March 6, 2016

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“Everything Has Become New!”

We have some great scripture readings today, for this fourth Sunday in Lent, on the theme of reconciliation. As a season in which we are invited to prayer, confession, and returning to God, these are wonderful readings.

In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, we are reminded that no matter what our history, no matter how many poor decisions we have made, no matter how irresponsible we have been, no matter how far we have run from God, God welcomes us home. God runs to us, embraces us, and treats us like precious children once again.

Psalm 32 also encourages us to come back to God when we have strayed. It points out the peace and joy that we can experience when we are forgiven, noting the gnawing guilt and shame we often feel before we admit our mistakes, and the relief that comes from being honest and getting things off our chest.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul explains that God does not count our sins against us, but freely invites us to be reconciled through Christ. Paul himself has experienced the joy of being forgiven, turning his life away from persecuting Christians towards a new mission of bringing the good news of Jesus to Jews and Gentiles alike. And now God has given him a ministry of reconciliation – encouraging others to turn to God as well, and to experience the new life that comes from knowing Christ.

They’re all great passages today, but the one that caught my attention was the rather unusual one from the Old Testament Book of Joshua. It’s just a few verses about the day that the manna from heaven stopped and the Israelites ate what they had planted themselves in the land of Canaan.

It’s the kind of passage that makes you stop and wonder what the developers of the lectionary cycle were thinking when they chose such an obscure little story and matched it up with these great texts about forgiveness and reconciliation on the fourth Sunday in the Season of Lent.

Although we don’t read from the Book of Joshua very often, you may remember that Joshua was the leader of the Israelites who came after Moses. Moses got the call from God on a mountain by a burning bush, and went to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery and hard labour. With God’s help, including a whole bunch of plagues, Moses gets the people out and they run. They miraculously cross the Red Sea, while Pharaoh’s army and chariots get stuck in the mud and then drown.

The Israelites travel onwards and into the wilderness. They wander for forty years, living in tents and relying on God’s provision of water, occasional quails, and daily manna (a strange substance that sprouts up in the morning, rots by evening, but gives them just enough sustenance to make it through the wilderness years).

Out there in the wilderness, there is all kinds of drama between God and God’s people. God sets up rules and laws so that they will know how they should live in relationship with each other and with God. But the people often grumble and complain about the living conditions, and sometimes blatantly defy God by building and worshipping idols instead.

Although God has promised to bring them into a good land – a land flowing with milk and honey – the journey is long and arduous, and there are lots of ups and downs in their relationship with God along the way. In fact, the journey is so long that Moses (who does live to a ripe old age) dies before they make it all the way to Canaan. He appoints Joshua as his successor, and it is Joshua who leads the Israelites out of the wilderness and into the new land.

If there is one story you may remember from your Sunday School days about Joshua, it’s probably the one about how Joshua led the Israelite army in conquering the city of Jericho. You know, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho… Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a’tumblin’ down!”

That story is found in chapter six, while today’s passage is just before it in chapter five. The whole company of the Israelites has just passed over the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. The Priests, and the People, and the army as well, have entered the land, and they are preparing to begin the new life that God has prepared for them.

Back in chapter three, we can read about the crossing itself – how the priests led the way, carrying the Ark of the Covenant with the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. As they stepped into the river, the waters parted, reminiscent of Moses leading them across the Red Sea forty years earlier. And when they get across, they build a Gilgal – a circular configuration of stones that they take out of the river. They set them up as a memorial in the place where they camp that night… to honour God, and give thanks to God, and to remember for generations to come that God parted the waters and helped them to cross over into the Promised Land.

The next thing they do, before going to Jericho to march around the city and claim it as their own, is that they circumcise all the men. That may sound strange. Wouldn’t they already have been circumcised? Wasn’t that an instruction that God gave to them long ago? Well, I think the fact that most of the men weren’t circumcised points out that they had been wandering in the wilderness for a long time, and to a great degree, they had been wandering away from God as well.

When they enter the Promised Land, Joshua leads the Israelites to re-commit themselves to being God’s People, being obedient to God, and renewing their covenant with God. Circumcision was a sign of their turning back to God – like the Prodigal Son humbling himself to make his way home and beg for forgiveness.

And then, like the Prodigal, they are given a new start. A time of struggle and difficulty comes to an end, and something new and hopeful begins. The Lord says to Joshua and to the people: “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” In other words, they can get on with life now, with their new lives.

On the plains of Jericho, they celebrate the Passover, remembering how God brought their parents and their grandparents out of Egypt. And to make it even more clear that a new life has begun, the manna stops. God doesn’t need to provide them with that wilderness-wandering food anymore, because for the first time they get to eat food that they have grown themselves on the good land that God promised.

You see the significance of this little passage now? It’s about the beginning of a new life, and a fresh start after a time of great difficulty. It’s not that everything is going to be easy for the Israelites from now on. They’re going to have to get settled, and work the land. They’re going to have to deal with having neighbours, and they’re not always going to deal with that very well.

But they’re out of the wilderness, and they’re eating good food, and they’re getting back in touch with their spiritual lives – renewing their covenant with God and celebrating the Passover. And I think they are feeling hopeful.

When you reflect on your own life, I wonder what new beginnings you remember… perhaps a graduation or a new job? Maybe you think of your wedding or the birth of a child. A move to a new city, province, or even country might have constituted an important new beginning for you at one point. A change of career, a retirement, or even the end of a key relationship might have launched a new phase in your life that brought both challenges and blessings.

Some of you can probably remember a moment when your life turned in a new direction because you were being called to follow Jesus. Perhaps it wasn’t as dramatic as the bright light that startled the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascas, or as radical a change as the Prodigal Son giving up his drinking and carousing to come home.

But 2nd Corinthians tells us that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” That new beginning, that fresh start does not come because of our own efforts to live the Christian life. The new life comes because God, in Christ, has forgiven our sins, reconciled our relationship to him, and equipped up by the Holy Spirit to live in a new way.

And that fresh start doesn’t just happen once, but it takes place again and again throughout our lives, as often as we turn towards God, listen for God’s voice, and agree to do what God calls us to do and go where God sends us.

When I thought about new beginnings in my own life, many important moments came to mind. I thought of the day I was baptized as a teenager. I remembered the day I heard God calling me to ministry. I remembered my wedding, my ordination, and then our move to Saskatoon.

And even though I’ve been in the same congregation for the past twelve years, many new beginnings within this ministry come to mind as fresh starts… things like calling a pastoral care nurse and getting involved in health ministries, starting new programs, welcoming new members, working with new staff or elders with fresh ideas and new energy, and just recently getting involved in refugee sponsorship.

With each new beginning, some old things are left behind. New roles are taken up, new responsibilities are embraced, new challenges are encountered, and all kinds of adjustments must be made.

Wouldn’t it be good for us, if like the Israelites, we would take the time at the beginning of something new to turn again to God? Wouldn’t it be good for us, if before we started a new job or a new project, before we got married, or welcomed a child, or retired, or took on a new ministry… we recommitted ourselves to God, and gave thanks to God (remembering God’s faithfulness and love towards us in the past), and marked the moment in time as a new beginning with God?

The Joshua story encourages us to remember that new beginnings are possible with God, and that we will not be alone as we face the blessings and the challenges that lie ahead with each new phase of our lives.

Thanks be to God who forgives us our sins and renews our lives through Jesus Christ day by day. And thanks be to God who prepares us for the new things that lie ahead for us as individuals, families, and as a church. Amen.