“I don’t get no respect!” This was the catchphrase made popular by the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who died in 2004. At his passing, the TV show “Saturday Night Live” paid tribute to him with a sketch. Dangerfield arrives at the gates of heaven, where he’s greeted by Saint Peter. Saint Peter mentions that he’s heard that Dangerfield got no respect during his earthly life. Saint Peter asks Dangerfield a series of questions about his life, which Dangerfield answers with a string of his famous one-liners. Finally, Dangerfield asks Saint Peter, “So, do I get into heaven or not?” “Of course, you do,” Saint Peter says. Dangerfield asks, “Then why all the questions?” to which Saint Peter replies, “I just wanted to hear those jokes one more time.” Dangerfield is waved into heaven, joyfully declaring, “Finally! A little respect!”
I wonder if Joshua might have felt something of the same. Even though he has an entire book of the Bible named after him, we don’t hear much from Joshua in the lectionary. We hear how he led the Israelites across the Jordan. We hear about the first Passover in the Promised Land, and we hear Joshua utter his own famous one-liner: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Beyond that, Joshua doesn’t seem to get much respect, liturgically speaking.
Maybe it’s because what happens in most of the book is a series of bloody and brutal battles that are intended to clear Canaan of its inhabitants so the Israelites can move in—stories that seem to put God in charge of a genocide. Or, maybe it’s because the book of Joshua is not a historical account from an embedded reporter, but a theological account, assembled from a collection of stories and traditions during the time of King Josiah. Its purpose is not to give a history lesson as we think of it but to demonstrate how our God is faithful and keeps God’s promises. It’s also something of a prequel that lays the groundwork for and justifies King Josiah’s reforms and a reconquering of land that had been lost.
The bloody massacres, the ethnic cleansing, the violent taking of land from indigenous peoples should give us food for thought as we consider similar events in our more recent past and even in our present-day world. But, what I want to focus on today are the very first verses of the book. These verses speak to my heart and, I hope, to yours. Because, even though these verses are the precursor to the mayhem that’s coming, they also strike me as being very poignant. They offer a glimpse into the heart of a man who has difficult challenges ahead of him, and they allow us to listen in as God encourages and guides him.
The book begins with the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord. Joshua had been hand-picked and commissioned by God to be Moses’ replacement, and he had been groomed through years of service at Moses’ side as his assistant. After years of being Moses’ right-hand man, it is time for Joshua to step into his new role.
So, there he is, standing on the banks of the Jordan River, with all the Israelites behind him. And then God speaks to Joshua: “Now, proceed to cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land which I am giving to them. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised Moses. No one shall 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 not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed.”
Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to offer words of comfort to someone facing a difficult situation, but everything you said just sounded like empty platitudes? Or, maybe you were the one facing something really hard, and the words that were supposed to be comforting just weren’t? You wonder, “How do you know everything will work out OK? Hope for the best? Keep my chin up? Look on the bright side? Really? Even if I believe God is with me, will that get rid of my cancer, find me a new job, make me miss my loved one less?”
I wonder if some of those thoughts were running through Joshua’s mind as he listened to God tell him to be strong and courageous. Deuteronomy (34:9) tells us that Joshua was full of the spirit of wisdom, and Numbers (32:12) tells us that he unreservedly followed the Lord, but still: “all this people” that he’s supposed to lead? They number in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions. The river he’s supposed to lead them across? It’s at flood stage, overflowing its banks. The land on the other side? It’s occupied by Canaanites and Hittites; there’s no red carpet waiting. Not to mention the fact that Moses was a pretty hard act to follow. “Be strong and courageous? Do not be frightened or dismayed?” Really?
If that were all God had said, Joshua would be right to feel like he was just being handed words that make the speaker feel better than the listener. But God offers him so much more. First, God tells Joshua what has already been done, which offers a firm foundation from which courage and strength can grow. Second, God offers assurance that Joshua isn’t in this alone. Finally, God gives Joshua concrete advice—practical steps that will enable him to maintain the strength and courage he will need. The good news is that whenever we feel like modern-day Joshua’s facing our own Jordan’s, God does the same for us.
Joshua may feel that he is standing, literally, on the brink of entirely virgin territory. And, for him and his people, this is true. But while he hasn’t yet crossed the Jordan, God is already there. What looks like new, uncharted territory to Joshua is included in plan well-known by God. God had promised Moses that the Hebrew people would possess this land. This isn’t a new plan; God has already initiated it. “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon I have given to you,” God assures Joshua. Joshua and the Israelites may not yet be standing in the Promised Land, but it is already theirs. God has already given the land to the people. Past tense. Not “I will give to you,” or “I might give it to you,” or “I could give to you.” No, God says, “I have given it to you.” God has gone ahead of Joshua and prepared the way.
When we find ourselves peering into the unknown, we can be confident that God has already gone there before us. Time after time in the Bible, especially through Jesus’ earthly ministry, we find God present in people’s lives. Because Jesus was present in the lives of people who were sick in body and spirit, we can trust that God has gone ahead of us into the surgical suite, the counselor’s office, the hospice room. When we fear uncertainty, we look to a Savior who had no where to lay his head, and we know he has gone ahead of us into uncertainty. When we grieve the loss of people we love, regardless of how that loss comes about, we remember that God repeatedly suffered estrangement from God’s people, and Jesus lost family to death and friends to betrayal. In all of this, God goes before us.
God has promised that we will be victorious. Does that mean every illness will be cured, every problem solved, every relationship healed as we would like them to be? No. But it does mean that we need not fear what is before us. It means that when we come face-to-face with uncertainty, we can banish fear. We can conquer our feelings of helplessness and confusion. We can be strong and courageous in the places that are dark and unfamiliar, because God has already gotten there ahead of us.
God assures Joshua that he is not alone. “I will not fail you or forsake you,” God says. “The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” This isn’t an empty promise. God has history on God’s side here, and God reminds Joshua of that fact. “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” God’s presence with Joshua will be as recognizable to the people as God’s presence was with Moses. Leadership can be a lonely proposition, especially in uncertain times, but Joshua can be sure he will not lead alone.
We can find the same assurance as we read the biblical story. God does not abandon God’s people when the going gets tough. We hear this assurance in Jesus’ words to his disciples in the upper room: “I will not leave you orphaned.” We hear it when he commissioned the eleven to go into their own uncharted territory and make disciples: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The assurance of God’s presence is ours as much as it was the disciples’—as much as it was Joshua’s. We are not alone.
It’s all well and good to hear comforting words, but they become easier to incorporate into our daily lives when we have something concrete to hold on to—steps we can take that keep our hearts and minds on the right track, a road map that keeps us headed in the right direction. God reminds Joshua that he has just such a road map: “Be careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it.”
Joshua may be entering onto a new and unfamiliar road, but he has a guidebook available to him. He has the law that was given to him by God through Moses, as it was to all the people, and the purpose of the law is to provide a framework for their lives. When we have a set of guidelines to follow, we don’t have to rely on our own resources. When we follow those guidelines, we can be confident that our steps are secure, even when we’re on an unknown and possibly rocky path. Confidence breeds courage. Courage breeds strength. The trick is to keep that guide front and center all the time so that we don’t drift away from our desired course.
Joshua had the words of the Law. We have that, too, plus so much more. We have the whole of the biblical story to hold onto—words that tell the history of a faithful, promise-keeping God. We have the words of songs and prayers sung by people who felt the same joy and sorrow, confidence and worry, fear and boldness that we do, and were able to express their trust in God through all of it. We have the written word of Scripture, and we have something even better: the Living Word who is Jesus.
When we keep the Living Word of God in our hearts and minds, we know that we are not alone. When we follow the teachings of the Living Word, looking neither to the right or to the left, we have a north star that will never lead us in the wrong direction. When we hold the Living Word close, he shares the yoke that we bear, cutting the weight of our burdens. When we keep our ears open to the Living Word, we hear him say, as he did so often, “Do not be afraid.” When we meditate day and night on the Living Word that fulfills the Law, we can be strong and courageous, no matter what we are facing.
Joshua had a big job to do and unknown territory to conquer. He had the well-being of an entire nation on his shoulders, and he may well have wondered if he had what it would take to get through it. We may not find ourselves in a situation that dramatic, but we know what it’s like to face the unknown, to bear a burden we fear might be too much for us, to have others relying on us. When we do, the words God spoke to Joshua deserve our respect, our embrace, and our trust: “I will not fail you or forsake you. Do not be frightened or dismayed.” And, even more importantly, the words Jesus spoke to the disciples are ours as well: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” With the Living Word before us we, like Joshua, can be strong and courageous. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young