JOSHUA The Stones Won’t Be Silent

So, in Joshua 24, after Israel promises to adhere to its covenant with God — to put away the gods of Egypt and avoid the gods of Canaan — Joshua responds, rather firmly, to this stiff-necked people:

19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance. (Joshua 24:19–28 ESV)

I’m not sure I’d like to meet Joshua. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man you could sit down and have a beer with. He seems every bit the stern, angry, and possibly even self-righteous believer and follower of God that I’m certain he was. He scares me, and it’s no coincidence that the folks at The Brick Testament portrayed Joshua with a permanent, angry scowl.

So while this answer — “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” — is just that kind of stern and unyielding, it’s also absolutely correct. Israel can’t serve their God. And the history shows … they won’t.

And yet Israel swears it will serve. It will obey. It will worship. Big words from Israel. A big promise from Israel.

But I’m interested in this stone Joshua sets up as a witness of all that Israel has promised. All Joshua has said they cannot and will not do. And I am reminded of a passage from Luke:

37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:37–40 ESV)

The stones would cry out. Would bear witness to who Jesus was, would shout “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

We know stones cannot cry out. This stone will stand under this terebinth tree bear mute witness to Israel’s proclamation — “No, but we will serve the Lord.” And Jesus weeps over the city, over those very stones that would proclaim him Lord and King. “And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:44)

Stones bear better witness when they testify to what was rather than what is. Think of a ghost town, or an abandoned building, or the ruins of a lost and ancient civilization. It is the emptiness, the decay, the ruin, the disuse, that testifies. In silence, such things speak powerfully to what is no more.

This stone, underneath this tree, speaks of what is to come — failure, defeat, conquest, destruction, exile. Israel cannot know that, though I suspect Joshua has been given some insight. He may have some idea of what is coming.

And perhaps that is why he is such a stern and angry man. He has been given a thankless and unpleasant task, of faithfully leading and shepherding a faithless people. God’s people, whom God has called and formed and loved, but a people who will tread a hard and difficult path because they cannot do as they promise.

Joshua and his family follow the Lord, and all he gets for it … is the very same death every one of God’s people will die. Gathered to his fathers, to decay in the ground. The fate of the righteous and the sinner alike.

JOSHUA Remember Where You’ve Been

1 When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests ’feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight. ’” 4 Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5 And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you? ’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever. (Joshua 4:1–7 ESV)

Not long before I left Dubai, I sat on an ‘abra عبرة — one of the little motor boats used to cross Dubai creek, the inlet that separates Bur Dubai from Deira Dubai — looking at the sky and crystal clear water of the creek, smelling to city, watching the sun set over Bur Dubai, having paid the boatman my dirham, thinking to myself

Remember this place always. Remember that you were once here.”

Six years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I stood on the bow of a New York Waterways ferry, on the last Tuesday of my employment with a company whose death at the hands of the bankruptcy laws was set for that Friday, feeling the spray of the Hudson River on my feet, the late summer breeze in my hair, and watching the sun rise over The World Trade Center, and thinking as I beheld it

Remember this sight always. For you will not have it with you much longer.”

Israel here is beginning something. It will celebrate the first Passover in Canaan, and soon the conquest of the promised land will begin. But this is also an end. The manna, that miraculous bread from heaven which God sustained Israel during its long and arduous sojourn in the wilderness, will soon stop falling.

Just as God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that Israel could escape into the wilderness, God parts the waters of the Jordan so that Israel may leave its time of wandering, confident rather than fearful, going into something rather than running from something.

But God commands Joshua to tell 12 Israelites to gather stones from the dry riverbed, and stack them on the other side (and in the river itself), as a reminder — this is where you have walked, this is what God has done for you.

This comes at the end, and not the beginning, of Israel’s long and sometimes pointless wanderings. While Israel is to remember the Passover — the night of terror in which death swept over Egypt — and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea, the memorial marks the completion of their journey, not the beginning. “The journey is done,” God is telling Israel. “Remember who you are, where you’ve been, because tomorrow, the real work begins.”

This is not the end of Israel’s calling. Another struggle is beginning, one that will fully establish God’s people in the land of promise while at the same time failing utterly to faithfully accomplish the work God commanded them to.

I have a few souvenirs of Dubai — some dirhams, a map, a big visa stamp in a long-expired passport. And I still have a few NY Waterway tickets to remind myself of that last ferry trip across the Hudson, and a few bits and pieces left over from a long-dead company.

But I’ve no pile of stones to mark the place where the wilderness wandering has ended. And maybe that’s because … it hasn’t.

SERMON The Stones Don’t Have to Cry Out

I preached this Sunday, March 20, at Emmanuel-St. John’s Lutheran Church in Hudson, New York. And it went something like this:

Palm & Passion Sunday (Year C)

  • Isaiah 50:4-9a
  • Psalm 31:9-16
  • Philippians 2:5-11
  • Luke 22:14 to 23:56

Ho-sanna, Hey-sanna, sanna sanna ho, sanna hey, sanna ho-sanna…

Anyone remember that melody? From Jesus Christ Superstar? Anyone?

We’re missing something in our readings today. We’ve got the whole bloody story of Jesus from that last supper in the upper room to the betrayal, to Peter’s denial, to Jesus being mocked and tried and handed over and put to death. On that cross, that cross Simon of Cyrene was forced to help him carry all the way up that hill. We even have his burial, in that borrowed tomb.

From a rented room to a borrowed tomb. No place of his own. We have that today.

But today is Palm Sunday, and we’re missing the Palms, the waving, the singing of “Hosanna” and the calling out — Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

I’m going to beg your indulgence today, but I need to read just a wee bit more scripture. The Holy Gospel from Luke, the 19th chapter.

28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it? ’ you shall say this:‘The Lord has need of it. ’” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives— the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:28–40 ESV)

I’d always imagined the crowds waving Jesus into the city, riding on that colt with his bemused disciples who weren’t entirely sure what was happening.

But that’s not the story Luke tells us here. It isn’t the crowds shouting and clamoring for him. In fact, there might not be crowds lining the streets at all. There is a multitude — of disciples, Luke writes — and they are the ones who are suddenly shouting and chanting and praising God with those words from Psalm 118, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

The crowds, the multitudes, are his disciples, entering the city with him, chanting and praising, raising such a ruckus that the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell them to shut up.

It’s a little like an absurd and audacious carnival has wandered into town, making noise and hooting and hollering while everyone kind of looks on and wonders what on earth is going on.

Or maybe, it’s a little like some strange wanna-be presidential candidate — for those of you who are old enough, think Pat Paulson, or if you are a little more up on current events, Vermin Love Supreme, or maybe Jeb Bush — arriving with an entourage in Washington DC some January 15 and proclaiming that the new president-elect has just arrived, and hail to the chief!

Because few had heard of him, or took him seriously, and he most definitely did not win the election.

So, really, it’s no wonder things go south for Jesus and his disciples so quickly. The city of Jerusalem didn’t hail him as their new king — his disciples, and only his disciples, did. Only this multitude of Jesus’ disciples, convinced he’s King and Lord and come to take the throne. With the city and its people probably looking on in mute wonder, unsure exactly what this all means. Except that it’s spectacle. Strange and wonderful spectacle.

The Pharisees know who Jesus is, and they do something interesting. They don’t condemn him, they don’t say, “who do you think you are proclaiming yourself the king of Israel?” They look at him, as if he were one of their own, and demand he rebuke his disciples, that he silence them and their traitorous and even heretical utterances.

And hear what Jesus says:

“I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

The pharisees may think they know who Jesus is, but this city — its very stones — they know. They really know who Jesus is. The very stuff from which this city is build, ancient and worked with human hands, know his disciples aren’t wrong.

And the mute crowds, either curious or indifferent, who will on Friday morning demand “Crucify him” and “release to us Barabbas,” know nothing.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist tells the crowds who come to him in the wilderness to repent and bear good fruit, because it is not enough to be children of Abraham. “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”

Stones. Mute. lifeless. Unable to testify to anything. But they could become disciples if God willed it, just as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones came to life when God spoke and breathed life into them. Or these stones would cry out to heaven if the disciples were not there, in this strange procession, praising God, bearing witness, that blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, peace in heaven and glory to the highest!

This, sisters and brothers, is why this week will end on a bleak hill called The Skull outside Jerusalem, with a wailing and gnashing of teeth, and then in a tomb borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea. Because there was never any hope — except maybe on the part of the disciples, who although they’d been warned three times by Jesus alone the way what was coming — and never any promise it would end any other way.

Jesus is not that kind of king.

This week, Jesus will stir up trouble. He’ll toss the money changers out of the temple. He will be asked about paying taxes to Caesar an answer in a very ambiguous way. He’ll prophesy the coming destruction of Jerusalem. It may be by Tuesday or Wednesday this audacious proclamation of his kingship is, at least in the eyes of some, beginning to amount to something. This Jesus really could be the King of Israel! And so, the chief priests will conspire, and whatever support Jesus may have gained — for Luke tells us they had become afraid of the people, who were hanging on Jesus’ very words — will vanish once Jesus is arrested.

And they will go from mute wonder to hanging on his every word to … demanding his death.

The stones remain silent. Eventually, just as Jesus prophesied, they will be pulled down, battered, broken, one by one, and nothing will be left but rubble.

But we are not silent. Not today. Not this week. Not ever. We bear witness. We testify. We have seen mighty works in our midst, the waves and wind calmed, the dead raised, the sick healed, and thousands fed. We do more than sit and gawk in wonder. We are his multitude, following along, proclaiming in a loud voice:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!