Sermon for the 9th of January 2011 Evensong, The waters of death

The waters of death
Joshua 3: 1-8, 14-17
Hebrews 1: 1-12

May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen

What a wonderful picture our Old Testament reading bought into my mind when I read the passage in preparation for tonight’s service. But I must confess that I had entirely forgotten this second parting of the waters that marks the end of the Israelites wanderings as they enter the Promised Land. Every one remembers Moses parting the waters of the ‘Read Sea’ at the start of their journey as they flee from slavery in Egypt, but how many of us remember this second miraculous parting of the water that marks the end of this forty year long journey of suffering into freedom.

When you read this passage it is not difficult to imagine the scene. I can picture the excited hustle and bustle as the Israelites make camp on the banks of the river Jordan and prepare to cross over into the Promised Land. The moment they had waited and suffered for during their long wanderings in the dessert since they had fled from Egypt was almost over. The joy of their imminent entry into the land that God had promised them must have been palpable. But before they could cross and continue their journey there was a final barrier they had to overcome the river Jordan. At most times of the year the river Jordan is hardly a barrier at all, in a few places no more than a trickle of water a few yards wide, but now was harvest time and the rainy season when the Jordan is in flood, now the river was deep and fast flowing a very real barrier and one to be feared.

So God orders Joshua to send the priests carrying the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to take it and to enter the river. And just as the waters of the ‘Read Sea’ had parted for Moses so the waters of the Jordan are parted once again so that Joshua can lead the children of Israel across in safety to enter the Promised Land. Little wonder then that this story has had such a profound effect on all those who are forced to suffer in this life such as the Negro slaves of the southern states of America. Their suffering and the hope this story gave them is echoed in one of the many spiritual songs that they created at the time and the words go like this:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
That promised land where all is peace.
Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, lord, I want to cross over into campground.

The well known spiritual expresses the longings of the Africans who had been shipped across the ocean and taken into slavery in the Americas. There is a double meaning. The longing for freedom combines a yearning to return over the waters of the Atlantic, home to Africa, a continent which of course, most of them had never seen; together with a longing for heaven, a passing through the deep waters of death. Both of these dreams are combined under the imagery of Joshua leading the Children of Israel through the waters of the River Jordan into the Promised Land.

The idea of passing through the waters to the promised land of heaven helps us to bear all kinds of suffering in our lives. It would not be true to say that the imagery makes sense of suffering, for perhaps we shall never understand with our minds why it is that we have to suffer. But it enables us to bear suffering because we know that we are bound to God in a covenant, a promise from God. Jesus said of the wine at the Last Supper, ‘This is my blood of the covenant.’ Everyone who’s bound to Jesus in sacrament and faith is bound for life to God the Father. God binds himself by His solemn promise to care for us in this life, and lead us to a better life where there is no more pain and suffering, to a life where all wrongs are righted. In return we bind ourselves to Jesus.

The deep waters of the River Jordan, then, also symbolize for us the deep waters of death. As the waters of the Jordan stood ‘rising up in a single heap’ to allow the Children of Israel to walk across the riverbed dry shod, thus the pains of dying, which we so much fear, will abate, so that we can pass through in peace to a better life. Through the resurrection of Jesus, the waters of death are presented to us as a passage to eternal joy. Another famous Spiritual, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ has a verse which runs:

I looked over Jordan,
and what did I see,
comin’ for to carry me home?
A band of angels comin’ after me,
comin’ for to carry me home,

But it’s not just the Afro-Americans who have immortalised this crossing of the Jordan in song; nearer to home the Welsh have done a pretty good job, with that marvellous hymn ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, especially the imagery of the third verse, which goes:

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.

Surely it can’t be a coincidence that the journey of the Children of Israel made into the Promised Land mirrors our own human journey through life. We are born and struggle through the dessert that can be life, through all the temptations, suffering, joy and pain until at last we reach the banks of our own personal River Jordan, which we have to cross before we too can enter and take our place in paradise. That place that Jesus has promised us will be ours on the other side of death. All we have to do is to love him, have faith in him and trust him, and when the time comes Jesus will be there for us, holding back the waters to allow us to cross over safely and take our place in paradise.

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