September 24th, 2018

When God does a wonder, don’t forget to remember.

Joshua 4:4-14


A clear purpose

Chapters 3 and 4 of Joshua record one of the most dramatic and important miracle-stories of the Bible. A highly skilled narrator wove drama and suspense into his account, but this is not just a well-spun tale of a supernatural intervention. This writer writes with a clear purpose in mind. Let’s not miss it.

If you find yourself immediately skeptical about the miracle, you’re quite likely to miss the point of the story. It’s equally true that if you find yourself defending the miracle, you’re also likely to miss the point of the story. Instead, I want you to feel what the writer wants you to feel, and to get what the author wants you to get.

When the book of Joshua begins, Joshua is about eighty years old. He has been groomed by God and Moses as Moses’ successor. God declares personally and bluntly to Joshua, “Moses is dead.” God then promises that Joshua’s success would match that of Moses as long as Joshua’s obedience to the Torah matched that of Moses. In chapter 2, a prostitute named Rahab leaves a large legacy by protecting two Israelite spies in Jericho. The spies return and report to Joshua, “The LORD has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us” (2:24).

Amazing things

Joshua had a habit of rising early in the morning (3:1; 6:12; 7:16; 8:10), and that’s what he does the very next day after the spies return from Jericho. It was no small task to get the mass of people up and going. The Israelites packed up their things and moved about eight miles from Shittim (shuh-TEEM) to the eastern bank of the Jordan River. When they arrived, they encountered a terrifying site that you can probably imagine better having seen the news this past weekend. It was flood season at the Jordan (3:15), and the people stared at what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. The Jordan River twists and turns at that point, so what they saw was an entire valley flooded with water. Don’t forget that the group includes not only women and children of all ages, but carts laden with possessions and livestock.

They get to the river in a day and then stay there for three days. Why? It’s obvious. It’s like telling you that they camped at the foot of a 1000-foot cliff. No one gives them any instruction about what will happen next.

Until the three days pass. Then the officers instruct the people, apparently assembling them in smaller groups (3:2). “When you see the ark of the covenant of Yahweh your God… (they only saw the ark when they were on the move because it was usually inside the Holy of Holies), move out and follow it so you know the way in unfamiliar territory. Keep the ark in view, but stay about half a mile behind it” (3:3-4).

For the first time in his life, Joshua makes a speech to all the people as their leader (3:5). It’s short, and includes instruction and promise. The instruction is, “Consecrate yourselves.” Moses had given the people the same instruction as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai a generation earlier (Ex. 19:11). He had added that they should wash their clothes. There’s plenty of water, and this symbolic action means what they are about to do is just as important as receiving the Ten Commandments.

Joshua continues with the promise:  “Tomorrow Yahweh will do amazing things among you.” “Amazing things” are “things to be astounded over.” Some translations say “miracles.” I like “wonders.” The word is used just before the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Talk about suspense and intrigue! This huge mob is supposed to get all cleaned up because the next day they will see wonders! They are going to be wowed by God!

The next day arrives, and Joshua gives the order to the priests (3:6). Yahweh himself speaks to Joshua for the first time since the “Be strong and courageous” message of chapter 1. God lets Joshua know that this is going to be a wonder of Moses-like proportion. At the end of this day the people will have just as much respect for Joshua’s connection to God as they did for that of Moses (3:7). We are kept in suspense as Yahweh tells Joshua that the priests carrying the ark are not to stop when they get to the edge of the raging river. They are to step foot into the Jordan (3:8).

Joshua turns again to the people. “Listen up!” he says (3:9). “Hear the words of Yahweh your God. You have heard that on the other side of that river are Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites”[1] (3:10). How much the people knew about each group we don’t know, but this is a reminder of battles ahead.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Joshua continues. “The ark’s going first. Each tribe must choose one man for a special task. (He doesn’t say what it is yet). When the priests carrying the ark of Yahweh – the Lord of all the earth – hit the water, this raging river is going to stop flowing and pile up in a heap” (3:11-13). There must have been an audible gasp. The focus is on the one God who is greater than all the local gods, gods who were thought to each rule one aspect of nature. Yahweh is Lord of all the earth.

If you thought that was suspenseful, look at 3:14-17. When the priests with the ark touch the water with their feet, nothing happens! Well, something happens and it happens immediately (15), but nobody sees it. The water immediately piled up, but it’s not apparently like the Red Sea crossing where they can see it in front of them. The people are due east of Jericho (16) when water piles up, but stoppage is 18 miles upstream at a town called Adam. The people never actually saw the wall of water!

This moment had to be awkward for the priests carrying the ark, but especially for Joshua. His whole reputation is staked on what happens here. God had told Joshua that he would be exalted in front of the people, and Joshua must have tensed up. He had even announced to the people exactly what God was going to do.

We have a time gap in the middle of verse 16.  Eighteen miles of water moves past the people before the raging river slows to nothing. The priests carrying the ark stood in the middle of the river bed – which took faith in itself – and the people crossed.

Chapter 4 tells us more of the story. We learn in 4:10-11 that the people “hurried over.” One imagines with a bit of a smile that they are nervously looking upstream, wondering when the dam will break. Remember, they have babies and toddlers and elderly people and sheep and oxen and donkeys and carts full of stuff.

We also learn in 4:12-13 that 40 divisions[2] of soldiers from the three tribes who had already settled on the east side of the river led the crossing. They had left their wives, children, and cattle behind, along with the other two thirds of their men[3], presumably to protect and provide for those who had already settled. For the most part, though, these are the masses of all ages with all they own.

The rocks

The entire nation crosses (4:1), but once again Yahweh gives instructions to Joshua. Now we find out what those twelve men are to do. They are each to go into the middle of Jordan where the priests are, pick up one of those large river rocks, place it on his shoulder, and carry it to their next camp (4:2-5).

Why? Because this day must not be forgotten. Not by the people who cross, and not by their children or grandchildren. There’s to be “a memorial forever” that will cause those who pass by to ask, “What happened here?” When they ask, tell them, “The flow of the Jordan stopped for the ark of the covenant of Yahweh.” (4:7).

From verses 8 and 9 we learn that there were actually two stone monuments erected that day, each with twelve stones. One was in the camp on the west side of the river (4:8) and the other was in the middle of the river where the priests had stood (4:9).

This was their D-day, their 9/11, their hurricane Florence, their wedding day – that day where you can literally never forget what you saw and heard and felt and smelled, how adrenaline raged in every cell of your body. Yahweh exalted Joshua before the people (4:14) and they never again doubted that God was with him.

At the end of it all, Yahweh again gave the command to Joshua: “Command the priests carrying the ark to come out of the Jordan” (4:15-16). He did and they did (4:17-18). As soon as they emerged, the raging waters roared toward the Dead Sea.

The group then set up the camp and the twelve-stone memorial at “Gilgal” (19-20) which we’ll talk about next week. River rocks don’t just float up the bank and gather in a pile. They were placed there to call attention – not to Joshua but to the Jordan miracle that was comparable to the Red Sea miracle (22-23).

Like the crossing of the Red Sea, this “wonder” was not just for the sake of the Israelites.  It was “so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of Yahweh is powerful, and so that you might always revere Yahweh your God” (24).

The point of this suspenseful drama is this:  When God does a wonder, don’t forget to remember. When you travel to Israel today, no one takes you to Gilgal, much less into the Jordan, and says, “There’s the pile of rocks Joshua set up.” But for that generation and those that followed, the memento was there so they would remember.

A memorial forever

On Friday morning I had a conversation with a young man who has lived much of this calendar year with a Job-like story. Injured on the job, he lost the job. Insurance checks were only half what he was making. His wife was pregnant with their second child, limiting her ability to work. We met and talked several times. He felt like David in the land of the giants as he fought the system, physically and legally unable to work.

One of our deacons worked with this family and through your contributions to the Good Samaritan Fund we helped them keep up with their bills. On one occasion this past summer, the young family finally got a chance to get out of town for a weekend in a place provided rent-free by a family member – and his wife ended up in the hospital with emergency surgery.

Just in the last couple of weeks, however, everything turned around. The workmen’s comp claim was settled in his favor. Perhaps more importantly, his health and situation have made it possible for him to work. I had sent his resume to some business and professional leaders in our church family, and he was hired this week by a church member at a place where he’s wanted to work for a decade.  He’s making more money than he’s made before and the schedule is so much better for his family. Everyone in the family is physically healthy. He thanked me profusely on Friday for my mentoring, networking, and encouragement over these months. He said in an email, “I can’t take credit for anything because this was all about what God did.”

Since I had my mind on this sermon, I told him, “Don’t ever forget what God has done for you. There will be hard times ahead, but this is your miracle.”

I’ve said already in this study of Joshua and will say it again:  The book of Joshua is not about you; it’s about God. But Joshua also teaches us about God. The God story here is about “wonders” – how and why God intervenes in dramatic and unmistakable ways in our story – individually and collectively. This is one of the most commonly misunderstood lessons of faith. What do we learn here?

First, most of life is not a wonder. I need to be careful when I say that, because a contrasting truth is that God-moments are around us every day. Creation is a wonder.

Most of life is ordinary. God doesn’t step into every situation and supernaturally rearrange circumstances. There are only three “wonders” in Joshua – crossing the Jordan and two others we’ll come to. Most of the book describes life without God’s direct intervention. Battles had to be fought hand-to-hand. Homes had to be built from scratch. Children were conceived in the usual way, raised and taught. Food had to be planted, harvested, and prepared, because the era of manna was over.

And so it is with you. You shouldn’t expect God to be altering the course of your world, overruling natural laws. Ordinary life is often filled with challenges – from minor irritations like the one my daughter Jeni and I dealt with yesterday as we tried to lay a batch of bad flooring, finally giving up and returning 25 boxes to the store, to major disasters like the epic flooding in the eastern part of the Carolinas – the reason Jeni left Wilmington ten days ago and hasn’t been back to her home or the school where she teaches. We ask God for wonders, for supernatural interventions, but they’re rare.

Second, God unmistakably intervenes at strategic moments. Almost all of us can point to one or maybe a handful of times when something happened that had to be a God-thing. There’s no other explanation. Linda and I will never forget one Christmas in seminary when we promised the Lord 50% of any special financial gifts that came our way. That one year, and only that year, we received four times the money we had received in previous years, meaning that after we gave half, we still had double. The vote calling us to Corinth was such an unmistakably God-orchestrated turn for us.

I remember my first Confirmation class from 30 years ago when 12-year-old twins prayed on Saturday night for their lost kitten and found it on the front porch of the church a mile away the next morning. Julie McGrath became a living liver donor for her son just in the right time after she had been rejected the first time. Tyson Badders donated stem cells that could have gone anywhere in the country and wound up saving the life of Joe Rowe, a fellow CPA from his hometown in his parents’ church. For you it might be the love of your life or the birth of a child. Maybe there was unusual provision for a financial need, or someone poured undeserved forgiveness into your life.

Perhaps there was a time when you were so flooded with love and kindness you knew those gifts were from the Lord. You can be someone else’s miracle this week, someone else whose life has been devastated by Hurricane Florence.

Finally, when God does a wonder, don’t forget to remember. The Jordan rocks were something physical and tangible to keep the event in the hearts of the people. There were twelve, which means they were for every person in every tribe. The point was so that questions would be asked and a God-story would be told that would allow God’s people to hold on to the reality of God in ordinary times. Their children and grandchildren would say, “God can’t be real. He hasn’t done anything for us, for me.” Then someone would say, “But look at those rocks. Don’t forget the Jordan.”

When something does happen to you that is unmistakably God at work, keep a memento, plant a flag, journal the story, take a picture – do something physical that you can look at again and again and place in a prominent spot to remind you of what God did and to prompt questions. We have a plaque from our seminary days that reminds us of God’s provision that one Christmas. It says, “Your Majesty, thank you for what you have entrusted to me to manage on your behalf. These possessions, these resources, these gifts, are not mine, but yours. Give me the wisdom I need to make them available for the work of your kingdom. I am honored to be your subject. Amen.”

Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m trying but I just can’t think of anything ever in my story that was a “wonder.” Let me give you the New Testament version of this lesson from the Jordan. On the night before Jesus died, the night before he was to give his life in unimaginable physical and especially spiritual torture, he took a piece of unleavened bread, broke it and said, “Whenever you eat this, remember me.” He drank and shared the third Passover cup and said, “Whenever you drink this, remember me.”

The elements of communion are a forever memorial that when you are tempted to doubt in your ordinary life that God is for you, you will always have at least one “wonder” to amaze and comfort you. It is the greatest wonder of all – that God loves you and gave himself for you so that you could live forever when you trust in Jesus Christ. When God does a wonder, don’t forget to remember. Amen.

[1] Scholars debate the exact identity of these groups, and some are unclear. What’s important for now is also what’s obvious:  these are the current inhabitants of the land Israel is going to possess.

[2] Most translations say “40,000” but the word “thousand” may indicate a military group.

[3] See Numbers 26.

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