Out of the Wilderness

Joshua 3:7-17 | Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 | 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 | Matthew 23:1-12

Jeremy Richards

I’ll begin by saying that I wanted to avoid preaching from Joshua because Joshua is, in my opinion, one of, if not the, most disturbing books in the Bible. Joshua tells the story of Israel’s violent, genocidal takeover of a land that belonged to other peoples. The book of Joshua gives theological approval to the killing of innocent men, women, and children. It’s a difficult book for us because we take Scripture seriously and we also take justice seriously, and Joshua is a book where those two values of ours seem, at times, to conflict with one another.

And what is perhaps even more problematic is that we are only in Joshua today and next week, and then the lectionary jumps to Judges, so we don’t really dive into the book. I feel like if we can’t ignore it – which we shouldn’t – then we should it take on head first – really wrestle with. Maybe it’ll be a sermon series in the future, or maybe, even better, it’ll be a Sunday school series.

I don’t want to focus on the problematic elements of the book of Joshua today – they’re hardly present in our reading, except for the line about driving out “the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites” – but I believe I should name the fact that Joshua is a challenging book.

Our reading from Joshua today tells the story of a pivotal moment, a monumental turning point in the history of Israel. Joshua, Moses’ right hand man, has just taken over as the leader of the Israelites after Moses’ death and in this important passage, the Israelites finally come home to the Promised Land.

As a people, this isn’t Israel’s first time in the Promised Land, although it is these individual people’s first time. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, the ancestors of the Israelites, all lived their long ago. But during a famine, Jacob and his family moved to Egypt, where his son Joseph had gotten in good with the Pharaoh. Egypt had prepared for the famine, so Jacob’s family moved to Egypt in order to survive, but after Joseph and his immediate family died, the Israelites multiplied like crazy, and the Egyptians became worried that they would overthrow the Egyptians, so they enslaved the Israelites. According to Exodus 12:40, the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, so they’ve been gone from home for a long time.

At the end of those 430 years, God sent Moses to free the Israelites. Most of us know that story. If you don’t want to read it, I would highly recommend the cartoon The Prince of Egypt, it’s one of my favorite movies. Moses demands that the Pharaoh let God’s people go, but Pharaoh says no, so God inflicts Egypt with 10 increasingly destructive plagues, until, after the angel of death kills all the firstborns of the Egyptians, Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go.

After that, God travels with the Israelites as a pillar of cloud and fire, protecting them and guiding them. God leads them into the wilderness, where some good things happen and some bad things happen. We’ve read about some of these things in the past few weeks. Some of the bad things that happen are that there’s a lot of complaining and grumbling, there are a few attempted rebellions against Moses, the people make a golden calf and worship that instead of God. A few times God gets angry. At one point the ground opens up and swallows a rebellious faction, and another time God sends poisonous snakes into the camp to punish the people.

But some good things happen as well. Like I said, God leads the people and journeys with them. God constantly provides for them by giving them quail and manna to eat, and shows them where to find water. God gives them the Ten Commandments. And God instructs them in how to build a moveable place of worship, a tabernacle, and how to build the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the Ten Commandments and represented God’s presence with the people.

Ever since God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush, God had promised to bring the people out of Egypt and lead them to the land of their ancestors, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). This is the promise that kept them going throughout their tumultuous time in the wilderness. And now, in this morning’s reading from Joshua, they have finally arrived. After 430 years in Egypt and 40 years in the wilderness, they’re home!

My point in recounting all this history is that I want us to look at how the people’s understanding of and relationship with God changed and grew over the course of that history – how the good times and the bad times brought human and divine, creature and Creator, closer together.

When Moses first meets God in the burning bush, he doesn’t know what to call God. He asks God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is [God’s] name?’ What shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3:13). When Moses first meets God, God isn’t the God of the people Israel, but the God of “their ancestors.” God’s the old God, not the present God, and Moses doesn’t even have a name for God. So God gives him a name that isn’t from the past or the future, but one that is eternally present: “I AM WHO I AM.” God is eternally present.

This is the beginning of God’s renewed relationship with the people of Israel. And as I’ve already recounted, we see that God’s relationship with them continues to grow. First God is only related to them through Moses and his brother Aaron, then they see the works of God in the plagues against Egypt and become witnesses, then God actually travels with them as a pillar of cloud and fire, then God takes a special interest in the details of their lives, giving them the law to help guide them so that they might know God more fully, then God tells them how to make the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant, where God will inhabit a physical place in their midst.

Through all this the transcendent God becomes woven into the lives of these people. God goes from being the ancestral God with no name to the God who never leaves them, the God who lives among them and is present in the present, the God named Yahweh.

This God is revealed to them throughout their time in the wilderness.

“Wilderness” is a theme that we’ve talked about quite a bit over the last year here at Grant Park. Some of you weren’t here when we were in the season of Lent, and some of you may have forgotten what we talked about, but the forty days of Lent represent Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness represent, to some extent, Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. We also talked about the wilderness a little bit a few weeks ago, when we discussed the shock the Israelites must have felt when they left Egypt victoriously with a bunch of pomp and circumstance, only to end up in the wilderness in danger of dying of thirst.

When we talked about the wilderness during Lent, we explored the way that after Jesus’ baptism the Spirit didn’t lead him back to the safety of the city, but into the unknown wilderness. And we talked about how our own life of faith is often similar. When we first decide to follow Christ, we may think that we’ll have all the answers now, we’ve discovered the key to life. But soon we find out that faith isn’t found in answers, it’s found in God’s presence in the midst of all the questions, questions we may never get the answers to, at least not on this side of eternity. Faith is trusting God in the wilderness, as Jesus and the Israelites found out.

The Israelites rarely knew where they were God was leading them or what they were doing, which is why they frequently grumbled and complained, but what they didn’t realize was that during that seemingly pointless time of wandering about in the wilderness, God was making them into the people of God. What they thought was a 40 year intermission turned out to be the most formative time in ancient Israel’s history – the time when God came to dwell among them and gave them the law, when God gave them their very identity, when God revealed Godself to them.

And now, in today’s reading, they’re entering their old homeland. After roughly 470 years, they are back where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel all lived. They are back, but so much has changed.

They have changed.

They now know God in a way that they didn’t before, in a way even Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel never knew God.

The wilderness has changed them, and as much as they are excited to cross the Jordan and enter their old home, they know that there’s no going back to the way things were. They won’t live with the people of the land, or with God, or even with each other the way their ancestors did.

This is true for so many of us, too. God keeps leading us into new ways of thinking. God regularly calls us out into the wilderness, and when we’re there God often challenges our assumptions. Our relationship with God, like Israel’s, grows, expands, morphs, and stretches. The God of those wilderness moments is a bit unpredictable, and a times a little scary, but that God, Yahweh, is alive.

As we meet new people and hear their stories, as we experience new things ourselves, as we read Scripture generously but also critically, our faith adapts and expands. We become different people, and we come to know God in new ways.

This isn’t always popular with other Christians, even friends and family. People, understandably, want stability, they want a God who is predictable. So when we leave the security of our old beliefs, enter the wilderness (by choice or otherwise) of questions and doubts and come back changed, with new understandings of who God is and how God moves and acts in the world, it may be difficult to find our place back in our old homeland.

I know this is true of Brie and I. My time in seminary was wonderful, but we were exposed to a lot of new thoughts and questions, many of which didn’t fit into our old set of beliefs. We were forced into the wilderness, to a place where we didn’t always know the answers, and we had to rely on God to lead us through those scary, barren places.

Fortunately for us, our immediate families have been nothing but supportive, but other friends and family don’t always know what to do with us. They don’t understand why I, as a pastor, think it’s important to say Black Lives Matter, and Trans lives matter, why I think it’s important to be inclusive of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and siblings. They don’t know why I marched in the Women’s March. They see our passion for God and for the Church, but our beliefs and priorities don’t fit with theirs. So we have, in some cases, been held at arm’s length.

I know some of you are in are in a similar place, or have been in a similar place, or will be in a similar place. You’ve entered the wilderness, and have come back with a fuller, broader, deeper understanding of who God is, but you’ve returned to find that you don’t always fit in with the friends and family who stayed behind while you were on your journey, and now you’re not sure how to move forward. There’s a boundary you can’t seem to cross, or you’re afraid to try to cross.

In our reading today, the Jordan river is a boundary the Israelites can’t cross. They’re so close to being home, but they don’t know how to enter their old homeland as a new people. Joshua tells the people that God will make a way, and he emphasizes that God is a living God. He says, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that [God] will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you…And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.”

When Joseph and his family left Egypt God was with them, but God was largely unknown. Now, 470 years later, when the Israelites cross the Jordan, they carry God’s presence with them in the Ark of the Covenant. The priests who carry the ark of the covenant feel the weight of this God on their shoulders. They see God’s power as God piles the waters up in a heap, so that they can walk on dry ground. They also carry God in their memories. They remember God’s provision of quail and manna. They remember God’s signs and wonders. They know from experience that God is with them and will continue to be with them.

Just as we know that God is with us. In only a few short weeks we’ll enter the season of Advent, and we’ll begin to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel, God with us. We don’t have the ark of the covenant, but we have the presence of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), just as God promised Joshua that God would never leave him or forsake him (Deut. 31:6).

I know that some of us are still “in the wilderness” in one way or another, trying to figure out who God is and where God is. Others of us feel like we’ve just returned from the wilderness, and we’re trying to make sense of our old home after so much of us has changed. The story of Israel shows us that God is with us in both spaces, that God is always drawing us deeper into the life of God, weaving God’s life into ours, that we might know God better. And that God will continue to guide us, that God will pile up the waters in a great heap, that God will be with us when we cross the Jordan.

In the name of the God who Is. Amen.