Between Fear and the Future

January 12, 2020

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Joshua 31-8, 14-end, at Mattins on Sunday 12th January 2020, the First Sunday after Epiphany.

A great divide.

A great divide between 2019 and 2020, and between the 2010s and 20s of the new millennium.

However little we tend to celebrate chronological time in the Church, we can hardly fail to notice the passing of the years and decades. And we wonder what might lie on the other side – will the grass be any greener there, after all?

Over the Christmas holidays Sophie and I visited a small and in many ways unremarkable church on the outskirts of Cheltenham; but it was remarkable for its glass. Stained glass windows by Tom Denney, on ten of the parables, lined the sides of the nave. There was a Comper window at the East End, and the western entrance porch held two etched, plain-glass windows by Nicholas Mynheer.

Because the church is dedicated to St Christopher, one of these etched windows tells the legend of that saint carrying the Christ-child on his shoulders through the River of Life. Rivers accentuate a sense of transition because they take negotiation. Where they are fordable, villages, towns and cities spring up, as they did here in Winchester.

So it’s good that in the New Year we have a river-crossing story, over the Jordan, which reminds us of the even-more-famous crossing of the Red Sea led by Moses.

At that crossing, fleeing from Egypt to the Promised Land, the water crossing represented the threshold between slavery and freedom, between death and life. Here the crossing led by Joshua means something different, as we’ll see.

Joshua and his people had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, God’s punishment for their unbelief. Spies had gone into the Promised Land for 40 days, one spy from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and they’d come back with a bunch of grapes so big that it took two men to carry it on a pole, and yet they came back with hardly a good word to say about the place. The spies feared the tribes they had seen there – the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites, and the Canaanites living along the far bank of the Jordan.

For their timidity God punished them – 40 years of exile to match the 40 days of promise they had spurned.

The wilderness side of the Jordan, therefore, represented fear and timidity, a land of scarcity, want and wandering resulting from their faithlessness to God’s call.

The land of the other side, they remembered, was flowing with milk and honey; it was a place to settle and to enjoy blessing and abundance; but between the two sides flowed a river. The river held them back.

Well, yes and no. The river was a challenging, physical barrier, but even when they arrived there with Joshua, somewhere around May, with the waters swollen with winter rain and melting snow from Mt Hermon, the Jordan could have been forded with difficulty, but without any miraculous intervention on God’s part.

But the deep barrier that prevented people from crossing wasn’t the river; it was their fear that first caused them to abandon their Exodus. What needed to change to liberate them was their hearts.

And that’s why God sets up a promising threshold at the edge of the river. He promises that as soon as the priests carrying the ark dip their toes in the water, He will act. They won’t have to worry about the water anymore; and their faith in God and in Joshua will be justified, as God acts swiftly to save and help them.

God understands that we are afraid and that fear prevents our obedience and traps us on old land, so he stands at the threshold. He won’t do everything at once, but he does clear the way. You can’t teach toddlers to walk by dragging them along the carpet, but you can stand just ahead of them with your hands outstretched, smiling, inviting them to take the first step.

2020 could be a year when we learn to obey and to follow God more closely, but we may need reassurance, to overcome our fear and disbelief, so let’s think about another central element of the story, the ark of the covenant.

We might think of the ark of the covenant as a burden, rather than as a sign of God’s presence. Rather like this cathedral – a sign to thousands of people every year of God’s might and majesty, yet also a monumental liability, consuming the energy of a small army of staff and volunteers.

And those of us who carry this responsibility might be tempted to believe that God’s name rests on our shoulders. But if we start to believe that, we’ll make ourselves too important, and pass on our sense of the burden of responsibility to others. The Pharisees and Sadducees ended up in exactly this position.

But God’s good name doesn’t rely on our support of Him but of His salvation of us. The ark of the covenant contained the stone copy of the commandments given to Moses on Mt Sinai, a reminder of the blessings he promised for obedience, just as at the heart of this cathedral stands an altar, to remind us of another covenant of blessing.

It’s not the carrying of the ark into the River Jordan that saves the people but the grace that flows from a holy God, as the people finally confront their fear, take the plunge and follow him.

I didn’t finish telling you about the Myneer windows in the porch: on the right St Christopher is carrying Christ over the waters, but Christ’s arms are flung open. They are welcoming two characters on the left hand window, the Good Samaritan and the victim he has met on the road, who he is carrying to safe lodging.

You see how grace works here. The Good Samaritan is blessed as he carries the victim, St Christopher is blessed as he carries Christ. In both cases God blesses those who obey, who overcome their fear. The priest who earlier in Christ’s parable passed by the victim was not blessed – he feared uncleanness – but the Good Samaritan was prepared to do the right thing; as was St Christopher in the legend, even though the waters he navigated were dangerous.

2020 could be the year for your and my crossing from the land of timidity to a land flowing with milk and honey. The giants guarding the other side may be beatable. By grace, the future is ours to colonise.

Look at the priests standing on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan until the entire nation finishes crossing over; and look at Christ, our Great High Priest, standing in the gap between heaven and earth, by his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, until the last of his people have crossed over from death to life.

We are not called to carry the burden of God; God in Christ has shared our flesh, carried our burdens, borne our sorrows. The sign of Christ is the final remedy for our quaking hearts, our fear that the God we praise in worship as Almighty is actually out of his depth when it comes to the special challenges we face. But no, Christ sustains us and all things. As our second lesson put it:

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.

2020 is our chance to give up trying to support God and to allow him to support us instead, especially as in the life of this nation we cross into uncharted territory.

And perhaps the result will be a church marked by gratitude, by heartfelt praise and joy, as we see God going ahead of us, acting to deliver us.