The following commencement address to the Sycamore Covenant Academy (Kokomo, Indiana) Class of 2014 was delivered on May 23, 2014. Several in attendance asked for a copy, so after putting the notes to a manuscript (no doubt inexactly), here it is:
Congratulations to the class of 2014! The thirteen of you have worked hard, and it is wonderful to see you complete this portion of your journey. As you transition to the next phase of life, it is fitting to have a celebration like this one – complete with the cake we will have in a few minutes. Celebrations look backward to what has been accomplished, and they anticipate the road ahead. What is next for you? You will scatter as you go off to college and work; you will likely marry, have children, own a home that requires constant care, have monthly bills come due with alarming frequency, and wake up one day and realize that all of your wildest dreams have not come true and that life can be pretty boring, frankly. So how do we look forward to what is ahead?
There was another celebration 3500 years ago. Thirteen others were sent out after that celebration: the twelve tribes of Israel plus Levi (who did not receive land). As you know, they were led by Joshua into the Promised Land. The Lord dried up the Jordan, the people walked through on dry ground. They marched around Jericho and the Lord brought the walls down. Thus, they cut the land in two – north and south. They then deployed together to the south and broke the back of their enemies; the Lord worked miraculous wonders for them in battle. Next, they turned to the north and they crushed the hordes of Canaanites and hamstrung their horses. In the midst of these labors together, they dealt with personal sin in the case of Achan and corporate sin in their dealings with the Gibeonites.
When the backbone of Canaanite resistance was broken, they celebrated as recorded in Joshua chapter twelve. In that party, they remembered their victory over the thirty-one kings which are listed by name. Some people find that list kind of boring. But, tee-shirts commemorating an undefeated high school football season often list off each opponent defeated, the date of the victory, and the final score – no one who was part of the team thinks that is boring! No, it brings to mind specific victories and stories of triumph. In Joshua twelve, Israel was rightly celebrating together.
You might later look back on high school a bit the same way. You will have memories of successes and failures and ultimately graduation-victory together by the grace of God. With gratitude, you will forever remember this party with your twelve classmates. But the tee-shirt gets dated and faded, and the future is now your concern.
In Joshua, chapter thirteen turns us to the second half of the book. The gloriously thrilling battles are over. The army disperses. The land is divided. Names and places are listed as each tribe and family receives its inheritance. Many readers are bored by this part of Joshua. The party is over and everyone goes off to his own corner of the land and work. Even though the backbone of enemy resistance is broken, there are still many foes in the land to be driven out. It could be pretty tedious, boring, and even discouraging. The rest of your life might be similar.
To keep us from falling prey to discouragement or boredom, God gives us Caleb in Joshua chapter fourteen. Commentator Ralph Davis calls Caleb the great “e.g.” or “exempli gratia.” We use that Latin abbreviation in our writing to parenthetically introduce examples of what we have just stated. Joshua records the command to take the whole land by inheritance and then gives the example of Caleb to show God’s people how to take the land through personal responsibility before listing off all the individual locations still to be conquered.
After a general description of the land and a few details of the land east of the Jordan, Caleb comes to Joshua to ask for his piece of land. You will remember that over forty-five years earlier Joshua and Caleb had been the two spies out of twelve who had believed God’s word and wanted to take the land after spying out the land from Kadesh-barnea where Israel was camped in the wilderness. However, the ten unbelieving spies had said the giants are too great and that the Israelites were like grasshoppers in their sight. So, God shut the door to the Promised Land due to the disbelief of Israel and the people wandered for forty years while all the adults died off with the exception of these two. Now these many years later, Caleb made his request with all of Judah looking on:
Joshua 14:6-15 “Then the people of Judah came to Joshua at Gilgal. And Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, ‘You know what the LORD said to Moses the man of God in Kadesh-barnea concerning you and me. 7 I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him word again as it was in my heart. 8 But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt; yet I wholly followed the LORD my God. 9 And Moses swore on that day, saying, “Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the LORD my God.” 10 And now, behold, the LORD has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the LORD spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. 11 I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming. 12 So now give me this mountain of which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said.’ 13 Then Joshua blessed him, and he gave Hebron to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for an inheritance. 14 Therefore Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholly followed the LORD, the God of Israel. 15 Now the name of Hebron formerly was Kiriath-arba. (Arba was the greatest man among the Anakim.)”
Caleb was given as an example and for our instruction; what should we take to heart? Caleb’s speech rises to obvious crescendo: “So now give me this mountain!” As you thirteen are scattered, follow the example of Caleb, and boldly ask God to give you your mountain and then take dominion of it. Our objective is not to take a little strip of land on the other end of the Mediterranean, but to subdue the created world and make disciples of all nations. God will place you in different locations with different challenges. You may be called to remain locally working and serving. You may keep a home. You may be called to high positions. You may be called to the ends of the earth. In each case you need to pray “So now give me this mountain.” What did Caleb need to make that request? What do you need to make this kind of request? First, you need:
- Humble Faith. Caleb believed the promises of God. In verses eight, nine, and fourteen he said “I wholly followed The Lord my God.” He was not claiming moral perfection or salvation by his works. He simply knew God’s word, believed his promises, and lived accordingly. Your must humbly know God’s word and believe him. Caleb saw what was unseen. Years before, he believed and acted even when the enemies made him feel like a grasshopper and peer pressure said “Do not believe God.” You will face the same peer pressure in the years to come at college or wherever the Lord puts you. It has been said that Caleb was able to stand alone because he stood with the Almighty God. He believed in the promised Messiah who was to come based on the covenant God had made with his people. His eye was on more than a mere plot of land. Jesus is the one who conquered and who conquers. Apart from humble faith in Jesus Christ, friends, you can do nothing. Know the promises of God by knowing his word and believe them. That does not always seem very exciting in the daily grind of life, but steady, humble faith yields precious fruit. One author notes that it is “Not so much great faith in God that is required, but faith in a great God.” We are called to take God at his word day in and day out. It is also evident that his faith grew over those forty-five years. Where will you be in forty-five years? Will you be able to say this then? By God’s grace and through the knowledge of his word, you will. Only by humble faith can you to wholly follow the Lord your God and step forward through life to say “give me this mountain.” The second requirement to make this request is:
- Bold Hope. Caleb made his request in verse twelve only after building his case. He recalled that God had promised that the land on which his feet had trodden would be his inheritance! He knew this was the promise of God, so he boldly asked for his mountain. Because of his faith, he was able to pick his plot of land. He could have taken the fertile plains with the fewest enemies. But no, he asked for the toughest plot of land, with the toughest enemies. He knew that the Anakim, the giants, lived there. As Caleb made his request, you might imagine some of his descendants of lesser faith standing by quietly but desperately pleading under their breath “No grandpa! Claim the fertile plains for us; we’re the ones who will have to live there!” But he intended to give his offspring a greater inheritance than merely the land. He had seen the Anakim forty-five years earlier, but he had not yet had his shot at them yet. As Roy Blackwood always notes, the Anakim were the men the ten spies believed were too big to hit, but Caleb and Joshua believed they were too bit to miss. He stepped up to the toughest challenges and led his descendants to do the same. Today, as you thirteen separate, grow bold in hope; step up and ask God to give you the toughest tasks at hand. Here are a couple of ways you can fight on hope to remove evil and then a couple of ways to establish righteousness in the land.
- Your greatest enemy will be your own sin. Put sin to death in the flesh every day by the power of the Spirit. Kill your sin before your sin kills you. Only you know the besetting sins in your own life. They are the Ankim, and they must go.
- Beyond your personal enemy of sin, we face enemies and problems in our culture. We face the evils of sex-trafficking, abortion, abuse, broken homes, the homosexual agenda, statism, the compulsory redistribution of wealth through taxation (which is nothing other than robbery), government corruption, a healthcare crisis, slipping morality in a post-Christianized West, international instability, the rise of Islam a global force, decaying communities in our own land, and a wider church in the U.S. that is increasingly biblically ignorant and is losing zeal for Jesus. These may seem to be insurmountable challenges, but Caleb knew the promise of God and said “it may be that The Lord will be with me, and I will drive them out just as he has said.” You may not solve these challenges in your generation, but why would you not step up to try knowing that God will in his time defeat his enemies?
- Positively, you should take the mountain through evangelism. William Borden, heir to the Borden dairy empire, graduated from high school in 1904, and he received a graduation gift from his parents that was similar to what your parents are probably doing for all of you. He was sent on a year-long trip around the world. He became burdened for the people he saw who were apart from Jesus Christ, and he sensed a call to reach them for Christ. He went to Yale University the next fall, with a growing burden for those nearest him. In addition to his studies, he threw himself in to the work of evangelism and discipleship. He and other students would meet for prayer and pray for specific individuals. As they listed names, they assigned Christians to seek to minister to these unbelievers. When the students most hostile to Christ were listed, Borden would mark himself as the one to pursue him. Borden sought giants, and the Lord gave him many, because he believed God and had a firm hope in his word and Spirit. By the time Borden graduated, over two-thirds of the student body had been converted and were in discipleship groups. Ask God for mountains with great hope, God will give them to you. Yet, you are called to more than seeking individual souls, you are called to seek:
- Cultural transformation. God called Adam to be fruitful, to multiply, to fill the earth, and subdue it. In God’s salvific plan, his people are to apply the reality of his redemption everywhere he calls them. Caleb got it; he knew that he was called to take dominion of this particular mountain for himself and for generations to come. You are too, wherever the Lord places you. Abraham Kuyper famously said “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Too many Christians are retreating from the claims of Christ over all of culture. This view of Christ’s Lordship has fueled progress in science and culture because of our Christian heritage. I was in India last winter. There, I saw the fruit of the centuries-long influence of pantheistic Hinduism. These pantheists do not view nature and creation as broken and in need of redemption. The biblical worldview states that creation is groaning as it longs for final redemption. We affirm that our calling as redeemed stewards of the garden to seek redemptive activity in creation to push back the effects of the fall as we take dominion of earth in Christ. By contrast, pantheists worship and serve the creation rather than the Creator. Because they do not see what is natural as broken, they are too often content to blend in with a broken world and accept the consequences. The result: they are malnourished or have failed to reach their genetic potential in stature, too many are maimed by disease, and their culture is unable to be what is could be (and we pray yet will be). Which leads to a question I think needs to be asked, even if it may be a bit controversial: Is it possible that too many Western Christians are unknowingly taking a bite out of the pantheistic pie of Eastern religion by rejecting scientific developments such as vaccines, genetically modified organisms, or by embracing environmentalist demands? Yes, it is possible to wrongly place your trust in science and rationalism; many have through the influence of the enlightenment. Certainly, not all that is synthetic is holy. However, what is natural in this world is not holy either. It is broken by sin, and you are called to cultivate the garden and reclaim it from the effects of the curse. We may not all agree at present on the details of how to apply various technologies, but we need to think more deeply about the theology that undergirds our views. In any event, graduates, there are billions of mouths to be fed, diseases to be conquered, machines to be designed, people to be connected and taught, nations to be led, and churches to be nourished to the glory of Jesus Christ. The land is to be conquered and possessed. So by faith, take the toughest challenges, like Caleb. Push yourselves academically. Take the lead in group projects in college and at work. Read voraciously. Probe every fertile mind you can find with thoughtful questions. Listen intently. Get the earliest classes possible each day in college. Stay in the academic buildings through the day and focus on your studies. Require brothers and sisters to hold you to account professionally and spiritually. Invest in younger students. Play hard at the gym in the evening. Lead in civic organizations. Commit to your own hurt to your personal Bible study and corporate worship. Sing like you mean it in worship. Pray without ceasing. Ask God to give you this mountain! Like Caleb, relish the challenge! Jesus wants the work of his redemption to be seen among us. The redemption of all creation will be perfect in the end, but our labors should reflect something of God’s redeeming work in the present in order to lift eyes to the Redeemer. Ralph Davis notes that as Caleb stepped forward in this bold hope, he did not presume upon the work of God. He did not know for certain that the Lord would give him the land in his generation, he just knew that God had promised to do it. So, full of vim and vigor, Caleb said “It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out.” It was confidence based on the promises and providence of God –“confident but not cocky” in Davis’ words. When you ask God to give you the mountain with that kind of bold hope, it leads to the next ingredient necessary to ask God for your mountain:
3. Obedient Love. Caleb went and did what he knew God had called him to do, and love is marked by obedience. Jesus said “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.” Caleb did. Joshua 15:13-14: “According to the commandment of the LORD to Joshua, he gave to Caleb the son of Jephunneh a portion among the people of Judah, Kiriath-arba, that is, Hebron (Arba was the father of Anak). 14 And Caleb drove out from there the three sons of Anak, Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai, the descendants of Anak.” Caleb took our three of the biggest, baddest dudes in all the world through obedience, and we are still talking about it today. Those willing to risk obedience are given the mountain. Jesus obeyed perfectly and has conquered the sin and the grave. As Mediator, he has all authority in heaven and on earth. He calls you to make disciples of all nations, teaching all that he has commanded, knowing that he is with you always, even to the end of the age.
Will life be boring on whatever plot of land the Lord places you? Not with faith, hope, and love like Caleb. The Lord recorded this story to raise up sons of Caleb in every town in every generation. You are called to follow in Caleb’s footsteps – following Jesus Christ – to take the mountain.
Again, Congratulations! Tonight is indeed a great celebration. So let’s go eat some cake. And then, go take the mountain.
*All Scriptures quotations are taken from the English Standard Version with the exception of the word “mountain” which replaces the original “hill country.”
*Dale Ralph Davis’ commentary Joshua: No Falling Words (Christian Focus) influenced my thinking substantially on this passage. If I have failed to attribute particular points to him, the fault is mine.