Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Past - We Were There
Its Time, three-week sermon series on TIME, past, present, and future, preached September 11, 2022, at the 930am worship
The Lord be with you! And also with you!
Today Caitlan and I start a new sermon series called “Its (About?) Time.” This Sunday, we are going to look back to the past. The second Sunday, we will look around at present. The third week we will look forward into the future.
For today, as we pause to prepare our hearts and minds for worship, think back through stories of your past? Later in the worship, I’ll be asking for you to share just a word or two with us about where and how far back you went.
Let’s open ourselves to worshipping God…
Okay, when you thought about the past, where and when did your mind go?
(Receive 5-8 examples from worshippers, and repeat them for those listening at home)
Thanks, y’all. God likes to do that with God’s people. In the great stories of God and God’s people, there are key moments when leaders and people pause together to reflect on the past. Today’s scripture is one of those.
Let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Joshua 24:1-18
24:1 Then Joshua gathered all the communities of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel, and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:
“Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3 Then I (the Lord) took YOUR father, Abraham, from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac, 4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, and Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5 Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst, and afterward I brought YOU out.
“6 When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, YOU came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea.[a] 7 When they cried out to the Lord, I, God, put darkness between YOU and the Egyptians and made the sea come upon them and cover them, and YOUR eyes saw what I did to Egypt.
“Afterward YOU lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought YOU to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with YOU, and I handed them over to you, and YOU took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before YOU. 9 Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse YOU, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed YOU, (that’s how) I rescued YOU out of his hand. 11 When YOU went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against YOU, as well as the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I handed them (all) over to YOU. 12 I sent swarms of hornets[b] ahead of YOU that drove out before YOU the two kings of the Amorites;
“it was not by YOUR sword or by YOUR bow. 13 I gave YOU a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and YOU live in them; YOU eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that YOU did not plant.”
14 (Then Joshua said) “Now, therefore, revere the Lord and serve God in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living (now), but as for me and my household, we will be serving the Lord.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought US and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in OUR sight. God protected US along all the way that we went and among all the peoples through whom we passed, 18 and the Lord drove out before US all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for (the Lord) is OUR God.”
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)
Sermon We Were There
The people listening weren’t alive in the time of Abraham. None of them knew Isaac or could pick him out of a crowd. None of them knew Jacob or Esau personally or were there when Jacob cheated Esau and they split, or when Jacob sent gifts to Esau trying to buy forgiveness.
They didn’t know Joseph, the way his family picked on him, and sold him. None of the people hearing these stories of the past felt the hunger pangs of the famine that pushed all the people of Israel toward Egypt, nor had any of them suffered the shift from guests of Egypt under Joseph to slaves of Egypt.
I doubt any of these people were alive when Israel put blood over the door, grabbed their little packs of unleavened bread, and left under the cover of night with Moses to escape Pharaoh. Very few of the people, if any, experienced life in the wilderness. There were two whole generations in the wilderness, and at the time of this gathering, they are another generation or two beyond the wilderness.
Some, but only the older ones, were there with young Joshua the day they buried Moses and crossed over from wilderness to Promised Land. Joshua is now at the end of his life, (he dies at the end of this chapter), and God gathers all the people together and tells them these stories from their past.
God doesn’t speak these stories only about people back then, characters who suffered and survived certain things. God retells the stories of the past in a way that puts those listening IN the story. God says, “I brought YOU ALL out of slavery. I protected YALL when Pharaoh chased YOU. I fed YOU in the wilderness and forgave YOU when YOU betrayed me. I delivered YOU into the Promised Land and delivered YOU from the violent leaders of other nations who tried to hurt YOU and take the lands I was giving to YOU. Everything they suffered, YOU suffered. Everything they accomplished because of me, you benefit from still today, because of me. What happened to them happened to you. What they survived, you survived. When they barely escaped, YOU barely escaped. YOU!”
For this God, it’s not enough for us to look back on the stories of the past and see strangers in a history book, or ancestors many times removed in a family tree. The stories of the past are about US! WE, the ones listening to the stories, we are there! All of that happened to US, all of us and each of us, and because of GOD, who God is and God’s love for us, and God’s promises that God’s been keeping since the beginning, WE have been graced and led and loved all along the way.
How does that sit with us? Is that a hard lesson for us hear? From God’s perspective, we were there in the past. We are those in the past hurting from others, or hurting others. We are the ones who sinned against God, or whom God saved from the full consequences of those sins. That’s how God talks about the past.
Today is 9/11, that horrible day when planes were hijacked and used as weapons to attack. Do you remember that day? I do. I was supposed to be on an 8:00am plane from Greenville Spartanburg to Newark. I had a meeting that afternoon with the Card division of JPMorganChase. I would have landed in Newark a bit before 900, gotten on the Path train, and would have been headed for the station under the Twin Towers. But I had BEGGED Ginger, my assistant, to move my flight since the meeting was late afternoon then out to dinner. I wasn’t there, but I still feel it like I was.
We are coming up on the 37th anniversary this church. If you were there when this church was founded, raise a hand, please. (Applause) These whipper snappers were doing church on back porches and rented community buildings. They’ve told me some stories about this church back then.
“There were children under foot, making beautiful noises.”
“There was no building, no special furniture. We just made do.”
“Everyone that showed up was needed, and just jumped in and got involved the minute they showed up.”
One founding member once told me, “The only tradition we had back then was that there were no traditions.”
The way we tell the story about the birth, growth, and maturity of this church over the last 37 years is that only a select few were there at the beginning. Everyone else came along later. But based on today’s scripture, I don’t think that’s how God tells the story of this church. When God tells stories of the past, WE all were THERE in the past, right beside those who came before us. And when God tells the story of the past, it is God is the one who imagined this church, and built this church, and we were all there with God and those who came before us.
Feel that for a minute. It feels a bit odd, as if we are taking credit for something we didn’t do. Let that feeling fall away. That isn’t from God. The way God tells the story of the past, ALL of Gods people WERE all there together.
That also means we were there, in the past, when God’s people sinned against one another and against God. We were there in Eden, and there at the Flood. We were there on the escape from Egypt, and the betrayal of God for other idols in the desert. We were there as slave ships landed in Chestertown, and their labor built this town and the wealth of this nation. We were there in the Civil War, the Jim Crow years, the Civil rights years. We were there on Washington College campus last month and over the last few weeks when students of color were harassed and called racial slurs. We were there too. Feel that for minute? How does that feel? It feels a bit odd, as if we are being blamed for something that we didn’t do, that wasn’t our fault. Please, don’t listen to that defensive voice. That voice isn’t from God.
God’s lesson to us about the past is that we WERE there, each of us and all of us. Sin is the words or actions we take or fail to take to be God’s hands and feet in this world. Sin is also a condition into which we are born, meaning the sins of those who came before us attach themselves to us still today, and we are responsible for the sins of our time and the condititon of sin for the times before us. God puts us IN the past so we feel the sins of the past as our own responsibility to unravel today. We aren’t guilty of them. We are forgiven. But we are responsible to work with God to repair.
We were also there for all the good stuff too. The amazing miracles and successes of God’s presence and grace on the peoples throughout time. God has always been faithful and forgiving to God’s people and always will be. But the way God tells the story, God did all that, not us. I think that’s what God means with these words. “It was not by YOUR sword or by YOUR bow. 13 I gave YOU a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and YOU live in them; YOU eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that YOU did not plant.” The blessings and good we have, we cannot think of it only as earned by our hard work, our effort, our diligience and sweat. How does that feel? Unfair? Please, don’t listen to that arrogant voice. The blessings of our lives are gifts from God. Sure, we were there and did our part, just as much as those who came before us. But God is the reason anything for any of the good we enjoy.
When we think of the past, put yourself there in the midst of it. You were there. When you see the ills and sins of the past, feel them as your own to continue repairing in God’s name and with God’s help. When you see the blessings of the past, of this nation, this town, or your own family, give God glory for God’s grace and presence that gives you and me the benefits of those who came before us, and bends our mistakes back toward the good.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.
Now, blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night this moment and forever more. Amen.