December 7, 2014

Stepping into the Water

I grew up watching big-budget, action movies.  I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies at least a dozen times apiece.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind was exciting.  I’ve seen all the Bond movies multiple times.  But the series that was easily my favorite was Indiana Jones.  I remember being on the edge of my seat the first time I watched that giant boulder roll down the ramp to crush Dr. Jones in his tracks as he ran out of the temple with the little golden idol.  When he finally puts the staff in place in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the sun lights up the location of the Ark of the Covenant I just about stood up and cheered.  Now, the Temple of Doom was always a little weird for me, but my favorite of the original three (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull felt kind of like they were all phoning it in) was and is The Last Crusade.  Everything about that movie was great.  Easily the best part of the movie is near the end when Dr. Jones has to navigate the various traps and obstacles to get back to the chamber where the Holy Grail is kept.  The jumping through the whirling blades of death and jumping on the Latin letters to spell Jehovah (which is a made up name for God anyway) were okay, but the one that I always thought was the coolest was the leap from the lion’s head.  He had to make a leap of faith in order to get to the Grail.  In fact, this scene is cool enough you need to see it for yourselves.

Isn’t that a great scene?  The first time you see it, you know that he’s got to get across there somehow, but the invisible—or at least well-camouflaged—stone walkway is not what you’re expecting.  Have you ever felt a little like Indiana Jones did there in your own walk with God?  Have you ever been in one of those places where it feels like God has called you to do something that seems absolutely impossible and the only way from here to there is to step out in obedience?  This Advent season I want to spend our time together looking with you at how to respond when God calls us to something hard.  I want to look at both the challenges and the blessings of doing what He says even when it doesn’t make any practical sense in the moment.

The thing about these times, though, is that the thing on the other side of seemingly-impossible-to-cross chasm has to be worth it.  For Indiana Jones, not only was the Holy Grail an archaeological discovery of enormous significance, but in the context of the movie it was the only thing that was going to save his father from a soon-to-be fatal gunshot wound.  Dr. Jones was on a quest, then, to gain something grand.  That served to be a potent enough reward to make him willing to take that leap of faith in order to receive the prize.  Well, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are on a quest for something grand too.  You and I are on a journey to receive the prize of eternal life.  We experience it now in part to be sure, but we don’t yet have the full thing.  And, just like in Dr. Jones’ quest for the Holy Grail, there will be times in our own journeys where it feels like we have to take a bit of a leap of faith.  What do we do in times like these?

Thankfully, the Scriptures are full of stories of times when people stepped out in faith against impossible odds in order to follow the path God was stretching out in front of them.  Perhaps one of the most significant of these comes near the beginning of the record of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land.  The leader of the people during this wild time was a man named Joshua.  The record of this period of history bears his name.  Joshua was chosen by God and the people to be their leader after the death of Moses—talk about some big shoes to fill!  His job was fairly straightforward: lead the people of Israel in driving out a bunch of well-entrenched and militarily superior nations who had no interest in leaving.  Piece of cake, right?

Let me set the stage for you and then we’ll look at this story together.  Joshua’s story starts out by describing the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua.  God starts by stating the obvious: “Moses my servant is dead.”  Thank you, Captain Obvious.  Yet this was important.  Joshua didn’t need to waste any time pretending things weren’t the way they were or otherwise wishing they were something other than that.  Moses was gone and he wasn’t coming back.  It was time to move forward to complete the task he had started with the people some 40 years before.

God then goes on to officially call Joshua into leadership over the people and encourages him to stand with strength and courage against whatever obstacles might have being lying in his path.   From there the people formally accept him as leader and reaffirm their dedication to keeping the covenant of law that Moses had so recently reviewed with them.  With new leadership in place, they get ready to head out.  Just before they hit the road, though, Joshua decides it will be a good idea to send two more spies into Jericho—the first stop on their conquest tour—just to get the final lay of the land.

You are perhaps familiar with the story of the spies’ experience.  Upon arriving in Jericho they stay with a woman named Rahab.  Rahab is a prostitute who runs an inn that is apparently a part of the outer wall of the city.  When she hears that the leader of the city has learned of the spies’ presence and has sent men to find them, she hides the spies on the roof of the building.  Her description of the state of the city to them reveals just how thoroughly God has prepared things for their arrival.  She said to the spies, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.”  Quite a confidence booster just before attacking the city.

The spies work out a deal with her by which she and as many family members as she can pack in her house will be saved from the coming destruction and then head back to Joshua to report.  Finally, then, the people are ready to go.  They’ve waited for as many as 40 years for this moment.  They are finally going to receive the land that God has been promising would be theirs for more than a generation.  The prize is almost within their grasp.  This reward is worth overcoming any obstacle.  There is just one problem.  There is an obstacle.  And it’s kind of a big one: the Jordan River at flood season.  Yes, God had parted the Red Sea to get the people out of Egypt in the first place so this should technically pose no threat to their advance.  But that was 40 years ago.  Joshua and another man named Caleb were the only two people in the whole nation who were over 20 years old when God did that.  Many of the people standing on the Eastern side of the Jordan waiting to get into the land and claim their inheritance were too young to remember it.  Most hadn’t even been born yet.  It’s one thing to hear about God doing something amazing.  It is a totally different thing to be standing there waiting for it to happen.

There were no doubt more than a few folks standing there with all their belongings packed up ready to go who were wondering what exactly God had called them to do.  Their prize lay ahead of them, but in between was a flood-swollen river waiting to drown them and they didn’t have any boats.  Behind them lay the desert through which they’d spent the past 40 years wandering.  They weren’t going back there.  Ahead of them lay a river that at the present moment was impassable.  Perhaps they would need to wait until the dry season when the river didn’t pose the same challenge.  After all, what’s another few months when you’ve been waiting so long already?  I’ll tell you what it is: an eternity.  The people were in a hard place.  What do we do when God has called us to something big but which doesn’t seem possible?  What do we do when God has called us to a grand journey but the first step is apparently off a cliff—or as was the case here, into a raging river?

Let’s see this together.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Joshua 3.  Let’s take a look together at what Joshua and the people of Israel did.  I’ll start reading from the beginning of the chapter: “Then Joshua rose early in the morning and they set out from Shittim.  And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over.  At the end of three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the people, ‘As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it.  Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about [a half mile] in length.  Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.’  Then Joshua said to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.’  And Joshua said to the priests, ‘Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on before the people.’  So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people.”

The scene is set.  The people are ready.  The priests are out front with the ark to lead them in the direction God is sending them…and they’re heading straight for the river.  The tension is high.  What is going to happen?  Are the priests going to walk on the water?  Are they going to walk in the river and somehow not drown?  The current is so strong!  Surely they will be swept away when their feet get into the water.  The priests walk closer and closer as the people watch from a distance with baited breath.  They had already been told what was supposed to happen, but the question was: would it?

Look at v. 11: “Behold the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan….And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap.”

God promised that the water would pose no threat to their progress, that the waters themselves would part before the people and they would once again cross a mighty body of water on dry ground.  But, this wasn’t going to happen until the soles of the feet of the priests who were carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, were resting on the river bed.  Until they stepped all the way into the water, nothing was going to happen.  There were many more steps ahead of them on their journey to receive what God had for them, but these were not going to become apparent until they stepped out in obedience to God.  These first steps weren’t easy, but they were necessary to experience the rest; they were necessary to experience the riches God had for them on the other side.  When it came to following God for the people of Israel, the next steps weren’t coming until they stepped out in obedience to what God had called them to do.  In much the same way, in our own journeys with God, we often find ourselves in a place where we know there is more to be had, but there’s this gap between us and the more that we don’t immediately see how to cross.  God has called us to cross it, but there’s neither bridge nor boat to be seen.  It won’t be until we step out in obedience into this unknown that we will see the next steps to take.  With God, sometimes the next steps come only when we step out in obedience.  The next steps come when we step out in obedience.

Now, that sounds good in theory, but let’s put some structure on it so we can better wrap our minds around what it looks like.  For the people of Israel stepping out meant the priests walking all the way into the flood-swollen Jordan River before God stopped the flow of the water so they could all cross on dry ground.  Yours and my journeys may not seem to make for such epic storytelling, but that doesn’t make them any less consequential.  Maybe God has been working on a particular aspect of our character.  He’s working to develop a stronger spirit of patience in us.  Or perhaps it’s kindness.  Or generosity.  Or maybe Gospel boldness.  The end result of this particular journey is that we will be more like Christ in one way or another.  That’s certainly a prize worth claiming.  It will allow us a deeper and richer access to God’s presence and activity in our lives.  Who doesn’t want that once they understand why it’s worth desiring?  And indeed, if you are a follower of Jesus, there’s something in you just like there’s something in me that recognizes we should be more patient, kinder, more generous, and bolder about sharing the Gospel than we currently we.  We all feel that pressure and do little things here and there to try and move ourselves down the path toward the goal.   But God has something bigger in mind if we are willing to receive it.  He wants to perfect us in the image of Christ, not simply see us take baby steps down the road.  But, in order to get there, we have to be ready to step out and obey God in the hard.  The next steps come when we step out in obedience.

It may be that we have to step into a season of waiting without apparent recourse until God moves.  That’ll grow a spirit of patience in us.  Perhaps we need to step out and start performing acts of radical kindness for the people around us.  Or maybe we need to follow God into a place where we have to be on the receiving end of kindness for a season in order to learn from the inside out how to show it.  It could be that God is calling us to new heights of generosity, but that means stepping out and committing far more of our resources to that end than to which we are accustomed.   Perhaps this year’s Christmas Blessing project is just the chance you’ve been waiting for to do this.  Or just maybe we need to step out in the waters of witnessing and strike up Gospel conversations with some non-Christians in our lives in spite of the fears within us.  It may even be that we need to step out and cultivate some friendships with non-Christians because we don’t have any and that’s never a very good place for Christians to be.

But, lest I leave you thinking the big plans of God are focused solely on your character, they are not.  God has visions for how you will serve Him as well.  That service may lie well within your comfort zone, but it may also fall very far outside of it.  I’ve heard many stories of Jesus followers who were serving in a place they would have never chosen on their own, but where they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.  It all started when they stepped into the water at the prompting of God and learned where the next steps would take them.  The next steps come when we step out in obedience.

God has an incredible thing for our character in mind; He has an incredible thing for our lives in mind.  But, we can’t receive it until we are willing to step out in faith and obedience to do what He says.  The next steps come when we step out in obedience.  It may be a step into what is for us the wild unknown.  It could be a step toward a gulf that seems impossible to cross, a river that threatens to wash us away.  We may have to face down some of our most significant fears.  But, whatever it is, until we take the first step, the hardest step, we won’t see the next one.  The next steps come when we step out in obedience.

And in case it hasn’t become clear yet, let’s go ahead and make it explicit: this first step is a step of faith.  Like Sean Connery gasped in The Last Crusade, it is a leap of faith.  But, unlike what we saw in the movie clip, it is not the blind leap of faith that following God is often caricatured to be.  When Indiana Jones stuck out his foot and fell forward, he was stepping out blind.  He had nothing to go on but a Hollywood-ized notion of faith.  Faith in this sense is conceptualized as a blind leap into nothingness…kind of like what Dr. Jones did.  This, however, is not at all what the guys who contributed to the Bible had in mind when they talked about faith.  This is not the kind of faith the priests exercised when they stepped out into the water in order to see the next steps God had for the people.  What they had in mind, what they exercised, what I’m talking about is an entirely reasonable foray into what we cannot immediately see based on an overwhelming amount of evidence of God’s faithful activity in the past.  The next steps come when we step out in obedience, but when we understand our God and the kinds of things He has in mind for us, this step of obedience is the single most reasonable decision we could make.

The priests of Israel knew well the kinds of things God had done in the past.  He had parted a whole sea, what was a river to Him?  He had provided for them on a daily basis for 40 years in the wilderness, would He stop now that they had nearly arrived in the place they were headed all along?  He had brought them out of a land of slavery in order to set them free to be His people, was He going to simply hand them back into slavery in a different land?  No!  He had acted consistently on their behalf in the past and that wasn’t going to change.  If they wanted to see the next steps He had planned for them, they were going to need to trust Him and obey Him.  Friends, God has acted consistently on your behalf in the past and that’s not going to change.  Remember: He is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.  What are our problems and struggles in comparison to that?  You and I can trust that when we step out, He’s going to be there to catch us and show us the next step, whatever that happens to be.  But, we can’t experience this until we are willing to step out and do what He’s called us to do.  The next steps come when we step out in obedience.  Let us step out into the water and grow together.