In search of: The Promised Land
I am wondering if you saw a 1978 movie called “The End?” In this movie, Burt Reynolds played Wendell “Sonny” Lawson, a man who had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In the movie Wendell didn’t want to wait out the last six months of his life. Instead, he decided to end his own life.
As it turned out, Sonny just couldn’t do the deed himself. So he enlisted the help of a delusional mental patient, played by Dom DeLuise. And, because this was a comedy, what the audience knows, but none of the characters in the story know until the movie’s end, Sonny’s terminal illness had been misdiagnosed. He was not dying; he just thought he was.
Right before the end of the movie, though, Sonny looked like he was going to get his wish to end his life. He had ended up way out in the ocean, far too far to swim safely to shore. Just as he tired beyond all endurance, Sonny realized that, come what may, he wanted to live his life to the max, to live until his very end, rather than to end things prematurely.
So, as we all do when things get grim, Sonny turned toward shore and began praying. He used words to the effect of, “O God, save my life and I will give you everything I have.” Then he continued, “Oh, God! Let me live, and I promise to obey every one of the Ten Commandments. I shall not kill… I shall not commit adultery… I shall not… I… uh…,” apparently forgetting the remaining eight Commandments. “I’ll *learn* the Ten Commandments,” he insisted, “and then I’ll obey every … one of them!”
Have you ever prayed these prayers? I suspect that, if you have not prayed these prayers, you’ve never gotten THAT diagnosis, never been in THAT kind of trouble, never hit THAT rock bottom. But, if you’ve prayed Sonny’s prayers, you will know what a transformative moment this can be, the moment when we turn every-stinking-thing over to God.
As Sonny, miraculously, neared shore in “The End,” his prayer changed. “Fifty percent, Lord! I’m talking gross!” By the time he reached shore—safely—and discovered that he was healthy after all, his pledge had dropped to “a small donation.”
I thought of “The End” and Sonny Lawson when I read our Old Testament lesson for today. In our lesson, the Hebrew people are about to enter The Promised Land, a land that they had been seeking their whole lives. Their aged leader, Joshua, called them all together to remind them of all that God had done for them.
- Joshua was worried, you see, that the people would forget God once they had settled into their new life in The Promised Land.
- Joshua was worried—once his people had reached shore on the other side of the Jordan—that they would forget everything they had learned in the wilderness about relying on God, that they would give God a tip instead of a pledge.
- Joshua was worried that his people would be enticed to worship other, false gods whom they might encounter in the land that God was about to give them. There were false gods aplenty in the land, new gods, exotic gods, gods that didn’t seem to demand as much as the One True God.
All this proves that Joshua was an astute judge of human nature. Don’t WE—each and every one of us—do this very same thing? Don’t we call on God in times of trouble, when we are wandering lost in the wilderness? Don’t we make a lot of promises to God, promises that we sometimes later forget to keep?
Joshua’s solution began with reminding the people of everything that God had done for them. They had been in the wilderness for 48 years. You may remember the story of the Hebrew people in the wilderness; you may remember the story slightly differently from the way that I do. Today I going to tell the story of God’s people in search of The Promised Land, in search of what God had promised them when he had set them free.
Do you remember God’s people in the wilderness? Time after time God had saved them. He had miraculously gotten them to safety across the Reed Sea, out of the school and into their own place of worship. He had sent them enough money year after year to balance their budget, with plenty left over so that they could give even more away. When the money got tight, he sent them a school and even another congregation to share the load. He had become their compass, giving them a cloud to follow by day and a pillar of fire to follow at night, leading them into being the hands and feet of God in their time and in their place. He had organized them into their respective tribes, given each of them a job to do for the good of the whole. He had even given them food to eat, food from heaven, food that had miraculously sustained them week after week. In short, these were God’s people; they knew God and they were one with God.
Just a few chapters before the one we heard today, we can read how God helped his to defeat the people who would have prevented them from entering The Promised Land. Verse 11—a verse that lectors everywhere are thankful that our lesson today omits—reports that God had helped his people to overcome the citizens of Jericho, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; verse 11 adds, “I [God] handed them over to you.”
I don’t know that we here at Resurrection have met any Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, or Jebusites. Or have we? Who has God given over to us, but you and you and you and you, and me?
Joshua didn’t stop there; he didn’t simply remind the people of all that God had done for them. Instead, he urged them to choose, then and there, who they would serve once they left the wilderness. Convicted by Joshua’s challenge, the people chose God, saying, “We will serve the Lord.” So Joshua made a liturgy out of the event, calling on the people to renew their covenant with the Lord. He said, “Choose this day whom you shall serve.” And they said, “We will serve the Lord our God and we will obey his voice.” Chances are, this was a liturgy the people used over and over again, each year, once they were in The Promised Land, to remind them of who they were—a people saved by God.
Then, so that the people would not forget their decision to remain one with God, Joshua set up a large stone in the sanctuary of the Lord, a witness to all the people of their pledge. Don’t we have our own stone to give us this very same reminder? What Joshua did would have been like a priest confronting Sonny on the beach in the movie “The End,” reminding him of how God had spared his life—not once but twice over—and convicting him to vow to keep the promises he had made to God out on the water.
So, here we are today, you and I, on the beach at the end of a long swim. Here we are today, you and I, on the far side of the Jordan River, waiting to cross over into The Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey that God has promised to give us. We’ve been swimming for our lives; we’ve been in the desert for a long time, waiting for our inheritance.
Maybe we’ve been on the water—or in the desert—for so long that we can’t even remember that this IS NOT The Promised Land. Stepping over onto that other shore will take a supreme act of courage. Life surely will be different on the other side. Do we have the courage to leave the wilderness behind, no matter how comfortable and KNOWN our life in the recent past has been?
If you are wondering whether I am talking about the original Hebrews, or each of us individually, or us collectively as the Church of the Resurrection, the answer is “yes.” We are Episcopalians, after all, and the answer to most of our “either-or” questions is “yes.” I declare to you that we are on the border of the Promised Land. Choose this day who you will continue to serve, and what you are willing to leave behind to do it.