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Crossing Jordan

November 3, 2002, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12;

An ancient promise is fulfilled.1  Crossing Jordan, Abraham's children enter the land of promise.  Last June we heard God say to Abraham,2 "Go to a land that I will show you, and I will bless you."  The following Sunday we learned that God meant to give to Abraham and his descendants the very land to which God had directed him.  Throughout the summer we heard the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph--each reminded of and sustained by the promise--culminating in the children of Israel moving to Egypt to escape famine.  But with the famine long gone, and a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph's name, Abraham's heirs become brick making slaves.

Has God forgotten the promise?  The infant son of a Hebrew slave is drawn from the water by Pharaoh's daughter and raised as the royal grandson, a prince who must finally flee Egypt for the wilderness of Sinai because his ethnic loyalties have drawn him into a conflict in which he becomes a murderer.  Have you ever noticed? God works with some very unusual people in some even more unusual ways.

God meets the Egyptian fugitive with a price on his head, in a burning bush, repeats the promise calling Moses back to Egypt.  Moses is to lead the children of Israel from slavery to the land long ago promised to Abraham.3  For the last two months we have been following the consequences of that liberation: the miraculous crossing of the sea, the subsequent defeat of Pharaoh's pursuing troops in that same sea, the making of covenant at Sinai--Abraham's heirs become God's people!--the gift of the law, the perils of violating that law, especially the law against idolatry, and the consequences of failing to trust God in the day to day affairs of life.  They wander in the wilderness, slowly learning how to be God's people, while the generation of unfaithful among them die.  Finally, they are ready for the land.  Moses' work complete, God takes him to the top of Mt. Nebo to give him a glimpse of what not even Moses himself can enter because of his own moment of faithlessness.  God, it seems, is gracious and merciful, but our moments of failure do have their consequences.  As the book of Joshua opens, the people are camped on the eastern shore of the Jordan, bereft of their leader, unsure of where to go next, and equally unsure that Joshua as Moses' successor is up to the challenge.  But God has not forgotten.  Crossing Jordan, the ancient promise is fulfilled.

At first glance, this story seems to be a glorification of Joshua's leadership.  In fact God actually says 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." But if you were listening carefully, you know this entrance into the land of promise is not the work of the experienced military general that Joshua has proven himself to be.  Nor is it the strategic first strike of a master politician.  Rather,  Joshua has been nothing more than God's mouthpiece.  Summoning the priests with the arc of the covenant, Joshua instructs them to do what God had told him to have them do.  They are to step into the torrent of the Jordan at the time of year when the raging waters are at their highest.  And as they do, the waters are stopped, heaped upon themselves and piled high to the north, so the people can walk across a dry river bed into the land of promise.  The hero here is not Joshua.  The hero here is not even the twelve priests standing in the bottom of the river-bed.  The hero is who the hero has been from the beginning, who the hero always turns out to be in the Bible--the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob and Joseph, the God who made covenant with the people at Sinai.  The God who was with Moses from his birth to Mt. Nebo, the God who through Joshua leads the people into the fulfillment of the promise.

         Yet God does exalt Joshua among the people.  But what exalts him is not his power.  What exalts Joshua is not his political acumen, nor his military skill.  What exalts Joshua is what has exalted every servant of God from Abraham to this very day, the conviction that God does not forget.  Rather, God is present as a force to lead, protect and sustain God's people, as we wander through the wilderness and step into the raging torrents of life.  Joshua's parents must have known this truth before he was born for they named him Joshua--the Lord saves.  To a child born in slavery, it must have been a constant hope and reminder not only of who he was but who he was to trust.  Though his forty-year apprenticeship with Moses, first as a warrior,4 then as a political and religious assistant,5 and finally as Moses' successor and leader of the people,6 Joshua discovered that his real task was to listen to God, to take God at God's word, and to follow God in faithful obedience.  God would take care of the rest; God is faithful to the name by which Joshua was named.  This is what exalts Joshua.

That has not changed in all the years since.  God does not forget God's promises to us.  Crossing Jordan is a matter of listening to God's word to us, taking God at that word, and following God in faithful obedience.  God takes care of the rest.  For just as God was faithful to the name by which Joshua was named--the Lord Saves--so God remains faithful to the name by which you and I have been named-- Anointed One, Christian.

In the waters of baptism you and I crossed Jordan.  You and I crossed over on dry land into the land of promise that Jesus constantly spoke of as the reign of God.  And in that crossing, you and I received a new name--the Lord's anointed.  From that moment on we have borne this dual promise--the Lord saves, the Lord's anointed.  It is a promise to sustain us all the days of our lives whether we find ourselves enjoying the milk and honey of this land of promise, whether we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness of our own or another's making, whether we find ourselves up against the natural barriers of life's raging torrents that seem impossible to bridge, and especially when we confront the ultimate barrier of life that we each must one day encounter, the river called death. The Lord saves, you are the Lord's anointed, you belong to God in Jesus Christ.  Step into the raging torrent.  You will find your feet on dry ground that will lead to the land of promise. 

By tradition, this first Sunday of November is the time annually when we remember those who have died in the last year, as well as a few who, because of their special service to this congregation, continue to be remembered annually by us.  Coming as it does, on the heels of All Saints Day, we are reminded that for them, the final river in life is no longer a barrier to life.  They stepped into its torrent and found their feet on the dry ground of new and eternal life. They have crossed Jordan and are in a heavenly land of promise that makes all other promises unworthy of the name.  For some, crossing Jordan came as a huge gift of release from the burden of the frailty of life.  We rejoice that their pain and suffering having ended, they have entered the joy of our Lord.  For others, the river of death seemed to sweep out of nowhere, coming too soon, taking not only them, but like any unexpected flood, leaving many desolate in the wake of its onslaught.  Some of us here today are still in deep grief over the loss of a beloved colleague, spouse, parent, child or dear friend.  Yet in the midst of that grief, remember the promise--God does not forget.  The Lord saves; they are, all the more so now, the Lord's anointed.  They have crossed Jordan.

As we come to Christ's table today, we pray that God will keep us in communion with them.  But more, we pray for grace to listen to God, for grace to take God at God=s word, and for grace to follow God in faithful obedience whatever our Jordan.  We pray, in the words of a Celtic Prayer:

The seed is with Christ
And the harvest is with Christ.
May we be gathered into God's granary.

The sea is with Christ
And the fish are with Christ.
May we be swept into God's nets.

From growth to maturity,
And from maturity to death,
May you, O Christ,
Close your arms tightly around us!

From death to finishCoh, it is not finish,
But a new growth.
May we be found dwelling
In the paradise of the graced!7

The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

  1. Biblical scholars place Abramic period sometime within the window of 1800 to 1750 B.C. and the Mosaic period near 1250 to 1200, with the conquest of the land beginning in the 12th century B.C., a window of some five or six hundred years.
  2. Granted, Abram is not Abraham until the seventeenth chapter of Genesis (vs. 5), but for sake of textual unity I call him Abraham throughout this sermon.
  3. Exodus 3:1-12
  4. Exodus 17:9ff.
  5. Exodus 24:13ff.
  6. Deuteronomy 3:28.
  7. "Prayer for Thin Times: The Harvest Is with Christ," A contemporary Celtic Prayer Book, ed. William John Fitzgerald, (Chicago: Acta Publications, 1998), p. 122.

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