the treasure of the core stories of our faith: “the promised land”

Numbers 21:4-9; Deuteronomy 8:1-20; Joshua 6:1-25, 24:1-24

We’re into our fall worship series on the core stories of our faith—those stories that lie at the heart of who we understand God to be and who and how we understand us to be in relationship to God in our world. It’s becoming unquestionably clear and clearer that the core stories are actually all part of a larger story within which they individually all take their place. In our first story, we zeroed in on the ever-calling of God—always calling out—waiting for people to respond—people like Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12:1-9; 17).

In our second story, we focused on more specifics to God’s calling! God more specifically identified—in conversation with Moses, and the calling of God more specifically identified as God calls us to be as God is specifically in situations of suffering caused by injustice and oppression (Exodus 3:1-15; 7-15).

In the third story, we gathered with those led out of slavery, oppression and injustice to hear God calling even more specifically, “I am that I am and I call you all as a community of covenant, commitment, and faith to engage in the defining struggle to determine always within ever changing circumstance how to be as I am.”

Now, in our fourth core story, we turn our attention to the promised land—which takes us right back to our first story, right? There is obviously a bigger perspective to each story than each story. God called Abram and Sarai promising them land. They never got it. But they were promised it. And now the children of Israel, led out of slavery in Egypt, are not just reminded of that promise, but God renews that promise with and to them.

It’s a key promise—the land, and integral to so many of our stories. This the land of the conquest, the land of the judges, Ruth’s adopted home, the land of Esther and Job, the land in which David would rule. This the land of the stories of king and kingdom, divided kingdom, conquered kingdom and exile. This the land in which the prophets would speak for God. This the land chosen by God to become a light to all nations, the land in which Jesus would be born, the land he would walk in his ministry, the land on which he would be put to death, the land in which he would be buried, the land from which he would rise. At the deepest level, the land is part of the greater, most profound affirmation that God comes to us in time and in space—in the most particulars of a people. So the vital importance of this promised land cannot be underestimated. It sets the stage for all of what we call salvation history—God’s interaction with us and intent for us.

This land is so important that in the stories told about the stories of Scripture, it gets read back into the very beginning. And in Jerusalem, there is the so-called navel of the world where, it is said, God stood when creating the world. And the land gets read into the very end as well, and some believe Jerusalem (the Mount of Olives, in particular) is where the resurrection of the dead will, in the fullness of time, commence.

Some of us have been privileged to visit that land—to spend time in that land. Steeped as it is in history and the stories of Scripture, there’s much of it that is thin. You know that saying? There’s much of it translucent to the story of God. You can walk there where Jesus walked. You can walk there where King David walked—walk where Abram and Sarai walked. There’s much of this land translucent to the story of God

Y’all hear a big however coming? Here it is … however, there’s too much of this particular story of the promised land I just don’t like. Well, but that’s not reason to discount it, is it? But there’s also too much of this story that doesn’t fit with what archeology and history tell us. Well, but this isn’t a story justified by archeology and history, right? So though we’ve noted before that the walls uncovered in the ruins of ancient Jericho don’t match the biblical story of Jericho—that the stories of the military conquest of Canaan, don’t match the history of Canaan, that’s still no reason to simply reject our story, right? But neither can we just ignore these insights.

The fact that this is a land soaked with the blood of generations—soaked to this day with the blood of those whose own blood has been shed who then turn around to spill the blood of others—all too often in the name of God and their understanding of the ever-unfolding story of God—not reason to reject it. The fact that it is a land of violence and intolerance, a land of incredible injustice, a land divided against itself—segregated—the fact that it’s a land at the center of far too much conflict and far too little forgiveness, far too little grace, far too little conversation—the fact that it’s the land of God’s people and there’s far too little of God evident there—that as much of the land as may be translucent to the story of God, there is too much of and in that land inconsistent with the presence of God, none of that justifies disregarding the story and its valuation of the land. Right?

And yet, there’s a dissonance to the story. And within that dissonance, I’m not talking about rejecting or disregarding the story. If anything, I’m suggesting look at it more carefully. Because when you begin putting it all together there are aspects to it that just don’t ring true. As important as the story is, if it didn’t happen the way it’s written—if it’s possible that it didn’t happen as it’s written, then so much of the story—so much of the violence—so much of the bloodshed is so very obviously p.r. material—political and theological justification for actions taken. It’s vindication of people and events—a story not dealing with the facts, but told to benefit the tellers of the story—their perspective—their view—their God, and yet at times there is far too little of God in it at all. We wouldn’t know anything about that, would we?

Go ahead. You can shake your heads. Here he goes again. So I’d like to ask you now to hear my confessions. Ready? I come to this story having heard them all—all the core stories—many times, and lots of the not core stories too. I come to this story with a theology—a way of thinking of God developed through the years within various communities of faith and many, many conversations. I come to the story believing God to have most fully been revealed in Jesus, but to also be essentially consistent in and through history. And so I believe our core stories take their place within the primal narrative, and we read and understand each one in light of them all. I confess a respect for the authenticity of all earlier revelation (indeed all revelation) both as that which reveals God and as that which necessarily obscures God. So it is that we, even as those who follow in the way of Jesus—we, even as those who see in Jesus the fullness of God made manifest and who thus see the Old Testament portrayals of God in light of who we understand Jesus to be—we too, must confess ourselves to be, ultimately, stewards of the mysteries of God. I confess to a reverence for Scripture neither mindless nor literal (I don’t believe it just because it says so, nor do I believe everything it says). And I confess an appreciation for the inspiration of Scripture that I believe is as often in spite of Scripture as within it. Forgive me when in my wonderings I go astray, but how else do you steward mystery? You can prescribe my penance at the door!

So it is that as part of my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture, I also believe that within the biblical stories there are hermeneutical keys—there are hints—there are clues—there are clues to this mystery—themselves part of what I name the inspiration of the Scripture. In the story bigger than any telling of it, we are consistently invited to both look for and to see the greater truth beyond the story—beyond any telling of the story.

Sometimes a clue is the inconsistency of who we believe God to be and how God is portrayed. Just as I will always question anyone claiming God told them to kill in God’s name today, so too will I always question someone in Scripture claiming to have heard that as God’s call. Sometimes a clue lies in simple sequencing: noting, for example, as we have before, that before Moses begins his resistance to Pharaoh with violence, Shiprah and Puah resist non-violently and completely effectively. Before Moses passes policy about killing Amorites, he marries one. Don’t we have to ask which part of the story is more consistent with who we believe God to be?

So if within the story of the promised land we find clues suggesting the story might be less about the land and more about something else, then what’s it more about? So glad you asked! Here’s what I think. The basic affirmation of our fourth core story of the promised land is that they (God and the people of God) are going to get somewhere together.

A spiritual insight of many a faith is in the cliche it’s the journey not the destination, but then isn’t it interesting how often we take faith and make it all about the destination? And so I wonder if it’s wrong—inappropriate—misguided—misprioritized—off target to focus just or even primarily on some geographic goal. You know the expression, “Now we’re getting somewhere?” Well, no we’re not! We’re right where we were—physically. We’ve just made significant progress in some other way. The land was simply the setting—the context—in and through which God would be in relationship with a people—which (that relationship) would be the means through which God would bless all peoples. It’s a dangerous and destructive—a counterproductive thing when the setting—the context—for relationship becomes an end unto itself. That’s (and I digress)—in a much more petty way what’s happened in partisanship and in Congress, right? What was to be the means for a conversation to bless people has become an end unto itself and it’s a dangerous and destructive—a counterproductive thing.

It’s always seemed so profoundly important when David wanted to build God a home, a temple in Jerusalem, God said, “No, thanks.” And maybe part of the truth is that it wasn’t just about Solomon being the one to do it—that David wasn’t the right one to do it—that the time wasn’t right, but rather that God liked the tent. God preferred the tabernacle.

Why? Precisely because it was transient. Designed for a people on the move—for whom (as a people on the move) the focus was not so much on where they had been, more on where they were—maybe too much on where they were going, but potentially—potentially on God with them always.

One of the gifts of growing up an m.k. (a missionarys’ kid) moving a lot, living overseas, traveling, was the sense of home not as where you were, but as with whom you were. Oh, we were certainly always located in time and place and that was and remains important, but we were and are not ultimately defined by that. We are defined ultimately relationally.

In like manner, in our sacred stories, time and place are made holy in experience, but time and place do not make holy. It is the experience of the presence of God (which is always with us) that makes holy. But always to point beyond the specifics to what is transcendent and eternal—that which was true then and there—true here and now.

So is it my own bias, or was that the potential gift of God offered in the journey to the promised land? Immanuel—God-with-them. God with them even when they messed up. God with them when they lied. God with them when they fell so far short of who God is. God with them still hoping to bless all people through them. And into each story comes that persistent calling of God—first as invitation, then as reminder, “Be like me. In all circumstances, with all people, be like me.”

It’s certainly not that we don’t have to be shown the same truth as our history unfolds. Out of God’s being, God calls us to imitate God’s own being in our own, and as many times as we fail, God’s still there calling. God you see, never abandons God’s principles—never abandons God’s hope of blessing all people through those who seek to follow in God’s ways, but also never abandons conversation—never abandons relationship.

And so it is that a sense of being in God’s being anchors someone in the present moment … or not. And heaven constitutes a way of living into the present moment. A way of living into the present moment with eternal ramifications. The mystery of God is God’s presence with us, and our identity our being within that presence—not sometime—not when we get there—wherever there is. Now. Here.

And in every now and every here we must maintain a commitment to the story still unfolding—the story with a bigger perspective to the story than the story. We have to commit to listening for the calling of God even in what we think is the story of God. Are we jumping out of the story to avoid time and place? Is it arrogantly short-circuiting the narrative to look back and say “Well, this is what they missed—what they didn’t see—what they should have seen?” Only, I believe, if we don’t look back on our own history and confess that within that history, as those seeking to follow in the way of God, ours should have been the voice raised in support of Native Americans, raised in support of women, raised in support of Africans and then African-Americans. We are those who should have seen more than we did. Should have acted more like God than we did. We should have known. And we should know better today as well. We should see more than we do. And we should be more like God. “Be like me. Don’t sacrifice principle, but don’t sacrifice relationship either.

So how do we honor the integrity of a story, but also the integrity of what we believe to be the fuller story? We acknowledge that even our core stories of Scripture are like paper wrapped around the presence of God. And like gift-wrap they give us an approximate shape—a sense of size. even in obscuring. But in places the paper tears and light pours through. And the more you worry at the wrapping—the more you pick it up and shake it—the less you leave it pristine and respected in admiration for the wrapping job, the more it wears and bends and folds and tears and the more light shines through through.

When some unknown singer penned the words, “Your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home (Psalm 119:54), we can imagine God rejoicing, “Now we’re getting somewhere!” And maybe we can claim the words of another singer, whose song was written long after the book of Psalms was finished. Certainly the writers and hearers of the psalms through the years though would resonate with the lyrics of Billy Joel when he sings, “When you look into my eyes, and you see the crazy gypsy in my soul. It always comes as a surprise when I feel my withered roots begin to grow. Well I never had a place that I could call my very own. That’s all right, my [God], (“my love” in Joel’s lyrics) ’cause you’re my home…. Home can be the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Indiana’s early morning dew, high up in the hills of California, home is just another word for you” (Billy Joel, “You’re My Home,” Piano Man (New York: Columbia Records, 1973).

Home is just another word for you. God’s gift to us. Immanuel. Our ever-reminder of where we’re going. Always going home into the being of God. May it be so.

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