God’s People: Homecoming - thrive UMC Official Blog

God’s People: Homecoming

After Moses the Lord’s servant died, the Lord spoke to Joshua, Nun’s son. He had been Moses’ helper. “My servant Moses is dead. Now get ready to cross over the Jordan with this entire people to the land that I am going to give to the Israelites. I am giving you every place where you set foot, exactly as I promised Moses. Your territory will stretch from the desert and the Lebanon as far as the great Euphrates River, including all Hittite land, up to the Mediterranean Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you during your lifetime. I will be with you in the same way I was with Moses. I won’t desert you or leave you. Be brave and strong, because you are the one who will help this people take possession of the land, which I pledged to give to their ancestors.

“Be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you. Don’t deviate even a bit from it, either to the right or left. Then you will have success wherever you go. Never stop speaking about this Instruction scroll. Recite it day and night so you can carefully obey everything written in it. Then you will accomplish your objectives and you will succeed. I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

“Be brave and strong” God tells Joshua, while the rag-tag Hebrews sit encamped East of the Jordan River.

This was a seminal moment in the unfolding history of the people Israel –and indeed for the whole world.  Here God’s promise to Abraham is about to be fulfilled.  The Hebrew people are standing on the threshold of what will shortly become their home.  Just on the other side of the river sits the rich and fertile place that God had promised this people, some five hundred years earlier.  And God tells them: just cross the river and it will be yours.  All you need to do is be brave and be strong.  But don’t you dare forget about my instruction, says God.

So in the series ahead, we’re going to read about the homecoming of God’s people.

Now, this book called Joshua is unique among all of the other books of the Bible in a few ways.  What most of us today might notice first is that it’s not really a fun book to just sit down and read.  In spite of the fact that there are plenty of wars and fighting and conquest, the book really doesn’t have many moments of intense suspense, as we’re used to in our stories today.  And the real tension and drama of Joshua don’t happen on the pages of this book, but instead lie somewhere else. But by far the strangest feature of this book is the way it portrays its central character and leader, Joshua.

And what’s startlingly unique about Joshua among all the other leaders of the Old Testament is that he seems to be… perfect.

No other leader in the whole biblical tradition is remembered with fewer flaws than Joshua.  Abraham was a chicken and handed his hot wife over to the King of Egypt, saying she was his sister.  Jacob was a trickster who conspired with his mother to kind of stole his older brother’s birth-right.  Moses got hot-headed and murdered an Egyptian; he also stuttered and for his whole life was exasperated by complaint.  King David –Israel’s golden king- his sexual appetites were so insatiable that, even though he had hundreds of concubines, he committed adultery with one of his own commander’s wives, and then had him killed to cover it up.   Pretty much all of the prophets had failed to get their message across to the kings and the people –and many were executed because of it.  Just look at the kind of leaders that were found in Judges!  Just look through the records found in Kings and Chronicles –if any king of either Israel or Judah was remembered to be any good, then you could bet they failed as a parent, because in the next lines we could see their heir sons, or grandsons, turn around and ruin everything.  Everyone else in the whole Hebrew Bible had struggles they had to confront, which they could not overcome –everyone that is, except Joshua.

Total spoiler alert here, but Joshua always wins. He alone –so far as I know- is the only biblical leader about whom more than a chapter is written and no flaw is recorded with painful detail. At no point in the story does God suddenly show up angry at something Joshua does or fails to do.  Instead here is the unbroken pattern of the book of Joshua:  God speaks to him, he acts, then Israel wins. Repeat about 12 times.  And sometimes this cycle repeats itself so quickly, and so uncritically, that it’s hard to distinguish between the thoughts, intentions, and actions of Joshua and those of God.

We’ll talk a little more about that next week; but for today, I just want to point out how weird, and how totally-out-of-character, it is to have a leader in the Bible do the right thing all the time. The way the authors of Joshua are so uncritical of him almost makes the book sound like literature written by a people who were of a different faith.

In any case, here the whole nation of Israel sits, just East of the Jordan River, north of the Dead Sea.  God has called them to cross over and take possession of the land –the home they were all promised long, long ago. The people are sitting, waiting at the threshold of the life they’ve been waiting for.  Remember, this is after 40 years of wandering in the desert wilderness. And by the way, I’ve been to the Sinai desert where they wandered; I would never, ever want to live there. It was hot and brown with a whole lot of big, steep mountains and not much else.  And everyone sitting by the river there was born in that unforgiving terrain.  Everyone who could remember the lush fields of Egypt and the reliable tides of the Nile were dead.  Everyone but Joshua and Caleb.  So they were so ready for this.  They were so ready to settle down, and to live in a little bit of comfort. After a whole life-time of wandering and barely surviving in cruel, unpredictable conditions, they were ready for just a little bit of stability and security.  They were ready to come home.

Can you all imagine what that would feel like?  To spend your whole life just kind of drifting and scrapping by?  Since you were born, your entire existence has been spent in mere sweaty survival-mode, where you’re always tired, and always hungry. And there is no rest. Thankfully no one lives like that anymore!  And then one day someone comes along and says: ‘hey everybody, there’s a better place for us, just over there! It’s a place where we could make a home, build a real life. We just have to cross the river.’

Do you think you’d be in a hurry to get there?

But for the Israelites, there were two problems that obstructed their path:

  • Other people already lived there. Strong people. The home that was supposed to be theirs was already occupied by others who –let’s be honest- weren’t likely open to sharing.
  • They’d been at this threshold before, and they were unable to make the leap the last time.

This moment in human history was, of course, unique in many ways; but haven’t we all been there before, on that bank just east of the Promised Land?  Haven’t we all, at some point in our lives,  had to sit in a place where there’s a hope and a promise of something better –except, ugh, just look at the people we’d have to deal with if we tried!

Going to college can feel like that.  It’s a place where you’ll definitely learn a whole lot and grow as a human being, but there you’ll also be forced to have stinky, roommates for four years, and always wear flip-flops in the shower, and live with student loans until you’re middle-aged.

Getting a job can feel like that, where you’re given stuff that makes not starving to death and being homeless a lot easier here in the 21st century, but then it also demands most of your sanity and freedom.

Getting engaged can feel like that –where you’ll have someone to love and be loved by, but then once you’re married they’ll also make demands of you, and they will fight with you, and maybe once a decade whisper something that makes you wonder if they might be trying to kill you.

Being a part of a church can feel like that too, where you can build intimate and powerful relationships with people, and God, and yourself, but then they’ll turn around and ask for more of your time, and your energy and, yes, your money (Spoiler alert #2: the stewardship campaign is kicking off again next month!).  And on top of all of that, in church, you’ll have to deal with imperfect, and sometimes even offensive people. And the pastors!  Oh, they will, every one of them, be remembered so very, very differently than the way Israel remembered Joshua.   Just think of all the songs they invited you to sing that you hate!

Here at the Jordan, we have what proves to be an eternally human struggle.  Do we stay where we are –which isn’t so great, with the few people we know and trust (or are at least aware of who not to trust), or do we venture into an unknown land of a richer promise, where we’ll have to deal with a whole bunch of strangers?

Everyone, in every generation, has had to fight this inner battle, where you come to the threshold of a new place with new people and have to step up to step over it.  Find a way to hash it out with them, or stay in the place that has nothing more to offer than death.

And the people of Israel had been there before: they came to threshold, they saw the people, and they decided: ‘nope!  Too much for us! There’s no way we can deal with them!’  Joshua was ready to go.  Caleb was ready to go.  ‘God is with us’ they said.  But that wasn’t enough to get the people moving.  So they all bid their time and died in the desert, even Moses.  Because that’s what happens when you decide scrapping by is safer than trying to deal with scary neighbors –you still die.  It’s just that the dying takes longer, and it happens without ever fully living.

But here in this new book, the next generation is given their chance to come home.  “My servant Moses is dead,” says God, “Now get ready to cross over the Jordan with this entire people to the land that I am going to give to the Israelites.”  Did you hear that part?  It said “the entire people” because absolutely everyone is needed to make this work. If you leave half of the people behind, you won’t be strong enough to take what’s been given to you.  You need everyone you have to come along, because their presence and their gifts will be direly needed when the time comes to build their new life together.

Except Moses.  Moses had to die.  He’d spoken the words that brought their freedom, and he stood at the head of the line as the people left their slavery behind, and he handed them down God’s word for how to live.  But when they got to the river, and when it was just two younger pups against all the old guard squabbling about how to move forward, he stayed silent. And through his silence, he led them all to death in the wilderness.  Moses was a great leader –still arguably the greatest leader of that entire people; but he could only take them so far, for so long.  Because no human leader will ever be as faithful as God is; and we have to follow God’s voice, and not mere human personalities.  So as great as Moses’ faith was, he died an obstacle. So long as he was alive, there was no moving into the Promised Land –and let this be a lesson in humility for all those who wear the mantle of a leader.

But God keeps speaking: “I am giving you every place where you set foot, exactly as I promised Moses.”

Oh man, isn’t that a great line?  “I’m giving you every place where you set foot!” That means you have to actually move your body to receive the Promise!  God isn’t going to drop it in your lap, or make a home spring up from where you are –you have to go there.  You have to move.  And wherever you go will be God’s gift to you.

Hang on to that line, and it will change your life –I promise you.  Just walk into work remembering, with each new step: this is God’s gift, for me. Go to the park, or even go home; but remember: this is God’s gift, for me.  Start to live into that, and you won’t be able to help yourself –soon you’ll start wondering: ‘hmm, I wonder what other gifts God might have in store for me?  For us?’  But instead most of us go around living our lives with mantra: ‘oh this is boring; I don’t like this; I don’t want that –and we miss so many of the blessings, because we miss the grace of each and every new moment.

Still, as great as that is, it’s still not the call.  The call of this passage, in case it wasn’t abundantly clear in the first reading is this: “Be brave and strong…” and it even repeats it: “be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you. Don’t deviate even a bit from it, either to the right or left.  Then you will have success wherever you go.”  And then God says again one last time: “I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

This is our call as God’s people, even today: don’t be ruled by your fears and anxieties.  Right now, just listen to the politicians, they all rule with fear –speaking of the things we could lose, and how our values are threatened, and everything that could go wrong. Never is there more to say than: ‘look at all the scary people out there!’ We absolutely cannot be a Christian nation if the voice we heed is that of fear.  Because fear can only ever lead us two places: it makes us either freeze or flee.   It never takes us anywhere new.  And the God of life always calls us forward –ready or not, here comes the future!

In the weeks to come, we’ll talk more about the delicacies involved in approaching neighbors; but for today, as we stand on the east bank of the Jordan, just remember this: be brave. Be strong.  Heed God’s instruction.  As a congregation, there’s no way around the fact that we’re soon to venture into new territory, with some people that might even seem a little scary from where we stand from our side of the threshold.  We might wonder if they’re on the same team or not.  That’s okay.  But first the call is simply this: don’t run from them.  Haven’t we been in the wilderness long enough?  Isn’t it time to enter (again) the rich land that God has offered –one where the ministry is powerful, and the good news is plenty?

Be very brave.  Be strong.

Let’s pray so that we can listen.