Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 5, 2023
Joshua 3:7-17 Commentary
Preamble: Although this text comes to us through the ordinary 3 year lectionary cycle, it also lands with particularly distressing and uncomfortable timing. As war rages over the lands once given to Joshua and the Israelites, I urge pastors to tred lightly, as I have attempted to do here. First, we acknowledge that the modern nation-state of Israel is not synonymous with the People of God in Hebrew Scripture. Second, God — as revealed throughout Scripture — is God on the side of the landless, the dispossessed and oppressed. Today, on these ancient lands, no one people group has exclusive claim to those attributes. Third, may the Holy Spirit grant us wisdom as we love both the ancient texts and the present-day people who hear them.
Comments, Observations and Questions:
A Multiplicity of Meanings:
Many commentators on this text observe a disjointed literary quality, a messy convergence of multiple perspectives and narratives. For example, this text highlights the the rising leadership of Joshua as well as the unity of God’s people and their willingness to obey God’s command. In this narrative, we observe the sacred power of the priests and, especially, the Ark of the Covenant as it hits the water and, finally, God’s miraculous intervention, stopping the flow of the Jordan, with all its resonances to the Red Sea. The narrator appears to have little interest in wrapping each of these strands into a tidy bow. In fact, according to one commentator, “the various features of the narrative — the awkward style, the disjointed chronology, the narrator’s interruptions, and the multiple viewpoints — work together to produce a sense of disorientation in space, time and perspective.”
What would it be like to preach the text in a way that elevates what the narrator intends? To highlight the movement from wandering to belonging and, especially as “crossing the Jordan” is an oft-used metaphor for death within the Christian community, preaching into the disorientation of grief, of longing for home, of not being quite sure of our footing in the in between of life.
If this text sounds familiar, that is because it’s supposed to. Moses led God’s people through the Red Sea, from slavery into freedom. Now Joshua will lead God’s people across the Jordan River. In both stories, we hear that the waters stands “in a heap”. In fact, on commentary suggests that “Two things will ‘stand’ when the feet of the priests touch the river: the priests and the waters of the Jordan. The wordplay underscores the liminal (in-between) status of the priests in the narrative.”
While the priests and the water stand, God’s people move – the oft-repeated verb of the text is “cross over.” What they are crossing is, of course, powerfully and miraculously, the water of the Jordan now and the Red Sea before but, more significant, is their ritual cleansing and moving through from enslavement to freedom and from migrant to citizenship, from itinerancy to belonging. “The connection to the passage through the Red Sea appropriates a powerful symbol which marks this crossing as a formative event which transforms the nation from unformed people to integrated nation.” This transformation includes the land but prioritizes the identity of the people as those belonging to God who brought them up out of slavery and into a place of belonging.
Not only does this story reverberate with the echoes of Moses’ leadership, it creates the sounds that will echo into another, later story. Joshua is the Hebrew name, later recast in the Aramaic as Jesus so it will be no surprise to readers who maintain a deep knowledge of the Hebrew tradition that Jesus goes down to the Jordan River to be baptized. In this action, Jesus repeats Joshua’s leadership and “as though Jesus was repeating that great episode in the story of this namesake, itself recapitulating Israel’s escape from slavery across the parted waters of the sea on dry land.” The import of Jesus reappropriating the tradition is found in the way he develops it because his salvation is not limited to the Hebrew people. Through baptism — his own and, subsequently, that of his followers — the Gentile is included into the story of all God’s people. Jesus invites them to belong to the history and rich liturgical remembrance of this moment.
The Role of Common Memory
One commentary places these words as subtitle in this section of their exposition on Joshua: “The Role of Common Memory,” going on to claim: “The purpose of the ceremony was to re-create the parting of the Red Sea in a cultic drama at the Jordan.” In fact, another commentator argues that the crossings are “repeated, recalled, and recast as the nucleus of what it means to become the redeemed people of God.” We see this story replayed through Elisha’s walk through the Jordan and into his anointing as heir to Elijah’s prophetic ministry in II Kings 2. We also hear reference to Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan in the book of the prophet Micah, chapter 6 as a lead up to these famous words: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
We’ve already mentioned above the way that this story lays a foundation for Jesus’ own baptism. All of these multiple streams converge upon the Jordan River in a way that reminds me of the multiply sourced meanings of the sacraments for Christians today. In different liturgical seasons, in response to different public events and congregational needs, one purpose or meaning for the sacrament of baptism may stand out. However, all the meanings of the sacrament remain, a deep reservoir of meaning making for God’s children over time.
Worship and Illustration Idea
A brief search on hymnary.org brought up over 1,000 hymn texts including the word “Jordan.” The image of “Crossing Jordan” has great resonances in the Christian tradition, particularly in African-American gospels and spirituals traditions, as a metaphor for death and heavenly hope. We might well wonder what themes of Joshua 3 resonate, specifically for the experiences of African-American hymn-writers in the American context? How do these themes of belonging, coming home, relocation resonate for migrants, the homeless and landless people then as well as today? Additionally, since this is the Sunday when many will commemorate All Saints Day, this link in the text may lead naturally into a response time of remembering those who have “Crossed Jordan” in the past year.
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