of today also being Valentine's Day might prompt us to come up with an answer to those questions. Because in saying “put God first” we are actually talking about our response to God's great love affair. The world exists, we live, and Christ died, because God has never stopped pouring out God's love. We know the power of love to change us. We experience it from parents, children, lovers and friends. But even there what we are really experiencing is God's love first of all. We never, ever, measure up to deserving the love another person gives us – that's kind of the point of love in the first place. But we want to, that's the first change it makes in us, we want to deserve it and to be able to return it in kind. Putting God first is the change we want to see in ourselves, the evidence that we know how much we are loved and that we want to love God back.

That doesn't excuse the ways that we fail. But it does offer us the hope of falling more deeply in love with God. There are some things we can do on our part to make that possible – centring our lives in the place where we want love to grow, just as we do with our family and friends. Praying, reading, carrying God in your thoughts through the day – those are all habits we can acquire, if we want to. Even those don't save us, though, they are just our ways of letting God in even deeper into our lives. Our job, in Lent and every day, isn't to save ourselves, but to let God save us – to  put God first, to let God's love set our love on fire, so that we become the people who want to live our faith by pouring out our love in service to others and in honour to God, who deserves far more than we can ever give.