[Warning: this is a long post. It is a condensed version of a lesson given at Rochester during Connections, our weekly Wednesday seeker service]
The Israelites came up against the Jordan River for the second time. They were fully aware that their forefathers failed this test almost forty years previously, dooming them to death in the wilderness. Unlike other ancient people, they did not worship rivers. The Jordan was not a god to them but a barrier -- and a very serious barrier -- they had to cross to receive their promised land.
But other people worshipped that river and they lived on the other side. Baal was, among other things, god of water and floods. The Philistines believed that Baal would use the river to protect them and that any enemy who approached it would be drowned. Even the Israelites, who believed their God was the Supreme God, would have been very, very nervous at approaching this demonic barrier. They believed that those minor gods -- known to us as demons -- had power and could bring death and harm if Jehovah did not rise up to save them.
Let's leave them there and go back to another story...
The Creation story has a very interesting passage in it that we miss: "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." Let's look at that in the Contemporary English Version: "The earth was barren, with no form of life; it was under a roaring ocean covered with darkness. But the Spirit of God was moving over the water."
We miss the drama in that passage. The ancient Jews -- as well as many other peoples in that day and age -- believed that spirits lived in the water and those spirits were not good. These desert people and their love/hate relationship with water is puzzling to us, but it was an important part of their theology. Whoever pleased the gods of the water would have life and be safe from the chaos of floods. Here, in the Creation story, we have chaos with an empty earth covered with stormy, roaring, terrible waters... but the Spirit of God had come!
The Philistines felt safe behind the shield their god of water provided. The Israelites were about to discover that their God was God of the desert AND water. The Psalmist would celebrate this fact while referencing the old stories: that God had destroyed the monsters of the deep. "But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert..." [Psalm 74:12-17]
What monster? Who's Leviathan? The Jews didn't write a great deal about Satan or demons, but they knew that there were invisible beings behind the evil found in the world. They viewed those beings as gods -- powers inferior to the One True God -- who tried to wrestle control away from God even at creation. There, as God created the earth and began crafting humanity, the demons threw chaos against Him and His work. Water was the symbol of that chaos.
When the Psalmist was depressed, he portrayed God as allowing the waves of the sea to wash over him [Psalm 42:7]. When the Psalmist is rescued from what seemed to be certain death he used water imagery again: "The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me... He reached down from on high and took hold of me. He drew me out of deep waters..." [Psalm 18:4-17]
Isaiah used this same symbolism to describe what happens when God removes His protection and the demon-gods are let loose [Isaiah 5:30]. Again, God is pictured as beating back the gods of the waters: "You are mighty, O Lord, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain..." [Psalm 89:8-10] Isaiah references Rahab again (one of the demon gods that inhabited the water) in Isaiah 51:9,10 and says that God had to pierce it and then dry up its habitat before it was defeated.
All of Psalm 124 is a story of how God delivered us from the evil brought upon us by "the flood." In that psalm, the waters did not go peacefully and God had to war against the pounding, raging, foaming waters. [also Psalm 93:3,4]Those of us in trouble are to run to this Almighty God -- the one out of reach of the demons of the water. "Let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise they will not reach him." [Psalm 32:6]
Think of the number of water miracles and water stories in scripture. They are everywhere! The creation story, water from rocks, crossing the Red Sea and Jordan, storm stories in the Gospels, walking on water during a storm, a miracle at a sacred pool of water where an angel comes to trouble the water... on and on and on.
Maybe there is something here we should learn.
Before the people of Israel could claim Israel again, they had to step into the Jordan. They had to confront their personal demons and show their faith in the living God. When you carried the Ark of the Covenant, the place of honor was the front. Would you accept that position when it meant you would have to put your feet in the water first? The water controlled -- you'd heard -- by Baal? Water that was in full flood and bursting its banks?
Would you wade in the water? [here we played the Blind Boys of Alabama's version of the first song I learned on the 12 string guitar years and years ago in Alabama: Wade in the Water. Look it up, read it and listen. It's meaning will become clear after reading the above]
The Churches of Christ has a lot to offer the larger world of believers. One of the prime things we have to give is that we have understood and restored the place of baptism. Remember the baptism of Jesus? He went into the water and then what happened? Just like in Genesis chapter one, the Spirit of God was over that water and descended on him.
We go into the water with him. And when we do, the Spirit of God comes to us [Acts 2:38]. We enter our Jordan, taking all our sins with us into the water, leaving them there in the water. When we come up out of the water the Spirit of God hovers no longer -- but comes to us. He takes up residence in us who have come through the water. We fear no false gods, no demons -- not even death itself, for God is now with us -- the God of desert, water, fire and light.
We have been through the water and met the Spirit of God. We can now claim our promised land, leaving our sins, our past, and the gods of this world behind us. For we have been through the water and met our Lord.