By Stephanie Greenwald
A couple of years ago my family and I went ziplining at Findley Lake in the beautiful terrain of Western New York. We effortlessly flew through the air from one station to the next. When we got to the final platform, our guide who was taking care of our little hooks and harnesses said, “Okay, you’ve got two options about how to get down off the platform. You can take the Stairs of Shame or you can step off this ledge and you’ll just tether right down to the bottom.”
It sounded easy enough. I looked at both of our girls and said, “There’s no shame in the Stairs of Shame – but don’t you dare go down the Stairs of Shame. You can step off the ledge and you’ll be totally fine.” After I gave my best pep talk, my oldest daughter just stepped off and went down to the ground. Following another of my pep talks, our younger daughter stepped right off and fluttered down.
I was next. I stepped up to the ledge and for some reason the ground was a lot further away than when I was giving the pep talk. “Are you okay?” our guide asked. “Do you want me to give you a countdown?”
“Yes,” I said. “That would be so helpful.” And then he had the audacity to start at three. I was thinking we were going to start at 10 million or something. That would have been much better. “Three-two-one” and we were all still standing there. I finally said, “I am sorry. I cannot do this.” The guide said, “That’s fine. There’s no shame in the Stairs of Shame.” He unhooked my harness and I walked down the Stairs of Shame and before I got down to the ground, my husband had stepped off the platform and was safely on the ground.
Isn’t it interesting how when God calls us to take a step of faith out of our comfort zone it is so much easier to tell everybody else how to do it than when we are standing on the ledge and have to take the step of faith ourselves.
When the children of Israel were getting ready to live in the Promised Land, it was a hard step of faith. At the beginning of the book of Joshua we see that Joshua gets handed the mantle of Moses. God says, “Be strong and courageous … for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
We mistakenly think, this is great and it’s so easy. But then we spend the first five chapters of Joshua reading how God prepares the people to take the step. In the next 6 chapters, we read how God and the people conquer the lands. We get to see how God brings them through the Jordan. God is really good at parting seas and bringing people through difficult things that seem impossible. We see the time when they’re conquering the Amorites. And Joshua asks God to make time stand still. “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down for about a full day” (Joshua 10:13). Then we see all of these different kings conquered – 31 kings conquered – and then they get to the place where they have the land and they begin to divide it up and place the borders and send the different tribes into the different lands.
At the end of the book, Joshua gathers everybody back together and he talks about how God brought Abraham out of a land where they worshipped other gods, how he brought Moses and the people out of slavery from the Egyptians, and then he asks them to remember everything that’s happened.
God says, “So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:13).
Then he says, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14-15).
This is a really interesting threshold that God has brought these people to because it’s not just about conquering the Promised Land. It’s not just about receiving the dirt and the land. It’s about how are you going to live in the Promised Land, because conquering it was the easy part. God is asking how will you live and who will you serve in the Promised Land. It’s a threshold that they have to decide whether or not they’re going to step out in faith and do what God has called them to do.
As we think about what that means for us today, God is calling us to embark on a new endeavor. He is calling us to the edge and instead of just telling everybody else how easy it is to do it, he’s asking us to actually take the step. But he’s saying to us, I have conquered so that you can be more than conquerors. I’ve paved the way for you so now you’re going to live in the Promised Land. Whom will you serve in the Promised Land?
Our Promised Land is not one of dirt. It’s not a Promised Land of ground. It’s not a Promised Land with trees. Ours is a Promised Land of souls. It’s a Kingdom. It’s the Kingdom of God that he wants us to be a part of and to live in. But he’s asking us, How are you going to live in the Promised Land? Who will you serve as your king? Because if serving God seems undesirable to you, there’s a lot of other gods to choose from. But whom will you serve as Lord of your life in this Kingdom where Jesus reigns? It’s a threshold.
There was a time when a crowd of people brought a man to Jesus who couldn’t hear and could barely speak. They wanted him healed. According to Mark, “After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means ‘Be opened!’). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly” (Mark 7:31-35).
First, I find it interesting that Jesus actually took that man away from the crowd. Jesus had the kindness in his heart to pull that man away so the only thing he could see was Jesus.
Second, the way that Jesus healed this man was super weird. But I love it when Jesus does weird things. What we learn from this part of the story is that we are going to have to be ready for the extraordinary. We are going to have to be ready for things that are not normal. Our whole lives we have done normal in The United Methodist Church. But I love it that Jesus is not normal. And Jesus is not boring. If we are going to live in the Promised Land and serve him as our king, we’re going to have to be okay with the extraordinary. We’re going to have to be okay with things that may offend. We are going to have to be okay with doing things that look a lot more like heaven and a lot less like earth.
Third, after Jesus does these strange things, he looks up to heaven and says, “Ephphatha” (translated: “Be opened”). We may think that Jesus is saying that the man’s ears and tongue need to be opened – which I think he probably is – but I love it that Mark writes, “He looked up to heaven” and says, “Be opened” because there is a threshold between heaven and earth. If we are going to live in the Kingdom serving God and allow the Holy Spirit to move in our midst, then we are going to have to cross over into what happens in heaven – and bring heaven to earth. That is what Jesus did. That threshold is Jesus Christ.
When we decide to make the commitment that we are going to serve the Lord faithfully – that we and our house are going to serve the Lord – it changes everything. Jesus is the one who makes that threshold between heaven and earth possible. There was a barrier before and it’s not there anymore. That is why we say, “Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Because while there may be a separation for a time, it’s not nearly as big as we try to make it.
When God calls us to take a step of faith out of what is comfortable, we have to check ourselves to see if we’re really okay with the extraordinary because heaven is extraordinary and heaven on earth is extraordinary and God really doesn’t do normal. If you wanted normal you should have stayed an unbeliever.
When you cross over that line, when you take that step, there should be no turning back. God is calling you and me and the people in our churches. He’s asking if we can be okay with the extraordinary. You are going to have to be okay with the fact that God is going to open up the heavens. He will. It’s real.
Jesus is the one who makes crossing the threshold possible, but we have got to step up to the plate as believers, his servants, and his friends. We’re going to have to ask God to open the heavens because that’s what we want in our homes and in our churches. God, you are what we want.
So get ready, choose this day whom you will serve. “But as for me in my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Stephanie Greenwald is associate pastor at St. Andrew’s Community United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She is the co-host with Dr. Bob Kaylor of Holy Conversations, the podcast of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The Rev. Greenwald also serves on the executive board of Light Up the Dark, a nonprofit helping people who struggle with addiction and abuse. This article is adapted from her address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in Indianapolis in May.