I’ve been reflecting over recent weeks on biblical images consistent with commencing another new phase in my life and ministry, and have found myself returning once again to one of my favourite Old Testament stories. In Joshua Chapter 3, we see the Israelites, the people of God, at a critical point in their history, as they prepare to cross over the River Jordan into the Promised Land.
This is the story of the last phase of a journey that had lasted 40 years. At the beginning of the Exodus (Exodus 14:15), the people had been told to “GO FORWARD”, and in the ensuing account of their journey, related in the books of Exodus and Numbers, we are told 92 times that the people “set out!” Their journey was a constant experience of “going forward”, of moving toward the promised goal.
The long years in the wilderness brought a real mixture of experiences, and they were not always as faithful to God as God was to them. But all along the way they were learning about the reality of the relationship that God had forged with them. They were discovering the riches of God’s grace and experiencing God’s faithful and loving commitment to them as a people. There had been 40 years of preparation for this moment, as they waited to cross the River Jordan and enter the Promised Land.
They could have been excused for talking among themselves about how good it was to have finally arrived, to have at last come to the end of their wanderings. Now they could anticipate settling down and working to secure their future. What they were to discover, of course, was that this was not the end of their journey; it was but a transition from one phase of their pilgrimage to the next.
God’s people are always a pilgrim people. There is never a sense in which we can say that we have “made it” or that we have finally “arrived”. We are a pilgrim people, always on the way!
The Hebrew word “abar” meaning “to cross over” or “to pass over” is used 21 times in this story. It emphasises the decisive nature of this moment in the history of the Hebrew people. The word “abar” implies crossing over a boundary. For the Israelites, crossing over the Jordan River meant entering a new kind of life in the Promised Land.
We need to remember that many years before, the Israelites had stood in this same place, but because they were afraid to go in they turned back into the Wilderness, there to wander for many more years. In that period of time almost all the adults who had left Egypt in the original Exodus had died. Now they had come once again to the Jordan. It was the last remaining barrier between themselves and their future.
It is a sobering and confronting reality that the refusal to change almost inevitably leads to some kind of death. It was so for the Israelites and it is so for us. God calls us to share in a journey, to be on a pilgrimage. To go with God is to enter the land of promise. To refuse to go and to turn back is to find ourselves in the wilderness once again.
Reflect for a moment on the barriers that stand between us and a full experience of the presence of God in our lives, and in the life of our church. These barriers can be personal or relational, spiritual or moral, intellectual or psychological. They can exist in the form of prejudice toward other people, in an unforgiving spirit, in resistance to change, in a determination to have our own way no matter what, in manipulating or controlling other people, in the wounds and scars inflicted on us by others, or in our failure to live by faith and in a spirit of love.
“On the brink” can convey a sense of imminent peril, or it can mean the beginning of a new experience and opportunity. As I begin the next phase of my life and ministry, this story inspires and encourages me. I look forward with anticipation and confidence to what is about to unfold because I hold in my heart the promise of God’s presence, a promise confirmed by the words of Jesus and experienced in the power of the Spirit: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Photo : Newly inducted Moderator Rev Dr David Pitman