Sermon for July 14, 2019
Texts: Joshua 4:1-7/Matthew 6:25-34
Title: “In Transit”
The days of our lives are not created equal. We have our good days when everything seems to fall just right. We have our bad days when it would have been better if we had stayed in bed. Raise your hand if you think I am generalizing.
Life has its ups and downs. It is hard to maintain that even keel. When things are going well a positive outlook on life comes naturally. When life is trending down attitudes trend down as well.
Up and down, sun and cloud, sweet and sour, we take things as they come. It’s not like we have another choice. There is nothing we can do to fence in the good and positive, or fence out the bad and negative, that’s just the way things are. We do, however, have a choice in deciding how we will respond to life’s ups and downs. “Look on the sunny side of things,” the well-meaning friend tells us. “Everything is going to turn out alright.” Well meant, but often ineffective when we are in a bad place.
Optimism is a strong tonic to treat the blues. It is something people like us have imbibed from the very beginning of time. The only reason that civilization hasn’t folded up and perished from the earth is that amid wars and the threat of wars, famine, natural catastrophe a resilient optimism would not be stifled.
But what is the source of that optimism? The case could be made that it is part of our human makeup, that it is indispensable to human survival. But is that the best answer? What is the source of optimism that braces us when we might otherwise fall? Is it not our belief that given time everything will come round, and work out for the good? But that brings us to another question. Why do most of us believe in positive outcomes? The short answer for the Christian is that God ordains such.
Not only Christians, but the religions of the world universally insist that life is purposeful, that the fact that we are here drawing breath for a certain allotted time, is not a result of a random event in nature. No, the major religions of the world, at least, agree that life has an architecture, a plan devised to accomplish certain ends by the architect who created the plan. While the precise details of the plan may be concealed from us, we trust that the architect who created the plan has made a sufficient investment in the plan to insure its positive outcome.
Religious or not, a good argument can be made that positive outcomes are in our genes. Reject the god of religious faith, there remains in the human makeup of the vast majority of us the conviction that life is not some futile, meaningless exercise but rather is an invitation to experience and create things. As long as there is something to strive for, something new to experience, there will always be a counterweight to all that impoverishes and undermines life.
Hope per se is not a religious thing, it is man or woman reaching beyond himself or herself to reach for that particle of fulfillment and happiness that every person, religious or not, implicitly believes is his or her birthright.
We draw upon hope to live through those periods in life when we find ourselves up against it. Life may be stalled in the valley, but when we look up we see possibilities. You say, “Wait a minute. I know people who have stalled in the valley.” You are absolutely right, but generally their bottoming out is traceable to some particularly overwhelming circumstance that stifled hope. The majority of us will not surrender to despair, but wait for the clouds to disperse.
We have our good days and we have our bad days, but also the resilience to maneuver through them come what may, because if you are a human being you innately believe that good outweighs bad.
Now Israel had her good days and her bad days. In her case, however, the belief that the good days outweighed the bad was inscribed on her DNA. Was not God faithful? Had not God been faithful to her forebears, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Would not God’s love continue to sustain her generation and generations to come?
Israel had her good days and her bad days. The reason her story has been embraced so readily by generations of us, is that it is so true to our own experience. In Israel’s experience before God we see the human drama of life God unfolding. Sometimes in alignment with God’s will, many times out of alignment, throughout it all, Israel, aided substantially, I would add, by God’s prophets, lived her life knowing that she was in transit to her destiny, her promised land.
Each of us has a promised land to which we hope destiny will lead us. We may not maintain a crisp and clear picture in our minds of what that promised land looks like, but it most certainly exists. For some it may be partner with whom we might share our lives. For others it might be the perfect job. For others it might be raising children who go on to live responsible, productive lives. Still others might envision a promised land of a happy retirement unburdened by responsibility.
Insofar as any collective of people can maintain a common dream and aspiration, Israel’s hope was invested in a piece of land. From the very beginning when Abraham was called out by God to found the nation, a homeland had always been part of the picture. The land is such a preoccupation for the scribes who recorded Israel’s history that the first five books of our Old Testament, and a substantial portion of the writings thereafter, focus on the land and the battles waged to secure it.
It was under Joshua, Moses’ successor, that the major battles to secure the Promised Land were waged. Our first lesson takes up shortly after Joshua takes over. The transition to leadership has gone off pretty much without a hitch, and what’s more, thanks to Moses, much of the heavy lifting involved in crossing the great wilderness that stood between Israel and the Promised Land had already been accomplished.
That is not to say that Israel was home free and clear. Under Joshua Israel would fight numerous battles in the process of securing the land God promised her. But all that would be in the future, for as we enter this morning’s lesson Israel is marking an important milestone. She had crossed the river Jordan fronting the Promised Land.
So, what do we do when we mark a milestone? We celebrate. We commemorate. Israel marked her entrance into the Promised Land with commemorative stones, one stone each for the tribes of Israel. The stones were taken from the Jordan for a perpetual memorial so that [quote] “all the peoples of the earth [might] know that the hand of the Lord [was] mighty.”
Remembrance plays big in the Old Testament. What God had done in the experience of the Israelite’s was a cherished legacy one generation could pass to the next.
Under her prophets Israel linked all the events in her transformation from bond servants in Egypt, to independence in a land she could call her own, to one source and one source only. It was God’s doing. Israel maintained a vivid sense that her times were in God’s hands. As they stood on the banks of the Jordan prepared to cross into the Promised Land, what thoughts must have occupied the Israelites. Here they were, their destination within their grasp. A chapter of their life under God was concluding, and God chose a special way to commemorate it. Our lesson tells us that “The manna [the food that God provided them during their wilderness passage] ceased on that day…and they ate the produce of the land.”
No longer an allotment from God, they would now obtain their food by their own labors. This would be the first major adjustment they would be called upon to make as a new chapter of life opened. There would be many more.
Israel had her good days and her bad days. The reason her story has been embraced so readily by generations of us, is that it is so true to our own experience. Our good days bring us closer to the things we value in life, things like freedom, happiness and prosperity. Our bad days by contrast stall our progress toward those aims.
Our vision of the Promised Land takes form around our personal experiences. Yet with that vision before us, do we really ever arrive at the point that we know for certain that our vision has been fulfilled?
We might find the life partner of our dreams. Does that person represent our Promised Land? We might find the job for which we are perfectly suited. Is that the Promised Land? We might acquire all the money we will every need for a long and promising retirement. Is that the Promised Land?
There was no billboard stretched across the far banks of the Jordan announcing that Israel was entering her promised land. If Israel assumed that all was milk and honey she would soon learn differently.
But isn’t that the way with life? Even as we draw nearer to the anticipated Promised Land we envision in our mind’s eye—just a Jordan to cross and we’re there—something intrudes to move our dreams just a little bit farther out of reach. We thought we had arrived but we really hadn’t.
Linda and I had an opportunity to visit a cousin of mine a few years ago. Both he and his wife had retired a couple of years earlier. They maintained the same aspirations many at our stage of life maintain. Social Security and small pensions being their only sources of income, their aspirations were modest, occasional breakfast out, a little travel, that sort of thing. Their version of the Promised Land, I think, was very modest, but it was something to look forward to. Only it turns out that they had an unwed daughter who came up short on the personal responsibility department. My cousin and his wife would find themselves effectively raising their daughter’s five and eight year old.
No, there will be no billboard to announce our arrival in the Promised Land, even if good fortune smiles on us.
Scripture offers no record of the hopes the Israelites maintained about inhabiting the Promised Land. Did what they find meet their expectations? It’s highly improbable, for what compensation could ever repay them for the all the uncertainties, sacrifices and frustration they experienced along the way. The Promised Land may indeed have been a land of great potential, but was it ample compensation for what they suffered to get there?
Much of life is a journey to the Promised Land we envision up here. There are, however, hazards and pitfalls to be confronted that may seriously diminish the pleasure we extract from our reward.
While a blessing, the Promised Land we envision is populated by unknowns that are not within our control. That lack of control is a burden that people have struggled with throughout the ages. In our gospel lesson we hear Jesus address the issue head on.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Jesus was responding to a human preoccupation as ancient as our first ancestors on this earth. Jesus knows the human heart. He knows how reluctant we are to believe that the God who created us is just as invested in our welfare as we are.
As we vainly attempt to control events to coincide with our personalized vision of the Promised Land we little appreciate the fact that God has already prepared a Promised Land for us that is more glorious than we can imagine. Paul, attempting to describe the vision of the Promised Land that God placed on his heart, wrote these words to the church in Corinth, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Our senses are dulled to God’s everyday presence, and the future he has prepared, as we vainly attempt to order events to favor our personal interests.
John Lennon of the Beatles exposes human vanity in words that that have been widely quoted, “life, he once wrote, is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.”
“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” Our preoccupation with our own plans undermines our trust in the master planner.
The God who was faithful to Israel throughout years marked by her fretfulness and disobedience in the wilderness, is the same God to whom we pray today.
We do not know what the future will bring. There will be no billboard announcing “you have arrived,” to assure us we have reached the Promised Land of our aspirations. Jesus reminds us that we do not possess an unbreakable lease on tomorrow. “Today’s trouble is enough for today,” was his counsel to those fretting over their circumstances. He might also have added, “Today’s opportunities are enough for today.” Today may only be a single day, but it is the only day to which we may presently lay claim. We would be well advised to enjoy it for the gift it is. Tomorrow and the Promised Land, in what shape they will take, are God’s business, and you know what? So are we.
Your hands, O God, bear the weight of our lives, our hopes, our futures, and you do all that without straining. Into each of us you placed a piece of yourself to remind us that we are never alone, and that by your faithful leading you will safely deliver us to the place you meant for us to be.
Forgive us, O God, when we become so forward looking that we fail to register the opportunities you have placed before us each day. Open minds and hearts closed to life’s wonders. Give direction where lives are stalled. Inspire confidence in those who fear the unknown, particularly where the unknown might contain within it new opportunities. Open the eyes of the cynical who mock hope, and those who maintain it. Be for the depressed and despairing a source of hope to which they can reliably turn.
O God, we pray for those who lead us, the people in whom we have vested responsibility to govern. Even as we pray for our president and our legislators, we know that partisanship has proven to be a gigantic hurdle to overcome. We pray for nothing less, O God, than a renewal and reformation in the “business as usual” mentality that has so many administration officials and legislators in its grasp.
Lord, uphold all who fight our nation’s wars. The gifts and talents of our men and women in arms are resources we hold dear. Even as we pray for the end of warfare, we ask that those who live in harm’s way today may draw strength knowing they live under the security of your outstretched arm.
`We pray for this fellowship that our vision for who we are may align with your holy will. Grant to this pastor and council the wisdom and faithfulness that leadership requires. And may each member and friend of this congregation be inspired to greater efforts in making faith visible in word and deed wherever their paths may lead them.
Finally Lord, into your keeping we lift the ill and the convalescing. Abide with the discouraged and distraught, the aging whose bodies have been borne down by the impediments of old age.
Christ our Lord, strength our faith onto the day when we make the accounting of the life we have lived. Teach us to pray with the renewed confidence that filled your disciples when you taught them to pray. Our Father…