Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
In her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia , author Elizabeth Gilbert makes the following statement: “There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. ‘How much do you love me?’ And, ‘Who’s in charge?’ Everything else is somehow manageable. But these two questions of love and control undo us all, trip us up and cause war, grief, and suffering.”
The question of “who’s in charge” is a point of discussion in both our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning. Joshua has been chosen by God as the leader of the children of Israel, after the death of Moses, and now we hear of his being officially established in this role. Whenever a new leader comes into office, there’s always that period of adjustment. Once the so-called honeymoon is over, the real work gets underway. And so Joshua sets out to lead the people across the Jordan River, into the Promised Land. For an entire generation they’ve been wandering in the wilderness, and now finally they are coming into the place that God had promised them.
I wonder what the Caananites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites and the Jebusites thought about all of this? They’d been there first, as the indigenous peoples of the land—and later scriptural accounts demonstrate that they were not all driven out at once, but continued to be a presence in the land in later generations.
When the procession reaches the riverbanks, which were overflowed by the river in its normal cycle of floodtide, those who carried the Ark of God on long poles stepped first into the river, and it was divided. And the people of Israel crossed over on dry ground.
This isn’t the first such story of crossing over on dry ground, is it? No…you remember the earlier one. At the beginning of the Exodus, at the Red Sea, with Pharaoh and his chariots and chariot drivers in hot pursuit of the Israelites, and Moses reaches out his hands to divide the waters on one side and another, so that the people are able to go forward. God makes a way, where there is no way.
This is what God does, in the story of salvation. Out of human catastrophe and disaster, God acts, over and over, to bring redemption and deliverance to the people. Where there is no way, God makes a way. Where there is no hope, God speaks a new word of creation and see! Hope and joy and new life break forth in impossible places.
Joshua and the people go forward, with the Ark of the Covenant—the outward and visible sign of God’s presence and power and protection with and among them—suspended on two poles, carried by the twelve members of the twelve tribes of Israel, holding the waters back as the people pass on through. In the ark of God were found the stone tablets of the Law, the Teaching of Moses, and a container of the manna, the strange food that had sustained and nourished the Israelites all that time, in their wilderness journey. The Ark was the object that spoke most clearly and eloquently of God’s actions in the past, and God’s presence with the people in their current situation.
So what happens, then, when such an object is lost, or taken away, or destroyed?
What happens when our outward and visible signs are no longer available, or are somehow altered beyond comprehension and recognition?
Jesus and the disciples are in the temple, not far from the place where the Ark of God eventually had a permanent home, many hundreds of years later after Joshua and the crossing at the Jordan River. They have just come from a series of discussions (or trick questions) posed by the various religious leaders, who have sought to get J. into trouble by one means or another. And J. is teaching his hearers how to regard these persons.
Listen to them” he says. “They sit on Moses’ seat”. In those days teachers and preachers usually sat to speak, and their hearers would stand or sit on the floor around them. “They sit on Moses’ seat”—they are the legitimate successors to Moses, just as Joshua was the first of many such successors. Listen to what they say—and then go do it, as they do not. All their doing is for show—to get attention from other people.
“They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long”. Outward and visible signs intended to communicate a deeper connection with the presence of God, rather like the Ark of God there in the temple. But J. condemns the religious leaders, not because of those outward and visible signs in themselves, but because the inward and spiritual realities they should represent are dried up and lost. “They do not practice what they preach” is an expansion of the Greek. Literally it says this: “They say…but do not.” The words are good, the visual cues are good—but there’s nothing behind all of it.
But YOU—Jesus says—all of YOU know better than that. “Rabbi” and “Father” and “Teacher”, all these grand titles! Don’t make the mistake of thinking that anyone but God is God.
(Posy Jackson at ETSS, with the “God is God, and I’m not. And neither are you” tshirts)
You are all students in school together; you are all brothers and sisters, children of the heavenly Father; you are all learning from the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.
What happens when the outward and visible signs are no longer available? Because for the first readers of Matthew’s gospel, that’s exactly what they were dealing with. The setting for this passage, the Jerusalem temple, was destroyed, razed to the ground, in the year 70. The place they had known as central to faith and culture and identity was gone. Their world had been turned inside out and upside down, and what were they to do now?
And into that fear and shock and heartbreak, Jesus speaks. “You all know what to do. And you know who you are. Don’t worry about the titles, and the changing structures, and the hierarchy. You are all students of the Good Teacher; you are all children of the Heavenly Father; you are all followers of the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God.”
The early Christians would hear those words and remember that they too had been anointed—rubbed on the crown of the head, or possibly all over their bodies—with fragrant oils at the time of their baptism. Just as Jesus was “the Christ—the Anointed One of God”, they too were part of that anointing, that fragrant, extravagant, messy pouring of a new outward and visible sign that conveyed the new and transforming action of God in the midst of their lives. Which were also messy, and complicated, and in great need of God’s mercy and guidance and wisdom.
Who’s in charge here? Jesus answers that question, for his hearers then and for us today, with a curious and seemingly backhanded response. “The greatest will be the one who serves; the one who exalts himself will be humbled; the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Let us be clear. Jesus is not telling his followers (then or now) to be conspicuous in their humility, to “show off” as it were, how they can put up with humiliation or discomfort or unhappiness for the sake of cultivating some sort of martyr complex. (Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, who speaks often and at length about “bein’ ‘umble” as he plots the downfall of the other characters in the story.) What he is saying, rather, is that when God’s priority list and values get put into action, it looks very strange. It looks like wide phylacteries and long tassels and fringes dropping down into the dryness and dust of the streets, to help and hold and lift up. It looks like dirt under fingernails, in the garden of St. Stephen’s House on Greene Street, or gallons of soup and smiling faces at The Master’s Table.
Outward and visible signs to be sure—some of venerable antiquity and tradition, some newly created or improvised on the spot, by the Spirit’s leading. But all of them filled with the power and the presence of God, and all of them answering both questions at once: Who’s in charge here—God is, and God’s dominion has just broken in; and also “how much do you love me?” Love beyond comprehension or limit, without measure or qualification.
For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums…with deeds of love and mercy, thy heavenly kingdom comes.