Now Then, Get Ready

Delivered July 7, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: Trusting God for a new day by letting go of the old days.

Sermon Text:
Joshua 1:1-9
and Romans 15:1-4
1 Now it came about after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD,
that the LORD spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant, saying,
2 “Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross this Jordan,
you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them, to the sons of Israel.
3 “Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it
to you, just as I spoke to Moses.
4 “From the wilderness and this Lebanon, even as far as the great river,
the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and as far as the Great Sea toward
the setting of the sun will be your territory.
5 “No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life.
Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.
6 “Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession
of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them.
7 “Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all
the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or
to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go.
8 “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall
meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all
that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then
you will have success.
9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble
or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself, but as it is written the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. For everything that was written in the past, was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.” And that’s what this text from Joshua is. It’s God’s word to us today. And I would like to point out three principles for living during transitional times. It’s not just a congregational transition that I am speaking to, I am speaking to your transition. I was approached by two separate couples after the first service that I didn’t even know, some of the transitions they were making. Of course we know, those of you who know Tad and Lynn Watanabe, they will be moving to State College this week. We know Jerry is moving. Bryan is moving. I will be moving on in a few weeks. The Rue’s are going to Japan in less than a few weeks. It’s kind of like Dorothy said in Munchkin land, “People come and go so quickly around here.” But God has a plan and the Book of Joshua is one window on the kind of plan that God has in transitional times.

So I want to look with you at this text and before I state the first principle, I want to point out and highlight or lift up a phrase. After the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua, son of Nun, “Moses, my servant is dead.” Now it is possible that that announcement came to him because the Lord told Moses to go up to the mountain and maybe Joshua didn’t know exactly when the Lord would take him, but I think there is another element to this. I think that at some level Joshua knew what God was saying in a different way. “Moses my servant is dead.” It’s like sometimes God will state the obvious and I wonder if that is the case, just to help us deal with feelings of denial. “Moses my servant is dead.” Do you remember when King Saul, the first King of Israel died and Samuel the prophet was grieving over him for such a long time, God had to come to Samuel and say, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” You know it is natural for us not to make the necessary adjustments to losses. God knows that. We are a little slow. We are human. But this phrase is more than just a bit of information, it’s an injection needle of truth. “Moses my servant is dead.” Now something else has to happen and so here is the first principle. No human being is indispensable to the kingdom plan of God. And I want to say quickly that human beings are a very important part of the plan of the Kingdom of God, but no one is an indispensable part of the kingdom plan of God. If you will turn back with me one chapter, just one page to Deuteronomy 34, and this gives the account of the end of Moses’ life and in Verse 7, this is a rather well known verse to those who are familiar with the Old Testament. “Moses was 120 years old when he died. Yet his eyes were not weak, nor his strength gone.” That’s another way to say that Moses was still ready to go. He still could have gone a few more rounds. But God had a different plan. God decided no, now it’s time Moses for you to bow out and I am sure there were people who said, “Moses, we can’t make it without you.” But the Lord said, “Oh yes you can, because this is happening just so you remember who it is that you are trusting in.” That’s what the Lord is about. The Lord always sees to it that no human person becomes an institution and any time that has happened with cults or other organizations where there has been too much reliance on human leadership, they never last long. There is a period of time where maybe it last and there is a zenith of experience, but when human beings are the focus of leadership, it never lasts long. And then if you look in 34 in Verse 6 it says that after Moses died that God buried him in Moab and the valley opposite of Bethpeor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is. Again, I think that is underscoring the same point.

Do you remember when Princess Di was killed in a car accident and how people just flocked around and wanted to be a part of that experience, they decided finally to end up burying her on an island. They knew that there would probably be no rest in one sense for her, if they didn’t have some spacing between her and her debutantes and you see what happens with somebody like that.

Do you remember when in the history of the people of Israel, there was a great sin against God and Gods way of healing the problem he said to Moses, “Moses you create a bronze serpent and you put it on a staff and you hold up that staff and when people look to it, they will be healed of their snake bites” and everybody who looked at it was healed. You know a generation later, what was happening with that staff. They were worshiping it. They were bowing down. They called it a new name. And if they did that with a staff, this serpent thing, what would they have done with Moses’ tomb. You see, over a thousand years after Moses, the Apostle Paul was writing to his friends in Corinth. They had gotten in to a problematic situation. They were saying that they were followers of certain human leaders and they were grouping themselves accordingly. But in Verse 21 of 1st Corinthians 3, Paul emphatically states, “So then, no more boasting about people. Let no one boast of human leaders for no human being is indispensable to the kingdom plan of God. Not me, not you, not Moses, not Paul.” So the Lord started with Joshua, “Moses my servant is dead.” “Now then” he says in Verse 2, “in light of this”, here is the second principle. Now then, you and all of these people get ready to cross over. Get ready. See we are not ready to embrace God’s newness. We are not ready to become all that we can become until we let go of what has been. And so the second principle is this. It kind of sounds like Johnny Cochran in the courtroom. Unless we let go, we will not grow. Unless we let go, we will not grow. The positive opposite is, once we let go we can be ready to grow in to Gods new plan for us. You see, to get ready is not only to go on in life chronologically, it’s to grow on in life. And we all understand what it is like when we are on one side of a transition that we are fearful of facing. We know the anxiety that can be experienced, but we also know the positive feelings that we have when we are on the other side. When we go from one grade to the next as students, when we graduate, when we get a job and master it, when we learn a skill and put it in to practice, when we enter a new relationship, when we take a risk and succeed, when we drive a car, when we learn piano, when we make a team or negotiate a difficult period of our lives. And there is nothing quite as sad as seeing and hurting for people who are stuck in places and on people that they should have let go of. It’s not wrong to feel sad or mad or bad, it’s not wrong at all. It just is. What we feel is what we feel. Ernest Hemingway put it this way, he said “Sooner or later the world breaks everyone.” And then some of us become stronger in the broken places. And anybody who has ever lost a relationship or had a relationship go bad knows these things, but the issue is whether we can own our feelings and work through them to the point where we can let go sufficiently enough to get ready for Gods new thing. Only then we will be ready to enter whole heartedly in to new relationships and new tasks that God has for us. It is kind of an interim pastor’s mantra but any unresolved feelings about former pastors will contaminate relationships with future pastors. When we can’t let go, we not only will not grow, but we get stuck in history.

In Charles Dickens, “Great Expectations” there is a character named Ms. Havisham, most of us were forced to read that novel in high school, but if you don’t remember Ms. Havisham as a young woman was to have gotten married and on her wedding day, the groom didn’t show up and we meet Ms. Havisham 20 years later in the novel and she is still wearing her wedding dress and the wedding cake is still on the table in her mansion and the mice and the spiders are doing their thing, dancing around that cake, because Ms. Havisham never dealt with her feelings about her aborted wedding, she got stuck in history and she drew the curtains on her life and became a stifling influence on all around her.

Ed White who is the former pastor, former executive Presbyterian and now works part time with the Alban Institute, which is a congregational think tank said that one year he was asked by a pastor of a large congregation to help with home communions, in which groups of 20 people or so gather in homes during Lent for Bible study and fellowship and actually celebrate communion, and because the congregation was so large the regular pastors couldn’t cover it, so they asked others to come in and help lead a group in the area. He says that he went to a home where he was asked to help out for a short time and there were about 22 people there, all in their 70’s and all of whom had belonged to a church, to the church that he was helping for 35 or 40 years. And he said we had a pleasant evening of Bible study and communion, but all evening long folks talked about dear old Dr. So and So and how he had been ill recently in the hospital, but now was home again. He said, had I been a stranger to that group, I would have thought by the way the conversation was going that Dr. So and So was the current pastor, but he came to learn that he was retired 20 years ago. He said he felt like he was in a whole room full of Ms. Havisham’s. And he said later he checked with the current pastor and he visited him and he knew the names and he reviewed the names of the 22 people and sure enough only two of them were regular current participants in the life of the congregation. He said the others may had continued to send in a contribution and maybe made it to the Easter service, but for all practical purposes, their active life in the body of Christ got stuck 20 years earlier. They never learned to trust God with their past. “When we let go, we will grow and not until then.”

But our getting ready, and that’s the other most helpful part of this text, is not to be done in our own effort. In fact, it can’t be done in our own effort. The rest of this wonderful text gives us one more principle worth remembering. And that is this. We best prepare for the transitions God takes us through, when we stand on the promises of God. They are so rich. We could read this every day and still have something to preach on. Listen. Listen to all of these promises. Verse 3, “I will give you every place where you set your foot.” Verse 5, “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.” Listen to this. “I will never, never leave you or forsake you” said the Lord. And after all of these promises, God says to Joshua the same thing with growing degrees of intensity from Verses 6 through 9. “Be strong and courageous because you will lead this people to inherit the land.” “Be strong” Verse 7 “and very courageous” and then he gives him the way that this will happen in Verse 8. Verse 7. “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you. Don’t turn to the left or the right and you will be successful.” Verse 8, “Do not let this book of the law depart from your mouth. Meditate on it day and night so that you can be careful to do everything written in it.” You see. The law of God contained the promises of God. And he was saying, obey the Lord because each promise is a sign of Gods love and commitment to you. Why do we obey the Lord? What motivates us to obey God? Paul again said it to the Corinthians; “The love of Christ constrains us.” Do you know what that means? That means the love of Christ towards us, more than our love towards Christ constrains us. We are going to gather around this table in a short while and again be reminded of the love of Christ towards us, that keeps us on the path and gives us Gods motivation for obedience and sometimes in the transitions, we are prone to wander, but the Lord says, “Stick with my word and the uncertain shadows of transition, the word of God will be your guide.” Quote it, meditate on it, memorize it, study it day and night and then you will have good success. And then if the first 8 verses are not enough, there is the crescendo of Verse 9. “Have I not commanded you”, “Have I not commanded you.” You know sometimes we just skip right over that. Who is the I? The God of the universe has commanded all of this.

I was talking with our neighbor, Ellen and I we set up a little breakfast yesterday morning on our deck and just next door they have a deck also and the mom of three children, mom and dad live there and she and her oldest daughter Sara, 8 years old, were out there. She was out there watering her plants and she called over to us and she said, “Hi” and she said, “Guess where we were this weekend?” I said, “I don’t know. Tell us where you were.” Her husband is in the military and he works at Camp David. And that family of five along with about a dozen others had the incredible privilege of meeting the President at Camp David. And little Sara, 8 years old said, “I shook hands with the President.” And I said, “President of what?” She goes, “The President.” I said, “President Bush?” And I came over to her and I said, “Put your hand out.” And I grabbed her hand and I said, “Oh boy, now I shook the hand of the hand that shook the President.” The mother said that their little 5 year old who wasn’t there at that moment, after they had met the President and they were walking away and the little 5 year old had his arms crossed like this and he was all mad. And the dad said, “What are you mad about?” He said, “I didn’t get to play with the dogs.” Now he knew the President had dogs. You know what his dad said to him, he said, “You just shook hands with the leader of the free world and you are worried about dogs?” That’s what I get from this text. “Have I not commanded you?” Who is this that commanded us again? Have I not commanded you. The Lord and we are looking at people. Have I not commanded you be strong and courageous, don’t be terrified, don’t be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you, wherever you go. And so we face these transitions, whether they be congregational, whether they be personal. We can rise to great heights when we remember to dispense with human indispensability. When we let go of the past and when we hold on to God’s promises and commands. He will never leave us or forsake us. Let us pray.

Gracious Lord, we bless your name because you alone are the God of the universe. You are the Lord of Heaven and Earth and we thank you that you have chosen to condescend to us. As we worship you with song, help us to remember who our guide is and no matter what wilderness we are a part of, that you indeed will guide us through it. For we pray it in Jesus’ name. Amen.