Joshua has become the new leader now that Moses has died. Can you imagine how Joshua felt? I imagine he was rather anxious. He had big shoes to fill. Moses “was unequalled … for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12). Joshua would need words of encouragement. Moses, before he died, had encouraged Joshua, “Be strong and bold … It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:7).
God also encourages Joshua promising: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. (Joshua 1:5). God goes on to urge Joshua to “Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.” (Joshua 1:6). In fact, in the first chapter of the book of Joshua, Joshua is encouraged to “be strong and courageous” four times in the space of eleven verses.
- What does this phrase, “be strong and courageous” mean to you? What times in your life have you needed to be strong and courageous?
Joshua is to be strong and courageous because he is going to lead the people to the promised land that was sworn to their ancestors. Joshua is to lead the people into a new land. They are to begin a new chapter. God is fulfilling a promise that was made years ago and makes Joshua a promise that will empower him to be strong and courageous. The promise that “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9).
The text does not tell us what if anything Joshua said to God, it just tells us that he addressed the people and prepared them. I wonder if he did respond and if like those who came before he questioned God and wanted more reassurance. I wonder if he asked or at least thought to himself “How do I know” your promise is true? as Abram did in Genesis 15:8.
- Have you found yourself asking this question? Asking how can I trust that in the future God will do what God says?
Like the repeated encouragement to be strong and courageous, God also repeats that God will be with him. “I will begin to exalt you … so that you may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses” (Joshua 3:7). God keeps offering reassurance, “Do not fear!” (Joshua 8:1; 10:8).
The negative command — “Do not fear!” — and the positive command — “Be strong and bold! — recur often through the pages of Scripture. God keeps proclaiming it to God’s people. The list is long: Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Hagar (Genesis 21:17), Jacob (Genesis 27:41; 28:13-15), Moses (Exodus 3:11), fleeing Israelite slaves (Exodus 14:10, 13), the judge Gideon (Judges 6:14-16), King Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:5-7), the psalmist beset by powerful enemies (Psalm 118:6), the community of Jewish exiles (Isaiah 41:10; 43:5), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:8), Daniel (Daniel 10:12, 19), Mary (Luke 1:30), shepherds surrounded by angels (Luke 2:8-14), disciples caught in a storm (Mark 4:37-40), frightened disciples in the night of Jesus’ betrayal (John 14:27), disciples frightened by reports of a resurrected Jesus (Mark 16:8; Matthew 28:10, 18-20), the apostle Paul (Acts 18:9-10; 27:24; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), or John of Patmos (Revelation 1:17-18).
When God calls a leader or a community to a new mission, it is normal and natural for there to be fear. This large cloud of witnesses testifies that following God’s call into a new venture can stir up fear in our hearts. The large cloud of witnesses also testify to God’s faithfulness to the promise “I will be with you!” Not being afraid, letting go of whatever overwhelming anxieties and worries that paralyse us into inaction or over reaction, is only possible because of the promise that God will be with us. Sometimes we need something more concrete in order to live into those commands; “Do not fear!” and “Be strong and bold!” In this reading the words of command and the promise that God will be with them is also accompanied by material, physical signs. All of the Israelite people were to cross the raging floodwaters of the Jordan River on dry land while the priests held the ark of the covenant of the LORD standing in the middle of the Jordan, also on dry land. The ark was a holy container that held the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 10:1-5; 31:26). The ark was a material sign of God’s living presence amid the people of Israel.
As material creatures, material, concrete signs are important to us. We desire things that can be seen or touched to reassure us and remind us of the invisible presence of God. For some of us the church building fulfills this need. The church building is seen as the house of God and it is where God’s presence is felt. In this time of not being able to gather in the building some of us therefore may be feeling separated from God and particularly keen to have the building re-opened. For others, the material symbol is the physical gathering of the people of the congregation, the body of Christ. Our gathering on Zoom may provide this symbol for some while for others virtual gatherings are not physical enough. We desire for the symbol to be enfleshed just as God became flesh as Jesus the Christ. What we need to remember is that these physical symbols are only pointers to God. They do not contain God. This is the difference between symbols and idols. As we moved to online church the liturgy changed and rather than light the one Christ candle people have been invited to light candles of their own where they are worshiping to remind them of God’s presence with them, even outside of the church building and even though they are dispersed and not physically together. As followers of Christ we need to be on the lookout for new and different symbols that can communicate our story and point people to God.
In our reading there is a verse that does not seem to go anywhere. Verse 12: “So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.” The 12 are not mentioned again until the next chapter when it is repeated: “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe” (Joshua 4:2). Joshua summoned the twelve and told them to gather a stones and make two stacks. One mound of stones was set up at the water’s edge, and the other mound stood in the middle of the Jordan River as “a memorial forever” (Joshua 4:7). These stones were to be a sign. A sign that would prompt their children to ask ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ (Joshua 4:6). Their question will provide opportunities to share the story.
- What have experiences or significant moments have you had in which you were sure God was with you and was helping you? How prepared are you to tell that story to others?
The crossing of the Jordan River clearly points back to the time of Moses and Israelites’ dramatic crossing through the parted waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-22, 26-29). Crossing the Red Sea involved fear and risk, but it led to freedom. The two water crossings — the Red Sea in Exodus 14 and the Jordan River in Joshua 3 — are bookends of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom, from death to life to a new creation.
Rev Tammy Hollands