This month, we are together exploring the transition of the people of God from their wandering in the wilderness into the Promised Land. And as I begin, I want to start with a disclaimer. I had a bit of ambiguity about choosing this narrative as the backdrop for this worship series. The book of Joshua tells a violent story about the conquest of the Promised Land. It is a violent depiction of God’s people invading, destroying, and massacring their way into the land promised by God. Not only do God’s people act violently and colonially, but they seem to do so upon direct order from God himself. As we look at this story together, one thing I don’t want to do is gloss over the reality of this violence. Because it feels like it is directly at odds with the words of Jesus to love neighbor, and turn the other cheek. But what I do want to do is ask what can we lift up from this story, in a way that views it through the lens of the peace and love of the message of Christ. That is my goal this morning.
Joshua was leading the Israelites into a new chapter in the life of God’s people. Now, I am quite sure that many of you are just about sick and tired hearing another sermon about how “everything’s changing!” I preach them often enough. Plenty of forecasters and doomsayers in every media possible share the same sentiment. I am sure that some of you have just about heard your fill. “Enough, already!” you might say. “Every generation has had to deal with change.”
But here is why I keep coming back to that theme. If we just shrug our shoulders and say that everyone has had to deal with change, we will miss something significant going on in our cuture today:
Thornton May, historian and futurist speaker, writes about the reality of the accelerating rate of change. He writes of what he calls historical hinges: significant cultural shifts in the way that we view the world, the rules and mores that culture adapts, and our resulting behavior. He says that in the early industrial age, there was a historical hinge every 50 years. During the later industrial age, there were these historical hinges every 20 years or so. Now, these historical hinges, significant shifts in the amount of change we have to deal with, take place every five years. Every five years, he says, it’s a new world, a new game with new rules and new behaviors.
Psychologists are saying that it might be helpful to use the language of post traumatic stress disorder in order to describe the experience of people in our culture dealing with this accelerated rate of change. We are in a new place.
Anthropologists use the term “liminal” to refer to a time period like ours. Liminality is an anthropological term that refers to the midrange in a significant transition. Google defines the word liminal as “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” It is a time in between times. In the middle of, and on the cusp of significant change.
Futurists, psychologists, anthropologists and others are all arguing that we are definitely in a different place, with an accelerated rate of change. In the church, the reality is that the church is not does not hold the same place in our culture that it did 50 , 20, or even 5 years ago. People are not joining, participating, giving, communicating, or worshipping in the ways that we once did. And the hard fact is that we can go on pretending that they are, but it will be to our peril and others’ detriment.
Yet, there is another way of looking at our time period, and that is theologically. In this time, we must all be theologians in that we interpret our time through the lens of what God is doing. To be a theologian in this time means that we are asking theo-logical – God-centered – questions about what is happening. And when we look at our time through the lens of God, we find that it is clearly different, yes, but it is different in a way that has been different before. Just look to the story of our faith to understand this.
The passage today tells the story of the people of God, on the edge of the transition from wilderness wandering to land of promise. Crossing of the Jordan is a significant symbol of the evidence of God’s leading from one time to another. Which is why the themes of this passage come back again and again in the Scriptures.
Flip forward to the book of Isaiah, for example. That liminal time is echoed again in Isaiah, who harkens back to the story of Joshua and the Jordan, but at a much later time. The writer of Isaiah is likely living through the transition after the Exile, when the people of God were returning back to the Promised Land, back to the Temple, back to the law of Moses. And so, the writer of Isaiah uses this story as a reminder of how God has been faithful in the past, making the point that God would be faithful in the present.
And if you flip forward one more time to the book of Mark, you will see it again. If you look at how the Gospel of Mark opens, you find this fascinating scene with a guy named Joshua (which in Hebrew is the same name as Jesus) standing in the waters of the Jordan River. Any Jew who read those words would have thought back to Joshua crossing the Jordan, ushering in a new time and a new age. And so that is how Mark begins his Gospel. With Joshua – Jesus – standing waist deep in the Jordan, ushering in a new Kingdom. A new Reign of God. Again, Mark understood it to be a liminal time, on the cusp of a new thing that God was doing.
And so, our job as God’s people is not to look at our rapidly accelerating rate of change and bemoan the fact that things are so different than they were. Of course they are! Because God is doing something new. God is at work in this liminal period. And our job is to ask “what is God leading us to do?” and “who is God leading us to be?”
When Joshua and people faced significant change, they turned to God. Look again how Joshua gathered the people with the command: “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord.” It is a word that is helpful for us to remember, as well. For how often in our lives do we react to changes in our lives by trying to take control? When things get unpredictable or different, we try and take charge and control what we can, and fight what we cannot.
But what if we chose to look to draw near and hear the words of the Lord? And actually give control over to the work of the Spirit, instead of fighting what we don’t like?
- What if every time we experienced another change or transition in our lives, we stopped to draw near and hear the words of the Lord, and took time to pray to God and listen instead of fight or take charge?
- What if we stopped listening to those shrill voices trying to capitalize on fear and uncertainty about the future (in other words, turned off cable news!), and instead practiced what we preach and draw near and hear the words of the Lord, and believe that God is still at work in the midst of change?
- What if we as a church, in our meetings and our committees, chose to draw near and hear the words of the Lord, instead of simply doing what we think makes sense and then telling God to bless it?
Actually, that was the hope and the expectation when we adopted the Spiritual Leadership Team model that we adopted four or five years ago. It was created to “draw near and hear the words of the Lord.” This church, more than any other that I have seen, has realized that strategic planning and discernment can no longer be an every-ten-to-fifteen-year event. Instead, it is a way of being church. The only way to react to this accelerated rate of change is to become a church with an accelerated rate of prayer. And discernment. And constant sensitivity to the work of the Spirit.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we are going to stop making plans and just sit around and see what happens. We still plan to have our annual pledge campaign, so that we know how people plan to give in 2015. We still plan to make a budget – a ministry plan for the year. We still plan to have meetings and discussions and agendas. But as we do so, we move forward with a renewed sense of God’s leading. Of drawing near to the words of the Lord.
Which is why Ann Havenor and the Finance Committee has suggested the title that they did for the campaign this year: “160 Years of Worshipping…Moving Forward into the Future.” It holds as valuable the history of our congregation from the last 160 years, but knows that that history is only a starting point from which to move into the future together.
And it is the same model that Joshua used as well. After he called them all together and gave them their marching orders, they crossed over the Jordan together. But look again at how it happened. The Ark of the Covenant went first. This box that carried all of the relics of the past: the 10 Commandments, the manna from heaven, the staff from Aaron that had budded. All of these elements from their past. And as soon as those carrying the Ark stepped into the Jordan, the waters stopped flowing and they crossed over on dry land. It was the symbol of the past, but it was the symbol that led them into the future. The Ark led the way.
So here’s how were different than Joshua… Our call is not to conquest or destroy our leave violence in our wake. Instead, it is to infiltrate our world in the name of Christ, with love of neighbor and peace and justice, with humility and generosity, especially for the least of these that Jesus points us to.
But here’s how we are the same as Joshua. There comes a time that we need to put our foot in the water. Before God did this incredible miracle of stopping the water, you see what happened… The people carrying the ark had to have the faith to take that First step. As ludicrous as it looked. As dangerous as it sounded. They needed to walk into a raging river at flood stage and trust that good would make a way. And it began with the first step.
What is your first step?
Andrew King has written a poem about this passage titled “Into the River.” It captures I think our call to listen and trust God in the midst of the waters that surround us. Close your eyes and listen and enter the new space and new land along with God’s people.
INTO THE RIVER Take the covenant with you into the river – the boundary river, the risky river between future and past, between fear and hope, whose swirling depths can dislodge your feet –
take the covenant with you into the river – the river that is all that is out of control, restless and relentless and gnawing its banks, whose wild floods can drown field and home –
take the covenant with you into the river – chilling and destructive, peaceful and refreshing, the river that is world, full of mystery and song, whose waters can bless like renewal of life –
take the covenant with you into all of your rivers – let it rest on your shoulders when you take your steps, let it remind you of a promise, let it remind of God’s presence,
that you do not cross the boundaries alone, that you are not abandoned in the raging floods, that in the depths that would knock you off your careful feet, God’s love is anchor
to hold and to guide, and waters of danger shall not overwhelm, and waters of chaos may bring newness of life, and out of the noise of rushing waters may rise a beautiful song.
Take the covenant with you. Watch even the river become servant of love.