About 500 years before God spoke these words to Joshua, God promised Abraham that his descendants would possess and inhabit the land of Canaan (see Genesis 17). However, Abraham never saw the fulfillment of this promise, as his family grew from tribal nomads to a slave nation in Egypt. Moses was given the charge of leading the people from slavery into the Promised Land, but they rebelled out of fear, not having enough faith that God would give it to them (see Numbers 13). For 40 years, the Israelites wandered through the wilderness until they were prepared to enter the land. Moses was not able to see the filfillment of the promise, but now Joshua would.
As a descendant of Abraham during the years of monadic travel and Egyptian slavery, it would have been easy to give up on the promise of the land. It would be easy to see such promises as wish dreams. It would have been tempting to think that such promises would never be fulfilled in any concrete way; instead a more viable option would have been to seek after some kind of Platonic, spiritual, other-worldly fulfillment. This is the very thing that we see happening today where spirituality is relegated to our private lives and the Gospel does not have anything to do with how we live on a day-to-day basis. Church speaks to our spiritual mind, so we go to church to get our spiritual recharging, but the rest of our lives is lived as if God does not exist.
But the promise of the land is concrete and physical. The fulfillment of such a promise is measurable and clear for all to see. It is difficult to spiritualize such promises into some kind of secrete that only those with special, other-worldly insight can understand. In other words, God's promise of the land was a public promise and the fulfillment of that promise was a grand witness to God's faithfulness.
Growing up our church would sing the hymn that proclaimed that Jesus lives. In the chorus, it asks: "How do you know he lives?" The response we rang out with a heightened criscendo: "He lives within my heart." While true, it is incomplete. God's work in our lives and in our world cannot be relegated to inner, private truth or personal spiritual experiences. God works in public ways. His blessings are concrete expressions of the love that God is. The fulfillment of God's promises manifests in public ways.
There are two challenges to this though. First, God's fulfillment never comes in the form that we expect. This is most clear in the ultimate fulfillment, Jesus on the cross. No one ever expected the glory of God to be fully revealed through God suffering and dying. That kind of fulfillment is concrete, but it is not the kind of concreteness that anyone would have projected. God's fulfillment is revelation, that is it comes from without us. It is not a logical projection of our current experience into the future. It is beyond us and therefore it is always different—and better—than we could ever imagine.
Secondly, God's fulfilling work always takes longer than we expect. We have promises from God, but we have given up on God because the visual fruit did not manifest quickly enough. God does not operate like McDonalds. God finishes what God started, but the finishing never occurs on our timetable. Read Hebrews 11.
What does this mean for us today? I see a few things:
- God's mission to redeem and restore the world is God's mission, not ours. Our call is to participate in God and then this will carry the church forward in mission. Mission arises out of life in God and this comes about through cruciformity. Cruciform life in God is not something we can plan or even make happen. It is only something that comes about as we walk with Jesus. We must refuse to try and make God's mission happen. While it might look righteous, our forcing mission on the world always looks like violence. And this is never how God fulfills.
- God's work in our lives as individuals is God's work. There are parts that we can control and there are parts that we cannot. This calls for formation by the Spirit, not just more hard work on our parts. Most of the time, this requires us to learn the discipline of waiting on God. God wants relationship with us, more than he wants us to get over our problems. Slow down. God is not in a hurry, and if you want to participate in what God is doing in your life you have to walk at God's pace.
- God's work in our churches and our small groups will manifest in concrete ways beyond our "spiritual" activities. We must resist the temptation to drive a wedge between our private, spiritual world and our public, secular world. God is at work in concrete ways in our families, at our work, in our schools, in government. It won't look like what we expect, because it will call for cruciformity, but God is at work to redeem everything.