March 3, 2021
On the Brink
Today we start a new series as we return to Wednesday worship. We’re calling it “On the Brink, stories from the edge.” The idea is to look through scripture for those moments of significant transition. Times when Israel or an individual was on the brink of something new. What can we learn from scripture about these times of great transition?
We are on the brink now as the pandemic comes to a close and we anticipate opening the building again. We know that things have changed, there is no going back to normal or the way it was. There’s too much water under the bridge for that and we’ve experienced too much, learned too much. When we return to indoor worship and see our whole congregation face to face again it won’t be the same congregation. People have died, people have left, new people have joined, babies have been born. And we’ve all been changed in ways that will take years to fully be revealed. We’ve undergone something together but also independently. And it will take some time to fully realize how it has affected us. My wife is now fully vaccinated, and she was sharing with me that when she was at the gym someone started working out next to her. Even though she was fully vaccinated she still felt discomfort, even as she told herself it was ok. We’ve been through a lot and it’s taken a toll. We will need to be intentional about thinking through and naming the ways we’ve been changed.
Today, we turn to Joshua on the brink of new life in the promised land to learn a bit on how to move into something new. Joshua and Israel had been through a lot together. Just think a bit about their history. Joshua, the son of Nun, was sent by Moses along with eleven other spies 40 years prior to go scope out the promised land. When they returned, only he and Caleb were confident they could take the land. They had faith when the other ten had fear. Joshua was outvoted and the result was 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Do you know how hard it must have been to be outvoted on such a significant issue and yet stay with your people? Not only did Joshua stay, but he became a warrior and leader for the nation of Israel. When they came against enemies, it was Joshua in the trenches leading the charge. When they crossed over into the promised land and faced formidable foes who outnumbered them, it was Joshua who led them to victory after victory. Yet Joshua never took credit, he always gave that to God, knowing that any victory they achieved was by God’s grace.
Joshua led Israel into battle, into war. I wonder how many friends Joshua lost in those battles. I wonder how many wounded veterans were in the crowd that gathered to hear Joshua’s last speech before he died? That’s when this speech takes place. Joshua was very old, the battles had been won, although more would be fought. Joshua had led Israel over the Jordan into the promised land and fought to subdue it. He then divvied up the land among the tribes, casting lots, deciding the future of families and nations. But then before they are too settled in this new land and before the memories of the wilderness had faded Joshua gathers all the tribes before him for some final instructions. Some on the Brink instructions before he dies. What would you tell a people who had been through so much together? What would you want them to remember, what points would you press home? Joshua has a long memory and what he wants Israel to know is all the ways God was there for them. He takes them back all the way to Abraham, before the wars, before Jericho, before the quail and manna, before the spy adventure, before the red sea, before the 400 years of slavery, before Jacob and Isaac. All the way back to that moment when Abraham was called out of the blue by God and led to the promised land. Then step by step Joshua tells the history of how God gave the promised land, rescued them from Egypt parted the seas, fed them from heaven, gave them victory over opponents and restored them to the Promised land. I can see them nodding their heads, especially as he recounted the things they had personally experienced. Remember crossing the Jordan river and God piled up the water on one side so we could cross over? Remember looking at the walls of Jericho and thinking we didn’t have a chance? Remember marching around the whole city while they jeered at us and attacked us? Remember when God brought the walls down at the sound of the trumpets? I imagine mothers and fathers taking their sons and daughters by the shoulders as Joshua talked – urging them to pay attention. It must have been a stirring speech because when Joshua comes to the end, comes to the point he wants to press home, the crowd shouted in response. Joshua asks them to choose this day whom you will serve, knowing the temptations all around them to serve other gods. “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” And the crowd responds in kind, we will too. Even when Joshua casts doubt on their acclamation, saying they are unable to serve the Holy God and he will surely punish them if they go after false gods. They shout again, “NO, we will serve the Lord.” And they do for a generation or so as they make their home in the promised land. They serve God for awhile but then their children forget, and their children’s children go their own way.
That’s why it’s so important to tell the story, to retell the history of God. And so, I wonder as we are on the brink now, ready to move out of pandemic life into something new. What do we want to remember? What story will we tell? What do we want our kids and our grand kids and all those who come after us to remember? It was a year ago when we moved online, before we even moved outdoors, and I was full of fear. I worried that people would stop giving and that we would have to downsize staff. I imagined the conversations I would be having to tell people that we couldn’t pay them anymore. I worried about our outreach partners, that we wouldn’t be able to support them anymore. Could we continue to feed the hungry, house the homeless, foster children? But then week after week, like manna from heaven, you continued to give and support this ministry. God provided. I want to remember that, how God provided for us when things were bleak. I want to remember how the people at First Lutheran were faithful and supportive during the darkest night. I want to remember that we were able to worship without a sanctuary or pews. Hundreds of faithful members of First Lutheran have worshiped in their homes, on their decks, in their bathrobes and pajamas with coffee in their hands. When someone complains about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary or their pew has been taken by a guest, I want us to tell the story about the time we worshiped outside of the four walls of the sanctuary. How we were still moved by the gospel and touched by the music, when the pandemic kept us at home. I want us to remember that God was working, that the Spirit was active. Talk about the new members who joined our church and still haven’t been inside the walls of the sanctuary. Talk about the people who found us online, the Selleck family in Maine, Thim Liu in Malaysia, Russ and Donna in Florida. Tell the story of our home bound who rejoiced at the opportunity to return to worship through online services. Tell the story of how our people came together as a congregation to baptize, confirm, marry and bury, all without the building that can so easily become an idol. So that when we have the building back, future generations never confuse the building with the church.
People of God, we have been through something together and we will bear the scars for the rest of our lives. The scars of isolation, the scars of fear. The grief over the ones we’ve lost, especially those who died from Covid. Let’s never forget Dennis Kruse or Don Niles. Even as recently as last week we mourn with Darrel Shafer who lost his mother to Covid. We will bear the scars of the political division during last year that took its toll on our unity and we lost a few friends in that conflict. I pray those scars and this shared experience will strengthen us for the days ahead. Soon this time will be behind us and the old temptations will return. But let’s tell the stories of God’s faithfulness. Let’s remind each other, not only of the hardships but of the way we got through it together. Let’s be like Joshua and commit ourselves to the Lord and charge others to do the same. We are still in this, but not for much longer.
We are on the brink, not of returning to normal, but of entering something new. Choose today how you will come out on the other side. Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.