Wide River to Cross

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on November 2, 2014.

1 John 3:1-3


See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Last week we were at the end of Moses’ journey, when God showed him the Promised Land, and Moses saw the land the next generation would inherit. The Promised Land was not for Moses or for that first generation, who wandered for so many years in the wilderness.

And we remembered the people who wandered in the wilderness so future generations could see the Promised Land. We remembered the saints from our own lives and the collective witness of the people who have come before us in faith, helping us live into our hope.

Our second passage today comes from the early chapters of the Book of Joshua, and tells the story of how the Israelites crossed over into the Promised Land.
Listen again for God’s word to us:

Joshua 3:7-17

The LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.

You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'”

Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God.”

Joshua said,”By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan.

So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.

When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people.

Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho.

While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

When the Israelites finally cross over into the Promised Land, when they reach the destination to which they’ve been striving for so many long and difficult years, I want to breathe a sigh of relief. “phew. They made it. Now they can just sip mint juleps and sit on the porch, enjoying the view.”

But the first thing Joshua, their new leader, tells the people is this:
“By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites.”

The Promised Land is not vacant. Other nations, people, families, live there. And when you get to the Joshua readings at the end of the month in the Year of the Bible, you will see that moving into the Promised Land was violent and contested.
But I’m reading ahead of the story. Who they will be has not yet been revealed.

Right now they are standing on the eastern banks of the Jordan River, wondering how to get across. They have been in a similar situation before, of course. On the banks of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s advancing army behind them.

That time, Moses led them into the water and held up his staff and they crossed over on dry land, the wall of water only crashing down on Pharaoh’s army.

Surely as they wade into the water, dipping their toes into the Jordan, they remembered the last deliverance?

This time, however, the priests are instructed to carry the Ark of the Lord into the river ahead of the people. And when they do, the waters of the river will stand in a heap.

And so they do.

Unlike all of the other stories of doubting, equivocating, and disobeying God’s instructions, this time they hitch up their skirts and wade in the water.

Boldly and confidently into their future.

I wonder about the change.

Is the obedience because this is the next generation? Moses and the first generation are not with them anymore. I tend to mistrust generational observations because, well, they don’t seem to be true of many people in each generation. But you wonder what effect it had on the gathered group to all of a sudden be the generation in charge.

Is their obedience due to the excitement of a new leader? Maybe Joshua was one of those orators, those inspirational speakers, speaking like this:

“I could not have blamed you for being the first to lose heart if I, your commander, had not shared in your exhausting marches and your perilous campaigns… But it is not so. You and I, have shared the labor and shared the danger, and the rewards are for us all. The conquered territory belongs to you.” (Alexander the Great, 326 B.C.; Hydaspes River, India)

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 1933 )

“And so, my fellow Israelites: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” (John Fitzgerald Kennedy,  Inaugural Address, Jan 1961)

Joshua certainly didn’t sugarcoat anything. The people knew they were walking toward a Promised Land filled with other people. And still they went, wading confidently into the water, toward a future with hope.

We’re like that too, aren’t we?

When the choice is moving into the unknown future or staying on the wilderness side of the river, we’re willing to cross the wide wide river.

I’ve seen you wading in the water in the way you’ve made the monthly Sabbath service our biggest attendance service each month (other than the BSU football conflicted September service). Your willingness to try a new thing, to see if it might work, has given us a new chance at outreach each month. There are people who won’t or can’t attend worship on Sunday morning, but they are here each month for the Sabbath service.

The church, (in general, not just this one), is facing exponential changes for which we weren’t equipped. Changing cultural expectations of church, of the role of religion in the public square, changing family schedules, changing understandings of denominations and authority—all of these are among the factors that leave the 21st century church in uncharted waters, wading into a new river, without a map, and unsure of what is on the other side.

I continue to feel blessed by your willingness to live into this unknown future with hope and not with fear. Your faithfulness in the midst of these changes is one of the reasons we are a healthy, growing church.

Later this morning we’ll be dedicating our tithes and pledges for the 2015 budget. As you commit to support the financial and other needs of the church next year, you are wading confidently into the water, trusting God’s promise of deliverance is true for us as it was true for the Israelites.

I’ve seen you wade in the water in more personal ways too.

People facing diagnosis and disease, trusting that while you may not know what the future may hold, you know who holds the future. At first your toes suck down into the mud, but the longer the priests stand there with the Ark of the Lord, the drier it gets, the easier it is to cross, one foot in front of the other.

So much of the Exodus narrative is backwards looking, remembering where they have been. And clearly there is value in remembering the past, and how your journey has delivered you to the banks of the river.

I think, though, that when you’re walking across a riverbed, with the water heaped up in a pile on one side, there’s value in looking ahead and moving forward. Crossing the river isn’t a time for dillydallying or lollygagging. There’s only so long the water is going to stay heaped up like that. When you decide to go to the other side, you go. You can save the reminiscing for later.

When I read the All Saint epistle reading for this week, I was struck by how forward looking it was.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”

This week, it was helpful to hear that reminder that we are God’s children NOW.

We aren’t God’s children only when we’re safely across the river on the other shore.

We aren’t God’s children some day in the future when we get it all figured out.

We aren’t God’s children later when we successfully colonize the Promised Land.

We are God’s children NOW.

Whatever you’re going through right now, you’re going through it as God’s beloved child. Now.

And what we will be has not yet been revealed.

I wonder how many Israelites eagerly waded into the water just for the chance of a new beginning?

To walk away from who they had been and toward who God was calling them to be.

To start over, to receive the Promised Land as a new day and a clean slate.

Crossing the river, both the Red Sea and the Jordan, is a baptismal image. When we baptize people, this is a part of the prayer I say over the font:

Send your Spirit to move over this water that it may be a fountain of deliverance and rebirth. Wash away the sin of all who are cleansed by it. Raise them to new life, and graft them to the body of Christ. Pour out your Holy Spirit upon them, that they may have power to do your will, and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.

We claim a new life in Christ.

We claim our place as children of God. Now.

Is everything perfect in our lives, once we’re baptized? Of course not. It wasn’t for the Israelites once they crossed into the Promised Land either.

But crossing the river, being baptized in Christ, is a way of marking time in a sacred way. We pass the priests holding the Ark of the Lord in the middle of what was, moments before, just another wide wide river to cross. And we acknowledge the journey— from wilderness to Promised Land—happens in the presence of God.

As we prepare for the future that has not yet been revealed, may we do so confident that while we may have a wide wide river to cross, we are never alone on the journey.

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