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Over the River and Through the Woods

A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Frankfort, Ky., on November 13, 2011.

Joshua 3:1-17

I am confident many of you associate the title of the sermon with Thanksgiving and rightly so. In 1844, Lydia Maria Child wrote a poem to celebrate her memories of Thanksgiving at her grandparents’ home. The poem, which is titled, “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day,” was set to music years later and is sung by many this time of the year.   

Over the river and through the wood

To Grandfather’s house we go

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the white and drifted snow.

I learned this first verse as a child, and always wished for snowy Thanksgiving Days. Of course, I did not want enough to keep my family from making the ten mile trek to my grandparents’ house because of all the delicious food waiting for us.

I don’t think the Israelites had to hike through any woods on the final leg of their journey to the Promise Land, but they certainly had to cross a river. At any other time, this would not have been so challenging. Normally, the Jordan River is not very deep or swift.

This is not the case in spring, however. This is the rainy season and the Jordan is often at flood stage, especially when the snow melts on Mount Hermon. The water is deep, the current is swift and the banks overflow.

You know all too well about rivers overflowing their banks. Some of you have told me of your experiences in the 1937 and 1978 floods, but even more of you have talked about the 2010 flooding of the Kentucky River. Water rose about eight feet on our first floor and almost reached the sanctuary.

During a flood, most people seek higher ground, even if it means leaving their homes and all their possessions. The last thing anyone would do is attempt to cross a river at flood stage, and yet, this is exactly what Joshua and the Israelites did.

I don’t think the people were too excited about this. No doubt, they tried to talk Joshua out of it. “Surely, there is a better time to cross the Jordan than in the spring,” I can hear them argue. “Let’s wait until the rain ends, and the river goes down. It will be much safer then.”

Yes, it would have been safer, but it appears it would not have been better. Evidently, the people needed to see God at work among them, just as their ancestors did when they left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. As the water parted for them, so it needed to do so for this new generation.

So, Joshua instructed the people to move to the banks of the Jordan and prepare to cross to the other side. For three days, they made spiritual and physical preparations, and then their journey to the Promise Land continued.

As soon as the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the water, the river began to divide, just as the Red Sea had done forty years earlier. The priests moved to the middle of the river and stayed there until everyone had safely crossed to the other side. When they set foot on dry land, not far from Jericho, the water continued to flow. The Israelites’ days of roaming were coming to an end.

Let me tell you what captures my attention about this story. Twenty-two times in Joshua 3-4, the narrator refers to this miraculous crossing. What do you think was on his mind and important to him? What message was he sending to his readers?

Could it have been this? Life is a journey with intimidating challenges, but we are not alone. God will take every step with us, helping us to persevere and overcome even the most daunting challenge. So together, as a people of faith, we can move into our dreams.

What river do you need to cross today? What dream is beckoning you to start some new daring adventure? What vision for a better life has captured your attention, or what painful experience is begging you to move in a new direction?

Why haven’t you already crossed that river? It is scary, isn’t it, and that first step is the hardest to make. It took the Israelites forty years to get enough courage.

This was not the first time they had been this close to the Promise Land. You recall as their journey began, Moses sent twelve spies to survey the territory and bring back a report. Two said they could move ahead with their plans and cross the Jordan, but ten disagreed. They felt the challenge was too great. Those ten must have been very persuasive because the Israelites turned away from the Jordan and wandered in the wilderness for forty long years.

Charting a new course is never easy. If you have ever started a new job, changed careers or opened a business, you know it. If you have left home to go to college or the military, you do, too.

If you have buried a mate or a marriage, you understand. If you have changed your lifestyle or priorities, you are aware of the challenges. If you have taught a Sunday school class, gone on a mission trip, joined a new church or made some adjustments to your faith, you understand how difficult it is. Charting a new course is never easy; it always seems like the water is at flood stage.

Do you remember the song Jimmy Cliff wrote in 1969 titled, “Many Rivers to Cross?” It was released on the 1972 soundtrack album for the film, “The Harder They Come,” in which Cliff starred as an actor. It reinforces how difficult it is to cross some rivers and begin a new life.

Many rivers to cross

But I can’t seem to find my way over

Wandering I’m lost

As I travel along the White Cliffs of Dover

Many rivers to cross

And it’s only my will that keeps me alive

I’ve been ripped, washed up for years

And I merely survive because of my pride

What do you need, other than pride, in order to cross the river between you and your dreams? What did the Israelites need? I’m sure they needed wisdom, courage, confidence, determination and hope. Most of all, however, they needed faith; the faith to believe they were not alone and God would help them.

After mourning Moses’ death, Joshua told the people it was time to continue their pilgrimage. Moses’ journey was over, but theirs was not. It was time to chart a new course and pursue the dreams that were pursuing them.

What was the first thing Joshua did to inspire them and give them confidence? He reminded them that they were not alone. “By this you shall know that among you is the living God.” Then, he instructed the priests to take the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of creation and step into the water. When they did, the waters receded and stood still until all the people passed.

Can you imagine their relief when the water parted? Many times throughout this journey, the Israelites questioned whether God was still with them. After the sudden death of Moses, they had to be asking that question again.

Did God die with Moses? Should they have buried their faith in his grave? Would God continue to guide them along their journey? Joshua was wise to confront their doubts and reassure them of God’s protection as they stood between yesterday and tomorrow.

Who strengthened your faith and reassured you of God’s presence when your doubts were raging? Who was your Joshua when you needed to cross a swelling river? Who reminded you that God would be with you on your journey, helping you to persevere and overcome even the most daunting challenge?

What family members and friends accompanied you along your journey when you needed them most? Whose encouragement and supportenabled you to continue when you wanted to quit? Who parted the waters for you and made it possible for you to cross over to the land of tomorrow? Through whom did God work to help you chart a new course?

Who needs your help now to cross a river at flood stage? Who is wandering in the wilderness or standing on the river’s edge casting a wistful gaze toward the future? How could God use you to help them make that journey?

Could we help you along your journey this morning? Do you need someone to help you cross the river that separates you from a new and better life?

We want to be there for you, just as others have been for us. We know that first step is the hardest, but it can lead to a better tomorrow. Let us help you take it.