The Shadow of Moses (A Sermon)

* Originally preached at the Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago on Nov. 2, 2014.

Joshua 3:7-17
3:7 The LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.

3:8 You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'”

3:9 Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God.”

3:10 Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites:

3:11 the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan.

3:12 So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.

3:13 When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”

3:14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people.

3:15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water,

3:16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho.

3:17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

———————————

I wonder what it felt like. I wonder what it felt like to be Joshua standing in the shadow of Moses. After all, where we meet our Israelites in this week’s scripture is at the very beginning of Joshua’s time as their leader. Moses has just died. Moses, the one who encountered God in a burning bush, the one who called down the plagues and secured the Israelites’ liberty from Egypt, who led them through the wilderness, and brought them the Ten Commandments. Moses the great Israelite leader has died, and Joshua has been called to take his place.  Joshua who was, at least up to that point, really just an ordinary guy—assistant to Moses, some time spy, bumbling Israelite man.

Except, suddenly, he was the “new Moses”—or at least, the Israelites’ new leader. And as he stood before them, just across the Jordan from the long awaited “Promised Land”—I have to imagine that he was quaking in his sandals. I bet his voice shook a bit as he commanded the men carrying the ark to step into those rushing waters. I bet he wondered how to stand and what to do with his hands so that he came across as calm, confident, and qualified. And as he watched his people cross, one by one, into a new, unimaginable future that he would lead—I bet he was thinking about all that Moses had been and all he was now expected to be and saying to himself over and over, “How the heck did I get here?”

It’s not hard for us today to imagine Joshua feeling just this way. After all, we’ve been hearing about the epic Jewish hero Moses our whole lives. Even if we didn’t grow up in church, we’ve seen Moses’ story played out on the silver screen—Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments or perhaps the more recent animated film The Prince of Egypt. For everything we’ve heard about Moses and his vital role in leading the ancient Israelites out of bondage, he seems more mythic herculean demigod than real, imperfect human being.

And even though the ancient Israelites didn’t have the classic Hollywood depiction to go off of, surely their much-revered (though often disobeyed) leader seemed superhuman even to them. Especially in the days immediately following his death, when his people would have been poignantly aware of his absence and would have filled the empty space with memories of his best and most extraordinary qualities and achievements—as we so often do when someone dies.

Of course Moses would have seemed superhuman to them, just as he does to us. We do this to our heroes, don’t we? We immortalize them. In our storytelling, in our reverence, in our admiration—we turn them into superhuman legends and, insodoing, we flatten out—even dismiss—their humanity.

From Nelson Mandela to Ghandi to Martin Luther King Jr. to Harvey Milk to Malala Yousafzai, we learn about and teach about their incredible strength, courage, leadership, and revolutionary spirit. We call them prophets, and we give thanks for all the wonder of their achievements. We sing their praises and we wish that we had one ounce of what makes them so heroic.

But we forget that—even with all that the good they do in their unbelievable lives—they are still human. Mandela, Ghandi, King, and even Moses—like all heroes—they were human. They were imperfect, flawed. They, like anyone, had the capacity to hurt and be hurt, to do wrong, to be afraid, to mess up. Often, we are reminded of this human reality about our real world heroes in the worst of ways. A scandal hits the news or a scathing biopic comes out—and we find this less rose-colored image of our idols deeply unsettling.

My father’s favorite author has always been Pat Conroy. Conroy writes beautiful, nuanced novels about life in South Carolina—my dad’s home state. Like my father, he was a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston and one of his most famous novels, Lords of Discipline, is based on the military college. My dad has read everything he’s ever written. And some years ago, when the opportunity arose for my dad to meet his much beloved idol—he jumped at the chance. But he was disappointed. Conroy was grouchy, distant, and frankly, just too human. Ever since, my dad has sworn off any chance to meet another hero and warned me to do the same. He’d rather hold on to his hopeful—if unrealistic—image than be disappointed by a more human reality.

It makes sense, I think. We want to believe that these people who we look to for inspiration and hope have somehow managed to overcome all the brokenness that we so often find ourselves mired in. We want to believe that a better world is possible because there are better—even perfect—people out there bringing it into being.

But here’s the thing: we will never be perfect—you and me. And when we immortalize our heroes right out of their God-given humanity, when we imagine that God calls upon them as perfect, flawless superhumans to do things we cannot imagine—we miss the whole point. God does call them, but God calls them as human beings, works through them as human beings. And when we forget that–we allow ourselves to forget that God calls us too. Even us. All of us. Human. Broken. Imperfect. God calls us just as we are.

Bumbling, nervous Joshua—new leader of the Israelites—was oh so human. And so was Moses. It’s not just true. It is essential.

God calls stuttering, reluctant sheepherders to lead a people to freedom, and bumbling former assistants to help them cross to the Promised Land. And God call us to do things we cannot imagine, to dream of and work for a world better than we can imagine. It is a daunting calling—being a part of God’s work in this world—but the good news is we don’t have to be perfect or superhuman to do it.

The amazing thing about God’s grace is that it doesn’t work merely in spite of humanness—God’s grace works through humanness. This is nowhere more apparent than in Jesus Christ himself. God incarnate. Fully divine, yes. But also, essentially, fully human.

Mired as we all are—this whole world even—in brokenness and imperfection, God might just have written us all off. The whole thing. Or, being both full of grace and infinitely powerful, God might have snapped those divine fingers and fixed everything without breaking a sweat. But no. Instead, God chose to enter in to finite, limited, imperfect human life. God staked the fate of every inch of beloved creation on a vulnerable, particular, absolutely human child. A child who grew into a man who changed this world utterly, shattered paradigms and gave rise to new unbelievable hope—but who also cried bitter tears of grief, who doubted and questioned, who got angry and once cursed a fig tree because he was hungry and it wouldn’t bear fruit out of season. Son of God, yes. Embodiment of grace, yes. But also truly, uniquely human.

Theologians highlight that it matters not only that Jesus was human, generally, but that he was one specific human being in a specific time and place. They call it the scandal of particularity. It means that particularity matters. God works through particularity. God not only calls us in our humanness, but each of us, in our unique, particular embodiment of humanness. With our flaws, with our insecurities, all the things that make you, you and me, me. God calls us each, because each of us has something uniquely essential to contribute to God’s work in this world.

In this text from Joshua, God commands that one person from each tribe of Israel help carry the ark into the Jordan so that the whole nation is represented and connected. And then, the men holding the ark wait, until every last individual member of the whole nation of Israel crosses over into the new land. Only then, when every last essential person has played their part does the Ark cross over and the promise become fulfilled.

Like Joshua and these ancient Israelites, we are standing in the shadow of Moses and other greats who have come before us. We are looking toward and dreaming of an unimaginable future and we are wondering what superhuman hero will get us there. But it matters that Moses was human and so are we.

Because if the future of God’s kingdom—if the better world we dare to dream of—rests on the likes of Moses—well that only means that it rests—at least some small but essential piece of it—on the likes of us. God’s grace, which unbelievably works not merely in spite of us but through us—is both an incredible gift and a responsibility that we cannot ignore simply because we feel too imperfectly human. God works through our humanness.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Today we remember those whom we have loved and lost and all who have come before us in our common story of faith. We stand in their shadow, and we may be tempted, as those Israelites surely were all those years ago, to immortalize them. To fill in the space of their absence with some superhuman, perfect version of who they were. But let’s not. Let’s remember them in all their beautiful, beloved, imperfect humanness. Let’s remember that God worked through their human lives. And let us be inspired and emboldened by their memory to believe that God is working through our human lives too.

We are called. Each of us. Human. Imperfect. Particular. We are called to the work of God’s kingdom. May the kingdom come. Amen.

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