Joshua 3:7-17, “Among You is the Living God”
30 October 2011
Ninth Street Church of the Brethren
7The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. 8You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” 9Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” 10Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: 11the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. 12So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”
14When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
Can you imagine this scene? It’s a pretty incredible picture, like a lot of the scenes from the first few books of the Old Testament. The Israelites are just about to cross the Jordan after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. They’re THISCLOSE to the promised land of milk and honey, their final destination, their homeland and the fulfillment of God’s promise to their ancestors. They’re THISCLOSE to everything they’ve ever dreamed about, but first they have to cross this roiling, surging, dangerous Jordan River. They’ve come all this way – all the way from generations of slavery in Egypt – only to get this close to salvation and be stymied by the Jordan overflowing its banks. Dang it.
Luckily, they’ve got some super powered deity action on their side. God Himself has just appointed Joshua as his agent and leader of his people, and he’s about to do yet another of his timely miracles – about to once again stop rushing water in its tracks. Good thing the Israelites had God on their side. Good thing they had a new leader as faithful and fearless as Joshua in their midst.
Joshua has quite the list of expectations ahead of him: not only does he have to lead his whining, wandering people into their rightful land, he’s also expected to preserve God’s law (you know, that one from Mt. Sinai, the one on the big stone tablets), keep all the rowdy Israelites in line, fairly divide up the promised land between the twelve tribes, devise ways for the people to remember and retell all these important stories so their children don’t ever forget them, and, oh yeah, orchestrate a war to defeat a long checklist of peoples: the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, aaaaaand the Jebusites.
Parting the Jordan River – making rushing water stand still and pile up on itself - is really just the beginning for Joshua, this new young leader.
This is the beginning of Joshua’s story, but to really understand the story of Joshua, first we have to understand the story of Moses. In the biblical narrative, Joshua takes over right where Moses leaves off, but not without some doubt, some fanfare, and some divine reassurance.
So, here’s the story up to this point, in VERY abbreviated form. The Israelites have been saved from the tyranny of Egypt. Moses, the baby protected by Pharoah’s daughter, grew up and saw God in a burning bush. He obeyed the bush’s instructions, announced the ten nasty plagues upon the Egyptians and watched them all play out. He outran the Pharoah’s army by parting the Red Sea with his staff, and finally got to lead his people – God’s people - out from under the yoke of slavery. He went up on the mountain to hear God’s voice and receive God’s commandments, he called down manna from heaven to feed the people, he convinced God to be patient with the whining and griping of a displaced group of refugees, he wandered with his people for forty years in the wilderness, assuring them that salvation was right around the corner, pleading with them to hang on and be faithful, to believe God’s promises, to practice patience and keep observing the law. He walked with his people right up to the Jordan River, the gate of freedom and homeland and promises fulfilled.
And then, Moses died.
Of course, there’s good reason for Moses to die at this particular point in the story. First of all, it makes for great drama. Plus, he was 120 years old – the story goes that he died on his 120th birthday, exactly. A leader can only lead for so long – I hear that after a hundred or so years, you get tired, you want to rest, to retire, to play some golf and hang out with your family. That’s what my grandparents tell me, anyway.
It was time for some fresh blood, some new leadership. And God had just the guy for it: Joshua. But seriously, no kidding, how do you follow the act that was Moses? This guy, when he died on Mt. Nebo, had to be buried in a super secret place so that the Israelites wouldn’t go building shrines and holding séances and start worshipping him instead of God – they loved him that much. How in the WORLD is Joshua supposed to live up to that kind of predecessor?
Well, luckily, God had already chosen him as his next go-to guy, so Joshua had that going for him. Moses had even laid his hands on Joshua’s head – anointed him – to show everyone that this guy was it, the one with the trust of both Moses and God.
But…we know how elections work. In order to endorse someone, you can’t whisper it into the dark. An endorsement needs a ritual, an editorial or a good ad spot, a visible sign of power being passed from one leader to another. Moses laid his hands on Joshua, passing on the power and responsibility. Interestingly, this is still how rabbis are ordained in the orthodox Jewish tradition – an older rabbi lays his hands on the younger rabbi’s head, and because they’ve been doing it this way for so long, they can say that the train of leaders laying on hands can be traced all the way back to Moses, laying his hands on Joshua. Imagine being in that kind of company when you started your first job…
So Moses anointed him, but God had even more reassurance in store for Joshua. This is what he says to him:
“This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. 8You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’”
“I chose YOU,” God says. “And here’s how I’ll show you: I’ll part the waters of the Jordan here just like I parted the waters of the Red Sea with Moses. You’re capable, you’re a leader, and, moreover, I’m still here!”
This notion about God being present isn’t just mouth service. The way that God chose to make it clear to Joshua and to the Israelites that he was still with them even though Moses had died has to do with that “ark of the covenant” thing. The ark is the chest that God commanded Moses to build to carry the Ten Commandments. It was plated in gold, and the priests carried it with the Israelites the whole time they were wandering together in the wilderness. The ark was the visible reminder of God’s presence with his people – the law was kept inside it, and the story went that Moses communicated directly with God via the angels inscribed on the cover.
The ark of the covenant was God-with-the-Israelites. So, when God commands Joshua to send the priests who are carrying it out into the middle of the Jordan River, to send them in front of the people in order that the people might follow it into unknown territory, what He’s really doing is affirming – AGAIN – that he is with his people. Just as he was with Moses on Mt. Sinai, he’ll be with Joshua and the Israelites here at the Jordan. The ark is the sign of God’s presence, the reassurance that the Israelites are not alone, the reminder that all of this wandering and journeying is for an end, and in obedience to God’s leadings.
So, here we are. Moses, the long-time and well-loved leader is dead, and there’s a new guy taking his place. The Israelites are right up against the banks of the rushing Jordan River, right up against that new thing, that promised thing, that thing they’ve been hoping would happen…forever. Something is about to happen – everyone can feel it. The air must be electric with anticipation. What’s coming next? What will we do now that Moses is gone and this new guy’s in charge? How will we keep being the people we’re supposed to be?
God’s got a plan, and to make it clear that it really is God’s plan, he sends the ark of the covenant ahead of all the people. The priests do what Joshua tells them, and carry the ark right out into the river. As soon as their feet hit the edge of the water, “the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap.” As soon as the presence of God hit the troubled waters, they stood still, and the entire nation crossed the roiling river on dry ground, onto the West Bank of the River, into the land of Canaan. They’d made it.
Now, of course, the story goes on for another 20 or so chapters: there are other people living in this promised land, and they have to be defeated before the Israelites can claim it for certain. That’s a whole other story of violence and argument that still rages today, right there on the same bank of the same river. It’s messy – just look at the news on any given day.
But here, in this part of the story, the message is clear: God promised to lead the Israelites not only OUT of slavery in Egypt, but also INTO a land they could call their own. Forty years ago, God had saved them FROM something. On this day, God made good on his promise to save the Israelites FOR something else. Brought not just OUT OF, but also INTO. Saved not just FROM, but FOR.
And the Israelites wanted to make sure that they remembered all this – the waters piling up, the God who led them out of slavery and into their homeland, the powerful leadership of Moses being transferred to the new leader Joshua. They wanted to remember the story of God going before them, leading them into new life, and to make sure that their children remembered it, too. So they left a marker in the middle of the Jordan River – a stack of stones that the story tells us is still there, marking that spot where the river became dry ground. A stack of stones that stands under water, reminding the Israelites and reminding us of God’s great fidelity and presence and power.
So here are my questions for you, Ninth Street Church of the Brethren, in Roanoke, Virginia, October 2011: What have you been saved from? And what is it that you’re being saved for? Have you built up stacks of stones to remember those moments that God led you out from slavery and oppression? Have you built up stacks of stones to mark the occasions when God led you across troubled waters into promised lands of milk and honey? What are those moments that you need to remember, those moments that you need to tell your children about?
I don’t know what those moments have been for you all as a congregation. I don’t know what occasions are about to come, what seas you’ve crossed together or what rivers whose banks you’re standing beside waiting for God to take you further. I don’t know who has been Moses for you, or Abraham, or Sarah, or Rahab, or Joshua. Only you all know those. But here are some things that I do know, and that this story in Joshua reminds me of:
God is always, always with us. In times of slavery, in times of comfort, in times of wilderness wandering and in times of promises fulfilled, in times of death, in times of rejoicing, and most especially in times of transition. God promised the Israelites that he’d deliver them from slavery, and he did. He promised them a home and a place and a land flowing with milk and honey…and he brought them there. There’s a great line in this chapter. When God directs Joshua to have the priests carry the ark of the covenant ahead of the people in verse 4, he explains that this is so that “You will know the way you should go, even though you’ve never traveled this way before.” You’ll know the way, because I’m going before you. We’ll know what to do, because we’re following God into the future. God is always going ahead of us, so we’ll know the way even when we haven’t gone this way before.
The question is not “is God here?” The question is, “how do we remember that God is with us?” God – the LIVING God – is with us: standing in the middle of the river and piling the rushing waters up in a heap so that we can get through. God – the LIVING God – is with us: guiding our leaders who guide us through wilderness and hunger and uncertainty and into new places, new life, new purpose. God – the LIVING God – is with us: then, now and always. The least we can do is stack a few rocks on top of each other to remind ourselves – and those coming along behind us - to acknowledge His presence.