The other day, as I was walking from one part of the church office to another, I called out a series of mock-farewells to a member of staff I knew I’d be seeing again in two minutes: “Take care! See you later! See you next year! Have a great summer!” Since the school year is coming to a close and since we’ve already begun saying goodbye to our graduating seniors, my silly display took on the feeling of a year-book autograph session. My last call as I disappeared down the hallway was “Don’t ever change!”
That’s always been my favorite (and least favorite) signatory statement for year books. Don’t ever change. Stay true to who you are—right now—and don’t ever change. As a sixth-grader, that message was both encouraging (“you’re great just the way you are”) and devastating (“I hope you’ll always be a sweet, cute twelve-year-old”). Now, as a thirty-something-year-old with the appropriate advance of middle-agedness, that sounds more appealing.
In some ways, that’s precisely what God told Joshua to do in today’s reading from the OT (Joshua 1:1-9). Joshua was taking over for Moses, who had died, and God was promising to carry out the same plan under new leadership. For God, the change in administration didn’t make a difference in his ability to keep his promises to Israel and lead them into a new land. What caught my eye in today’s reading, however, is how God repeatedly encouraged Joshua to carry out that plan: “Be strong and courageous.”
God repeats that exact phrase three times in this short span of verses. Be strong and courageous. At first, it seemed like God was encouraging the new leader not to lose heart as he takes over the enormous task of guiding the nation of Israel into the Promised Land. Then I read it again: “Be strong and courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.” Be strong. Do not turn to the right or the left. Don’t ever change.
As Joshua led God’s people into a new territory with new residents and neighbors to contend with, he and his people faced new challenges. How would they stay true to their roots? How could they inhabit a new land impregnated with new cultures and religious practices without swerving even slightly? Don’t we learn to like new foods when we move to a new part of the world? Wouldn’t we expect to pick up a few new prayers or cultic practices along the way? But God says, “No!” Be strong and courageous.
Sometimes it’s hard to “stay true to who you are.” When someone tells us “don’t ever change,” they usually mean it without ever acknowledging how hard it is to “remember who you are and where you come from.” It’s hard to stay grounded in our relationship with God when the world around us changes. That’s not because the world is on a collision course with secularism. (I don’t buy that.) And it’s not because people will try their hardest to shake the foundations of our faith. (I think they don’t really care that much about what we believe.) But it is easy to get distracted. Like an energetic kitten, if you wave the equivalent of a shiny piece of foil in my field of vision, I’m likely to forget everything I was doing. It takes strength and courage to follow Jesus.