Wading in the Jordan
Joshua 3:7-17 (Contemporary English Version) The LORD told Joshua, "Beginning today I will show the people that you are their leader, and they will know that I am helping you as I helped Moses. 8Now, tell the priests who are carrying the chest to go a little way into the river and stand there."
9Joshua spoke to the people: Come here and listen to what the LORD our God said he will do! 10The Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites control the land on the other side of the river. But the living God will be with you and will force them out of the land when you attack. And now, God is going to prove that he's powerful enough to force them out. 11-13Just watch the sacred chest that belongs to the LORD, the ruler of the whole earth. As soon as the priests carrying the chest step into the Jordan, the water will stop flowing and pile up as if someone had built a dam across the river.
The LORD has also said that each of the twelve tribes should choose one man to represent it.
14The Israelites packed up and left camp. The priests carrying the chest walked in front, 15until they came to the Jordan River. The water in the river had risen over its banks, as it often does in springtime. But as soon as the feet of the priests touched the water, 16-17the river stopped flowing, and the water started piling up at the town of Adam near Zarethan. No water flowed toward the Dead Sea, and the priests stood in the middle of the dry riverbed near Jericho while everyone else crossed over.
The liturgical schedule of texts this week is interesting. Sermons could be written on each of the texts, so narrowing down my sermon to a single text was not easy.
This part of Joshua is about the conquest of the promised land. The second major part of the book is about the settlement of the promised land.1 This setting means the children of Israel are no longer in slavery. They have been liberated from slavery in Egypt. But they are not quite in the promised land. The children of Israel camped on the banks of the Jordan River for three days. A respected commentary, you might hear called the JFB Commentary, says suspense built as the children of Israel waited for instructions and wondered how they would cross the river.2 And crossing the Jordan will put them in the promised land, a land the Bible gives us a sense they were both promised and destined to win and occupy.
Some translations say God will magnify Joshua. I prefer the Contemporary English Version translation. The Contemporary English Version has the idea that God will show the people that Joshua is their leader. The Hebrew has a few meanings that do not easily translate. One of those meanings is that God will nourish Joshua, so the children of Israel will know God is with Joshua just as God was with Moses.3 Another meaning we see in Hebrew is that God will honor Joshua as God honored Moses.4
God was about to perform a miracle. The miracle would show the children of Israel that they could trust Joshua, just as they trusted Moses, because the same God was working through Joshua who worked through Moses. But more importantly, the miracle would show that the people could trust God to deliver them the promised land, because God performed a miracle to get them into the promised land. The miracle was performed for the entire family of faith, and it was performed for each person who was part of the children of Israel.
This passage can speak to entire congregations, as well as to us as individuals. First, we will look at how this passage applies to congregations.
Bodies of faith, like individuals of faith, are asked to step forward for God. We are asked to do what seems like the absolutely impossible.
This congregation is in a place of change. We do not know what the future will hold. We are unsure how God will lead, as we learn our pastor is retiring and will be moving away. But this is not just any pastor. The pastor who is retiring is our founding pastor. This church has never really operated for an extended period without the leadership and presence of our pastor.
A life without our pastor is strange to us. Life in the spiritual slavery of heterosexist, homophobic, and transphobic churches is something we know. We are used to be treated like dirt, to being rejected, to living with fear, to living with prejudice and discrimination. Somehow, that seems much easier to us than leaving the corporate spiritual slavery of Egypt. We may wonder, “Should we go back to Egypt? It was easier in Egypt. We knew exactly where we stood and what to expect.” Certainly, the children of Israel often felt that way. An element of the children of Israel wanted to return to slavery, because it was easier knowing and living by unjust rules than it was to face the fear of being free.
God is calling this congregation to continued service. What shape, form, or manner that service takes is up for discussion. There are many new options and avenues of service ahead of this congregation. What direction the church goes remains to be seen.
One thing we know for sure. The God who created a miracle, a miracle of a safe place for queer and questioning people, and their allies to meet is still here. The Ruler of the Universe planned the miracle of this congregation and the good this congregation would do. That same God goes with this church no matter what direction we choose to take.
Biblical writers give us a sense God removed enemies that faced the children of Israel, that God defeated all of Israel’s enemies, so they could have the promised land. Those defeats were seen as miracles to a small nation that had just come out of slavery in Egypt.
The same God waits to perform miracles to help this church. Obstacles that we fear will prevent us from fulfilling the spiritual dreams God planted in our hearts will be removed. The obstacles inside us, as individuals and as a congregation, and outside us, will be removed. Those obstacles will be removed when this congregation steps into the Jordan River.
This story applies to each of us personally too. We can see lessons from this story applied to each of our individual lives.
The respected commentator Matthew Henry notes it was at the bank of the Jordan River God magnified Joshua. On the banks of the same river, God magnified Jesus. When Jesus was baptized, a voice could be heard from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son.”5
Our position is much like that of the children of Israel. Like the children of Israel, we have a no longer slaves in Egypt. Probably all of us have been slaves. The question is really what enslaved us.
•Slavery to sin, both the sins of mistakes we have made, slavery of the sins for things we neglected to do, and guilt. For others of us, what really enslaved us was slavery to the sins of self-doubt, low self-worth, or self-hate.
•Slavery to expectations of church or society. We may have lived lives of slavery, as we hid who we are in closets. The sexist, heterosexist, and racist views of society may have trapped us in certain roles, genders, and ways of expressing our gender and sexuality.
•Slavery to fear. The fear of being real, the fear of rejection by loved ones, peers, colleagues, and church members may have bound us in slavery.
Slavery is not a godly life style. Living in slavery to sin, self-debasement, self-hate, and rejection is not a life style God wants God’s children to have!
We are leaving the wilderness. Spiritually, we may well be in the promised land already, as sons and daughters of the heavenly King. But physically, we are still not quite in the heavenly. We need to do is to cross the Jordan River and live in the promised land.
A small glimpse into the meaning of crossing the Jordan can come from the meaning of the word Jordan. The word Jordan means “descender.”6 In the word descend, we get a sense of something that comes down from the superior or from a higher place. When you step into the stream that comes down from the Superior, from the Higher Place, you are changed. Stepping into that which comes down from God changes you.
Stepping into the Jordan means you have to look ahead. You cannot place your feet in the water when looking in the rearview mirror of life or when you are constantly looking over your shoulder. You cannot move forward through the Jordan, you cannot make a step forward in faith for God, and you cannot step forward and serve the Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter when you are a slave to the past, to the hurts, pain, rejection, fears, racism, classism, homophobia, biphoboia, transphobia, and events of the past. Time to move ahead, to move beyond the past.
As you step into the river that descends from God, you are changed. You are nourished by the one the Bible depicts as the Ruler of the Universe. And just as others who have stepped into the Jordan, you are being honored with a life and a ministry that shows the world God is with you.
Today, I invite you individually and as a church to take off your shoes and socks, to roll up your pant-legs a little, and to wade into the Jordan. You will find the experience a little frightening, exciting, and refreshing. The experience will leave you changed, so changed that God’s leading in your life will be easily seen in the community. And you will find yourself in new lands of opportunity.