Sermon: The River Jordan
Preached on 4th October 2009
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips, and the meditations of our hearts, be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of Life;
Life is nought without thee: aid us in our strife;
Make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.
You may recognise those words as part of the traditional English rendering of the 19th century Swiss hymn A toi la gloire, Thine be the glory, although here in Durham we now use a new translation by the Dean which is far more faithful to the French original.
I quote the version in our hymnbooks, however, because it mentions the River Jordan, which is the subject of this morning's sermon.
Regular members of the Matins congregation may recall that over recent weeks we have been reading some of the highlights from the Book of Exodus. So, over the last few Sundays we have read the stories of the appointment of Judges from Exodus 18; the theophany or awesome revelation of God at Mount Sinai from Exodus 19; and last Sunday, of the inauguration of God's solemn covenant with his people from Exodus 24.
Today we move out of Exodus and into the Book of Joshua with the account of crossing of the River Jordan by the people of Israel and so, finally, their entry into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, the land flowing with milk and honey.
The Book of Joshua is a challenging book. It is essentially the story not only of Israel's entry into the land of promise, but at the face of it, Israel's ruthless displacement of the existing tribes and peoples. As we read this morning:
By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites.
And it's pretty uncompromising stuff, and we are still living with the legacy of it in the complexities of religious and political ambition in modern Israeli-Palestinian politics. Modern European and world history has rightly made us very sensitive to the kind of extreme racist nationalism that seeks to destroy minorities by the kind of ideology which leads to genocide or so-called ‘ethnic cleansing'. Still worse, when it is done in the name of God.
But for the purposes of this sermon, I would like us to consider, not the historical but the theological and symbolic nature of this story, and in particular the symbol of the Jordan.
Let's remind ourselves of the narrative. Rather like the Sinai theophany which I preached about two weeks ago, Joshua tells the people that they are going to experience something extraordinary, and so he commands them to sanctify themselves. The priests are to carry the ark of the covenant, the great symbol that God was among his people. The priests had to proceed to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, which were in flood during the harvest season, and then remain stationary, the people following the ark. When the priests stood still, the water upstream also stood still, rising as a mighty wall of water. The waters downstream were thereby entirely cut off, and as they drained away, so the priests found themselves standing on dry ground. The priests with the arc then moved to the middle of the river bed while all Israel passed through the Jordan on dry ground and into the Promised Land. Chapter 4 tells us that once all the people had crossed, as soon as the feet of the priests also, crossed over, the waters returned, bursting the banks as before.
This, of course, is a reprise of the Red Sea story, as is stated in verse 23 of today's reading:
For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God for ever.
As Israel was delivered by Moses from slavery under Pharoah by crossing through the divided sea, so now under Joshua, the waters of the River Jordan follow suit as what had begun at the Red Sea is brought to completion and fulfilment in the Jordan. If the Red Sea was about escape, the Jordan is about entering into freedom.
The River Jordan, therefore, stands as a boundary, a marker, a separation. It divides off the people of God, called to live as a holy nation, from the surrounding nations, who do not know God. So the symbol of passing through water, at the Red Sea and at the Jordan, became embodied in Israel's consciousness; no more is this better expressed than in Psalm 114, In exitu Israel:
When Israel came out of Egypt : and the house of Jacob from among the strange people.
Judah was his sanctuary : and Israel his dominion.
The sea saw that, and fled : Jordan was driven back.
The mountains skipped like rams : and the little hills like young sheep.
What aileth thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest : and thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back?
Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams : and ye little hills, like young sheep?
Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord : at the presence of the God of Jacob.
Who turned the hard rock into a standing water : and the flint-stone into a springing well.
And so we should not be surprised, that in the New Testament, Jordan appears again, as the scene of the ministry of the Baptist, where John's baptism was also a boundary, a marker, a separation, not this time diving Israel from the nations, but making a separation within Israel itself, between those who wished to be washed in readiness for the coming of Messiah and those who thought they were clean. And of Course, John's baptism is the place of a new theophany, the revealing of the Son of God, the new Joshua or Jesus, the name is the same, meaning God is salvation; the one greater than Moses, who accomplishes a better salvation.
Last week, on a visit to the National Gallery, I found myself standing before one of my favourite paintings, The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca. Jesus stands, in focussed, prayerful, self-consecration as the Baptist pours water on his head and the Spirit as a dove hovers above him. But what interests me is the water. The water of the Jordan is depicted as being behind Jesus, possibly touching the back of the sole of his feet. But before him, the river bed is dry. Jesus comes through the water and stands on dry ground. So here is symbolised the greater fulfilment of the Exodus, the greater fulfilment of the Red Sea and the Jordan. For as Jesus passes through on dry land, and in doing so is declared to be the Son of God, so Jesus' baptism prefigures his Exodus, the cross and the resurrection, as he passes over from death to life.
And that is why the Jordan is such a powerful symbol for us. For in our baptism we too pass through the waters. Jesus' story becomes our story. In baptism we die with him, we are buried with him, we are raised to new life with him. We pass over, through water, from death to life, from slavery to freedom; we enter our inheritance, not in a physical land requiring the displacement of others, but into all the gifts and graces of life in Christ, the milk and honey of the new creation.
But as the Jordan for Israel stood as a boundary, a marker, a separation, dividing off the people of God, called to live as a holy nation, so our baptism is a sign of our call to walk in newness of life, to seek to live as the General thanksgiving says, in ‘holiness and righteousness all our days'.
Last week I was speaking to some trainee lay ministers. I spoke of the font as a living sign of new birth and new life but also as a provocation. It asks us the question, ‘Are you walking in newness of life?' Because the sins that make us fall short of that, need to go to where they belong, to the cross and into Christ's tomb where they belong - dead and buried.
And of course, as the Jordan was a prefigurment of Jesus' crossing over from death to resurrection life, so the Jordan becomes a symbol of our crossing over from death to life eternal, a crossing over which is a reality now, but will also be wonderfully fulfilled when these bodies of flesh and blood are laid aside. And so, I return to that Easter hymn,
Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love,
Bring us safe through Jordan, to our home above.
But it's not the only one, and so I conclude with yet more familiar words, as on this Day of Resurection we bring to God our praise and prayer:
When I tread the verge of Jordan
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell's destruction
Land me safe on Canaan's side.
Songs of praise, songs of praises,
I will ever sing to thee;
I will ever sing to thee.