The First Step is to Get Your Feet Wet – A Sermon on Joshua 3:7-17, Proper 26A

The collect and reading for Proper 26A, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, may be found here. The following sermon is based on Joshua 3:7-17.

If you have ever spent any time in the wilderness of life then you have probably spent time thinking about the promised land; that place where life will be better, more settled, easier.

Each one of us could tell a story of life in the wilderness. It is that place where life is just difficult. It is a struggle to just get up each morning and make it through the day. In the wilderness we walk and walk and walk, and get nowhere. Then we discover we have been walking in circles. No matter what we do progress eludes us. You feel lost, confused, and not sure which way to go or what to do. In the wilderness it takes all your effort to just survive. The wilderness of life is large and overwhelming. We by comparison feel small and vulnerable. Life in the wilderness is exhausting. In the wilderness you have to face up to yourself and your life. There is no place to hide.

We all have some idea of what the promised land will be like. Our promised land generally corresponds to our wilderness experience. So for most of us the promised land is either a return to the way things were before, back in the good old days, or it is a jump forward into an idealized future. Either way we want to escape the wilderness. So for those who wander in the wilderness of deep sorrow, loss, and tears the promised land might be a place of joy, where memories no longer cripple, tears no longer flow, and enthusiasm for life returns. For those who know the wilderness of loneliness the promised land is a place of relationship, acceptance, and belonging. In the wilderness of fear the promised land is about security, control, predictability. In the wilderness of unhappiness we long for a promised land of fulfillment and meaning. Sometimes the wilderness is simply about moving, changing, and growing. Even though those are good things, sought out, and welcomed the way can still be hard, tiring, and perilous. If the wilderness is about survival then the promised land holds before us the image of living, really living.

Most of the time we want to escape the wilderness. If we could have our way we would probably like God to pluck us out of the wilderness and set us down in the promised land. That’s not how it works. God does not rescue or save us from the circumstances of our lives. Instead, God goes through those circumstances with us. For every wilderness there is a promised land; and for every promised land there is a River Jordan that must be crossed.

The Jordan River is the boundary between the wilderness and the promised land. It is the obstacle standing between us and the promised land. Joshua has led the Israelites to the Jordan River. The promised land is in sight. Four hundred years of slavery and forty years of wilderness wandering have brought them to the edge. They have hoped, walked, suffered, prayed, talked, cried, trusted, regretted, sinned, and whined their way to this moment.

What do they see? A river in flood stage, overflowing its banks. There is no low water crossing in sight. The river is 150 miles long. They cannot go around it. There are no bridges. They cannot go over it. The way is blocked. The river is impassable. This is neither a good time nor a good place to cross. More often than not that is how our River Jordan looks. We forget, however, that this is not our time or place. God has chosen and brought Israel to this time and place even as God chooses and brings us to the time and place for our river crossings. The only way across the river is through the river.

We never go alone. God himself goes into the river. He is, let us not forget, the God of water crossings. He was there as Noah drifted across the flood waters that swept away the old and receded to reveal a new world, a new life, a new relationship. He wrestled with Jacob in the night, blessed and renamed him, and then watched him limp across the Jabbok River with a new identity, Israel. He called his people out of bondage in Egypt and through the Red Sea to a journey of salvation. Every crossing is an act of God’s faithfulness.

We each have a Jordan River that must be crossed and usually more than one. It seems that the life of faith is a series of water crossings. The Jordan River, however, is not a geographical feature. It is a part of our inner landscape. Crossing the Jordan, entering the promised land, will not change the circumstances of our lives. It changes us, and that changes everything.

Like Israel we stand at the edge of the Jordan. The only way into the promised land is through the flood waters of life. How deep is it? How solid is the bottom? Is it slippery? Is the water cold? How strong is the current?  How far across is the river? What will I find on the other side? All good questions. In some way those are the questions of life, the questions that arise every time we make a move, whether geographical, emotional, or spiritual. They are not, however, questions that get answered before we step into the river of new life. Ultimately, it is God not the answers that takes us across our Jordan.

God, however, did not hold back the water for Israel before they put their feet in. It is only after they stepped into the water that God acted. The waters do not part until we step out in faith, until our feet are dipped in that impassable river. God can only work with what we give him. Standing on the bank waiting for answers, waiting for a better time and place, or waiting for the flood to subside offers God nothing with which to work. God will not act, the river will rage, and we will remain stuck. That first step, however, gives God something to work with.

One step is all it takes. One step. As soon as Israel’s feet were “dipped in the edge of the water” God acted, the flowing waters stood still, there was dry land, and all the people crossed over. With that one step we follow the ark of God’s presence into the Jordan.

We all have that one step, that first step, that needs to be taken. Take that first step and you have offered God something with which to work. The flood waters of your life will be parted, dry land will be revealed, and the way forward will be opened to you.

What is that first step for you? There are as many first steps as there are circumstances of life. Maybe the first step is to offer another forgiveness and reconciliation. Maybe your one step is to let go of anger or resentment. Maybe your life is unmanageable and that first step is just one of twelve. Sometimes the first step is to simply be quiet, be still, and listen. Perhaps yours is to let go of having to be right or in control. Maybe it means you no longer let fear dominate your life. Perhaps the first step for you is to risk intimacy and vulnerability. Maybe that one step is taking responsibility for your life.

I do not know your first step but I trust that God does. I do not know when or how you will cross your Jordan but I know it happens one step at a time and that first step always takes us to a new land, to a new way of being, and to a new life, God’s life. Step out in faith. Get your feet wet.

7 thoughts on “The First Step is to Get Your Feet Wet – A Sermon on Joshua 3:7-17, Proper 26A

  1. Mike, I always enjoy your writings, but this one especially touched me…I suppose because I have been in that place more than once. I have a first step I need to take now – maybe I’ll have the courage to do it with this reminder. Blessings to you.

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    • Barbara, it seems like the first step is often the hardest. I think life and faith are a series of first steps. I am glad the sermon was helpful. May God grant you courage and persevere in your first step, saints to encourage you, and angels to guard and uphold you. Peace, Mike+

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  4. Thank you Mike for the words of encouragement. I’m preparing a sermon for the service on Sunday. The theme is “The first steps along the way” reading from Matthew 3:13-17. Thank you for sharing the “steps” topic really enjoyed reading your thoughts. This also will help me with my preparation. Thank you and GB.

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