Message: Stepping In and Showing Up | Scripture: Joshua 3:14-17 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Joshua 3:14-17. TWoL.
So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho. Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.
I recently read this joke of an old couple—a husband and his wife both around the age of eighty-five—who had been married over sixty years. One day, they went out for a drive, and what was supposed to be a leisurely trip to their grocery store turned fatal as they were victim of a major car accident. Now, up until that accident, they were both in good health due to the wife’s insistence on a regular workout regimen along with a steady diet of extremely healthy foods, so their death came as quite a shock.
The good news is that they were both Christian. So, upon reaching heaven’s gates, they met Peter who, upon granting their entry, brought them to their new mansion—gorgeous kitchen, master bath suite fit for a king, pool and hot tub, etc. After seeing all the rooms, the old man turned to Peter and asked, “How much is all of this going to cost?” Peter, looking somewhat confused and insulted by the question, turned to the man and said, “This is heaven. It’s all free.”
Then, they went out to the backyard where there awaited them a championship-style golf course (both of them loved playing golf together) where they could not only golf every day, but the course itself would transform every week throughout the year to mimic some of the greatest greens ever known. After looking at these beautiful courses, the old man turned to Peter and said, “what are the green fees?” Peter, growing somewhat concerned that the effects of the man’s old age hadn’t fully worn off yet, stammered back, “This is heaven; you play for free.”
Finally, on the last stop of the tour before going to see the Big Man himself, they walked by the buffet lunch. Of course, the old man still not getting it, asked Peter, “We ate so conservatively and healthily on earth, who’s going to pay for the prescriptions and medications when I get heart burn?” Anticipating the question, Peter responded quickly, “Dear Sir, there are no heart problems here in heaven, and even if there were, the medication would be covered because you’re in heaven, and all that you see is free.”
Upon hearing Peter say this, the old man threw an absolute fit. He took his hat off his head and stomped it under his feet. He ripped his shirt. He yelled at the top of his lungs. And when he finally calmed down, Peter asked him, “what’s wrong?” To which the man turned instantly to his wife and said, “This is all your fault! If it wasn’t for your tasteless bran muffins every morning, I could have been here ten years ago!”
The story is silly, and of course not an accurate description of heaven, but it serves to highlight the point of what we see in our text this morning. Forty years ago, the Israelites sat on this shore, and when it came time to act and trust in the promises of God, they, instead, responded in fear and panic. For their cowardice and faithlessness, they were subject to wander the wilderness delaying what could have been.
Now a new generation of Israelites have taken their place, and just like how the past generation had their shot, this generation now is confronted with having to make a decision. What will they choose? How will they respond to the promises of inheritance from Moses? How will they respond to this new, inexperienced leader, Joshua? How will they respond to the fact that while the land is there, they still have a lot of ground to cover? There will be suffering before there is rest. There will be war before there is peace. In their history, they’ve never taken a step past this part of the map. Will they play it safe and stay where they are (like their predecessors), or will they finally risk it all by recognizing the role God intends to play among them? This leads us to our proposition this morning—it’s what Israel is just beginning to learn as they confront the Jordan River, and it’s what we learn as those who set our eyes on the kingdom of heaven—with God, Risk is right. It’s right not only to hear the promises of God but to live as those who believe that they are true.
But I want to be clear this morning, when I talk about taking risks with God in our midst, I’m not talking about the worldly kind of risk where you pursue something that, in ordinary circumstances, you expect to fail. Nothing about Godly risk is ordinary. No, as we learn in this text, God-ordained risk is extraordinary because while we may not have yet observed the future outcome of his leading with our own eyes, we know with certainty what it will be. Why? Because God ensures the outcome himself—his presence and his promise change everything in how we pursue what he’s set before us. This is the type of risk that I want to turn to now in our text, and so let’s look at our first point:
1) Godly Risk is Never Faithless or Selfish
Interestingly, in order to make this point as clear as I possibly can, we actually have to turn our attention away from the large group of Israel and onto a smaller group of Israelites who are introduced into this story innocuously. For those of you who’ve read chapters 3 and 4, it’s possible that you’ve hardly noticed them show up, and it’s probably equally unnoticeable when they fade out into the background. And the group that I’m talking about are the priests—those who are called to carry the ark of the Lord of all the earth.
See, our attention through this has been on Israel and the ark of the covenant so far—and rightly so, but we can’t forget about the priests. They’re just as important to the story as any other part. In fact, without the priests, this story would be impossible. They show up as early as v. 3, and they are referred to in nearly every major section throughout chapters 3 and 4. So, what I want us to do in this time together is to remember that what’s taking place is taking place for all of Israel, but what Israel does is first and foremost represented in these men bearing the weight of the ark. These are the characters who epitomize for us what godly risk looks like, and unless they act, Israel, as a nation, would not know how to act.
Thus, we see in verse 14, that even though the text starts with the broader subject of general Israel, it’s the priests bearing the ark of the covenant that go before them, and I want us to notice something about these priests. I want us to notice that these priests are human—they’re not automatons, they’re not people without fears and concerns, and yet, their task is far more formidable than anyone else’s when it comes to crossing the Jordan. And it’s in our notice of their humanity that I want us to take in the exceptional way that the author of Joshua records their activity.
If you have your Bibles, scan up and down chapters 3 and 4. Other than their bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord and going before the people, is there anything else that is said about them (additional details)? What’s remarkable about the author’s record of these men is that he says nothing else about them. In all likelihood there are at least four of these men. Each one carrying poles attached to the ark, which hung in the middle. Four men risking their lives not only because of their proximity to the ark, but they also have the immense responsibility of leading Israel in the proper way. If one of them falters there goes the whole story. And yet, there’s not a single mention in your Bibles about them falling or faltering.
Even more incredible is that these priests not only execute their task without the slightest hiccup, but they’re so good at their job that we don’t even know their names. They operate in perfect harmony, do exactly as they’re supposed to do, and function not as individuals with their own mandates, but with an unmatched precision as one unit with one purpose.
Let me ask you, where else in these first three chapters of Joshua do we see a small group of unnamed individuals who are given instructions and called to provide an example to Israel of God’s faithfulness? Was it not in Joshua 2 with the two spies who go into Jericho? And what happens in that story? Don’t we read there that these spies—referred to collectively throughout as one unit—do everything BUT follow the instructions of Joshua? And don’t we also read there that if it were not for some random, Gentile, prostitute woman named Rahab, that these two spies would likely have completely messed up the plan for Israel?
You see, these two groups are supposed to be juxtaposed with one another. On the one hand, you have these faithless, foolish spies, and on the other hand, you have these faithful priests. What is the difference? What sets one group apart as faithless and the other group as faithful? It’s that one group refuses to obey the commands of God, while the other group is unwavering in their obedience. One group takes risks of the worldly sort—the kind of risks that get you into a lot of trouble, and the other group takes risks of the godly sort—the kind of risk that pleases God.
These priests they might be nameless, they might not receive the thanks in the text that we might expect them to receive, but one thing we know is certain of them, they bore the ark of the covenant before the people without question and without fail. For these priests, despite the formidable nature of the task set before them in crossing the Jordan, nothing could compare to the formidable nature of the God who rested upon them. Unlike the spies who went into Jericho, these priests acted in perfect faithfulness because bearing the ark—possessing the very presence of God—assured them that God would be perfectly faithful to guide every one of their steps.
The difference between worldly risks and godly risks, is that godly risks seek after the favour and pleasure of God rather than trying to impose the favour and pleasure of God onto the things that we want him to want. Godly risk is doing what he wants us to do on his terms irrespective of what we want or what the world tells us to want. Godly risk isn’t based on an unfounded thought that anything we do, God will accept. No, taking godly risk is knowing that God is with you when you do exactly what he calls you to do even when it’s hard to do those things. Don’t take risks that are questionable or contrary to God, take risks that are with God, approved by God, commanded by God—that are in accord with his Word.
And not only should godly risk be faithfully obedient, it should also be entirely selfless. Look at the text—the priests bear the ark of the covenant before the people not only because they bear the presence of God upon their own shoulders BUT also so that the people might follow them and receive God’s intended gift for them. The priests aren’t acting on their own nor are they acting for themselves—God is with them as they lead the people from their lethargy, from their posture of waiting, from this place that is not their home into that place that is to be their home.
We can know we’ve taken the right kind of risk when our posture isn’t centered on ourselves. We risk ourselves and our lives to possess God amongst us, and we risk ourselves and our lives to bring others into that same fellowship. This is what being the people of God is all about—it’s about faithfully living in his presence, according to his promise, and being so convinced of that promise that we seek to bring others into it as well. Take the risk of doing what is right—because in doing what is right, we can be assured that we do it with God.
2) Godly Risk is Sacrificial and Rewarding
We come now to the climax of our story. All of Israel’s wandering has led them to this point—shall these priests do as Joshua commanded them to do? Verse 15 continues with the rising action of the story by telling us that the priests have gone before, “and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water,” and our posture at this point ought to be as those sitting on the edge of their seat—waiting with baited breath as to what shall happen next. BUT rather than relieving us, the author gives us a parenthetical with additional information.
It’s like watching the last two minutes of Super Bowl LI as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots drive the Atlanta Falcons down the field towards their endzone in overtime after being down 28-3. They’re there in front of the ten-yard line, 1st & goal, Brady attempts a touchdown pass to Bennett, incomplete. It’s almost intercepted, but they get another chance. 2nd & goal. Ball is snapped to Brady, he tosses it back to White, White runs towards the endzone, he’s almost there… Pardon our interruption of your Sunday night programming, we just wanted to inform you that prior to this game, Tom Brady told us that he was unable to sleep at all last night and that he’s playing this entire game on adrenaline. Now, back to the game.
Just to let you know, White receives that ball from Brady, he runs his route perfectly right to the endzone, and breaks that plane for a touchdown, but the climactic nature of it would seem to have been entirely lost if an announcement like this interrupted your attention. So, why here? Why does the author of Joshua choose to give this information to us now?
Well, unlike my unwelcomed announcement breaking your concentration of the events that took place during Superbowl LI, the author’s announcement here is actually supposed to increase the suspense. Not only did Abraham receive the promise some 500 years ago, not only were the Israelites enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, not only did they disobey God’s command for them 40 years ago, not only have they languished in the wilderness waiting upon God’s anger to relent from them, not only are they now called to cross over the Jordan to get into the land that God intends to give them, not only do they have to do it by crossing a floodplain packed with tangled bush and jungle growth, but they have to do it during the season when the channel itself has reached lengths of about 100 feet across with a depth of 10 to 12 feet below its surface. And even if they were all excellent swimmers, which I highly doubt they were, being in the dessert for 40 years, the Jordan flows south from the Hermon mountain range, which is capped with snow during the winter. So, in the spring, the time when Israel is about to cross the Jordan, all of that snow is melting and flowing down a 40-mile elevation. Additionally, this time of year is when the rainfall is at its peak adding to the amount of water flowing off the mountains. All of these facts put together suggest to us that the Jordan is both deep and raging. Even the strongest swimmers would have had difficulty getting from one side to the next.
So, for the priests, at this point of the story, to even touch the water at the command of Joshua, let alone put their feet into it while bearing the whole weight of the ark, suggests something incredibly crazy and impossible. Remember, it’s not the 40,000 troops and the families of Israel who are called to do this—it’s the priests. And perhaps you’re thinking, well, of course, they’re going to go in at Joshua’s request—we know how the story goes. Of course, they’re faithful and selfless, the task and the outcome has been made known to them, and they’ve been chosen specifically to do this. But we mustn’t forget their humanity. We mustn’t forget that they’ve heard all the things that have been said, just like their predecessors heard, but to think this way and to read the text this way is to reduce for them the immensity of the task and the incredible resolve it required. It’s one thing to be told what’s going to happen. It’s a whole other thing to do what you’ve been told. It’s easy to say you believe, but actually believing with your life on the line is something else entirely.
See, much of our Christian experience today is an easy believism. It’s easy to walk out of here and say you believe. It’s easy to live in this country and say you believe. It’s easy as long as you keep your mouth shut, do good work, and make no trouble for other people. It’s easy when you live your life ignoring the commands of God to go out into the world to make disciples of all nations teaching them the truth of the gospel and baptizing them in their open profession of that truth. It’s easy to make money and keep to yourself as if it harms no one to live this way. What isn’t easy is coming to troubled waters and taking a step into it with faith and believing in your heart completely that God is going to show up to actually save you and the rest of your people.
We’re so used to reading these texts and filling in the blanks, but when we slow down and take in the circumstances surrounding what’s happening, as the author of Joshua does for us with this parenthesis, we realize, as these priests and as these Israelites were realizing, that easy believism is not true belief. Risk of the godly sort—faith of the godly sort—it’s, at its core, possessing a posture of deep and willing sacrifice that comes only to those who are possessed and convinced of the saving nature of God. It’s doing what God commands us to do when all the odds of him being there with us seem to be at their lowest.
The author of this book is keenly aware of the impossibility of the circumstances, and he’s telling us the details in this way to point us to God’s purpose in redemption, namely, to do for us the impossible because it reminds us that he is God, and that when he calls us to, likewise, do the impossible, we might know that we are not alone.
This whole time, I’ve been using this word “risk”—godly risk is right, but let me ask you, what is it that these priests, these Israelites, and us, as Christians—what is it that we are risking? Because when we look at our life, when we consider the depths of our pride, when we realize the immensity of our treason, when we evaluate the validity of our ease and comfort, when we account for the things in our lives that we hold most dear—I can tell you that for most of us, when I talk about “risk,” the only thing that is truly at risk is your sin.
In reality, we, along with Israel and these priests, risk nothing of value. Think of it, especially from the point of view of Israel—they have nothing truly to lose and everything to gain. What did they have to go back to? What inheritance would they leave to their children as a sign of all of their striving? What protected them from losing that last bit of their worthless lives? The answer to all of these questions is the same: they had nothing in themselves. They had nothing but God.
Godly risk is taking an honest assessment and inventory of your life and realizing that without God all of it would be worthless and meaningless. And so, it becomes easy to reason that to take proper, real risks in this life means seeking after him who makes life meaningful and worthwhile. Yet so many of us, including myself, on a daily basis make compromises to suit our ambitions and worldly motivations. We acknowledge our belief with our mouths, but our hands and our feet do that which is completely opposite, or at the very least, agnostic and indifferent. We don’t want to sacrifice what we have—we don’t want to give up our sin—but Christian, there is method to God’s madness. What seems an impossibility and an inconvenience to us is the means that he uses to prune us, to remind us that we are his, to consecrate us in his presence, and to prepare us for glory. He brings us into the impossible to remind us that we have and are nothing apart from God.
Godly risk is sacrificial—sacrificial of our sin and selfishness, and as we sacrifice ourselves—as we go about living faithfully and selflessly for others, we are sure to find that godly risk is also extremely satisfying and rewarding. The narrative does not end with the parenthesis. No, it climaxes with “[as soon as the priests’ feet were dipped in the edge of the water,] the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam . . . and those flowing down . . . were completely cut off.” Godly risk yields godly rewards.
“The YHWH of heaven and earth delights to show his might in the face of our utter helplessness,” says one commentator, and he enjoys doing this so that we cannot help seeing that we contribute nothing to our own deliverance and that he lavishes it upon us in infinite abundance. The priests didn’t even have to put their whole foot into the water. The verb is literally “as soon as they dipped their feet, the waters were cut off.” God wasn’t going to let anything happen to these priests. God had every intention to honour their willing sacrifice.
In fact, what we see is that all God desired in the first place was a heart to do what he commanded more than the actual act itself. It was that they were willing to give themselves up for their kinsmen that served as the basis of God’s granting them life. And why was this sufficient? It was sufficient because, in time, God had predestined his own Son to not only have a heart of willing sacrifice but to be our willing sacrifice satisfying the imposition and corruption of our sin, bringing us into right standing through his blood, and providing us with his own everlasting fellowship and protection all so that the floodgates of hell would not prevail against us.
You see, with God, risk is right, but none of us, in our lives have rightly taken that risk. None of us are perfectly faithful, none of us are perfectly selfless or sacrificial, and none of us deserve that godly reward. And yet, we can now strive to be risk takers of this sort because of the only one who truly risked it all for you and me. Jesus is not our catch phrase. You don’t get to say his name and then do your own thing. Jesus is the fulfillment of everything these priests are recorded to be by the author of this book and more, and his fulfillment is our pardon and invitation to participate in the work that he started.
Jesus is that Great High Priest who bore not the ark of the covenant, which contained the presence of God, but the cross, which contained the wrath of God. Upon him was placed the weight of our condemnation and death. He alone, as the second person of the Godhead, fulfilled the risk that his own people should have fulfilled, and through our belief in him—through our identification with his death and resurrection from that cross—we are made priests in his likeness and of the highest order. What, then, is our greatest fear in life and death? Is it what people think of us? Is it what your bank account or possessions tell you about yourself? Is it what family and friends might say behind your back? Or is it that we might not truly believe with our lives that God is who he says he is and that he’s done what he’s said he’s done?
Brothers and sisters, if this is your confession, let your life reflect the truth of our text. See what God has done for you in his mediating priest. See the tide of your sin that he’s swept aside with his own sacrifice. See that he has done this for you with a perfect faithfulness and selflessness. And follow him home.
3) Godly Risk is Enduring and Prevailing
Look with me at our last verse: “Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.” Godly risk is not only faithful, selfless, sacrificial, and rewarding, but it is also enduring and prevailing. The priests not only step into the Jordan to make a way for all of Israel to pass through, but they stay in the parted Jordan until everyone’s made it to the other side. They aren’t only concerned with the initial miracle; they’re concerned with the enduring provision and security of their nation. What’s more is notice how assured everything is in our text. The priests dip their feet in the water, and it’s cut off. The priests enter into the midst of the Jordan and the land is instantly dry.
When God provides the way, he provides the way fully, finally, and immediately. He doesn’t say, “watch how I do it,” and then leave you to do it on your own. No, he’s the Father who is right there with you as you’re taking your first steps making sure you don’t fall to the left or to the right, pushing things out of your way, and laying out the red carpet for your feet. He intends with every ounce of his power to keep you on the straight path as those whom he loves and those whom he desires wholeheartedly to save, and he will do this until you’re safe. This is the culmination of 500 years of waiting. From the miraculous birth of Isaac, the deliverance of Jacob and his family from famine, Moses’ rescue of the Israelites from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the provision of manna from the sky, and now the crossing of the Jordan—the Israelites have finally made it. God has brought them home.
And as surely as he’s brought Israel home, he shall bring us home through the full and final sacrifice of his Son—if only you truly believe with your whole life. What is our fear in life and death? We have none because God endures and prevails for us. Our gratitude is tied up in our salvation. We believe entirely with our hearts that we can step into the rushing water and trust that God will show up because he has promised to do so—because he has given us his abiding fellowship, because he’s sent his own Son as our priest and propitiation, and because we possess his presence through his Holy Spirit. This is the God who has been faithful to us, this is the God who is worth our every endeavour. With him, the risk is right. With him, our hope is secure.