Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 27, 2022

Joshua 5:9-12 Commentary

These four verses from Joshua 5 are rather innocuous looking.  There is a lot of high drama in Joshua—and not a little of that drama is the stuff of deeply troubling matters involving holy war and total war and violence perpetuated by God’s people.  But these verses appear to be mostly devoid of drama.  They appear to be little more than a temporal marker, a pivot point of transition between the long years of wilderness wanderings when the people depended on the manna and the new era of living in the Promised Land where the fabled and long-promised “milk and honey” would sustain them.

It seems like an odd text for Lent and an odd selection to pair with the Year C gospel lesson for this same Sunday from Luke 15 and the story of the prodigal son.  What is there about Joshua 5 that makes it fit this season of the year?

Perhaps just this: for those with eyes to see, this passage is about fundamental questions as to whom we trust in our lives, whom we serve, and our ability to see such matters clearly.

Let me explain.  Joshua is preceded by Deuteronomy, and Deuteronomy is essentially one very long sermon by Moses.  And he’s definitely not preaching to the choir.  The people who stand before Moses on the Plains of Moab (and who are preparing at long last to enter the Promised Land of Canaan) are not the generation of the exodus.  These are the children and grandchildren of the people who came out of Egypt some decades earlier.

Their memories of those dramatic events—and of God’s giving of the Law at Mount Sinai—are dim at best, second-hand at worst (or maybe the worst of the worst would be that those stories were chalked up more legend than fact).  What’s more, these people have grown up in the crucible of the wilderness.  They’ve known want.  They’ve grown accustomed to harsh and temporary living conditions.  In one sense that may be a good thing: trials can produce character and—in the case of Israel—may also foster dependence on God.

But it’s precisely that latter point that had Moses so worried.  Once these folks settled into nice homes in a land where the living was (comparatively) easy, the food abundant, and clean drinking water could always be had out of smartly dug wells, they may just revel in that new-found wealth so much as to forget God as the Source of all good things.  Hence the long sermon that just is Deuteronomy.

The Hebrew title of Deuteronomy is “These Are the Words” and it’s an apt title in that Moses rehearses all the words of God for the new generation with the repeated warning “Remember and do not forget!” punctuating his earnest pleading that the people remember who they are and Whose they are.  Once the wonder bread of manna in the wilderness stopped and they had opportunity to bake real bread in real ovens and then use that bread as an accompaniment to real feasts of choice foods in the Promised Land, still they had to remember and not forget that every morsel of blessing in Canaan was every bit as much the gift of God’s grace as was the manna in the desert or water gushing forth from a wilderness rock.

The few verses we read from Joshua 5 in this Old Testament Lenten lesson are the biblical equivalent of throwing the “Activate” switch on the message of Deuteronomy.  The light on Deuteronomy goes from yellow to green.  It’s an active and relevant message now.  The time has come for the Israelites to start to remember who they are and Whose they are and so continue to beam their heartfelt messages of thanksgiving to God alone.  The question that hangs in the balance here is whether or not they will succeed in doing so.  (Spoiler Alert: They do not.)

Immediately following this passage we encounter one of the most striking verses in Joshua if not in the wider Old Testament.  Joshua encounters the commander of the Lord’s army and so asks, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”  To this simple question the angel gives the surprising answer, “Neither.”  It’s an answer so odd and so striking that it knocks Joshua clean off his feet.  But it may be a reminder that we cannot assume anything.  We need constantly to check ourselves against Almighty God to see if we are indeed serving God in every way and acknowledging God in every way.  The day we start to assume that we deserve what we get in life and that all of our enemies are also God’s enemies, that’s when we veer into certain trouble.

Lent is a time to see how utterly dependent we are on Christ alone to accomplish what we could never do.  The gifts of salvation—and the gifts we receive every day of our lives—are all indeed the result of unearned grace.  But the time to make sure we have our eyes focused clearly on that grace is not just in the wilderness times (when we may be more prone to pray and to think about God in the first place) but in the Promised Land times where so many things may distract us from core truths.  It’s too easy to become the Elder Brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: we forget that we are surrounded by grace and so come off as sneering, ungrateful people after all.

The Joshua 5 challenge is to keep our perspectives in line with divine reality.

Note: Our special Year C webpage for Lent and Holy Week Resources is now available.  Please check out additional sermon ideas, sample sermons, and more by visiting this resource page. 

Illustration Idea:

God worried about his people in the post-manna era.  He worried that in the Promised Land entitlement would displace dependence.  A sense of accomplishment would eclipse a sense of giftedness.  Prosperity would edge out providence.  It happens to us all.  Some years ago I read an anecdote about actor Anthony Hopkins, who played a chief butler in the fine film The Remains of the Day.  Wealthy people have servants around them precisely because they expect the goodies of life to appear on cue.  But the truly arrogant among the rich want to believe they are entitled to such pampered care and so don’t want to feel beholden to anyone for it, including to the servants who do the caretaking.  Hopkins says that the rich man at dinner expects his wine glass to be full each time he reaches for it, expects his plate to disappear the moment he lays his knife and fork down.

The rich man just wants this to happen because he deserves it and so doesn’t want to have to thank anyone for doing for him what he deems is only fitting to begin with.  So the trick to being a good butler is complete obsequiousness–an ability to blend into the woodwork and be no more noticeable on the fringes of the dining room than a floor lamp or the andirons at the fireplace.  In fact, in researching his role, Hopkins interviewed a real-life butler who summed up a good butler this way: the room seems emptier when he’s in it.

The room seems emptier when he’s in it.

It was precisely that kind of arrogant pride, entitlement, and self-centered narcissism that Moses wanted his dear people to avoid (see Deuteronomy).  Joshua 5 is the end of the “Wilderness Test” and the beginning of the “Promised Land Test.”  It’s an open question which test was tougher.


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