Foundations for Tomorrow: The Way We Shall Be
Joshua 4:6-8, 19-24
Did you hear about the fellow who got off the train in a small town in Arizona? An old Indian was sitting in the very middle of the station platform. The traveler had to walk around the Indian and he complained to the station master about it. The station master told him that this was a most remarkable Indian, in fact, he had the most perfect memory of anyone alive, and therefore, they gave him this honored place. Wishing to test this, the traveler then walked over to the Indian and said: “What did you have for breakfast twenty years ago this morning?” Without a minute’s hesitation, the Indian replied: “Eggs.” The traveler said: “Aw, you’re a phony. You probably have eggs every morning for breakfast.” And with that, he went on. Twelve years later, the same traveler got off the same train at the same station and the same Indian was sitting in the same spot on the same platform. Wishing to make fun of the Indian, the traveler walked up to him and said: “How?” And the Indian said: “scrambled.”
I think we all wish that we had a memory that was that perfect. The problem is that most of our memories are somewhat scrambled. That’s unfortunate, because memory is one of the greatest blessings of God. It is a glorious thing indeed to be able to go back into your yesterdays and claim again the experiences of God’s grace which have been a part of your life.
That is why when Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan and into the Promised Land, the first thing that he did was to set up a memorial, a reminder for what had happened. There were many things pressing in upon the Israelites at that point. There were crops to be planted, wells to be dug, tents to be set in place, enemies to be fought. Yet before they did any of these things, Joshua told the leaders of the people to take twelve large stones from the bottom of the river, which they had just walked across dry shod because God had rolled back the waters before them, and Joshua built those stones into a memorial. Then he said to the people: “In times to come when your children ask ‘What do these stones mean?’, then you shall say ‘on this day and in this place Israel crossed over the Jordan on dry ground into the promised land’, for then shall all people know that the hand of our God is mighty.” You see, Joshua understood the significance of that day when the people crossed the Jordan—it was a day which would shape their future—and when that future arrived, Joshua wanted the people to look back and remember that day.
There is another river in northern Italy, just a small river, seventeen miles long, which flows into the Adriatic Sea. There was a day in 49 B.C. when Julius Caesar led his troops across that river in pursuit of General Pompey. Caesar knew that once he crossed that river there would be no return. The battle would then be assured. He would win it or lose it, but he could no longer avoid it. The name of that little river, of course, is the Rubicon. The name has become part of our vocabulary. Whenever we make a fateful decision in life, we say that “we have crossed our Rubicon.” Well, the Jordan was the Rubicon for the people of God long ago. They had come through the wilderness experience; on the other side of the river was the promised land. They had to decide whether they would continue to wander in relative safety in the wilderness or cross the river in the face of terrible risks and occupy the promised land. We now know they decided to cross their Rubicon—they crossed the Jordan. They ran the risk and they went on to win.
I want to suggest that today we come to our Rubicon as a church. We come to our time of decision. Our own Jordan River is before us. Beyond it, out there in the future, is the city and the land God has promised to give us to win to Jesus Christ. It won’t be easy. There are risks in crossing over. There is great adventure ahead, but there is also great challenge. It would be easier to stay where we are, to settle for the status quo, to pamper ourselves into mediocrity. Yet remember what Jesus says? “Those to whom much is given, of them is much expected.” God is expecting so much of us in the building of His kingdom on earth. That is why I believe that years from now, those who follow us in this place will look back to this April Sunday in 1986 and say of it: “That was the day that God’s people at First Presbyterian crossed their Jordan.” And they will be right.
For today we cross the Jordan of change.
I go back to that scene in Acts 1 when Jesus was talking to the disciples for the last time. He told them that soon the power of God would fill them. They said: “Lord, will you then restore the kingdom to Israel?” Now the key word in that question is the word “restore”. That word means “to go back to what was before.” It means “to bring it up to snuff once again.” The disciples, you see, were asking for a return to “the good old days.” And Jesus said to them: “Don’t look at what used to be, look at what is yet to be. The power of the Holy Spirit is yours. And you are to be my witnesses in your city, in your land, and even to the ends of the earth.” Jesus was saying to them: “There’s a whole planet out there waiting to be won.” And they went on to turn that world upside down.
I think something like that is happening to this church. One of the greatest joys of my heart today is the fact that more and more people in our fellowship are coming alive to the tremendous possibilities which are out there ahead of us. That’s why I say that today we cross the Rubicon—we cross the Jordan of change. We have discovered that our greatest hope is not in our past, as glorious as it may be. We have discovered as a people of God that power is not something that we have, but something that God has; that the future does not rest on what we can do, but on what God can do through us; that the Chairman of our Board owns the universe and everything in it; and that therefore, there is never reason for cowardice or fear or lack of faith. Under the guidance of God’s spirit we have taken a lifting look at what is ahead, and in the power of that spirit, we are marching on. Today we cross the Jordan!
And today we cross the Jordan of circumstance.
We have made the decision to remain at the heart of this city. That has plunged us into circumstances which are not easy to cope with. It is terribly expensive to remain downtown. We have parking problems. We have space problems. We have access problems. Yet, is it not true that we are discovering that out of any kind of circumstance, God can bring that which is good and great?
Should you be in New York City sometime, please visit the John Hus Church. In the narthex of that church, you will find a picture hanging there. It is a picture of a hillside. There is snow on the hillside, but it is partly melted so that it is there in patches. It’s a dreary picture, a forbidding picture, a dark and shadowed picture. But as you stand and look at it, suddenly, you see, in the way the patches of snow are arranged, the face of Jesus. It’s an amazing thing. You look at the picture and you don’t see it. Then, whether it’s just blinking your eyes or changing your focus—there He is.
This church has been through some hard times. We have faced fearsome challenges and circumstances. We have made some tough decisions. But as we faced it all together, and as we focused our prayers upon it, we have discovered in it nothing other than the presence of Jesus. That is why I believe that today we have crossed the Jordan of circumstance. For now no circumstance we encounter in what is ahead will be able to stop us or defeat us. That’s the promise of God.
I got a letter the other day. It was from a man whose grown son is a new member of this church. The letter read: “I want you and your people to know how grateful I am for all of you. My son had given up his confidence in the church. He had turned away from any real commitment to Jesus Christ. However, in his experience in your congregation this last year, the flame of faith has been ignited in him again. He has discovered all over again how the spirit of God moves in the church. I want you to know how deeply grateful I am.” Well, I thanked him for telling us that. And I thank God for making that come true. That’s one reason, among many, why I say to you that today we cross the Jordan!
And today we cross the Jordan of commitment.
We have great tomorrows before us, and that is because God holds those tomorrows. There is a land of promise ahead of us. For I believe that we are in the early stages of the greatest religious revival our country has ever known. The wave of spiritual opportunity in this land and in this world is beginning to rise toward the crest. If there were ever a time for a congregation of God’s people to be re-energized, it is this time. And we, by the grace of God, will be ready. I think that’s tremendous. That’s the promised land—and we are ready to claim it for Jesus Christ.
Pope John XXIII was a little, short, fat man, rather homely with big ears and a big nose. He had a gravelly voice and he walked as if his feet hurt—there was nothing about him that gave him the aura of greatness. But he was great—and he was great because his heart was great.
There is a memorial to Pope John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is unusual in its appearance, but it is unforgettable in its impact. There stands in the Basilica a great block of solid steel. Wide. Thick. High. Carved into the bottom of that block of steel is all of the ugliness and the hurt of this world of ours: dying children, bodies with bayonets in them, barbed wire, grasping hands, broken buildings, sickness and torment—it’s all there—anything in the world that is ugly and broken and hateful and hurtful. And the steel makes it seem so hard and cold. But then rising up out of one side of the obelisk of steel and bending out over all this hurt and brokenness, there is the figure of Pope John, bending down with arms extended ready to pick it all up and to pull it to his heart and to soften and change it there.
Well, if you take us as individuals there’s not much about us that smacks of the greatness of God. But now, today, if we commit ourselves anew in faith to Jesus Christ and in fellowship with one another to this church, then we can pull the brokenness and the emptiness of the people of this city and this world to our hearts and there they shall be softened and changed and healed by our Jesus.
You see, I want future generations to look back at us and say: “There was a church which dared to stand for Jesus Christ in a difficult time. As the society about them surrendered to the innocuous yet insidious claims of secularism and humanism, they dared to confront people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ without apology. When values and morals were being eroded, they dared to stand firm on the joyous, freeing, uplifting law of God. When the sanctity of the home was being threatened, they undergirded the family and gave new hope to the youth. When little children were being neglected, they dared to love them with openness and joy and ultimate sincerity. When single persons were being tempted or tormented by loneliness, they dared to welcome them with love and flood them with hope. When racism infected human relationships, they dared to fling the doors of this church wide open for all of God’s children. When the church of Jesus Christ was in decline all over America, they dared to be and to do something different here and to do it all to the glory of God.”
That is the way we shall be. That is the promise of God. And that is why one day, generations hence, those who serve the Lord in this place at that time will look back, and they will remember. And they will say: “It is because in April of 1986, the people of God at First Presbyterian crossed the Jordan and claimed for their Christ and for themselves and for all who would follow after, they claimed the promised land!”
Let that be our goal
And let that be our victory!