Hespeler, 22 November 2020 © Scott McAndless
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
Salvation is by grace through faith. That is perhaps the most central teaching of protestant Christianity. And, in many ways, every sermon I preach, every study I lead is ultimately trying to explain what that teaching really means. The bottom line seems to be this: none of us are going to be able to earn God’s favour by being good enough. God is rather looking for us to place our trust in God and in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
And that makes the parable that we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew a bit of minefield for a good old-fashioned Protestant preacher. I have privately heard Christian preachers and teachers suggest that they really don’t like this parable and that they kind of wish that Jesus never told it because, of course, this parable depicts the final judgment. And when the people are divided and judged as to whether they have pleased God, there seems to be only one criterion that matters: those who have behaved in the right way are blessed and those who have behaved in the wrong way are condemned. It seems to be a textbook example of salvation by works and not by faith.
And, yes, the actions that are celebrated in this parable are all really good. I would absolutely love to see people welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting those who need it. And obviously those are precisely the kinds of actions that do please God. But, at the same time, I do not believe that we, as people, can become more pleasing to God by our frequency or quality of such actions. So, what am I to do with this parable? How am I supposed to relate it to some of my central theological convictions?
Let me first say something about the whole notion of salvation. In the minds of modern Christians, we often make an easy connection between the notion of salvation and the whole question of who gets into heaven. For too many Christians, that is all that salvation means, a ticket to heaven someday after we die. But I just feel I need to say that this parable is not actually about who gets into heaven or into the afterlife and who doesn’t. It is a parable about who is already in the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven, in the Gospel of Matthew, is very clearly more about a present reality that people can live in right now than it is about what happens to people after they die. The key point is that those who do the things described in the parable are already in the reality of the kingdom of heaven and those who don’t aren’t. That is not to say that the kingdom of heaven does not have a reality or fulfilment beyond this present world. And I do believe that, in this world, we are meant to prepare for that ultimate reality, but the focus of this parable is on this present world.
So, that is one thing I always keep in mind as I read this parable. But there is also a second assumption about this parable that we easily make that I think needs to be challenged. On the surface, yes, this parable seems to be all about works, about what we do. The word faith is not mentioned. But I would like to suggest that, actually, this parable is all about faith.
Here is what I noticed on this time reading it through. When the Son of Man comes, and all his holy angels with him, and he separates the sheep from the goats, he addresses both groups in terms of what they have done. “I was this, and you did that” or “I was this and you failed to do that.” And there seems to be no discussion when it comes to what the sheep and the goats have done. The sheep do not push back against the Son of Man and say, “Wait, we didn’t do that kind of thing.” Nor do the goats push back and say, “Oh yes we did.”
No, the pushback all seems to be over one particular question and that question has to do with seeing. Both the sheep and the goats respond by asking, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison. . .” But here’s the thing: the Son of Man never asked them if they saw him. He only spoke of what they had done for him. He was not concerned at all about sight or recognition. And this is a significant point because the Bible has a lot to say about the relationship between faith and sight.
For example, in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (5:7) And the eleventh chapter of Hebrews begins like this: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Clearly, seeing is not necessary to faith. It even sometimes seems to get in the way of faith. And yet these sheep and goats seem to be fixated only on what they can or cannot see, as we all often are.
So why does this parable shift from the Son of Man’s focus on doing the right thing to the sheep and goats’ focus on seeing? Because this story is actually more about faith than we realize.
What is the real difference between the sheep and the goats in this parable? The two groups actually have far more in common than we usually realize. You see, apparently, according to this story, Jesus is constantly present in this world. He is particularly present in the poorest of the poor, in the hungry, in the sick, the forgotten and the prisoners.
Now, the heart of God has always been with such people. Throughout the scripture we see God prioritizing reaching out and taking care of the most marginalized people in society. But apparently something new and something unique has happened because of Jesus, because of the incarnation.
Because somehow, in Jesus of Nazareth, God entered into the human experience not just in some kind of sympathetic understanding but actually in the form of a human body that could understand human suffering, there is a sense in which Jesus remains uniquely present in this world in the persons of those who struggle or suffer the most. I can’t explain that. I can’t even really claim to understand it, but I know that it is the truth.
But here is what we see in this parable, though Jesus continues to be bodily present in this world, nobody can see it. The sheep, those who intentionally set out to take care of those who live on the margins, confess that they did not see it. And the goats, those who did nothing, did not see it either. So both the sheep and the goats have their blindness to this reality in common. And the Bible tells us that, when there is not sight, that is when there is a great opportunity for faith. And it is in what these two groups do with this opportunity that we see their paths diverge.
And let’s focus in on the goats for a moment. What do they do with their opportunity for faith? They do not see the reality that Christ is present in the marginalized, but what do they do with that? They continue to insist upon relying on their flawed sight. They look at the people who are living on the margins of their society, and what do they see? They see, first of all, people who are not like them. They may belong to other racial or ethnic groups. They may not talk like them or dress like them, and so they conclude that they have less value.
Or perhaps they look at them and can only see the short term. They see how costly in the short term it is to provide income support or addiction rehabilitation or health care or shelter for them. They see all of that and they conclude that such a high cost cannot be justified.
And, of course, they completely fail to see that, over the long term, there are costs that are even greater. They do not see the cost of lost potential and how people who are given a little bit of support now can contribute enormously to the society down the road. They do not see how entrapping people into conditions where they feel they have no hope and no prospects for the future is bound to create even more costly problems down the road. None of that is particularly visible and they do not see it.
They, not seeing the truth that Christ is somehow alive and present in this world, become caught up only in what they can see. And so they have no faith whatsoever. They have completely missed the incredible gift that has been given by Christ, his presence with them in this world.
The sheep, on the other hand, also have failed to perceive the presence of Christ in those that they have encountered. The only difference is that for them, this failure to see the truth has not mattered. Whether they have seen it or not, they continue to act as if every person that crosses their path, every person for whom they can make a difference for the good, is an opportunity to serve the Lord that they love. They, lacking sight, have continued to walk forward in faith and in so doing they have embraced the reality of the kingdom of heaven because they are living in the reality of it.
Salvation is by grace through faith. What that means is that God saves us. God saves us from whatever we need saving from. Salvation comes in the form of healing, of hope, of redemption and forgiveness and, yes, it also comes in the form of defeating death which is the ultimate enemy. God gives all such salvation as a free gift with absolutely no strings attached. That’s what grace is. But we access that through faith. And faith, in that context, does not mean that we have to believe a bunch of things about God or about Jesus. Faith is not about intellectually accepting certain tenants of belief. It is about trusting in God’s grace and salvation and it is about especially exercising that trust even though we cannot see it.
And so, if you want to experience God’s salvation now, you need to start living in the reality of the kingdom of heaven. You need to start living in that reality even if you cannot see it and even if you cannot feel it. It is hard for us to do that, I know, because we are so dependent on our senses. But God’s reality is God’s reality and the only way we can learn to trust that is by exercising our faith. We live as if it is so, and in time we will begin to experience it. That is what those sheep were doing, they were living in the reality of the kingdom of heaven even though they could not see it.
And, yes, there is an ultimate reality of the kingdom that comes on the other side of death. I cannot pretend to be able to describe that reality or what we will experience there. And I do believe that our entrance into that reality is in the loving and gracious hands of God alone – the God who has opened our way to that reality in Jesus Christ. My personal belief is that God is willing to accept any level of trust to grant us access to that reality.
But I believe that this parable, the parable of the sheep and the goats, is about how we live in that reality as much as we possibly can in this present world. And the bottom line is that we live in that reality and we experience the real presence of Jesus Christ with us here and now when we live our lives like those sheep, depending not on what we can see but on the promises of God who has so graciously extended salvation to all of God’s children.
Watch the sermon video here:
Hespeler, 15 November 2020 © Scott McAndless
Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, Psalm 90, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30
I have a simple question to ask you today. What is a talent? When you read that passage that we read this morning, Jesus’ famous Parable of the Talents, and you read about the master giving to his servants a number of talents, what are you thinking about? I suspect that, a lot of the time, what people do think about is talents – I mean, the English word talents.
That’s understandable, of course. We are reading the Bible in an English translation and we come across a word that is an obvious English word that we use all the time, the word talents, and of course that is what we think of. So, I suspect in many of our imaginations, we are seeing this master go up to one of his slaves and saying, “Here you go, I am going to give to you five talents. Here is a talent for playing the guitar. Here is a talent for break dancing, a talent for baking cakes, for doing tricks with a yoyo and for doing this really weird thing with your eyes. There you go, five talents.” And then, in the same way the master gives two talents to do things to someone else, and one to another.
I think it’s kind of inevitable that we, as English speakers, are going to read that kind of thing into the story. And so you will often get people interpreting and applying this parable to the whole matter of how we use whatever talents, skills and gifts we have as we go through life and maybe especially in the life of the church. We lament people who have talent and waste it. And sometimes I’ve even heard people use this parable to shame people into volunteering to do work or serve on committees in our churches.
And if that is what that word means, that would pretty much have to be exactly how we would read and apply this parable. But here is the thing, the word that appears in the Gospel of Matthew in this parable does not mean that. There is absolutely no sense in which, when Jesus said talent, he was referring to what we would call a talent. That word, talent, in the gospel is simply a Greek word that has been transliterated as talent in English. It is actually a huge coincidence that the ancient word that Jesus used sounded exactly like our modern English word talent.
A talent, in the ancient world, was simply a unit of money. Nothing more and nothing less. Just like we have dimes and quarters and loonies, they had shekels and drachma and talents. So the very first thing we need to realize as we read this parable, is that Jesus is talking about money. Now, that does not mean that the way we often read this parable as applying to the question of how we make use of our talents, skills and abilities is totally illegitimate. I do believe that we will see that it can also apply to that. But any interpretation that we make of this parable really ought to take into account that it has to do with money.
But just knowing that a talent is money is really only the beginning of what you need to understand about this parable. You also need to know just how much money a talent was. If you were to read the footnote in your Bible, you will find a very helpful note. The footnote tells you that a talent was, in that world at that time, about the amount of money that an average worker could expect to earn over a period of 15 years. That is an enormous amount of money. Statistics Canada tells me that the average annual income for Canadians in 2019 was about $54,000. Some earned more, some earned less, but if you average it out it works out to about that.
So, if an average Canadian worker took all of their pay for 15 years, gross pay before taxes, how much money would they have? Just over $800,000. So basically, in this parable, Jesus was telling a story about a man who gave out solid metal coins to a bunch of his servants and each one was worth about $800,000.
And to one of his servants, apparently, this man gave five talents. How much money in today’s terms would that be? Just about $4 million. Now, let me ask you, when was the last time you had somebody come up to you and hand you a check for $4 million and say to you, “Take this money and do something with it?” I don’t know about you, but that has never happened to me.
And that also raises the question, who has that kind of money to throw around, to give to other people and tell them to do something with it? The man in this parable clearly represents the very upper crust of people in that society, the kind of people that the people listening to Jesus tell the story would probably never even meet. And, what’s more, I’m not even sure that it’s the kind of person that you would want to meet because look how one of his servants describes him: “Master,” he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” This is not a nice person!
He is obviously filthy rich, but how did he get rich? Is he one of those people that we often like to admire? Is he a self-made millionaire, someone who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, who worked hard and so, in some sense, seems very deserving of having such wealth? Clearly not. No, he got where he was by taking advantage of whoever he could as much as he possibly could. This is not even your John D. Rockefeller or Jeff Bezos kind of millionaire who, even if he is kind of greedy, at least is creating something that people in the community value. No, he is more of a Pablo Escobar, a man who is ruthlessly exploiting other people for the sole purpose of becoming obscenely wealthy.
So, once you understand what a talent is, you have to come to terms with the story that Jesus actually told. He told the story of an extremely wealthy and not very likable man – maybe a drug lord or a crime kingpin – who gives to his minions extraordinary amounts of money and expects them, without even bothering to pay them, to use that money and double it for the sole purpose of pleasing and enriching the boss.
And the punchline of the parable, the point that Jesus goes out of his way to underline, is this: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Which is to say, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class disappears, which is basically a commentary on the way that the economy works when everything is run by the Pablo Escobars and the Jeff Bezoses of this world.
That is the story that Jesus told and the kind of amazing thing is that he seems to have told it with the expectation that by reflecting on that story we would somehow find in it the meaning of the kingdom of heaven.
I’ll tell you where I don’t think the kingdom of heaven is found in this parable. I don’t think it is found in the figure of the cruel and exploitative master. I know that people have often assumed that that master is supposed to represent God, but I’m sorry, the God that I have come to know through Jesus Christ, is the very opposite of “a harsh man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not scatter seed.”
Nor do I think that the kingdom of heaven is to be found in a system where “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” That’s not the kingdom of heaven, that’s simply how this world generally works with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
So, if we can’t find the kingdom of heaven in those things, where can it be found? The only answer that I can suggest these days is to say that it is found in how we choose to live in this flawed world with its exploitative systems. A talent may be a unit of money but the story isn’t really about how to get more money. The Prophet Zephaniah says, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” Money, in the ultimate reckoning, has no value, so I think it’s safe to assume that the parable is not really about how to make more money.
Jesus has this strange habit of looking at how people – even bad people or foolish people – behave within the flawed systems of this world and finding even in them something that can teach us about the kingdom of heaven and I think that that is exactly what he is doing in this parable.
With that understood, I believe that the thing that sets the slave who receives the single talent apart from those who receive more has to do with fear. He, knowing that the world is unpredictable, knowing that powerful people (like his master) are only out to exploit him, knowing that “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” he responds out of fear. He can only think of holding onto and hiding whatever he has and not taking any risks with it.
There is a place for careful saving. There is a place for acting prudently and not taking unnecessary risks. He is, in my estimation, not condemned for any of those things but for simply being overtaken and acting solely out of fear.
The other servants took a chance. Yes, they did run the risk of losing everything, but at least they were willing to try something. They had just as much reason to be afraid as the servant with the one talent, maybe even more because they had more to lose. And make no mistake, their master would have punished them severely for that! But, whatever else they may have done wrong, they had at least not allowed fear to be their master.
And that is the lesson that I think we should all take from this parable. Yes, there is a place for prudence and safety, but if all our actions are controlled by fear, we will never discover the true power of the kingdom of heaven. That is a lesson that I would like all of us to seek to apply in this week that we begin together.
We all encounter fear as we go through life. And yes, there are some situations that we will wisely avoid because we are afraid. For example, when your fear tells you not to jump out of the airplane with a chute that doesn’t work, a wise person listens. But fear should be more of a wise and faithful counsellor than a master. You need to have power over it so that it does not control you.
The kingdom of heaven is not built here on earth by those who always play it safe and never step out of their comfort zone. It will be built by those who take thoughtful risks. So this week, step out of that comfort zone of yours in some small way. Speak up in a situation where your fear tells you to keep silent. Make a contact that feels a bit risky to you. Put something on the line for the sake of something that really matters to you. And, yes, if you have a talent that God has given you that you have not used because you have been afraid of how people might react, by all means use that talent! We need to be willing to do those kinds of things both individually and as a church together. That is, I believe, how we will find the signs of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus was trying to show us by telling this parable.
Watch the sermon video here:
Hespeler, 8 November, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
Do you remember the last time you got invited to a wedding? I realize, of course, that it’s been a while now since things like weddings have been celebrated in a normal way so you may have to cast your memory a long way back, but surely you remember.
And do you remember the part of the wedding when there were a bunch of virgins (I know that the word that is used in the New Revised Standard Version is “bridesmaids,” but the Gospel text actually only says virgins in the original language) – a bunch of virgins whose job it was to wait around at the bridegroom’s house for him to bring his new bride home and, well, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you know what I mean? And they were supposed to greet the couple with bright lamps and happy smiles.
And do you know how it sometimes used to happen that the bride and the groom got delayed for hours with all the feasting and drinking and well-wishing and some of the virgins who hadn’t planned ahead and brought some extra oil for their lamps would run out and how funny it would be when they had to leave and go buy some more oil and they weren’t there when the couple actually arrived and ended up missing the whole party? Oh, remember how we used to laugh when that happened? Oh, foolish, foolish virgins!
What, you don’t remember that? Oh man, I’m glad. I thought I was losing it! I thought that this pandemic had been going on so long that I’d completely forgotten what a normal wedding looked like. So I am not the only one who is really struggling to make sense of that parable from the Gospel of Matthew about the ten virgins at the wedding? I mean, obviously Jesus was trying to make a point by telling that parable. But the wedding customs that he referred to – customs that all of the people in the crowd who heard him tell that parable could understand without thinking about it – are just plain weird to us.
So it seems to me that I have two options if I want to help people understand this parable of Jesus. I could spend a lot of time explaining ancient wedding customs so we could get the point. The only problem with that is that I can’t really say that I understand what the customs were. I’m not sure anybody can because the wedding customs of ancient peasants are not generally the kind of thing that get written down in ancient sources.
So I’m going to take another option. I’m going to try and see if I can retell Jesus’ parable within a system and some customs that we already understand.
It was election night and the ten voters settled down in front of their television to watch the election results. They were, all of them, first time voters. They had never voted in an election before but, in each case, something had made them resolve to actually participate in the process this year. So I guess that you might call them ten political virgins.
And five of these political virgins were completely naïve about the whole election process. They figured that this whole process of counting the ballots and declaring the winners couldn’t possibly take much time at all. If the local polling place closed at 9:00 p.m., then surely everything would be settled by, what, 9:05? Surely 9:30 or 10:00 on the outside! So these foolish voters didn’t exactly plan for a long night. A bag of chips and one can of coke was all they brought to get them through the night.
And, of course, they had brought their phones with which they expected to live tweet all of their reactions to the fast-breaking developments as they happened. And, just to make sure, they had charged their phones all the way up until the batteries were almost like three quarters full.
But the other five voters, even if it was their first time, were at least well versed in election processes and informed about how things were supposed to work. They knew about the intricacies of the electoral college. They had informed themselves and knew that a lot of people had voted differently this year and that it would likely take longer to count all of the mail in and the absentee ballots and even, in some places, the early votes.
They also knew that, though it might soon be very clear who had won the popular vote, that actually didn’t matter at all. So, having been warned that things might be close in some places and that it might take a very long time for anyone to know who actually won, they were ready to be in it for the long haul.
So what did they bring? What didn’t they bring? They had chips and cheezies and popcorn of all flavours. There were coffee and energy drinks to keep them going through the slow times. They had also brought some special drinks that they were going to use for a drinking game they had designed. You know, “Every time somebody mentions voter fraud, take a drink. Every time somebody mentions voter intimidation take another. Another for every lawsuit and so on.” And that, really, was only just the beginning. These people had brought so many supplies and such a wealth of snacks and comfort food that it was piled high upon the coffee table.
And as for their cell phones, they had not only charged them all the way to the top, they had brought dozens and dozens of power banks ready to plug in as needed. Oh, they had so much that it was almost ridiculous. And, yes, the foolish virgins did indeed laugh at these wise ones who had brought so much to sustain them. But the wise ones smiled and shrugged and said, “Let’s just wait and see who looks foolish when all is said and done.”
Now, I don’t mean to get into talking about how, exactly, these ten virgins chose to vote. That is their business. They had not all voted the same way. Let’s just say that about four and a half of them voted one way and five and a half the other. And let’s say that there were wise and foolish who voted both ways, for they voted for their own reasons and according to their own understanding. But let us also note that they all, in their virgin political innocence, believed in the importance of what they had participated in. They believed, in fact, that the future of their country, of democracy and perhaps of civilization itself was riding on the results that they were now waiting to hear. So they were understandably impatient to hear what the results would be.
And so they waited and watched. It was a long evening which was then followed by what seemed to be an even longer night and then a day that was simply interminable. And even then – after many a moment of hope followed by a new depth of despair, peppered with many bursts of anger and frustration – after all of that, it seemed that nothing was really resolved.
Eventually, the five foolish voters looked up. Their one bag of chips lay empty on the floor and their can of coke, long drained had been crumpled in disgust by someone who had been completed scandalized by something that some talking head had said on a panel. They had twitted and tweeted until their thumbs were blistered, but now their phones were languishing at 3% charge. They were hungry, exhausted and strung out. They were done.
And so the five foolish voters went to the five wise voters and said, “You guys have so much. You have snacks and drinks and you still have lots of full power banks. Maybe if you would just share a little bit from all of this bounty that you have, maybe we will be able to hold on until we learn the news that will save us all.” But the wise virgins said no. They said that if they were to give what they had prudently brought to carry themselves through until the results were known, there would not be enough for everybody.
Now this angered the foolish virgin voters more than anything that had happened yet. And they stood up and said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore. Let’s just put an end to this right now. If we were just to stop counting the votes, this never-ending nightmare could be over.” And so they went out and went to the Supreme Court and argued with them saying, “It doesn’t matter if they haven’t finished counting the votes of people who voted in certain ways, we just can’t stand waiting anymore. Make it all stop and give us an answer now.” And so they argued and argued and argued and time continued to pass.
Meanwhile, back in front of the television, the wise virgin voters continued to wait for something to happen – something that would indicate to them that there was some reason to hope that their lives could mean more than a mere scramble to survive in a covid infected, largely dysfunctional world.
And then, at some point, while those foolish virgins were off making their arguments, it happened. What happened? Well, there were some developments towards identifying a winner, but it was not really that. There were some close races that began to resolve, but it was not that. No, it was rather that, as these things were going on, the wise voters began to realize that if the kingdom of heaven was going to come, it was going to have to come in them. And they went into an inner room and shut the door. They began to plan, whether or not they had the support of this party or that party, this leader or that one, they would see that kingdom come.
And while they were there in that inner room with the doors locked, the foolish voters who thought that the only thing that mattered was who won and who lost, returned. And they cried out to the wise virgins locked in the inner room and they asked to be part of what they were doing, but those in the inner room cried out and said, “Go away for you would not understand the commitment we have made.” And so the foolish voters remained in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and everyone is perpetually condemned to wait and think that maybe, in the next election, there will finally be salvation.
Jesus’ Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is one of many he seems to have told to encourage people to wait and to be prepared. He says that, by reflecting on this story, we should be able to find out what the kingdom of heaven is. I love these parables, but I struggle to understand exactly what it is that we are supposed to be waiting for and what it actually means to be prepared.
It is hard enough, of course, when you have a parable like this one that makes cultural assumptions that we really know nothing about. But, in recent American political events, we saw a situation unroll where there was a great need for patience and anticipatory waiting in which we could perhaps finally understand how hard waiting can be.
So, my question is this. I think we have just lived through some events that do well illustrate the kind of waiting that Jesus was talking about in this parable. So where, in what we just lived through, is the kingdom of heaven? My personal opinion is that it is not to be found in this candidate or that one, in this party or that. But I still believe that there is a bridegroom and that, if we remain prepared in the right ways, he will come. And, as for time, it will take what it takes.
Watch the sermon video here:
For forty years, we are told, the children of Israel wandered around in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. That extraordinary period of time began with a famous water crossing – the dramatic battle of the Sea of Reeds. That crossing gets all the attention, the five star ratings and the multimillion dollar blockbusters made about it. Everyone loves that story. That may be why it is so easy for people to forget that there is another water crossing story at the end of those forty years that, in its own way, is just as remarkable: the crossing of the River Jordan.
And the mere fact that these two stories bookend the entire desert wandering saga invites us to compare and contrast them. They have much in common. Both stories are about the legitimation of leadership. The Reed Sea cements Moses’ reputation as perhaps the greatest leader of the people of Israel while the Jordan River crossing marks Joshua as his legitimate successor.
Both stories also happen to be about working through the deep-seated psychological fears of the people. The ancient people of Israel, you see, were terrified of the water. They didn’t swim. They thought that people who went out in ships were just plain crazy, as we see in the psalm that we read this morning. In their minds, the water was this place of terrifying mythological creatures like Rahab and Leviathan and they spoke of the deep as a place of terror. That’s why both of these stories, the Jordan River crossing and the Reed Sea crossing, became for them stories about how their God fought the creatures of their greatest nightmares for them.
So there are important connections between the two stories, but there is one key difference that attracts my attention today. It is just a small thing, but it marks a huge shift for the people. There are some variations in the accounts of the Reed Sea incident, but there is one thing that is quite clear in all of them. At the Sea of Reeds, the people merely had to stand and wait while God prepared the way for them. The water was removed for them and then they passed all the way through on dry ground. But the story is decidedly different when it comes time to cross the Jordan River.
In fact, this is such an important point that it is repeated twice. First, when God is giving the instructions, he says, “When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off.” And that is repeated again when it actually happens. “So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still.” So we are told twice that the people, and specifically the religious leaders of the people, had to step in and get their feet wet first before the way was cleared. I have learned to pay close attention when the Bible repeats things. There is usually something behind that.
And I know that that doesn’t really sound like much to us. I mean, what is the big deal if they had to get their feet wet before God dried up the river? But remember what I said about these people being aquaphobic. They lived with an irrational fear of large bodies of water. So maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal for you or me to get our feet wet, but it was for them. And someone may also note that, really, the Jordan River isn’t that big and imposing – that it is really not all that scary to cross. And, no, it isn’t really, but the story does make a point of telling us that the river was in flood that season and a flood – the idea that a river might overflow its set boundaries, the idea of water out of control – seems to have been something that they found particularly terrifying. So, yes, the crossing and the getting feet wet really was a big deal for them.
Think about this: in order for God to do this particular thing for them, apparently, they first had to confront their biggest, most elemental fear and then God would defeat that very thing that they were afraid of. And that is the one element that seems to have been lacking in the story of the Reed Sea.
How should we think about that? Why have these two stories been presented to us in this way so that we can’t help but notice this difference? You might think of this as just a little side note in the story of this ancient journey to the Promised Land, but I think there is something of greater symbolic importance going on here.
Perhaps we should think of the two stories as illustrations of how God prepared the people for two different but important phases in their lives as a nation. Maybe as the people entered into the time of wandering in the desert, they needed to learn something about God’s power and provision – that is the lesson that we certainly see them struggling through those wilderness years – and so maybe the Reed Sea crossing needed to be such a powerful demonstration of God’s raw power. But, honestly, I think that God only rarely works that way. And I think that the Jordan River crossing, which prepared the people for a new, more stable and settled time in their lives, may better represent how God often likes to work in our lives.
The lesson of the Jordan River seems to be simple enough. God can and will do amazing things for us. But God is also looking for something from us. God is looking for us to get our feet wet. This is not because God needs our help to get things done. Surely God is quite capable of blasting away any river that might be blocking our path. God laid the course of that river in the first place, surely God is still it’s master. But still God wants the people to do this one thing, to get their feet wet. If this is not for God’s sake, it must be for theirs.
They were about to enter into the Promised Land. And if they were going to keep that land and make it everything that God was calling for it to be, they needed to be all in. And so God was looking for something from them that indicated that they were committed and that they were going to put their trust in God as they lived in that land. And that seems to be what it meant to be willing to get their feet wet, it meant a willingness to face one of their most elemental fears – the monsters of the flood – with trust that God would make their way.
But, like I say, I don’t think that this is just a one-time thing. I think that this is exactly how God often likes to work in our lives. Yes, we look to God to remove the barriers that are lying before us. And God does remove those barriers, God delights in making the way for us. But God does also look for us to get our feet wet as an expression of our faith in God.
So, let’s think about this today not merely in terms of the actual geographical barrier that was the Jordan River. I would invite you to look at this story in terms of whatever barrier you may be facing in your own personal life, in the life of some group you belong to or in the life of somebody that you care about.
Say, for example, that you have a particular dream of something that you have felt called to do. You have wanted to do this thing, you have believed that a great deal of good will come from doing it, but there’s just been this one thing that’s always been in the way of doing it. And I don’t know what that barrier is. It could have something to do with money or maybe with somebody’s disapproval. It might be a practical barrier or maybe a mental block. But whatever it is, it is real and it is in the way. Whatever that barrier is, is between you and God, but you know that that barrier is there.
Well, I’m here to tell you today that God will remove that barrier. God specializes in removing barriers. But there is one thing, God would like you to get your feet wet. God would like you to take a step out in faith because taking that step is a way for you to express the faith that you have in God, the great barrier remover.
And I’m going to warn you, taking that step of faith might mean what it meant for the children of Israel. It might mean facing up to one of those deep elemental fears that you carry around inside you. Because here is the big secret: the barriers that we encounter in our lives, the barriers that most often prevent us from doing what we’re called to do, are usually strongly connected to our most secret and hidden fears.
In fact, I would challenge you to invite God to show you what it is that you really fear. Are you afraid of failure? Of other people judging you? Are you afraid of success, or change or rejection?
Take some time and examine those situations that you’ve lived through in your life – situations that you worked hardest to escape or avoid. Why did you do that; what were you afraid of? If you are like me, if you are like most people, you will discover a pattern and that pattern will likely point you towards your deepest fear. And I will guarantee you that, whatever barrier you are facing in your life right now, it is connected to that fear. God wants you to get your feet wet in that fear.
I want to say one thing to reassure you: God is not asking you to plunge in with both feet and start swimming. God is not seeking to overwhelm you with that thing that you most fear. God is ready to remove the Jordan River for you. He is only looking for you to get your feet wet. That is to say that he’s looking for some sign that you are willing to trust your God with the small things so that God can meet you in the big things.
God just loves small acts of faith. I think that if you just put yourself in a position where you step out into that place that just feels a little bit beyond your comfort zone, you will find that God will meet you with such incredible power that it will blast those barriers away for you. A small step of faith, getting your feet wet, will go a very long way.
So that is one way you can take this story to heart – as you face your own personal challenge. But of course, the story we read this morning was not about an individual crossing, but a community crossing. So I should also point out that you need to be open to applying this passage to the communities or groups that you belong to. Communities also have their times when they face their River Jordans – when there is a barrier that is preventing them from advancing to the next phase in their lives. It is true, for example, of churches and congregations. The good news is indeed that we have a God who specializes in removing those barriers. And, yes, in that process, God may ask us to get our feet wet and that will indeed often involve confronting what we, as a community, fear most.
It makes me wonder how, exactly, God may be asking the church to get its feet wet these days. I’ll bet it might include confronting our own reluctance to actually talk openly and honestly about deep matters of faith. It might also have something to do with our fear of change. Whatever it is, though, it is for our own blessing and benefit that God is asking us to get our feet wet because God is ready to blast some barriers away.