23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Image - Joshua (weaing a Jewish hat) meets an angel in a medieval miniature
Joshua may not be Moses, but then again, Moses is not Joshua
By Anonymous (Meister 2) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The first words of the book of Joshua, which begin the reading for today, connect it closely to the narrative of the death of Moses that comes at the end of Deuteronomy. In fact, the book of Joshua is so closely connected to the story that unfolds through the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy, bringing the children of Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the land promised to the people of Israel, that it is sometimes thought of as the sixth book of the Torah. The language used at the beginning of Joshua definitely seems to echo the language used in the last chapters of the Torah, creating a moment of transition between the wilderness, with the challenges to faith and faithfulness that faced the people there, and the stories of the earliest Israelites encountering their long-awaited land, and the people already living there.

But it is a transition, not a simple extension of what has gone on before. Moses is the leader associated with the Torah, and as we get ready to pick up the story now, Moses is gone. And for all Joshua’s importance here, for all the ways he is an instructive model for us, Joshua is not Moses. The text makes that clear; the question is, what will this difference mean. So listen for the Word of God to us in Joshua 1:1-11, 15-18.

After the death of Moses, the servant of YHWH, YHWH said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, 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. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for YHWH your God will be with you wherever you go.”

So Joshua ordered the officers of the people: “Go through the camp and tell the people, ‘Get your provisions ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land YHWH your God is giving you for your own.”

… Then they [the people of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh] answered Joshua, “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you. Only may YHWH your God be with you as he was with Moses. Whoever rebels against your word and does not obey it, whatever you may command them, will be put to death. Only be strong and courageous!” Joshua 1:1-11, 16-18.

One of the things that everyone notices about this text is that there is a lot of repetition – a lot of repetition – of the instruction to Joshua to “be strong and courageous.” The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Bible has it as “be strong and resolute,” which lets us know that the kind of courage being talked about here is not the absence of awareness of risk or danger, not fearlessness, but rather the determination to go forward as required, whatever the risk or danger. God tells Joshua to “be strong and courageous” three separate times, and then the people tell him the same thing, to “be strong and courageous.” Moreover, Joshua has heard this instruction before, from Moses, and from God, back when Moses was still alive, when Moses formally and publicly designated Joshua as his successor, and as Joshua first began to face the task of leading the people of Israel after Moses.

So is it difficult to imagine how Joshua might need some encouragement right now? If I try to put myself in Joshua’s shoes at this point, I start getting anxious just thinking about it! Here’s Joshua, who’s been Moses’ assistant since back at the beginning of this long, strange trip; we know this because he’s mentioned as Moses’ assistant when Moses climbs Mt. Sinai to receive God’s Torah, which establishes the constitution, as it were, for the people of Israel; Joshua has been a loyal aide throughout this whole long project; and that hasn’t always been easy. We might remember that Joshua and Caleb were the only two scouts who were confident about the people’s ability to enter the land back in those early days of liberation – the ones who said “we can certainly do it, God is with us!” That was Joshua then. Because of that, they ended up having to oppose their own people. So now – of all of these people, Joshua is one of the two who has seen all of the obstacles that lie in wait for them with his own eyes. And now, after having after having spent decades relying on the direction and wisdom and instruction of his mentor Moses, that unprecedented hero, leader, lawgiver, and prophet of the people of Israel, that unique individual who spoke to God face to face, Joshua is facing having to be the leader who comes after that guy. Now Joshua is going to be the one who will have to keep these people mobilized and on task as they confront the new challenges ahead. So now, in addition to feeling the loss of the impressive figure who was his personal mentor and inspiration, he’s feeling that just when he’s shouldering the weight of this heavy new responsibility.

If I were Joshua, I know I would not be able to get away from the question, how am I ever going to fill Moses’ sandals? How can I possibly do this work in front of me? I’m guessing that many of us can relate to that feeling – that dismay and doubt.

The good news, though, is that he doesn’t have to fill Moses’ sandals. The first thing God tells Joshua is that Moses is dead. And while that may not sound comforting to us, it probably should, because the point is, God is not asking Joshua to be Moses. Legend has it that the children of Israel forgot 3,000 laws of the Torah during the 30 days they mourned Moses’ death, and that when Joshua asked God to repeat them, God refused – in effect telling Joshua, look, receiving the Torah is not your job. Your job is to get these people across this river, to walk through the land, to lead a military endeavor – this is your mission. So just do the job I’m giving you; don’t worry about doing the job I’m not giving you.

And not only is the job I’m giving you specific to you, I will continue to be with you all through it; I will never leave you or forsake you. And if that isn’t enough, I am underwriting the success of this particular mission. So, here it comes, “be strong and courageous,” “be strong and very courageous.” Because the Holy One your God will be with you withersoever you go.

And we can probably imagine how reassuring Joshua would find this. Part of what made Moses’ presence so reassuring was that people knew that God’s presence was with Moses. We hear the echo of this from the people, who also tell Joshua to be strong and courageous, not to shrink back from the work ahead of him, and who encourage him – or maybe, question him, by saying … “only make sure that God is with you.” Because if that’s the case, they will want to obey his orders, and support his leadership. Everyone involved in this project seems to feel the need for the presence of God. It’s that presence that lets them know that they are heading in the right direction, are going to be taken care of, are moving towards God’s promises. So while Joshua does not possess all the same qualifications of Moses, while Joshua is a different person entirely, with his own unique job description, the presence of the Holy One authorizes his complete confidence. God’s presence authorizes him to have something we often call “strength,” as well as resolve to move ahead into circumstances that would make any normal person fear the possibility of failure.

It’s the presence and the promise of God that authorizes the complete confidence God enjoins on Joshua, that authorizes Joshua’s assumption of the mantle of leadership with all its demands, and that empowers Joshua to move ahead into uncharted territory, literally.

Now, it might occur to us to ask ourselves, how is it that we can have such an acute sense of what Joshua is going through at this moment? How is it that we can relate so keenly to Joshua here?

And I’m afraid that the answer is that we’ve all “been there.” Not there as in, the east bank of the Jordan River there, with the wild west of the land of Canaan in front of us and leading the historically unruly people of God on our to-do list. I mean there on this side of a big, tough project; a project or a challenge that when we look at it objectively we know is going to take everything we have to give, and maybe then some; maybe even a challenge that we don’t know for certain will work out in a positive way, although we know it could and we want it to.

I’m not talking about those times in which we are not sure what to do, that’s a different kind of problem; I’m talking about those times when we know what we are going to need to do … and because of that, we know this thing is a tough assignment, is going to require us to dedicate ourselves to the project and stick with it until it’s accomplished, it is going to require some personal sacrifice, some acceptance of less leisure or less pleasure or less something; there are going to be choices to be made, and to be faithful to the people we’ve assumed responsibility for, we are not always going to be able to make the easy ones.

I think of the way I felt writing my dissertation. Every morning there was all that opposition … all those ideas in my head, about how I wasn’t good enough; I wasn’t really smart enough; I didn’t know enough; I wasn’t doing it right; I was wasting my time on something that didn’t matter to anyone … on and on and on, and having to get past that and keep working was a challenge. I remember one day I sat down to read through a book that was an important piece of background for one of the chapters, and I was so aware of how much time this was going to take and how far I still had to go and why was I doing this … and just then I had a very clear sense that there was someone who needed this dissertation to be finished, that I was doing this because it was necessary for whoever that person was, and that somehow God was wrapped up in this. It was a feeling, but it was a strong feeling, one of those feelings we sometimes … receive, in a way. And that sense that somehow God was present in this whole process did make possible things that at times felt impossible; it didn’t eliminate all of my problems with the process, but that reassurance that this had some purpose, and that I was not alone, made it possible to get on with that work, and to keep on with it.

We each face our own challenges, but we’ve all been there – where, like Joshua, we have good reason to feel our qualifications or our authority or our abilities don’t measure up to the task ahead. We stand in the doorway of that garage or barn that is the fruit of a lifetime of hoarding; we stand in the parking lot of the Next Step, before our first AA meeting; we stand in the driveway, car packed, about to leave for college or for that move or for the first day of that new exciting but terrifying job; we stand in the middle of that room we’re decorating for that new human being we think is on the way … we’ve each been somewhere different, but we’ve all been there – that place where we wonder whether we are, or have, what our life is about to demand.

What we need to know when we’re there is that we’re not there alone. God, the God who said to Joshua “I will never leave you nor forsake you” and “I am with you withersoever you go,” that God is also with all of us, with each of us. The good news is that God is with us to help us know where we need to go and what we need to do, and then, when working for the cause of life and moving in the direction in which God wants us to go takes us to challenging places, which it will, and calls on us to do things we hadn’t planned on, which it will, and demands sacrifices we hadn’t expected to make, which it will … then and there we have the assurance of God’s strengthening, encouraging presence. The promises and the presence of God authorizes us in the steadfast pursuit of that purpose that is ours to fulfill.

Not only have we all been there, we are there more often than we realize.

Martin Buber tells the story of Rabbi Zusya, who dreamed he had died and went to stand before God. As he waited for God to appear, he started to think about his life and how little he had done, and he started to imagine that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised, because God didn’t ask him any of those things, God asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”

That’s our real challenge: recognizing our circumstances for the awesome responsibility they really are. Because we are always being asked to do the work, whatever it is, for which we specifically have been called, here and now. Our first challenge is to recognize it – this afternoon when we are standing in line at the grocery store, or this evening as we are getting ready to sit down to dinner with the family, or Monday morning when we are about to walk in to work, to hear the echo of God’s words to Joshua, and to Zusya – my servant so and so was my servant so and so, now you … be strong, and courageous – because the God who made us, who calls us into a life of promise and purpose, and who calls us into specific work cut out for us, is also with us – to authorize our complete confidence, strength and courage in doing that unique work of being the people we are called to be. We have every reason, then, to be strong, and very courageous, ourselves.

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