The priests who were carrying the Ark stood in the middle of the river until all of the LORD’s commands that Moses had given to Joshua were carried out. Meanwhile, the people hurried across the riverbed. (Joshua 4:10 NLT)
The first century historian Josephus tells the story of 15,000 Jews being pursued by a Roman general and his army. The Jews race towards Jericho, their closest hope for refuge. When they reach the Jordan, they must cross it, or turn and fight. Josephus says, “they were stopped by the current (for it had been augmented lately by the rains, and was not fordable).” Of necessity, they were provoked “to hazard a battle, because there was no place whither they could flee.” When the Jordan is overflowing, the journey across is treacherous and fierce, a powerful enough force that those who are running from armies elect to fight rather than swim.
1,500 years earlier, Joshua led the wandering Israelites to the same place, and discovered the same obstacle. It was the harvest season, and the Jordan was overflowing its banks (Josh. 3:15). The Israelites camped 3 days beside this daunting hindrance to their journey. On the second day, Joshua told them, “Purify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do great wonders among you” (Josh. 3:5). I doubt they slept that night. Surely their imaginations were stirred as they replayed in their minds the stories their mothers and grandfathers had told them. They had grown up hearing stories of running through the sea on dry ground, stories of fierce waters that stood up for the Israelites but not for the chariots that pursued them. What might these pilgrims have felt as they lingered at the riverside? Uncertainty, dread, expectation?
The day of crossing arrived. The Israelites held their breath as the priests slowly stepped into the water, carefully shouldering the symbolic throne of their God. And the God of wonders did not disappoint. Gravity was defied; the river was transformed into a vertical tower of water. The unbelievable tales of generations past were both confirmed and displaced by a new palpable, breathtaking experience of the incomparable power of Israel’s God.
In this moment of divine handiwork, when God made a highway through the waters, what did the Israelites do? They ran. They hurried across the riverbed (Josh. 4:10). Perhaps they were still afraid; after all, people drown in this river. Maybe they didn’t fully trust God and were concerned that, at any moment, they would be crushed beneath the weight of the sea that loomed above them. Maybe it was just adrenaline. Whatever it was, it makes me sad.
They did not take time to feel the sand of the riverbed beneath their toes. They didn’t take a minute to run their fingers through the wall of water beside them. They didn’t splash one another. They didn’t explore the vegetation or creatures that are ordinarily hidden beneath the sea. They didn’t rest in the glory of this experience. They didn’t stand in awe of what God was doing. They memorialized the event; they built altars and told their story for generations. But when it was happening, they missed it.
We are the caretakers of sacred stories and extraordinary tales. Our God does spectacular things. Why, then, do we rest uneasy when our path is uncertain or perilous? And why do we rush through sacred moments? Our God of wonders goes before us, and he delights in our amazement. His gifts of love are meant to be cherished and celebrated in the present, even as they are to be remembered and retold in years to come.
Let’s not hurry through our experiences of grace. Let’s linger instead. Let’s linger in expectation as we wait beside unrelenting currents, in awe as we stand in impossible places, and in retrospect as we rest on the other side.