When I preach, I often find myself saying to the congregation, “Pay attention to the geography and the terrain.” Places like Bethel, Peniel, and Sinai are the settings for theophanies. Israel’s sages wanted to ensure the places were named so they could be passed as a gift of God’s work from generation to generation.
God’s action often happens in peculiar landscapes, too. God gives Moses and Israel the law on the mountain, and it is on the mountain that God will speak in the sheer silence to Elijah. On another, Jesus would ascend and deliver his Sermon on the Mount. Later, he would be transfigured and dazzle before the eyes of his disciples. From the Mount of Olives, he would ascend before them, taking up the control room of heaven and earth.
In Lent, we are especially mindful of the desert. It serves as a strange place of desolation and renewal. The people of Israel wander for forty years. Elijah would escape there, desperate for his life. John’s voice would eventually call from it, and Jesus would prepare for his ministry there, tempted as he waits on the Spirit. A desert is odd because it is a place of death, but it is also a place of refinement.
Generally, I point out too whenever the Scriptures mention the sea or any body of water. There is the chaos of the waters in creation that God puts to order. When Israel cries out in terror at the looming Red Sea, God parts it with the ancient Ruach and makes a way on dry land. John’s vision, where he announces there is no more sea, means that chaos, death, and evil are no more a threat. The glassy sea, made still by the presence of God, will be done away with. There is no more threat of unknown terror when God makes things new.
The geography and topography of this passage are certainly worth attention. Gilgal was designated as a place of memory, ritual, and the presence of God to the people of Israel. The shame of their slavery associated with their time in Egypt was rolled away from them in this place. They celebrated Passover as a remembrance of God’s salvific work and victory over the gods of Egypt. The ground ceases to produce the manna that sustained them in the desert. All of that is but a memory—a memory that God commands them to hold onto.
It is quite a series of events that have led up to this passage. After forty years, they have emerged from the desert of their wandering. It took forty years and a whole new generation for the Israelites to learn a new identity as a liberation people and be deprogrammed from their slavery. In Joshua’s commission, God reminds them with repetition, “Be strong and courageous!” This is the moment they are entering the promised land.
The people of Israel march to a less threatening waterway than the Red Sea: the Jordan River. They set up twelve stones to remember what Yahweh has done. The hard work was done. They are at the boundary of entering into newness. They are recommitted to Yahweh as all the men are circumcised. The mountain they encounter here is a much less dignified – Gibeath-haaraloth is the “hill of foreskins.”
Their shame is rolled away. But they are to remember. Why? Because the people of God are a people of memory. God’s healed future is proven to come by the mighty ways God has acted on behalf of the people. Without the memory of the various terrains of their experiences –the raging seas, mountaintops, the deserts, the valleys, the signposts the rivers to cross, and the Ebenezer raised, Israel would default to trusting the fruit of the land instead of the good provision of God.
As the congregation is on the Lenten journey, it may be good to mark out the geography of the place we live and serve. How has it shaped the congregation’s story, and how does it shape the persons in the pew? What landmarks shaped the congregation’s memory? How can the community respond to the good news that their shame is rolled away?
Part of the gift of the story of Israel is that we are handed with its warts and all. Indeed our congregations contain a rich history, both of God’s good actions and things we wish we could forget. But the memory often serves as a way for us to repent so that our shame may be rolled away from us.
I serve a congregation that is 104 years old, all while being just six months old. I was called here for a strategic restart (which happened last fall), and part of this was discovering how the landscape shaped this congregation. I confess a couple of things. Its origins were beautiful: we were The First Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene in Des Moines, IA. It was organized under a big brown tent revival at Good Park. I love that our first pastor was Agnes Frye, a woman. Our church raised pastors and missionaries, and leaders in the church.
But I also confess that our church had its troubles—most notably by the landscape. In the early 1960’s we moved out of a changing neighborhood to about the furthest corner of Des Moines without getting into the suburbs. Ours is a case of white flight. Since the move, there was a steady decline in the church. The neighborhood changed, and the church became detached from it.
I share this as a confession not to harp on the ills of the past but to recall how the memory shapes us and beckons to a healed alternative. Now, we are looking at how our church is to be faithful amid diversity. Our history of racism is etched in our memory, but its memory serves as a way for us to live into repentance and reconciliation. By God’s mercy, we can do better. So it was too for Israel—they were given the gift of the memory of their plight and how God saved them with a mighty hand and outstretched arm and their shame was rolled away.
The landscape of our place is written into the story of our congregation, as all geographies were written into Israel’s. We’re to trust that God uses memory and the land to continually shape us as our disgrace and shame are rolled away.