Lessons for the New from the Old
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 9, 2014
Calvary Episcopal Church, Charleston
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
The world of the Old Testament and the circumstances of life today are different in many, many ways. However, in some ways, that Old Testament world and our own seem very similar. In this time together today, I want to suggest several similarities between these two worlds. Perhaps we can come to understand our own circumstances better as we reflect on those earlier times.
You remember that Moses had been the leader of God’s people as they left their oppression in Egypt and began the Exodus journey. That journey – that pilgrimage – has become the prototype for lives of faith ever since. And, the monotheistic religions – religions that have one God – religions like Judaism and Christianity – such faith communities remember the experience of a faithful journey. Thus, the symbolism and significance of the Exodus journey are profound indeed among people of faith. And, as the leader of the people on this journey, Moses obviously is extremely important.
However, you also remember that Moses only got the people to the bank of the Jordan River. He was able to see the Promised Land, but he was not able to lead the people into that Land. Responsibility for leadership of the people at that point, therefore, fell to Joshua.
Joshua took the people of God across the Jordan River and into Canaan, the land which had been promised far back in Egypt. This was the destination of the people’s journey, and after forty years, they finally arrived.
Joshua had some challenges serving as leader of the people, though, even after they made it to the Promised Land. In addition to understanding life as a journey, these challenges name another reality from those early times which seem familiar today. That is, in Canaan, there were all kinds of tribes of people. One group did not like another group very much. One tribe had a different understanding of God – or of the gods – than another one. A particular group seemed to spend a lot of time and energy on poaching people away from another tribe. Some even tried to get another whole tribe to join them. And all of this sounds a lot like Christians in South Carolina today to me!
With that background and understanding, then, we come to today’s reading. Joshua knew how important it was for the people to remember their past and to renew their commitments. Even though this group for which he was responsible had been nomadic, they still had their traditions. Even though the people did not have a long history in one place, still the matter of community was very significant. Even though the people’s past included the experience of slavery in Egypt, still Joshua knew how important it was to claim that experience as part of their story, their history. Thus it was indeed appropriate and crucial for the people to remember their past and to renew their commitments for the future. For such reasons, as we read today, “Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem” (24:1).
After Joshua got the people together, notice what he said to them. He reminded them first of their past, beginning with the words, “Long ago, your ancestors…”(24:2). Actually, there are a number of verses omitted from today’s reading, and a great deal of the people’s history is recounted in those verses, as part of what Joshua said to the people. Next, Joshua encourages the people to reclaim their past faithfulness, as part of their present commitment. Thus, he says, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (24:14). Then, Joshua changes his emphasis a bit. From recalling the past and encouraging the people to be faithful, Joshua now turns to a more direct challenge. “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve” (24:15). And, this challenge is followed by his statement of faith and affirmation, which includes these very familiar words. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15).
So, in this encounter, we may see reminders of past history, encouragement of present faithfulness, and words of challenge for the future. In response, the people affirm their past, and like Joshua, they indicate their intention to “serve the Lord” (24:21), in the future. That affirmation, then, becomes the basis for the covenant made at Shechem – a very important reaffirmation of the relationship with God … a relationship which had existed for generations.
In light of this reading, therefore, we may identify several points of contact between the Old Testament world and our own. First, the practice of pilgrimage – and the understanding of life as a journey – have their beginnings in the Exodus event. That event is formative for the people of God, and as such, its importance cannot be overstated. Secondly, I suggested that the tribes at odds with each other in Canaan seem strangely familiar in our day – and, especially, in this part of the world today. Finally, a certain process and exercise within a community of faith crosses generations and, even, millennia. That is, a community must remember its past, choose to continue its faithfulness, and, then, recommit itself to the future relationship. Remember, continue, and recommit – that is an important process repeated often within any community of faith. That process was followed in the day of Joshua, and that same process is present in our day as well. In our experience of life in community, therefore, may we often remember our past, continue to indicate our faithfulness, and recommit to our relationship with God in the future. Indeed, may we do so again and again, for our health as a community of faith depends on it. Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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