March 1, 2020 / Lent 1 / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7; Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19; Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
Will the Lord Provide?
Which of these two verses best describes the way most people conduct their lives?
“The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
“The Lord will provide.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m not happy about the answer suggested by my own behavior. I preach: “The Lord will provide.” (always have) However, in practice, I put a lot of energy into helping myself, providing for myself and my family. The scriptures assure us that God will take care of our needs.
Back at the beginning in Genesis 22, none other than Abraham proclaims: “The Lord will provide.” My parents had a framed needlepoint of that verse hanging in our home.
The Book of Proverbs reminds us: “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry.” (Pr 10:3)
Psalm 23 begins with these memorable words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks quire directly: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Mt 6:25)
Of course I agree that life is more than food and the body more than clothing. And yet all these years I have worked to put food on the table, to pay the bills, to put our sons through college, to set more aside for retirement. I get nervous when the stock market drops by 10% or more. I can stress about taxes, the cost of living, declining home prices, outliving our nest egg, and now coronavirus.
I am a living contradiction. I believe the Lord will provide – yet I act as though the Lord helps those who help themselves. Apparently I am in good company. The Barna Group conducted a survey which found that 75% of Americans agreed with the statement (75%!!):
“The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.”
The problem is there is no such verse in the bible.
In a similar vein, we pray as Jesus taught us: Give us this day our daily bread. Yet in actual practice, do we expect God to give us daily bread – or do we go out and get it ourselves?
The challenge is this: We seem to put more trust in what we have, what we own, what we can control than we do in God. There is great iron in the fact that on every dollar bill the words are printed: In God We Trust. Yet it seems that where many actually put their trust is in having a pile of those dollars that is all theirs.
How would you answer the question Can God be trusted to provide what we need? What about all the hungry people in our world? It’s a question that faced the Hebrews after they escaped from Pharaoh’s army by crossing the Red Sea. For a while they survived on the food they had been able to bring with them. But when supplies began to run low, the people began to grumble and complain to Moses: “…you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 16:3)
They began to wish that they had never left Egypt – even though they had been slaves there. They said: “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up…” (Num. 11:5)
In spite of all their complaining, the Lord did provide for his people throughout their 40 years in the wilderness. He gave them manna to eat, water to drink, and sent flocks of quails to sustain them.
At the end of that wilderness journey, as they were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses interpreted for the people the meaning of their experience: “the Lord humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna . . . in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Dt. 8:3)God provided the food they needed, yet God impressed on them that their lives depended on more than bread alone.
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After spending 40 days alone in the wilderness, Jesus wasn’t just hungry, he was famished. So when the tempter suggested to him: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” – it must have been a most appealing suggestion. However, Jesus knew the history of his people, and he knew scripture. He recalled the words of Moses – and instead of making bread from stones, he said to the tempter: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Jesus might easily have chosen to take matters into his own hands. The man who fed 5000 could easily turn stones into bread. And since he was alone, why not? Who would know? Instead he chose to trust God.
All three temptations come down to a matter of trust. First, a temptation to provide for himself instead of trusting God. Second, a test to see if God really is trustworthy, to see if God would keep him safe when he jumped from a high place. Finally, the temptation to let the Devil be his Provider – by giving him all the power in the world. Jesus chose to trust the Lord, and to serve only him.
Can God be trusted? It’s the question the serpent posed to Adam and Eve. They chose to trust their own wishes and wants more than God. It’s the question the tempter put to Jesus – three times he said YES, I will trust in the Lord. It’s a question posed to us.
I fear that I am inclined to answer: “Yes, but . . .”
Yes, I trust the Lord – but I still have insurance on my house, my cars, my health, my life.
Yes, I trust the Lord – but I need enough set aside for retirement. My trust is greater when I have enough.
Yes, I trust the Lord – but I still worry about unforeseen circumstances.
Does this mean I’m a bad Christian? Perhaps. More likely a typical Christian – a Christian who is very human – One, who in Luther’s phrase, is “Simul justus et peccator”, simultaneously justified and sinful, a jumbled combination of saint and sinner. Jesus knows we need bread to live. When he saw a hungry crowd with nothing to eat, he multiplied one boy’s lunch into a meal for over 5,000 people. Jesus cares about what we need just to live.
However, the day after that miraculous feeding, the crowds followed Jesus across the sea of Galilee. When they showed up, Jesus said to them: “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions, but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free.” Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:26-27)
When they asked Jesus what work they must do, he answered: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent.” (John 6:29). Believe and trust God.
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Back in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager wrote a message on the board for all the campaign workers to remember: “It’s the economy, stupid!” He impressed upon them the fact that ultimately most voters will be motivated by what helps their pocket book. Jesus might have said to the devil: “It’s about God, stupid!” “People need God more than they need bread.” “Sure, people need bread to live – yet we need God even more.”
God will sustain us through a time without bread much better than bread could sustain us through a time without God. The Lord gives life to our souls – which no amount of bread can ever do. As Jesus warned on another occasion: “You can gain the whole world, and lose your soul in the process.”
Christ’s promise is this: “Strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
I believe the Lord will provide – Lord, help my unbelief.