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Crossing the Jordan � Joshua 3 and 4 - The importance of symbolic actions

North Baddesley Baptist Church, Sunday January 22nd 2006


Luke 5:17-26
Joshua 3:14-4:7, 4:19-24
Hymns used (from Mission Praise)
173, Glorious things of thee are spoken
579, Restore O Lord the honour of your name
400, Father hear the prayer we offer
201, Guide me O Thou great Jehovah
and to conclude, 51, Be thou my vision



The two passages of Scripture we have read tonight have something in common. In each one, someone did something unusual in response to a miraculous event. Their action was out of the ordinary, an act of response that helped turn something that might have been forgotten into something memorable. What motivates us to do things? Why do we decide to do one thing rather than another? Of course, lots of our day-to-day actions are governed by instinct, habit, training we have picked up in life, or by the traditions of our family, community, church, or nation. As we grow up we learn to set aside some of the demands of personal survival, or self-centred motives. We learn - hopefully - to choose courses of action that have a long-term benefit and not just those that give instant gratification. Even outside of Christian principles of living, the process of becoming a human adult means learning to consider the needs of others as well as ourselves, and learning to take the long view rather than that of convenience of the moment. The love of neighbour that the Bible speaks of, which in the New Testament is summed up by the Greek word agape, means choosing actions that positively enrich the lives of others, and realising in ever deeper ways that our real payoff for a good deed is stored up as treasure in heaven.

Now, all of those things make sense - we can see why there is a benefit to doing something, making some choice or other in the situation at hand. Of course, actually enacting that choice may be profoundly difficult and costly - that's a separate story - but at least our hearts and minds can see the principles involved and assent to them.

But beyond the choices and motivations that make sense to us and others, there is a whole arena of action that we call the sacred, where our actions have a different kind of value, a different kind of logic. We don't always know how to recognise this, and often, different people, different churches, arrive at different conclusions. Is a church liturgy, for example, something truly sacred, or is it just a tradition?

But even if we can't always agree on specifics, the sacred is important to us. As human beings we want our lives to have some sort of lasting meaning, and so we want to know that at least some of the things we do are truly meaningful and not just mechanical or habitual. So the sacred actions we perform are those we want to be the most memorable. An action that leads us into the sacred often has some kind of rational explanation - it is not a random or haphazard action - but it is not limited to this. Such things might spring out of the rational, but they run much deeper than that, they feed our souls in ways that purely rational, sensible things cannot. A woman once came to Jesus and broke an alabaster jar of perfume to anoint him. When we study that account we can see all kinds of rational explanations - the perfume was being saved for a funeral, and this woman had prophetically seen Jesus' impending death. Or it was very costly, and she wanted to offer him the thing she had of most value. Those things are true, but my feeling is that her action went much further than those things suggest. She was, in that action, laying hold of the world of the sacred, so that that single action took her, in the presence of Jesus, from the familiar world of our senses into a world where every word and deed carries a profound meaning. Her action, her choice, has been preserved for us in the gospels through all these years. You can liken the impact of the sacred to the way a poem or a song affects us - these are made of words just like any other kind of communication, but they can move us in ways that a bus timetable or the manual for operating a washing machine cannot. Sacred actions are the poetry of our lives.

What actions do we Christians do that are like this? Well, of course we have regular expressions of worship that can lead us into the sacred. We take communion on a regular basis, following our Lord's instructions. Then we have events that celebrate and acknowledge the key stages of our human lives - birth, baptism, coming-of-age, marriage, death. Of course these can be kept just as traditions. But to the Christian, these life stages can be sacred milestones on our discipleship walk with God, deeply meaningful expressions of our spiritual nature. And then we have the kinds of things our two scriptures talked about tonight - one-off actions that by their nature cannot and need not be repeated.

The passage we read from the book of Joshua tells us that this was the way that God authenticated his leadership to the Israelite people and indeed to the wider world. Why is this? Let's think about Joshua for a while.

In the ancient near east, rivers were dangerous obstacles. There is no Old Testament word for "bridge" - a river has to be swum, forded or else crossed miraculously. In fact, bridges on the whole were very rare until Roman times - that was indeed one of the things the Romans did for us. There were just a few, scattered here and there in the most powerful of the nations around, at key cities such as Babylon or on key trade routes. Some of these were made of stone or wood; others were what engineers call pontoon bridges - a makeshift roadway placed across boat hulls. Ferries were used in some countries, especially Egypt where the Nile was such a dominant part of life. As a sign of good works to please his gods, one Egyptian recorded that he had provided ferryboats for those who were too poor to afford the fee. Israel had no bridges, and no ferries - people had to rely on fords - or miracles.

Nowadays, roads in Israel and Palestine do have bridges, but it is not so very long since fords were the rule, and these could be highly dangerous. A traveller called Edward Robinson about 150 years ago spoke of the problems he had had, and his complete reliance on expert local knowledge. At the river Kishon, near Megiddo and mentioned in Deborah's Song, he had been warned that the ford was "so miry as to be almost impassable" although when he reached there he was pleased to find the water level very low. Many rivers were considered virtually uncrossable in the rainy season - strong currents, treacherous riverbeds, and unexpected deep places were common perils. This was of course the season Joshua had to cope with, as the narrator is careful to tell us. According to the Talmud, a record of Jewish teaching from around the time of Jesus, any man who made his wife ford a river in front of him would have no share in the world to come. It was his duty to take the risk first.

Crossing rivers was in fact one of the standard claims to fame of the great kings of the ancient world - alongside boasts concerning cities they had captured and armies they had defeated, we find rivers they had crossed. So the Assyrian king Shalmaneser, who tried to seize control of the Mediterranean coastline in the time of king Ahab, begins his annals by saying, "In the first year of my rule, I crossed the Euphrates at its flood and marched towards the Western Sea" - a claim he was to repeat many times during his 35-year reign. It was a distinguishing mark of the great leader that he knew how, where and when to cross major rivers. Because of the difficulties involved, crossing rivers became a sign of a point of no return - when Julius Caesar committed himself to seizing power in Rome, the crucial make-or-break moment was crossing a river called the Rubicon. We use this symbolism in the modern world in other areas too - crossing a river was a powerful image of death amongst American slaves and in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The Jordan is the last river to be crossed before the Promised Land; it is the last great barrier.

So here was Joshua, recently put in charge of the people following the death of Moses, and in need of visible approval. The people knew that Moses had appointed him as leader - but did he have the seal of God's approval? Crossing the river Jordan meant several things for him. It established him as a great leader alongside the kings of the nations around - especially as he was leading not an army but a whole people with young and old, women and men, children and adults. It showed that he really did have divine approval. It showed he was master of the land, able to choose where and when to make his move. It established that his intentions to come into the land and take control were settled. No wonder he arranged for the construction of a special altar - it pointed back in gratitude to God for upholding his leadership, and pointed forward to future generations to remember the act. But I also think it was a profoundly meaningful moment for him as an individual. If he still had lingering doubts as to whether he truly was the right man for the job - and my guess is that he did - then this was what he needed to affirm him. Certainly this was a significant event in the life of the nation - but tonight I want us to think about how it was special for Joshua as an individual.

Now, the narrator of this story really wants us to realise just how much this event in Joshua's life has echoes in other great events of the past. There are some very obvious reminders of the crossing of the Reed Sea as Israel set out from Egypt. Quite apart from the matter of miraculously crossing a body of water, some of the same descriptive words are used. We read how the waters piled up in a "heap" near a town called Adam - well, the same word heap is used in Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea that commemorates the crossing. It's an unusual word in the Old Testament, and I am sure its use was a deliberate echo here. Another phrase used both here and in Exodus is that of the "dried-up land" in the middle of the water. And so on. As a young man under Moses' leadership, Joshua had been amongst the group who had passed over the sea at the edge of Egypt - now as a rather older man, and a leader himself, he is crossing over a river at the edge of the Promised Land. Joshua is marked out as the true legitimate successor. But as well as that, there are other more subtle reminders. The town Adam, where the waters piled up, is another important signal for us. The modern name of this town - something like the size of Winchester - is Damiya, and it is beside one of the major crossing points of the Jordan, about 20 miles upstream from where the Israelites were. The bridge there today has played an important role in the political dealings between Israel and Palestine. Back in Joshua's time, God's miracle was signalling a reversal of fortunes - the deep place ran dry, and the fording place was covered in a heap of water. This town is where the river Jabbok flows out of the eastern hills into the Jordan, and at this river Jacob struggled with God's angel on his return from Laban's house. So Joshua is being linked in a subtle way with Jacob. The passage talks about the river Jordan being in flood, and the priests "resting" their feet in the water - well, "rest" here is the same word as the name "Noah". So Joshua is also being linked here to the leader of the people at the time of the Great Flood. He is being affirmed as able to carry the people safely over to the other side, to their new homeland. This one incident ties Joshua in to so many of the great Israelite leaders.

I said earlier that this was a one-off action, a special moment marked out as sacred by the erection of an altar of stones from the middle of the river. Of course the Israelites built other altars in other places, but this one is highlighted as having a special significance for future generations. Every time they passed by it, every time their children asked about it, they were to remember this event. Some years ago, my family moved from Dorset into Hampshire - it was a very difficult time for us in lots of ways, and we felt as though we had only escaped from Dorset after a great struggle. At the time leading up to our moving, a large roundabout was being built to link the A31 near Ringwood with the A338 link road down into Bournemouth. I don't know if anyone here remembers, but the construction of that roundabout seemed to drag on for ages. Well, it first opened on the very day we moved in to Rownhams, and en route over my wife stopped there with the children and picked up twelve stones from the edge of the road. I've brought them along this evening - of course they don't look much, indeed to the casual eye they could have come from pretty much anywhere in England - but then I guess that those stones from Jordan didn't look very different from the rocks lining all along the edge of the river. We know where those stones came from - Joshua and the Israelites knew where their stones came from, and that is the whole point. The symbol doesn't have to mean anything except you.

I want us to think a little now about Luke's account of the paralytic, an event that Mark tells us took place in Capernaum, on the northern edge of Lake Galilee. I suppose it's one of the very familiar New Testament healing stories, often used either to highlight the persistent faith of the man's friends, or to contrast Jesus' loving act of grace towards this man with the hardness of the hearts of the Pharisees to whom he was talking. I want to focus tonight on the man's response as a symbolic action. As we read, after he was healed and could walk again, Jesus instructed him to take up the mat on which he had been stretched out, and to walk. I wonder what that mat had signified to the man - we presume that he had been confined to it, bed-ridden if you like, for a very long time. I imagine that in many ways the mat would have seemed rather like a prison, or a curse to him. Jesus does not tell him to leave it behind - he deliberately tells him to carry it away. If I had been that man, I think I would rather have left it! But I was struck while preparing this how the action is like an imitation of Jesus himself. As we know - as Thomas discovered in the upper room after the resurrection - the body that Jesus wears now still carries the wounds He received on the cross. Now, I suppose that had He wanted to, He could have chosen a resurrection body of absolute perfection, unmarked, unscarred, but instead He chose one that bears an eternal reminder of the cost of our salvation. "Those wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified", as the hymn goes. In a similar, though of course much lesser way, the paralysed man is doing the same as he carries away his mat. This was his symbolic, sacred act. This is what he would remember most.

It struck me how often Jesus does similar things - indeed just about every time he healed someone, or spoke words of forgiveness to them, he then instructed them to carry out some concrete, physical action. With those who had been lepers it was usually to visit the priests and have themselves declared clean. Of course there was a very obvious social reason for this, so that they could be reintegrated into everyday life, and the procedure was also spelled out in the Law of Moses - but I think it was also in part a sacred, symbolic act. We so easily forget things, don't we, even really important things that seem so precious at the time. I wonder how often you have thought or said "I'll never forget..." but much of the time we all do, in fact, forget. I'm sure that one of the Jesus' reasons for telling people to do something concrete was so that they would be less inclined to forget. If we do something specific to mark an event, something that makes us use our bodies and not just our minds, we are much more likely to remember to value it appropriately.

So that brings this message right up to date, into this room. All of us, I suspect, have had important events, significant moments in our Christian walk in the past, and I guess we have different ways of remembering them. But Christian discipleship is never finished! Right up until the moment when our Lord takes each of us into His glorious presence - whenever that may be - He will be inviting us to take steps of greater discipleship every day. These might be to do with our thinking, our feelings, our relationships with other people, our devotion to the Most High God - there are so many different areas of life we can address with His help!

What kinds of symbolic actions can we carry out today to make something sacred? It used to be the done thing to go on pilgrimage, and for many people it was on the journey, not at the holy place, that they learned most about God, themselves, or other people. We Baptists don't tend to go on pilgrimages these days - but we still have a human need to do something physical to help us make a decision seem more real. When you next make some step of discipleship in your Christian life, make sure that it is accompanied by some act of the body and not just of the mind. That could be as simple as writing it in a diary, or telling some trusted friend - but don't leave it as a thing that exists only in your own mind!

I think it is sometimes very tempting to let our discipleship goals be very grand, very far away. We might decide to be more loving, or a better person, to be more like Jesus, something really important like that. Now, there's nothing wrong with those goals � except that they are too vague, too far away. We never really know if we've achieved them or not. So let's break those things down into smaller discipleship steps, ones where we can actually see if we've made them or not. However long your journey is, it is achieved by taking one step at a time, by putting one foot in front of the other. So if I say I want to be more loving, then let's think about that. How can I put Christlike love into action this month? To whom can I show this love - and in passing, I should be most diligent about trying it with the people I mix with every day! What specific things can I do that indicate that I am taking their needs seriously and putting their needs above my own? Do I really know what their needs are? Who am I going to choose as someone to whom I am accountable - someone who I am going to tell of my choice, and trust to remind me of it in a loving way?

If we're serious about developing some part of our Christian walk more fully, then we need to be specific about it, otherwise we run the risk of letting it become like another New Year's resolution, drifting away by mid-January. Now, I don't know what aspects of your Christian lives are those you most want to cultivate and nurture into growth, but as we pray together in a few moments, and as we join together in our final hymn, "Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart", give some thought to this. Take time over the next few days to think over how you are going to put these into practice, and before too much time has passed, take the risk of making yourself accountable to someone else for persevering at the process. So, let each of us take up whatever mat we have been stretched out on, let each of us take stones from the depths of the flooded river that to human eyes seems impassable, and let us make an altar to the Lord our God as a visible sign of this resolve.

Appendix � Readings

Joshua 3:14-4:7, 4:19-24

So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water's edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.

When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, "Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan from right where the priests stood and to carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight."

So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, "Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever."

- - - - -

On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. He said to the Israelites, "In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them, 'Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.' For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God."

Luke 5:17-26

One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven."

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, "Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, "Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins..." He said to the paralyzed man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, "We have seen remarkable things today."

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