YEAR A: PENTECOST 26
October 2, 2011
The mantle of leadership has passed from Moses to Joshua. At the beginning of Joshua 3 the new leader begins the work for which he has been commissioned: to lead the Israelites into the promised land. In order to underscore the point of continuity the Lord states that he will now begin to exalt Joshua in the sight of all Israel (v. 7). This exaltation is not for the sake of the new leader’s reputation or standing. The purpose is clearly stated: ‘so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.’ Joshua’s leadership, like Moses’ before him, finds its reason for being in the comfort and knowledge of the people that Yahweh is with them. Leadership within the community of faith is all about communication to the people that God is with them.
This is the point of the reference to Moses in v. 7. In fact, this same point is underlined by the editors of the Book of Joshua right at the very start. Moses’ name is mentioned no less than six times in the first seven verses of the book, and not just in reference to his death. Joshua is described as ‘Moses’ assistant’ (1:1) and as the Lord speaks to Joshua he speaks of Moses as ‘his servant’ (1:2) and of the land as now promised to Joshua ‘as I promised to Moses’. The Lord says: ‘As I was with Moses, so I will be with you’ (1:5) and finally calls upon Joshua to be careful ‘to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you’ (1:7). In 1:8 Joshua is called upon to make the law (as given by Moses) the foundation upon which he lives and acts and speaks. The words here are very similar to those which describe the faithful person in Psalm 1.
Continuity is not simply for the purposes of consistency, or for the success of the ‘project’ at hand. It is not an end in itself, but rather a symbol of the continuing presence of the Lord with his people. That very thing had been the subject of many passages in the Book of Exodus. The people questioned it (Exod 16:4-8), Aaron doubted it (Exod 32:1-6), and even Moses needed assurance of it (Exod 33:12-23). The presence of the Lord with the people was essential for their liberation from the powers of Egypt which kept them captive. It was essential for their survival in the wilderness and now it is essential for their taking hold of the promise to them. Just as Moses was reminded, it was not a matter of whether he knew the Lord, but that the Lord knew him that was paramount in his work and ministry (Exod 33:12), so with the people what ultimately matters is not their faithfulness to the Lord but the Lord’s faithful presence with them.
The point is made in another way as we read on in the text from Joshua 3. Joshua is commanded in the process of the people’s crossing the Jordan. The ark of the covenant will be carried by the priests into the Jordan and the Lord will cause the water to stand back to let all the people cross on dry ground. This, of course, echoes the crossing of the Reed Sea under Moses (Exodus 14). A number of other points also echo the earlier crossing. Joshua is to tell the people (Josh 3:5) to sanctify themselves in preparation for their entry into the land on the next day, even as the people were instructed to prepare themselves for departure on Passover eve (Exodus 12). In Joshua 2, where two new spies see out the land around Jericho, we have the story of a prostitute who hides them and saves them (vv. 1-21). Just as the Israelites were to be saved on the night of the Passover by the blood on the doorposts (Exod 12:7, 13) so now the prostitute and all she gathers into her house will be saved through the sign of a red rope hanging in the window when Israel enter (Josh 2:15-21). Finally, just as the people’s action the night before departure from Egypt prefigured the Passover, so now the people keep the Passover soon after crossing into the land (Josh 5:10-12).
All these points draw a parallel and a connection between the liberation from Egypt and the possession of the promised land. Liberation from slavery and possession of the place of promise are all part of the same event. Yahweh journeys with his people from start to finish, such is his faithfulness. Indeed, his presence is the guarantee of the completion of the whole task. But there is also a faint warning in this parallel structure. Just as the journey from Egypt through the sea into the wilderness brought with it hardship, times of doubt, and even disobedience, so too will this journey through the Jordan preface times of hardship etc., even in the promised land. The life of faith, so often described in terms of pilgrimage, is one in which beginning and end are tied together; release from captivity and entering into promise are inextricably bound as one. The promised end of the journey is foreshadowed in the journey itself. Our pilgrimage toward our promised goal embodies already its end. The presence of the Lord toward which we move and for which we long, is already with us and will indeed be the guarantee of its own fulfilment.
In preaching from this text one could highlight the image of pilgrimage in the life of faith and the continuing presence of the Lord which not only sustains on the journey but brings it to its fulfilment. It could also be noted that the Gospel reading speaks of the leadership of the scribes and Pharisees which is very much self-centred and places a heavy burden upon the people (Matt 23:1-12). By contrast leadership in the Matthean community is to point, like that of Joshua and Moses before, to the one who is the only teacher and Father of the community: the Lord whom they follow and whose continual presence is their eternal hope.
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