A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
When our children were about to begin college, I gave them both what I considered to be rock-solid, if not sage, advice. It came from my own experience and observation, and over the years I have shared it with other youth who are leaving the nest to attend school. I thought it was good advice then, and frankly, I still do.
Essentially, this is how I counseled them… When you get on campus and it comes time for you to consider what courses of study you will be taking your first semester, you will find yourself sitting across from an academic advisor. That person may be a faculty member, but the chances are more likely that he or she will be an upperclassman or graduate student who is getting paid minimum wage at best to give you some terrible advice. This person will look at your high school academic record and suggest the classes you will need to take.
Do not, I repeat, do not take this person’s advice.
That is because this person, this advisor, will load you up with a burdensome schedule of courses you are not prepared to take. As a result, your grades will suffer, your self-esteem will plummet, and you will begin to wonder if college is really for you. And trust me, your parents will be very unhappy with your less-than-stellar academic performance. This person will cause you to go through a crisis of faith and self-awareness, and for that reason, and that reason alone, understand that this person is not your friend.
Again, I tell you, do not take this person’s advice.
Instead, do what I tell you and it will hold you in good stead. Here is what you need to do: this first semester, take the least amount of hours the school will allow, and take the easiest courses you can find. The advisor will try to get you to take difficult courses, thinking you have the ability to handle them. You do, of course, under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. You are in the first semester of college, and that is a whole new and strange ball game. Trust me on this: you are not prepared for this new experience in your life. Take it easy your first semester, familiarize yourself with the lay of the land, and figure out for yourself the direction you need to go.
Don’t worry about making new friends. You will make new friends, and that’s part of the problem. Every college freshman, the first semester, majors not in sociology but in being social. An inordinate amount of your time will be spent, not in the books, but in conversation and activity with your peers. So do not let this person, this advisor, who is not your peer, talk you into a bad situation. Heed my advice and you will do well. Ignore it at your own peril.
Did my children listen to me? What do you think? And the result was that both of them struggled their first year of college. In fact, our daughter Emily had such a tough time, that despite carrying a 4.0 grade-point average the final three years of her college stay, her first year kept her from making honors. She admitted she entered more than one final exam needing an A in order to pull off a C in the final grade.
“Dad, I don’t understand it. It’s so easy to tear down a GPA and so hard to build it back up!” Uh huh.
Why did I counsel my children and other rising college freshmen in this way? Well, the answer is really quite simple. For the first time in their lives, they don’t have Mom or Dad looking over their shoulders telling them to study. They don’t have their parents present, making sure they keep to a reasonable curfew. They don’t have them around to guide them and tell them what to do and when to do it. For the first time in their lives they were on their own, experiencing a freedom they had never known. Few college freshmen know how to handle freedom, and those of you who can still remember those days know exactly what I mean. When I offer this counsel from my own experience, I mean it is my own experience.
Emily later told us that when someone came into her dorm room in the wee hours of the morning and said, “Let’s go get pizza,” there was just something internal in her that would not allow her to say no. Do you remember those days?
It’s a tough transition from high school and home to college and being on one’s own, and I knew my children well enough to know the dangers involved. Had they heeded my advice, they would no doubt have done better academically in college. They wouldn’t have had as much fun, obviously, but their grades would have been better.
The story we read earlier from Joshua tells us that the wandering Israelites have a lot in common with college freshmen. They find themselves leaving the nest. For the past forty years they have wandered the wilderness, but with every step God has been there to watch over them. Moses was around to guide and push and prod and encourage them. It’s not been an easy time for any of them – God included – but they’ve managed somehow and finally crossed the Jordan at Gilgal, prepared to take this new land for themselves.
One reason they have done as well as they have – and hindsight tells us it was a struggle at best – is that the children of Israel have not had to go foraging for food – hard to do in the wilderness – hunting for their own resources. God has provided all they have needed in the form of the daily manna. God was like an ever-vigilant parent telling his or her child to study. “No, you can’t go get pizza. Get back in your room and hit the books!”
But those days are now over. From now on, the Israelites will have to find their own food and make their own decisions. God won’t be there to say, “Do this,” or “Don’t do that,” at least not in the same way God has been there before. Moses is gone and Joshua is now the leader of Israel. A new administration is now in place, and it’s time for the children to leave the nest and make a life and home of their own.
Psychologists refer to this as a rite of passage. Starting school, whether kindergarten or college, getting that first driver’s license, going on that first date, the first kiss, graduation, new job, new spouse, having children… it’s all a rite of passage.
For the Israelites, this rite of passage is marked in a more painful way, at least for the men. God chooses to renew the practice of circumcision that had begun with Abraham. All the men of Israel who had come out of Egypt are now dead. That means that none of the men still living have gone through this experience. So, some minor surgery was called for – minor as long as it’s someone else’s, of course! – and when that is completed God says to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” It is God’s way of saying the past is past and it’s time to move on.
But it’s hard to let go of the past – isn’t it? – whether it is filled with good thoughts or bad. Like Simon Peter at the Transfiguration, every person in this room can think of things we would like to build a tent around so we can just stay there and relish every moment forever. But we can’t. The past is past. We can also think of those things we would like to forget, the painful experiences that we do tend to hang on to, sometimes to the point of letting the memory of it stain and spoil the possibilities of the present.
Some rites of passage are worth looking forward to, for they are positive in nature. Others remind us of where we have been, and of how difficult was the journey that has brought us to this place.
That’s just one reason we need the season of Lent. Lent is the time when you and I are encouraged to say goodbye to the past and travel along a new path. The past is past and it is time to move on. The question that comes immediately to mind is, where? The Apostle Paul would probably tell you that the question is not where but what. “A new creation,” he calls us, because “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
How long has it been since you felt that way? Do you feel that way now? The time comes to all of us. “Today,” God says to the people of Israel, “I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” “Behold, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Remember, if you will, that there was a day when Jesus and his concept of the coming kingdom were new. What he said to the people contained a brand new idea of the kingdom of heaven and of God. The way Jesus related to people, especially to those who were considered sinners, was scandalous in the eyes of many. Needless to say, many of the people he encountered – especially those who were given the authority of religious office – reacted negatively to what he said and what he did. It was their responsibility, you see, to make sure the past remained in the present, and would be preserved for the future. That’s just one reason they collided with the young rabbi from Galilee. If “the disgrace of Egypt” is a euphemism for the past, they preferred to remain disgraced.
It was in the midst of this kind of conflict that Jesus told his most famous story, the one of a young man who took his inheritance and went off to a foreign land to live like a college freshman, one who knew no boundaries and suffered under no rules… for awhile, at least. In Jesus’ story, of course, the young man eventually comes back with his tail between his legs, begging forgiveness of the father he has wronged. And just as God rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from his children, the father in Jesus’ story takes back his wayward son, and there is rejoicing in all the household for this one who has been redeemed.
That, of course, is where the good news comes in. Despite our past, whatever it may be, regardless of how “disgraced” we may feel, God is willing to take us back and give us the grace with which to start over.
I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too: if it were only that simple and that easy. Maybe this will help…
My friend John Killinger tells of the time he and his wife Anne were in the Swiss Alps, making their way up the steep mountainside to view the Jungfrau, “the maiden,” as it is known. The path was circuitous and steep, John says, and while it was a beautiful day and the sun was shining brightly on the snow-capped mountain, the trail was often darkened in shadows. At such places, he says, they would feel tired and think of turning back. But then they would round a bend in the road and suddenly, unexpectedly, there it would be again in front of them… the great Jungfrau, looming brilliantly and beautifully. As John tells it, they would breathe deeply, throw back their shoulders, and start forward again with new energy and new resolve. The effect, he says, was almost magical.
And then John says, “It is the same way in our faith. There are times when we pass through the shadows and life seems unduly hard. We wonder if we were wrong about God, or if we can make it faithfully to the end. And then, often inexplicably, God gives a newness in our hearts and the vision comes through strong and clear again. We pick up our courage and move forward with fresh resolve.”1
Do you need that courage and fresh resolve, what it will take to remove the “disgrace of Egypt” from your life? Well, please understand that you cannot, and do not need to, do it alone. God is with you to help each step of the way. And that is why this life in God is called a journey.
Lord, walk with us and help us to put the past behind us, that we might give the present and future more fully to you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1“The Magic of Beginning Again,” unpublished sermon, January 3, 1988.