“So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off.” Joshua 3:14-16
You and I know the story already.
Just as God parted the Red Sea to free his people from the Egyptians, he parted the Jordan River for them so that they could cross into the promised land.
I don't know about you, but I have a tendency to read this story (and most of the other Old Testament stories) with a sense of hum drum normalcy. Maybe it's because reading it isn't as exciting as watching Charlton Heston act it out on the movie screen? Maybe it's because I have (thankfully) grown up in the church and can still hear my grandmother singing about the Jordan or the Promised Land from an old Baptist hymnal. Maybe I've heard it so much, that I'm almost numb to the idea of God's signs and wonders.
This is what I have recently discovered in my own heart, and refer to as the “handicap of hindsight.”
If you take a moment to think about the reality the Israelites were facing in the moment -- forgetting that you know what's going to happen -- the emotion, the wonder, and the parallels to your own heart become astonishingly clear.
If you're reading this passage with the handicap of hindsight, you probably don't understand why the Jordan River was such a big deal to the Israelites. After all, God had already parted a body of water almost 1,000 times bigger than that so that they could escape Egypt!
But here's the thing: this group of Israelites couldn't remember that.
Those Israelites that crossed the Red Sea while fleeing Egypt were their parents' generation.
Joshua 5:6 says tells us,
“For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the Lord; the Lord swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the Lord had sworn to their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Joshua, however, had actually been here before.
He was among a group of spies decades earlier who, under Moses' direction, crossed over to survey the promised land before they entered it. Everyone agreed that the land was all that God had promised – flowing with milk and honey. But, of the twelve spies that went over, Joshua and Caleb were the only ones who wanted to go in and take the land. The others were scared.
So the people of Israel were swayed by the other ten spies who insisted there was no way they could conquer the people – they were too big and their cities were too fortified. The Israelites became angry asking why God brought them all the way out there just to die. They demanded that to elect a new leader and make their way back to Egypt.
Not only did God eliminate these ten spies with plagues, he told the people that they would surely NOT see the promised land. Because of they did not trust God, the Israelites would wander for 40 more years in the desert until every adult from that generation that escaped Egypt died off. The only two who would enter the promised land would be Caleb and Joshua. The ones who had trusted the Lord to give it to them all along.
So, fast forward now (if you can) 40 years later, and Joshua has been made the leader of the Israelite people. He has been commanded by God to take the promised land, and the first step is to cross the Jordan River.
Sure, these people had heard their parents or grandparents tell them how marvelous it was when God split the Red Sea and they walked across on dry ground to the other side, but it wasn't necessarily a first hand account for them.
They probably to some extent believed that God could do it.
After all, they had been lead by a column of fire and a pillar of smoke (Exodus 13:21) for most of their lives...but would He do it for them now?
If we really think about this, how often do our own hearts feel this way?
We know that God is all powerful.
We believe Scripture to be true – and so believe that he really did all these signs and wonders – but when it comes to our own lives, will he do it for us?
When we pray for healing, we believe he can do it, but do we believe he will do it?
When we pray for guidance, we believe he knows all things, but will he impart wisdom to us?
I must sadly confess that this is the problem of my own heart most of the time.
As if wandering in the desert for 40 years and now being called out of nomadic living wasn't challenge enough, God wanted them to do it by crossing a river.
I'm sure at some point these people had seen a larger body of water before, but bear in mind that most of the time they were grumbling about having no water at all – in fact, that was the first big test of God found in Exodus 17.
The people quarreled with Moses because their camp had no water.
“But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?'” Exodus 17:3
God instructed Moses to take his staff and strike a rock, and water would come out of the rock.
Moses did as he was instructed and God supplied water in completely mind boggling way.
So, water was probably something the Israelites prayed for and were thankful for but rarely (if ever) got the chance to swim in!
And now God was asking them to face an unfamiliar challenge, trusting only on what they had heard to be true of him, not their ability.
This is what we as modern day believers also face.
We may not be physically crossing a river or conquering a nation, but we face difficult situations beyond our ability because we live in a broken world.
Not only was the prospect of crossing the Jordan River a scary one for a group of people who most likely didn't know how to swim, but scripture tells us God handles this scenario much differently than when he parted the Red Sea for their parents.
In Exodus 14, we see that God tells Moses to hold his staff over the water and the waters would begin to part so that the Israelites could cross over on dry land.
The details about how this happened, though, are a bit different than Hollywood portrays (shocker).
After Moses assures the people that the Lord will fight for them, he raises his staff towards the water as instructed by God. The pillar of cloud and fire that had been leading the Israelites out of Egypt, circled back behind the people, blocking the Egyptian army's ability to see or advance on the Israelites. Meanwhile, behind the pillar of cloud and fire, a strong wind began to push the waters of the Red Sea apart – all night long – until there was dry ground for the people to cross over.
Imagine seeing all this happen, not in a matter of minutes, but hours.
If you were unsure of your God's ability before, watching God work for hours to provide a way for you to cross over a body of water on dry land would certainly buoy your confidence in him.
Joshua's situation looked much different.
There was no staff or great show of power.
Instead, God ordered the priests to lead the crossing while carrying the Ark of the Covenant with them. The waters did not part before them to offer a clear, dry path for crossing.
In fact, the waters didn't part until the priests' feet were IN the water.
They had to walk into a massive river at a time when its water was the highest and
PUT THEIR FEET IN THE WATER before God would act.
The rest of the passage tells us that when the priests' feet were dipped in the water, God stopped the waters from flowing, and made a pathway for the Israelites to cross over.
Chances are that you, like myself, already knew the end of the story.
But perhaps you didn't realize how much your heart is like those of the Israelites during the story.
Before we assume that we're better.
That we would surely believe anything God said if WE were lead by a pillar of fire, ate bread from heaven, and saw water ushered forth from a rock...
...consider your own life.
We, like the Israelites, know the stories of a powerful God yet doubt his willingness to act for us.
We, like the Israelites, have been dismayed when we face challenges beyond our ability.
We, like the Israelites, have doubted God's goodness when our needs aren't immediately met.
But we, unlike the Israelites, know the end of the story.
We know that the Law has been fulfilled forever.
We know that one, perfect sacrifice has been offered as final atonement.
We know that, because of this, one day the world will be made new.
And yet, we still doubt.
Don't let your hindsight handicap your ability to experience truth.
Before you assume you're better than the Old Testament Israelites, assume you're just like them.
And Moses' words are still relevant and true for us today:
“The Lord will fight for you, all you have to do is keep still.” Exodus 14:14
I was reading through one of my favorite devotionals yesterday morning, New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp (another one I highly recommend). And it referenced a passage of Scripture that hit me in a new way, perhaps because of the current crisis we are all facing.
Judges chapter 6 tells the story of an unlikely hero named Gideon.
The scripture reference started with verse 11:
Two things immediately jumped out at me:
There is a lot about the Old Testament that I don't really understand, most of it because I'm not educated enough on the Israelite culture or the historical context in which these accounts are told. But this -- beating wheat on a winepress -- was not a cultural oddity. There was nothing mystically "holy" about it and a winepress was not a multifunctional tool. It was meant for wine and wine only.
Gideon was doing something inside that is normally done outside...because he was scared.
How many of us are currently hunkered down in our own homes?
How many are actively seeking ways to avoid unnecessary contact with those outside our doors?
Because we're scared of a virus with no vaccine.
Because we're scared of collapsing our hospital system with the infected and sick.
Because this virus can spread through the air and live on surfaces for an extended period of time.
Gideon and his people were scared, too.
For the last seven years, they had been oppressed by another group of people called Midianites.
If you read the beginning of Judges chapter 6, you will find the Midianites had encircled Israel. They had made camp at every stronghold in the land. And they did this to keep watch on the Israelites. Whenever the Israelites would plant crops, the Midianites would swoop in and "devour the produce of the land" and "leave no sustenance for Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey" (Judges 6:4).
For this reason, Gideon and his people were devastated.
They were forced to figure out a way to survive under the Midianite surveillance.
And so we find Gideon beating wheat inside his home at the winepress.
So naturally when the angel of the Lord says, "The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor," Gideon's first response is one of honest confusion.
Here we see a response that all of us have probably uttered to ourselves at some point:
"If the Lord is with us, then why has all this happened to us?"
How often have I thought this to myself when facing a difficult situation!
It's mostly in the painfully hard or confusing moments of life that our first reaction is to doubt God's goodness. We rarely doubt his existence or his power. But we doubt his presence. We doubt his love. We doubt his good heart.
"If the Lord is with us, then why has COVID-19 happened to us?"
Right now, we fear for our health or for the health of our loved ones.
We wonder how we will pay the bills or keep our businesses running.
And so, for good reason, we are scared.
If that's not enough to give you a connection to Gideon and his people, the story continues.
The angel says that God will use Gideon to save his people from the Midianites.
And before you think that this is because he is especially brave or holds an important role in society, Gideon basically tells the angel, "Are you sure you have the right guy? I'm the youngest son in my family and part of the weakest clan."
To which the God responds, "But I am with you."
Now, the story goes on that Gideon actually tests God -- something Deuteronomy 6:16 explicitly says you should NOT do. In fact, Gideon ends up doing this three times throughout the passage! Yet God proves himself through Gideon's tests, and the Midianites are defeated.
But before you go get your own fleece (Judges 6:36) to start testing God for yourself, take a moment to consider another point:
God meets us where we are...as we are...and uses us despite that.
The story of Gideon is not to prove we should test God.
The story of Gideon is not about needing exact confirmation of God's command before you act.
The story of Gideon is about God's faithfulness and ability.
He is faithful to us despite our unfaithfulness to Him.
He will save us despite our unworthiness.
He will use us despite our inadequate belief, talents, or abilities.
Since the fall of man, the world is not as God designed it to be.
And God's calling us as His people does not make US any less broken on the outside.
I'm a really big animal person. Actually, my whole family is.
What grieves my heart probably more than it should is the fact there are thousands of animals in rescues and shelters throughout the country who have no home. And I can't even think that deeply about some of their past experiences of abuse or neglect without getting very emotional.
But we've all seen that adoption story.
The one that starts with a shaking, pitiful creature huddled in a corner getting adopted by a loving family and then becoming a care-free, fun loving, genuinely happy dog in the home of her dreams.
I ask you what changed?
Did the dog become more brave or strong?
Did the dog just try harder?
Of course not!
The dog was adopted.
And that changed everything else.
Both our dogs are rescues.
They still chew things they shouldn't.
And I know there are times when they feel they deserve two treats instead of one.
I do not love them because they are perfect, I love them because they are mine.
That is our story as believers.
For some reason, God has chosen us and loves us.
We will never be perfect in practice or belief this side of Heaven.
True, as believers our lives will change in response to this great Gospel, but anything contrary to brokenness -- anything good -- that we see manifested in our day to day lives is a result of God's ability, not our own. As our hearts change or motivations change or our lifestyles change, it is a supernatural change from God calling us His own.
"If the Lord is with us then why has COVID-19 happened to us?"
Because the world is broken.
Because Christ's blood has redeemed our souls from death, but not our bodies.
Because nothing about this world functions as it was intended to, including our bodies.
Gideon was using this question as a way to prove God was with his people.
He was relying on external circumstances to be proof of an internal truth.
The entire story of Israel wandering through the desert, battling with other nations, and enduring oppression proves that just because we are God's children, doesn't mean bad things won't happen to us.
Just because we adopted our dogs doesn't mean that bad things won't still happen to them, either.
They'll still get sick or hurt -- sometimes because of their poor decisions, but sometimes not.
What it does mean is that when they do get sick -- regardless of how or why -- I will take care of them.
And that is the story of Gideon.
That is the call during the bad times or the hard times or the scary times:
He loves you because you are His.
If you had told me last week that the world would look as it does today, I would have said that you were out of your mind. After all, we don't live in a time when disease runs rampant anymore -- that's a nightmare of the past, not present.
Admittedly, I was wrong.
Things escalated quickly to say the least.
Schools shut down, grocery store shelves were emptied, churches chose to stream their services, and now the phrases "mandatory lockdown" and "sheltering in place" seem to be next on the list of the chaotic turn of events.
Some think this is all an overblown media frenzy.
Others think it is our civic duty to "flatten the curve" by limiting unnecessary public exposure.
Still others, want to fight the panic with a resolve to live life as normally as possible until this all goes away.
Regardless of our personal opinions, the spread of COVID-19 is now something that has effected our everyday lives. Your kids are out of school through at least the end of the month...maybe longer. Your hours have been cut at work because your job can't be done "remotely." Your local grocery store is out of basic cleaning supplies or toilet paper. As a small business owner, you worry how you'll support your overhead or sign next week's paychecks if no one is shopping.
The effects are real.
The worry is real.
The uncertainty about tomorrow is real.
Last spring, I had the pleasure of reading through a book with many of our friends: A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23. If you've never read this book, I highly recommend it. It has given me the blessing of viewing my faith through the lens of walking with my Shepherd. It also brought practical lessons from "Old Testament language" that I had often read, but never understood.
Psalm 23:5, says, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows."
I've only seen someone "anointed" once in my life.
It was a traditional, high church kind of practice that was mostly symbolic. Not practical. I got the concept, but I can't say that it moved me in any capacity. So the phrase, "anoint my head with oil" used to not carry much weight to me when I came across it in Scripture.
Until I learned this one thing:
Anointing was a legitimate, common practice among Shepherds to thwart disease and parasites.
And that truth changes everything.
There are two main reasons a Shepherd will anoint his sheep: nasal flies and scab.
During the late spring and into early summer, Shepherds will keep close watch on their flock for the first signs of the nasal fly. They typically appear this time of the year and will buzz around the sheep's head, attempting to lay eggs on the sheep's nose. If they are successful, the eggs will hatch, the larvae will work their way into the sheep's nasal passage, and in advanced cases, into the brain. It's an admittedly disgusting process with intense aggravation and pain for the sheep.
Often times, the inflammation is so intense that the sheep will rub its head against the ground or posts to alleviate the irritation. Or in severe cases, a sheep will literally bang its head against trees or rocks to make it stop. This of course only causes more injury and in worst cases, death.
Because of this, shepherds keep watch for signs of panic in their flock.
As the fly season begins, sheep will shake or bob their heads continuously in an effort to bat away the buzzing flies. They'll stomp around and run themselves into exhaustion through the flock in an effort to escape the danger.
When a shepherd sees the earliest signs of unrest from nagging flies, he will take the most effective action: He will anoint his sheep.
He will cover their heads and nose in a thick balm traditionally made of linseed oil, sulfur, and tar. This concoction repels the flies and prevents the infestation.
The funny thing this, there is a marked difference in the sheep's mood once the balm has been applied. Almost immediately, the panic subsides. They no longer fidget uncomfortably or run from place to place. In fact, they visibly relax and begin to lie down in their pasture.
The second reason a shepherd will anoint his sheep is scab.
This is a common skin disease that typically begins on the head and is extremely contagious.
It doesn't help that sheep are social creatures who tend to show affection by rubbing their heads together. This means that one case of scab could quickly infect the entire flock.
When this happens, a shepherd will go to great lengths to protect the flock from scab.
He will dip each sheep entirely in a tub of this anointing oil, making sure that the head gets fully submerged. This brings healing to those already infected and brings protection against further contamination.
Now that may seem like a lot of "history" to you.
However, I can't help but to see how it relates to our daily walk as believers in this broken world. Especially in light of the current panic and upheaval we're experiencing around the spread of COVID-19.
Let's take a moment to remember that God is our Great Shepherd.
COVID-19 has not surprised Him as it has us.
He is not sequestered in Heaven wringing His hands with worry.
Just as good earthly shepherds do, He has gone before us and prepared a way.
He offers an antidote for fear, for panic, and for the dangers of a "herd mentality."
When we are tempted to succumb to fear and uncertainty -- whether that's immediate health concerns or financial worry -- we are to remind ourselves that we are in the care of a great, all knowing, and most importantly, a GOOD Shepherd.
If you find yourself banging your head against a rock, ask for His anointing.
If you are exhausted from running to escape the danger, ask for His anointing.
If you've "rubbed heads" with the wrong people and find yourself trapped, ask for His anointing.
One anointing will not protect a sheep forever, a shepherd knows it's a process that must be repeated every time danger is near. And so, may we ask again and again for His anointing. When fear strikes, let us humbly ask to be plunged in the antidote from head to toe. Let us ask to be anointed with the Holy Spirit and covered in His grace as we navigate day to day in a broken world.
May this anointing bring healing to us who are already infected with fear, worry, or doubt, and may it prevent further contamination of such dangers.
If you "rub your head together" with others throughout this chaos, may they benefit from the healing balm your Shepherd has placed on you.
You are not alone.
You have a Shepherd who knows all things.
And, most importantly, He has a GOOD heart towards you.
What happens when Christmas isn't magical?
What if you're heartbroken or frustrated, and “Merry” just isn't a part of Christmas this year?
Maybe your prayer list is packed with friends and family who are battling illnesses or have endured tragic accidents. You've been to one too many funerals or hugged too many friends who have lost a loved one.
Perhaps you've hit hard times financially, and the tree isn't as full with presents as you hoped.
Or, maybe it's just one of those seasons in life where everything you touch seems to fall apart.
Whatever your struggle, this year Christmas is heavy and darker than you feel it should be.
Regardless of the time of year, any struggle with cancer, illness, loss, or insecurity hurts badly.
And if you encounter it long enough, at some point that age old question surfaces in your mind:
“Why? Why does this have to happen? To them? To me?”
We struggle to rationalize a loving, all knowing God with the suffering around you.
Scripture points us to an answer:
We live in a broken world.
It simply does not function the way that it was designed to function.
It is not what it was intended to be.
The difference between our souls and the rest of creation is that creation is still waiting on redemption. In fact, Romans 8:22 says that “all creation has been groaning together as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
The world is broken and groaning.
And we must live in it until Christ returns or He takes us home.
Sometimes that brokenness shows up in a frustrating conversation that hurts your feelings. Sometimes it shows up as a fender bender in traffic on a cold, rainy night.
Sometimes it shows up as cancer or illness.
But the brokenness shows up.
That's why we desperately need a Good Shepherd – to help us navigate this broken world.
If we are believers, we are his sheep. But that does not exempt us from living in a world that is dangerous, broken, and not yet redeemed.
And that's what Christmas is about after all:
Our Good Shepherd showing up, calling and securing His lost sheep into His flock, and preparing a way home.
God came to earth.
In the midst of a people waiting through pain and suffering.
What was promised, was finally fulfilled...thousands of years later.
It doesn't mean that we won't travel rough terrain or endure some dark valleys along the way.
But it does mean that we have Someone who's gone before us to lay out our path, who will comfort us with his rod when we start to panic, and is faithful to provide us with what we need just as we need it along the way.
He has gone to great lengths and great expense to call us His own.
We are far too expensive to not care for, protect, or be loved.
He came for YOU first, He'll take care of the creation later.
YOU were top priority.
May we not blame our Shepherd when we stumble over the brush, when we become afraid by strange noises in the dark, or when we feel confused because we've lost our way.
May those painful moments and fears cause us to run towards our Good Shepherd, not away.
Because just as He has redeemed our souls, He will redeem the world.
One day everything will work as it was designed to from the beginning.
One day all things will be made new.
Hallelujah and Merry Christmas.