In Joshua 3, we find the Israelites on the banks of a flooded river. Now we need to understand that the Israelites were not a seafaring people. One could put it more strongly than that. The Israelites were terrified of the sea; it was a symbol of evil. The sea contained all the worst of the monsters that threatened God’s people. Often it’s the sea or a river they thought of as getting between them and God.
In the creation story of Genesis 1, the cosmos is drawn out of watery chaos (Gen 1:1-2). Then God separated the water that was on the earth from the water that was in the sky; then he separated the waters on the earth so that dry land would appear. And when God brought his people out of Egypt, God separated the waters of the Red Sea and made it possible for his people to escape.
Since Egypt the Israelites had been wandering around the desert for 40 years, sometimes listening to God (usually when they were in trouble of some sort) but mostly ignoring him, and getting into trouble. Now at last they find themselves on the edge of the Promised Land with only the River Jordan in the way. Behind them in the desert lay the graves of their parents and grandparents; and behind the desert, lay some 400 years of slavery in Egypt. In front of them was the Promised Land. God’s people finally home where they began, in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It’s time to cross the Jordan River. Just one tiny problem. The Jordan which is usually little more than a stream, at this time of the year is a raging flood. And these folk have been living in the desert all their lives. Their parents and grandparents who might have learned to swim in the Nile are all gone, and that’s one skill they would not have had the opportunity to pass on. Now, to enter the Promised Land, there’s a flooded river to cross.
What did they do? They plunged in; as one commentator put it, “priests first”. Those early priests knew their place; right in the front, at the very place where God was touching his people. They didn’t speak; they simply took the covenant box, the symbol of God’s presence, and in God’s name stood between their people and death. And as they put their bodies on the line, God opened the waters of the Jordan River as he had opened the waters of the Red Sea forty years before. And the people of God entered the kingdom.
Fast-forward a couple of thousand years and we find very different priests—descendants of those same priests of Joshua’s day. But Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 23, “Don’t expect your priests and teaches of the law to stand in your place, to lead by example. Yes, listen to their words,” Jesus says, “because that’s what they do best. But don’t follow their example; they don’t know how to live as the people of God, let alone as his priests.”
They were in it for the prestige, the power, the way of life, perhaps. Compare them with Paul. In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul tells the church that his only reason for sharing the good news with them was his love for them. , “Because of our love for you we were ready to share with you not only the Good News from God but even our own lives. You were so dear to us.” (2:8)
Revelation 1:9 tells us that we have been made “a kingdom of priests to serve (our) God and Father.” And 1 Peter 2:9 “…you are the chosen race, the King’s priests, the holy nation, God’s own people, chosen to proclaim the wonderful acts of God.” Since Jesus, all of God’s people are his priests. Today, 2000 years on, we too, all of us, are priests of God.
The obvious question is, do we, like the priests of Jesus’ day, preach one thing and live another? Do we sing and pray in holy harmony on Sundays and ignore each other during the week. Do we rejoice in our forgiveness on Sundays and spend the rest of the week criticising and judging everyone around us? Do we live by one set of values when we are in the Christian community and another when we are at work, or watching rugby, or driving a car?
We celebrate Jesus our Servant-King and we proclaim servant-hood as our Christian way of life but are we willing to get down and dirty, to wash people’s feet, or their dishes, or their wounds?
The people of Israel may have been confronted by a water-filled river we can find on a map but people around us today are confronted by rivers that are just as real and just as frightening. The river of corruption is a raging torrent that threatens our future. We can turn our backs on it, ignore it, and pretend it doesn’t exist; we can dabble on the edges, where we think it’s ok, but find ourselves swept away by the current; or we can determine, in God’s name, to find a way through, to stop the river.
If poverty were a water-filled river, Africa would be a tropical paradise from the Sahara to the Karoo. We may think of Malema’s March as a cynical exercise by a self-centred politician, but the crowds he draws are real people who are desperate. And there are many millions more of our fellow South Africans who have nothing, nothing at all. For them, the Promised Land is a pipe dream; poverty has wiped out hope as a flooded river will wipe out a village.
Where are the priests who will stand between God’s people and the lure of corruption or the despair of poverty?
In Psalm 107 the Psalmist celebrates God’s rescue of those who call to him, people who were faced with a variety of flooded rivers that cut them off from God.
He tells us of people who were lost in the desert and could not find their way;
Some were homeless and insecure;
Some were hungry and thirsty and had given up all hope.
Others were suffering from depression;
Others trapped by their own rebellion;
There were those who had rejected God;
And some were worn out from hard work.
Still others suffered because of their sins or perhaps the sins of others; guilt and shame kept them in chains.
Others were not able to eat and were close to death.
Some encountered a huge storm while on the sea; their ships lifted high in the air and plunged down into the depths. Whether they were physical waves or financial, emotional or some other turmoil in their lives, they lost their courage, stumbling and staggering like drunks.
The Promised Land was out of reach. But the refrain throughout the Psalm is: “in their trouble, they called to the LORD, and he saved them from their distress.”
Perhaps tonight you find yourself on the edge of a flooded river, one that seems to cut you off from all that God wants to give you. I want to say to you, my friends, the river is not the end of the road. The river of poverty, of loneliness, of despair, of fear, of helplessness, of sin; the river is not the end. There is a way through. However many people have let you down; however many of God’s people have failed you, there is one who planted his cross in the middle of the flood. His wounds have stopped the water, and he’s waiting for you to cross.
Don’t get me wrong. The other side of the river isn’t a bed of roses. There are battles to be fought, land to be claimed, cities to be built, crops to be planted in dry ground. The Promised Land, to be honest, looks remarkably like the other side of the river, with all its pain and struggle. But it offers a life lived in the presence of a God who loves you, who put his life on the line for you, and who welcomes you into his kingdom. It’s a community, learning to love one another. The Kingdom of God isn’t some Care Bear land of heavenly perfection. God’s Kingdom is right here; in the very presence of poverty and despair; in the middle of uncertainty, in the middle of our own sinfulness,. “The Kingdom of heaven is among you,” Jesus said in Luke 17:21. And John Wesley commented on that verse, “Look not for it in distant times or remote places: it is now in the midst of you: it is come: it is present in the soul of every true believer.”
We’re a kingdom of priests, not a kingdom of saints. Crossing the river doesn’t make us perfect or sinless; it’s only the beginning of the journey. But in our own weakness, in our own sinfulness, we are called to stand in someone else’s flooded river and help them cross. We can’t force them. We can only stand there as we offer our bread, as we teach ill-equipped teachers, as we wash sores and we wipe away tears, as we listen to stories of pain and fear and guilt and shame. We can only stand and wait for God’s moment, as Jesus waited three long days for God’s moment; that moment that brought us into God’s kingdom.
You may have read in the paper recently about a man who is on trial for attempting to poison his wife. For me it was just one of those many tragic stories, until I went for a haircut yesterday.
My hairdresser is a magnet for broken people. Over the last twenty years I have seen hurting, struggling people bring their pain and their brokenness to her door; and she never turns them away. There’s not a lot she can do, but she listens, and loves, and she’s there for them. And this man, on an attempted murder charge, out on bail, came to see her on Thursday. He spent the whole day there, and had supper with them—got a free haircut too. And you know why he came? Because she prayed for him. He was a customer of hers.
I must confess to my shame that if he was a customer of mine I’d probably pray, “Lord, please keep him away. Don’t let his hair grow.” But my hairdresser isn’t like me. She prayed, “Lord, bring him back for a haircut.” Please understand, I’m not discussing the merits of the case. Perhaps he deserves a long jail sentence, I don’t know. But God knows he needed a friend. And when God looked for one, my hairdresser was there; ready to stand in that man’s river and help him across.
My friends, what river of yours is Jesus calling you to cross? In what river of yours has Jesus planted his cross for you to walk through tonight?
If not your own river, then whose river is God calling you to stand in tonight, or this week? Because, as Paul said to the Thessalonians, “God is at work in you who believe.” God is ready. Are we?
A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 30 October 2011
- The First Step is to Get Your Feet Wet – A Sermon on Joshua 3:7-17, Proper 26A (interruptingthesilence.com)