The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Nov. 4, 2018
Before I begin, a bit of explanation: As most of you know, I just arrived early this Wednesday morning. I have not had a chance to locate, much less unpack, my books and resources for sermon writing. I was concerned about this, particularly since this is All Saints’ Sunday.
But this is also my first Sunday among you as your rector, pastor and fellow sojourner on the way. So I thought it would be appropriate to take a novel approach.
During the process of discernment with St Paul’s, I was asked preach a sermon to the call committee. I was asked to base the sermon on a passage from Deuteronomy that was quite pertinent to a season of transition.
I thought it would be most appropriate that I adapt that sermon for this morning as we all face this new, exciting chapter of God’s continuing work at St Paul’s. I will begin first with the reading from Deuteronomy. A reading from Deuteronomy, chapter 31, verses 7 and 8:
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
I was excited to receive this passage as a focus for today’s sermon. It is significant. It contains so many powerful words and phrases: be strong and bold… the Lord goes before you… he will not fail you or forsake you… just to name three. I can certainly understand why you may have chosen this passage as we are on the cusp of a new era at St Paul’s. In many ways you may be looking to me as a Joshua figure, the one who will take you into the future.But let’s look closer at this passage before I address that issue.
This passage is close to the end of Deuteronomy, which is, more or less, Moses’ valedictory speech. For forty years he has led the Israelites through their wanderings in the wilderness. For forty years they have meandered through the desert landscape facing one obstacle after another, one challenge and then another one, and so on.
It is as if the entire Hebrew people had lost their keys and they spent four decades looking for them. But now as an aged man, Moses stands on the border of the Promised Land, a land he will not enter.
Now remember that the promise of this blessed land was not given originally to Moses, or to Joshua. It was given to Abraham. For centuries the Hebrew people had been seeking the fulfillment of God’s promise that they would have a land of their own and become a mighty nation, set apart as God’s chosen. So as we read this passage there is a great deal of excitement and anxiety and expectations. This must have been a significant, overwhelming moment for Joshua. The promise of the ages was near fulfillment. He was to be the one to lead the Hebrews into their future. He was to leave behind his mentor and leader and become the mentor and leader of all those around him. He must have been stunned.
It is well worth noting that Joshua is silent. In fact, The only words spoken by Joshua after this commissioning were when he recited a song that Moses wrote. In effect, Joshua is dumbfounded. But Joshua would not be alone, of course. Joshua was not the only person being commissioned that day. I think the verse previous to this passage is very much worth our attention. Our passage today is Deuteronomy 31:7-8. But let me read to you the sixth verse for the 31st chapter:
Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.
These are nearly the same words spoken to Joshua. But Moses was not speaking to Joshua, Moses was speaking to the people of Israel.
It is well worth our thoughts and meditations that God is calling all of us to the same future.
As rector, yes I will have particular duties and responsibilities. But we move into a promised future together, as a community, as the Body of Christ. Each of us, through the vows and Sacrament of Baptism share in the eternal priesthood of Christ. So we walk into God’s future together as God’s people.
As we do so there is a tiny word in this passage that we very well may not have noticed. I am a word geek. I love vocabularies and etymology and even grammar. It’s a peculiar interest but, as a preacher and a teacher, words are about the only tools I have to practice my craft.So I muse about language a great deal.
One insight I have discovered is that, letter for letter, I think prepositions are the most powerful types of words in the English language. Very few two-letter words that seem inconsequential can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For instance, “The dog ran to me.” means something entirely different than, “The dog ran at me.” The first sentence conjures up images of a bucolic frolic in a park. The second sentence seems to imply that a person is being attacked. So I pay attention to prepositions.
I also am fascinated with the roots of words. For instance, one of my favorite etymological pieces of knowledge is that the word travel has the same roots as the word travail. Who among us hasn’t met with travail when traveling? In my experience nearly every trip has some type of challenge to overcome. Thankfully, that is often where adventure and grace is discovered.
These two fascinations of mine arose when I began to consider the word with in this passage. Moses says the Lord “will be with you”. That is a comfort, of course. But the Hebrew word translated as "with" is from another Hebrew word that means "hidden."
In effect we are told the Lord will be hidden with us. That offers us both challenge and blessing. It is a blessing as we can go forth knowing that God is with us because God is within us, deeply embedded among us, not just beside or around us but immersed in us. Even when we wander, God will be within us.
But it is a challenge, too, because God is hidden, sometimes unseen, sometimes unknown, sometimes unfelt. But, in truth, this challenging insight of God’s presence brings comfort as well, because it speaks of a truth we have all experienced. We have each known moments when we were at a loss to understand God and God’s will. We have all known times when it seems as if God was hiding. Yet even in such moments God is hiding within us.
So let us be encouraged and fortified with these words today. Let us understand that the comfort of this passage refers not only to your rector because we are each and all called to be strong and bold and God will not fail us nor forsake us individually or corporately. God will be within us, hidden and carried in our beings, in all our times, in all our lives, in all of our work together as God’s people.