Today is the first Sunday of September. And thank goodness, frankly; August hasn’t been the easiest of months.
It caught me off guard, August did. I went into it expecting a lot of good things. Not normal life – I wasn’t fooling myself, I was prepared for some more new territory. But I was also excited that this would include some new in-person things, especially here at the church. Then, at the last minute, a wrench fell in our plans called “the Delta variant” and we found ourselves in a different kind of unknown than expected.
Kind of like Joshua and the Israelites.
Today’s Scripture finds them at a moment where they are expecting to go into new territory – the Promised Land. It was a good kind of new territory for them. It’s what they had been working toward for 40 years! And then, right as they prepare to cross over…
There’s a big, fat wrench in their plans. Moses had been their leader since way back in Egypt. And now they’re supposed to go into new territory with a brand-new leader? Who’s this “Joshua” guy anyway?
As is so often the case, what catches us humans off-guard is no surprise for God. God’s not worried; God had planned for a transition in leadership at this particular moment. God pulls Joshua aside to make this clear with a pep talk.
You know it’s a pep talk because God says to Joshua – three times – “be strong and courageous…” “be strong and courageous…” “be strong and courageous.” When someone has to repeat it that often… it might be a clue that the situation warrants the opposite. Joshua was probably looking at the task – leading the Israelites into the Promised Land – and himself – an inexperienced leader following an immensely popular, successful one – and feeling not “strong and courageous.” He probably felt weak and afraid.
But even in these circumstances, Joshua can be “strong and courageous.” And we can too – because right here God explains to Joshua whyand howto be strong and courageous, a why and how that’s actually pretty universal. It applies to us, too.
Let’s start with why. Why can Joshua be “strong and courageous” in this scary new territory?
Because God is with him: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you” (Josh 1:5).
And this is exactly how it worked with Moses, as a matter of fact. You might remember when God first called Moses to the job: a burning bush in Exodus 3. Moses was caught off guard by this, because he hadn’t applied for the position of “liberator of the Israelites.” He was happy working on his father-in-law’s farm. Moses objects over and over again to God’s calling. “Who am I to confront Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the Israelites?” God gives Moses a definitive answer, but it has nothing to do with who Moses is. God simply says:
“I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12).
That was Moses’ why. It was also Joshua’s “why.” Both these great, Biblical leaders could be “strong and courageous,” not because of who they were, but because God was with them.
It’s the same for you, and me, and all of us. You can be “strong and courageous” – no matter how unqualified you feel, no matter how weak and afraid you are. Be “strong and courageous” because God is with you.
God is with you. Do you believe that?
Sometimes it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Sometimes we’re stepping out into territory that’s so new, so scary, we can’t help but doubt whether God is with us or not. Is God right here, in this place? Is God with me in this decision, this plan, this way I’ve chosen to go?
There’s a way to reassure ourselves of God with us. There’s also a way to know that we’ve not wandered away from where God is. This is the how – how we can be strong and courageous. That how is: “…be careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you…” (Joshua 1:7).
When we’re doing what God wants us to do – living as God knows is best for us – God is with us and we are with God. So all we have to do is follow all the law God gave through Moses.
All 613 of them.
That’s the traditional Jewish count of every law God passed on through Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Which is… a lot, right? To show you how many it is, I printed them all out and cut them into individual strips.
I mean, even I, a rule-loving rule-follower, feels a little overwhelmed by all these rules.
God tells Joshua to keep these laws on his mouth, to meditate on them day and night (1:8). We want them memorized. We want to fill our hearts with them. So imagine this vase is my heart. I’m going to take all these laws and put them in there.
But the sheer quantity is kind of challenging… And then sometimes, the content is challenging. There are laws about slaves, and how we should kill people who don’t obey the sabbath, and animal offerings, and tassels on the corners of our cloaks… And a lot of modern-day concerns that don’t get covered at all. No laws about social media, for example. We could use at least 10 about Facebook, I’m sure.
I want to be with God by doing what God wants, but when I try to fill my heart with these 613 laws… well, it’s kind of a mess. It doesn’t leave me feeling very “strong and courageous,” probably because it’s not really helping to reassure me that I’m with God and God is with me. Instead, I just feel confused.
And God doesn’t want us confused. God wants to be with us, and us to be with God – so that we can feel “strong and courageous,” even in all the new territory of life.
So God sent Jesus – the Word made flesh. Through Jesus, God wouldn’t abolish the law; God would fulfill it, through the One who would embody it perfectly, the one who would make it possible to fill our hearts with it.
One way Jesus did that for us is by clearly identifying what’s most important. When he was asked that question – “which command in the law is the greatest?” – Jesus pointed to two in particular. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,” Deuteronomy 6:5. And, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Leviticus 19:18. When I place those two commands in my heart, it feels simple and beautiful, like two flowers that have the potential to grow.
But these two flowers need help to grow. That’s where Jesus gives us another gift – and credit to Adam Hamilton for this image. Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, that goes with us daily and inspires us, that helps us understand how to love God and love neighbor and gives us the grace to keep trying when we fall short. It’s like pouring water in with the flowers – they can’t survive for long without it.
So: are you going into new territory? This is the first Sunday of a new month, after all. It’s the first day of the next leg of our journey with God – our adventure into new territory.
There’s a lot to be excited about – but a lot of challenges, too. We will need to be strong and courageous.
And we can be.
Why? Because God is with us.
And how? By filling our hearts with God’s commands. By loving God and loving neighbor, and allowing the Holy Spirit to make our lives about just that. This isn’t an image of a heart that’s weak and afraid. This is a heart that is strong and courageous.