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Crossing The Jordan

Sermon 10/30/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Joshua 3:7 - 4:3

The text this morning comes from Joshua.  When you think of Joshua, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?  The battle of Jericho, right? [even a song about it ..... "the walls come tumbling down"].  Yeah, it's a great song.  If you have children in this age you've undoubtedly been exposed to Veggie-Tales, a lot of our children watch, some teenagers and even some adults, cute little version of the Battle of Jericho, with tomatoes and cucumbers and ice cream being thrown over the walls.

The reality is, if you know the story of Jericho in Joshua, it's a very gruesome story.  When the walls come down, it's not a pretty picture.  Men, women, and children alike are all massacred.  Even the animals -- all living things are killed in this holy war against the inhabitants of Jericho.  Save one household -- a prostitute of all things, Rahab, and members of her household because they hid the spies that Joshua had sent out.  So it's not a pretty story.  It's not a children's story at all.

And I have managed to avoid preaching on Jericho all these years in part because it's so uncomfortable to talk about these things.  But also because the lectionary of Joshua falls typically in October when we're doing our Fall financial campaign (this year we moved it earlier), so now I'm dealing with all these texts I've never had to deal with before because this is not the kind of story you want to use for a stewardship campaign.  I mean, if you took a model from Joshua, it would be something like 'Give your money to God or else!'.  It's probably not the kind of image we want to portray during those stewardship campaigns.

Oddly, the battle of Jericho that seems so prominent in our minds does not appear again in scripture outside of Joshua until we get almost to the end of the Bible, in the letter of Hebrews in the New Testament, there's one obscure reference to the conquest of Jericho.  So biblically speaking, the story of the fall of Jericho hardly registers a blip on the radar screen of God's activity.

But there is another event in the story of Joshua that is very prominent throughout scripture, both in the Hebrew scripture and in the New Testament.  And that is actually the subject of this morning's passage.  But before I read it, I need to back up and give just a little history and geography.

The story of Joshua really begins back in Exodus.  When Moses leads the Hebrew slaves to freedom and of course across the Red Sea into the wilderness where they wander for 40 years and then up the eastern slope of the Dead Sea to the Jordan valley.  It's there that Moses, the last of the survivors out of Egypt, is allowed to see the promised land but is not allowed to enter in.  And that place where Moses sees the promised land -- you know the name of it?  Mt. Pisgah.  Yes, Mt. Pisgah, that's where Moses sees the promised land.  That was the inspiration from Elijah Bristow, why he named Mt. Pisgah (in our area).  Because this is the promised land.

We all knew that, right?!  At any rate, that is the image too that Martin Luther King draws upon in that last sermon he gave before his assassination.  When he said to the congregation ". . that I might not get to the promised land with you.  But I've been to the mountaintop, and I've seen the promised land, and I want you to know that we as a people will get there.  And so I'm happy tonight because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord".  Then he was killed.

And also then on the mount Moses dies, and the story comes to an end at the conclusion of Deuteronomy, then Joshua begins.  And Joshua opens, after the death of Moses, the Lord speaks to Joshua and says "You are to lead the people across the Jordan".  Picking up then, in chapter 3, we read that early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan:  

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. 8You 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.'" 9Joshua then said to the Israelites, "Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God." 10Joshua 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: 11the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. 12So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13When 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."

14 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. 15Now 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, 16the 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. 17While 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.

4 1When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua: 2"Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and command them, 'Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests' feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.'

And then the story concludes at the end of chapter 4, beginning with verse 19:

The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho.

20 Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, 21saying to the Israelites, "When your children ask their parents in time to come, 'What do these stones mean?' 22then you shall let your children know, 'Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.' 23For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, 24so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear the LORD your God forever."


I want you to take note, and just mark for the moment, we begin from Shittim on the east side of the Jordan, and end up at Gilgal, on the west side of the Jordan.  

And the text then draws the connection between the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan.  The exodus experience begins with the crossing of one body of water and then ends with the crossing of another body of water, both in this miraculous fashion.  

Not only does the parting of the water show that God is with the people, but note also that it shows that God is now with Joshua as God was with Moses.  And by the way, this splitting of the river Jordan occurs again with Elijah and Elisha in the 9th century (Joshua is about the 13th century B.C.E).  Elijah, before he was taken up into heaven, crosses the Jordan, splits the water, and he and Elisha pass through and then is taken up by the chariots of fire.  And then Elisha takes the mantle of Elijah and to demonstrate that the power and spirit of God is also with him, strikes the Jordan and it parts, he crosses then back into Israel and continues the ministry and mission of Elijah.

Crossing the Jordan thus becomes a symbol of the fulfillment of God's promise, and for the new identity of God's people, the former slaves are now free citizens in their own land.

And so the prophet Micah, in the 8th century B.C.E., when he recounts the story of how God saved the people of Israel, led by Moses and Miriam through the wilderness, tells them to remember not the fall of Jericho, but what happened from Shittim to Gilgal.  And therefore Micah says, what does the lord require of you?  But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

Why?  Because the God we follow is a God who leads people from oppression to justice.  From slavery to freedom.  From the wilderness to the promised land.  That is what crossing the Jordan ultimately means.

But there's a side story here, a diversion, if you will, that sidetracks us from this meaning.  It is, I think, a perversion which remains awkwardly to this day.  Archeologists have been telling us for several decades, from their excavations of Jericho and the other surrounding areas, that though they have found physical evidence of invasions and violent conquests throughout Palestine during ancient times, they have found no such evidence in Jericho and the surrounding cities during the time of Joshua in the 13th century.  And therefore have concluded that the conquest of the promised land, while it may have involved military conquest, more likely was more of a gradual acquisition through assimilation.  

Meanwhile, biblical scholars at the same time have been saying for decades that Joshua was written to reflect the facts of the 7th century B.C.E under King Josiah, rather than the history of the 13th century under the commander Joshua.  And in that 7th century, Josiah led a major reform of the religious practices of ancient Israel, including the purging of all foreign cults and elements from the nation.  Thus what appears as ethnic cleansing in Joshua -- the annihilation of men, women, children, and even animals in towns like Jericho -- actually represents a religious cleansing of all non-Hebrew elements rather than the murder of innocent women, and children.   

Unfortunately, this historical fact has largely been ignored resulting in those who too easily justify the occupation of foreign lands and the killing of innocent people as the will of God.  Be they terrorists or Kings or Presidents.  It was not the will of God in Joshua's day and I don't believe it is the will of God in our day.

But I've gotten a little ahead of myself.  There's one more piece of this river Jordan story we have to look at.  We touched the 13th century (B.C.E.) under Joshua, the 9th under Elijah, the 8th under Micah, the 7th under Josiah.  I want to take you now to the Jordan valley in the first century of this era (C.E.) when Jews were once again beholden to a foreign ruler, only this time Caesar in Rome.  And the hopes for a Messiah began to rise, that one would come and would free them from the oppression of Rome.  And indeed one is proclaimed the Messiah, King of the Jews, or so the sign said that they hung on the cross where they crucified Him.  

But the odd thing is that instead of disappearing, his small band of followers grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire.  Proclaiming that God had raised this Messiah from the dead and that he would return to usher in a new reign of God, here on earth.  

In the Greek-speaking world we know this Messiah by the name of Jesus.  Do you know his name in Hebrew?  Joshua!  Joshua is the Hebrew name of Jesus.  The conqueror of Palestine.  They proclaimed him the the same name as the conqueror of Palestine.  It's no wonder the Romans grew nervous and crucified him.

Now if you think that comparison of Jesus to Joshua is a little far-fetched, consider this:  when the gospel of Mark opens, were you paying attention? Where does it occur?  At the Jordan.  It's at the Jordan where Mark introduces this new Joshua.  And recall then what happens when the ark of the covenant enters the Jordan River, when Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan River.  What happens when Jesus enters the Jordan and is baptized by John -- do you remember?  It's not the waters that part.  Mark 1, verse 10:  "And just as Jesus was coming out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart".  You see, you can't read the introduction to Mark without thinking of Joshua, calling that to mind, at least not if you're Jewish and you know your scripture. 

What happens, then?  Just when you think you know what Mark is going to do next, he takes an unanticipated turn.  Rather than going from the wilderness across the Jordan into the promised land, Jesus does the reverse -- he goes from the Jordan to the wilderness and spends 40 days in the wilderness just as the Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness.  So then we would expect, well, OK, like Elisha, Jesus is now going to cross back across the Jordan and enter into the promised land again.  But that's not what happens.  Instead, Jesus suddenly appears in Galilee without any crossing told, and he proclaims the time has come, the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news.

Now Jesus may be the new Joshua, but I think Mark wants us to be sure and to understand that this Joshua is different.  Instead of taking the land by force, he takes it by teaching and love.  Instead of declaring holy war on the citizens of Jericho, he tells the story of a citizen of Samaria on the road to Jericho who binds up the wounds of ones left dead in a ditch.  Instead of taking up the sword against the pagan rulers, he heals the slave of a Roman soldier and forgives his Roman crucifiers.  Instead of cleansing Israel of all foreigners, all foreigners are invited to join into this fellowship of this new Joshua.

In other words, Mark is telling us that this new Joshua is the old Joshua in reverse.  Which is why I think Jesus crosses the Jordan not from East to West as Joshua did, but West to East.  And why it's not the river that parts, but the sky that parts.

To cross the Jordan with Jesus, that is to be baptized with him, is to be a disciple of the one who leads people from oppression to justice, from slavery to freedom, from the wilderness to the promised land.

If there was one person today that I would name as a symbol of this crossing of the Jordan, that illustrates the meaning, I think it would have to be Rosa Parks.  Not because she has now entered into that eternal rest and has crossed the Jordan in that spiritual sense, but because she is one who led the nation across that river to the promised land as seen by Martin Luther King.  And when she refused to move to the back of the bus, was arrested for that crime, in so doing she exposed the real crime, the injustice of racism. 

So think about this:  Rosa Parks, today, this afternoon, will be placed in state in the rotunda of the Capital (in Washington D.C.), the very first woman of any race to be given that honor.  I think she should give us the courage to trust God and to dare to enter into those chilly waters, to cross the river to the promised land, where God's freedom and justice waits for all.

May we have that faith too. 


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