Over the last few weeks here at Melbourne Heights, we have been working our way through a series of sermons called “The Promised Land.” But what exactly is the Promised Land? Well, in the bible the term Promised Land refers to the land that God promised to Abraham and his descendants…the place where Abraham and his descendants would become a blessing to all the nations and all the people of the earth. But for us today, our Promised Land isn’t exactly a patch of ground that God promised to our ancestors. Instead, our Promised Land is a place where we can be the people God has called us to be and to do the ministry that God has called us to do.
Our Promised Land is a place where we can be the people God has called us to be and to do the ministry that God has called us to do.
So over the last few weeks, we’ve been exploring some of the lessons that Abraham’s descendants – the people of Israel – had to learn to help them be who God called them to be and to do what God called them to do. But before we take a closer look at the next lesson we can learn from the people of Israel’s journey into the Promised Land, I want to tell you another story.
This story took place on a warm summer day back in 1920 when a little girl named Annie heard the familiar whistle of a train coming down the railroad tracks while she was out playing in the fields behind her house. As soon as she heard the whistle, she took off running as fast as she could to make it to the nearby train station. But Annie didn’t head for the train station because she was expecting to see a long-lost relative who had promised to come to visit. No, Annie went running to the train station because she had been waiting for the circus to come to town.
Remember, this was back in 1920 — this was 35 years before Walt Disney opened Disneyland, it was about 30 years before most Americans had televisions, and it was at least a few months before Annie’s family would purchase their first radio. So back in those days, if you were a kid, life didn’t get better than when you got to go to the circus.
So when Annie saw the familiar circus cars being pulled behind the massive steam engine, she was about to explode with excitement. She quickly ran home to tell her mother that the circus train had just arrived and asked if she could go out to the fairgrounds and watch while the big top was set up.
After a little begging and a lot of pleading, Annie’s mother gave her permission and the little girl flew out of her house as quickly as her legs could carry her. She arrived at the fairgrounds just in time to watch the elephants finish hauling the massive tent poles into the center of each ring in the circus. From there she sat transfixed as half a dozen men worked together in perfect unison to drive each of the tent pegs into the ground. With the tent pegs in, it was time to lift the poles into place — which took at least a couple dozen people. And when the poles were up, it didn’t take long before the big top tent was lifted into place…and that meant the circus would be starting in just a few hours.
And you better believe that Annie was there with her mother and father as soon as the ticket booth opened. And she had the time of her life as she walked around taking in the various midway attractions. She played a few games — but never could manage to knock all the milk bottles over. She watched a few performances — she loved the sword swallower. She even convinced her dad to spring for a bucket of popcorn.
And then it was on to the main attraction, the three-ring circus under the big top. Annie and her parents found a few seats halfway up the bleachers. She climbed into her father’s lap to watch everything from the acrobats to the lion tamer. But Annie’s favorite attraction was the elephants. So when the show came to an end, Annie begged her mother and father to take her to see where the elephants were kept.
When they arrived, Annie watched as a circus worker was brushing each animal off while each animal was fed and watered. But what really caught Annie’s attention was the chain attached to each elephant's leg. She asked the circus worker why the elephants needed to be chained up. And the worker told her it was to keep the elephants from wandering away.
But Annie was confused. Earlier in the day, she had watched these massive animals – that weighed more than 5,000 pounds – haul the gigantic beams that held up the circus's big top. But here they were chained to a simple stake in the ground. So, Annie asked the circus worker, “If these elephants can move the tent poles then why don’t they just pull the stake out of the ground?” The worker told her, “We started chaining them up when they’re too small to pull the stake out of the ground. So when they get bigger they don’t even try anymore.”
Now what does this story have to do with the people of Israel and their journey into the Promised Land? Well, to put it as simply as I can, sometimes your past can hurt you.
Sometimes your past can hurt you.
Now, I want to take a second right now and clarify what I’m talking about when I say that the past can hurt you because just last week I talked about how important it is to remember what God has done for us in the past. And we do need to remember what God has done for us in the past because that will never hurt us. Instead, the past that can hurt us is the mistakes we’ve made, the failures we’ve experienced, and the letdowns that we’ve suffered.
That’s what happened to the elephants Annie saw at the circus. Because of what they experienced when they were small – because they failed to break free from their chains when they were small – those elephants were held back in the present. And it also happened to the people of Israel. The way that they behaved in the past – the mistakes they made, the failures they suffered – had the potential to hurt them in the future. So before the people of Israel could become who God wanted them to be in the Promised Land, they had to learn an important lesson about the past.
Let me show you what I mean. If you’ve got a Bible close by, go ahead and grab it and turn to Joshua 5. Now, the book of Joshua is where we read all about Israel’s return to the Promised Land. And we read about the lessons that they learned throughout their return. And in Joshua 5, we’re going to see the lesson that they needed to learn about the past. But before we can dive into this passage, I need to give you a little bit of background information.
Now, in the passage we’re about to read, there is going to be a lot of talk about circumcision. And I know that’s not exactly the topic that you were expected to hear about when you came to church today. But this practice played a big part in Israel’s history. So let me take you on a little side trip back to the book of Genesis to explain why circumcision is such a big deal to the people of Israel.
This comes from Genesis 17. It says:
9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Genesis 17:9-14 (New International Version)
So why was circumcision so important to the people of Israel? It was how they showed that they were keeping their covenant with God. And that covenant was a promise that God made with the people of Israel that God would use them to bless all the people of the earth as long as they followed God. So circumcision was a way that the people of Israel showed their commitment to God.
Now remember that as we take a look at Joshua 5 together. We’re going to start reading in verse 2. It says:
2 At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” 3 So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth.
4 Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the wilderness on the way after leaving Egypt. 5 All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not. 6 The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord. For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way.
Joshua 5:2-7 (New International Version)
Okay, let’s pause right here for just a minute to make sure that we all see what’s happening in this passage. So all the way back in the book of Genesis – the very first book in the Bible – God makes a covenant, or a promise, with a man named Abraham. And God promises that he will make Abraham and his descendants into a great nation that will bless all the people of the earth as long as they follow God. And God tells Abraham that Abraham and his male descendants need to be circumcised to show they are committed to God and to God’s covenant.
But in the passage that we just read, we find out that Abraham’s descendants haven’t been holding up their end of the bargain. We find out that they haven’t done what God asked them to do for at least 40 years.
So for forty years, the people of Israel haven’t been doing what they were supposed to do to keep their covenant with God. For 40 years they hadn’t been doing what they were supposed to do to show that they were committed to God.
So for forty years, the people of Israel had been building a chain that was tying them to their past. And just like the past was enough to keep a gigantic elephant chained down, the past was enough to hold the people of Israel back.
I mean, just stop and think about it for a minute. If you went forty years without doing something, how likely would you be to start doing whatever it is tomorrow? If you hadn’t exercised for forty years, what are the chances that you’re going to go to the gym tomorrow? If you haven’t made a personal budget in 40 years, what are the chances that you’re going to get a better hold on your finances tomorrow? If you haven’t drunk a cup of coffee in 40 years, what are the chances you’re going to hit up Starbucks on the way to work tomorrow?
The people of Israel hadn’t been committed to following God for 40 years, so it must’ve felt like there was no chance they’d follow God in the future. So the people of Israel must have felt hopeless. They must’ve felt alone. They must’ve felt like failures.
Now, let’s get back to Joshua 5 and see what happens next. We’ll pick back up in verse 8. It says:
8 And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed. 9 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day.
Joshua 5:8-9 (New International Version)
So in these verses, we find out that the people of Israel did exactly what God told them to do. The men were circumcised to show that they were committed to God. And then did you hear what God told them?
Once they showed God that they were committed to God, God told them that he had rolled away their disgrace. 40 years of history were rolled away in the blink of an eye. So it no longer mattered what they did or didn’t do in the past. The only thing that mattered is what they would do from that point forward.
God gave the people of Israel a clean slate…and it was up to them to write a new story.
And the same thing is true for us. Because, let’s face it, there have been times when we all felt like the people of Israel did when they entered the Promised Land. We have all felt hopeless. We’ve all felt alone. We’ve all felt like failures.
And that includes our church. Let’s just admit it, when we had to sell our old building, a lot of us felt like we had failed. We felt like we hadn’t been following God the way we were supposed to, and we were paying the price for it.
But, if we’re going to be who God wants us to be in the future, we can’t be chained to the past.
If we’re going to be who God wants us to be in the future, we can’t be chained to the past.
God has given us a clean slate…and now it’s up to us to write a new story together. And together we can write a story about ministering to our community. Together we can write a story about helping those around us. Together we can write a story about love and acceptance. Together we can write a story that leads other people to begin a relationship with God.
Because when you commit to following God, God rolls away your past. And that’s not just true for the people of Israel, and it’s not just true for our church. It’s true for you. You might be feeling hopeless today. You might be feeling alone today. You might be feeling like a failure today. But don’t let what you’ve done in the past chain you down in the present.
Don’t let what you’ve done in the past chain you down in the present.
Commit yourself to following God, and God will roll away your past so that you can be who God wants you to be in the future.