Evensong 12th January 2020
Then the people crossed over
Joshua 3. 1 – 8, 14 – 17
Baptism of Christ
In the Church of England’s lectionary there are three years of Sunday Bible readings, for three services per Sunday, with at least two Bible readings for each service. That’s a minimum of a thousand Bible readings. The Book of Joshua gets eight of those, so when a passage does appear, and if you are fan of the underdog, you just have to look at it. Joshua deals with the period after Moses has died, having led the people for forty years through the wilderness. The faithless and complaining ones have all perished, and a new generation, led by Joshua, is now poised to take possession of what had been promised.
Joshua is keen to tell us that God fulfils the promises made through Moses, and that the land flowing with milk and honey is completely and solely for the tribes of Israel. But the means of this are far from pretty. Cities are razed to the ground, or burnt to a crisp, and there is an enormous amount of carnage. Neither are God’s people immune from the violence. If they disobey, as Achan did by trying to profit from prohibited looting, they too perish, along with their households.
Even in its own terms the Book of Joshua cannot be claimed to be an exhaustive history of the occupation of the Promised Land. There is evidence for some battles, but the Bible is clear that the peoples who lived there before the conquest were not utterly driven out, and for centuries the Israelites shared the land with people who worshipped other gods. Joshua is more like a theological interpretation of the foundational story of what later became Israel. Some Old Testament scholars describe the conquest of the Promised Land as more like a peaceful revolution than an armed invasion.
As we found in the Bible Book Club, if you step away the hyped up “total conquest” material, and look for the foundations of belief, then Joshua has much to offer. There is a constant command to trust in God, to obey the law, to live a holy life, to align worship with lifestyle, to remember for ever that the land is one which was promised, not earned, a gift, not a right. The division of territory is about justice and fairness, not the allocation of power so that the rich get richer and the poor suffer. Matters of law are enshrined, including sanctuary for those whose crimes are accidental. The covenant is renewed and reaffirmed, and, whether it was bloodthirsty or not, the place of the people of God as dwellers in the place God gave is established as unearned gift.
Tonight’s reading, the crossing of the Jordan is meant to remind you of something. The people left Egypt, from slavery to freedom, though water, as the Red Sea was divided. Forty years on the new people come to a body of water, which the passage is keen to tell us is in full flood. Again the water is divided, and, as long as the ark, the visible presence of God, is there, the Jordan is paused and the people walk over on dry ground. The point is clear: this is a sovereign act of God. Only by continuing to trust will the land be properly established. The same is true at Jericho: the city is taken miraculously. It’s when they get clever and start to trust in themselves that problems occur. The Book of Joshua asks the deep questions of trust and faith.
Joshua also talks about memory and the duty to remember. In chapter 4 a representative of each of the twelve tribes is commanded to take up a large stone from the centre of the Jordan, and to make an arrangement of them by the river. The idea is that, in future years, children will ask what this arrangement of twelve stones is for, and the story of God’s gracious gift of a new land will be told again and again. What will also be told is the necessity of trust, of faithfulness, of holiness, of justice. Faithfulness to the law will mean that the duty to care for the stranger, the poor, the orphan and the other will be constantly reaffirmed. Far from a long distant mythical memory, the crossing of the Jordan will remain a contemporary lesson and a life-giving act. “You are here”, say the stones, “because through you God will bring life to all.”
This passage is chosen today because the First Sunday after Epiphany commemorates the Baptism of Christ. It’s not just that the crossing made by Joshua and the site of the Baptism of Christ are said to be in the same place, though that is symbolic enough. It’s that through water God’s people pass from death to life, from wandering to purpose, from having nothing to possessing everything. And, just as the people were commanded to remember, and to live in the reality of what the crossing unlocked, so God’s people, made new by the once and for always act of baptism, are encouraged, commanded, to live that life every day. Like the crossing, baptism is a memorial for ever.
At the end of his life, Joshua reminds the people that the land they have been given was not earnt, but given. They live in towns they did not build, and pick fruit they did not plant. “Now, therefore”, he says, “revere the Lord and serve God in sincerity and faithfulness”. We, the baptized, are invited to do the same, giving thanks for the gift of God in Jesus Christ we have not earnt. May we follow, in faith and love, to Gods glory, now and for ever. Amen.
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