Dangerous Waters—God’s Deliverance
Scripture: Joshua 3; Psalm 69:1–3 (Blog inspiration includes Deuteronomy 34, Joshua 1)
Have you ever noticed that every beginning starts with an ending? Whether it’s a season of the year or a season of our lives, each time we step into the new, we leave the old behind. Before we say “hello” to one thing, we must say “goodbye” to another. With such transitions, we often experience a wide range of emotions from hope, joy, and anticipation to loss, grief, and fear. As exhilarating as it may be to begin something new, it can be just as frightening to let go of the familiar—the status quo.
This month’s lesson is no exception. It begins at the end of a challenging and miracle-filled forty-year journey through the wilderness as the Israelites now prepare to enter the promised land. They have lost their beloved Moses and God has called Joshua to lead them across the Jordan.
As I studied this lesson, I felt called to backtrack into the final chapter of Deuteronomy and the first chapter of Joshua to better appreciate this transition in leadership; to try to imagine how it must have felt for Joshua as well as the Israelites to move forward after the death of Moses.
In the closing verses of Deuteronomy 34, we read these words: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt . . . and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Wow, what an act to follow! Never since has there arisen a prophet like Moses? The Lord knew him face to face? Unequaled? How frightened Joshua must have been to be stepping into this position of leadership. How unqualified he may have felt! I can imagine him asking “Really God? You want ME to do this hard thing?”
Thankfully, we learn at the end of Deuteronomy that God had blessed Joshua through Moses with the laying on of hands, filling him with the spirit of wisdom to lead God’s people. Then as the book of Joshua opens, we read God’s promises to Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you” followed by the repetitive reminders and charges in verses 6-9, to “Be strong and courageous . . . do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” I cannot pretend to know the mind of Joshua, but I’m guessing he repeated those words to himself many, many times. “Be strong and courageous . . . be strong and courageous . . . be strong and very courageous . . . do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Of course, in the midst of these words of challenge and comfort, God reminds Joshua to meditate on God’s gift of the law so that Joshua may act in ways that reflect God’s abundance and love. God gives Joshua a plan and tells him to trust the plan and keep his eye on the vision.
Have you ever followed in the footsteps of one who was beloved? Have you ever been the one who was the “new beginning” as folks ended a relationship with another who was, in their eyes, unequaled? Congregations go through this often, as one beloved pastor, musician, educator, member, or custodian leaves. But it happens in all relationships, including families, friendships, and careers beyond the church.
Years ago, I was a special education teacher and, in 1978, I accepted a position to teach third through fifth graders in what was then a self-contained classroom. My job began mid-year, so the memory of the beloved former teacher was still very fresh in the children’s minds. At this time, the children spent most of the day with one person, the teacher, who became a parent-figure. The children felt safe and loved within the classroom. They were a family. One cold January day following the Christmas holidays, the beloved Ms. Humphries left to serve as a counselor in another school and a very young Ms. Van stepped into Room 24 at Viola Cobb Elementary to take her place. As I welcomed that sea of wide-eyed and frightened faces that first morning, I knew I was in dangerous waters. I was just as wide-eyed and frightened as they were. “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” I took a deep breath.
For weeks, one little boy, Tony, spent a lot of time staring at me. It would be more accurate to say he spent a lot of time glaring at me, his arms crossed at his chest, his voice silent, not trusting this new person in the classroom. While I tried not to take it personally, there were many moments in the early days when I identified with the poet in Psalm 69, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck . . . I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.”
Thankfully, Ms. Humphries had blessed me with knowledge about her “babies” when she passed on the torch of leadership. Among other things, I had learned that Tony’s home situation was difficult: his mother was dying and his father was understandably distant. I could see that Ms. Humphries had become Tony’s refuge and, as inexperienced as I was, I saw that he, too, felt like crying, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” We were in these dangerous waters together. I knew not to move in too quickly, but to faithfully continue doing what Ms. Humphries had done, gently showing love and patience, maintaining a sense of safety and calm in our space. I had to trust God’s plan as I kept my eye on the vision of rebuilding a sense of connection and trust. It didn’t happen overnight, but one day just before spring break, as the children were playing outside during recess, I overheard a child from another class ask Tony whose class he was in. He smile broadly, pointed to me and answered, “I’m in Ms. Van’s class.” In that moment, I knew that we had crossed our own Jordan; that we had gone from strangers to family; from pilgrims to a nation, to put it in the language of the Israelite’s story.
This month, we find ourselves in the season of Advent, traditionally a time to wait, watch, listen, and expect to experience God with us, Emmanuel. However, we often arrive in Bethlehem exhausted and out of breath from being over-committed with too many activities. The season also may stir up feelings of loss and sadness and fear, for all is not merry and bright in our world.
But in the midst of the endings and beginnings around us, the transitions that we face as we stand at the edges of our own Jordan Rivers about to get our feet wet, may we hear God’s words to Joshua (and to us) loud and clear, “I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you . . . Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
With love and a grateful heart,
Jo Ann Currie
Director of Christian Education & Spiritual Formation
First Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, Texas