Sermon Title “Getting Our Feet Wet” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! Thanks to Lodema for reading this text for us from the book of Joshua, with all its Perizzites, Girgashites, Jebusites, and what not. It was an important part of the Lord’s proclamation to Joshua that all tribes were going to be driven out of the Promised Land be named, but that is not going to be the focus of the sermon today. I want to talk about God’s guidance and protection and I will warn you right up front that this means dipping our toes into some deep theological waters. This may be too much for some and not enough for others, but we’ll see if we sink or swim.
First a little broader context to set the scene. Joshua, as you may remember, is an Old Testament figure; he is Moses’ successor. Moses liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt with the intent of taking them to the land of Canaan which God had promised to them. But that journey was anything but smooth: almost as soon as the Hebrews left Egypt, they were pinned against the Red Sea by the Egyptian army, and started complaining to Moses that they wanted to go back to Egypt. The book of Exodus is full of stories of the people murmuring and turning away from God, and when Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments directly from the Lord, the people were down below melting down their jewelry to make a statue of a calf to worship. When Moses came down the mountain and saw this, he was so angry he threw down the tablets of stone with God’s words. Because of this, even though Moses had a special relationship with the Lord, and was revered by the people, God decided that Moses would not enter the Promised Land. So at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the law and the introduction to the next chapter in the life of the Hebrew people, Moses goes to a mountain where he can see across the Jordan River and into the land which the Lord had promised, and at the age of 120, Moses dies on top of the mountain, alone with his God.
All of the adults — an entire generation of people — who were slaves in Egypt have died in the past 40 years in the wilderness. This is a new generation of people and leaders, who have grown up in the wilderness. You can see why crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land was such a powerful image for enslaved people in this country. Why deliverance and freedom and the promised land of heaven figures prominently in so many African-American spirituals. It is testimony to freedom, God’s guidance, and better things to come. Moses’ assistant and protegee Joshua has the task of leading the people across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. There’s just one little problem: the Promised Land is already full of people. Everybody wants to get in on milk and honey and rich agricultural land, and nobody’s going to just hand that over to this rag-tag group of Hebrews coming out of the wilderness. God promised this land to the children of Israel, but they’re going to have to fight for it.
As you might imagine, this challenges my nonviolent sensibilities. It also has eerie contemporary echoes from when a Jewish state was created in the Middle East in 1948 following World War II, and ancestral land was taken from the current residents, some of whom were forced into ghetto-like conditions in the Gaza. We are reaping the whirlwind of some of that history now, and I am not confident that the Lord has sanctioned the violence on either side. So the question I wrestle with is What does the Lord’s protection mean, and what does it authorize us to do?
Our text from Joshua chapter 3 comes after Jewish spies have been sent into the city of Jerico and come back to report what they found. As a sign that the Lord is with them and is in support of their cause to occupy this new land, the ark of the covenant — the physical symbol of God’s presence with the people — is going to go before them into the Jordan River. A representative from each of the twelve tribes of Israel will walk into the river, and when the water touches the soles of their feet, the river is going to stop flowing and stand in a heap, upstream somewhere. And that is how it happens. The priests walk into the water, the river piles up upstream, and the priests stand on dry ground while an entire nation of people walks across where there had been a flowing river. God has guided them and made a way for them into the Promised Land.
And in the midst of this account of God’s power and protection, I would like to pose a few questions, because this is not an easy story for me. I don’t need to know how the Jordan River stopped flowing for a time: I believe that God has the power to do that, and the hydraulics of that are not what gets my attention in this account. It’s this whole matter of God’s protection which I wrestle with. I believe in God’s protection, and I pray for it often — for myself and for my family. Before any vacation or trip, we stop at the end of our driveway as we’re pulling out, and pray for safety (and usually patience) for ourselves and for other drivers on the road, people in the airport, travelers in the air. I often pray for guidance and protection for folks I visit who are in nursing facilities or hospitals or preparing for surgery. Sometimes, when I have had a near miss in traffic or on the road, especially if I was at fault, I remember to say a prayer of thanksgiving that I was spared, and ask for better judgment next time.
But here’s the thing — and I know some of you know where I am headed with this — the other driver doesn’t always miss; the surgery doesn’t always go as planned; children don’t always come home safely. Things don’t go the way we wanted for people we love and have prayed for. Even now we have prayed for Christians in Nigeria, civilians in the Ukraine, people on both sides of the conflict in Israel and the Gaza. What then? Where was God’s protection when they needed it or we prayed for it?
This is an existential question for us as individuals, but sometimes for entire groups of people — notably the Jews of Europe during the genocide of World War II, and also during the terrorist attacks of October 7. Where is God when bad things are happening to innocent people? I’m sorry, but I do not have a definitive or a satisfying answer to that question. Any religion which claims to have an all-powerful God has to wrestle with this question. If you want a definitive answer, you have to subscribe to a religion where you make sacrifices to appease God or the gods, and if something bad happens you just didn’t do it right or sacrifice enough. I can’t live with a god like that. If we believe in a God of love, that is always going to bump up against the reality of human suffering. How can we ever reconcile those things?
I assume you have given at least a little bit of thought to this. If you are not aware of any human suffering, you have not listened to the news or talked to anyone for quite a while. If you have never heard the good news that God is love, I don’t what church you were at before, but I hope you hang around here for a while. Here are a few things which have helped me as I wade into this paradox: First of all: I don’t need to have the answers to all the world’s problems in order to seek to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Loving God and accepting God’s love for me does not solve the problems in the Middle East, in Elkhart, or in my home but it is a way to plant my feet on solid ground when the current threatens to overwhelm me. When I can orient myself to God and try to align my will to God’s will I have hope for the future beyond my own ability to just hang on. Second: it is never wrong to pray for God’s guidance and protection. I used to do this mostly for people whom I love, or at least like. But it is even more powerful for me to pray for guidance and protection for people whom I don’t like, or with whom I disagree. I don’t think of people I know as enemies, exactly, but there are terrorists and shooters and perpetrators of evil who in my worst moments I just wish were dead. And to pray instead for their transformation and repentance and wholeness may not change them, but it changes me. It changes me from that person who would like to be God, and punish only the people who deserve it, to someone who has some humility about the extent of my judgement and understanding.
The book of Joshua is a good read if you want to hear about God’s faithfulness and Joshua’s success in military exploits. But if we wade in deeper, it raises some difficult issues. There is a disturbing phrase which comes from the Crusades of the early Middle Ages. Maybe you’ve heard it “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” That may even describe the Israeli military strategy for eliminating Hamas. I have a different phrase to propose “Pray for them all and let God be God.”