Joshua 3: 7-17; Matthew 14: 22-33
February 19, 2012
If I were to ask you to recall the incident in the Bible when the waters parted and allowed God’s people to go from one side to the other, you’d probably describe a Charlton Heston-like Moses, standing on a rock cleft looking out over the massive Red Sea, holding his arms up high as the Israelites made their way to the other side and to their freedom. And you’d be right, of course, because that’s what we find in Exodus chapter 14. Well, not the Charlton Heston part, but you know what I mean.
The thing that may be news to most of us is that this is not the only water-parting story in the Bible. There’s another one that comes later, in the book of Joshua. Now granted, it doesn’t get near the press time as the first one. Nor is it as glamorous, or Hollywood-worthy. This other water-parting story takes place not at the beginning of the Israelites’ 40-year journey in the wilderness, but at the very end of it; right as they were preparing to set foot in the land God has promised them so many years before. In fact, that promised land was just on the other side of the body of water that stood between them and their destiny. Just a few steps away from their new home.
It was the Jordan River that God’s people had to cross this time – not at all like the vast Red Sea a generation before. This was just a river bed, but still deep enough to be a problem for carts and livestock and the like. They couldn’t cross in the open water. They had to do something else.
But they weren’t going to be able to stand on a rock high above the waters and observe God’s miracle from a distance. No, this time, they were going to be a bit more invested in things. They were going to get their feet wet! Twelve priests, one from each of the tribes of Israel, wading into the middle of the Jordan River. Imagine the visual here! Twelve esteemed and revered grown men, decked to the hilt in their minister regalia, standing waist-deep in river water! And they’re carrying with them, scripture says, the Ark of the Covenant. This was a large ornate box containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments that Moses received decades before from God on Mount Sinai.
And at first glance it seems it’s this Ark that’s the focus here; the “trigger,” if you will, that sends the waters receding to the sides. Which makes sense – this revered, holy artifact that was the closest thing God’s people had to a physical sign of God’s presence among them. Surely that’s what caused the waters to do what they did, right?
But hold on a minute – something’s amiss here. Something is trying to show us that the Ark, as important as it was to the Hebrew faith, was not really the center of attention in this second water-parting story. Instead, the passage that Nelson read to us just a few minutes ago mentions something very specific that touches the waters and sets in motion their parting:
When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the Ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth,
when the soles of their feet
rest in the waters of the Jordan,
the waters of the Jordan flowing from above
shall be cut off;
they shall stand in a single heap.
Now I could be off-base here – I’ve certainly been known to get stuck in the details and miss the big picture – but it just seems odd that this passage would get so specific about the soles of the priests’ feet. What’s that all about? Is it just good descriptive writing? I don’t know. I mean, it could suggest an immediacy about things; about God once again acting decisively in the lives of God’s people. It’s not just at some random point when they’re wading in the water, but right at that instant in the middle of the Jordan – right when skin touches riverbed, when the very first part of the foot that can makes contact. When the soles of the feet of the priests rest in the Jordan, the waters shall stand in a single heap.
When I got back into regular running a little over a year ago, I knew the first thing I needed to do was buy some new running shoes. The ones I had were too old and worn out. So I found my way to a store in Winston-Salem that some friends hooked me up with; and this store did more than just set me up with the hottest name brand. They measured my feet and actually watched me walk and run a few paces outside in the parking lot, just to make sure I got the right shoes for my particular stride. They also made sure I got the right insoles to go in the new running shoes. This, I was told, was important because not every foot is shaped the same; not every foot has the same contour and frame. And the right insole would help stabilize my gait and keep certain parts of my leg – namely, my knees – from bearing too much of the brunt of the force of hitting the pavement over and over again.
Now I’ll be honest with you – I was kind of skeptical about the insoles, wondering if this was some sales ploy to add to an already expensive bill that day. But I had running friends of mine later confirm to me their importance. One put it quite bluntly when she said that, after all, when you’re running, the soles of your feet are the very first thing to hit the ground.
Soles are important because they’re the first thing to hit the ground. Or, in this case, the water. And how we take that first step into the turbulent waters of our lives can make all the difference, can’t it? I mean, just ask the disciple Peter. Peter had the guts to step out of the boat, out of solid footing in the midst of a chaotic storm, and begin walking to Jesus in the waves. And you have to figure that of all the steps he took before he started sinking, that very first step was the hardest, don’t you think? That instant when the sole of his foot made contact with the water, and then shifting his body weight onto that foot. Out of all the steps those feet had taken in their life, that first step out of the boat surely must have been the hardest.
Let me ask you this: in what way is your walk of faith like those priests heading off with that Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River? In what way is your walk of faith like Peter’s first step out of that boat? In what way is that first step the hardest one for you to take, as you maneuver in your own life through the sometimes chaotic waters around you? For some, just walking through the doors of a church – any church – is a hard first step, especially if in their past the church was a place of judgment and hypocrisy. For some, making the move out of the only home they’ve ever known into a place like Golden Living or Ridgecrest is a hard first step, because such a move means they’re give up some of their independence. Remember what it was like signing that huge stack of mortgage papers at the attorney’s office for the very first time? Buying your home can be a hard first step! And what about driving your child to the college campus for that first fall semester? What about being that college student and watching your parents drive away?
That very first step out of the boat, out into the water, is always the hardest. That instant when the soles of our feet, metaphorically-speaking, come into contact with a surface that is strange and foreign, that does not feel familiar, that doesn’t feel like it’s going to give us the support and assurance we’ve always felt. That first step into the water is always the hardest one.
But as those priests and Israelites discovered alongside the Jordan River, as Peter himself discovered when he got out of the boat, that first step is also where God does God’s greatest work in and through us. I was reading this past week about a guy who went rock climbing with some friends in Colorado. We’ll call him Frank. Frank was heading up a rather large rock face on the side of a mountain and doing a pretty good job. But at one point, he found himself suspended halfway up a cliff with no clear-cut path forward. There just weren’t any decent hand-holds or toe-holds in his sight. He kind of hung there motionless for longer than usual. His friends below, perhaps sensing his anxiety, started shouting encouragement. Frank could feel his heart pound, his breathing tighten, and his arms and legs start to feel shaky on the precarious creases he was balancing on. Looking up, all he could see was a smooth rock face that ran up to the top. Nothing to grab hold of; nowhere to go. More and more, Frank began to fear that fear that rock-climbers dread – that he had gone as far as he could and was hopelessly stuck.
It would’ve been easy for Frank to be paralyzed right there on that rock face, high above the ground. It would’ve been easy for Frank to have allowed his fear and uncertainly to get the best of him. But suppressing his anxieties for the moment, Frank looked around and realized that the only option he had was to move sideways. In a sense this went against the rock-climber mentality, because it wouldn’t get him any closer to the top and expend precious energy in the process. But it was movement of some sort; better than just clinging there to the rock. So Frank found another toe-hold to dig his foot into, and he began to inch his way to the left, his fingers barely keeping a grip on the ledge.
And that was the point – after that first step – when Frank was able to see, around the corner, something he hadn’t seen before – another hand-hold. Reaching for it, he managed to boost himself up. And there he saw another hand-hold, and another, and another, all the way to the very top of the cliff. Something that was totally out of his view just seconds ago; now a clear path to his destination. Something he never would’ve seen had he not changed his position, changed his perspective; moving sideways for just a second in order to move forwards. (http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/quote-of-the-month/mlk-first-step-in-faith, visited on 2.12.2012)
I don’t know if the quote came from one of his sermons or his letters or essays, but whatever it was, the great Martin Luther King Jr. hit the nail on the head when he said this:
Faith is taking the first step
even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
The apostle Peter got out of that boat and took a step into the waters, even though this was not something human beings typically did. He had no plan, no agenda; he didn’t know how he was going to do it. All he knew is that he wanted to get to Jesus. The twelve priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the waters of the Jordan River, even though they got soaking wet, even though it seemed like a silly thing to do. They had no plan, no agenda. All they knew is that the land God has promised them for hundreds of years was on the other side, and they all wanted to get there.
Whether you and I are trying to get to Jesus, whether you and I are trying to get to the Promised Land, it’s inevitable: at some point we have to take that first step. A first step into the unknown, where all of our wonderful plans and agendas become irrelevant and obsolete. It takes courage, it takes faith. It takes something deep inside us that, ironically, doesn’t come from us, but comes from the One who brings us there.
And you know what we should call that? We should call it “sole power.” S-O-L-E, not the other kind of soul, even though there’s certainly a lot of S-O-U-L in stepping out into the watery chaos of life. “Sole power” – because that first step of faith is so important, so critical, and often the most difficult one. And yet, in that very moment when the bottoms of our feet make contact with the surface – that, my friends, is when God parts waters and reaches out to us.
Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. May God grant you and me the kind of “sole power” to get us from where we are to the Promised Land that awaits. Thanks be to God. AMEN.