March 6, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
There comes a time when each of us needs to grow up. The exact moments are harder for us to distinguish since we don’t have coming-of-age rituals like a lot of traditional cultures. They can be subtle—like when a baby realizes his identity is separate from his mom, when a teenager takes a risk without his parents’ knowledge, when you leave the house, when you get your first “real” job. While this maturation process clearly happens in the course of our natural human growth, there’s a way in which it applies to our relationship with God as well.
Prelude to the Conquest
In this Sunday’s first reading, we find the Israelites under Joshua. They have just entered into the Promised Land, but have yet to conquer it. To prepare for their conquest of the land, they don’t sharpen their weapons or check their supply wagons. In fact, they do the last thing you would think: they circumcise themselves. Yikes! While the Israelite men born in Egypt had been circumcised, the generation born during the wilderness wanderings was not yet circumcised (Josh 5:5). This generation had not yet “grown up.” They hadn’t passed through the essential ritual to make all of the men true members of the covenant. They need to undergo this frightening ritual in order to be fully initiated into the covenant of the Lord, in order to distinguish themselves from the Egyptians whom they have fled from and to prepare for another ritual they are about to engage in: the Passover.
The Passover was originally celebrated on the night before the people of God left Egypt. They ate with staves in hand and traveling clothes on, prepared for the journey through the wilderness, while the angel of death struck down the first born of Egypt. Since that inaugural Passover, the Israelites have only celebrated the feast once (in Numbers 9) even though it was supposed to be an annual ceremony. At the time of our reading, decades have gone by since the last Passover celebration. In order to cement their relationship with the Lord and prepare fort the conquest ahead, they need to grow up and renew the covenant with the God of their ancestors with a solemn celebration, which commemorates their redemption from the Egyptians.
Cutting Off the Manna
When they celebrate the Passover here, they eat “the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain” (Josh 5:11 RSV). For forty years they had only been eating manna – manna burgers, manna pizza, manna sandwiches, manna soufflé (see Keith Green)– now finally, they are eating some of the food produced by the fields of Canaan. The promise to Abraham of an abundant land for his descendants is finally coming to fulfillment. Because of this, as soon as they eat the Passover meal, God cuts off the manna supply (Josh 5:12). The miraculous bread has been falling from heaven for the Israelites to eat for many years and now that they are in the land, it disappears. While God had provided for them through the manna, now he is going to provide for them through the Promised Land. It is a big change. They are again required to “grow up.” They have to become not only full participants in the covenant, they have to conquer Canaan, work the land, till the soil, start farms and vineyards in order to survive in the land.
The ancient Israelites had a rocky relationship with the Lord, but often, he looks back on the wilderness time as a kind of honeymoon period in his relationship with his people. For example:
I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruits of his harvest. (Jer 2:2-3 RSV)
It took faith, courage and dependence to rely on God through the wilderness wandering years, but now God is kicking his son out of the house, so to speak. Israel is ready to fend for himself in conquering the land, establishing a new society and even eating the fruit of his own labor. The time has arrived for God’s people to reach a level of maturity in their relationship with God that they have not seen before.
The parallels to our own experience are not that hard to draw. While on the one hand, we want to cultivate a dependence upon God, on the other hand we need to “step out in faith.” Growing up in faith might not be twinged with teenage rebellion, but it does find us leaving behind the initial training in the gospel, the “milk,” in order that we might eat the “solid food” of more mature Christian experience (Heb 5:12-13). While we can and should continue to consume the bread from heaven that comes to us in the Eucharist, we also are meant to grow up in our faith, to share it, to build God’s kingdom with the courage and tenacity of Joshua and his generation. We too can enter the “promised land” of God’s will for our lives and conquer the territory of hearts for him.