Not Alone - thrive UMC Official Blog

Not Alone

Joshua, 4:10-19, 5:1

10 Meanwhile, the priests carrying the chest were standing in the middle of the Jordan. They stood there until every command that the Lord had ordered Joshua to tell the people had been carried out. This was exactly what Moses had commanded Joshua. The people crossed over quickly.11 As soon as all the people had finished crossing, the Lord’s chest crossed over. The priests then moved to the front of the people. 12 The people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh crossed over, organized for war ahead of the Israelites, exactly as Moses had told them. 13 Approximately forty thousand armed for war crossed over in the Lord’s presence to the plains of Jericho, ready for battle.14 The Lord made Joshua great in the opinion of all Israel on that day. So they revered him in the same way that they had revered Moses during all of his life.

15 The Lord said to Joshua, 16 “Command the priests carrying the chest containing the testimony to come up out of the Jordan.”

17 So Joshua commanded the priests, “Come up from the Jordan.” 18 The priests carrying the Lord’s covenant chest came up from the middle of the Jordan, and the soles of their feet touched dry ground. At that moment, the water of the Jordan started flowing again. It ran as before, completely over its banks. 19 The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month.[a] They camped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho.

All the Amorite kings on the west side of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings near the sea heard that the Lord had dried up the water of the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over. Then their hearts melted. They lost all courage because of the Israelites.

You know, I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t really like the book of Joshua we’re reading in the Bible.  I know that might not be something some of you want to hear –that your pastor doesn’t like a part of the Bible.  But it’s the truth. I don’t like it (and in fact, pretty much all of the pastors I know don’t like large sections of the Bible –but we’ll keep that our little secret). And I know that a big part of the reason I don’t like this particular book is because most of the time I have trouble making any sense out of it. So many of the details and events found in Joshua don’t seem to match up very nicely with those of the other books of the Bible, like Judges and Genesis.  And it creates a historical picture of how Israel settled in the land of Canaan that clashes with how most modern historians suggest this all went down (which might actually be a comfort to many of us).  Then, when I read it closely, I know I’m supposed to be rooting for Israel’s new leader Joshua –but personally, I have a very big problem viewing someone who goes around flattening entire cities, and commanding his soldiers to ‘leave nothing alive!’ as a hero.  Because I just can’t stop imagining all the little children, like my own, who had to be slaughtered just so this wandering band of ex-slaves could have a safe home.

But most of all, I don’t like Joshua because of the picture that gets painted in my mind of God when I read it. Even though I know that there’s more to this book than meets the eye, and even though I know there are subtle elements of self-criticism built into the text itself –I still can’t help but read it and think: ‘could this really be the same God that commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself?”  Could this be the same God who, over and over and over again, commands: love the foreigner, the stranger, the immigrant in the land?  Read all of chapter 19 in Leviticus –where we first find God’s command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and also to love the foreigner as yourself.  Read chapter 10 in Deuteronomy, where it’s commanded to love the LORD your God with all you’ve got.  Read all of the gospels: how could the God who commands love and compassion, and even sends his Son Jesus to be a gift to our entire species –how could that same God demand such thorough and merciless violence?

Today, we read about the providential moment where the Israelites crossed the riverbed of the Jordan, into the land of Canaan, on dry ground –with 40,000 men armed for war. Because they’re ready to enter their kingdom and take possession of the land.  I read that, and I can’t help but think of Jesus, on the day of his baptism.  He too set his feet at the edge of the rushing Jordan to being his mission –but for him the waters didn’t pile up to let him pass through, untouched.  Instead, he was immersed in their wild flow, along with John the Baptist.  And just as Joshua shouted out the commands to all the Israelites about God’s intention for them, when Jesus rose from the water, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove –a symbol of peace- descended upon him, and God’s own voice announces: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him” (Matt 3:17 CEB).

In Joshua, God makes the leader Joshua great among all of Israel; but in the gospels, God makes Jesus the servant of all, and his own people end up joining the chant: ‘crucify him!’

In Joshua, God’s holy people are led to war, in battle formation.  In the gospels, God’s holy people are led to the cross.

In Joshua, God’s covenant is contained in a box carried by the priests, which the people follow at a great distance, so as to successfully wipe out their enemies.  In the gospels, the covenant resides in the blood of Jesus, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.

In Joshua, salvation looks like total and utter conquest.  In the gospels, salvation looks like wild and radical acceptance –of God, neighbor, self, and circumstance.

We could go on and on about the parallels and the contrasts between the two figures, both named Joshua.  But as history has already revealed, the Kingdom of Jesus has lasted much, much longer.  It grew to a much wider space –indeed, it spans the whole globe.  For it is a kingdom marked not by lines in the sand, but the Kingdom of Jesus resides instead in every human heart that puts love first –of the quality and the immensity of that of God’s own Son.  For we are Christians not because of our ethnicity or genes, or where we live, or what we think, or even what books we read –but that old hymn has it nailed: we will be known as Christians by our love.  Our love for God, for neighbor, for self, and for the stranger –and even for our enemies- are what set us in the spiritual tradition of the Christ.

And when we set the love of Jesus and that of Joshua side-by-side, there is no contest.  The love of Jesus is stronger.  It’s deeper.  It’s done more to change the world we live in.

So I’m not really a huge fan of the book of Joshua.  It’s not my first choice to read or to preach from.  But we’re focused on it now and journeying along with those intrepid Israelites, because this story still has an essential lesson for us to learn.  Especially when it comes to where we’ve been and who we were. Because only when we recognize the tension and the difference between Joshua and Jesus can we see how far we’ve come in our love.  And only then, with both depictions side-by-side, can we see how far we still have to go.  After all, all of us have been like Joshua, haven’t we?

All of us have had an era of our lives where we were really only concerned about gaining a place for ourselves, and we’ve asserted our wills and cravings without a care of how it might affect those around us.  All of us have tried to claw our way up the ladder of social approval, at some point or another, unmindful of those we hurt along the way. All of us have chosen to be competitive –even to the point of violence, when it would have been much wiser to cooperate.  And all of us have invoked the name of God in prayer, all the while concerned only with ourselves and our loved ones, being completely blind to all the ways that others might need us and the gifts we have to serve.   In that way, this unlikeable book called Joshua has this uncomfortable, but powerful, way of reminding us of the default-settings of all our hearts. We are born the centers of our own little universe, and we have to grow up, often kicking and screaming, to learn how to love.

First we learn how to love the people who take care of us –parents, or relatives, and maybe even God.  And we have to learn how to say ‘thank you’ to them more, and complain less.  And after that, we have to learn how to love our siblings, and our peers.  Then we learn to love the rest of our family, then our growing circle of friends, and then our larger tribe, like this church and other United  Methodists.  But next our tribe is situated in a larger community, like a city or a village.  And we have to learn how to love them as well and as thoroughly as we can. And we have to love not only those who love us, but sometimes we have to be the ones to risk loving first –like Jesus did. So we are called to love the stranger and the immigrant. And we’re called to love our enemy.  And then beyond that, our city is a part of a territory; and our territory is now part of a nation, and our nation is a part of a global humanity, and humanity is a part of cosmic system with life extending we don’t even know how far.

Love that way.  Love in a way that reaches out.  Love in a way that constantly grows deeper, and asks more from us.  Love with your work, and your words, and your hands.  Love by supporting the Stewardship Campaign, so that they know they can count on you –that your gifts will move us into the future.  Love eternally.

There’s a certain momentum to the call of love in the Bible.  It has a particular inertia and direction that we have to watch closely. For that is the way of God.

Today we witness the Israelites crossing the Jordan River on dry ground, led by the priests lugging the covenant chest.  And the text tells us Joshua is doing everything right –just like Moses had instructed.  And after camping for three days on the east side of the Jordan, they cross over, and they even cross over quickly.  And with their feet they claim the ground they’re now standing on as their own.  With their feet they’ve declared: this is our new home.  This is the place we belong!  And they’ve got about 40,000 armed men ready for war, along with their holy box, to prove it.

And in the climax of today’s story, we get to see an x-ray telescope into the chest-cavities of a few of the kings of Canaan and Akkad.  There through that telescope, we get to watch as their hearts melt. “They lost all courage because of the Israelites,” it says. And the Hebrew word that’s translated as ‘courage’ here is Ruach.  It means they lost their spirit, their breath –because of the sons of Israel. It’s as if so many Israelites had come over that they end up sucking all of the air out of the atmosphere, just by breathing, so that the natives were forced to suffocate.

It’s a familiar scenario, I think.  One that unfortunately seems to be timeless for us: where new people come in, and the natives feel the wind knocked out of them.  Their hearts melt.  And their melted hearts, in turn embolden the immigrant.  And as we stand back and watch this play out, we must also play close attention and ask: what’s happening with your heart?

When you see the Canaanite king’s hearts melt, what happens to your own?  What about when the hearts of the Israelites melt before the Assyrian Army, or the Babylonian Army?  What about when the Native American hearts melted before the European colonists?  What about here in contemporary America, where all the breath seems to get sucked out of the room when we talk about immigration issues across party lines?  Where is your heart?  To whom is it drawn –to those hearts emboldened, or those that wither in fear?  Or could our hearts somehow be with both?

As a parent of more than one child, one of the things that pains me most is when one of my children makes the other cry.  It usually happens once or twice a week.  They’ll be playing together; but then playing can turn to fighting, over toys or territory or who’s turn it is to get their way –this is prone to happen especially if they haven’t had enough rest.  And they’ll come to me, often both in tears, wanting me to resolve their conflict –and always they want me to take sides.  As a parent, it’s not a joyful place to be, because of course you love both of them.  And maybe one was right and the other was wrong; but usually they were both at least a little wrong and a little right. Anyway, we’re all still a family together.  And you have to remind them that there are enough toys and love and time for both of them.  It’s hard work. But love demands it –always calling all of our hearts to be bigger.

I wonder sometimes if that might be what happens to God’s heart when we fight over similar things.  And I wonder if God doesn’t see us all as divine children, fighting over a scarcity that maybe isn’t even there.

This morning I wanted to close with what I believe are some familiar song lyrics by Woody Guthrie.  It’s a song I sang in school as a child.  The song goes:

This land is your land This land is my land

From California to the New York island;

From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway: I saw below me that golden valley: This land was made for you and me.

It wasn’t until later that I realized this song had more verses than what we had sung in school.  And as a teenager, I was surprised to find that the song went on to say this:

As I went walking I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,

By the relief office I seen my people;

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?

May God continue to call our hearts to grow in light of the news that we are not alone.  May we be open to our own love’s evolution.  Let us be faithful as we seek to love our God, our neighbors, and approach those we don’t know with ever-growing compassion.  Let’s pray.

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