The river Jordan stands as a barrier between the people of Israel and the promised land.
It is a barrier that the people have to cross: not because they wish to: they've become quite used to the nomadic existence - and we read in Deuteronomy that some of the tribes do settle on the 'wrong' side of the Jordan. They have to cross the Jordan because God is calling them to do so.
And this is quite a barrier. There are times and there are places where the Jordan can be a little stream. But not here and not now. In fact we are told that the river is swollen (3:15)
And for Joshua, the new leader, this was the first real test of his leadership. God has called him. God has spoken clearly to him. And he had to trust God and he had to be obedient.
I wonder whether we are facing a barrier that we know that we have to cross. Maybe it is something we cannot avoid. Maybe it is something that is holding us back, that prevents us from moving on in our relationship with God, that prevents us from growing in faith, understanding and love.
It could be anything. It could be an overwhelming problem. It could be personal sickness or the sickness of someone we love. But sometimes it is the petty problems of life that can paralyse us (eg. getting Christmas tree out of church). It might be about 'letting go'. It might be something that has got a grip on us - a destructive habit, ambition, jealousy, desire for revenge. It could be something quite different: someone wrote to me once and said, "I have a problem. I'm married, but I've fallen in love with someone else". It might be conflict. It might be a question of letting go, or of saying 'yes'. It might be a lack of resources.
River Jordan is often associated with death: Hymn: "When I tread the verge of Jordan". Pilgrim's progress. And the barrier could be death: again, facing up to the reality of our own death - or the reality of the death of someone who we love, and who we believe we cannot live without.
Whatever it is, the river Jordan stands as a metaphor for that barrier. That barrier that we need to cross if we are going to grow into the people who God would have us be.
Two ways to deal with barriers: We can think, "Oh dear, here is a barrier" and we turn around and walk in the opposite direction; we run away. We put it off. We give up. Or if it is not possible to run away, we pretend it does not exist: we allow the debt to get bigger; we pretend that we are not dying or that they are not dying. We stick our head in the sand. We really can see that the grass is greener the other side, but we settle for the desert that we are in. We settle for mediocrity in our Christian lives. The barrier is there - we run away
Or, like the three billy goat gruffs, we can face the barrier head on
How does Joshua deal with this barrier? This dirty great river that is stopping him from crossing over.
Actually he does neither. He doesn't turn round and walk away. And he doesn't charge at it.
1. He has listened to God. He knows that this is a barrier that he has to cross. There are times when God puts obstacles there because he really does not want us to go there. That was not the case here.
2. He has to get himself right with God, and the people right with God: sanctify yourself (3:5). For the Jew that involved ritual purification. For us, it involves putting aside time for God: examining ourselves in the light of what God has said, repentance, seeking God
3. Listening to the word of God (3:9): It is significant that it is the ark of the covenant that is to go ahead of the people into the river: the ark is in fact the supreme reminder of the presence of God and of the word of God: it was a box that contained the law as given to Moses. And God speaks to his people through his word, and here - he speaks to them through Joshua
4. He needs to remember. It seems to be a spiritual principal that God often works in ways that you have already seen him work. And getting the people of Israel across patches of water was becoming one of the divine specialities. Joshua had already seen God do it. So he had a confidence that what God had done in the past, God could do again.
5. He needs to trust God. In the end, having heard God he needs to be obedient. He needs to go for it Joshua had to order the priests to move forward and to put their feet in the water (v15).
I guess there might have been a bit of time waiting - wondering. Had Joshua lost it? But when the priests put their feet in the water, the water stopped. Just as an aside, there are other recorded incidents when the river Jordan has stopped flowing - usually because of a major landslide that has temporarily dammed the river. That doesn't take away from any miracle: the wonder is that it happened just then.
Maybe at the beginning of this year you are facing a barrier to personal growth. Maybe as a church we face a barrier.
We need to spend time with God.
We need to get ourselves right with him: in so far as we are able to do so.
We need to listen to his word: what is he saying to us? Is this a barrier that you need to cross? Is this the time to cross it. The opposite danger of what I have been talking about is that we rush in when we should actually stop and wait and listen. 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread'.
And we need to listen to how he wants us to cross a barrier. Of course, there are times when God seems silent on the specifics. Often God does not tell us what he wants us to do. But he does tell us what sort of people he wants us to be.
But then we need to go for it. We need to trust him and, if you like, step into the river.
Touching the Void. It is the true story of a climber who has fallen into a crevasse. Nobody knows that he is there. He is on a ledge, and he has shattered his leg. He cannot climb back out. Below him the crevasse drops down into total darkness. He can either stay where he is and certainly die. Or he can lower himself down into the darkness below hoping against hope that there might be a way out at the bottom.
There are times when - in order to cross the barrier - it seems that God is calling us to go into the darkness
But when he does so, we know that we are not going alone.
- We go with the memory of what God has done in the past: of how he has been with us in previous trials
- We go with the reassurance that he is with us: that nothing can separate us from his love
Interesting that God asks the Israelites to bring stones from the middle of the water, where the priests stood. It is to be a reminder to them both of how God had worked, and of how he had brought them into the promised land. He didn't take them on a detour up to a shallow part of the Jordan. He took them through the Jordan.
And they are going to need that reminder in the tough times ahead
For us, we have those reminders. Not stone monuments - although our church buildings are a witness to the faith of the people in the past. But today we are going to have communion: a remembrance of how someone, many years later, overcame the barrier that separated men and women from God. That person listened to God, was obedient to God and trusted God. He did what God required. He went into the river of death, into the darkness of death and came out the other side.
And in fact, this is not just a remembering of what Jesus' did, but a celebration of his presence with us now.
And one final thing. Today we remember the baptism of Jesus. The crossing the river Jordan is often seen as a picture of baptism. Baptism is a barrier to the new life with God. Like Joshua, like the people of Israel, we need to go into the waters of baptism - to repent of our sins, to die to ourselves - before we can come out of the other side as new people.
And if we allow God to take us through the barrier: the barrier of baptism, the barrier of whatever it is that he is calling us to go through, even the barrier of death, we discover something astonishing. The barrier becomes the blessing.