SERMON from 10-30-11: “Crossing Jordan”

Joshua 3:7-17

7 The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. 8 You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan. ’” 9 Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” 10 Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: 11 the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. 12 So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13 When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.” 14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

Crossing Jordan

Anyone remember the television show Crossing Jordan? It ran for a few years back during the early part of this last decade. The main character, Jordan, was Boston medical examiner who didn’t play by the rules. She was good at her job–even though she was a loose cannon–and the story nearly always came to a positive outcome.

Her personal life was a different story. She had a strained relationship with her father. She had an on-again, off-again relationship with a police detective who could never really crack through Jordan’s rough exterior. She would experience success in her career and her personal life, but she always seemed to be in some kind of turmoil. There was always something wrong. She was always in some sort of transition. Never settled.

It’s a good thing she was such a complicated character. Television with boring figures and story lines do not make for interesting or successful shows.

The other great thing about her was her name and the different levels the title of the show worked on. Since she was a loose cannon and played by her own rules, you never really wanted to “cross” Jordan. This is, inevitably, what happened every week–creating the dramatic tension. She would easily become “cross” at those who stood in the way of her doing her job. Finally–and I would have no way of knowing this but I think there is certainly truth in it–there is a biblical theme to her name and how it relates the audience to who this rich character is.

Just as Jordan was never really settled and always seemed to be in a state of transition, the Israelites were also in a state of flux. The passage we have read for today certainly is no exception. They were being led by Joshua–someone new to the task. They had been wandering the desert for 40 years–talk about a constant state of transition. They had experienced 40 years of peaceful transition, but were now on the verge of the promised land–something the person named Jordan seemed unable to do.

There is plenty of transition happening within the church today. I could describe all the ways in which the church is changing or experiencing change, but that might take all day. With the help of leaders willing to step out in faith–the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant–the people were able to get the the place to where God was leading them. Certainly, pastors and other church leaders are going to have to take this opportunity to step up or move out of the way.

I may have already shared this with you, but it bears repeating. The church can no longer pretend it is 1950 anymore, because it is not. Society no longer acts as a funnel, dumping people at our doorstep.

Take the average American family, for instance. It consists of a dad, mom, 3.7 kids and 2 dogs. They are busy. Dad works 50 to 60 hours a week at a job that doesn’t quite make the family enough money to make ends meet. Mom also works. Honestly, with the mounting debt each average family in this country is incurring, those two jobs might not still be enough. One of them has another job. The other parent handles taking the kids to all their stuff–soccer, dance, football, etc. Then, there are the doctor’s office visits when Johnny breaks his leg. When everyone does finally get home at the end of the night–if they don’t just flop in front of the TV–they file into their respective corners to catch up with their friends on Facebook or via text message. The weekend comes and that is more kids games and maybe doing some of the chores that need done around the house. Those loose boards on the deck are not going replace themselves. By the time Sunday comes around, life may still be happening to them. They may have to run more errands, made possible by the fact that businesses now stay open on Sunday. Or, Sunday is the only time they have to take time and rest so they can get up and do it all again on Monday. These are just the practical reasons people stay away.

Consider how unseriously the ideas of Christianity and the very existence of God are taken nowadays. Stephan Hawking came out with a book recently. He said that–while he wasn’t denying the existence of God–the universe did not need divine power to come into existence. Every time you turn around, it seems that there is another televangelist or other religious figure making a fool of themselves or saying something which completely flies in the face of what it is they claim to be or believe in. Churches will often experience turmoil that will cause splits or mass exodus from the pews–causing disillusionment for many of the congregants.

If I am already busy, tired and ran around like a rented mule, why is it I should take time out of one of the only days I have to recuperate for the next busy week I am about have? Not many, and the church is experiencing that right now.

That’s a problem the likes of which the church hasn’t seen for decades. In fact, I don’t think the church has experienced as tumultuous a time as this since the Reformation. Essentially, we are talking about the survival of the church. I am not saying we are weeks, months, years or even decades away. However, if current trends continue, the church may not survive as a force into the next century.

Hopefully, that has woken you up. I am not saying that the church is not currently doing great ministry. I am not saying that the church is a dying and destructive force in society. I am saying that there are plenty of signs that point to the church being in decline–a steep decline.

It may seem strange that I would draw a comparison between Israel of our passage this morning and the modern church, but I’m going to do it. The Israelites are on the doorstep of the promised land God, well, promised them. The church has–after a decades-long decline into virtual irrelevance–been in a promised land, but stagnated. Yes, I said stagnated.

Of course, this is an extremely western view of religion throughout the world, but Christianity in America has seen the greatest freedom afforded to nearly any other religion. Yet, in the course of the last 5 decades, we have seen the church become increasingly irrelevant as a cultural force. Okay, there are those who still make a dent in the cultural landscape. However, the popular images of Christianity often include those which aren’t particularly popular.

Clergy sex scandals. Church cover-ups of those scandals. Greedy television ministries. Florida pastors burning the sacred texts of other religions. Apparently extreme judgementalism and animosity towards those things with which they do not agree.

Christians aren’t like that. Alright, some Christian are. If we don’t acknowledge it, we can’t address it. However, on the whole, Christians are not like this–but this is the popular narrative. We can argue how it got like that. We can use any number of scapegoats to make excuses as to why that church is experiencing this kind of turmoil. If, however, the answer doesn’t begin with us, we are wrong.

Which brings us back to the comparison between the Israelites and ourselves. The Israelite priests stepped out into the water–as they were commanded–and what was promised to happen, did. They were given a safe passage into the promised land. The church today has already been to the promised land, and squandered the opportunity. Squandered it. The way out is to remember the way we got here.

Just as those priests took those steps out in faith, so too does the church have to rediscover what it means to step out into the unknown. Sure, there has always been those who are willing to step outside of their comfort zones and be bold in their faith lives. But we need to rediscover what it means to be faithful witnesses in a world that is increasingly less interested in what we have to say.

In Acts 17, Paul goes to the Greeks in Athens and talks to them about his faith. Their’s was a faith they had grown with and known for thousands of years. Paul took note of their statues recognizing the gods of their region. Paul did not go to them and outright say that their faith was a sham. Paul could have told them them polytheism is no theism at all. Paul could have ripped them up one side and down the other–as he was known to do from time to time–but he chose to learn about their culture and offer an alternative. Essentially, he said, “I see the statues you erect to your gods, well I come bearing the name of one God–the creator of all.”

Paul understands what it takes to preach the gospel to the world. The church can still do that. The church can still take that message out to the world that has heard it and said, “I’ll pass.” The church just needs to do it–and have the courage to do it.

To once again change the world with the gospel, the church is going to have to learn a whole new model of evangelism and outreach. We cannot go out in to the world–be that next door or Nigeria–and look to impose anything upon anybody. The world doesn’t buy that any more. This is not to say that the church waters-down or otherwise negates the gospel, but we do need to understand we need to take a step out in courage and faith.

The priests–carrying the Ark of the Covenant–had no way of knowing what the future would hold. They just knew that they had been commanded to do something, and they did it. The church can still do that. The church is not dead. The church is not destined to be stranded in the promised land until they wither away. If the church puts their faith into real action, is not afraid to fail a few times and fully relies upon God and his strength to get them through, the church will be able to be a positive influence in the world once again.

AMEN!

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