1. Forty years ago, Moses sent spies into Canaan and you remember their report? “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…The land we explored devours those living in it…We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” Only two of those spies disagreed and are here alive today – Caleb and Joshua. The other ten died with the generation wandering in the desert. In fact, forty years after that first inspection Joshua sent two spies into the land and they came back with a different story than before. As Rahab said, “I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.” Forty years later everything is reversed.
So, the spies ford the river Jordan at a shallow point and return to Joshua. Joshua rouses the people and they set out for Jordan – not at the shallow point where the spies easily forded the river but at a different place – and where the Jordan was at flood stage. There they have three days to wait until Joshua tells them what is next. Three days to think about how they are going to get over the Jordan and into the land. Three days to wonder and speculate.
I’ve read enough books about change to know that one of the most important principles of leadership is to communicate – even over communicate – to people what is going on. In place of constant communication there will be rumors and bad information. Joshua had not read those books because there is no communication between the leadership and the people. They are silent for three days.
There are several three day waits in the Bible. While each is unique to some extent they all share some things in common.
Abraham’s journey to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice Isaac takes three days.
Jesus is missing from his family in Jerusalem for three days.
Saul after his conversion is blind for three days.
Jonah was in the whale for three days.
Jesus rose from the dead after three days.
There is an earlier three day wait for the people in the wilderness. When they reach Sinai Moses tells them to wait for three days in the camp for the Lord to descend. It’s quite a scene when he does.
“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain[a] trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”
But there is a difference this time. They do not react in fear and they do not rebel and build a golden calf. They are obedient. They have learned to wait – in spite of not knowing what is next and seeing nothing ahead but a river in flood.
2. “Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before.” The previous generation had been through the Red Sea but not this generation. They had grown p wandering in the desert and waiting for the older generation to die. I can imagine their excitement thinking “This is our moment” after years of routine wandering with every day being the same only moving from place to place with no end in mind. This was the first time they had a purpose and a goal but it is also the first time they had faced the possibility of failure. Wandering is safe. This is not wandering.
I think most of us say we like what is new but what we like most of all is novelty. We want improvements and small changes but not what is truly new because new is always unknown. It makes something to which we have become accustomed suddenly obsolete. It changes the game more than novelty. That may be why we have such an interest in studying trends, futurism and predictions. We want to know so we can have certainty and control. What is genuinely new is always unpredictable and uncharted. Anything could happen at any time. There are days when I feel that way right now. We are in uncharted waters and I would love to have someone tell me how this is going to turn out.
Of course, people react differently to waiting for what is new and unexpected. Some jump the gun and do reckless things. They cannot do nothing. They have to take some initiative and doing anything is better than doing nothing. Not really true, is it? Others become frozen and immobilized. They cannot do anything but hunker down and wait for it to pass. For both, this is time for genuine leadership to know when the “three days” is over. And, that is exactly what Joshua and his officers do. They order the people to their feet and on the road to Jordan – still not knowing what they will do when they get there.
3. Waiting is hard and following is as well. Look at what Joshua says to them. “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests, who are Levites, carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it.”
What happened to the cloud and the pillar of fire? What happened to the supernatural guidance of God? I like the way Alexander MacLaren puts it.
“It was a new thing that the ark should become the guide of the people. All through the wilderness, according to the history, it had been carried in the centre of the march, and had had no share in the direction of the course. That had been done by the pillar of cloud. But, just as the manna ceased when the tribes got across the Jordan and could eat the bread of the land, the miracle ending and they being left to trust to ordinary means of supply at the earliest possible moment, so there ensued an approximation to ordinary guidance, which is none the less real because it is granted without miracle. The pillar of cloud ceased to move before the people in the crossing of the Jordan, and its place was taken by the material symbol of the presence of God, which contained the tables of the law as the basis of the covenant. And that ark moved at the commandment of the leader Joshua, for he was the mouthpiece of the divine will in the matter. And so when the ark moved at the bidding of the leader, and became the guide of the people, there was a kind of a drop down from the pure supernatural of the guiding pillar.”
As well, the people were instructed to stay almost a mile away from the ark. The ark was not in the midst of them. It was removed. There was a serious danger of becoming too familiar with the ark. The ark was not “the man upstairs” or “my co-pilot” or my “buddy”. The ark was leading from far in front. We cannot cling to the ark. We are not carried. We are led.
I have always loved the poem “Footprints in the Sand” but, hear me out, I’m not sure it is altogether accurate. While we would love to be carried during the hard times, it may that we are led and even led from a distance. I have experienced times when I want God to intervene and fix everything in a miraculous way but the answer is always “follow me” and not “I will carry you.” Yes, he does say in Isaiah 40 that he carries the lambs in his arms but after a time in the Christian life we are no longer lambs. Perhaps, that distance is the definition of maturity. We are obedient but not absolutely certain. As well, that bit of distance makes us keep our eyes on the the ark all the time. It is not right in front of us and it could turn at any time without our knowing it if we are not paying attention. A little distance is a good thing.
4. We know how they get across. Yet, before the river closes again Joshua instructs one man from every one of the twelve tribes to carry a large stone from the riverbed to the other side as a memorial to God’s faithfulness. “When your children and your descendants as what these stones men tell them He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”
It’s not a plaque to honor the people and their bravery. It is a reminder of their history and God’s faithfulness. We need reminders – especially now. I was reading an article on how little of our own history we know and it was discouraging.
“A majority of Americans from all backgrounds struggled to come up with the correct answers in a quiz about American history…More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took a 33 basic question test on civic literacy and 71% of them received an average score of 49% or an “F.”
The quiz reveals that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.”
Every culture has an ark and we wander when we lose sight of it or forget it. Maybe that is what the musical “Hamilton” is showing us – people are hungry for their own history but told as stories and relationships. We have the stones but have forgotten what they mean.
But, the twelve stones here are not meant to be a shrine or a photo stop for tourists or a cathedral. They are not to be covered in gold and gems so that we marvel at the work of those who make it ornate. No, they are to remain a stack of stones built from ordinary and common stones.
In fact, look at Exodus 20:24-25: “If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones.” God desires something far simpler, doesn’t He? He does not need all the grandness we heap on our creations. These stones should not point to us and our imagination but to God. It is common and ordinary holiness that God desires. It is common acts of love, mercy, and justice that show our love for Him – not grand gestures.
But, look at what becomes of those common stones.
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits thick. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.
Those common stones set up by Jordan have become precious stones. What is common and unremarkable becomes the very foundation of the new Jerusalem.
Finally, we read this:
”Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
There is no smoke, no fear, no trembling, no separation or distance. No more waiting or anxiety. God dwells with us and all things have become truly new – and a river runs through it.