Thousands and thousands of people are on the move. Men, women and children have left their homes and embarked on a long and perilous journey. Their only possessions are those things they can carry with them. Their dream is to make a new life for themselves in a new land, but they fear a hostile reception when they do cross the border into their new country. And before they can even get there, they face a hazardous water crossing - they are at very real risk of death by drowning.
That ofcourse is the terrible situation faced by thousands of Syrian refugees today. But its also a description of the situation facing the Israelites three thousand years ago. The exodus from slavery in Egypt was now behind them, and they had spent the last forty years wandering through the desert. Now, at long last, they are about to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. But between them and the land is a raging torrent. The river Jordan is in full flood, and somehow they must get across. All eyes must have turned to Joshua – what is he, or God, going to do?
In today’s passage, we see God’s spectacular solution to the Israelite’s situation. Our reading today describes a remarkable miracle by God. A miracle that teaches us about God’s presence and power.
God is present with his people
I mentioned last week that we are in Oscar season. Its that time of the year when leading actors and actresses are in the running for Academy Awards. This year’s nominations for ‘best actor’ include Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Eddie Redmayne, while the candidates for ‘best actress’ include Cate Blanchett and Charlotte Rampling. We all have to wait a few weeks to find out who’s won.
But there’s no doubt who’s the ‘star of the show’ in Joshua chapter 3. Because it’s the Lord God who puts in an Oscar-winning performance! He shows himself to be powerfully present among his people. So present and so powerful, in fact, that he can hold back a river in full flood so his people can cross it.
One of the key themes of Scripture is that God loves to dwell among his people. He loves to be present with us as we live our lives in his world. For Joshua and the Israelites, God’s presence among them was symbolised by the special box they carried with them. Known as the ‘ark of the covenant’, this golden box was considered God’s throne on earth. It was the place where his presence resided, the place where Heaven touched Earth. It was a visible sign of the special relationship that God had with the Israelites. From the exodus onwards, wherever they went, God told them to take the ark with them. It was to be carried ahead of them on poles by priests - a sign that he was with the Israelites every step of the way.
So its no surprise that in verses 3 and 4 today, as the Israelites gather beside the Jordan, they are told to follow the ark across the river. They are to “keep a distance of 1000 yards” from the ark, so they can all see clearly the route to follow. As the priests carry the ark to the edge of the Jordan, everyone should be able to see that God is going with them, leading the way.
Actually, as well as the ark, God’s presence with his people took two other forms that day:
- For a start, God was also present through his chosen leader, Joshua. Joshua was the man that the Lord had chosen to take his people into the Promised Land. In verses 7 and 8 today, God tells Joshua that he wants to “exalt [him] in the eyes of all Israel”. He wanted Joshua’s God-given authority to be acknowledged by all.
- And did you notice that God was present in a third way as well? He with them through his words as well as through the ark and through Joshua. In verse 9, on the east bank of the Jordan, Joshua urges the Israelites to “come and listen to the words of the Lord your God” – words which promise them victory over all their enemies. Words which assure them that God is with them.
Now as Christians here today, we’re not standing on the edge of the river Jordan, nor do we have an ark here in church. But that doesn’t mean God is absent or aloof. In many ways we are in a much more fortunate position than the Israelites:
- For them the ark was the most visible, tangible image they had of God. But as Christians we can look to the Lord Jesus as the most complete picture of God. When Jesus walked upon the earth, God’s presence dwelt in a human body, not a golden box. In Jesus, God was fully present in a person, not in an ark. Three thousand years ago the Israelites were commanded to follow the ark as it was carried on poles by priests. But today we are called to follow Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
- The Israelites also had Joshua as their God-given leader - as their authority figure. But as Christians we have God’s Son, the Lord Jesus instead. In today’s passage Joshua’s status was shown to the Israelites at the Jordan river. Jesus’ identity was also first shown at the Jordan. Because when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan, a voice came from heaven and said “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).
- And just as God’s Word guided the Israelites, it can do the same for us today. In verse 9, God’s Word was relayed to the Israelites in a speech by Joshua. But God’s word reaches us personally today in the pages of Scripture. In the Bible we benefit from God’s full and final words to the world. As we read God’s written Word we are made wise for salvation and fully equipped for every good work. In this country we are so fortunate to have the freedom to read God’s Word unhindered. We have the liberty to read the Bible in our own language. It’s a great opportunity, a great privilege - please use it!
So as Christians today, we can encounter God’s through his Son, his Spirit and in Scripture. Through them, God is able to guide us in life. Through them he is able to give us hope in hard times. And through them he is able to strengthen us for the tasks he calls us to do. You see, God remains present with his people today, just as he was beside the river Jordan.
God’s power can save his people
The big news story this week was David Cameron’s deal to bring power back to Britain from the European Union. He tells us he’s been negotiating hard to increase the power of our Parliament and reduce the EU’s. Well, whatever you think of Dave’s deal, it shows us that political power is always up for negotiation. It is something that is temporary and transferable. But God’s power, in contrast, is permanent and non-negotiable. And in our passage today, we see God powerfully at work to save his people.
The Jordan river in full flood must have been an intimidating sight for the Israelites. Scholars say that it would have been up to 12 feet deep, and up to a mile across. It was a raging torrent that would have drowned anyone who attempted to traverse it - almost a ‘wall of death’ separating the Israelites from the land they hoped to inherit.
But God’s power that day turned the raging river into dry land. Dry land that could be crossed by his people in safety. We’re told what happened in verses 15 and 16 today: “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. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah…was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho.”
I wish I’d been there, don’t you? It must have been wonderful to see the water stop flowing and the river bed emerge beneath your feet. Imagine the relief of the men carrying the ark, as they marched out into the middle of the river bed, with the people following on behind them. They weren’t going to get wet after all!
By doing this miracle on a day when the Jordan was in full flood, God wanted his people to be in no doubt he was responsible for their rescue. He wanted them to be totally confident in his limitless power for good. Its no exaggeration to say that God saved the Israelites from death that day. Without divine intervention, the Israelite nation would have been swept away. Without God’s marvellous miracle, the men, women and children of Israel would have been carried downstream and drowned.
As Christians, I hope we see the same power displayed in the life of the Lord Jesus. God’s Son showed the same power over nature when he calmed a storm, turned water into wine and walked on Lake Galilee. The power of God displayed by the Jordan river was also displayed by Jesus. Above all, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has performed the most powerful rescue mission the world has ever seen. An even more dramatic rescue than the events of Joshua chapter 3. A rescue from sin and death. A rescue not just for a lifetime, but for eternity. A rescue that brings forgiveness and friendship with God, forever. A rescue anyone can receive by repentance and faith in Christ.
The value of faith not forgetfulness
Have you ever watched “The Voice” on TV? If you’ve never seen it, it’s a song contest where contestants sing in front of four judges. But what makes the show unique, is that the judges have their backs to the contestants. Its only at the end of each performance that all their seats twist round so they can see the singers. This means that the judges spend most of their time looking at the audience rather than the performers. The judges often try to get hints and clues about the singer on stage by looking at the audience’s reaction.
In a similar way, we can learn a final lesson from our Bible passage today by taking our gaze off God, and looking at the Israelites instead. If we turn to face the Israelites for a moment, we can learn about the value of faith over forgetfulness.
Because the people of Israel displayed great faith on the day they crossed the Jordan. They had to trust that God would do what he had promised, and believe that he had the power to stop the river’s flow. They followed on behind the ark towards the raging river, even when it seemed suicidal. And those priests who actually carried the ark had to take a very literal step of faith, didn’t they? Verse 15 tells us that it was only when their feet literally touched the water’s edge, that the river stopped flowing. It was only after they’d committed themselves to God in trust and obedience that they saw his wonderful promises fulfilled. In short, the Israelites had obeyed Joshua’s instruction to “consecrate themselves” to the LORD. Its clear that they had fully committed themselves to be God’s people, trusting his promises and obeying his commands.
This Wednesday sees the start of Lent. And Lent is a great opportunity for us to re-consecrate ourselves to God, just as Israel did beside the Jordan. As we prepare to celebrate the great events of Easter, Lent is an ideal time to recommit ourselves to Christ. It’s a good time to repent of past disobedience, a time to feed our faith through Bible study and prayer, and an opportunity to renew our trust in our powerful, ever-present Lord.
Before I finish, did you notice one little detail in verse 12 today? Just before they crossed the Jordan, Joshua asked for twelve volunteers. Twelve men were to be chosen from the twelve tribes of Israel. Why? If we were to read on to chapter 4 we would get our answer. We’re told there that these twelve men are to each take a stone from the riverbed and put them in a pile on the riverbank. In verses 6 and 7 of chapter 4 we are told that those stones are to be a lasting memorial to God’s miracle that day. A tangible, physical reminder of God’s power to save his people. Something to show younger generations. A visual aid to help explain to their children what God had done.
You see, forgetfulness is a great enemy of faith, and God gave the Israelites those stones to help them remember his presence and his power. As Christians, we’ve been given our own physical reminders of God’s power to save. Because in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, we’ve been given two visual aids to faith.
- You see, whenever we share the Lord’s Supper together, we are being reminded of the great rescue God’s Son achieved by his death on the Cross. Whenever we share bread and wine together, Christians are being reminded that Jesus laid down his body and blood for our salvation.
- And whenever we baptise a new believer, we are all being reminded of what Christ has accomplished. Whenever we witness a baptism, we should be reminded of the cleansing from sin that Christ’s death and resurrection achieved. In baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God has given us two signs to feed our faith. Two signs that will make sure we never ever forget what he has done for us.
And its not just the Israelites who needed to pass on their faith to the next generation. We too must teach our children and grandchildren our Christian faith. Our children are growing up surrounded by a secular, sinful and increasingly hostile society. They need to know about the Lord who can be present with them. They need to know the Lord who has the power to save them. In short, they (and we) need to learn the lessons of Joshua chapter 3 today.