November 5, 2017
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Lissa Wray Beal
This morning, we read the account of Israel crossing the Jordan from the book of Joshua. Joshua is a book that doesn’t get much preaching time in the church – even our own lectionary keeps us there for only 2 Sundays. I imagine that in those churches in which Joshua was read this morning, very few sermons will actually deal with the Old Testament reading. Rather, I imagine that many churches will face it with a somewhat shamefaced embarrassment – why is this text part of scripture?. . . or perhaps it will be passed over completely, deemed to be too problematic to be read at all; something relegated to an unenlightened past.
After all, Joshua is a book that is difficult. It makes us uncomfortable, for it tells of Israel brought in to a land gifted to them by God. It tells of the inhabitants of that land driven out before Israel, so that Israel could dwell in safety. We are uncomfortable with this book, for it speaks of “utter destruction” of inhabitants. It has been sinfully used to support colonialist enterprises (both in the past in the present). And some New Atheists speak of God within its pages as a “vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a racist, genocidal capriciously malevolent bully” (Dawkins in The God Delusion). Sometimes, we are a little worried that we agree. So the book is easily avoided – even by our lectionary!
This is too bad. For most often, our embarrassment with respect to Joshua is because we don’t read it well. It is filled with hyperbole – the characteristic readily seen in ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, a genre category into which Joshua clearly and readily fits.
Much more could be said of how exploration of this genre helps us understand how to carefully read Joshua (and more was actually explored in the sermon). While identifying the genre of Joshua as partaking of the characteristics of such conquest accounts, it does not get the book wholly off the hook. We conclude that Joshua does not advocate or represent genocide or total conquest. But there is still in it warfare, and people still were displaced and some died.
But I want to move in another direction this morning as we think about this text from Joshua.
First, Joshua reminds us that God is bigger than us. It confronts us with the Otherness of God. We are invited to wrestle with the book and its difficulties, much as Job wrestled with God. It challenges us to consider whether we fashion God in our own image, and whether we prefer a God that we totally understand. The very difficulties of the book challenge us to let God be God––even when God is engaged in actions we don’t fully understand, or that make us uncomfortable.
Part of Joshua’s role within our Christian life is to get us to ponder. Do we allow God to be loving and merciful, but also a God who makes decisions that we find difficult? Such questions and wrestlings are part and parcel of our Christian life: when we read Joshua, but also when our lives and God’s workings in them challenge our perceptions of God.
Second, the Jordan crossing reminds us we are part of a bigger picture. What happened as Israel crossed the Jordan was something long planned, and part of something bigger than land for Israel.
The Jordan crossing reminds us of the earlier Red Sea crossing (through similar language used in both accounts). Yet those two events were themselves knit into a much longer story that began with promises made to Abraham for a people, and a land, so that Israel would become a beacon in the midst of the world, a light to the nations with the long–term vision that all nations would find blessing in the promises to Abraham.
Joshua reminds us that God has a bigger picture in view. One that works towards blessing for all nations and peoples. In our world where nations rise and fall, and in which people live with uncertainty and oppression, we need not despair. As we work for God’s kingdom, we can be assured God does have a plan and is working it out. It is a plan by which all nations will one day be brought to peace and justice.
Third, Joshua reminds us that God not only works with a plan revealed long ago to Abraham, but one that extends forward into the future.
For sinful Israel, entry to the land was an act of God’s grace, revealing God’s commitment to fulfill the promise given Abraham. The Promised Land was a place of rest and safety in which Israel would live the fullness of covenant life. The crossing was a wondrous event; a miracle wrought by God’s power and presence. It was a decisive turning from the sinful wilderness time to the covenant life envisioned in the land.
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament (Hebrews 3–4) reveals that, despite the promise of rest in the land, Israel failed to enter that rest through disobedience. The church recognized that the “rest” of Joshua provides a picture of our life in Christ. The Jordan–crossing’s symbolic transition into “rest” is a key component in a Christian interpretation of Joshua 3–4. As Heb. 4:8–9 says, “ if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God.”
For the Christian, this true Sabbath rest is found in Christ and entered into through baptism, the Christian equivalent of “crossing the Jordan” into rest.
Yet there is also a further future orientation of the Jordan–crossing. In this reading, the Jordan-crossing is the believer’s crossing from life through the “Jordan” of physical death into the fullness of heaven, the place of rest and full communion with God.
One sees this eschatological reading in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. As Christian comes to the end of his pilgrimage (his life), he is confronted by a river which he must cross to reach his goal, the city on a mighty hill, heavenly Jerusalem. Midstream, Christian is frightened, but remembrance of Christ’s presence encourages him and
the enemy was after that as still as a stone, until they were gone over. Christian, therefore, presently found ground to stand upon, and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over. . . . Thus they went along towards the gate. Now you must note, that the city stood upon a mighty hill; but the pilgrims went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men [angels] to lead them up by the arms: they had likewise left their mortal garments behind them in the river; for though they went in with them, they came out without them. They therefore went up here with much agility and speed, though the foundation upon which the city was framed was higher than the clouds; they therefore went up through the region of the air, sweetly talking as they went, being comforted because they safely got over the river, and had such glorious companions to attend them. The talk that they had with the shining ones was about the glory of the place; who told them that the beauty and glory of it was inexpressible. There, said they, is “Mount Sion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the innumerable company of angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect.” 1
The identification of this eschatological river as the Jordan is made explicit in the great hymn, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, written by the eighteenth-century hymnist William Williams. The first verses speak of the wilderness wanderings, and God’s provision of manna and water. It petitions God as “fire and cloudy pillar [to] lead me all my journey through.” But it is the third verse that clearly reveals the wanderer is a Christian, and the wilderness the pilgrimage of life. In this context the petition for guidance “all my journey through” is that God would lead the believer up to the Jordan-crossing of death, and over to possess Canaan, the Promised Land of heaven:
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side:
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee,
I will ever give to thee. 2
Today, on All Saints Day, we remember all the saints through the ages. With them, we wrestle with the book of Joshua, for it calls us to consider that God is not always tame, or acts in ways we can always understand. Such ponderings are, I think, a good thing.
But also with the saints through the ages, we have seen in Joshua leading the Israelites through the Jordan a picture of our own entry into the church: the place of rest from our own works; the place of safety in Christ, and fellowship with God by his Spirit.
And with the saints through the ages, we have seen in Joshua leading Israel through the Jordan, a picture of our own final crossing from life into life–beyond–death: a Promised Land in which God’s presence is experienced without any shadow of sin.
- John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, in CCEL (https://www.ccel.org/ccel/bunyan/pilgrim.html. Accessed April 18, 2017), pp. 112–13.
- Written by William Williams, translated by Peter Williams. Public Domain.