Leading or drowning?

It’s been a trying season for everyone. Not even Christians seem to be able to get on the same page with respect to the right way to understand and respond to the pandemic. Pastors are having to confront situations no one told them about in seminary. They are navigating waters they never imagined, trying to steer between the shores of controversy. Do we keep our doors open or closed? What’s the faithful and loving thing to do? And whatever we decide to do, how do we do it while making as few people as possible mad?

Wait: can’t we come up with something that won’t make anyone mad?

Yeah. That’s not gonna happen.

Some of the recent news about the pandemic is promising. But we don’t know yet how things will go. I was among those who, a year ago, thought we would be done with COVID-19 by sometime in the summer at the latest. Color me naive. I take every bit of news as tentative now, open to revision. And in the meantime, we’re all forced to take each day as it comes. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time.

. . .

I recently heard a sermon on Joshua 3, which reminded me of the deep impression the story had left on me long ago. You know the context. Moses is dead, and Joshua is his appointed successor, tasked with leading the Israelites into the land God promised to Abraham. The spies Joshua sent across the Jordan River into Jericho were protected by the prostitute Rahab, who knew that the God of the Israelites would give them the land; wisely, she threw her lot in with theirs.

When the spies returned safely with a good report, Joshua made ready for the invasion. The people broke camp at Shittim, then traveled west to the Jordan and made camp there. But there was a problem. How would this great mass of people cross the river? No one knows for certain how wide or deep the waters were at that point, but we’re told the Jordan was at flood stage (Josh 3:15); some estimates have the river at 2 miles wide and 100 feet deep. Suffice it simply to say that it was enough to drown every last Israelite before they reached the far shore. How would they cross it?

Joshua revealed God’s plan to the people. The levitical priests would take up the ark of the covenant and step into the waters first: “When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap” (Josh 3:13, NRSV).

Surely the people would have thought of the story of Moses and the Red Sea. God had promised Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Josh 1:5); it’s hard to imagine a better way to signal this fact to the people.

And the people themselves are motivated to get this right. This was their second chance at entering the Promised Land. Their parents’ faith failed them the first time, and as a consequence the people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. And how could they forget that Moses himself was prevented from entering the land because of his own disobedience?

Even now, however, God was gracious to them: he would stop the flow of the river, and the people would cross on dry land.

But somebody still had to go first.

. . .

The story, of course, has a “happy” ending: the people get across safely. But I want us to think for a moment about those who led the crossing, the priests who carried the ark.

Imagine the situation with me. You’re one of the priests carrying the ark. You’re not only out in front, you’re way out in front; Joshua had already commanded the people to stay 2,000 cubits away from the ark (Josh 3:4). In modern terms, that’s over half a mile (or nearly a kilometer).

The water in front of you is vast and deep. In faith, you step out. Hasn’t God said he would make the waters stand up in a heap? Yes, and he does just that, at a place called Adam — which is an estimated 20 miles north. Twenty miles. In other words, it’s not as if your feet touch the water and then — poof! — dry ground appears before you. Only gradually, slowly do the waters recede.

How long would it take for the water level to drop noticeably? How long before it was shallow enough to not drown you?

I haven’t a clue. Let’s just say that it wasn’t only the first step that was taken in faith. The priests may have been neck deep before they noticed any encouraging change.

. . .

The priests, carrying the ark of the covenant and representing the Lord, were given a holy task of leadership, of leading the people by faith into threatening waters. The flooded river was in front of them, and the people a good distance behind.

Doesn’t leadership feel that way sometimes?

And when — praise be to God! — the waters receded, the priests had to stand their ground while the entire nation crossed. By that time, I imagine, they stood with straight shoulders and heads high.

I don’t know what this season of leadership has brought for you. I don’t know what challenges you still face. I don’t know how isolated you feel, or how far behind the people seem to stand, watching to see what happens to you.

But I do know that we serve the same God Joshua served.

Leading can sometimes feel like drowning. Let’s just make sure we’re stepping into the right river, with the right God.