Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 5, 2017

Joshua 3:7-17 Commentary

Joshua 3 always feels, at best, somewhat anti-climactic.  After all, you might argue the Bible’s first five chapters have all been pointing toward the Jordan crossing it describes.  Patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have given their lives to God’s promise to make this happen.  The people of Israel have been heading (but sometimes meandering) toward it for at least forty years.  Its Israelite witnesses have even been standing on Jordan’s banks for three days.

Yet Joshua 3 dispatches this monumental crossing of the Jordan River and entering of Canaan in about four verses.  In fact, even those four verses spend more time talking about the river than about Israel’s crossing of it.  They don’t tell us if, for example, the priests’ knees knock and hands shake as they “go and stand in the river” (7).  Are some Israelites reluctant to take steps of faith across what had been a raging river just moments earlier?  Do some of them sing and dance their way across the Jordan and toward what their ancestors have been looking for centuries?  Do some Israelites drop to their knees in worship and wonder at what God has privileged them to share?

God has been preparing the Israelites and Joshua 3’s readers for this crossing for a long time.  Among the more intriguing elements of that preparation is God’s preparation of Joshua to lead Israel into Canaan.  Israel’s new leader has, after all, enormous shoes to fill.  He has succeeded Moses about whom it was said “no one has ever shown the might power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deut. 34:12).

Of course, Moses himself publicly commissioned Joshua to lead the Israelites across the Jordan and into the land of promise (Deut. 31:7-8).  Yet verse 7 of our text suggests God still feels the need to somehow “begin to exalt [Joshua] in the eyes of Israel, so that they may know I am with you as I was with Moses.”  So God doesn’t seem to part the Jordan’s waters just make a way for Israel to enter Canaan.  God does so to show that God is with Israel’s new leader by doing for Joshua what God did for Moses when God used him to part the Red Sea’s waters during Israel’s desperate flight from Egyptian slavery.

Yet as Scott Hoezee notes in a fine sermon commentary on Joshua 3, Joshua refuses to let the spotlight fall on him.  He makes it abundantly clear that it’s God, not he who will lead Israel into Canaan.  “This is how you will know the living God (italics added) is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites …” (9).

Perhaps that’s why the biblical scholar Carolyn Sharp suggests that Joshua 3 is more than just an account of God’s ratification of Joshua’s promotion.  After all, had God not accompanied Israel during her wilderness journey, she would surely have died outside the land of promise.  In fact, when she ran out of water in the wilderness, Israel even wondered if God were with her (Exodus 17:7).  So it’s hard to imagine Israel having any confidence about seizing the land of promise if she questions whether God is with her.  God’s affirmation of Moses’ successor Joshua seems to affirm God’s presence with those Joshua leads.

A second prominent feature of Joshua 3 is the ark of the covenant.  That ark is what Tremper Longman III (The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: Eerdmans) eloquently calls “the mobile symbol of God’s presence.”  Israel had built it during her wilderness wanderings to contain God’s Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies.  By carrying it with them across the Jordan and into Canaan, Israel’s priests show that the God who has accompanied them through the wilderness does not abandon them as they enter Canaan.  In fact, it’s God, not the priests who carry the Ark who leads the Israelites into the land of promise.

The Israelites who prepare to follow God across the river and into Canaan are in some ways surrounded by danger.  After all, behind them lies the barren wilderness that their parents, grandparents and ancestors’ sun-bleached bones litter.  In front of the Israelites lies a whole country of fierce warriors that are the Canaanites.  And beyond them lie the “Hittites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites” (11) who will prove not to be eager to share their homelands with a bunch of ragtag ex-slaves.

Yet Israel’s most immediate obstacle stands directly in front of her.  It’s the Jordan River on whose banks she stands as Joshua 3 opens.  Just forty years earlier the onrushing Egyptian army had pinned her up against another dangerous body of water.  God, however, divided the Red Sea’s waters so that God’s Israelite people could escape the Pharaoh and his army and begin their journey toward the land of promise.

No army seems to be hotly pursuing our text’s Israelites.  But the Jordan River is at what verse 15 calls “flood stage.”  On top of that, while God had divided the Red Sea before even one Israelite dipped one toe into it, God doesn’t divide the Jordan’s swollen, swirling waters until after Israel’s priests step into them.  So it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder if not just Israel’s priests but also all the Israelites wonder if God is trying to drown them on the doorstep of the land of promise.

Yet God somehow convinces the priests that God is accompanying them all the way, even on their last few steps into Canaan.  So they perhaps tentatively stride forward in faith.  Israel’s priests carry the ark of the covenant into the Jordan’s raging floodwaters.

There God’s Israelite people learn that the God who has accompanied them out of Egyptian slavery and through the wilderness in fact also goes with them across the Jordan.  After all, “as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing” (15-16).

So Israel’s priests can walk to and even stop right in the middle of the Jordan.  After all, God is there to dry up the river.  Israel’s religious leaders can stand there and not sprint for their lives across the river while Israel files past them.  God, after all, is there, right in the heart of the Jordan River.  God also stays right with the priests until every Israelite has passed by them and into the land of promise.

Those who somehow proclaim Joshua 3 might choose to let the Spirit carry them in a variety of directions.  Among those options, we might help those who hear them think about transitions and new beginnings.  For Israel, after all, the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday marks a kind of ultimate new beginning as she moves to receive God’s gift of the land of promise.

Those whom we teach and to whom we preach know about standing on the edges of new beginnings.  Some are preparing to graduate from school, start a new job or even retire.  Others are contemplating getting married, having children or making new friends.  Others are facing surgery or some other kind of financial crisis.

It’s never easy to make a new beginning.  It usually entails, after all, ending something we’ve known.  New beginnings generally involve trading something familiar for what’s unfamiliar.  New beginnings also almost always require some kind of step, if not leap of faith.

Sometimes it seems quite clear that God goes before and with God’s adopted sons and daughters into those new beginnings.  It feels as if God has laid out a well-marked path to a new home, job or relationship.  At other times, however, the trail seems less well defined.  It may even pass through some kind of danger, tempting its travellers to turn around and head back toward more familiar terrain.

It’s among Joshua 3’s teachers and preachers’ main tasks to help God’s people see that the God who goes with the Israelites into Canaan also accompanies God’s adopted sons and daughters into all of their own new beginnings.  The way ahead seems unclear for some who hear us.  But we proclaim that the God who has refused to abandoned God’s people in the past stays with God’s people in the future.

It might also be worth exploring how the Church can encourage God’s people in that way forward.  The Israelites had the symbol of God’s presence with them that was the ark of the covenant that their priests carried in front of them into the waters of the Jordan.  Are there symbols the Church might carry “before” God’s people as they make their new beginnings?

Certainly preaching that’s shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one such symbol.  After all, those defining events remind us that God is with us until the very end of the age.  But might the sacraments also serve as events that, in one sense, go before us into the future?  They, after all, tangibly remind us, much like the ark of the covenant reminded the Israelites on the Jordan’s banks, that God goes with and before us in our transitions, as well as all of our new beginnings.

Illustration Idea

Whenever I read the accounts of Israel’s various river crossings, I think of the road signs that dot the United States’ southwest that read something like, “Turn Around Don’t Drown.”  Those signs reflect the fact that according to the US National Weather Service (NWS), each year more deaths occur due to flooding than to any other thunderstorm related hazard.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that over half of all flood-related drownings occur when a vehicle is driven into hazardous floodwater.  The NWS says just 6 inches of fast-moving floodwater can knock over an adult.  It takes only 12 inches of rushing water to carry away a small car, and only about 24 inches of rushing water to carry away most vehicles.


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