text & theme verse :: Joshua 23:14
In movies, when someone is being chased, it never fails that they look over the shoulder, lose their footing, and fall. But in real day-to-day life, on the usual journeys – and even the unusual ones – looking over our shoulder … remembering where we’ve been … can help us go much farther. When we have a good sense of where we’ve started, what’s behind us and inside us, we can walk (and even run) farther than we’d imagined.
anthem :: 'How Great Thou Art' (arr.Courtney) : Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director
reader :: Ashley Gibson
preaching :: Rev Kevin Howe
response :: 'Victory is Yours' (BethelMusic) : The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
offertory :: 'You'll Never Walk Alone' (R.Rodgers) : Todd Maxwell, vocal; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
‘And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one thing has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you; all have come to pass for you, not one of them has failed.
There he is perched, a hopeless and dejected young prince, gazing over the surface of a small pond. A look of disillusionment flashes across his face as he looks into the calm water only to be greeted by his own likeness mirrored back. “That’s not my father. That’s just my reflection,” he says turning to the one who had promised him an encounter with the dead King. And then, with wisdom that can only be found with the most learned of primates, Rafiki, the mandrill, immediately interjects, “No. Look harder.”
And sure enough, prince Simba’s reflection gives way a rendering of his father. And what follows is a scene that is engraved in the memory of every young, impressionable mind in 1994. Behold, the lion king, Mufasa, appearing in the thunderclouds to his successor. “Simba,” his voice thunders, “you have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me…Remember, you are my son, the one true king. Remember who you are. Remember…”
You know, it’s a shame how disappointingly prone we are to forget even the simplest of things, from time to time—not the least of which is who we are. If you are like me you find that in the hustle and bustle of our distracted lives, forgetfulness plagues us far more than we would care to admit.
Now, the good news is that many slips of the mind carry with them only minor consequences. Like, for example, forgetting the chocolate in your car…
But then there are those times when our forgetfulness is a bit more embarrassing. Like showing up to the marching band competition only to realize that you left your instrument at home. Not to worry; just play it cool.
And then, there are those times when our absent-mindedness is a bit more costly, like that time you forgot to put the drain plugs in the new boat? Hmmm.
But friends, rest assured, you know nothing of the consequences of forgetfulness, until you have borrowed your wife’s cell phone and she says “The password’s my birthday!” …*sigh*. I am still digging my way out of that one.
Yes, we are disappointingly prone to forgetfulness. It’s one of the primary reasons that you and I are here this morning: so that we can remember of some things which we are inclined to forget; namely, who we are and whose we are.
The single verse of scripture that was read this morning, contains the words of Joshua. He was a central figure for the people of ancient Israel, becoming their leader after the death of Moses. And we pick up on Joshua’s story near the end of his life. He knows he is about to die and that there is going to be a season of transition for his people. And he knew that seasons of transition are always good season’s to refresh the memory about who and who’s we are. So Joshua gathers the Israelites together and starts in to his farewell address. He says “Look, I’m about to go the way of all the earth, so I need you to remember something. I need you to remember, in your heart of hearts, that not one of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you has failed; all of them have come to pass. Not a single one of God’s promises has failed you.”
Joshua then goes on to set the record straight by looking over his shoulder into their collective past.1 “Once upon a time,” he says “God called to your ancestor Abraham and promised him that if he would go from where he was living to a place where the Lord would lead him, that he would become the father of a whole nation. Of course, Abraham and his wife Sarah had no kids and they were old (I mean really old!). But sure enough, God kept the promise, and they had a child, Isaac. And Isaac had children of his own: Jacob and Esau. And from there…just look how many of us there are!
“Or how about the time our people were enslaved in Egypt and God promised to liberate them? God called upon the unlikeliest of duos to help with the escape: a fugitive named Moses and his brother Aaron. But God kept the promise. And Egypt got hit hard with plagues and Moses got the people out of Dodge.
And remember just how intense the chase scene was? The Egyptian were in hot pursuit with chariots and cavalry, had our people pinned at the edge of the Red Sea! And your ancestors cried out to God…and God heard their cries. And the Lord made a way—right through the middle of the sea…and left the Egyptians waterlogged behind ‘em.”
Well, Joshua was preachin’ now. And he was going to drive the point home so he continued: “And how about that time we roamed around for 40 years in the wilderness. We were at our wits end, worn out and discombobulated, only to be bought into a land where people wanted to pick fights and curse us. But God promised us a land of milk and honey. And see here, that God has handed you a land for which you did not work, towns you did not build. And now you’re living the good life. Please, don’t you forget how faithful God has been to you. Not one of his promises has failed you.”
It was the Jewish philosopher and theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said that much of what the Bible demands can be summed up in one imperative: remember.2
Remembering who we are and whose we are as a people of faith, is about employing a certain kind of vision. A vision that involves looking our shoulders to see God’s proverbial footprints in the sand of our lives. When comes to our faith, remembering is more like an art form, than it is the rote memory of facts and figures. It’s about telling stories of the past—from our personal lives and our shared life together—that help establish a precedence or expectation in which to ground our living. When we recount the stories of God’s people in scripture and add to that our own glimpses of God’s good works, we are offered the chance to jog our memory about God’s track record of faithfulness to those who put their trust in God.
To remember that we are God’s and that God remains faithful to us, is truly a scandalous act of resistance in a world that tries to peddle us the lie that we are unloved and unclaimed. When we reach back to see that we are, in fact, all children of God, precious and cared for by our Creator, that allows us to operate out of love and justice for our neighbors and ourselves, in a world that so often functions out of doom and gloom. Recalling the stories of God’s accompaniment with God’s people, allows us to move into an uncertain future with the assurance of a long-established precedent; that God that has promised to love of this world and bring abundant life to it, and that not one of God’s promises has failed.
But if we don’t take time to stop and remember, it seems that our daily worries begin to erode our memory. Worry, it seems, has a way of making us forgetful. I don’t know about you, but I have found quite a bit to be worried about these days. I worry about the future of this country we live in. The future of the world. I worry about the future of this congregation. I even worry about whether our mostly unused milk jug is reaching its expiration date.
And in the thick of all this worry, I start looking for places to run and hide. Ironically, instead of using the past to remember the things that will give me the strength to move me forward through the storms of my living, I begin to use the past as a place to hide. I start running towards a half-truth of the past that I have created shaped in my mind and have come to know as “the good ol’ days.” A fairytale escape located somewhere in years gone by where everything was much better, easier, and far simpler.
I have to tell you, I started in using this small paper calendar as my go-to planner for this year, simply because it was lying around and seem the ideal practical size. Well, only about a week ago did I pay any attention the theme of the calendar. It’s titled “Simpler Times,” and has these pictures of beautiful paintings from artist Terry Redlin that invoke nostalgia for a bygone era. Images of summer fields with children in their knickerbockers, frolicking about; wintry wonderlands that strangely warm my soul.
On a particularly stressful day last week, I grabbed the calendar and was drawn in to the serenity of the cover picture: a winter scene, complete with a gorgeous log home—windows lit with warmth. A couple setting off in a horse-drawn sleigh, and children playing around a disgustingly perfect snowman. And I said, “Yes, take me there and double time.” The good ‘ol days. A simpler time.
And no sooner than I had mentally inserted myself behind the reigns of the sleigh, my mind followed the plot a bit further. “So, after this sleigh ride…do I have to get the horse back in the barn? And what am I gonna’ do to pay off the mortgage on that fancy cabin? I’m guessing the kids aren’t quite at night…so much for simpler times.
A desire to run and hide in the past is a temptation of every generation. When the Israelites where in the wilderness wandering about aimlessly, they started yearning for simpler times. They said to one another “This is brutal. We’re going to perish out here. Honestly, Egypt seemed simpler than this.” But the Lord wasn’t interested in sending them back to a terrible past they had conveniently reframed as the good ‘ol days. In their worry about the challenges of the present moment and fear about their future, the collective memory of Israel about the trustworthiness of God had become a bit fuzzy.
Our own worries, fears, and anxieties also carry with them a profound question of God’s trustworthiness. Can God be trusted with a world that seems out of control? Can God be trusted in a time defined by deep division and incivility? Can God be trusted with the future…with your future? Can God be trusted enough to release my stranglehold on control, through power and possessions? No matter how we ask it, the question is this: Can God be trusted?
Our answer to that question and our subsequent actions will hinge on whether we will take the time to look back over our shoulder and what we will choose to remember. What stories will you tell yourself when all seems lost? What will you choose to remember when the going gets tough? What will you call upon when the future seems far too uncertain?
As disciples of Jesus, we have been asked each time we gather together to remember him. That is at the heart of what we are about as a community. Our mission is one of remembrance of the Good News of who we are and whose we are in Christ. To let our living and the ways we respond to the world around us be directed by the remembrance of a trustworthy God who acts and speaks, who lives and deal in surprising and beautiful alternatives far beyond our small visions of what our lives and this world can be.
So, have a look over your shoulder. Do some searching into the past, uncover something that may help jog your memory this week. And I pray that you will come to remember in your hearts and souls, that not one thing has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. Not one of them has failed. Thanks be to God!
1 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
2 Renderings of the stories from Joshua 24:1-12