Fourth Sunday of Lent // Laetare Sunday
“Lest We Forget” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Joshua 4.19-24, 5.9-12
II Corinthians 5.17-21
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we often do at the start of a sermon, let’s take a moment to get our bearings — Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and it’s called “Laetare,” from the first line of our opening prayer on this day, a quotation of Isa 66.10, “rejoice, Jerusalem.” Today is an invitation to joy — more than an invitation, really; rejoice is in the imperative. Laetare Sunday comes mid-Lent, halfway between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and it commands us to rejoice! The rose vestments — in the penitential Lent season we use violet (among other things, it’s the color of a bruise), but feast days are typically white, and “rose” falls kind of in-between on this in-between day. When we leave here today, we are entering “Deep Lent,” the most solemn season of our liturgical year, so Mother Church, in her tradition, puts in this particular odd Sunday as a kind of speed bump, to say to us: “Rejoice” — and slow down, take a breath and relax our Lenten disciplines for a day. Oh, and while you’re doing that, remember.
Remember. God, it seems, has always known that ours is a forgetful race. The locus classicus for our forgetfulness is Deut. 8, where Moses warns the Israelites of the danger that, when they come into the promised land, they will forget who got them there. “Beware,” Moses says, “lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth . . . remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth . . . and if you forget the Lord your God . . . you will surely die.” (Deut. 8.17-19) We’re prone to forgetfulness. So we’ve always reached for all sorts of tactile things as reminders. Here at the Advent we make crosses from our palms on Palm Sunday, then their ashes remind us that we’re mortal. We wash feet so we don’t forget Jesus taught us to be servants. We write on our doorposts, we cross ourselves, we kneel when we pray — all because we’re so quick to forget who we are and all God’s done for us. That’s why God built into the life of his people all the cycles in the bible in the first place — a 7-day cycle and a monthly one; annual cycles of feasts and fasts; a cycle of Sabbath years; and even a 50-year cycle of Jubilee years. All “lest we forget.”
I confess — I steal rocks. My kids know this — they’ve watched me do it for years. Rocks are all over our house. Rocks from family vacations to Maine and even day trips to Walden Pond. I was a little paranoid flying back from our trip to Israel two years ago because I had a whole bag of rocks — afraid I would get stopped at the airport in Tel Aviv for looting national treasures. One is from a monastery carved into the side of the mountain where tradition says Jesus was tempted by the devil.
Another I pinched from the little village of Bethany where Mary and Martha lived, and where Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. I have rocks from Mt. Carmel, Masada, the Temple Mount. I wanted to remember those places. God gave the Jews eat the Passover meal, and we have feasts, and fasts, and cycles, and — one more thing — we build monuments of stone, lest we forget.
So on this Sunday of slowing down, breathing deep, and remembering — we read about stones in Joshua, and I want to look at that reading together and to come at it in three moves.
(1) The setup
(2) The sign
(3) The savior
First — the setup: We have to go all the way back to Exodus to set up this story. Because it all started when Moses led Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, through the Red Sea, toward the promised land of Canaan. He sent 12 men to spy out the land, but ten of them were terrified of the people who lived there — “giants,” they called them — so they wrote up a bad report about the land, and all the people of Israel complained, they “grumbled” against Moses and against God: Why didn’t we just die in Egypt? Or even out here in the wilderness! We want a recall election — let’s just pick another leader and go back to Egypt! (Num. 14) So God made them wander 40 years, until every man who had grumbled against him died — not a single adult male in Israel would see Canaan except Joshua and Caleb, who hadn’t been afraid and had trusted God from the beginning.
Now to our story today. It’s 40 years on — Moses is dead, all the grumblers are dead, and Joshua, the very same Joshua, is set to lead Israel through the Jordan River, the last remaining obstacle between them and the promised land. And here are God’s marching orders: Take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord . . . rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters . . . shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap. (Josh. 3.12-13) Oh, and one more thing — God says take 12 stones from the riverbed and lay them down where you sleep your first night in the promised land. That’s the set-up.
Point two is The sign – Why? Why did Go tell them to commit the sort of petty larceny I commit when I visit a national park? So they would remember. God said, “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord . . . . [T]hese stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Josh. 4.6-7) The stones were a sign, a memorial to what God did in bringing them through the water.
Bringing them through the water . . .
That had to strike a chord, forgetful though they were. God had brought them through the water. Not once, but twice! Remember the Red Sea — Israel followed Moses through on dry ground, before the waters closed back over Pharaoh and his pursuing army. And now God brings them through the Jordan into the land he had promised to give them.
Now, when God does something not once, but twice, pay attention. Over time, the story of God bringing his people through water became more than a story. For one thing, it was a synecdoche — a literary device where a part represents the whole. Joshua wasn’t just telling them to remember this one day, this one great miracle God did when he dried up the river for them to cross. He wanted them to remember all that God had done for them — the slavery, the Exodus, the wilderness, the manna, the water, the Jordan, and home. And a second thing this story did was to become a “type” — a prefigurement or foreshadowing, something that happened once but the meaning kept unfolding over centuries. Over time this story, like the Red Sea, came to foreshadow baptism — God saved Israel by bringing them safely through the water, just as he saved you through the waters of baptism.
Last point: The Savior – The whole point is to get us to this: All these themes are swirling around us — water, baptism, the Jordan — you may remember we read just a few Sundays ago about Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan. We went there on our pilgrimage (I’ve got the rock to prove it). All these themes, all these stories, they are crying out to us: Remember! God knows we are forgetful — he doesn’t beat us up about it, he just builds in reminders lest we forget.
These are our monuments, reminders of the “historical watershed” events that brought humanity salvation — and Jesus, like Joshua, left us something to remember him by. On the night before he died for us, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to his friends. “This is my body,” he said. “Whenever you eat this, remember me.”
On Rose Sunday, we have a moment — a moment to take a breath and to remember. Remember God doesn’t love us because we’re so good at Lent. God doesn’t love us because we’re good at all. Remember we were slaves, not just in Egypt but to the brokenness of our world and the inevitability of death, but he carried us out. We were lost, wandering in the wilderness, but he found us — and he carried us up the mountain of his temptation, into the Garden of Gethsemane, up the hill to the temple for trial, and to Calvary under the weight of his cross. He brought us through water. And he calls us to this altar. To take his body on our tongues. To carry those memories, like stones in our pockets, lest we forget all he’s done for us.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Source: Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Joshua (TNIVAC) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009): 169-70.
Audio for this sermon is available at http://bit.ly/24KrWJE