Refreshment Sunday: Going over Jordan

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, otherwise known as Laetare, Rejoicing, or Refreshment Sunday. Readings in Year C include the Israelites’ first Passover in the Promised Land, and the parable of the Prodigal Son.


Did you know that the earth is moving? The continents, as you know, were formed many millennia ago as the land masses stretched and split apart and drifted, sinking the sea beds and raising mountain ranges. They are not yet done, as they continue to move by about an inch each year. One day, our maps will be out of date. Continents will have turned, drifting and shifting. The solid ground itself is on the move.

As much as solid ground shifts, water courses are perhaps even more dynamic, as they seek out the tender spots of the earth, and wear down the defences of rock, changing the landscape around them. Even by season, they swell and shrink. Visiting the site of Jesus’ baptism beside the Jordan River, the water might be slow and muddy, or swift enough to keep pilgrims out and their feet dry. On either side of the river, people gather to pray and to be baptized, often forgetting that this very place was where the waters were rolled back for the prophets and the people of God. The pilgrims trust instead that the waters will flow on, and pass over them, washing away their sin, and renewing a right covenant between them and their Saviour; our Saviour: the descendant of Joshua, whose name means salvation.

In the backstory to today’s little snippet of the Book of Joshua, after forty years wandering in the wilderness, and after the death of Moses, the prophet of their Passover and Exodus from Egypt, the people of the Exodus finally cross over into the Promised Land. But they do not come from the west, as if straight from Egypt, but they have swung through the desert to approach the land from the east, crossing the Jordan River just in the area where John would later baptize Jesus, and coming to rest on the plains below Jericho.

This is probably no accident. In the early stories, when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, they were sent away to the east, as evidenced by the detail that it was at the eastern edge of the Garden that God set up a guard of cherubim with flaming swords to guard the tree of life; and when Cain committed the first murder, he was sent further east, away from the presence of the Lord.

Now, the people of God are returning from the same direction, albeit having come by a roundabout route.

We miss so much sometimes when we read these little snippets of story. Joshua and the people enter the Jordan River from the East, and as they do so, the waters stand up as they did at the Red Sea, so that the people cross over on dry land. Later, Elijah will cross the Jordan at this same point, and be taken up by chariots of fire as his feet reach the eastern shore. Both he and Elisha, returning the same way, cross the river on dry ground, having touched it with their mantles to make the waters stand up on either side of them in salute. For Joshua and the Israelites, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant stood between the walls of water, and the whole nation crossed over on dry land. God is not above repeating God’s miracles.

After the people had crossed over, and as they were encamped on the plains of Jericho on the West Bank of the Jordan, the people were circumcised, to remember the covenant that they had made with God. They had to be circumcised, the scripture notes, because in forty years of wandering the people who were circumcised when they left Egypt had died, and the practice had not been kept up in the wilderness. Now, they rested while they healed, and as they rested and celebrated their return to the covenant and to the land of milk and honey, then it was that God addressed Joshua, saying, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”

And the people celebrated the Passover as they had for forty-one years now, but with new food in a new land. The story is not without serious problems. Who grew the food that the Israelites ate at that first Passover in the Promised Land? It was not only the river that was displaced by their arrival. Today, to undertake an archeological exploration of the story is to enter a literal minefield.

So the stories repeat, their cycle circles, the river runs on. Even now, our calendar returns us every year close by this place, just outside of Jerusalem, poised for the royal entrance of Jesus on a donkey, and the tragic ending of the cross, and the surprising twist of resurrection. We are a little more than halfway there, through a season of wilderness wanderings, Lent full of fasting and repentance, study and self-examination. We are just to the east of the action, poised to plunge in.

This Sunday, a little over halfway through Lent, is known as Laetare, or more commonly Refreshment Sunday. It comes from the instruction of the psalm to be happy, to shout with joy; it echoes the rejoicing of the father in the parable. If we had them, I would wear rose vestments today; a lightening of the Lenten purples, representing a pause in the austerity of Lent. Laetare invites us to relax the fast and remember, in the midst of our self-examination, study, and repentance, God’s provision and abundant grace. It recognizes that, even though our covenant does not require circumcision, the renewal of our covenant with God can be painful in its own way, uncovering wounds and woundings by our confession and efforts at reconciliation. It acknowledges the weariness of the journey through the wilderness, the cold shadow of the cross before the resurrection rises. On Refreshment Sunday, we are invited to remember and rejoice in the kindness of God, who provides manna where nothing will grow, who supplies the Passover lamb, and prepares a feast of fatted calf on the right occasion; who protects us from becoming overwhelmed by the waters of our baptismal covenant and its promises.

The stories of Joshua and the people are far from over. In fact, their battles are just beginning. The story of the family of the prodigal son is about to enter a whole new phase that we will not witness. Each of the characters will find himself challenged to find his place in the new family dynamic, and to rediscover how love might work day by day, and not only through drama and grand gestures. Lent is not over, and the disciplines of reconciliation and redemption will continue to demand our attention as we journey towards Jerusalem. And yet here is a moment to rest in the promises of God already realized:

“I have rolled away your disgrace. I have set you on solid ground.”

The name of Gilgal might once have been based on another part of the story, in which Joshua commanded the twelve tribes each to pull a stone from the dry riverbed and set it up as a memorial to the miracle with which God had welcomed them to the Jordan valley. The name Gilgal might once have referred to that ancient stone circle. But names, like histories, are dynamic, and for Joshua and the people, resting after the renewal of their commitment to God, and after crossing the river on dry ground, Gilgal took on new meaning, bringing to mind the promise that God had made to them, the faithfulness of God to the Exodus.

For us as Christians, when God says, “I have rolled away your disgrace,” it cannot help but bring to mind the rolling away of the stone from the tomb that is to come in a few short weeks, the hope beyond Good Friday:

“I have rolled away the disgrace of sin and death. I have brought you out of the deep waters of baptism, and set you on solid ground. I have set a table before you, even in the midst of trouble.”

And so in the midst of Lent, and a world that moves ever so slowly and all too swiftly, may we rejoice and rest for a moment in the never-changing mercy of our God.

Amen.

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