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As you ecclesiastical scholars know, every Sunday there are four scripture passages selected for use in churches that follow what is known as the Revised Common Lectionary: an Old Testament lesson, a Gospel lesson, an Epistle lesson, and a lesson from the Psalms. Depending on the season of the church year, the lessons for the week might share a common theme, at other times, no. On this fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Sunday, they most assuredly do - the theme of new beginning - any of which would yield fruit for a sermon. The Psalm for today, 32, begins "Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered." For someone whose lenten self-examination has unearthed things that ought not to be, this is good news indeed, cause for rejoicing, even. The Epistle lesson, from II Corinthians 5: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" More good news, more reason to rejoice. The Gospel lesson from Luke 15 is the New Testament's quintessential story of a new beginning as the Prodigal Son returns home to an extravagant welcome and life in his father's house once more. Let the celebration begin. "Rejoice...and again I say, Rejoice,"(1) in the words of the Apostle Paul.
Any of those lessons would have been good for a sermon this morning, but I chose the Old Testament lesson from Joshua 5 simply because it is less familiar. We do not hear a great deal about Joshua's day in our day. The three-year Lectionary cycle only has lessons from Joshua two other times - one when the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land with waters backed up just as with the escape from Egypt through the Reed Sea,(2) and the other when Joshua makes his farewell speech to the people and encourages them to choose God rather than idols.(3)
The material we find in the book of Joshua reflects the culmination of a long and not too pretty history. The people of Israel had been landless for nearly five hundred years. The patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons - had been nomads in the land of Canaan until a famine forced a relocation to Egypt. Eventually, that sojourn resulted in 400 years of slavery which only ended courtesy of a miraculous deliverance into freedom led by Moses. That was followed by a generation of homeless wandering, forty years in the wilderness, until they finally returned to their ancestral territory. Now they had arrived. Promised land. Holy land. Home.
The book begins as God is heard instructing Joshua, the designated successor to Moses (who is now dead): "You and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them--to the Israelites." Joshua passes the message on then sends two spies into the city of Jericho who are almost discovered, but they hide out in the home of Rahab, an apparently notorious lady-of-the-evening (our Sunday School lessons years ago identified her as a harlot but no one ever explained that to us - remember?). The Jericho police come to her place in search of the spies, but she sends them on a wild goose chase, and then helps the men escape in return for a promise of mercy when the Israelites finally take over. Three days later the invasion begins and the Israelites cross the Jordan which has miraculously dried up for them. Once all have passed over, they make camp at a place called GILGAL, to the east of Jericho, and Joshua instructs that a twelve-stone shrine be set up to commemorate the miraculous crossing. He says, "In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever." So they do it.
Now we come to chapter 5 and learn that word of the miraculous crossing had gotten to the powers-that-be in Canaan and they were scared to death. But the battle would not begin quite yet. First, there was a ritual to complete. As we know, since God's covenant with father Abraham, the sign of racial inclusion for Israelite males was circumcision,(4) and, back in Egypt, that practice had continued. But since the Exodus and escape from slavery, as babies were born during the wilderness wandering, somehow the ritual had fallen into disuse. But now they were about to return to their ancestral homeland and God instructs Joshua to reinstate circumcision, so he does. (Now you are getting another clue as to why there is not a lot of preaching from Joshua.) Suddenly, the nation hears the voice of God: "Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you." The pain and humiliation of slavery is now officially gone. It is over. A new life is about to begin. Then the text notes, "So the place has been called Gilgal to this day." Gilgal sounds similar to the Hebrew verb TO ROLL.
Now, one more ritual to celebrate this new beginning. Passover. If you recall, the first Passover in Egypt, just prior to the Israelites' escape, meant the end of slavery and the beginning of a new life of freedom. Exactly a year later, a second Passover was held at the end of their time in Sinai following the giving of the Law as the nation would begin its next journey to Kadesh-barnea and the plains of Moab. This, now, is the third celebration - the wilderness journey is ended and they are about to begin the process of reclaiming their land.
Then there is one more detail noted. No more manna. Remember your Sunday School lessons and recall that manna was God's provision for the people following the Exodus. These small round grains or flakes, which appeared around the Israelites' camp each morning with the dew, were ground and baked into cakes or boiled.(5) The name may well have come from the question the Israelites asked when they first saw the stuff: "What is it (Mah nah)?"
You may also recall that the Israelites got tired of nothing but manna and complained right bitterly about their diet: "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost--also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!"(6) God responded by giving them a quail feast, so much quail that... Well, listen:
"Tell the people: 'Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The LORD heard you when you wailed, "If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!" Now the LORD will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month--until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it--because you have rejected the LORD, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, "Why did we ever leave Egypt?"'"(7)Well, that was then. This is now. A new beginning. No more manna. God does not have to provide directly any longer. As the lesson ends we read, "That year they ate of the produce of Canaan." A new life had begun.
To begin again. That ultimately is the aim of our lenten journey. We do not undergo that process of self-examination and identification of those things that separate us from God and one another as merely an intellectual exercise. There is a purpose to it - with God's help, to fix what is broken, then to start fresh. The good news is that to begin again is a story that is repeated from the day of ancient Israel on up to tomorrow's newspaper.
For example:(8) A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. "I hate you!" she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.
She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, drugs, and violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.
Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she has ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she has ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: Her parents were keeping her from all the fun.
The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car -- she calls him "Boss" - teaches her a few things that men like. Since she is underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring that she can hardly believe she grew up there. She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline, "Have you seen this child?" But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.
After a year, the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean, and before she knows it she is out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they do not pay much, and all the money goes to support her drug habit these days anyway. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. "Sleeping" is the wrong word -- a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.
One night, as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she is hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she has piled atop her coat. Something jolts her memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossoms in chase of a tennis ball.
God, why did I leave? she asks herself, and pain stabs at her heart like a knife. My dog eats better than I do anymore. She is sobbing now, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.
Three straight phone calls, three straight connections to the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, "Dad, Mom, it's me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I'm catching a bus up your way, and it'll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you're not there, well, I guess I'll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada."
It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn't she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? Even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.
Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. "Dad, I'm sorry. I know I was wrong. It's not your fault, it's all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?" She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn't apologized to anyone in years.
When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, "Fifteen minutes, folks. That's all we have here." Fifteen minutes to decide her life. She checks herself in a compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and wonders if her parents will notice. If they are there.
She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect, and not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of 40 family members -- brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They are all wearing ridiculous-looking party hats and blowing noisemakers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads "Welcome Home!"
Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad. She looks through tears and begins the memorized speech, "Dad, I'm sorry. I know..."
He interrupts her. "Hush, child. No time for that. No time for apologies. You'll be late for the party. A banquet is waiting for you at home."
To begin again. It is possible, and that is good news indeed. "Rejoice...and again I say Rejoice."
1. Philippians 4:4
2. Joshua 3:7-17, Year A, Ordinary 31
3. Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Year A, Ordinary 32
4. Genesis 17:10-14
5. Exodus 16:13-36
6. Numbers 11:4-6
7. Numbers 11:18-20
8. Adapted from Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997)