Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
“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.” – Joshua 5:12
It’s been said that the one constant in life is change. Life is ever-evolving. Reality is ever-shifting. From the point of conception inside of our mother’s wombs to that moment when the bell ultimately tolls for us, human life is in a constant state of flow and flux.
Though few would dispute this fact, many remain uncomfortable with this truth. Change makes many of us skittish. Change makes us understandably anxious. Change thus causes us to dig in our heels and hold on to the vestiges of the past.
We wax eloquently about the good ol’ days that we incessantly moaned about during those days. We yearn for yesterday, just as yesterday we yearned for yesterday. And we pine for an idealized past, which is often merely a coping mechanism — a coping mechanism as to not have to confront contemporary challenges.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. The ancient stories of the Bible serve as a reflection of our deepest longings, our existential angst, and our immobilizing fears.
Consider the sacred history of the Hebrews. We encounter people whose lives were unpredictable. Their futures were unforeseeable. And thus, their walk with God was always uncertain. Read through the first five books on the Bible. You will go on a rollercoaster ride of restlessness and unpredictability.
We meet a man named Abraham. God promised Abraham and his wife Sarah in their old age that they would be the progenitors of a great people. Their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and sand on the beach. So they got up from their couches of contentment and pews of complacency. In faith, they decided to step out on nothing trusting that they would land on something.
You all should know the story. Abraham and Sarah have Ishmael and Isaac. The preferred son Isaac and his wife Rebekah have twins Jacob and Esau. Jacob is a trickster. He even wrestles with an angel of the Lord and declares, “I’m not going to let you go until you bless me.” God thus changes his name to Israel—one who strives and struggles with God. Jacob’s life teaches us that struggling with God is part and parcel of our faith journey.
Along with his wives Rachel and Leah, Jacob produced twelve sons — the twelve tribes of Israel. Of these boys, one was special yet bullied by his brothers. They sold him off to slavery in Egypt, but it was that special son, Joseph, who had unique gifts. He climbed the ladder from the pits of imprisonment to a high official in Pharaoh’s palace. And it was in Egypt where God’s people multiplied.
Yet there arose a Pharaoh who knew not of Joseph. And that Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrew people for 400 years. Fortunately, Hebrew mothers kept singing to their children. They kept reciting legends and sacred history to each generation. “You are not an Egyptian slave. You are God’s chosen.”
For Father Abraham, had many sons. And many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s just praise the Lord.
Hebrew mothers taught their children that there is a city, whose builder and maker is God. It’s a land that flows with milk and honey.
So, Father, we stretch our hand to thee, no other help we know. If thou were to draw thy hand from me, whither shall we go?
And it was Hebrew women who kept teaching and praying, praying and teaching — for four hundred years.
Until their prayers and God’s power produced Moses. Moses led a slave revolt in Egypt. Moses’s moral courage spoke God’s truth to Pharaoh’s power, and his prayers placed a highway through the Red Sea. Moses’s faith led God’s people all the way to the brink of God’s promises. For it was Moses who looked over the Jordan River, and he could see the Promised Land.
Through twists and turns. Through trials and tribulations. Through challenge and constant change — God’s promises remained true. God will never leave us nor forsake us. God just finds new ways to love us.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story was this neat?
Wouldn’t it be incredible if we, as God’s people, were so faithful?
Wouldn’t it be something that if with every trial, and every unexpected twist and turn, we could all just sing, “I’ve got a feeling, that everything is gonna be alright!”
But this is not how life works. This is not how faith operates. The Hebrew people in the story are just like us. Like Jacob, we keep wrestling with God. We keep fighting ourselves.
For instance, we witness that the Hebrew people pray for God’s blessing, but they don’t want to be burdened with too much responsibility.
They pray for God to move in their lives, but they don’t want to be made too uncomfortable. Anxiety creeps in. Excuses begin to take hold. Apprehension arrests their resolve.
This sacred history. This narrative of challenge and triumph. This legend of walking with God through change, trials, and temptation to throw in the towel is your story. It’s my story. An encounter with a God who keeps finding new ways to love us.
“You know Moses, it’s cold and dark out here. We aren’t too sure about this whole Promised Land thing. I mean at least we had security in Egypt. We don’t even know where we are going.” What does God do? God leads them by a cloud by day and fire by night.
“You know Moses, we are thirsty and hungry. You’ve got us out here, and we don’t even know where our next meal is going to come from. In Egypt, we had three hots and a cot. If nothing else, in Egypt we had the comfort of familiarity.” What does God do? God pours water from a rock, and manna to eat from the sky.
They get all the way to the Promised Land. Moses sends spies to check out their new land. What do they see and say? “This opportunity is wonderful, Moses. It’s everything we have dreamed of, and it’s all that we have worked for. Yet it looks too difficult. The task is too daunting. We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and thus we looked like a grasshopper in their eyes. We can’t do this. Let’s just remain here where we are more comfortable.”
But I can imagine an elderly Moses looking over into the Promised Land and singing like James Cleveland, “I don’t feel no-ways tired. I’ve come too far, from where I’ve started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. But I don’t believe, He’d bring me this far, to leave me.”
When we look back over our lives, like the Hebrew people, we see a God that keeps finding new ways to love us. Think of the trials that you have endured. Consider the changes that only made you stronger. Recall all the times that you failed, yet seemingly fell up.
This is why in the book of Joshua, after the death of Moses, after God takes the people across the Jordan River after the people begin to settle in their new home and new opportunity, God tells them that its time. It’s time for you to stop relying on the manna that pours from heaven. That was yesterday’s meal. That was yesterday’s provision. That was yesterday’s blessing. I’ve got a new way to love you. Eat the crops grown under your feet. You’ve got to let go of yesterday’s reality to embrace tomorrow’s opportunity!
The story has been told that there is a strategy that South African farmers would use to trap monkeys who would come on their property. You cut a small hole in a box, just big enough for the monkey’s hand. Then you add the monkey’s preferred comfort food such as nuts. The monkey will reach into the box, and clench his fist around the nuts. The clenched fist will be too large to pull back through the hole. And rather than letting go of the nuts, the monkey will just pull until the farmer can swoop in to grab him.
How many of us are like that monkey? We hold on to something so tight that we risk our ultimate freedom. We refuse to let go of the craving of yesterday to seize God’s new opportunity.
Well, the rich tradition of the Hebrew people has a message for us this morning, my friends. Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.
Unclench your fists. And open your hands to God’s love.