Remembering the Wilderness
March 27, 2022
When we experience some kind of big or momentous change as human beings, we like to mark it in some way: a party, a ceremony, even a moment that acknowledges the transition that’s happening. We do it every single year on New Year’s Eve with a big party. And in a couple short months, many of us will be marking the transition out of school with graduation. Opening up a new business or starting a new construction project often has some kind of ribbon-cutting ceremony! We celebrate the transition from one life to the next when we come together for a baptism, the ritual washing away of the old sinful person and the birth of a new child of God.
And we also mark the not-so-happy transitions in life as well with some kind of acknowledgment. The bittersweet moment of moving to a new place might be marked with a get-together. A bad year and a closing business has a gathering to mourn and remember what happened. And of course we mark the death of a loved one with a funeral—a time when we remember who they were and talk about the hope we have. We mark these transitions with rituals, ceremonies, some kind of remembrance.
And the best rituals we have take the time to acknowledge where we were, where we came from, that got us to this point of change. Those official moments when we acknowledge a change are always made more meaningful when we pay attention to the things that happened before, and understand how they will continue to have an effect after the change happens.
In Joshua, our first reading, we hear about just such a ceremony.
Joshua was Moses’s deputy, his second-in-command. Remember that Moses had been leading the Israelites around the wilderness for forty years. Forty years of learning to trust God. Forty years of challenges and celebrations. Forty years of going through the gauntlet before the Israelites were able to enter the Promised Land. Moses didn’t join them—and we can talk about that another time—it was Joshua who led them. Joshua would lead them in the conquest of their new homeland. But before any of that, even before the famous battle of Jericho, there’s this moment that they all take to acknowledge what’s happened, and what will happen.
This scene is the official end of their wandering. Notice that the manna stops as soon as they eat the produce of the land. They’ve crossed the Jordan River after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. And they mark this huge transition—from wilderness to Promised Land—with a celebration of the Passover feast. Y’all remember what the Passover was about, right? It was when they would retell the story of how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. It was a night when they would remember how God led them through the Red Sea. Even down to today, the Passover meal is accompanied by a retelling of all the ways that God was faithful, even in the wilderness, even in the midst of the people’s unfaithfulness.
They marked the transition by remembering the trauma of slavery, the triumph of liberation, and the tribulations of the wilderness. Before they stepped forward into the future God had for them in the Promised Land, the Israelites took the time to acknowledge their past, and how it would shape their future.
We are in a transition, too. For the past two years, we have been in the wilderness of the Covid pandemic. Our lives were upended, and just as much so were our church lives. Now, two years out, we are starting to see how we can transition from a pandemic footing, to something resembling normal. The CDC has made it so that most of the country can go without masks. Most of our community is either vaccinated or otherwise immunized. Even nervousness over another variant is tempered by the realization that we are far safer and far more knowledgeable about this disease than we were two years ago. In a couple weeks, we will start coming forward to receive communion, and start passing the offering plate again. In so many ways we are emerging from the wilderness. And I think in the book of Joshua we find the way God is calling us to do that.
Just like how the Israelites told the story of where they came from and the difficulties they went through to get where they were, I think we are being called to do the same. Not to emerge from this pandemic pretending like it never happened, but instead fully acknowledging everything that happened to us—the good and the bad. Because these past two years have been filled with traumas and lessons and opportunities. They have stretched us as a congregation and taught us what is important and how we can do ministry in new and different ways.
God showed us these past two years that we can worship differently. We remember when we sat in our living rooms and watched our televisions or smartphones or tablets so that we could worship together on Sunday morning. And then we learned that worship could be over the radio, sitting in a parking lot next to each other. We gathered up the skills and technology to make live streaming worship really good, and really possible, worshipping with people who honestly might never join us in person but who are worshipping with us anyway. God showed us that through the trial of this pandemic.
And God showed us new ways of sharing our faith. When the fair was shut down, we took our famous pies and bolstered the farmer’s market. We learned that we can take lessons of our faith home with our kids when Sunday school couldn’t meet safely. We realized we could go back and watch worship—whether our own congregation’s or other congregations’—and engage with what we encountered there again later in the week. God showed us that through the wilderness of the pandemic.
God revealed to us just how deeply we wanted connection, too. In the months when we couldn’t, there was an ache for something as simple as coffee hour to catch up on the week with friends and loved ones. We wanted to be together, to see each other, and to know this mission we share is with one another and not just on our own. The wilderness of the pandemic brought our need to be faithful together to the absolute forefront of who we are as Christians in the world—whether in worship together, in coffee hour together, or in our various ministries from quilting to cooking to writing to serving together. God reminded us of that in the wilderness of the pandemic.
The lesson we can take from the book of Joshua is not to forget those lessons. Don’t forget the trauma or the joys. Don’t forget what God did with and through us to get us to this point in the pandemic. Don’t bury the memory of the past two years. Instead, use it. Use it to build the ministry God is calling us to in the future. Use all the things we learned—all the lessons of how to worship differently, how to engage our community differently, what is truly important about our faith lives together—and use these lessons to let God craft us into a new people. Let God build our ministry up into a new shape because we went through the wilderness of the pandemic.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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