Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 1, 2020
Joshua 3:7-17 Commentary
It is not difficult to find the relevance of this first RCL reading for today, particularly in the United States. My country is only two days away from Election Day when Americans cast their ballots and thus express their opinion on who ought to lead our country. For Christians, that means trying to discern which candidates are approved by God. That’s not an easy thing to discern. How do we know? That is the very issue at the heart of this text. How do we know who God’s new leader is? Well, says God to Joshua in verse 7, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so that they may know that I am with you, as I was with Moses.”
But there’s an even wider and deeper relevance here for our troubled world. In subsequent verses, God addresses the entire nation which is on the brink of triumph or tragedy as they look over the Jordan River at the Promised Land. Will we be able to conquer the enemy that looms before us? Will we be able to take the Land God has promised us for hundreds of years? We’ve come this far by God’s grace and power, but will God be with us over there and will God do for us what he did for our parents? How do we know? Well, says God in verse 10, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you [your enemies]….”
How do we know? We walk by faith, but how do we know that our faith is right? That is the question that each of us faces in our individual Christian lives and that all of us face in our corporate life as the body of Christ. How do we know which leader is the God appointed one? How do we know God is with us in the many struggles of life and will give us success as we strike out into the great Unknown?
This question arose as Israel entered a new situation in its history. Egypt and the Exodus were far behind them. All the adults who had witnessed those miraculous events were now dead, having wandered for 40 years in the harsh wilderness of Sinai. That included their great leader, Moses. Now only their children and grandchildren were left, and they had little memory of those history-shaping events. Moses had appointed Joshua to take his place as the main man, but how could Israel know that Joshua was really God’s choice.
With an untested leader, Israel now faced a challenge as difficult as their parents had faced. It wasn’t Pharaoh thundering behind them and the Red Sea churning before them. It was the Jordan River at flood stage roaring before them and the 7 nations of the Promised Land looming unseen in the distance over the Jordan. Those natives of the Land had scared the Israelites out of their faith 38 years ago because they seemed so fierce and invincible. As with every new generation, these young Israelites needed to know if they were following the right man and if God was really with them in his grace and power. In verse 4, God says to them, “you have never been this way before.” The same is true of us, so how do we know?
For Israel, it would take the Ark of the Covenant carried by priests who dared to step into the raging River, so that a new miracle would convince a new generation to continue the faith of their fathers and mothers as they faced a brave new world. Each of the elements of that last sentence is important, so let’s parse it together.
It was all centered on the Ark of the Covenant, the gold covered box in which was past evidence of God’s presence and power—the budded rod of Aaron, a pot of manna from the wilderness, and the tablets of stone on which were written the will of God. The Ark was the visible symbol of the presence of God; indeed, the Shekinah cloud hung over that Ark when it was ensconced in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. It was as close as the non-idol worshiping Israelites ever got to seeing their God. When Moses had interceded with a furious God after the covenant breaking sin of the Golden Calf, God has relented from his threat to destroy them and promised, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest (Exodus 33:14).” The ark was the symbol of that Presence.
But these young folks needed more than a symbol and a memory. They needed a new miracle, a modern-day equivalent of the Red Sea crossing. The Jordan River presented just such an opportunity. Those of us who have seen the Jordan in its modern form cannot imagine that it would be much of an obstacle; it was a trickle when I saw it a number of years ago, a greasy, grey-green dribble of a stream that anyone could wade across. But that is the Jordan at its lowest flow in an era when much of its water is siphoned off to irrigate neighboring farms. The Jordan in our text was at flood stage after the rains had fallen and as the snows of Mt. Hermon were in full melt. Most scholars think it was at least half a mile, maybe three quarters of a mile wide and racing downhill as it falls over a mile from its headwaters on Mt. Hermon to the Dead Sea. It would have swept away every man, woman, child and sheep.
So, it took real courage to step into that River, especially carrying hundreds of pounds of gold. Indeed, it was an act of faith. So, of course, God chose the men of faith and courage who always carried the Ark; there was a whole cadre of them. But now they are given new orders. “When you read the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.” And God adds a promise; “its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.” To quote Noah as performed by Bill Cosby, “Right! What’s a heap of water?”
We have seen heaps of water in lakes and oceans; we call them waves. But they don’t stand up for a day; they collapse and come crashing down in a moment. God says that if the priests will walk by faith and step into the raging current and then stand there in the middle of the River, it will stand up in an immense heap, a literal mountain of water in the town of Adam 20 miles upstream. And it would stay heaped up for a whole day as the entire nation of Israel passed through the riverbed on dry ground. The hydrology of that boggles the mind.
By faith the priests carried the visible sign of God’s Presence into the flood and by God’s grace and power, the water did exactly what God said it would do. Israel obediently and humbly walked into the Promised Land. How do we know Joshua is God’s chosen leader? How do we know that God is with us to give us victory over an overwhelming foe? Look at the mountain of water. Look at the dry river. Look at the people passing by into the land.
Miracles like that don’t happen all the time, just when God’s people need them the most, at turning points in the history of redemption. So it was that when God came to the greatest moment in that history, the Promised Land was flooded with miracles. How do we know that Jesus was God’s chosen Leader, the Christ? How do we know that God was present in him and would act for us in him? Well, God had Jesus perform one miracle after another precisely to answer those questions.
At the conclusion of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus performs miraculous signs to prove that he was who he said he was (the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Resurrection and the Life, etc.), John writes, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).”
I recently heard someone repeat a mantra that has figured prominently in my church tradition. “It will only take one generation for Christianity to be wiped from the face of the earth.” The idea behind that bromide is simple. If we don’t teach our children these stories and what they mean, the next generation will not know Jesus and his love. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, since Jesus has sent missionaries to the ends of the earth where parents never knew Jesus.
But apparently God agrees that we absolutely must teach our children. And not just with words. That’s why God had Joshua appoint those twelve men in verse 12. They don’t appear again in Joshua 3, but as soon as the whole nation of Israel has passed through on dry ground, there they are. God commands them to take twelve stones from the middle of the river and pile them up on the far bank as a memorial. And, goes the story, “In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them how the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the Lord….”
We need to keep telling the stories of God’s miraculous intervention in the history of his people. Memorials made of stone, and bread and wine, and simple water will point them to the stories. And to the One who is the Presence of God. It isn’t accidental that Matthew’s Gospel begins and ends with the assurance that Jesus is that Presence. Matthew 1:23 says, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means ‘God with us.’” Matthew 28:20 concludes, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
That’s the assurance we need in this time of difficult transition when all are asking, “How do we know?”
The United States is in a very precarious place as we enter these elections, and that should concern every citizen and every country. President Trump has spent so much time talking about election irregularities and fraud that many people don’t know whether they can trust the results of the election. What evidence will it take to convince the public that we really have elected Trump or Biden to the Presidency? How will we know which is God’s choice? This is not a little question. And it should make Christians relieved to know who the Real Leader of the World is. “Jesus is Lord.” Thank God.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!