Over the last several weeks we have been learning about our identity, purpose, and call as the church. So far in our “Who are We?” series we have learned that we are what we confess (in Romans 10:9-10), we are greater than the sum of our parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-26), we are exposed by what we do (Galatian 6:7-10), we are a product of what we are willing to invest for the kingdom of God (2 Corinthians 9:6-8), and we are driven by mission (John 20:26-29; Acts 2:42; Col. 1:28). Today we are going to wrap up our series by looking at Joshua 4:19-24. In this passage we will learn that as God’s people, we are those who move forward, confident of God’s faithfulness.
Recently I was inspired by a comment made by a pastor at a conference I attended. The conference dealt with the church’s response to COVID-19 and one seasoned minister said to the bunch of us, “I’ve told my people that I’m not in the least bit interested in ‘going back’ to the way things were before this all hit. Our goal ought not be to go back but move forward to where God wants us to be and use these circumstances to see where God desires to take us.” I could not help but be challenged to hear this and it caused me to reconsider the goals we ought to have as a body of believers. There is a consistent pull in our flesh to return to what is familiar or revert back to what is/was comfortable. This was not lost on the Old Testament Israelites. For instance, after God lead them out of Egypt, it didn’t take long for some of them to wish they were back in slavery. In our passage today, another major transition takes place in the lives of the Israelites and what happens in Joshua 4:19-24 helps the people move forward in a way that I hope will inspire us to look ahead with confidence as we stand on the precipice of a new season.
I. The Movement of God’s People-4:19
To fully appreciate what is happening in this text we must consider where Israel is in her history. In Joshua 4 we find God’s people in a period of transition. First, Israel was fresh off a major leadership change (Moses had died and Joshua had recently taken his place as de facto leader). Second, the Hebrews had just witnessed a confirming miracle in which they were able to cross the Jordan river on dry ground. The account of the miracle reads as follows:
Joshua 3:14-17-“So when the people set out from their tents to cross the Jordan with the priests carrying the ark of the covenant before the people, and when those who carried the ark came into the Jordan, and the feet of the priests carrying the ark were dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks all the days of harvest), the waters which were flowing down from above stood and rose up in one heap, a great distance away at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan; and those which were flowing down toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. So the people crossed opposite Jericho. And the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground, until all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan.”
After this miracle, the people followed behind their new leader away from the riverbanks of the Jordan, seeking what was next for them in their incredible journey.
However, there is a third major transition taking place in this passage. God’s people were in the middle of a big move (from wandering in the wilderness for forty years to settling the much-anticipated Promised Land). The text reads that all took place “on the tenth of the first month” (4:19b). While this might not seem like a major detail worth paying much attention to, this time stamp indicates that the forty years of wandering in the wilderness were now complete. God had said in his wrath that his people should wander forty years in the wilderness (counting the first year of triumph as they made their way out of Egypt). This extended “time out” was now over and I imagine was eager to move on to what was next.
What was “next” was a series of conquests of pagan nation states that currently occupied the land that was promised to Israel. First among these was Jericho which cast its intimidating shadow over God’s people currently camped on the eastern edge—“and camped at Gilgal on the easter edge of Jericho” (4:19c). No longer would God’s people be a wandering band of escaped slaves without claim to land; they would be the victorious people of God settling what was rightly theirs. However, before Israel turns the page and moves forward, time is taken to establish a memorial in verses 20-22.
II. The Memorial For God’s People-4:20-22
Memorials are commonplace in our world today (and not without controversy). Recently my family and I took a trip to Washington DC where many memorials have been built to remember and celebrate historical figures, groups of people, and world conflicts. One memorial that I was especially impressed by was the WWII memorial. Flanked on both ends by a set of pillars representing each of the states of the nation during the time of war and other components celebrating the various theatres of war, armed forces, and people who paid the ultimate price, it is a stunning construction that allows visitors to reflect on the victory and sacrifice of America’s finest. This memorial also include a beautiful water feature and stands in a proud spot directly in between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
The memorial found in Joshua 4 is quite different. First, it was constructed of “those twelve stones which they had taken from the Jordan” (4:20). Following the miraculous crossing of the Jordan on dry ground “the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, ‘Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from each tribe, and command them, saying, “take up for yourselves twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet are standing firm, and carry them over with you,…”’” (4:1ff). Joshua takes these twelve stones retrieved from the river Jordan and sets them up at Gilgal where Israel is currently camped (4:20) to set up a memorial. Stacking stones in this manner for memorial purposes was an established practice among God’s people. For instance, Jacob in Genesis 28 sleeps on a stone, has a dream of a ladder to heaven. After waking up the next morning the account reads, “So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top...[and said] This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You” (Gen. 28:18, 22). Later, after God changes Jacob’s name to Israel “Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it. So Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him, Bethel” (Gen. 35:14-15).
It would appear as though memorials made of stacked stones were erected in an effort to remember and celebrate God’s intervention on behalf of his people—whether that came in the form of a dream (Gen. 28), a promise (Gen. 35), or, in the case of Joshua 4, a miracle.
The function of these memorials was simple. Those who would pass by in the future would see these stacked stones and wonder what they were there for, who stacked them, and why. The Lord himself anticipated that people, specifically the children of Israel, will see these stones for years to come and ask what they mean—“He said to the sons of Israel, ‘When [not if] your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’…” (4:21).
“then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground’…” (4:22). The question these stones would raise will provide an opportunity for people to give an account of God’s miraculous provision for his people. What a thing to celebrate! Just imagine a young Israelite boy or girl climbing into grandma or grandpa’s lap and asking “what are these stones doing here?” I expect with a smile and great joy in his/her heart the grandparent would tell the story of the Lord leading his people out of their wandering and into the Promised Land by miraculously stopping the flow of the Jordan river during flood season so they could pass on dry ground. This is what the Lord expected would happen on multiple occasions for several generations. The memorial would remind God’s people of God’s activity on their behalf for years to come.
III. The Message for God’s People-4:23-24
The third observation in this passage is the message for God’s people going forward. Certainly the reminder conjured by this memorial was one thing, especially as it pertained to what God did—“For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed” (4:23a), but why was this important? For starters, it revealed that God was with his people. Although they had been made to wander for forty years after they had proven unfaithful, insubordinate, ungrateful, and stubborn, God was with them and continued to pave the way for them to move forward according to his will. Part of the message of the memorial was the Lord was still their God and this he proved by miraculously making a way for them all to cross the Jordan River.
The miracle that Joshua and his people enjoyed in Joshua 3 was just the latest in a series of episodes that demonstrated God’s faithfulness and leadership for his people amid struggle. In fact, the miracle that Joshua enjoyed was similar to the miracle that his predecessor saw some years earlier—“just as the Lord your God had done to the Red Sea, which he dried up before us until we had crossed” (4:23b).
Exodus 14:21-22-“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. The sons of Israel went through the sea into dry land and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.”
The same God who ushered Moses and his people out of Egypt through the Red Sea toward the Promised Land was the God who now ushered Joshua and his people through the Jordan River into the Promised Land. In both situations, it was God leading his people to turn a page and move on to what was next for them. In both cases it was God’s awesome power that came through to do what only he could accomplish. In both cases it was God alone who could receive the praise and glory. One might say that the memorial Joshua placed at Gilgal did not celebrate just one example of God’s faithful leadership, but a myriad of instances where God came through for his people.
But why? Why would and why does God come through for his people in special ways? The answer to this question is two-fold and is presented in verse 24. First, God comes through for his people in mighty ways so “that all the people of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty” (4:24a). There is an evangelistic component to the movement of God on behalf of his people. When the world sees God’s people overcome struggle, heartache, and insurmountable odds or when the world sees God’s people move forward in the midst of tribulation, the world reckons, either consciously or subconsciously, that something “mighty” is at work in and among that people. While the world may be stuck and stationary in the patterns of sin and death, God’s people are those who are always pressing onward toward the abundant life God has reserved for them. In this way, God’s people stick out in the world as lights in the darkness, as rolling stones gathering no moss.
The mighty hand of God does not just move on behalf of his people so that the world may know of his power. The second reason God comes through for his people in special ways is “so that [they—i.e. God’s people] may fear the Lord [their] God forever” (4:24b). When God comes through mightily, it ought to engender reverence and holy awe among his people. It ought to demand the kind of respect and trust in the Lord that keeps followers clinging to him forever. Such “fear” of the “Lord” ought to overwhelm the fear of anything else—things like the many nations Israel would come up against in the Promised Land and whatever the future may bring. The more the Israelites would fear their God, the less they would be afraid whatever they might confront. You might say that the memorial was both evangelistically useful in that it communicated a message of God’s power on the world’s stage and personally edifying as it instilled a healthy fear of God over everything else in the hearts and minds of Israel.
So why are we here in Joshua 4? How could this possible fit into our “Who are We series?” Why end this series in this peculiar Old Testament passage? The answer is simple. Like Israel in Joshua 4, we are in a period of transition today. Our world is changing. Major changes have come because of the pandemic and its pervasive implications. Cultural/societal turmoil has also ignited change in the way the God’s people are perceived in our world. While all of this change is popping up all around us, our church is transitioning from one fiscal year to another. However, before we take the first step into a new season, before we turn the page on a new year for our church, I thought we’d take the time to reflect and celebrate what God has done in our midst. Like Israel in the Old Testament, God has come through mightily for us. This past year, we met unexpected struggles and difficulties that could have paralyzed us in place. In the thick of winter, the boiler to our education building unexpectedly exploded. Shortly thereafter the pandemic hit, leaving us scrambling to figure out how to handle all the new protocols and best practices while still continuing to meet. Major events that we typically host for outreach were cancelled. Fundraising efforts for planned renovations were postponed. In addition to these existential crises, spiritual warfare, tension, and struggle took advantage of the “new normal” we found ourselves in, seeking to cause discouragement and dismay. And yet! God showed up. The boiler was fixed and then our insurance unexpectedly ended up paying for nearly the entire replacement. Courageous people rose to the occasion to help get our church up and running online with streaming services and zoom meetings for small groups and other events. Other opportunities for outreach presented themselves (like handing our food at Lincoln Terrace, a drive by food drive in our community for the Keystone Center). The yard sale fundraiser that was postponed was able to collect more donated items that translated into more sales that helped bring in more money toward the improvements that we hope to make on our second floor for our church’s children and the children in our community. God’s supernatural strength and perseverance was provided to your pastor and many others to weather the speed bumps and spiritual attacks along the way. Glory to God! In addition to these manifestations of God’s faithfulness for our church, this church came in well ahead of budget, donated tens of thousands of dollars to missions, partnered with another church to send over 100 Christmas bags to Guatemala, and witnessed growth in its membership. Glory to God!
It has been one crazy, unprecedented, and difficult year. But it has also been a year in which God has showcased his faithfulness in ways this church and her people have rarely seen (if ever) before. So, Who are We? We are a people that celebrate God’s faithfulness amid struggle. However, we are also a people on the move. We are pressing on to the future. We are turning a page, trusting that the God who has been faithful this past year will prove himself faithful in the year to come. We are praying that God will move mightily so that the world may take notice and so that our people may grow to fear him over anything and everything this new year may bring. In an effort to help us both remember what God has done and trust him in this next season, I thought we’d take a cue from Joshua 4. We have stones here for you to take (or we will have them delivered to you) with the year 2020-21 written on them along with the reference Joshua 4:24-“that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” It is my prayer that you will take this stone and place it somewhere conspicuous in your home so that every time you look at it, you reflect on God’s faithfulness and miraculous provision in your life and in the life of this church. Perhaps when you are growing discouraged by something taking place in the next year or in the years to come, you will see this stone and be reminded of the same thing that God hoped the Israelites would be reminded of—the Lord is with his people and is faithful to lead them in any season according to his perfect will. It is also my prayer that whenever someone should ask you “what is that rock all about?” you will be able to recall how God has come through and give testimony of his faithfulness to those who inquire—“that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” I don’t know what this next season/year may bring, but I do know one thing, God’s faithfulness goes with us just as it has before. Let us follow him on into the future, wherever he may lead.