1 Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. 5 You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. 8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.
We meet once again. Another day to worship and according to the church calendar today marks the new church year. As Friends we do not usually follow the traditional church calendar, at least not as a whole. This is a tradition that I do not always follow. I like the church calendar. I like that people from other denominations can come visit our Meeting and hear the same scriptures being read that would be read at theirs, and that similar themes will be presented. I say similar because the things I see in the pages of scripture and will speak about are not always going to be the same as someone else.
I began using the lectionary when I started ministering among you here at Willow Creek. I did this primarily because it gives our various volunteers a list of scriptures months in advance so that they can begin to prepare and practice songs that might go with those passages. I do reserve the right to venture out of that traditional framework.
The interesting thing about the lectionary. It is a three-year cycle of scriptures that correspond with various church seasons. The beginning of the year is Advent, followed by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and ordinary time. This list of scriptures within this three-year cycle often contains books and passages I rarely think about, and yet even though this list was compiled decades ago, each week the suggested scripture I have used has been the right one for that week.
According to the church calendar, today is the beginning of the new year. I have considered this over the years. I have wondered why the new year does not begin with Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord? Why do we start the year a month before Christmas?
After many seconds of research on google, I began to understand. Advent means, the beginning of an event, the invention of something, or the arrival of a person. I sat thinking about this as I was praying, Advent is the beginning of an event. It is the period of time waiting for someone to arrive.
It is fitting that the new year begins with advent because that is how life works. I sat sitting in my blue chair thinking. I had just finished reading Albert his devotional for his Jesse tree project and I sat thinking about my life as a dad. I thought about all the various moments we have shared as a family. And how the events we share this year had a time of preparations months or years in advance. Albert plays goalie for his team now, but seven years ago I remember his first game. He would be sitting on the bench waiting for his turn to play, he would stand up to go onto the ice and his little helmet could just barely been seen over the top of the boards. His coach had to lift him up over the boards because the step going in and out of the players bench was too tall for his little legs to manage and yet he wanted to be out there.
Seven years we have waited to watch him today. But this all started before that. Some people have asked me why I allowed my son to play this game so early in his life. To be honest I cannot tell you. Since the day he could walk he has wanted to play hockey. David and Vicky even brought a hurling stick back from Ireland to give to him because he has always had a hockey stick in his hands. I laugh as I look through his old pictures because in nearly every one, he has hockey gloves on and a stick in his hand. Even his doctor has sat in the office playing hockey with him from the time he could walk.
Events build up to this moment of time. Every one of those events is part of the process. They build upon each other, compounding together until the moment arrives. And each of those events continues to build on into the future until the time of fulfillment.
When does life begin? I know that this has become a political talking point, but I want us to think about it. When did your child’s life begin? When did the life of your niece, nephew, or grandchild begin? We celebrate the days they were born, but what happened before that day? I cannot speak for everyone, but I do remember that Kristy and I spent many hours getting the room prepared. We built a crib, hung cute little pictures, and built a changing table. We organized baby clothes, bought baby clothes. We had diapers nicely stacked ready to use on the day this long expected baby came home for the first time. For nine months we prepared and waited in anticipation. Albert was just as much a part of the family in those moments as he is now. And for those of us who have experienced a miscarriage we can often mourn the loss of that child just as dramatically as we would any loss of a child because they are already part of our family.
Advent, the beginning of the event. The waiting for the arrival. Anticipation or as I have often called it Holy Anxiety. Anxiety is an emotional response, a feeling of fear, dread, or uneasiness. Usually when we speak of anxiety it is in a clinical sense when those feelings of distress do not go away, or they prevent us from participating in our daily lives. I like the concept of Holy Anxiety because I do find it fitting.
The past couple of weeks for us have been difficult. Yes, part of this is because of the loss of my grandfather, but for Albert it has been particularly rough. The Independence Community Ice had an unscheduled maintenance problem, so he was not able to play hockey. The first few days were not bad, but after a week he became irritable and fidgety, he even said it is boring without hockey. Now you understand why I spoke so much about this silly game today. We have just spent the past two weeks trying to explain something we do not understand. I have a deeper understanding of the words of that classic Christmas song “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” When the lyrics say “mom and dad can hardly wait for school to start again.” We want Christmas to come, or in my case we want the ice to be fixed again. We want the celebration, the family, the joy, and the hope of a brighter future, but things must happen before that day comes.
Isaiah wrote in his oracles, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence…” Isaiah lived during the days of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah and began his ministry prior to the Assyrian invasion that scattered the northern tribes among the nations. Israel was still free; they were still their own nations and yet there was this fear and dread that surrounded them.
Isaiah could sense what was about to happen. He knew that their enemies were going to come. He knew that the people of God would face times of trouble, he knew. Anxiety. “Oh, that you would rip the sky open and come down,” he cries out to the lord, “to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
Isaiah knows something is about to occur, something dreadful. It does not sit well in his mind. Israel has a purpose, a divinely appointed purpose. This is why Isaiah cries out the way he does. He cries out because Israel was called to be a light to the nations, they were to reveal the one true God to all. They were supposed to be, and yet they were not.
This past year I made a pledge with myself that I would spend more time speaking from the Old Testament and for the most part that is what has happened. The reason this has been more difficult is because there is so much more work and study that I must do to be able to present anything that sounds like a complete thought. When we enter the Old Testament scriptures we are entering into a different time and place. We know this but we often do not let that knowledge exist within our minds. This is a problem with most scripture because we are looking at it though eyes that are thousands of years removed from the time that it was written. The New Testament is easier because it is closer to us historically. We know what happened in the Roman empire because we have writings from that time period. But much of the history and culture surrounding the Old Testament has been lost in the sands of time and that of the desert.
We often read into the text, a western or Latin culture, but they were not Romans because Rome did not yet exist. There was no Caesar ruling the world, instead of that emperor there were others. We often laugh at the ideas and consider them to be silly superstitions, but the Old Testament world resembled the writings of Homer more than Shakespeare. It was a time when gods battled on earth and in heaven. Where giants or those great men of renown ruled the nations. Men that claimed to be the offspring of the gods. When we read the stories of Hercules the great ancient hero that battled with mythical beasts, are the stories dissimilar to the stories of Samson? I am not saying that the inspired words of scripture are fictional stories, but I do want us to take a step back and understand that the people that wrote these words were from a time and place without science as we know it today. And yet they were amazing. They did not have calculus or even algebra and yet they constructed the pyramids and the Parthenon. They did not have a compass, and yet they were able to navigate the world using the stars in the sky. They did not have the internet and somehow through careful study and observation they could predict when cosmic events would occur and were often able to adjust in their lives to prepare for those future events.
How did they do all this? If we were to take them at their word, they received this information from their gods. We are enlightened today. We claim to know better, yet often we are relearning things those ancient people already knew. We do not want to accept the possibility that they had access to some supernatural intelligence, so we entertain the idea and are entertained by the concept of ancient aliens.
Isaiah, this ancient man of old, looked out at the world around him. He saw what was going on, and he knew the promise that was made to the man that began this advent, Abraham. He knew that this ancient father was promised to be a nation that would be the light of all the nations. Through him and his offspring, God would reverse all the evil that had come into the world. He would redeem all the nations and bring them back to the place we were created to inhabit. Israel was to show God to the world.
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.”
Isaiah might as well be writing to us today, and yet he wrote these words thousands of years ago. It does not even matter where we are from or what cultural background we have, these words ring true. There is something wrong with the world. We are doing things that we know are not right, and yet we do them anyway. Just turn on the news and you can see it played out before our eyes. We know that innocent people are suffering at the hands of others. And that we have justified those actions in our minds because we want something they have for ourselves. We justify, but that justification does not make it right.
We are often polluted and diluted. We say in our minds that we are right, but have we taken a step back and examined beneath the surface? Albert wants to play hockey, but the ice has melted. We want Christmas today, but we must wait. Isaiah wants God to reveal himself fully to the world, but God has another plan.
God wants the world to know him. He wants everyone on the face of this earth to know that they are loved and created in His image. That is our calling and mission as people who claim to be his people. We like Isaiah want God to rip open the heavens and for Jesus to come in the clouds. I have heard the sermons on this my entire life. We live in a similar holy anxiety as Isaiah did in those ancient days. My grandfather heard those sermons, as did my great grandfather. For over a hundred years we have been told that the end of the world is upon us, and yet tomorrow has become today and the anxiety continues the advent is still anticipated. We have listened to these messages we have read the books and watched the movies. We fear being left behind, and in that fear have we missed the point?
“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah looks at the calamity that is upon them, he pleas that God would just rip the heavens apart and reveal himself to the nations, yet God does not work like that. God has a different plan. He works the clay.
My wife has a fine arts degree in ceramics, so I often dwell on passages like this and remember the countless hours of watching her work with clay as I sat reading a book, well acting like I was reading a book. I watched her sitting at the wheel as a vessel seemingly magically appeared before my eyes. I observed her manipulate something I would have called mud into something profound. We are like that clay.
Isaiah says this somewhat metaphorically, but this is also what is explained in Genesis. God said, “Let us make man in our image.” And he created man out of the dust of the earth. He created humanity out of clay. He molded and formed Adam, we often see this as man but Adam means of the soil or ground. God takes this clay figure and breathes life into it and places it inside a garden called Eden. This clay figure is the image of God. But what exactly does that mean?
When God created this mud man we know as Adam, he said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish, over the birds, over the livestock, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Does that give us any clue as to what the image of God is? The image is not the creativity we possess, or the mental capacity we wield, but it is dominion and position. We were place into the creation to be caretakers or stewards over all that God created. We were created to be God’s representatives to the plants, animals, and creepy things. We are living into God’s image when we allow God’s wisdom to live through us into the world we reside.
We want God to rend the heavens, but what does God want?
We want God to come down and make the mountains quake, to make his name known to our adversaries. Yet maybe in this time of advent, in this time of holy anxiety God is encouraging us to bear his image. Maybe he is encouraging us to show those around us the true hope that is found within the teachings of God.
“Behold, please look, we are all your people.” Is this what we see as we gaze upon those around us? Is this the prayer we speak as we pray for peace in Israel and across the world? Is this our identity and image? We want and we anticipate, but before we can have, we must wait for God to continue to work the clay. But as we wait, we can hold onto the promise that God will reveal himself to all people. And that God will himself known. He will fulfill what he has said he will fulfill, but until that time we are his people, here now. And we have work to do.
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church November 26, 2023 Click to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Ezekiel 34:11–16 (ESV) 11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church November 12, 2023 Click Here to Join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Joshua 24:1–3a, 14-25 (ESV) 1 Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church November 5, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Joshua 3:7–17 (ESV) 7 The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as…
11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
Ezekiel 34:20–24 (ESV)
20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.
This week my mind has been going every way but Sunday. We all have moments like this. The stresses of this world seem to be building up within us and we just seem to have no way to let it out.
Last week you all know my grandfather had a stroke, and I thank David and everyone for graciously allowing me to go be with him for a while. This Friday he passed through the veil of life. My grandpa was my place of comfort. He had this quiet yet deep and strong faith. He did not say a great deal and yet his eyes and his smile could preach sermons I only wish I could give. Many have asked me as I have ministered why I tend to prefer hymns over contemporary music, the greatest reason is I hear grandpa singing them. He had this rhythm of life, he worked hard all through the week. Harder than anyone I know, but the only Sundays he would not be sitting at Mt Ayr Friends church were Sundays that he happened to be visiting my aunt in Denver. He was always at church, always rocking from heel to toe, quietly humming with his eyes closed or singing the base line through the chorus.
Grandpa was a rock of faith. He rarely if ever spoke of his faith and yet I knew. The only time I really remember him speaking about his faith was before I left to board a plane heading to Ukraine, that day he gave me a hug and said, “you are going to the land of the enemy, I will be praying for you.”
I had never seen my grandpa worried. I had rarely seen him express any emotion other than joy, yet I saw something that day. I saw the depth of his faith and where his strength and hope were found.
My mind has been wondering these past few weeks. Focus on everything but Sunday. I looked at this week’s scripture reading, the passage that Vicky confirmed with me over a month ago and like every week, it is exactly the words I personally needed to hear.
Ezekiel is a book I rarely read. I admit that I do not like it. Yes, there are some very good parts that we all remember, but there are other parts that make me uncomfortable even as an adult. The fact that I would find comfort in the words of Ezekiel this week of all weeks speaks not of the book but the God that inspired the words the prophet wrote.
Ezekiel was one of those prophets that emerged around the time of Jerusalem’s troubles. It is believed that Ezekiel was among those that were exiled to Babylon prior to the destruction of the city, so unlike Jeremiah he did not suffer through the impending war. Instead, he lamented the prospect.
Most of us know little about Ezekiel. We mainly know about the vision he had of the throne of God where he describes the beasts and the wheels within wheels with eyes all around. There are vast interpretations of that vision, from helicopters to aliens, but it was a vision of God’s throne. It is a wheeled throne surrounded by throne guardians. Angelic beings that were shining like polished metals. These are terrifying and yet awe-inspiring visions. And his vision gives us a glimpse into the reality described in the fall of humanity. What we often read as snake in scripture, could be seen as one of these beings, also known as the shining ones, because the word for shining like polished bronze and burning as in snake venom is similar. We get snake in Genesis but throne guardian in Ezekiel.
After the vision of God’s throne, the only other story from Ezekiel we all relate to is the store of the dry bones. God meets Ezekiel once again in a vision where he sees the sun-bleached bones of the fallen in the wilderness. The vision is one of desolation, of hopelessness. We can sense the despair in the words. God commands the prophet to speak to these bones, to prophesy over the bones. What is the point there is nothing, no hope, why even bother? Yet God insists, and Ezekiel is obedient. The bones rise, they come together, are reanimated, and restored to life once again. Ezekiel, in the sorrows of judgment and exile sees a vision of hope through hopelessness.
With such amazing visions this should be one of our favorites in all scripture. The problem is Ezekiel does not hold back, he is vile and crude in his descriptions. Most of what he says I do not want to explain or even say out loud because…well if we are honest the books that people are seeking to ban today are less graphic.
The last thing we might know about Ezekiel, we can find in the frozen department of the grocery store. There within those frosty doors you can find a bread boasting to be the healthiest of all the breads, called Ezekiel 4:9. This bread is straight from the pages of scripture so you would think it fly off the shelf. But every time I had to stock it while I worked in the grocery department I would laugh and wonder if they baked it according to the scripture as well as using the ingredients mentioned on their packaging. Just so you know the bread in all its wholesome goodness would render the prophet unclean to worship, because it was to be cooked over excrement.
Ezekiel was likely among those great men taken into exile to serve in the courts of Babylon. We know them as Daniel, and the trio Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They each were taken to serve in this foreign nation, a nation they despised and would use to describe the very essence of evil. And it was here in Babylon Ezekiel the prophet and priest would teach. He would describe the nation of God’s people as being worse than Babylon. He would pronounce judgement over the people in graphic detail, leaving no one to question just why God was upset. And then after all of that, he would speak some of the most beautiful words of hope and grace.
Israel and Judah were adulterous nations, they left their God and they entertained the gods of the world. Ezekiel would describe Sodom in a better light than the God’s chosen nation. I want us to consider that for a moment. We all have our opinions about what Sodom’s sin was, what caused them to be so detestable that God would say that not a single person was worthy of redemption in that land that deserved destruction by fire. And yet Ezekiel said that Sodom would blush at the description of Israel.
My mind was going every way but Sunday all week. I found that I had to force myself to come to the meetinghouse, I had to leave my blue chair so I could contemplate and pray as I prepared for today. You see that is the point of Ezekiel’s message. We can become distracted. At first it does not seem like we have drifted, but day after day, week upon week, month after month and year over year, we drift. As the cycles of time move forward, we find that we have drifted just a bit further away. To the point we are no longer able to recognize the difference between the people of God and those of the world.
A few years ago, my grandpa asked me about this. He knew I was an elder, and he asked me once to send him a faith and practice because he wondered if what was written there, what we claimed to believe, was what he once knew. I could see the spiritual pain in his eyes that day, and I felt a tremble in the rock. It only lasted a moment, but that slight tremble in the foundations of my life caused me to search. It prompted me to wonder about my faith, and if I lived what I said I believed.
The words of my grandfather. The words of a quiet man of faith that had been my inspiration for so many years, prompted one of the most soul-searching eras of my spiritual journey once again.
Who are we? What are we called to do?
Most of my life there has been a struggle for identity. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be an American? Are these one in the same or is there a difference?
I have examined my faith over the past few years. I have looked at the things I once embraced and have examined them in light of scripture. This has often been difficult because I began to see just how hypocritical I have been, and how there were times I led those within my care in a direction that we probably should not have gone. Ezekiel’s words hit me hard. And yet I have continued to seek.
“Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”
In the sorrow that I have been feeling this past week. And in the encouragement that I received from my grandfather. I can see hope forward. We are often scattered. Scatter brained in my case. We feel this deep within our bones. We look at the world in which we live, and we wonder. Things are not what they once were. I say this not out of some nostalgic view of the past. I would much rather live today than generations past. But there are some things that have changed.
“And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and will bring them into their own land. And I will fee them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down., declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
When we look into the past, we see many things. We might look at the discrimination and persecution during World War 2 and say we have come a long way. We might look at the civil rights movement here in America and it might seem like ancient history. The labor movements spurred dramatic improvements within our nation. All these things are profound, but where are they today?
The pendulum swings. Labor once fought for the greater good, but then there was an overreach, and the communities began to pull away. There are cycles of change. Two steps forward, followed by a step back, because we feel as if we might have gone too far. This is what Ezekiel means by fat and strong. We make progress in an area, people involved in that movement gain power and influence and eventually they themselves begin to use that influence in a manner resembling those they once fought against. This is why Jesus said, “the poor will always be with you.” Jesus does not condemn wealth outright; he instead condemns what wealth can become and often what is done to obtain wealth.
Ezekiel continues, “Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep.”
We have recently celebrated Armistice Day, today we call it Veteran’s Day. I personally prefer Armistice Day because it was to remember the great war to end all wars, and what that war cost. The great war, or World War 1, was a battle between German, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire against England, Russia, France, and eventually the United States. That war was the most heinous war the world had ever seen to that point.
Germany was seen as the ultimate villain in that conflict, and I understand this. They invaded France and they inflicted great harm to the British. And the allied forces wanted to make sure that Germany paid for their violence, so they were charge reparations. Before the war German was lauded as the greatest economy of the world, but all that changed after the war. The fees charged to Germany continued to hinder the people of Germany they plead for some relief from the sanctions, but this fell on deaf ears.
At the close of the war, Germany made reforms that should have led them into peaceful future. Armistice should have made all the nations of the world equal, but weak and strong, the malnourished and the fat. Sheep and Sheep together, nations of the world. The once oppressed became an oppressor and the once strong became weak. This does not sit well with people. When injustice occurs violence often follows. We either need to beat down the violence with greater violence or find another way. The reparations applied to Germany can be seen as a factor that ushered in the politics that prompted war to again break out just a couple of decades after the war to end wars.
We cannot simply win; we all must change for lasting peace. We push with side and shoulder, we thrust at the weak with our horns and we scatter them abroad. Russia invades Ukraine, Syria engages in a civil war, Hamas terrorizes the civilians of Israel. What is the result? Folgers and Monsanto go into Latin America to promote the growing of their crops, the governments of those nations remove people from farms to obtain greater profits for themselves. What are the results? In both cases people flee, they are scattered across the world, they seek refuge in places that they see hope. The immigration problem we see in Europe and here is a sign of injustice. We cannot merely close the borders because that does not promote justice. We need real change, and not weak and fat.
I said that over the past few years I have examined my faith, and I have lamented my own hypocrisy. I have been excited about an area of injustice that I could assist only to see the organizations grow and become instruments of injustice themselves. They like so many get distracted. They sought to do good, and they did great work, but as they rose in power and influence, they became fat, and they began to prod with their horns.
My mind has strayed every way but Sunday all week. I have pled, and I have mourned. I have sought distraction and comfort. I looked at this passage and I was reminded of something profound. In my mind my grandpa was a great man, the greatest of men. But his greatness was different. He was patient and kind. He was joyful and encouraging. He inspired and with a slight change in expression promotes a reexamination of actions. He embodied the testimony of St. Francis, to “preach the gospel always and when necessary, use words.”
My grandfather showed me faith. That faith became the bedrock of my own faith. My grandfather taught me kindness and I hope that I have lived into his example. I grandfather gave me hope, but not in him, he gave me hope in God. We are often distracted; our minds can often be taken every way but Sunday and when that happens, we can often find ourselves in the very places we were seeking to eliminate. We end up in that place when we forget to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Christ with others. We often get distracted, but God will draw his people back to him. He draws us back himself and he binds our wounds and strengthens our weaknesses. He will show us our own errors and again point us to justice. Let us pray that we will listen to his voice and not become like the rebellious nation described throughout the pages of Ezekiel.
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church December 03, 2023 Click Here to Join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Isaiah 64:1–9 (ESV) 1 Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church October 29, 2023 Click to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Deuteronomy 34:1–12 (ESV) 1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church October 22, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Exodus 33:12–23 (ESV) 12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will…
1 Joshua gathered all the tribes 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 fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. 3a Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many.
14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve 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 fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in 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 he is our God.” 19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem.
Last week we watched as Israel prepared to enter the land of promise. They were reminded of where they had been, and who they were. They had to face the failures of the generations past and decide if they would continue that path or take a different route along their journey.
A few of us this week attended the Rend Collective concert. If you did not attend, I am sorry you missed it. But one of the songs they played during that concert was the first song we sang this morning.
I can see the Promised Land. Though there’s pain within the plan, there is victory in the end. Your love is my battle cry. When my fears like Jericho. Build their walls around my soul. When my heart is overthrown. Your love is my battle cry. The anthem for all my life. Every giant will fall, the mountains will move. Every chain of the past, you’ve broken in two. Over fear, over lies, we’re singing the truth. That nothing is impossible with you.
Often, we look at the conquest of Joshua in literal terms. We imagine these wars as wars are today. We think of thousands of people packed within the walls of Jericho; we envision columns of soldiers meeting for battle in Ai. The reality was a little different.
The land of Canaan was not the densely populated area Israel is today. It was largely unpopulated. There were a few strongholds or military outposts scattered throughout, like Jericho, but for the most part Canaan was little villages or family-oriented tribes surrounded by land devoted to agricultural production.
During the expansion to the west here in the United States, our government offered people quarter sections of land to anyone that paid the registration fee and construct improvements. This was one hundred and sixty acres of land basically free. My family moved west for this very reason, and as these families moved west, they improved the land. They built a house and started a farm. But life was hard in those pioneering days. Survival was not easy so people would often build their homes where the various quarter sections of property would meet. This formed a little village where the families could live in community helping each other as they made a future for themselves and their families.
This in a lot of ways was what Canaan was, fields surrounding communal structures. Joshua and the rest of the nation of Israel walked across the Jordan and they marched across the fields. The people saw them approaching in the distance and they ran. Most of the conquest that we imagine to be these bloody battles were the people inhabiting the land running away. And archeology proves this. In many of the excavations they have found from the time of the conquest they are not finding signs of battles. They are not finding rubble or ash that would suggest a battle. Instead, they are finding pottery of Canaanite and Israeli origin mixed together in the same structure, appearing as if one group abandoned the structure and another simply moved in.
There were battles that involved weapons of war, but even then, these battles were not like the battles we see being played out on the evening news. Jericho was the first and arguably the largest of the military outposts within the area. It was a walled city meaning it was a fortress. Jericho was the strength of Canaan. How did Israel defeat Jericho? Israel did not defeat Jericho, God did.
I often watch videos produced by a group called The Bible Project. This is a group of self-identifying bible nerds, who make videos and discuss scripture in a deep and interactive manner. Since I aspire to be known as a bible nerd, I love this group. I recently watched a video they produced about Joshua, where they encourage us not to look at the words literally but as hyperbole. Hyperbole is a literary device where they use extremes to tell the story. We use this in our own conversations, “It is so hot outside you could fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Or maybe your grandmother once told you not to go outside with wet hair because you would catch your death. These are not accurate depictions of the situation, but they are using extreme language to make a point. The scholars of the Bible Project recognize hyperbole in Joshua because in one place it will say Israel destroyed everyone and everything, but later it says something different. Am I saying that scripture is inaccurate? No. And even though I have gone outside many times with wet hair and not died, my grandmother was not lying either. Hyperbole is used in teaching general concepts. And what the scholars of the Bible Project want us to see is that these stories are lessons about trusting God, and not necessarily literal descriptions of ancient battle history. This is seen clearly in between the battles of Jericho and Ai. The battle where God is trusted and the battle where people trusted in themselves.
When Israel united with God, the people were driven into panic, and in the chaos that resulted from the panic they battled with themselves to find safety. God won the battle, and Israel watched as the city seemingly destroyed itself. Shortly after this, Israel began to trust in their own strength and strategy. They trusted in their own ways and their own desires, this is when loss occurred, as in Ai. Then there are stories of a different sort, like the story of Rehab, where they convert and join Israel. We sometimes forget that the destruction of an enemy does not always mean death in a battle, there are times where enemies are destroyed because friendships are built. This is why Joshua can use hyperbole, and still be telling the truth. Israel did enter the land, they did destroy their enemies, they drove out the inhabitants and the giants that once cause their ancestors to fear.
No matter how we look at these stories. There is something that we need to consider. The people inhabiting the land of Canaan were by all intents squatters on claimed land. In Deuteronomy we are told that after the event at Babel, God divided the nations up among the sons of god, and he claimed Israel as his inheritance. I hope by now this language does not scare us. God divided the land, he allowed some of the people inhabiting the earth to live a life according to their own desires. And they followed the deceptive spirits that rebelled against God. God allowed some to drift away, but this does not mean that God no longer cares for them. He left the nations of the world alone, his interaction was distant and seemingly vacant, but he called Abraham to go to the land, and in that calling he promised Abraham that he would become a nation that would become the light to the nations. It was through Israel that the once scattered nations would be drawn back to God to once again be honored as the image bearers they were created to be. This calling included land. And this land of Canaan was claimed by God and deeded to Abraham. In the ancient world view, this cosmic geography was a battle ground between the spirits of rebellion and the Most High God. Those people groups devoted to the spirits of rebellion were opposed to Israel and Israel’s God, and they believed that if they could simply keep Israel out of the land the rebellious spirits would conquer the one true God.
This is at work within the texts of scripture. This is why the ten spies sent by Moses came back with a report of Giants in the land. Those ten spies were afraid, they did not trust that their God could overcome the powers at work within the world, because these powers were devoted to war, wealth, and hubris. How could their God overcome these established powers?
For forty years Israel paid for that lack of trust. But last week Israel entrusted their future to their God. They took steps into the wild and raging waters of the flooded Jordan, and they walked across on dry ground. They filed in. They made their camp. They filled the fields and the people inhabiting the land ran to their fortified city, Jericho. The God of Israel brought the walls of that city down and the great stronghold was handed over to Israel.
The fortress was taken by God in the beginning of the conquest. The war was over before it began. The rest of this testimony of Joshua is just a description of Israel’s trust in their God, or in some cases lack of faith.
Today we meet Israel at the end of the conquest. Joshua leads the people to Shechem. He begins by reminding the people of their history saying to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many.’”
Nahor was Abraham’s brother, and the father of Isaac’s wife Rebekah. When Jacob fled from the hand of his brother Esau, it was to Nahor’s son’s house he ran. And Laban’s became Jacob’s father-in-law as he married Leah and Rachel. Jacob again fled, this time from the house of Laban and he re-entered the land promised to Abraham. On that return, he stopped at this very place Shechem. Laban’s daughter Rachel had stolen the family idols and brought them with her on the journey. And at Shechem as they reentered the land Jacob took those idols and buried them in the ground. He buried the gods of his ancestors as he began his journey back to the God of his father Abraham.
Joshua brings Israel back to the place of their historic beginning. The place their common father dedicated himself and his house to God. Where Jacob began that journey away from his past. Away from his heel grabbing and scheming, toward his new future Israel. He began that journey by burying the old gods.
Joshua takes them to this place. They had just driven the nations devoted to those old gods out of the land under the direction of the God of Abraham, and they again remember their story. This is who we were. We were once a people deceived by rebellious spirits. We were once people devoted to the influences of beings opposed to the very creation of humanity who influenced and deceived us to turn from our place within the Garden of God. We were once.
“Now therefore fear (or revere) the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.” Sincerity and faithfulness. Joshua is urging this infant nation to consider what they had experienced. He urges them to remember what they had seen and heard, what they had tasted in the wilderness, and witnessed on the fields of battle. Joshua is asking them to reflect on their history and make a choice.
They had seen what God will do to those rebellious nations that opposed him. They have seen the mighty power of God reduce the central stronghold of Canaan to rubble with the sounding of worshiping trumpets. Revere God whole heartedly. Honor God completely and with peace and stability. Entrust yourselves to God entirely and with constancy.
Revere God and put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River. Bury them here at Shechem, just like Jacob. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve.
I want us to imagine this scene in your mind. I want you to imagine the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I want you to remember Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers. Remember the famine that brought them back together in Egypt. Remember enslavement, the order to throw the sons of Israel into the Nile, and how out of the river Moses was saved. Reflect on the bush that burned but was not consumed, the plagues, the exodus. Remember mountain from which God spoke, and the manna from heaven. Remember.
Remember the life that this God was calling this people to. A life that honored God, and the image of God that resides in all people. Remember. Reflect.
I ask you to close your eyes now and just listen.
These are the words attributed to Solomon. Words of wisdom, justice, and liberty which are attributes of God from a feminine perspective.
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12–25 (NRSV)
12 Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. 13 She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. 14 One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. 15 To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, 16 because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. 17 The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, 18 and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, 19 and immortality brings one near to God; 20 so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom. 21 Therefore if you delight in thrones and scepters, O monarchs over the peoples, honor wisdom, so that you may reign forever. 22 I will tell you what wisdom is and how she came to be, and I will hide no secrets from you, but I will trace her course from the beginning of creation, and make knowledge of her clear, and I will not pass by the truth; 23 nor will I travel in the company of sickly envy, for envy does not associate with wisdom. 24 The multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world, and a sensible king is the stability of any people. 25 Therefore be instructed by my words, and you will profit.
The wisdom of which Solomon speaks is the lessons we learn from those ten words or lessons of God. Wisdom comes when we devote our entirety to those lessons which can be summed up with the words of Jesus as he describes the greatest commandment or the greatest lesson of wisdom, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Love God with everything. This is the very thing Joshua is calling Israel to do there at Shechem. Revere and serve God wholeheartedly. And service to God is to love your neighbor, to honor that of God within you, and those around you.
We can twist the words of scripture and use them to justify anything we want. We can use the words found in Joshua to justify the slaughter of the people of Ukraine or Palestine. We can use the words of Paul to promote the subjection of various people groups. We can use these words to do the vilest things. But when we do that, we have not listened to the words of lady wisdom. We are not listening to the words of Jesus or of God from the mountain. We are missing the point.
God is calling us to become a people loving him, embracing his Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Those are the lessons God wanted Israel to learn in the wilderness. Those are the lessons that Joshua is calling them to at Shechem. That is the lesson I hope we learn in our Meeting.
“If it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church October 15, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Exodus 32:1–14 (ESV) 1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him,…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church October 8, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Exodus 20:1–20 (ESV) 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out…
By Jared Warner Willow Creek Friends Church September 24, 2023 Click here to join our Meeting for Worship Click to read in Swahili Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili Exodus 16:2–15 (ESV) 2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said…