Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Think with me for a moment about a time you felt completely secure and loved. Close your eyes if you would like.

            Who is there?

            Where are you?

            What do you hear?

            How do you feel?

            When did you first recognize this great love?

Hang on to these moments of feeling fully loved, remember and recall them as we journey with our ancestors. For it is these memories that carry us through our difficult days.

My earliest, fondest, childhood memory is sitting on my grandfather’s lap listening to nightly musical numbers on the television. Cradled in his arms, I knew I was deeply loved; yet, just as I began to close my eyes the TV became silent and my grandfather began to sing. Each evening, the song he sung was “Jesus Loves Me.” On this particular evening, I knew the love he taught was greater than the love he could ever show me. It was this greater love that would carry me through the rest of my life.

But what is this greater love?

Is it simply a feeling that makes us warm and fuzzy inside?

Or is it being held and feeling fully supported?

Perhaps it is being able to rest, to simply be yourself, and feeling fully embraced at the same time. This idea of love is hard to describe, it is a feeling that is even harder to set to words when put in the context of our faith.

Today, in our Old Testament lesson, we come to the familiar, yet unsettling words of Joshua’s Farewell Speech. Words that we embroider in our entryways. Words that are etched on our hearts. Words that are committed to memory. Words we know, but do not fully understand, because they are often placated on a plaque, set aside from their full story. To better fully understand these final words of Joshua to the Israelite people, recall with me some early stories of the Bible.

The book of Genesis is about the beginning: the creation of the world, the responsibility bestowed on humanity, and the provisions of God for creation. It shares the early stories of our life upon the earth: brotherly love, family anger, our inclination to sin, God’s disappointment, the flood, God’s new covenant with the people, and God’s promise to never leave us again.

Immediately following these promises, the Hebrew people find themselves in the wilderness, wandering, exiled from their homes in the book of Exodus. Wandering, but with a prophet to lead them—Moses.

Leviticus and Numbers teach us God’s law: how one should treat the body, how one should worship God, and how one should live into the responsibility bestowed upon them by God.

In Deuteronomy, the people continue to wander with Moses and are reminded of the law: Ten Commandments (which we summarize each Sunday morning). This book ends in hope and grief as God’s people are granted permission to enter the Promise Land, but they learn that their beloved leader is not permitted to go with them. Instead, God has appointed a new prophet, Joshua, to lead the people into the Promise Land.

The end of Deuteronomy grants hope as the people stand on the brink of the wilderness and Promise Land. It is on this edge that the burdens of the past lighten from their shoulders. This intermediary offers a glimpse that tomorrow will be better—full of promises made by God. Promises figuratively as they wandered far and worked under unfathomable conditions. Promises literally as they gazed over the mountain top and saw the land they traveled toward. It is this place, where Deuteronomy ends that there is a deep yearning to settle; not going any father. However, we know that God is a God that nudges the people of the covenant to continue to move forward wandering into the unknown. Joshua invites us into the Promise Land through an experienced reality we can relate to.

The book begins with great hope as Joshua is granted permission from God to cross the Jordan and go into the Promise Land. From there, there is a series of spies, conquest, occupation of Jericho, persons of trickery, battles, defeats, discussion and disagreements on territories. Then it ends with a three-chapter Farewell Speech, which includes our passage this morning and Joshua’s goodbye to the people before his death.

Really? It is this passage taken from the context of battle and conquering, warfare and death that we choose to place as a colorful greeting on our doorpost. On one hand, this seems like an incredibly crazy idea. On the other hand, perhaps it is what we are called to do as people of faith.

We are here! The Jordan River became dry—passable by foot. God shared his instructions, and reality greets. A reality lived each day, but not foreseen in the Promise Land. It is this reality that our ancestors find themselves in—a reality of a challenging and chaotic world. They dream for a restful place, a place to call their own, that meets their deepest hopes only to be greeted by conquest. It is here that we, 21st Century Americans, find ourselves living at times.

Our country is a prosperous one by the world’s definition of wealth. Our lives, even when they are difficult, are relatively good. Few of us worry about where our next meal is coming from, and even less of us worry about where we might sleep tonight. And even as we have enough, we are given enough to share with our neighbors in need.

Even with this reality of our needs being met beyond necessity, we live in a world that breaks our hearts. Every day we see politicians who misuse their power, and, at times, even church leaders wander in a wilderness of questionable morality. Violence, war, natural disasters, too little rain drying up crops, and too much rain flooding fields are the events that scroll across our backlight screens. Often, we feel distant from these realities portrayed on the monitors before us, and other times they feel too close to home. No matter the instance, we all feel, see, and know that the world we live in is not the Promise Land we imagined nor the one our forefathers foresaw. It is this land, one flowing with milk and honey, that harms others and, if we are honest, even harms us at times.

It is this context that calls us to cling to these familiar words of Joshua even when we do not fully recognize their original setting reflected in our daily lives thousands of years later. Even more so, it is important to not only recognize this context but the few verses that our lectionary skips of the Hebrew people recalling all that God has done for them thus far.

Remember Abraham?

Recall that time God sent Moses to lead us?

Reminisce about the time God delivered us from Egypt?

Remember, Remember, Remember! (Joshua 24:3-13)

            These people and places have left significant scars upon their hearts. Scars because most are places of hurt that God has turned into a story of redemption. These marks, scars, on their hearts are what allows them to answer the question, “Choose this day whom you will serve?” Will you serve the gods you once served that stayed behind when you had no choice but to leave the land—the gods of the Amorites or Canaanites? (Joshua 24:14-15)

            It sounds appealing until you continue the story and remember that God, the Lord, did not stay in Ammon or Canaan but wandered with them through the wilderness. It is this same experience that leaves scars on our hearts, beckoning us to remember all God has done thus far, as we hope for God’s next move in our lives. They were, we are, a people forced from a land, wandering far. Our God, the Lord, wandered with them, guiding the way. God, too, wanders with us each day.

            It is this same God that led the way so long ago, that wanders after us when we travel astray. WE are prone to fill the gaps in our hearts with the newest electronic device, the best gaming system on the market, the finest rug, or the most precious jewelry. And, it is here, in these moments, that our God continues to find us filling our hearts even when we forget that we need to fed. It is this fulfillment that we remember that allows us to recommit to God.

            Think back with me to the moments we recalled just a short while ago: moments of love, moments of comfort, moments of complete security. For each of us, these moments occurred at different points in our lives. For me, it was in the comfort of a loving childhood, constantly surrounded by loving family. For someone else, maybe this feeling occurred in the midst of a difficult struggle—a time that offered some respite in the midst of a chaotic world. Or perhaps, it was a time that you finally found a new understanding after wandering and searching for a prolonged time. No matter the experience, no matter the circumstance surrounding these moments of pure love and comfort they all have a common core. They are a feeling of abiding love, a feeling that this love is meant for us, lives inside us, and will journey forward with us in the days ahead, despite what comes our way.

            It is this context that makes these words of Joshua so comforting to us. It is this comfort that allows us to take words from a book we otherwise prefer to have no association with and place them at the center of our lives. These words call us to a time of remembrance to recall what God has done—the ways the Lord has carried us through the past as they invite us to choose our response. Even if we have to commit and recommit to God time and time again. These words grant us hope as we are assured that, as we go, as we wander, God wanders with us.

            “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household we will serve the Lord…He is the God who brought us from…therefore we will serve the Lord for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:15-18)

            Our lesson from Joshua ends with fearing the Lord, this sometimes feels more like a threat than a reassurance. (Joshua 24:19-28). A threat implying that God has done all these things, and has given us one more chance, so we better not mess up again. It is here that we, as readers of scripture, have the advantage of hindsight for we know what comes next. After Joshua dies, we will enter the era of Judges and Kings. This will not go so well for the people. Even as the people try, they will mess up, and God will continually wander, choosing them—choosing us.

            It is this Lord that is indeed our God. A God that wandered with them in the wilderness. Who wanders with us in our doubt. Who wandered after them, continuing to make new covenants. Who wanders with us in our confusion. A God who recognizes that we wander far, so far that a heavenly presence was insufficient, and Jesus came into being, walking among us, wandering with us.

            In Jesus’s wandering he reminded us time and time again of God’s unconditional love. Love that is hard to describe. Love that cannot be fully comprehended. Love that we cling to and wander from. Love that finds us and abides within us as to never leave us. It is this deep, unconditional love that my early childhood memory points towards.

            Drifting off to sleep in my grandfather’s arms as he sang, he taught me about Jesus’ love for all. Resting, securely held, he showed me a love that originates beyond human entities—a love that can only come from God.

            God has held us since the beginning of time, even when we did not recognize it. God sent Jesus to teach us, to sing to us, to follow us as we wander. Most importantly, Jesus came to wander with unconditional love—a love that goes beyond all bonds. A love laid upon a cross with arms spread open allowing our earthly life to not end in pain, but in eternal love. Even as this love never leaves us, we do not always recognize it. It is here that a closer look at John’s Gospel gives us a sense of renewal alongside Joshua.

            At various times in our life, we each have many responses to Jesus, to God. These responses, 5 to be exact, appear in John’s passage for us today. They are: complaining, disbelief, rejection, confession of faith, and betrayal. The disciples—every one of them—experience these emotions throughout their wandering with Jesus. They grumble in verse 61. They are in shock or disbelief in verse 64. In verse 66, Jesus’ followers’ reactions shift as they completely walk away. Peter comes to the rescue with a profession of faith in verse 68, as he assures Jesus that the twelve will not leave him. The chapter concludes with the disciples who just confessed their faith, betraying Jesus, walking away once gain. (John 6:61-71).

            Even with these reactions in front of him, Jesus is slow to point fingers and does not cast out the followers. These reactions are for them to recognize on their own. Instead, Jesus shares that he is the one to grant eternal life through the Father, he is the living bread to share with all. Bread that, in a moment, he invites us to share as a reminder of our abiding in him and with one another. Bread that is offered to us when we are at our best, and bread that is broken on our behalf when we can do better.

            This day we will face many competing gods. Those that want to suck energy from us, depleting us, abandoning us. Powers that tell us of our unworthiness, causing us to abandon ourselves. Leaders that invite us to live lives contrary to the peace Jesus grants us and that aids in abandoning others. At times, these choices will unfortunately win as we are all human. We will buy the newest thing we desire, as we pass by a child in need of cool water in the summer heat. We will believe that we are not good enough for anyone, even not deserving of God’s love. We will go along with leaders because speaking up is difficult. It is here that we complain, reject, and betray Jesus. It is in these moments that Jesus remains steadfast, allowing us to wander while asking, “Do you want to leave too?” The answer is ours, whom will we serve?

            Wander as the world is wide and ready for exploring. Wander knowing that God wanders with you into the wilderness and into the Promise Land. Wander with confusion and grumbling as God wanders with you, making new promises and granting second chances. Wander knowing that Jesus abides in us as the living bread.

            We are a people, just like our ancestors, wandering. God is a God that does not stay behind, but abides within, wandering with us wherever we may go.