Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 31, 2019
Joshua 5:9-12 Commentary
Why in the world would you preach on this text, when the Lectionary offers you the options of Jesus’ dramatic Parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15) and Paul’s magnificent doctrine of new creation in Christ (II Corinthians 5:15-21). I mean, this text from Joshua seem so small and insignificant. Plus, preaching on it will make lots of people squeamish, because it will require that you talk about circumcision. (Perhaps sensing our discomfort with discussing penises in church, the RCL cuts off that portion of Joshua 5, but verses 2-8 are central to our text.)
But as is so often the case, the Lectionary’s choice is wiser and more important than a quick first read reveals. In fact, this little text is crucial in the history of Israel’s redemption and has some important implications for our Lenten journey.
Joshua 5 marks the great transition from Israel’s wilderness wanderings to her conquest of the Promised Land. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel has at last arrived in the Land. As God parted the Red Sea to lead Israel out of bondage in Egypt, so he has now parted the Jordan River (Joshua 3 and 4) to lead them into freedom in the land of milk and honey. The next step will be the conquest of Jericho (Joshua 6).
But before Israel takes one more step on their redemptive journey, there is one small matter to take care of, namely, the renewal of the covenant. It wasn’t that Yahweh had ignored his side of the covenant. He had, after all, redeemed them from Egypt, having already kept his promise to Abraham to make his offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky. Yahweh had led them through the wilderness, providing food and drink in that inhospitable environment for 40 years. And now they had set foot in the Land God had promised to Abraham. Yahweh’s steadfast love had never failed them.
But they had failed God repeatedly, most significantly when they had come to the southern border of the Land some 38 years ago. Terrified by the report of the 10 unfaithful spies, their lack of trust in Yahweh caused them to yearn for the land of bondage. And God said, “No one with such a lack of faith will ever see the Promised Land.” That faithless generation wandered for almost 4 decades, until they were all dead.
During that time, neither circumcision nor Passover had been observed. The two great sacraments of the Old Covenant had fallen into disuse. Circumcision was the rite of entry into the covenant, a visible sign that this circumcised person was part of the chosen people, that God had “cut around” this person and consecrated him to covenant blessings and obligations. Passover was the rite of remembrance, a visible sign of what God had done to redeem his people from the power of Egyptian bondage. The first gave Israel its identity and the second gave Israel its confidence.
So, there was a whole generation who did not know who(se) they were or whom they could trust in the battles of life. They could not possibly accomplish the conquest of the Land unless they knew those foundational truths of Israel’s life. Before they took another step, they had some unfinished business to attend to.
In verses 2-8, Joshua took care of the first item of business and in verse 9 God tells Joshua what that superficial ceremony meant. As the foreskins had been rolled off the Israeli men, so the “reproach of Egypt” has been rolled off his people by God. It is very difficult to know exactly what “the reproach or disgrace or shame of Egypt” means. Some say it is simply a reference to the shame of slavery; that’s all done now, completely behind you. Others say it refers to the shame Egypt and other nations would have heaped on Israel (and Israel’s God) if they had failed to reach the Promised Land; “we told you Yahweh couldn’t get them all the way there.” And still others believe it is a reference to the shame of Israel’s disobedience at the southern border 38 years ago, when they yearned to return to Egypt. Whichever meaning we adopt, the sense is the same. The old has passed away. Your faithfulness in being circumcised indicates that you have made a new commitment to your covenant God. And he has rolled away the past with all its sins.
The celebration of Passover and the attendant events signified a new beginning in God’s covenant with Israel. If circumcision involved a break with the past, cutting themselves off from the sins of the wilderness, then Passover involved a newfound trust in God’s ability to open a new future for them. As he had saved them from death in Egypt by passing over the houses marked with the blood of the lamb, Yahweh will save them as they enter this new land. His power as signed in the Feast will be more than sufficient in the future.
As a further sign of this new day coming, God cut off the supply of manna that had kept them alive for the four decades. Now that they were in the land of milk and honey, they could live by the produce gained by their own hands. It’s true that they started modestly (and sacramentally) with unleavened bread and roasted grain. But that was a foretaste of the feast to come. Passover reminded Israel that they would not take the Land with their own hands, but by the mighty hand and outstretched arm of Yahweh. As the next episode in Joshua 5:13-15 would suggest, it would be the Lord’s armies that would give them that land.
By circumcision and Passover, Israel is identified and equipped as part of the Lord’s army. They could not take another step on their journey into God’s good future without observing those sacred sacraments.
There are two ways to preach this text. One is sacramental. As we journey toward the cross and the empty tomb, toward our redemption, it is terribly important that we regularly celebrate the sacraments that remind us of our identity in Christ and his saving work for us. Though Christians disagree about who should be baptized and how it ought to be done and when we should be baptized, all Christians see baptism as the rite of initiation. And all of us understand that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on the occasion of Passover, intending that it would help us remember what he did as our Paschal Lamb. We simply cannot continue our journey without the regular reminders of the sacraments.
Or we could preach on what the sacraments signified for Israel, a break with the old and an embrace of the new. As circumcision cut off the useless foreskin, let us cut off the useless sin in our lives. Here is a vivid, uncomfortable way to call people to repent. And as Passover reminds us of God’s past work for Israel, let us look back to the cross and ahead to the Parousia. No matter what battles we face in this part of the journey, we can be confident that God will see us through to victory.
Our text opens with a pregnant word, “Today.” It reminds us of Paul’s next words after his great announcement of God’s new creation in Christ (II Corinthians 5:15-21). “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you. I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation (II Cor. 6:2). This peculiar little text from Joshua can help us press on people the urgency of making a break with their sinful past and embracing God’s good future. We do Lent every year, and it can get to be old hat. Joshua 5, with its old ceremonies, reminds us that it is always “Today.” Now is the time to repent and believe! Don’t take another step without taking care of unfinished business.
The discomfort we experience in talking about circumcision is nothing compared to the discomfort of these adult Jewish males in Joshua 5. As a sign of their commitment to their covenant God, they had to take a flint knife to the most private and sensitive part of their being. That’s a sign of how painful genuine commitment can be. That reminds me of an old joke about a farmer’s breakfast of ham and eggs. The hen made a little contribution to that breakfast. The pig made a painful commitment.
Though circumcision is performed for medical purposes in our modern world, its significance as a religious rite is lost on most people. It helps me to compare circumcision to the NBA draft; that’s the National Basketball Association. Every year, the professional basketball teams have a list of players who might be good enough to draft onto their teams. Management very carefully studies the list. Finally, at draft time, they circle the players they will put on their team. That’s what God did with Abraham and his seed throughout the generations, without paying any attention to their skill or character. God’s selection was, as we Calvinists say, “unconditional.” As a sign that God had drafted them onto God’s team, he asked them to draw a circle in their flesh. That way they would always remember that they belonged to God’s team, the Lord’s army, the chosen people. Though it is not as visible or painful, baptism is a sign and seal of the same thing.
Finally, it is fascinating how often salvation is celebrated with a meal in the Bible. We have it here in Joshua 5. We have it in the Messianic banquet of New Testament eschatology. No wonder Jesus ended the parable of the Prodigal with a meal. After he had wandered in a far country for untold days, that unfaithful son came to his “today” and went back home. What he found was not a slave’s duty, but a son’s reception. And a great banquet, a sign that the past was forgiven and the future was secure and rich.
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