Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pep Talk

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

                        Joshua 1.9

The Substitute

I’m not a big fan of sports movies, but I love them. And why I’m not crazy about them is why I find them irresistible. They’re formulaic to a fault, yet the hokey set-up always ends with a thrilling finale that somehow rings true. They haul out one cliché after another as the team works its way to the Big Game. They take the field for the title they’ve dreamt of winning for years. With the game too close to call and the clock winding down, the star gets injured. The coach runs up to the substitute and says, “You’re going in, kid.” The sub panics. He’s played fewer games than anyone and now the team’s success falls on him. The coach launches into a pep talk as a 60-piece orchestra swells beneath. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Get out there and show ‘em!” The team rallies around and they run to the scrimmage line together. You know how it ends.

It’s a story as old as the hills, certainly as old Joshua’s story. He’s a bright lieutenant who’s loyal to Moses. He and his buddy Caleb have done a little reconnaissance work, but not much more. The Israelites end their four-decade journey on a promontory overlooking the Promised Land. It’s been a tough fight and the outcome still isn’t assured. Then Moses dies. The first half of Joshua 1 reads like a coach’s pep talk to a substitute: “You’re going in, kid.” After God goes over the playbook with Joshua, He says something very close to “You can do it. I’ve got you.” He tells Joshua to be strong and courageous, play by the rules, and remember his training. He wraps up by assuring Joshua He wouldn’t send him in if He weren’t confident he could do the job. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” The Israelites rally around Joshua. “Be strong and courageous,” they say.

Not Much There

Every time I read this passage, I see Joshua listening with an absent stare as he searches inside for what he’ll need to lead Israel to victory. There’s not much there—no leadership experience, no familiarity with the plan, no military training, no history with the people. He’s not a prophet or deliverer or miracle worker like Moses. Having spent most of his life in the wilderness, he’s not acquainted with big towns like Jericho, the city he’s supposed to defeat. He’s taking charge of men twice his age with far more wisdom and exposure to God’s ways than he. There’s the matter of getting the people packed up and mobilized to cross a river that has no bridge. As he stares at his emptiness, his mind surely races with one question: “How am I going to do this?” That’s why it takes hearing the answer three times—twice from God and once from the people—before it sinks in. Be strong and courageous.

Strength and Courage

Honestly? If I were Joshua, the third time someone told me to be strong and courageous, I’d say, “You’re kidding, right?” Joshua listens closely to what God and the people are really saying. They know he doesn’t have it in him to pull this off. But he can be strong and courageous if he reaches out of his emptiness to embrace God’s surplus. Just before God first alerts him to this, He gives His solemn word to Joshua: “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so will I be with you; I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Joshua 1.5) There’s a powerful little secret cached in the promise. Moses didn’t have what it takes either. He would have been powerless without God by his side.

Scripture repeatedly reminds us how little we’ll accomplish without God’s help. Jesus doesn’t mince words. In John 15.5, He says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Psalm 124.1-4 begins with David saying, “If the LORD had not been on our side…” and reaching this conclusion: “The flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us.” In Psalm 27.1, he says, “The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (KJV) And Paul admonishes us, “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Ephesians 6.10-11)

Great things and great victories happen when, like Moses, Joshua, and every other titan of faith, we stop looking for what we don’t have and stand on what we need. It’s not God’s habit to choose people based on their strength and courage. He uses those who realize they need to be strong and courageous. When God says, “I’m putting you in,” protesting we’re not strong enough or brave enough won’t change His mind. If anything, it proves we’re perfect for the job.

Movie pep talks are clichés, but God’s encouragement is true.

(Tomorrow: Taking Care) 


James said...

"I'll go where you want me to go" is hard to sing sometimes, but when we can mean it, He can do wonders.

Tim said...

James, you've said in a sentence what took me about a thousand words to try to say. And, once again, you turned on the jukebox in my memory; I'll be humming the hymn for the rest of the day.

"I'll go where you want me to go... I'll say what you want me to say... I'll be what you want me to be"--you better believe it's hard to sing. But your point is well taken. If we want God to do wonders in our lives, we'll have to sing it, mean it, and do it.

Thanks for this, James. I'm always delighted by your gift of connecting a post topic with a beloved song from the past. Whether or not we ever personally meet one another in this life, I hope we'll spend a good chunk of time together on the other side--just thumbing through the old hymnals together. Nothing would make me happier!

Be blessed always, dear brother.