Holy Geography

Given an Old Testament text from Joshua 5.10ff. and a gospel text from Luke 15 open possibilities for interesting opportunities. Both texts suggest homecoming. Following the Joshua text is a familiar text where Joshua encounters one armed with a sword and is told to remove his sandals “for this is holy ground.”

Perhaps that is implied in the gospel text as well. The undeserving one who returns home is offered not only a robe and a ring, but sandals. In echo of the Joshua text we may hear “for this is holy ground.”

Joshua tells us Israel has entered the promised homeland where they eat fresh produce, roasted grains, and unleavened bread. Manna kept them alive in the wilderness but it was time to enjoy the gifts offered in the land. Jesus tells a story where it is no longer necessary to eat with swine, it is now time to celebrate with the gifts of home including the fatted calf. It is interesting that here in the middle of lent, on the way to the cross, we find such feasting.

Lent continues to expose us to a variety of terrain. The geography seems to constantly change, but the destination does not. We journey into holy places. Sometimes without sandals in reverence and humility. Sometimes with sandals on while enjoying fresh produce and barbecue. God knows about our struggles in the wilderness and our poor decisions in a distant land. But God’s real interest is to welcome us to a place called holy.


The Challenge of Joshua

To state the obvious, preaching from Joshua is a challenge. Especially for churches from pacifist traditions. Joshua is full of war. It is aggressive. It is violent. And God is involved in it. That makes Joshua an invitation to participate in a difficult conversation. Preaching Joshua should allow for feelings of disagreement but the text must be taken seriously. Preaching Joshua includes the temptation to make the text more acceptable or to force it into saying something that matches our presuppositions. Or even to dismiss portions of the text.

There are parts of this narrative that pull us into the story. Although violent, Joshua is adventurous. Partnership in warfare is not the usual way God intervenes. However, in Joshua we cannot walk over it, cannot go under it, and cannot walk around it. We must walk through it. Joshua must be seen in its place in the biblical storyline. Such warfare may not be found in other parts of the story, but it is here and we cannot pretend it is not.

Joshua is like an arena that hosts a contest involving text and listener. We struggle between rational thinking vs. faith in God. We struggle with violent warfare vs. worshipful celebration. There may even be a sense of preacher vs. God. We would do well to reread the encounter at 5.13-15 before we preach, regardless of the text for the day. Far too often, preachers have come up with a plan and afterward asked that God endorse it. We may be tempted to enter the situation asking whether God is for us or against us. The text is clear this is the wrong question. The right question is “Whose side are we on?”

Preaching Joshua will leave us with unresolved questions. But we can be certain about this God who demonstrates strength and salvation through strange strategies. Joshua makes us aware of the reality of God.

Ultimately, preaching Joshua takes us to the question, “Who will you serve?” This is the conclusion of the book. After 23 chapters of following this God through the Jordan River at flood stage, circling the city of Jericho, and wandering deeper into the promised the land, we know the correct answer. Joshua reviews what this God has already done, the answer seems obvious. Yet preaching Joshua admits it is difficult to be a disciple. It is to admit out loud that to serve the Lord is not an easy decision. This is the most serious of questions “Who will you serve?” This is where things become difficult. “We will serve the Lord” we say. And the preacher replies “No you can’t do it.” We insist we can and face a challenging future. Other gods are easier to serve. Other kings easier to follow. Allegiance is a difficult decision to make.

Preaching Joshua is to preach about discipleship. To serve the Lord means you cannot serve other gods. You cannot have a foot in two different kingdoms. To preach Joshua is to be reminded of the words that come later from Jesus “No one can serve two masters.”

A Written Sermon

I enjoy a good spy story. Perhaps that is why I am glad to spend time in the Old Testament book of Numbers. Chapter thirteen begins with the Lord speaking. Usually when the Lord speaks in an Old Testament text we are trained to expect something religious. Instead, the word from the Lord is “Send out spies.” The rest of the chapter is about the selection of spies, the completion of the spy mission, and listening to the spy report.

There is nothing like an adventure. I suspect each of us interpret adventure differently, but suspect we all enjoy adventure at some level. The story grabs us, we get caught up in the words and become convinced we are Nancy Drew solving a mystery or Huck Finn on a river raft. Some chart their own adventure, always ready to leap over the back fence with nothing but a loaf of bread and a pound of tea and a lot of adventure ahead.

Some of us wish things felt more like an adventure. Some might like to avoid adventure. Some wish our adventure was different than the one we seem to be on. But the fact is, we are all part of an adventure. We have fallen into a story and cannot get out of it. It doesn’t matter if we were looking for it or if we wanted to. We are here and we are in it.

The text from Numbers 13 knows about adventure. It starts off with a word from the Lord. This is not the word from the Lord we are expecting. Expecting something religious we instead hear “Send out spies.” Different translations use different words, “scout”, explorer.” Yet the fact is God is suggesting espionage. This is to be a recon mission.

Our text names the spies. One of them stands out from the others because of a name change. The spy named Hoshea is now called Joshua. We get the feeling there is more going on than a simple name change. Our story includes our own fragile ways and other obstacles. Our story includes a God always looking for a faithful voice in the congregation to speak against the majority opinion.

The assignment is given and carried out. At first, it appears to have been a successful mission with a positive report. A single cluster of grapes required two men to carry and there were pomegranates and figs. The grape clusters were so impressive they named the valley after them. But then… we discover the grapes are not the only thing that is large out there. The cities are large and they are fortified. The people are large, they are giants. So large they make the rest of us feel like grasshoppers. Everything seems so much larger than life.

This prompts a voice from the congregation. The spy Caleb disagrees with majority opinion. I cannot help but notice how we read Numbers thirteen as if we are Joshua or Caleb. As if we are the ones trusting in the promise of God. Wondering what is up with the other ten spies who have so many doubts. It is more likely we resemble the other ten spies. Sheer numbers suggest that is the case. Plus, it is not always easy to enter the places where God wants us to go. It is easier to choose our own place, at least choose our own timing. We would prefer to design a property to fit our own needs.

Yet God gives a particular land. A place that is not deserved or earned, it is promised and given. A place of grace. Who will enter this place? Who will realize no other place can replace what God has given? Who will hunger for the grapes of Eschol? Who will recognize that not just any grapes will do? I hope the passage reminds us we are engaged in mission. In our adventure the task is large, there are large obstacles and there are giants out there. Yet we must not forget that our story includes a God who always seems to be looking for impossible situations.

There is some temptation at verse 33 to make this a self-esteem sermon. “Don’t be a grasshopper… God wants you to take on giants…there are no mascots called the fighting grasshoppers… do not be a grasshopper… be who you were created to be.” But this is no message of self-esteem. This is a message for a doubting congregation who is trying to survive in a rational land by siding with the majority. This is a message about a God who is always looking to send people into impossible situations. This is a message calling for a faithful voice in the congregation who is willing to stand against the majority on the side of God.

When I suggest we are on an adventure I am not suggesting we start moving about under the cloak of darkness. Or that we begin seeking giants to engage in battle. Neither am I proposing adventure as a metaphor where we spiritualize obstacles and territory and responsibilities. I am saying we are on a literal adventure. One we cannot step out of if we wanted to. We are sent on an adventure where we are to cast suspicion that the way things are is not ok. We are sent to be a minority voice who is willing to side with a God of the impossible.

We cannot overlook the obstacles named in the text. They are significant, larger than life. They are real, no one denies the obstacles exist, not even the spy Caleb. The obstacles are real. There are giants in the land. But there is a real difference in the way one responds to obstacles.

In this text everything is large. The assignment is large. The fruits are large. The cities are large. Even the people are large. This is an adventure larger than life. Yet this text would have us know – nothing is larger than this God.

Joshua: Some Preliminary Thoughts

How does a story like Joshua fit into the biblical storyline? How do these pictures help form my picture of God? Parts of this story may radically affect the way I think about God or the bible or how to live my life. It is easy to think of God as Creator or Deliverer; it is more difficult to learn God is connected to the slaughter of people and the destruction of cities.

People will want to know how to worship a God who is portrayed as a ruthless warrior. It would be easier to walk around these texts but we must not forget who put them here. To avoid them is to avoid God. Perhaps these texts intend to make us feel uncomfortable. The bible does not hide these things, it proclaims them.

We sometimes act as if these were questions God does not want us to ask. Yet, it is God who keeps putting these stories in our path and inviting our questions. The text may feel judgmental. But God intends judgment for healing. God is out to heal the world. We need God’s judgment because things are not ok the way they are. The world is desperately in need of God to make things right.