The Valentine of Lent

Then we cried out to the LORD God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and looked on our affliction and our labor and our oppression.  So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.  He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, “a land flowing with milk and honey”  Deuteronomy 26:7-9

Wow!  Today is Valentine’s Day – what a way to begin Lent!  As well, the lessons present to us quite a mix of thoughts: the Old Testament Lesson (Deuteronomy 26:5-10) is the reminder to the Israelite, as he stands before God with the results of God’s blessings that he reaffirms the extraordinary involvement of God with his nation; the Epistle (Romans 10:8b-13) reminds us of the profound simplicity of our faith, yet at the same time the essential actions which must spring it; and the Gospel (Luke 4:1-13) is Jesus withstanding temptation for our sakes, so that His salvation is indeed no selfish sham.

A number of years ago, a criticism was made to me – I’m not sure it if were really directed at me or at the Christian, or even the Lutheran, Church as a whole.  The criticism is that we keep saying the same thing over and over.  Unabashedly I admit, it is true, although I do admit that I may use some examples or thoughts frequently.  Still on a large scale, it is also quite true that every year we rehearse the same old story again and again – just like the Israelite as he brought the firstfruits before the Lord would rehearse once again the same old story of the major event in his nation’s existence.

Perhaps the Israelite could mention some things which God had done recently for his family, or his tribe, or for the nation.  After all, it is important to see the ongoing involvement of the Lord in recent daily life.

Yet the Lord insists that what was done in the past was so big and so important that it cannot be allowed to drift into the fog of time.  That’s because the events which are remembered are not to be treated as a mere dry recounting of what happened, rather they are the reminder of an extraordinary love story.  Like any such story it is something which is worth repeating again and again, not only to rejoice in what happened in the past, but also to remind us of the relationship which continues down to this day and on into the future.

It is the message of constancy and consistency.  It is to remind oneself that there is a God of special steadfast Love with a faithfulness which will not diminish no matter how many years have passed.  There is a God Who once He has given His Word will never back down, no matter whom the adversary is, no matter how dire the circumstances.  He is a God Who brings release from slavery, release from being a victim, release from an old destructive way of life. He is a God Who brought Israel into a new life, into one far richer and more meaningful, into a life where all around was such an abundance of blessing if only one takes the time to realize the good things at his fingertips.

But the lessons don’t end there – the love story continues: today speaks of temptation – on one hand the Gospel is powerful evidence where Jesus will not jeopardize our eternity by selfishly grasping at the easy and painless way to obtain a kingship of just any sort.  No, He would complete the promise made even from the most ancient of days to Adam and Eve.  He would follow a commitment by God which would not fade even when all mankind treated Him with sullen indifference as well as with open hostility.

The temptation of Jesus revealed that He would follow what had been laid down in the Word of Scripture, even when it demanded giving of Himself to death.  It was the confirmation of the vow that He would never leave us nor forsake us, even when the road became harsh and painful, even when in the sweating of Blood He yearned for some other way, still He would fulfill His commitment to us – that was the value He placed upon us from the beginning.

St Paul, in Hebrews, brings out something else about this love story which resounds throughout the season of Lent: in 2:18, Paul declares, “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted,” and in 4:15, “For we do not have a High Priest Who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus’ temptation is the foundation for His invitation, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” [Matthew 11:28] – His temptation proves His ability to actually walk with us even at our weakest and most vulnerable times.  He did this in love, so that you and I will know for sure that there is nothing which can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus [Romans 8:31-38]

These are things of which we need to be reminded time and again because they have a great deal of influence when we are tempted.  Sometimes we forget and sometimes we are overwhelmed when temptation hits.  Sometimes we are so focused on mental gymnastics and supposed great wisdom only to find that it is the common and ordinary temptation which sends us spinning; the little normal, everyday problems which makes the anger rise; the uncomplicated self-prides which nonetheless make us do some of the most foolish things we ever could.

Today calls us off our high horse and in humility view once again just how much love there has to be for Jesus not to cave in, not to run away, not to “fudge” just a bit, but rather to submit to His unbending love for us and in doing so to win against temptation.  Like the Israelite of old, we need to rehearse the same old story yet once again, because only in its retelling are we reminded and reaffirmed that we are not alone, and that we are indeed worth the price to God to do something so remarkable for our sakes.
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So we tell the story of Christmas; so we tell the story of the Magi, the first non-Jews to be welcome into the presence of Savior, so we tell the story of the universe-wide event of the Creator giving his life for His creatures; and also do we tell the story of His rising to life, affirming that every enemy which faces God’s People cannot stand the Lord’s commitment to bring us into a “good place.”  To the believer in Christ, this “good place” is not some ideal spot on this earth, but rather a place by His side, in the midst of all He will be doing forever.

Here is a Love story we can never allow to merely fade into the background of life, because it is story which lifts us up and makes us realize how when Jesus is involved, we also “more than conquerors through Him Who has loved us” [Romans 8:37]. This is no newspaper’s dry account of a mere series of events, but rather it is the fond reminiscing of those who are in love, who cherish the events which has brought them together and given them a future filled with hope and joy.

Neither is this a story for the past, a “once-upon-a-time, in a land far away,” but rather one which has profound daily significance affecting how we greet our day, greet our tasks, greet the people we deal with in our lives, and especially how we greet the challenges of being distinctively different in world which does not know nor understand how God could be so committed to seemingly insignificant creatures in the vastness of the universe.

It is the story we not only repeat in our worship, but even what we reenact here at the altar.  What the ancient Israelite never could have had a glimpse of is that this God Who  so richly blesses would demonstrate an unbreakable commitment to His People, would take the extra step to be here in Person, and would give of Himself here in His own Flesh and Blood.

As Luther pointed out, here in Holy Communion is the full Gospel contained, here is the message repeated in various ways and through various circumstances throughout the Bible – this is the love story which has no equal, even to the sharing of Himself as we come to His table.  The message is simple and is repeated here once again at the altar, and yet despite the repetition the comfort and the strength never diminishes, indeed we are this important.

But now we get to the Epistle, particularly where Paul says, ”The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the Word of faith which we preach); because, 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.  For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.”  What is Paul emphasizing here?  Simply that when there are two people in love, they are going to be on each other’s minds and in each other’s hearts. They are going to talk about each other, they are going to introduce the world to their Beloved.

It is a natural thing to do.  After all, when your heart is so taken by Someone Who is such a part of your life, to talk about that Person is not a chore or obligation – it is Someone Who surfaces in conversation, whether in making plans or placing values on the world around us.  Come to think of it, He is more than merely a Valentine, He is the One Who has placed His engagement – His future – upon us and is already constructing the place where He is excited to have us stay and join Him forever.

Perhaps we feel a bit sheepish, because we have been distracted.  Perhaps we are embarrassed because we have not turned aside from temptation as He has for us.  Perhaps we have treated His relationship with us with foolish disregard.  But remember that this is a relationship of love.  Jesus has hung in there for us and despite how we have treated Him, He is here for us yet again.  Yet the Love story of Lent is that even as we fail, even as we succumb to temptation, not once are we rejected.  Jesus never turns His back on us, but shoulders His Cross to give us life, He never turns His back on us, but comes right here in Person to demonstrate in the most vivid way possible our value, His commitment and His love.

He does not give up on us, even when sometimes we have on ourselves.  This is what Holy Communion powerfully announces to us – or as Paul put it in the Epistle, “The Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in Him will be put to shame.’”  This is after all a real love story.

So on a day in which we celebrate love especially as we begin the season of Lent, it is important that we recognize just how great is the love in which we will rejoice, as we see it in temptation, as we see it in suffering but also as we see it in the coming extraordinary declaration of Easter.

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