Before I begin our second reading I wanted to acknowledge a couple things I know at least some of you are already aware of - the first is that Nick, who was so thrilled to be back from sabbatical last Sunday, ended up in the hospital early Monday morning and spent a good part of the week at EAMC. He is home and well and we are incredibly grateful for all your prayers and offers of help.
I am also grateful for the wisdom of Professor Emeritus and Liturgist Terry Ley who once shared with me that all veteran teachers keep a file of emergency lesson plans tucked away in the event that a substitute has to be called in at the last minute and that I should feel no guilt recycling a sermon in “certain circumstances” and this week felt like “certain circumstances” - so, if any of you who were in worship at this church three years ago this Sunday find yourselves having bit of deja vu, let me just go ahead now and confirm that feeling. What you will hear today is an adapted version of a sermon from 2018 - but I think you’ll notice (as I did) that it’s interesting to come back to a text (or a sermon) three years later and notice how the same words can take on an entirely different meaning as the world around us has changed.
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.
14 "Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." 16 Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18 and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Beginning of Joshua
The book of Joshua itself begins with a little deja vu moment. In Exodus, Moses led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and God parted the waters of the Red Sea so they could make their way through, and now, under Joshua’s direction, the Israelites wade into the River Jordan, the waters part, and they walk on dry land all the way across. So their official entrance into the promised land ends up looking almost exactly like their exit from Egypt forty years prior.
But instead of dancing and singing and shaking tambourines as Moses and Miriam had the people do, Joshua does something different. He instructs one man from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to find a stone and with these stones they build a structure known as an “Ebenezer”. Then Joshua explains its purpose:
“When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?” then you will tell them how God parted the waters of the Jordan to protect you as you escaped danger… So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:6-7)
When Joshua establishes this ritual, it’s as if he knows something they don’t - that is, that life in the Promised Land is not going to be easy. And that a time is coming when they are going to need a reminder of God’s faithfulness.
I imagine most of us can relate to the way the Promised Land had manifested itself in the minds of the Israelites during the years they wandered. When we are feeling overwhelmed and forsaken, it’s tempting to imagine what it would be like if things were different. If only _______, life would be so much better.
- If only people would just…
- If only we had better leadership, more _______, less _______.
And, maybe there is truth in some of these “if onlys”, BUT more often than not these “if onlys” are what set us up for disappointment and frustration.
Coping in the Wilderness
At the same time, the “if onlys” were how the Israelites coped in the wilderness. The hope of the Promised Land was the light at the end of the tunnel. As they trudged, weary and worn down through the desert, the idea of what it would be like when they crossed that River helped them to put one foot in front of the other. That dream kept them going. “When we reach the Promised Land”, they would tell each other, “life will look like we’ve always wanted it to.”
Reality of Amorites
So imagine how they felt when they crossed the Jordan and piled up their stones of remembrance and looked out on the land promised to them by the God of Israel, and… there were other people living there. Specifically, the Amorites. The prophet Amos described the Amorite people as powerful and literally huge, “like the height of great cedars”. Giants! And they occupied the land on both banks of the Jordan.
This wasn’t how the Promised Land was supposed to look.
Forty years of wandering was supposed to earn them peace and prosperity, not another battle to fight. Not more suffering, not more death and hardship.
Wizard of Oz
My senior year of high school I was in a production of the Wizard of Oz. So, it’s a story I know well. And in case it’s been awhile, or for those of you who don’t know it - it’s a story of four friends who find themselves lost and wandering, longing for a better life. And each of them has some specific ideas about what it would take to make their lives complete:
- The scarecrow sings, “If I only had a brain.”
- Tin man, “If I only had a heart.”
- For lion the “if only” is courage.
And for Dorothy, it’s home. Not unlike the people of Israel, she longs for home: stability, roots, comfort. The four characters begin their journey down the yellow brick road where they are tempted and frightened and bullied along the way. But the one thing that keeps them going is knowing that at the end they will reach Oz, where the wizard will make all their dreams come true.
I won’t completely spoil the ending but let’s just say that once they do reach their promised land, just like the people of Israel, they find it is filled with Amorites. It’s not at all what they imagined and in many ways, not all it’s cracked up to be.
(So here’s where I did do a bit a of editing for today.)
When Nick and I left for our sabbatical leave in May I had every hope that by the time we returned in August, this place was going to look like the land of milk and honey. I really thought I’d be looking into your unmasked faces not just in worship but in meetings and visits and social calls.
But, even though we have - by all standards and measures - reached the promised land: where vaccines are widely available and we are able to worship in person and send our children to school… clearly, there are some Amorites in our midst we’ve got to deal with. It’s not perfect and there is still a long way to go. This is where Joshua, in his wisdom, can offer us a bit of encouragement.
You see, Joshua was always thinking one step ahead of his crew. First it was the Ebenezer. Then, in today’s text, not unlike a parent giving final words of advice to a child going off to college, he gets real with his people:
“The place you are going into is going to test you.” he says. “So decide now what is going to guide you.”
Just because they’ve arrived in the Promised Land doesn’t mean their work is done. “Do what you want to do, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua says. What’s going to guide him is the knowledge of a God who will not forsake the people in their times of need. What’s going to guide Joshua is knowing that if God saw the Israelites through forty years of wilderness, there is no reason God won’t see them through the next forty, and the next, and the next.
Israel’s Confession of Faith
The Israelites respond by giving a beautiful confession of faith in their God. And what’s so striking about it is that they do so not by talking about all the good times. Instead, they point back to their darkest moments:
They pick up a stone from that Ebenezer and say: “Remember when we were slaves?”
They point to another one and say: “Remember when were homeless and didn’t know where our next meal would come from?”
They stand before the pile of stones and recall: “Remember when we were scared and in the midst of violence and war?”
God did not forsake us through all that. And even though it may not have turned out exactly as we imagined, there is no way we would turn away now from the one who over and over again has been faithful to us.
At the beginning of the school year this year and last we lined the kids up in the driveway and took two pictures - one with masks off and one with masks on. Because years from now some other tragedy or challenge is going to come about, and this pandemic, the memory of those masked faces, will be one of the stones in their Ebeneezer.
“Remember when we had to stay home because it wasn’t safe to go to school?”
“Remember how we had to do church on TV and Sunday School on Zoom and mom and dad were always yelling at us when we wouldn’t pay attention?”
You have your own stories - the stones in your Ebeneezer. Stories of illness, of loss, of grief. As communities our stones recall stories of violence, injustice, upheaval. Right now across the world the people of Afghanistan and Haiti are in a wilderness the vast majority of us cannot even imagine. For them the Promised land seems a million miles away.
When we think about the various journeys we have taken and try to imagine the challenges that are to come, Scripture reminds us that sometimes the Promised Land we long for ends up being filled with Amorites. That when Dorothy and her friends made it all the way down the yellow brick road, they found many wonderful things - but it was the challenges they faced together along the way that ultimately gave them strength, faith, and devotion to one another.
Shift to Gospel Lesson
Generations after the Israelites crossed the Jordan, their descendants found themselves under Roman oppression with the same sort of longing for something better.
“If only the Messiah would come…” They said to one another. But lo and behold when Jesus, Son of God, did arrive in their midst, his teachings were not at all what they’d imagined.
They longed to be rich and powerful, but Jesus told them it was the poor and humble God blessed.
They sought vengeance on the ones who had done them wrong, yet Jesus urged them to love and even pray for their enemies.
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” he said to them, until finally one of them had the courage to cry out: “This teaching is hard to understand!”
He was not what they expected. And yet he stood with them and by them, through the darkest days of crucifixion into the light of resurrection - which again, was nothing like they imagined their “new life” would be.
Sometimes we enter into promised lands that are not at all what we want them to be and other times, they are better than we could have ever imagined. No matter the circumstances we worship a God who remains faithful to us, who - with each stone that is added to the Ebeneezer, demonstrates devotion to us in times of uncertainty. And this same Triune God rejoices every time we confess our faith and say, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord.. for we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.”