Arrival in the Land — Sermon for Lent 4C

Last stop in Wyoming – Journey East 2008

Joshua 5:9-12

If you’ve ever moved across the country, you know what it’s like to finally arrive at your new home. Even if your furniture and housewares are a few days behind you, it feels good to enter the new house and begin to settle in.
We’ve made a few long distance moves as a family over the years, with the longest being the last one that brought us from Santa Barbara to Troy. It took a few days of travel to get here. We stayed in a few motels and of course ate at a variety of restaurants, including a few fast-food joints. We crossed deserts, rivers, mountains, and plains. When we arrived in Troy, we were welcomed with a good meal and a house that had been cleaned and prepared with food staples and paper goods. Yes, it was good to enter the house we would call our own.
While our journey from California to Michigan took a bit of time, it was nothing compared to the journey the pioneers took along the Oregon Trail. I’ve been to the trail’s starting point in Independence, Missouri, and I’ve lived at the other end of the road, which is Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Some of the ruts that marked the trail can still be seen more than a century later. Those intrepid pioneers faced many challenges as they crossed the plains, deserts, and several sets of mountains.
If you’ve ever played the Oregon Trail computer game, then you know a little about these challenges. It’s not long into the game before you find yourself lightening the load in the wagon. That piano has to go along with the fine china and bedroom set. In the end you are left with the bare essentials and hopefully a spare wagon wheel to use when one of the wheels breaks. Along the way you may face disease, hunger, unexpected storms, and of course that broken wagon wheel!  Crossing rivers is always a hazard, especially after it rains. The same is true for mountain passes if winter is near at hand. Providing food is always an adventure, especially if you find yourself far from one of the few outposts along the way. You can always hunt for game, which is fine if the deer are plentiful. Hunting squirrels and rabbits isn’t quite so easy. Besides a squirrel doesn’t provide all that much meat.  Then, just when you think you’ve arrived at your destination, you find yourself staring down the Columbia Gorge. You can always go through the mountains, but the quickest way into the Willamette Valley is to load your wagon on a raft and head down the Columbia River. But that means traversing a series of dangerous rapids, and I can’t tell you how many times I made it all the way to The Dalles and lost it all on those rapids.  But if you make it, a new life is standing before you. It’s time to celebrate!
Our Lenten journey began in Deuteronomy 26 where Moses declares that the ancestor of the people was a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:1-11). Last week we heard a word from Exodus 3, and Rick shared with us how God called  Moses out of the land of Midian, where he was tending sheep, to lead the people of Israel out of slavery into a Promised Land. This morning we find ourselves at the end of that journey. Israel has set up camp at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho. They have crossed the river Jordan into the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. The long years of wandering in the wilderness have finally come to an end, and so it’s time to celebrate.
For the first time since they left Egypt, the people of Israel get to celebrate the Passover Meal. It seems that the people had to arrive in the Land before they could appreciate their freedom from bondage. So, like the Pilgrims whose story we celebrate on Thanksgiving, they gather at Gilgal and share in the produce of the Land.
On that day not only did they eat from the produce of the Land, but the manna that sustained them during the many years wandering in the Wilderness finally stopped. Now they could settle in and plant crops that would sustain them, even as the pioneers began to do once they arrived in the Promised Land that was the Willamette Valley. This was good news, but it also carried with it a note of danger. As they planted their crops and ate of them, it became increasingly easy to forget that God was their provider. As Walter Brueggemann reminds us, when the people were wandering in the Wilderness they had to put their trust in God. Now that they had arrived in the Land of Abundance, they faced the temptation to put their trust in themselves. So, Brueggemann writes:

Now, instead of a generous heaven, they must rely on a productive earth. Instead of a miracle, they are driven to agriculture. Instead of just receiving, they are now into management. And when Israel – or anybody – thinks about management, it will not be long before there are thoughts about property and ownership and self-sufficiency and greed, and we are back to all the circumstances that invite moves to monopoly and thoughts of scarcity [Brueggemann, The Covenanted Self, p. 116].

That is, the people are back in bondage, just a different kind of bondage. When we begin to covet and hoard and refuse to share, we begin to resent the blessings experienced by others. There is no joy because there is no contentment.
Celebrating Passover helped remind the people that God had liberated them from bondage and brought them through the wilderness into the Land of Promise. When we gather at the Table each week, we share in a meal that connects us to God’s provision. We remember the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night of his betrayal. It was, according to the Gospels, a Passover meal, which links us to that act of liberation. Of course, when we read this passage from Joshua, the journey isn’t quite complete. They had arrived in the Land, but they had yet to fully take possession. In other words, their furniture was still on the moving van!
As is often the case when we read Scripture we need to remember the context. The lectionary gives us only a small excerpt from the story of Joshua, but it’s important to remember that even as with the story of the Pilgrims, who shared that first Thanksgiving, Israel entered a land that was already inhabited. If they were going to take possession of the Land then that meant displacing its inhabitants. So Joshua is also the story of conquest and genocide.  We need to be aware of these stories, for they are our stories, which often carry a shadow side. Perhaps if we’re willing to recognize this shadow then we can receive a word from God about what it means to live in the Land in fellowship with God and neighbor.
United Methodist pastor Martin Thielen suggests that the key to happiness in life is contentment. He suggests that our external circumstances don’t determine our happiness. Instead the key to happiness is our attitude and our behaviors. One of those behaviors is living in the present and not the past or even the future. Thielen writes:

When we realize that life is short, we won’t waste it dwelling too much on the past or the future. Instead, we will learn to live today, in the present moment, because that’s really all we have. We can’t change yesterday. We don’t know about tomorrow. What we do have is today. [Thielen, Searching for Happinessp. 48].

Finding happiness in the Land requires being in the moment. While that is true, it is also important to put the present in the context of God’s faithfulness in the past. The people of Israel celebrated Passover as a reminder that God had liberated them from bondage in Egypt and then sustained them with manna in the Wilderness.  When we gather each week at the Table, we stop to remember that God is with us. The Table reminds us that Jesus took the lonely road to the cross, but in the Resurrection death met its match. Our present is rooted in the promise of God’s faithfulness in the past, so that we might live fully in the present with God. From there our future emerges. Let us therefore, give thanks for the abundance that God has provided by sharing our lives with each other!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 6, 2016
4th Sunday of Lent