Monday, October 31, 2011

All Evidence To the Contrary

7The 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.”
14When 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.   Joshua 3:7-17  (NRSV)
It's probable there are not many among us here, over 50 years of age, who haven’t looked back over life and, with nostalgia welling-up inside, said, "If I had my life to live over again, I would...         [fill in the blank]     ." 
I wish there was some wonderful place called the land of beginning again,
                 Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches,
                             And all our poor selfish sin,
     Could be dropped, like a shabby old coat at the door,                                                                                And never put on again."[1]
            The children of Israel had made their share of mistakes.  Forty years prior to the time of our text they had refused to move forward to possess the Promised Land.  Moses had sent a dozen spies across Jordan to check out how to conquer Canaan Land[2].  Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, returned to say that the land was ripe for the taking.  The other 10, the frightened spies, whined that the enemy was big.  God’s children believed the majority report, become fearful and sat down like mules in the sand.  Because they refused to move forward as God had ordered, they wandered around in the desert like lost children for forty years, during which a whole generation passed off the scene.
            Then Moses died and Joshua became their leader.  A new spy contingent looked over the land, and this time the people were going to go ahead with conquering what God had already declared was their possession.  It was a new day, a new time to serve.  God's people took their heritage that stretched back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 
·        They carried their memory of Joseph and Egyptian bondage, and also an ark with remembrances of wanderings in the wilderness. 
·        They carried the taste of manna, supernatural food with which God had fed them for forty years. 
·        They wore sandals and robes that hadn’t worn-out for generations, because God provided for their every need…cantankerous and disobedient as they were! 
With a kind and gentle hand God had prepared them for a new day.  Now it was time to leave the past and enter their destiny.  It was time to cross the Jordan River and step into the Land of Beginning Again!
“Crossing Jordan” is something of a symbol of passage and ritual.  It is referred to often as the crossing over of death’s river into the next life.  In African American culture (particularly in North America) Jordan’s crossing pictures the underground slave railroad’s path to freedom. 
For our purposes here I would like for us to concentrate on Jordan being the opening steps toward a new way of life by depending (in faith) on God’s promises.
In a sense every day is like that for the people of God.  Every day is an opportunity to move forward, even if – especially if – there has been failure and wandering in the desert of hurt feelings, bad economy, strained relationships and more.  God is the God of new mercies…every morning![3]
In our text, God played the mother eagle, urging “baby Israel-eagle”, to get out of their “comfort-zone nest” and move forward.  This speaks to where we are as a church; there is a wealth of wisdom for us in this passage if we will hear it!
This story of Israel’s moving forward is all about faith, and faith is always a place of uncharted waters; it’s a place that’s uncomfortable, fearful at times; and it is the place of greatest joy when you allow God to take you by the hand, and, together, you take this great, big, giant leap! 
That’s what happened in the life of a young priest by the name of Martin some 500 years ago.  He made a terrible mistake for a priest of that era – he read the Bible and believed it, and so started the Reformation…which we celebrate today.  Martin Luther’s life got turned upside down, dangerous, and he was never the same again.  And that’s what it’s like to truly follow the carpenter from Galilee. That’s what it would be like for us today!
So…are you ready for your Sunday nap?  Or are you ready to see yourself in this passage?  If you’re ready for a faith jump, please notice with me, three truths about walking by faith.

1.     You only move forward in faith by God’s Word.

In verse 9 we find Joshua calling the people to [d]raw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.  In Hebrew “hear” means much more than detecting sound; it means to listen with discernment, and to obey[4]
So this means Joshua was saying to the crowd…. “this is your heritage, your job; listen carefully to what God says….and DO it!  This is Joshua’s version of what our old hymn proclaims:
What he says we will do,
Where he sends we will go;
Never fear, only trust and obey.[5]
If as part of this church family, you’re waiting for someone else besides YOU to move this church forward – you have not “heard” the word of the Lord; to hear is to DO – no matter what anyone else is doing or not doing! 
The writer to the Hebrews told us that without faith it is impossible to please God[6].  The brother of our Lord, James, took it a step farther; he said that our [so called] faith, unless it is accompanied by doing [active obedience to what God has said] is stone-cold-dead! 
We only move forward in faith, by the Word of God!

2.     When you move forward in faith by God’s Word there will be change!

The people, moving forward, followed the Ark of the Covenant to the banks of Jordan.  When the priests took another step into the water, the river suddenly stopped flowing upstream and downstream.  There appeared a path in the middle of the Jordan River. 
The last time Israel had seen that was when Moses lifted up his staff and the Red Sea parted.  They knew what this meant.  It still means the same thing today:
You only really know for sure that it is God that is moving when the results of your prayers and actions are contrary to all evidence.
What had happened at Jordan’s banks was contrary to all evidence.  In verse 15 it tells us that it was natural and normal for the banks of the Jordan to be overflowing at this time of year.  In the next instant, 4 sets of bare Hebrew priest’s feet touch the water’s edge and the water stops flowing.  Which side of THAT bet would you have been on?
But that’s what happens when God is on the move…
·        Elijah had a contest with the prophets of Baal; they prayed and danced all day but couldn’t start a fire….Elijah had barrels of water poured over the sacrifice, and with one prayer God’s lightning barbequed the bull and licked up all the water…contrary to all evidence!
·        There was only one Daniel and many lions…but God’s servant Daniel prevailed that night in the den…contrary to all evidence!
·        It was three flesh and blood men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego against Nebuchadnezzar’s 800o fiery-furnace; they not only survived, but, when they came out of that furnace they weren’t singed, and they didn’t even smell like smoke….contrary to all evidence!
·        And there was death to contend with in a sealed, guarded tomb – and just a poor crucified rabbi they called a criminal; contrary to all evidence he carried the promises of God into the jaws of hell, and on Sunday morning that dead man got out of that tomb…and he’s still walking…contrary to all evidence!
And when you walk forward in faith by God’s word there WILL be change.  And some people won’t like it…but that’s not your concern; because God WILL like it…because….contrary to all evidence:

3.     Moving forward in faith by God’s Word will reveal God’s greatest victories in your life.

It tells us in the 16th verse that the people crossed over opposite Jericho.  A few chapters after this event we find the heavily fortified walls of Jericho falling flat…not one stone remained….and God’s people didn’t even have to fight…God did it all as they marched around the city like a cake walk!  It was contrary to all evidence!
Now, what would have happened at Jericho if they had never taken the first step out of the land of Ammon, to cross Jordan?  Nothing!  They’d still be waiting in Ammon.  There would be no Jerusalem; no Promised Land!
Now….shall I ask the question that hangs over us like a lead balloon?  Yes, let’s ask it:  What does that mean for us, here, today?  How do we walk by faith in God’s word, so we see His greatest victories in our lives?

What does that look like in our church?  What should WE do?

With Moses, and later, with Joshua, there were leaders and followers.  I see this in the same way for the church in 2011.  There are leaders and followers in our church; this text speaks to both.

1.     Leadership must pull in the same direction

The leadership of the church is like the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant into Jordan.  You need help to carry the responsibility of leadership.  We’re organized to have that, but sometimes we pull with our own agenda, rather than helping.  What would have happened if the priests wanted to go in independent ways instead of cooperating?  The ark would have been dropped in the mud.
Leadership in this church must make up our minds to pull together or we will be responsible to God for dropping His presence in the mud of our separate agendas…and leading God’s people astray.  Trust me…WE who are leaders in this church DO NOT want to do that!
If, as leaders, we are all pulling in the same direction we will enjoy the privilege the priests carrying the ark experienced….being right in the middle of God’s people moving across Jordan, they stayed firm until every person crossed over.  That is our job as leaders – hold up the symbols and point the way; we help God’s people get home!

2.     Followers must move forward in the same direction

As a follower of Jesus Christ you will see change when God moves.  You must not balk at that; move forward.  How do you do that?
·        Make a decision
Following implies following-through on your vows.  The children of Israel could have come up to the banks of Jordan and then wished the others well while they stayed on in Ammon.  Folks, there comes a time when you must let go of worldly Ammon in favor of moving forward into Canaan Land; you cannot do both!  Yes…as a Christian you give up some things!
·        Following through means being Christ’s follower
Often the Christian has been identified as a soldier.  Soldiers do several consistently basic things:
1.     They train.  We gather (those who are serious about following Christ) for Sunday School at 9AM, and on Wednesday evenings for Bible Study.  In addition, soldiers also practice their skills in-between group sessions.  Private devotions are essential to become a strong, skilled soldier of Christ.
2.     They suit up and fight the fight.  Putting on the whole armor of God[7] is a matter of preparing for battle. 
My son, Jason, who is a career soldier, has served three tours of duty in Iraq since 2003.  He is likely to serve in Afghanistan the next time around.  His mother and I asked him why the government would send him again.  Jason’s answer was simply, “I’m a soldier; it’s my job; that’s what I’m called to do.”
What are you called to do, or rather BE by God as His soldier, follower, disciple and child?
We’ll sing a song in a moment, a favorite for those weary in the battle; it is “Precious Lord, Take My Hand[8]”.  The last part of the third stanza reads,
…at the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand:
       Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
You may be a leader in this church, or another; you may be a follower, or maybe you’d like to start following Christ.  Have you made a decision to cross Jordan and push on to the Promised Land?  Are you willing to follow through….to not just “hear with the ears” but to “heed with your life”?
·              Would you allow the Lord to take you by the hand….guide your feet to this altar to enlist in His service?
·              Would you commit yourself to pulling in the same direction as others who are leading?
·              Would you commit to training, putting on the armor, suiting-up and fighting the good fight?
Your mind may tell you that it doesn’t make sense to do that; the world is too sophisticated to be a “Jesus-person” these days.  Besides, you don’t know how to do that.  What will others say? 
You’re afraid of being a fanatic.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to commit. 
Exactly…it’s against all evidence to the contrary.  But….wouldn’t you want to move forward?  Aren’t you ready for a change?  Aren’t you ready to start seeing God’s greatest victories worked out in your life, instead of just hearing about how He worked in someone else’s life? 
Against all evidence to the contrary….that’s what I want for my life!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; let the church say, Amen!

[1]Louise Fletcher Tarkington
[2] Numbers 13
[3] Lamentations 3:23
[4]Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries, © 2003, QuickVerse, שָׁמַע shâma shaw-mah' A primitive root; to hear intelligently (often with implication of attention, obedience, etc.;
[5] Trust and Obey, Sammis & Towner, The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, UMC Publishing House, 1989), 467.
[6] Hebrews 11:6
[7] Ephesians 6:11
[8] Thomas A. Dorsey, Ó1938 Hill & Range Songs, The UMHymnal (Nashville, UMC Publishing House, 1989), 474

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