Sermon: Lessons from the Wilderness – We Must Overcome Our Inability to
Scripture: Joshua 5.9-12
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Date: March 31, 2019
Turn in your Bible to Joshua 5.9-12. It is a text about crucial transitions in the life of the community. At first blush, the text comes across as very benign and it might even raise the question on our part as to why the lectionary even includes this reading in the Season of Lent. It doesn’t seem very Lentonish. Let me provide the context of our reading.
Moses has spent an entire generation, forty long years, cat-herding the Hebrews through the wilderness. The Hebrews were feeling the pain of their Egyptian task masters and God spoke to Moses from the burning bush to tell of his plans. This loosely affiliated group of ragamuffins were being forged into a people who leaned on and worshipped the One true God. Listen to the Word of the Lord!
Joshua 5: 9-12
9 The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgalto this day.
10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the Passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. 11 On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
Why is our text included in the lectionary readings for this Sunday in Lent? It’s because it describes the story of starting over. It’s a story for taking what the people have learned in the wilderness and applying those learnings into a new way of life and being in community. So, what has changed for the Hebrews?
First, Moses is dead, and they have a new leader named Joshua. For an entire generation this one man served as God’s leader in the peoples’ midst. Moses has had an entire generation to prove the metal of his relationship with God and that of the various Hebrew tribes. It was a relationship forged out of the blood, sweat and tears of their mutual life together in the wilderness. Now a new leader was lifted up for the people named Joshua. Moses and Joshua were the same in that they were chosen by God to lead the people. Moses and Joshua were different, however, in the way they led their people. They had different sets of gifts and graces to draw upon to lead the people in the way they should go.
Second, they have shifted their way of life. They are no longer nomads who wander in the desert. For an entire generation the people have wandered about the wilderness moving from place to place wherever the resources were abundant enough to support the entire group. It’s not a very settled life. But something has changed. Now that they have crossed the river and have taken possession of the land, they are no longer nomads drifting from place to place; on the contrary, they are settlers. Nomads and settlers have very different ways of living and behaving. They have moved from being nomads to agrarians or farmers; their provision has adjusted from having God give them Manna to eat every morning to learning how to become farmers who grow their own sustainable source of food in their new home. Their way of life has shifted; their culture changed.
Third, we see a very subtle change for the people. It’s what they are called. We almost miss this if we are not careful. They are no longer called Hebrews but now are called Israelites. No longer are they a loose group of wandering tribes and clans being led by Moses; on the contrary, their forty-year journey has forged them into a unified nation who follow the same leader and God. No longer vagabonds, they are now a nation whose people have shared ties, experiences and stories with each other. They have become the nation of Israel and God is their King! Once they were slaves and nobodies; now they are the nation of Israel.
Friends, our Story today shows us how a community’s life and transitions shape their identity. When a community shares certain experiences together, they are forged into a tighter community because of those shared experiences. It’s a Story that reminds us that change is inevitable and transitions in life occur and if we don’t adapt to those changes and transitions, the community will not grow but will slip into a slide of slow death through the swirling whirlpool of stale status quo. Changes in circumstances, environment, leadership, membership in the community shapes who and what that community becomes in the future.
I wonder if there were people who crossed the Jordan River with Joshua to attain the Promised Land who grumbled about it. They were tired and liked being nomads; they did not want to learn how to do new things and express themselves in new ways. They complained about having to get wet in the water as they crossed. Their new type of life would require them to draw upon new insights and skills they hadn’t had before, and it was going to be hard to learn how to adapt. They grumbled to Joshua, “Moses never did it that way; why do you want to go shake things up?”
Beloved, our text today is perfect for our wilderness preparation in that it reminds you and me, this group of people called First Pres, that change is real and is not a bad thing. It reminds us that change and adaption occur, not because the old way was bad and the new way is good; rather, it’s because the circumstances and environment demands new ways of doing things. The wilderness challenge is that it confronts us with the fact we don’t like to change and find it much easier and simpler to remain as we are and not venture to what God is calling us to be. Part of our struggle as Christians is that we don’t like to change and resist it, sometimes violently. Lent is a time for us to identify those ‘sacred cows’ in our relationship with the Church that we need to butcher and let go of so we can become a new people. What has worked for this church in the past may not necessarily work for us now. What we took for granted in the past, all that manna from God, is gone and we have to learn to fend for ourselves with the resources we have. What worked as a nomad will not work as a settler. Friends, Broward County and metropolitan Fort Lauderdale is not the same as it was15 to 30 years ago. The ministry we did in the Beninger, Neumann and Cromey years may not be the same as it is will be in the Wrisley, Merchant and Masten years. Why? Is it because our way is ‘better?’ No! It’s because this church is in a new missional country and land that we are being asked to claim for the Kingdom of God today. What made sense as nomads no longer works for settlers.
Beloved, this year First Pres has a new leadership team of Wrisley, Merchant and Masten (sounds like a law firm!) that God has called to walk with you as together we come and claim this mission field for Christ. As we move into this new missional field and reality, it will require all of us to adapt to a new way of life and doing things. It means leaving some old ways of doing things and tools behind that will not serve us well in the new land God is giving us. It means discovering our new identity as a community of faith and as a people of God known as First Pres.
This past Thursday at our Session meeting, the elders agreed to begin the process of looking at our identity as a church. We are no longer Hebrews wandering about; we are what exactly in this new era? Your elders are committing to go on a spiritual advance in April to get away and begin this process of discernment. Your lay leadership realizes our missional country has changed and so we need to retreat for a few days of praying, planning, and discerning where and what we are to do and where we are to go. It’s an exciting time!
But it requires your prayers.
It requires your ability to say no to old ways and being able to say yes to new ideas and methods.
It requires all of us to get wet as we cross the river.
It will require some of you to step up into called leadership as elders and deacons when the call is put out.
It requires us to relinquish our sacred cows in the church and as Bill Esaum says, make them into gourmet spiritual hamburgers! Amen.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15thAvenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 3330
© 2019 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.