September 16, 2001
TENSIONS AND TRANSITIONS
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor, The Grantham Church
There is an old Jewish story in which Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden, the gates slamming shut behind them. Suddenly, Adam glances at Eve and says, This is a tragedy. This is a time of transition. For some time now, I had planned on looking at Joshua 1:1-9 with you today. Although the text remains the same, the context changed dramatically just a few days ago. What began as a glimpse into a pastoral transition now takes on national and even international significance.
In Joshua 1:1-9, we encounter what for the Israelites was certainly a major transition. In fact, the transitional phrase After the death of . . . . appears only three times in the entire Old Testament and sets apart large blocks of Israelite history (Josh. 1:1; Judg. 1:1; 2 Sam. 1:1). This is a major change.
Moses, after all, stands at the center of Israels formation. Through Moses, Israel has been guided, defined and constituted. Through Moses, Israel experienced deliverance from Egypt and received the covenant relationship with God. Through Moses, Israel was sustained in the wilderness. Moses, the servant of God, preached, protected and provided for the community. This is a dramatic transition. It is not simply the death of an individual, but the loss of the human glue that held the Israelites together.
Perhaps something similar occurred this week in the United States. To be sure, we didnt lose a leader. Instead, we lost a sense of identity and security. Our self-conception was shattered. Lets be honest for a few moments. What happened in New York and Washington this week was horrific on all accounts, regardless of your positions and persuasions on the many, many, related issues. Thousands of people are dead. Countless others are in agony, not knowing the fate of their loved ones. Buildings have been destroyed. The stock market ground to a halt in a manner unprecedented in most of our lifetimes. And to make matters worse, all of this transpired because of an event that took place on our own soil. If we look carefully at what happened, we cant help but realize that this was big! Gone is our sense of being impregnable and invincible. We feel confused, wounded, angry, violated and, at the risk of overstatement, raped. We cant even begin to know what lasting effects these events will have, not only on those individuals who have been most directly affected, but on all of our lives as well.
Moses is dead. Six times we are told in these verses about Moses and the past. He is now dead. And so, too, is a bit of our American dream.
So what are we to do? Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, Joshua and the Israelites are instructed. I think God would say much the same thing to us. Be strong and courageous. We have included in your bulletins and at the Welcome Centers in the vestibule here at the church lists of things that we would suggest for you to do to put some of that strength that we as a congregation have into action. Be strong and courageous.
In addition, we are not to be frightened or dismayed. Now the purpose of these instructions is not for us to minimize the importance of what transpired this week, nor are we to deny what happened or in some sense withdraw and hide. Moses is dead, and so are 5,000 other people. Have you felt angry? You should. Have you wondered how in the world somebody could do such a thing? So have I. Have you struggled with how God can allow atrocities of this magnitude to take place? Join the club! This is a major transition, full of tension. Be honest, admit it. But dont be frightened or dismayed. Actually, the words frightened and dismayed are too weak. The NIV gets it right this time when it uses the word terrified. Dont tremble. Dont panic. Dont run around frantic like a gazelle at the Nairobi game park that has just spotted a hungry lion.
Just two days ago, after visiting with someone in the morning, I was driving on Grantham Road on the other side of Rt. 15. I was waiting for the newly installed traffic light to turn green. After it turned green, I slowly pulled out, only to be terrified to realize that an oncoming truck going 70 mph apparently didnt know there was a new traffic light there. I was literally within a second of having the shortest pastoral tenure here at the Grantham Church - within a foot or two. I pulled the car off of the road for a moment, and I was still shaking when I arrived back at the office. What happened? What might have happened? What do I need to do now? But then I regained my senses. Dont be terrified, I said to myself.
Now, what might it look like for you and me to be terrified in the events of this week? We might panic, for example, as we did (or many of us did) in the face of Y2K. The stock market has been closed; the economy is shot. We should stockpile things for who knows how long. We might never be economically the same again. Lets hurry up and take care of ourselves.
Or, we might categorize and unfairly label people in our attempts to find a scapegoat. All Arabs are evil. Claude, our Palestinian daughter who works at the Carlisle Hospital, talked to us on the phone just a few days ago and told us how differently she has been treated at work since Tuesday. Anyone different from us is suspicious. The story came to me this week that there was a gunman on a college campus in West Virginia looking for international students.
We might categorize for religious or so-called ethical reasons. One of our national church leaders this week blamed the catastrophe on the pagans in America: the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians. For one thing, it is extremely difficult for me to imagine Gods judgment coming indiscriminately upon a cluster of people working and visiting the World Trade Center in New York, many of whom were from other countries and a good number of whom didnt fit in any way in this religious leaders categories. But beyond that, if God was bringing judgment upon us, the symbolism of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would suggest to me that He is far more concerned about our economic security, militarism, materialism and incessant independence that keeps so many of us from recognizing our need for Him. Dont categorize.
And do not recklessly seek revenge. Does justice need to be meted out? Of course. We need not act, however, as though justice is entirely our responsibility. Dont panic. Dont label. Dont tremble. Dont conclude that your life is now hanging precariously in the balance. Why not? Because I will never leave you or forsake you. As I have been with Moses, so I will be with you. I have been deeply and intimately involved in your past, and the times of turmoil and tragedy cant change that. The language is actually remarkably strong. I will not abandon you.
Two images come to my mind when I think about that. First, the little child in a huge department store standing at the foot of a clothing rack who suddenly realizes that his Mommy and Daddy are nowhere to be seen. Have you ever seen a child in that position? Panicking. Or, a husband whose wife has just gone through some incredibly difficult experience or situation, perhaps has been injured or even paralyzed. And he, with little thought, packs up and leaves. I wont do that, God said. I am covenantally connected to you, and I will never abandon you. I will never leave you or forsake you.
But, you might ask, Where is He? And, Why did He allow this to happen? The answer to the first question is easy. He is in Manhattan. He is in Washington. He is in the living room of a broken family. And Hes here in the sanctuary of the Grantham Church.
The second question, by way of contrast, avoids such a simple solution. All I can say is that I am the father of three children, and I love those three children with all my heart. I want them to make good choices. Further, I establish parameters which will hopefully assist them in making those choices. I do not, however, tie their hands and feet, nor do I lock them in a closet to prevent them from doing the wrong thing.
Why is God so different? He loves the world that he has created. Hes rooting for us to make the right choices. But He doesnt lock us in a closet. Mother Teresa once said, I know that God wants us to act responsibly. I just wish He didnt trust us so much.
God did not destroy the World Trade Center. Sinful human beings did. And like parents grieving over their children who make terrible choices and seem predisposed to ruining their lives, God grieves with us today over the crumpled steel and lifeless bodies. His grief, however, is not the grief of impotence, but of compassionate power. This same God who feels sorrowful has spared no expense in redeeming this world. And as both Isaiah and John the Revelator tell us, the day is coming when He will wipe every tear from our eyes.
What a week this has been. We can not deny it. The entire world continues to experience its repercussions. Be strong. Dont be afraid. Dont panic. God will never abandon us. And listen: no tragedy, no earthly kingdom, no demonic power can ever remove Him from His position as Lord of all.