Joshua 3: 7-17
7 The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to make you great in the opinion of all Israel. Then they will know that I will be with you in the same way that I was with Moses. 8 “You are to command the priests who carry the covenant chest, ‘As soon as you come to the bank of the Jordan, stand still in the Jordan.’”9 Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come close. Listen to the words of the Lord your God.”
10 Then Joshua said, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and will completely remove the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites before you. 11 Look! The covenant chest of the ruler of the entire earth is going to cross over in front of you in the Jordan. 12 Now pick twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one per tribe. 13 The soles of the priests’ feet, who are carrying the chest of the Lord, ruler of the whole earth, will come to rest in the water of the Jordan.
At that moment, the water of the Jordan will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand still in a single heap.” 14 The people marched out from their tents to cross over the Jordan. The priests carrying the covenant chest were in front of the people. 15 When the priests who were carrying the chest came to the Jordan, their feet touched the edge of the water. The Jordan had overflowed its banks completely, the way it does during the entire harvest season. 16 But at that moment the water of the Jordan coming downstream stood still.
It rose up as a single heap very far off, just below Adam, which is the city next to Zarethan. The water going down to the desert sea (that is, the Dead Sea) was cut off completely. The people crossed opposite Jericho. 17 So the priests carrying the Lord’s covenant chest stood firmly on dry land in the middle of the Jordan. Meanwhile, all Israel crossed over on dry land, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
Now that I have been back from South Africa for a few weeks, I have been taking the time to reflect on my travels from the past few years. While South Africa was particularly centered around the themes of pain and hope, I’ve come to realize that my trip to Auschwitz was also a journey of pain and hope, as well as my trip to the border of the US and Mexico. And as I think even deeper than that, I realize that many many things in our world history and our personal lives are journeys of pain and hope. Last week we dared to imagine ourselves with Moses on top of Mt. Nebo as he overlooked the promised land that he would not get to enter. We imagined the pain he must have felt, and the hope he might have had in those who would come after him. I challenged us to think seriously about what the future of this congregation will look like. I challenged us to really discern what the future will be and what we will do about it.
So today, on All Saints day, we have a chance to celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us. We honor those who have paved the way for us to up to this point, while we continue to discern what the future will be. Last week, we looked out over the promised land with Moses, and this week in the study of the biblical text, we journey with Joshua and the Israelites to the edge of the overflowing Jordan river where we will face one big question, and that is, “How in the world are we going to get across?” Will we choose pain? Or hope?
The journey through the wilderness has been a journey of pain and hope for the Israelites. And now they have lost their leader, Moses, and are placing their faith in the hands of Joshua who will lead them the rest of the way. Today, they stand at the water’s edge at the banks of the Jordan River, wondering what to do. Like their ancestor’s stood at the edge of the Red Sea, they wondered how in the world they would ever get across. They recalled Moses who lifted his hands to part the waters, only to remember that he was no longer with them. But they were not alone. God was with them and had just promised to Joshua, “Today I will begin to make you great in the opinion of all Israel. Then they will know that I will be with you in the same way I was with Moses.” It was time for God to do something new in the sight of Israel. The Moses generation was coming to an end, and the Joshua generation was beginning. The journey into the promised land would continue, but with new hurdles and obstacles to overcome.
Like the Israelites, we too stand at the edge of the banks of the swollen river and ask, “How are we to get across?” We know where we have come from. We can look behind us and celebrate our history and how God has brought us this far. Today we acknowledge our loved ones who have gone before us who have helped us get here. But the question remains, “How will we get across? What is on the other side? What does the future hold?”
The good news is that we can learn a lot from our saints and loved ones who have gone before us, because humans have been standing at the edge of the water for thousands of years, wondering what to do. When I was in elementary school, one of the best games to play on the computer was Oregon Trail. Anyone remember this game? The goal was to move you and your family across the country from Independence, Missouri to Oregon on the trail in a covered wagon in 1848. The game was designed to teach children about the pioneer days and the dangers people faced as they journeyed across the country. Along the way, your family was subject to a variety of diseases, snakebites, drowning, and exhaustion. I can’t even count how many people I lost to dysentery! But the most stressful thing about the game was coming upon a river crossing. Even now I can feel the anxiety I felt back then! Luckily (or not), the game gave you some options…
and asked you to choose which way you would go. But there were always consequences!
I imagine the Israelites feeling the same way, weighing their options, deciding what they may need to give up in order to cross, wondering how they would care for their sick and elderly, etc, all the while fearing that the water would consume them.
If you remember three years ago, a massive tsunami crashed into northeastern Japan causing massive destruction, damage, and death. Because of this, the government is now building the biggest anti-tsunami barrier in history. Many have started mocking this by calling it the “Great Wall of Japan.” When the wall is finished, it will be 17 feet high, stretch for 230 miles and cost almost $8 billion (Homiletics). People have mixed emotions about the wall. On one hand, it is a comfort to know that destruction on a massive scale as before is less likely. On the other hand, the wall feels like a prison to a lot of people. Another example of people standing at the water’s edge, wondering what to do.
But notice what Joshua tells the Israelites to do. He doesn’t tell them to build a 17 foot sea wall (the Great Wall of Jordan?) that may turn the promised land into a prison. He doesn’t tell them to wait until conditions are better or instruct them to start finding materials to build a raft or a boat or tell them to start caulking their wagons to see if they will float. No, he tells them instead to, “Come close. Listen to the words of the Lord your God.” Begin by listening- by opening our ears and our hearts.
Good advice for the Israelites as they stand at the edge of the water, and good advice for us as we wonder how we will navigate our own future. We are to be still and listen for the words of God. Joshua instructs the people to fall into formation behind God, and not to march ahead of God, whose presence is represented by the Ark of the Covenant. So we are to do the same today- to listen for God and follow where the living God is leading us, even though we may be hesitant or uncertain about where that may be. In our case, we need to be listening for how God will lead us into a time of discernment and growth, and the questions we need to ask are: “How will I be a part of making sure this church has a future?” “What is God instructing us to do as a church?” We begin by drawing close to God and listening with our hearts.
After listening, we are to move forward one small step at a time. We are to watch and wait for what God will do, both through us and in us. In this case, God’s help does not come in the form of 17 feet high sea walls or ferry’s that float, but rather in small acts of healing, protection, peace, and using the simple every day things that surround us. With the Israelites, it was water. There was something in the water that day, they might say. That something was God moving them forward. For us, it may not be the parting of the waters, but we might look to the waters of our baptism as a good place to start. We go back to the cleansing moment where God names us and calls us his own. We realize that God uses each one of us, regardless of our age or gender or status in life to join the journey across the river and to invest in the future. We do this knowing that it is a journey and a process- one small step at a time. In what way are we being asked to step into the water to see what God will do? Is it inviting more people into the life of this congregation? Is it opening our doors even wider to the community in new and exciting ways? Is it starting something new or changing the way we think about some of our older traditions? Is it changing our focus from inward to outward as a church? In what way are we being asked to step into the water and see what God will do? As we stand at the water’s edge, what choices will we make?
And as we begin to cross the river that is now parted as God goes before us, we are reminded to keep our eyes on the future while honoring the people and traditions of the past that have brought us to where we are today. But we can’t keep staring into the past or dwelling upon it so much that we lose sight of where we are going. If the Israelites had remained focused only on the past as they crossed over the river, they would have seen the flood waters crashing around behind them that would lead them all to drown without ever reaching the promised land. That is not what we want for the church, is it?
But to move forward, we must know where we have been. Our congregation stands upon the shoulders of those who have come before us- those who have made this church a place of rich history, community, and vitality. So we must not let the waters of the future close in on us. Instead, we must find a way through them in order to honor those who stand on the other side who will not make the journey with us. Once the Israelites cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land, Joshua instructs them to collect large stones from the river bank- one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel, and place them on top of one another as a memorial tribute to what God had done for them there. Joshua says, “This will be a symbol among you. In the future your children may ask, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you will tell them that the water of the Jordan was cut off before the Lord’s covenant chest…these stones will be an enduring memorial for the Israelites.” Twelve stones remained at the Israelite camp, but Joshua also set up 12 stones in the middle of the Jordan where the priests had stood. The text says they still stand today- a reminder of a time when God made a way forward, when there seemed to be no way- a reminder of those who made that journey and led the way into the promised land. Can you think of those in your life or the life of this church that have led us this far? How will we honor them?
And as the future unfolds, who goes with us? Who is among us? Or more correctly, who do we know is among us? As we honor those of the past today, we also look ahead and focus on the future. We stand at the edge of the waters, wondering what to do. We stand in the midst of our life’s journeys of pain and hope and ponder what is ahead and the choices we will make. But we find hope in knowing that when we face raging waters, God throws up a wall. But God does this by changing the water itself. God changes the circumstances that once seemed to hinder our progress. God reconfigures the obstacles so that we are now able to proceed and move forward. The water is still there, but God works in it and through it, changing it from a barrier to a gateway- a door that allows us to pass into the future that God desires for us (Homiletics). There is indeed something in the water. There is pain, hope, obstacle, hardship, cleansing, renewal, and yet a way forward. There are stones as memorials to the past and there are new waves signaling a bright future ahead. But we must be willing to step in the water and see what God will do. We listen, we take small steps forward, and we focus on the future. Will you join me at the water’s edge as we wonder what we will do? We will figure it out together, with the help of God. Amen.