Follow the Leader – Sermon for 11/5/2017

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The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to make you great in the opinion of all Israel. Then they will know that I will be with you in the same way that I was with Moses. You are to command the priests who carry the covenant chest, ‘As soon as you come to the bank of the Jordan, stand still in the Jordan.’”

Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come close. Listen to the words of the Lord your God.” 10 Then Joshua said, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and will completely remove the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites before you. 11 Look! The covenant chest of the ruler of the entire earth is going to cross over in front of you in the Jordan. 12 Now pick twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one per tribe. 13 The soles of the priests’ feet, who are carrying the chest of the Lord, ruler of the whole earth, will come to rest in the water of the Jordan. At that moment, the water of the Jordan will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand still in a single heap.”

14 The people marched out from their tents to cross over the Jordan. The priests carrying the covenant chest were in front of the people. 15 When the priests who were carrying the chest came to the Jordan, their feet touched the edge of the water. The Jordan had overflowed its banks completely, the way it does during the entire harvest season. 16 But at that moment the water of the Jordan coming downstream stood still. It rose up as a single heap very far off, just below Adam, which is the city next to Zarethan. The water going down to the desert sea (that is, the Dead Sea) was cut off completely. The people crossed opposite Jericho.17 So the priests carrying the Lord’s covenant chest stood firmly on dry land in the middle of the Jordan. Meanwhile, all Israel crossed over on dry land, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan (Joshua 3:7-17, Common English Bible).

 

In every congregation, pastors serve there are those that, for a variety of reasons, are remembered well. Over the years of my ministry, there have been many. At Elwood, there was a wonderful lady named Ruth. I say she was wonderful because she was always ready to help with any variety of tasks needing to be done around the church and the community.

Like all of us, Ruth had her quirks too. She also had her soapbox issues. Her biggest soapbox issue was, the state should never have repealed the “blue laws.” For those of you who may not remember or may not be old enough to even know what I’m talking about, the “blue laws” were a set of laws prohibiting the sale of certain non-essential things on Sunday. I, like I know many of you can remember when department stores like Macy’s, Sears, JC Penny, and even Wal-Mart type stores were NEVER open on Sunday. There were many grocery stores that wouldn’t open their doors on Sunday. When I was in high school I worked for a grocery store. When I first went to work there, we were never open on Sunday. By the time I left, we were.

In many ways, the “Blue Laws were pretty strange. They were designed to keep Sunday as a day of rest and give employees a day off. It was family time. But the oddities of the laws led to some businesses opening while others stayed closed. You could buy food, even baby formula, but you couldn’t buy diapers. That would be clothing and therefore non-essential. You could buy lumber to build something but you couldn’t buy nails to put it together. Because of the obvious ironies of these laws, they were difficult to enforce and as our society became more and more secular, the blue laws were repealed.

Back to Ruth. On several occasions, I sat and listened to Ruth talk and drone on and on about how terrible it was that the Blue Laws were repealed and all these places stayed open on Sunday. I never said much about it one way or the other. So, imagine my surprise as I walked into Wal-Mart one Sunday afternoon and who was walking out, Ruth. It was obvious to me that Ruth, at least at that moment, was following the secular region despite her feelings on the subject. She was at least a little embarrassed.

I was going to say all of us have played the children’s game Paul and I played with the kids a few minutes ago, “Follow the Leader.” I won’t. Someone will meet me at the door after the service is over, telling me they never have played. I knew Paul would so I made him play during the children’s lesson so he couldn’t. Most of us have played the game at some point in our lives.

At some point in the game, every kid wants to be the leader. It is great fun to see what you can get someone else to do. I also think, at least at times, we all want to be in charge. In the game, the leader is in charge.

It seems to me that, while it is a child’s game, we all play follow the leader on a regular basis. The question really becomes, who are we following?

Are we following the whims of society? Are we following peer pressure that tells us how to dress and act and what music should play in our cars? Are we following the television telling us what cars and other products to buy? Are we like Ruth, in that our faith has us making claims at one time, statements that we seem to make from our hearts but at the same time we respond in real life by doing what is convenient or cost conscious?

I preach to myself as much as to any of you. When the lottery first began I would not buy anything from a business that sold lottery tickets. Please understand, I don’t make this statement to say to any of you that you have to agree with me on the lottery. I wouldn’t change most of your minds anyway. But, I don’t believe in the lottery. Because of that, I boycotted businesses selling lottery tickets. I did it for more than two years. In the end, because of convenience, because of finances (things were sometimes cheaper at places that sold lottery tickets) or other reasons, I ended my personal boycott. I still have never bought a lottery ticket, but I will buy products at places that sell lottery tickets. Who am I following? Who is my leader?

Theologian Stanley Hauwerwas and Bishop William Willimon open their book, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, with a reminiscence of how and when they knew life in American culture had changed. It changed for them, growing up in the small towns of the South when the movie theater opened on Sunday afternoon and evening. For Hauerwas and Willimon, the theater’s decision was a symbol that American culture will no longer automatically reinforce Christian religious practices or values. They conclude, “The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide a worldview for the young.” That night the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.

Our lesson this morning is a wonderful story. It is the changing of the guard as it were. Moses was no longer the leader of the Israelites, in fact, he was no longer even with the Israelites. As they were preparing to enter the Promised Land, God gave them a new leader, they stand before a flooded Jordan River. Could they have found another place, a narrower place to cross? Probably, but this was the place where God wanted them to cross. Joshua has twelve priests, one for each tribe, take the Ark of the Covenant into the river. The Ark of the Covenant was the symbol of God’s presence with the people. It was their understanding at the time that the Ark was the dwelling place of God. These twelve priests, on Joshua’s instructions, take the Ark and wade out into the river. As they do, the waters of the Jordan stop flowing and the nation would cross on dry land. The river didn’t start flowing again until all of the people and the ark were safe on the other side.

Of course what immediately comes to our minds when we hear this story is the more famous story of Moses and the Israelites having the Egyptian army hot on their tails. Moses parts the Red Sea and Israel walks through the now parted waters. When Pharaoh’s army attempts to give chase, well, in the popular children’s and youth camp song from a few years back, “All of Pharaoh’s army did the dead man’s float.”

Yes, that is where our minds tend to go. I would imagine the collective minds of the Israelites went to the same place. Even if they weren’t at the Red Sea to witness the mighty hand of God at work, they had all heard the stories. And, without question, through the mouth and hand of Joshua, they were seeing God’s mighty works take place once again. It would leave a clear understanding in the minds of the Israelites God had selected Joshua to be their leader.

I do believe God chooses leaders that we, as Christian people, are to follow. Our lesson this morning clearly demonstrates that idea. Other passages of Scripture lend support to that concept as well. For example, Paul tells us to submit to the ruling authorities because they are in power because of the will of God.

That being said, the biggest reason for the Israelites to follow Joshua I believe was, he was clearly a man of God. And that God, is one the Israelites should have been following. Remember in 1 Samuel when the people asked for a King? God was their King. They were rejecting God as their leader in favor of a king they could see. The idea of following God seemed to present the Israelites trouble again and again.

I believe it safe to say, the same problem plagues us as well. All too many are quick to abandon the principles of their faith because of peer pressure, because of societal pressures, because of personal desires, and so much more. We have trouble following God. Just as the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, we too wander, though it is a different wilderness. Yet, I believe, just as God was saying to the Israelites in our lesson this morning, stop your wanderings and follow me, he says the same to us. The question for us becomes will we follow and how will we follow?

In the late ‘70s, Dr. Cynthia Campbell, now retired president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, was a seminary intern in Little Rock. She became active with a group of women who wanted to start a ministry with women prisoners in the Pulaski County Jail. Most of the prisoners were there awaiting trial, sometimes there without bond or unable to make bond for quite a long time. Most of these prisoners were young. Most of them were there for prostitution or shoplifting. Most had young children. The leader of the group came up with the idea of doing a craft project with these women every week, helping them make something which they could, in turn, give their children when they came for visitors days. Campbell said this was not her idea of a way to do ministry, not her first choice, but it seemed to work. One day, as she sat with a woman who was much more adept at this craft project than Campbell, the prisoner said to Campbell, I don’t know why you do this. Why do you come down here and sit with us? Campbell mumbled something about Christian witness and ministry.

“No, No,” the woman said, “All kind of other church groups come down here. They stand outside the jail and they pray over us. You come in here and work with us. Why do you do that?”

Campbell said she wanted to say it was their leader’s idea, thinking the group’s human leader. After thinking on the question, however, Campbell said she came to realize it was their leader, though not their human leader. It was their leader in the most profound sense of who their leader is.

In that sense, it is our leader too. Are we following Him? Does it show in our lives?

In closing this morning I would like to share with you a prayer I encountered while reading sometime back. It comes from Glen Martin’s book, Beyond the Rat Race.

Lord Jesus, I have been in control of my life, but I now want your Spirit to be the One who runs my life. I am giving you all of my rights. Please take control of every area of my life. Whenever I am tempted to take back control, please point that out to me and help me have the courage and strength to resist successfully the temptation or desire to take control again of my life.

Show me how to live on top of my circumstances and not under them. Help me keep my eyes on you, Lord Jesus, instead of on my problems. Let me see you, Father, as the One who can and will meet every need of my life. Let me be sufficient in you and not in my own abilities and strengths. Help me to have the right balance between living in your control and exercising diligence as I respond to each facet of my life. Whenever pressures come that have been unbearable or debilitating, show me your perspective – anything I’ve been doing wrong or thinking improperly. Then show me how to correct my faulty actions and thoughts so that I can continue to walk in your Spirit’s control. Thank you that you want to do these things in my life even more than I do. Remind me of that when my faith gets weak.

May we all submit, to let God be our leader, to go where he calls us to go and to serve as he calls us to serve.

 

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