|The 'Before' Principle - Joshua 3|
Written by Rick Ezell
Pastors’ EXTRA! Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2004
Bible Study Connection: Obedience to Jesus is essential to finding purpose and meaning in life. Peter in Luke 4:42-5:11 understood this when he followed Jesus. Likewise, Joshua came to understand the importance of obedience when he led the children of Israel into the promise land. Both men found purpose in obedience. This sermon will encourage the hearers to obedience and the resulting fulfillment and change in their lives.
Introduction: The following letter was found in a baking powder can wired to the handle of an old pump that offered the only hope of drinking water on a very long and seldom-used trail across the Amargosa Desert:
“This pump is all right as of June 1932. I put a new sucker washer into it and it ought to last five years. But the washer dries out and the pump has got to be primed. Under the white rock I buried a bottle of water, out of the sun and cork end up. There’s enough water in it to prime the pump, but not if you drink some first. Pour about one fourth and let her soak to wet the leather. Then pour in the rest medium fast and pump like crazy. You’ll git water. The well has never run dry. Have faith. When you git watered up, fill the bottle and put it back like you found it for the next feller.”—Desert Pete
“P.S. Don’t go drinking up the water first. Prime the pump with it and you’ll get all you can hold.”
If you were a lonely traveler shuffling down that parched desert trail with your canteen bone dry, would you trust this guy, Desert Pete? For all you know he is a lunatic. What if it a mad hoax? There are no guarantees to what he claims is true. And what would motivate you to prime the pump with the water in the bottle, perhaps the only water available. But you understand the fact that old pumps have to be primed. It’s a gamble. A risk. An adventure. What do you do?
This story illustrates an important principle: The principle of before. The lonely traveler had to prime the pump before all the water flowed.
The before principle manifests itself in everyday life. There are battles before victory. There are struggles before celebration. There are steps before arrivals. There is practice before perfection. There is preparation before completion. There is matriculation before graduation.
Over and over in Scripture this pattern is repeated: The Israelites had to march to the Red Sea before God parted it. Namaan had to wash seven times in the water before God cured him of leprosy. Gideon had to reduce his army from 32,000 down to 300 before God would deliver them from the Midianities. The loaves and fishes were given up before Jesus multiplied them. Peter had to obey Jesus to row out to deep water before he caught a boatload of fish.
1. Crossing Jordan (v. 1)
But nowhere was this principle of before more evident than when Joshua was preparing to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land. After decades of wandering in the wilderness the children of Israel were perched on the banks of the Jordan ready to cross over. In this narrative the words crossing over were used twenty-one times. It marked a transition in their lives. The crossing over required a new faith experience, the before principle applied, in order for them to occupy the new land God had waiting for them.
A. The obstacle that stood in their way. (v. 1)
One big obstacle stood in their way: the Jordan River, flowing north to south. It stretches over 200 miles from Mount Hermon to the Dead Sea, furiously plummeting from several hundred feet above sea level to approximately 1300 feet below sea level. Normally the Jordan is not difficult to cross. I’ve stood on the banks of the Jordan. It’s rather non-threatening. It is narrow and shallow. It’s a modest steam of water. But when Joshua led the children of Israel to the Jordan it was spring. The snows had melted on Mount Hermon. The normally dry wadies that flowed into the Jordan were raging currents inundating the main river. No longer mild and tame, the Jordan was a tempestuous, raging river at flood stage. During the dry season, at its widest point, the Jordan was 100 feet wide, now it was over a mile wide. The Israelites were at an impasse.
The children of Israel came to this raging, impassible river. Like the lonely traveler on the Amaragosa desert trail spotting the water pump then reading the letter, their hopes were thwarted. They were so close but so far away. They were confronted with a test of faith. The before principle would have to be applied.
B. The miracle that smoothed their way. (v. 16)
Yet here God performed a miracle that closely resembled the miracle at the Red Sea. Why the similarity? Except for Joshua and Caleb, the Hebrew people were one generation removed from the Red Sea deliverance. This young core of people had only heard about the great escape from Pharaoh’s army. They had not witnessed it. They were not present. So God did it again. Just as he rolled back the waters of the Red Sea, he rolled back the waters of the Jordan River. Just as the mothers and fathers walked across the bottom of the Red Sea on dry land, so too did their sons and daughters walk across the dry riverbed of the Jordan River.
Did they need a miracle before they believed they could conquer the land? Did they need to see God’s power demonstrated before they recognized him as the living God? Did they need a new story of escape to tell their children before they had the courage to battle the giants in the land of Canaan?
The Hebrews experienced a miracle. They witnessed the visible demonstration of God’s power. They knew that the living God was among them. It was a great day of victory and celebration and arrival. It was an experience they would tell again and again.
Before the Hebrews experienced the miracle, witnessed the power, and saw the hand of God, there were requirements. They had to prime the pump. In other words, the people would experience the power of God, but they had to take the first step.
The Hebrew children had to wait, to consecrate, and to take a step of faith before God showed up.
2. Before You Get Up and Go (v. 2-15)
So do we. The principle of before applies to us. Here’s how.
Often, we have to wait before moving ahead with God. (v. 2)
The children of Israel did. For forty years they had waited, while an entire generation died. The promise had been deferred because of the unbelief of the elders. And now they would wait again with the destination in sight. They were not happy campers.
No one likes to wait. Waiting is not a strong suit for most of us. We tend to be horn honking, microwaving, Fed-Ex mailing, fast food eating, and express lane shopping people. Yet sometimes God says wait.
Waiting is the hardest part of trusting. It is the most arduous aspect of the before principle. We live by the adage: Don’t just stand there, do something. While God often says to us: Don’t just do something, stand there.
Too often we want God’s resources, but we do not want his timing. We forget that the work God is doing in us while we wait is as important as whatever we are waiting for. Waiting means that we give God the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he is doing.
Waiting is God’s way of seeing if we will trust him before we move forward. Waiting reminds me that I am not in charge.
When we get to the crossing moments of life we are not just waiting around, we are waiting for God. Therefore we can trust his timing and his wisdom.
Waiting is the first fundamental of the before principle. There is a second.
Always, we have to consecrate today before blessings tomorrow. (v. 5)
Then and now God calls his people to holiness, purity, and separation. For the Israelites on the edge of the Jordan, this meant washing themselves with water and practicing the ceremonial rites that would make them clean. They were to flush their minds of the filth and dirt that had accumulated over the years. They were to approach God with pure hearts, clean hands and feet, and blameless minds. They were about to enter the Holy Land—God’s country. Think about it. Every time in scripture that God’s shows up people were to recognize that that place was holy. People took off their shoes. They fell prostrate in humility. When God said consecrate yourselves it was his way of saying only holy people would occupy a holy land.
I would like to take a literary liberty. May I insert the word today in this verse so it reads: “Consecrate yourselves [today], because the Lord will do wonders among you tomorrow” (Joshua 3:5). Again the before principle comes to the forefront. The need for holiness, purity, and separation comes before the blessings of tomorrow, not the other way around. We often believe that if God will bless then we’ll get our lives right. God says that holiness precedes honor. Cleanliness comes before usefulness. Penance before power.
The promise that God would work miraculously tomorrow was contingent on the people’s willingness to consecrate themselves today.
Waiting speaks to God’s schedule; consecration addresses our sanctification; the third deals with our steps.
Inevitably, we have to step first in faith before we see God act. (vv. 14-15)
Before God would part the waters of the Jordan a condition had to be met—a step of faith. “But as soon as the priests carrying the ark reached the Jordan, their feet touched the at its edge and the water flowing downstream stood still, rising up in a mass . . .” (Joshua 3:15-16). Do you see the before principle? God promised that the current of the Jordan would be dammed up but first the people had to step in the water. God was ready, willing, and able to perform an amazing miracle, a feat that would prove that he was the living God. But the condition hinged on the people’s faithfulness. As the people marched forward somewhere along the way, God would intervene. They had to get their feet wet before God would act.
Isn’t that just like God? He wants to do some amazing things tomorrow but before he does—we have to trust today. We are required to demonstrate our faith. Like an electric eye opening door, it will only open as we move toward it.
Faith is risky business. Kierkegaard wrote, “Without risk there is no faith.” For faith to be faith, we venture out beyond our own abilities and resources. We take the step before God acts.
Often God provides no solution to our problems until we trust him and move ahead. While he wants to supernaturally intervene in the difficulties and challenges of our everyday lives, he can’t until we first demonstrate faith by walking forward on the path of obedience. Compared to God’s part, our part is miniscule but necessary. We don’t have to do much, but we do have to do something.
3. It Is Worth The Risk? (vv. 16-17)
The children of Israel saw God work in a powerful way. The river stopped flowing. They walked through on dry ground. They were in the promise land.
The principle of before deals with our waiting, our consecration, and our faith. It plays out in my life in the following manners:
A. When I take the risk of giving generously, I discover that I really can trust God to take care of me—but first I have to get my feet wet.
B. When I take the risk of asking forgiveness of another person, I discover that God really will honor my confession—but first I have to get my feet wet.
C. When I risk using my spiritual gift, I can know the joy of being used by God—but first I have to get my feet wet.
D. When I risk making a phone call or visit to encourage or show concern, I can know the satisfaction of touching another human being at their point of need—but first I have to get my feet wet.
Where do you need to risk? How is God calling you to get your feet wet?
Conclusion: Perhaps this time of the unknown is a test. The weary traveler reading Desert Pete’s letter was put to the test. Would he prime the pump? The Hebrew people on the banks of the Jordan were put to the test. Would they get their feet wet? Are you being faced with an obstacle, a challenge that seems like impossibility? Will you take the first step of faith?
God honors radical, risk-taking faith. God relishes favoring people who apply the before principle.