3. Take Us to the River
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
In January 2014 Toronto Football Club announced they had reached a transfer agreement with Tottenham Hotspur to sign striker Jermain Defoe as a Designated Player. At the time they launched a major ad campaign with the tagline “It’s a Bloody Big Deal”. The ads featured various English people reading or hearing the news, spitting out whatever they were drinking in amazement. In the end it didn’t turn out to be such a big deal. While Defoe got off to a good start – 11 goals in 16 games, he didn’t score again and missed the next 18 games due to suspension or injury. In January 2015 TFC announced Defoe was being sold to Sunderland, the club for which he currently plays.
It’s a big deal. When we consider the story told in Joshua chapters 3 and 4 of the Israelites crossing of the Jordan, we can say with certainty and conviction that it’s a big deal. We can’t read this account and not think of the crossing of the Red Sea. That event changed the status of the Israelites from being slaves to being free – one of God’s mighty acts of deliverance, of freedom, of salvation. Crossing the Jordan signals the end of wandering. It signals the claim on the part of the Israelite nation of the land of promise, the land that had been promised so long ago and the fulfillment of that promise. If you read the story straight through, however, you notice that it’s not a straightforward account. You notice the story’s point of view jumping from place to place. Joshua’s “tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you” in v 5 is set against God’s “This day I will begin to exalt you” in v 7. Joshua commands the priests to stand still when they come to the edge of the Jordan in v 8, and they are standing in the middle in v 17. Men are ordered to be chosen from each tribe in v 12 with no explanation as to why. The ark carriers are standing at the edge of the Jordan in some verses and in the middle in others. The point of view changes from the edge of the Jordan, to a town called Adam, to the middle, to the east side, back to the middle, and back to the east side camp. Let us look at this story this morning, see what it meant to the ancient Israelites, and see what God may have to say to our church…
I Looked Over Jordan
It’s a big deal. It’s time to cease wilderness wanderings. This is the command which is being extended to the nation of Israel. An epoch in the life of Israel is coming to an end, a new one is beginning. For the church the crossing of the Jordan has taken on meaning particularly around end of life hasn’t it? I think of songs like “Swing Low” – “I looked over Jordan and what did I see, comin’ for to carry me home, a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.” I think of that favourite hymn of many “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” which has “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside, death of death, and hell’s destruction, Land me safe on Canaan’s side.” This story functions of course as a metaphor for the end of life. It does much more, however. This story was not meant to be a straight ahead narrative account. What then does it tell us about the nature of God and what this meant in this big deal day?
We heard a couple of weeks ago God’s promise to Joshua that God would be with him, just as he was with Moses. The presence of God here is symbolised by the Ark of the Covenant – the representation of God’s presence with Israel. Just as the pillar of fire and the cloud had shown them the way after the exodus from Egypt, the Ark of the Covenant will show them the way into the land of promise. Look at the command in v 3 – “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place. Follow it, so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before.” Joshua tells the people further in v 6 – “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” God has promised to go with Israel, and when God is present amazing things will happen! There is this great promise that goes back to the days of Moses – see Exodus 33:13-16. Follow it, the people are told of the symbol of the Lord’s presence, so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before.
Have you ever felt that you’re on a way that you’ve not passed before? We go through much of our lives like this don’t we? Set out from your place, was the command, follow it. How can we hear these words and not think of the one who also invites us to follow him. Who also said step out of your place, leave aside your nets, for I will make you fishers of people. The one who promised that those who followed him would do all the works that he had done and even greater works than these. What this story reminds us of is that when God is present, wonders happen. Miracles happen. For the ancient Israelites, the Ark of the Covenant was symbolic of God’s presence with them. This presence caused miracles. In this case it causes a river to stop. It creates safe passage, the invitation to cease wilderness wanderings. To enter into a land of peace, of wholeness, of right relationship with God. How can we think of this and not think of the one called Emmanuel – God with us. Have you known the presence of God? Has it caused the miraculous for you? I’ve heard it said that if you’re wondering if something in your life is the work of God, think of something that could not have come from within you. Perhaps it’s freedom from an addiction. Perhaps it’s the ability to extend forgiveness, to extend grace in a place where you never thought you’d be able to. What has God done in you that has surprised you? I’ve said personally that if you had told me 10 years ago that I would be a pastor and that I would be doing things like preaching and leading Bible studies I would have said “Well that’s pretty wild but I guess I can see that!” If you had told me that I would be spending Saturday nights at an Out of the Cold program for the last 4 seasons I would have said “That’s pretty crazy!” The love for my friends there and the desire to serve God in such a way did not come from within me, you see. It came from God. God’s presence with me, God’s spirit working that in my heart. God’s presence with us will cause wonders. It will cause us to wonder. It will cause others to wonder! There was a Roman centurion once. His servant was sick. He came to Jesus and said “I know what it’s like to give orders and have people do things, and I know that if you give the order my servant will be healed. You don’t even have to come to my house.” Jesus was amazed. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing for us to cause even God to be amazed? May God’s presence work this in us we seek to set out from our places and follow him.
The second thing that I want to look at from this story is what it says about the unity of Israel throughout this crossing. Look at the reference to “all Israel” (3:1, 7, 17. 4:14). Look at the inclusion of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Mannaseh. “Why is this something to note?” you ask? These three tribes are known as the Tranjordanians. In Numbers 32 they had seen that the land to the east of the Jordan was good for cattle which they had, and they asked to be allowed to settle there, provided that they would arm themselves and help the rest of the Israelites take the land when the time came. Here we see them fulfilling that promise – “As soon as all the people had finished crossing over, the ark of the Lord, and the priests, crossed over in front of the people. The Reubenites, the Gaddites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh crossed over armed before the Israelites, as Moses had ordered them.” They are united under Joshua in a way that they never will be again before the monarchy is established in Israel. The book of Judges is a downward spiral when it comes to unity – we see the various tribes acting less and less in concert with one another until we come to the last verse – “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did was right in their own eyes.”
In the figure of Joshua though, we have someone who is a unifier. One writer describes it like this – “… the figure of Joshua… is presented as a royal figure…this sense of unity is part of Israel’s self-identity at the time of the writing of Joshua, and therefore it becomes a part of Israel’s memory of its foundation.” Israel was unified under this leader who was exalted because he sought God, because he sought to do God’s will.
Again how can we hear these words about Joshua and not think of the one we call our prophet, priest, and king – Yeshua. Yahweh saves. We want to be unified as a church don’t we? We’ve been praying about that specifically and intentionally for over a year now. It’s something Christ prayed for those who would come to know and follow him, that they may be one. Is it any wonder that Luke describes the early church as continuing in the apostles teaching, in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers in Acts 2 – that he describes the early church in Jerusalem holding all things in common. This past summer we looked at the importance of our grounding – the koinonia, the sharing, the fellowship that is ours in Christ. This sharing of the fellowship that exists eternally between God the Father, the Son and Spirit. As Israel beings this new epoch united we are reminded of what unites us.
Take 12 Stones
As I said earlier, in 3:12 Joshua is instructed to select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. We don’t get to hear the reason until chapter 4 – here’s v 4, “Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take one stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you.” And here’s the great part – these stones are to be set up to anticipate the question of a child. The question of meaning – “When your children ask in time to come ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”
Isn’t that great? The importance of memory to faith. The importance of acts of remembrance and symbols which call to mind God’s saving acts. God’s wondrous acts. Anticipating the question of a child. An illustration of what it looks like to follow the command to recite these words to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Don’t we want that here for our children? The first time these stones are mentioned, it is so the Israelites will remember. The second time though their role is expanded - look at v 21-24 – “saying to the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.’” So that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty. The question of a child. It’s a wonderful part of the Seder meal, have you ever heard this or maybe experienced it firsthand, that families have their children ask about what everything means. 'Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either bread or matzah, but on this night we eat only matzah?' ”Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?' 'Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our herbs even once, but on this night we dip them twice?' 'Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?' And the answers – Because our ancestors had no time to wait for the bread to rise before fleeing Egypt. To remember the bitterness of bondage there. The first dip to symbolize the replacing of tears with thanksgiving, the second to symbolize sweetening the burden of suffering. We recline because in ancient times only free people were permitted to recline and God has freed us.
To answer the questions of a child. Why is that large cross at the front of the room? Why do you pass around this plate of bread. Why is that man holding up that cup? Why is that woman tearing that loaf of bread in two. We do the same things with objects such as these - to be reminded of God’s saving acts. To be reminded of how God dried up the ground beneath our feet so that we might cross over not only to new territory, but as people with new identities. As people with a longing to seek after God. To know him and make him known.
And this is the other function that these stones serve. “So that all the peoples of the earth will know that the hand of the Lord is mighty…” The stones are not just for us you see. They are to be a marker – a sign that points toward the God who saves, who redeems, who restores, who makes whole, who gives rest. For followers of Christ it’s not just about setting up such a monument. It’s about being such a monument. Let’s look at 1 Peter 2:4-5 “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals and yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” To be living monuments! To step out in faith and cross boundaries, a holy priesthood like those priests in our story, crossing boundaries and facilitating transit across boundaries for others. Becoming living signposts. For what purpose? Going back to 1 Peter 2:9 – “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It’s time to cross the Jordan. It’s time to follow the one who dries up the river bed beneath our feet. It’s time to cease wilderness wanderings. To come out of the darkness and into the light.
I want this. I want this for myself. I want it for our church. I want it for the people who make up this community of faith. I want it for the people whose lives we touch. The people in our circles of love and care. Who wants this with me? Who wants to answer the call to set out from your places. To follow the one who has opened the way to rest, to peace, to life. It’s a big deal. It’s the biggest deal there is, despite what you might hear to the contrary. It doesn’t matter if you’ve made the decision before or you’re making it maybe for the first time. The whole nation crossed over. Even those Ruebenites and Gaddites who were already settled. They all crossed over together. They took 12 stones to mark the fact that God saves, God heals, God restores.
I have a basket here of river stones. If you’re saying yes to these questions I invite you to take one. Keep it in your purse. Your car. Your dresser. Your desk. Wherever you’d like to keep something to remind you of God’s saving power, his saving will. Of God making us living stones built into a spiritual house – together! – founded on our cornerstone. Talk about what this means to you. Answer the question when asked “What do these stones mean?” If you’re making the decision that you want to be a living stone founded on Christ the cornerstone talk to me about it. I would love to talk about that. There’s a great postscript to this story in Josh 5:1 – “When all the kings of the Amorites beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted….” Hearts can seem pretty hard can’t they? Hearts melt when God’s saving acts are made known. May God make this true in our own lives and in the lives of all we come across.