Monday, March 7, 2016

Sunday's Sermon – Forward Ho

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, March 6, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia and Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio. You can also find a podcast of this sermon on The Cove Podbean page. You can also find a podcast of this sermon on The Cove Podbean page. 

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

Joshua 5:9-12

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.

While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

Forward Ho

Now I think some of y’all know this about me, but for those who don’t, let me tell you, I love movies. As a matter of fact, if I’m able, every Monday, which by the way is my day off, I like to drive over to Robinson and catch one of those early, $6.00 matinees. And I’ll tell you, I tend to go to the ones that have gotten good pretty good reviews, you know, what you might call the ripe tomatoes.

Anyway, this last Monday, I went and saw The Revenant, not The Reverent. And I’ve got to tell you, after seeing it, I’m really glad it has nothing to do with clergy. Now without giving any kind of spoiler alert, I will tell you, you would really enjoy it if you like snow and Leonardo being mauled by a bear and snow and Leonardo being buried alive and snow and Leonardo crawling into a gutted horse and of course snow. I’m going to be straight with you, if you have something against the color white, don’t go to this movie. This is one (wait for it) cool western.

But you know, after it was over, it sort of made me miss those westerns I grew up watching when I was a kid, you know what I’m talking about, and in particular the ones that dealt with a wagon train taking settlers from the east to the west. I just loved those movies. And you know, they always started pretty much the same way. I mean, a bunch of settlers would gather at some place, and even though they were a little different, they all had a few things in common. For example, they were all leaving their old lives and moving into a strange, new land. And even though they all believed this would give them a fresh start, they always carried something from the past, maybe some piece of furniture or a special box or a handmade doll. And before they left, they’d make sure the canvas on their covered wagons was tight and that their guns were loaded and their kids were safely onboard, because the world they were entering would be different than the one they were leaving. And then, when everybody was ready, the wagon master would say “Forward Ho” and the train would move into the future.

And you know, I think we’ve got something sort like that in the passage we read from Joshua. I mean, just think about what’s going on here. The people of Israel have finished their wandering around in the wilderness, and they were right on the edge of the promised land. In other words, they were about to enter something new, a new phase in their history. Sort of like those black and white settlers, they were about to move from their past into their future.

But before they made that move, according to passage, three things happened. You see, first, “the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’” In fact, the name “Gilgal” is very close to a Hebrew word that means “I have removed.” In other words, God sort of changed the way they should see their past. And then, second, they did something that reminded them of God’s presence. I mean, it says that “...while the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.” And then, third, they recognized, they accepted that things had changed and so would they. According the writer, “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” You see, they were no longer wanderers who needed constant care to survive. That had changed. Now, they’d have to raise their own crops and eat what was coming from their own land. I’ll tell you, just like in those old movies, these are some things the people Israel did before Joshua, their leader, said “Forward Ho.”

And I’ll tell you something else, I think the exact same thing applies to us as we move into the future. And you know, this is something we’re constantly having to do, whether we want to or not. I mean, quoting Fatty Arbuckle, “good night nurse,” I can think of only one sure fire way to avoid moving into the future, and it’s something most of us try pretty hard to avoid as long as we can. No, we’re always moving from the past and into something new, something different. And for that reason, I think we can be a whole lot more successful in making this trip by remembering these three things we talked about in this passage.

For example, first, as we move forward into the future, we really need to let go of those negative experiences from the past, something that Israel was able to do when God “...rolled away...the disgrace of Egypt.” But I know, this isn’t always easy. I mean, I recognize some of us have endured traumas and disasters and failures that have changed us forever. Still, if we allow these events to dominate our lives and to define who we are, then I don’t know how we can ever face the future. My gosh, it’s almost impossible to move forward by looking backward. And because of that, I think it’s really important to let go of the failures, to let go of the disappointments, to let go of frustrations. And I think we can all do this by accepting that, of all the things in the universe, the one thing over which we have absolutely no control is the past. And that’s something we all know. I mean, I can’t go back and change the way I was raised even if I wanted to. And I can’t go back and erase the mistakes I’ve made, and I’ve made plenty. And I can’t go back and force others to make the decisions and choices I wanted them make. I just can’t do it. And even though I can certainly learn from this stuff, I can’t change it, and that’s something I’ve got to accept. But I’ll tell you, although that acceptance may be challenging to pull off, believing that I’m a child of God and that Jesus Christ died for me and that the Holy Spirit has given me the ability to trust this, well, that makes it a little easier. You see, just like God rolled away the disgrace from his people, because of the cross, my disgrace has also been rolled away. Man, I’ve been forgiven. I’ve been cleansed. Therefore, I’ve been freed from the past. And that applies you as much as it does to me. And even though the consequences way still be real, in the sight of God, as Isaiah wrote, “...though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” You see, what’s already happened doesn’t have to be an anchor holding us back. Jesus Christ has broken the chain. And we can now move forward with peace, something that’ll happen when we let go of those negative experiences from the past. And that’s the first thing we can do.

And second, as we move into the future, I think we may also want to celebrate the presence of God, and I’m talking about before we begin the trip. And isn’t that exactly what the people of Israel did when they shared in the passover? You see, without some kind of tangible reminder, it’s really easy for us to forget, you know, to forget the one who loved us before the foundation of the earth and to forget the one who cleansed our past and assures our future and to forget the one who is present with us 24/7 whether we acknowledge that presence or not. Man, we can make the decision to celebrate God’s constant presence with us and with his presence comes love. And even though this is something that we can do every time we open our Bibles or bow our heads or extend our hands to someone in need, God’s given us some special ways to help us remember. I mean, he’s given us certain days when we can get together as a people and experience his power and his love and his grace. And he’s given us special rituals, you know, like baptism that reminds us that we belong to him and that we’re connected to one another and communion that brings Christ within this place in a special and powerful way. Now, these are all ways we can celebrate God’s constant presence. And I’ll tell you, if we choose to be open ourselves to what these celebrations mean, then I believe we’ll be able to move forward into the unknown with a genuine sense of confidence. We can celebrate his presence, and that’s the second thing we can do.

And third, just like the people of Israel had to do when they realized that their diet would go from manna to unleavened cakes and parched grain, if we want to be more successful as we move into the future, I think we need to recognize that things are always changing. And this is going to happen whether we want it or not. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus wrote, “The only thing that is constant is change.” And I think he’s right. Of course, we can pretend that he’s not. I mean, we can pretend that we can keep things just the way they are or better, just the way they were or even better, just the way we remember them being.And we can pretend that eventually young people will embrace the old ways and people will stop buying products that are new and improved because they want stuff that’s old and reliable. And we can pretend that eventually the pendulum will swing back and engineers will again use slide rules and telephones will be leased from the Bell system and hardwired to the wall and people will spend a summer evening sitting on the front porch rather than watching Netflix in the basement. Man, we can pretend all kinds of things, but let’s get real, do you really believe that’s the way God wants us to face the future, my pretending it’s not coming? I don’t think so. Like it or not, the world is changing, and unless we’re content to be like either the Amish or the Shakers, we’re probably going to need to change too. But as we change, we still have a rock on which to build, and that rock is Jesus Christ. And we still have a foundation called the Bible. And I’ll tell you, if we trust in that rock and listen for what God might be saying in a world that’s radically different from anything they could have envisioned two thousand years ago, then we’ll be able to change with integrity. We’ll be able to change with faith. We’ll be able to change with love for both God and neighbors we may not have met yet. Although there’s a part of me that wishes this weren’t the case, because I’m almost sixty and I believe that the best praise song can’t hold a candle to “A Mighty Fortress,” if we want to move into the future with any kind of strength, we need to accept that the world is always changing and so should we. And that’s the third thing we can do.

And speaking of change, maybe movies like The Revenant are the westerns of the future. And if they are, well, I guess that’s just the way it is, although I’ll always have a soft spot for Wallace Berry saving Margaret O’Brien and Marjorie Main from an Indian attack, I’m sorry, from a Native American attack. I miss those old movies. Of course, this is really small potatoes, but for us, the stakes are much higher, because we deal with the future on a daily basis. And for that reason, I think we probably should claim the example of the people of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. You see, like them, if we want to move successfully into the future, we really need to let go of those negative experiences from the past and to celebrate the constant presence of God and to recognize that things are always changing. These things we can do. And if we do, I think we’ll be ready when the wagon master shouts to us, “Foward Ho.”

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