New Land (A Sermon on Joshua 1:1-11)

A sermon given at Colonial Church on Ascension Sunday 2019.

Scripture: Joshua 1:1-11 (NRSV)

1 After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, 2 “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. 5 No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. 9 I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

10 Then Joshua commanded the officers of the people, 11 “Pass through the camp, and command the people: ‘Prepare your provisions; for in three days you are to cross over the Jordan, to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God gives you to possess.’”

– Joshua 1:1-11


Well, good morning! Or, Bonjour! (as I just returned from France) …and therein ends my knowledge of French! 

It’s good to see you all this morning, and it’s good to be back with you. This morning throughout the sermon I’m going to be reading and pausing to reflect upon a benediction that Nadia Bolz-Weber shared yesterday at the funeral of Christian thinker, writer, and blogger Rachel Held Evans… who was born the same year I was and died in May. As you hear these moments of benediction in the midst of this invitation into “new lands”, may they be moments for prayerful reflection– for breathing in, and for contemplation.1

Let us continue in prayer and listening for God’s invitations together. From Nadia Bolz-Weber:

Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed (indeed) are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven, and Jesus blesses you.

Amen, number one.

The Narnia Wardrobe Portal

New Land. Marie’s sermon from last week invited us to ask what it means to transition…when we are moved from the normal to the surreal, as Lucy’s walk through the wardrobe into Narnia. Marie argued that one way this happens, and we see this transpire in the Bible (such as in the book of Mark) is a “zap” of an instant change, where the world is suddenly radically different than it was just moments before. Now, even though we didn’t communicate while I was in Paris, I came back rather pleasantly surprised to observe how God’s Spirit works, because our sermons have a lot of resonance with one another!

Today then I want to both follow with Marie in what she invited us into, and also offer my own reflections on what it looks like to transition into new lands. Namely, I want to talk a little bit about what happens when we actually must figure out how to live into the new lands, and how in these new spaces we all come with complex stories and complex ways we experience the newness. 

And so we come to the book of Joshua, chapter 1.

I mean this is the ultimate new land! The people of Israel had moved from slavery in Egypt with a sense of promise that God had a land and a place for them. And they are about to go into the promised land! 

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to Scripture Circles on a Thursday morning and when I was there we talked about some of the Israelite’s journey. Vicki Bliese, along with others such as Mary and Jim Fisher, who have actually been to Israel know more about the landscape along the Jordan River than I do noted how interesting it is that on one side of the Jordan River looks a lot like the Jordan River on the other side. 

Now just imagine…you’ve been wandering around in the desert and are like: “Ok, we’ve been wandering around the desert…” You get to the other side and you think: “Really, this is it?!” “Milk and Honey?? I think it’s the same on the other side of this river!”

And yet, everything has changed. 

On April 14th, Rachel Held Evans posted her final tweets. She wrote: “If you’re the praying type–I’m in the hospital with the flu + UTI combo and severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics they gave me (I’m totally going to miss G(ame) O(f) T(hrones) (sad face)!).”2

On May 4th she died.

For Dan, her spouse, for her two kids, for those who knew and loved her, everything had changed. And yet, life goes on. Yet things still keep on bustling and movement continues to happen.

You’re on the other side of the river…and it looks the same…and yet it’s totally different.

Have you ever had an experience like this? Where in an instant everything changes, and yet, in some ways so much looks the same.

And how do you reorient to this new reality? What does this look like? 

Maybe the world has changed and you don’t know yet how to live into this space. Maybe for you, it’s something like I think of the story of Marie Antoniette and the last rulers of France where the world had actually already changed, but they couldn’t believe it so it wasn’t until the doors of Versailles were broken down that they finally had to face the reality that the world had already changed and revolution was at hand. In an instant where everything changes… and yet it looks the same.

As I was wandering around Paris I thought of you all (well, a little bit…I mean, not all of the time!). I was thinking about this sermon and about living into this new land of our core values. In a way, a lot changed. And in a way, a lot looks the same.  

But that’s the thing about new lands: you cross the river and even though things have changed, you don’t get to see the change until you go further in. 

That’s because to live in a new land demands that you have to go further in. Again, from Nadia Bolz-Weber:

Blessed are those whom no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers. The closeted. The teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

So to live into the new land, we have to go further in. This is not the faith of “fake it until you make it.” No. This is the faith instead that says: “Live it until you believe it.”

This is why for me one of my favorite parts of the Bible is I John 4 where it says (with apologies to those who’ve already heard me reference this passage 20 times this past year): “Perfecting love drives out fear.”

I used to think that this meant “perfect love drives out fear.” As in: “Get the message and get on with it, Sara!” But no, the Greek verb is a little bit more generous…it’s a perfecting love. One that reminds us that it’s only as we live into love that heals and transforms us and saves us…only then that we actually know what it feels like in our bones. 

When you go into new land everything is new and uncertain and you don’t know how to navigate, because it’s only by living into it that we can even possibly begin to know what this new land is.

Some of you know that part of why I was in Paris was because this summer Andy and I will have been married for ten years. Especially in the first years of our relationship, I kept on waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like he was so nice that I was sure he’d wake up one day and realize that I was kind of a handful!

But little bit by little bit over time, as I’ve lived into the newness of life with Andy, I’ve discovered more deeply what it means to live into a perfecting love–one that drives out fear. 

You live it until you believe it by going further in. Further into the new land. 

And it’s normal to be afraid and uncertain and feeling like: “Can’t we just please go back?!”

The Israelites knew this too.

Remember? They sent out scouts. They knew there were giants in the land. They knew there were reasons to be afraid. That’s maybe why the command “Do not be afraid,” appears so many times in these first verses of the book of Joshua and throughout the book…because it’s totally human to be afraid. It’s totally human to want to go back.

Dennis Olson, in his commentary on this book notes:

Throughout Scripture, God proclaims to God’s people, “Do not fear … “I will be with you!” The list is long: Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Hagar (Genesis 21:17), Jacob (Genesis 27:41; 28:13-15), Moses (Exodus 3:11), fleeing Israelite slaves (Exodus 14:10, 13), the judge Gideon (Judges 6:14-16), King Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:5-7), the psalmist beset by powerful enemies (Psalm 118:6), the community of Jewish exiles (Isaiah 41:10; 43:5), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:8), Daniel (Daniel 10:12, 19), Mary (Luke 1:30), shepherds surrounded by angels (Luke 2:8-14), disciples caught in a storm (Mark 4:37-40), frightened disciples in the night of Jesus’ betrayal (John 14:27), disciples frightened by reports of a resurrected Jesus (Mark 16:8; Matthew 28:10, 18-20), the apostle Paul (Acts 18:9-10; 27:24; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), or John of Patmos (Revelation 1:17-18).3

You get the point? (I know, you’re like: “Please stop, Sara!”) “This large cloud of witnesses,” he writes, “testifies that following God’s call into a new venture can often stir up fear in our hearts.” This is why God in God’s wonderful graciousness reminds us to not be afraid, for the I AM is with you.

This is the promise of resurrection that Marie spoke about last week. That life comes out of death and sometimes it’s only through these losses that life continues.

You might feel like the world is ending, but Joshua challenges us to go further in.

You might feel like the world is confusing…go further in.

You might feel like us crazy millennials have faith that you don’t understand…go further in.

Because you only get to taste the milk and honey if you cross over the waters and keep on going further in, my friends. From Nadia Bolz-Weber, again:

Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

But going further in is hard and it takes time. 

That’s why for me for the first time this past week when I re-read the exodus narrative of the 40 years in the wilderness I read it not as punishment, but thought “What if it’s just an acknowledgement of the human condition? That the Israelites needed 40 years because the transition was hard and painful and they had some stuff they had to work out in the desert?”

Sometimes we too also need time. And time is something that God graciously gives us. 

And sometimes when we read this passage we think that the Israelites marched into the promised land and triumphantly (and genocidely) took over the land, yet the reality and archeological evidence suggests that this isn’t what happened. They went into the land, indeed, but they were a small, rag-tag group of people who were trying to figure out how to live into the promise, reminding themselves of stories, like they do here in Joshua: “Hey folks, don’t forget, God’s been with you and will be.” And it helps them to remember and continue living into the land.

They, like all of us, or at least some of us, forget things. And Joshua serves as a reminder in the midst of the journey that God is the God who will continue to show up, helping us to breathe, to trust, to risk again… even when we have nothing left and are terrified. 

Because living in this land and going further in takes time. From Nadia Bolz-Weber:

I imagine Jesus standing here blessing us because that is our Lord’s nature. This Jesus cried at his friend’s tomb, turned the other cheek, and forgave those who hung him on a cross. He was God’s Beatitude— God’s blessing to the weak in a world that admires only the strong.

One of the things that I love about the Bible is how the stories that Jesus lived are connected to the stories that he and his people knew. Jesus, in so many ways throughout the gospels, is represented as the new Moses. We see this at the beginning of Joshua where Moses has died and now Joshua is bringing them into the new land. Moses was known as the “Servant of God”– the one who directly spoke with God. He led the people for 40 years from slavery to freedom through the desert. Jesus, likewise, wandered around the desert for 40 days and led people into the truest way of being. This suffering servant, Jesus, is our Moses who ascends up (to ceilings as is the case with our balloon Jesus today) and sends the Spirit as our Joshua to help us to live into new land. 

That the Spirit is with us is part of the promise of Ascension Sunday; that as we go into this new land, as we live into it with trepidation and fear, in view ofthe complexities of how we got here, the grief and the pain like the Isrrealites themselves carried, Jesus as the “new Moses” invites and ushers us further into the truest, fullest promised land. 

Janet Hagberg shared with us at the Women’s Retreat about a way that God had been showing up and speaking into her life through the image of a Carousel: “All is well, carousel.” This image evokes a picture of God at the center, holding all things, so that no matter what happens, even as our animals go up and down, we can trust that the center holds. 

Me & Andy on the Carousel in Paris by the Eiffel Tower

Now, I happen to love this image because I still love carousels. I’ve loved them since I was a little girl, and this last week I got to go on one with Andy in Paris, right under the Eiffel Tower. And if you were to see the video of us doing this you would see me at top joy fever pitch. Because the carousel is a remembrance that no matter what happens that God holds the center and as we continue to ride on this journey we have the gift of the Spirit and her gifts of boldness, wisdom, language, and unity (as Marie pointed out earlier during the life app). 

We have the Spirit who invites us deeper into this new, truly promised land.  The final offering from Nadia Bolz-Weber: 

Jesus invites us into a story bigger than ourselves and our imaginations, yet we all get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of this moment and this place. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect that gift. May we never lose our love for telling the story.

So, our charge? Our charge is to be a people who live the story of the new land and the Gospel promise. People who pack food and pack supplies, who seek to be together in helping one another to be strong. To live into the land that God is giving us and is already ours. And in this we are invited to have grace for one another in our fears, to have love for one another in our uncertainty, and to encourage one another when the land looks exactly the same and we’re not sure if the change is coming, or if we want it.

So let’s live that promise.

“Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Let us never lose our love for living and telling the story of God’s promise and resurrection as we go further in to the new land.

To Rachel Held Evans and all who labor and live a story of Gospel promise of love for all. We say thanks and amen. 

Rachel Held Evans (1981-2019)

AMEN.


The Full Benediction from Rachel Held-Evans’ Memorial Service

Given by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are those whom no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers. The closeted. The teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

I imagine Jesus standing here blessing us because that is our Lord’s nature. This Jesus cried at his friend’s tomb, turned the other cheek, and forgave those who hung him on a cross. He was God’s Beatitude— God’s blessing to the weak in a world that admires only the strong.

Jesus invites us into a story bigger than ourselves and our imaginations, yet we all get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of this moment and this place. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect that gift. May we never lose our love for telling the story. Amen.


  1. Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Benediction,” Rachel Grace Held Evans Requiem Eucharist (June 1, 2019). Bulletin available: https://sarawgdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/9967e-funeral_liturgy_for_rachel.pdf
  2.  Rachel Held Evans, Final Twitter Posts (April 14, 2019). Accessible: https://twitter.com/rachelheldevans/status/1117426946210705409.
  3.  Dennis Olson, “Commentary on Joshua 3:7-17,” Working Preacher (Accessed on May 29, 2019): https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3456.

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