Can one person make a difference? Can one person change the direction of an entire family tree? Can one person stand up in the face of fear, hardship, and peer pressure, and lead a people into a whole new way of life? We are not the only ones to wrestle with such questions.
Trouble in the Bible
The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for years. They didn’t want to be there. Yet, there they were, wandering from place to place. The wilderness is a harsh and difficult place. No one wants to be out in the desert. Not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, where you’re going to find your next pair of shoes, where you’re going to lay your head down at night. Yet, there they were, wandering in the desert.
Having meandered from placed to place for years the Israelites were now finally standing at the edge of the Promised Land. Moses, their experienced wilderness guide, had just passed away. Standing between them and their long hoped for future was a wall of water that was about a mile wide, the mighty Jordan River. If that wasn’t bad enough, based upon previous scouting reports, the land ahead was full of mighty warriors and fortified cities. What would they do?
400 years earlier, God had made a promise to their ancestor Abraham that his descendants would receive this land as an inheritance, as a homeland. In time, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, and his family went to Egypt during a famine. Eventually, the Egyptians became afraid of them as they grew in numbers and so they enslaved them. While in captivity, their Egyptian taskmasters abused them and made their work hard for them and so, they cried out to God for help but help seemed long in coming. “God, help us! Deliver us!” they cried.
In due time, God sent Moses, who, under the mighty hand of God brought them out of slavery. They then began their trek to the Promised Land. However, on their way they began to grumble. With Moses now dead, Joshua had been chosen to fill his shoes. What will Joshua do? What will the people do? Do they even dare dream of better days and try to possess the land?
Trouble in our World
The Israelites are not the only ones to know hardship, and difficulty, and moving from place to place. Alvest was born in government housing in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans to a young girl named Genesta. She was only sixteen when he was born and his father, Benny, was in prison. Benny had been busted for robbing homes in an upper-class part of town.
While the rich folks were downstairs throwing their big, fancy parties, Benny and his brother would climb through a second-floor window. They would grab a couple pillowcases and then fill them with whatever valuables they could find. Benny’s bad behavior earned him the nickname “the pillowcase bandit” and several years in prison.
Genesta, like many in her family before her, made some poor choices in her youth and had surrounded herself with some bad characters.
Genesta’s father, Giuseppe, was known for getting in all sorts of trouble. He was a runner for Al Capone and his sister was one of Capone’s girlfriends. Giuseppe was a bad man. Folks in New Orleans knew better than to mess with him. In fact, when the cops saw him on the street they would turn around and take another route. Giuseppe loved to drink and gamble and intimidate folks. Following in the footsteps of those before him, Giuseppe made some poor choices and surrounded himself with some wayward characters.
Giuseppe’s parents, Vito and Filippa, were from Sicily and were known for getting in all sorts of trouble. Vito was a lady’s man and was known for having a side-girl or two. As you might imagine, his wife, Filippa, didn’t appreciate that too much. So, one day, she grabbed a wooden plank and hit one of his girlfriends in the head. The girlfriend didn’t survive the attack. Not wanting to deal with the consequences of her actions, Vito and Filippa hopped on a boat and sailed for New Orleans.
Alvest’s family had a long history of making poor choices, engaging in bad behavior, and surrounding themselves with awful characters. How would Alvest get out of there? Could Alvest get out of there? In many ways, it looked like he was stuck in the mud, doomed to repeat his family’s mistakes. Nearing graduation from high school, Alvest stood at the edge of his future. What would he do? The land ahead was uncertain, full of huge obstacles, and mighty challenges.
Grace in the Bible
Back at the edge of the Promised Land, face-to-face with a wall of water, a land of warriors, and powerful cities, what would Joshua do? Would he abandon the wilderness of his past and embrace the hope of a better future? Or, would he give in to the negativity and rebellion of those around him?
Just then, as Joshua was wrestling with all of these fears and emotions and insecurities, the Lord spoke and said to him, “Proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to [you] … No one shall be able to stand against you ... As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:2, 5-6a, NRSV).
“Be strong and courageous.” What does that mean? The word courage, as it’s used here in the Bible, means “resolute” (Howard, 1998). In other words, instead of being weak and wishy-washy, God was calling Joshua to be strong and steadfast.
In particular, God was calling Joshua to be resolute in following the Lord’s directions for living. The Lord declared, “Be strong and very courageous, being very careful to act in accordance with all the law … meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (Joshua 1:7-8, NRSV).
The key to Joshua’s success was for him to be rooted in God’s word (Howard, 1998). He was going to have to “meditate” on it day and night. In Old Testament times, meditation involved two things: First, it meant to focus on God himself, his works, and his rules for living. Second, meditation was an activity that was done aloud, not just inside one’s head (Howard, 1998).
In other words, if Joshua was going to succeed, he needed to focus on God, his faithfulness, his instructions for holy living, and then always have God’s Word upon his tongue. Instead of grumbling, and complaining, Joshua was to meditate on God and his ways. If Joshua would do that, he would be successful and God would be with Joshua, “wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9, NRSV).
So, what would Joshua do? What would the Israelites do? Would they trust God? Would they take a step of faith? Would they leave their old ways behind for a better future?
According to Scripture, in spite of all the challenges ahead, and fears, and doubts, Joshua chose to trust God and his promises and so they took a step into the water. When they did the mighty Jordan River, which was at flood stage, parted and they crossed over on dry ground. As they took a step of faith and trusted God, the Lord provided them with one miracle after another and they took possession of the land.
Grace in our World
What about Alvest? Facing huge obstacles, doubts, and fears, stuck in the mud and the mire, what would he do? Enter Genesta’s uncle Henry. Like the rest of Alvest’s family, Henry had been living in darkness, and hoodoo, and getting into all kinds of trouble. One night, while Henry was walking along Canal Street in New Orleans, he heard some strange music playing in the distance. As he drew near, he noticed a group of people in rather peculiar-looking uniforms playing instruments and singing. They began to preach about Christ, and Henry listened intently.
This was when Henry first learned the Salvation Army did more than just ring bells at Christmas and collect money for those going through rough times. They invited Henry to attend their church. He received a Bible and began to meditate upon it. Instead of filling his life full of filth, darkness, and hoodoo, Henry put his faith in Christ and began studying God’s Word.
In the days that followed, Henry joined the Salvation Army and attended their seminary. The Word of God began to fill his heart and it was always on his lips. Henry then joined the Church of the Nazarene and became one of their pastors and then an evangelist, going all over the broken places of New Orleans and the surrounding areas, sharing the good news of Christ’s power to set people free.
In time, and by the grace of God, Henry led almost his whole family to Christ, including Genesta and her son Alvest (Beyer, 1997). It was at this time that they learned the truth of God’s Word, which declares, “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand” (Psalm 40:1-2).
With Christ in their hearts, Alvest felt the Lord calling him to go to a Christian college where he could learn more about God and be surrounded by godly influences. Alvest agreed and even though he had no idea how he would pay for it, he believed this was God’s will and so he took a step of faith. Where God leads, God provides and that is exactly what God did for Alvest. It wasn’t easy and it took him longer than most to graduate, but God provided. Not only that, but God also provided a wonderful career, a godly wife, and three kids, including a son named Jason.
I’m here today because my great uncle Henry, my grandma Genesta, and my dad Alvest all made vital decisions to leave the wayward ways of those before them and trust and obey God. Their obedience in the face of great challenges changed the whole direction of our family. Rather than giving into fear, they accepted God’s call and provision to be strong and courageous. Following their example, I too have made a decision to trust and follow Christ.
Be strong and courageous! We all need courage to face the future. But, to be clear, courage is not all that superhero stuff you see on TV and in the movies. Courage is facing life’s challenges with the help and direction of God. Courage is being resolute in the face of great trials. Courage is being strong and steadfast in the ways of God, even if you’re the only one!
By the grace of God, you can make a difference! You can change the whole direction of your family tree! You can stand up in the face of fear, hardship, and peer pressure, and lead others into whole new way of life! What God said to Joshua, he’s saying to us, “You’re not alone, every step of your life, I’ll be there. I’ve not forgotten you. I am with you. You need only to be strong and courageous. Follow me, keep my word, and I will bless you wherever you go.”
Beyer, H. T., Jr. (1997). Bread of Truth: A Book of Proverbs. United States: Henry T. Beyer, Jr.
Howard, D. M., Jr. (1998). Joshua. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Wilson, P. S. (1999). The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Jason Stevens is the lead pastor of Harvester Church of the Nazarene in St. Peters, MO. He is a Doctor of Ministry student at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, where he also received a Masters of Divinity.