Chaplain (CPT) Mary E. Baars
November 6, 2011
Camp Sabalu-Harrison Chapel, Afghanistan
God’s Gifts of Manna: for this Season and Every Season
Before I read the scripture passage I am preaching on this morning, I want to take a few minutes to set up this scene which is unfolding in the book of Joshua. These verses that we are reading directly follow the final book of Torah, Deuteronomy, where after a LONG stay in the desert, Moses has died. But, before he died, Moses laid his hands on Joshua, and appointed him as the new leader of the Israelites. Now, let’s put ourselves in Joshua’s shoes for a moment. Moses has been a fearless leader for more than 40 years, guiding this people through the wilderness, helping them stay safe and sound and ensuring no matter what, their eventual passage into the Promised Land. There was really no other leader, no other prophet, like Moses. Most importantly, Moses was the only one who knew God face to face. God came to Moses first in a burning bush and then again and again throughout his life. Moses and God, in many ways, had a very personal relationship. Not only were Moses and God on friendship terms, Moses was also well known for the miracles that God had performed through him... the many plagues in Egypt which freed the Hebrew slaves, the receiving of the 10 commandments, bringing water from a rock and food from the sky. Moses was a powerful leader, kind of like a four star General or a Command Sergeant Major. So, you can imagine what Joshua would have felt, having been thrust into the position of leadership over this people, having to follow in such enormous footsteps. Keep this in mind because, it is right after the death of Moses, that God then speaks these words to Joshua, this new, young, inexperienced leader who was going to take God’s people from their “temporary” desert home back into Canaan.
Now listen to this reading of Joshua 1:1-9.
“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. 6Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them. 7Only be strong and very courageous, being 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. 8This 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. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. 9I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’” Joshua 1:5-9
And so, after 40 years of wandering in the desert wilderness, the time came for the Israelites to cross back over into their rightful home, the place which God had prepared for them, the place that they had originally come from years and years before. I bet most of us would say, without hesitation, that going home sounds like a wonderful idea, and especially after being in the desert for such a long time. We can all agree I am sure because I have only been in this place a little over a week, and in many ways, I am ready to get home, back to the people that I love and the places that I have known, back to my own bed where I can sleep through the night without having to don my IOTV, helmet, and boots, and run for the bunker, like I did last night. Nonetheless, even though home is exactly where I want to be on some level, I also know that the desert is an important place, a unique place, where we can meet God up close. As most of us have learned, once you have been in the desert, going home is not altogether easy.
And, we see this in our story this morning. For the Israelites, passage home was not simple. Their beloved leader was dead, and many of them did not know if they could cross over without him. In a way, they had all gotten used to life in the desert. The “food” while they had been deployed may not have been that great, and it was definitely more than a little bit repetitive, but they were used to it after all this time. Even if they wouldn’t admit it out loud, they had come to even look forward to it... who could complain about a daily dose of quail and manna. Who could complain about unlimited grilled cheese and those mini-packs of jelly beans that go so easily into the cargo pockets... of course I am saying this after only two weeks... But God had made a promise to the Israelites, that this manna would be enough. And it was. It kept them alive and going strong, day after day.
Since the moment the Israelites departed Egypt, they had been together as one people, one cohesive unit. They did everything together. They always stayed close because they never knew what threats might be out there which could bring them harm. They survived many things with one another, questionable water, venomous snakes, watching as loved ones suffered because of the perils of the desert. But no matter how bad things were for them, they found the strength to continue on because they were on their journey together. Crossing over meant separation. They would have to go their separate ways, into different parts of this Promised Land, establishing, re-establishing their own families and tribes.
For some of them, going home meant saying good-bye to a friend or a comrade who had become a close as brother or sister. It must have been a difficult thing to imagine. Could life really go on after this desert, where friends laughed at the same old jokes as they trekked through the sand and the rocks day after day, making the most out of the situation they were in. Let’s face it, even though the Israelites knew that going home was a good thing, they were a little uneasy. Some of them may have even been a little scared. After all that time in the desert, it was hard to know what exactly to expect back at home. Forty years is a long time to be in the desert. One year is a long time. Six months is a long time in the desert. Any time spent in the desert changes you because, more than any other place, the desert is a place where we encounter God face to face. In the desert we depend on God because there is nothing else that can provide and sustain us like God does. Of course God is faithful in every season of our lives, but it is in the desert more than any other place that we are reminded that we need God. Every hour, every day, we need our gracious and loving father.
This was true for the Israelites and this is also true for us. We know this all too well. We have experienced God’s incredible provision in this desert. We know just how God keeps God’s promises. So, we can put ourselves in the Israelite’s shoes as they stood on that mountain, preparing to cross the Jordan, preparing to go home. Now, before this moment of going home, while they were still lost in the desert, we can imagine the scene, the mumbling and the complaining. They were probably remembering all the things about their old lives that they missed. I bet they spent a lot of time talking about all the things they would do once they got into the Promised Land. What they would cook when they had their own stove again, when they had access to a whole variety of food instead of that endless supply of dry, flaky manna. They probably sat around the fire, dreaming about the day they would settle into their homes, being grateful for some real permanence after moving around, living in tents and backpacks for so long.
In some ways, they fantasized about going home so much so that I wonder if they set themselves up for disappointment. Would going home really be as good as they had imagined it to be as they struggled through the desert or would this promised land, their new home, end up having its own set of challenges. They were all excited and yet they were also nervous, all at the same time. They were pacing and stressing, hardly sleeping and wondering what would become of them once they had made it to the other side.
Into this fray of transition and uncertainty, God speaks these words, “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, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Strength and courage, this is God’s commandment, this is God’s instruction to them. In the midst of this shift, in the midst of this life passage, God reminds them “be strong, have courage.” But it’s not strong and courageous on their own, not strong and courageous through their personal ability or capacity but it is strength and courage through God... because the Lord God was with them no matter where they went.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself relating a lot to this desert people. And this week, as two of our battalions are preparing to RIP, to cross over, back to their homes and families, as many of us look to that day with great anticipation when we will be on the verge of a homecoming, we share in the experience of those Israelites who stood on the edge of the Jordan River, anxiously waiting for return home.
Throughout these months of deployment, we too experience the perils of desert life. We hunger and thirst, but we do this together. We fight off the all of the poisons which seek out to harm us here, but we do this together. We also watch as someone we love dearly suffers pain, maybe because of the pressures of their jobs or stress with family who are far away. BUT we also do this together. Joining your church service last Sunday I was struck at the significance of this faith community. The love and care is palpable in this room. And, while I have heard over this week, many people who are preparing to go, express a sense of relief in going home, I have also heard, sometimes even between the lines, a sense of sadness and loss. Going home is an exciting passage but it requires saying goodbye to friends, to brothers and sisters in Christ who we come to love and depend on.
In some moments, it’s hard to imagine any other life but this one. As hard as it is on some days, we still find ways to make this life here a good life nonetheless. We laugh more laughs over nothing and we cry tears over everything and for as many bad moments that we may have, there are also some good ones, some joyful times. It is because we are a team. As much as we want to be freed from this place, as happy as we are to get home to what we love the most, deep down we know that we also mourn for the losses that we have seen and felt here and for the loss we will feel when we are not together in this close knit way.
Many of you may ask yourselves some of these questions. What is waiting for me at home? Has my family moved on somehow in my absence? Will my spouse still need me the way he or she did before, or will what I have to offer no longer matter as much? Will my son still look up to me the way he did before or my daughter remember our special times together or have too many days gone by with my absence? Will I be able to cope with life over there on the other side, the pressures and the expectations and all those people who don’t understand what I have been through in this desert experience? Will I survive this transition?
To all of our questions and doubts and fears, God whispers this “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, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” No matter how you feel as you stand on the mountain, looking over the Jordan river at the promised land, excited, scared, nervous, ready one minute and ill-prepared in the next one, know that God has made a promise to you, to be there with you every step of the way.
Strength and courage do not come from you alone, but are given to you by a God whose love for you is wide and deep and broad. A God who is known for steadfast ways. A God whose love literally knows no bounds. So may you feel God’s presence as you finish your desert journey. May you experience God’s care as you cross over into your homes and communities. And, may you know God’s steadfastness as you negotiate the new challenges that are waiting for you. And always, in whatever season you find yourself in and in every place that you go remember God’s words:
“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, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Amen and amen.