Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan. They camped there before crossing over. At the end of three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the people, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place. Follow it, so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before. Yet there shall be a space between you and it, a distance of about two thousand cubits; do not come any nearer to it.” Then Joshua said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.”
Joshua 3:1-5 NRSV
I recently became aware of a curious South Africanism – our concept of “now” (as in, “I’ll do it now”). In South Africa, “now” is a relatively arbitrary concept. Saying, “I’ll do something now” usually implies the completion of the present activity first, but don’t expect any breaking of the sound barrier. Then again, “I’ll do something just now” implies the completion of a whole range of other objectives first, but at least you’re on the list. However, when someone tells you they’ll do something “now-now” that’s a promise subject to the next week, if not two. “Now-now” is the Schrödinger’s cat of timekeeping in South Africa: it exists in a state of uncertainty, both existing and not existing. Generally the more words we attach to “now”, the farther we move into infinity.
I can’t help but wonder if wandering around a relatively small stretch of desert for forty years felt like God’s “now-now” promise to the emerging nation of Israel. Indeed, at many points the Israelites stopped the procession to vociferously lodge their various complaints and doubts about the present state of affairs, the past state of affairs, and the future state of affairs. God had promised them the (spoiler alert) promised land. But forty years is a long time to hold on to a promise that doesn’t appear to be materialising. And indeed, as anyone who has asked a South African to do something expediently will attest to, frustration only makes the waiting worse.
You see, forty years is just about long enough to forget that, at one point, God parted a sea for the escaping slaves. We like to think, Boy, if that were me, I’d never forget it! But we do forget God’s miracles, don’t we? We (read: I) struggle to remember his nature most of the time, never mind the things God’s done! But luckily God isn’t stingy about reminding us. And so we find that, as the Israelites finally move into the promised land under Moses’ successor Joshua, God reminds his people where this promise started. They escaped the water, but make no mistake – this was a kind of baptism. A baptism into fulfilled promises. In Joshua 5, the nation of Israel re-establish the covenental relationship (so much so that the place they did this at became known as “the hill of foreskins”, so there’s that!)
As believers, our Red Sea was parted not by a raised staff, but by a man raised on a cross. Our pursuers weren’t Egyptians, but death and sin. As the chariots were lost to sea, so death and sin were lost to the moment John baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. And that was only the beginning.
God continues to part waters for us today. He has done it for us before; he will do it again. In a world of “just now” and “now-now”, his timing and promise is something we can rely on. Paul told the Philippians, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6), and the believers in Thessalonica, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thessalonians 5:24). Paul obviously thought this was a promise worth repeating. God is faithful.
Dearest Lord, I stand today, like so many other days, at the edge of your promise; but today I will not fear, because I know that what you have done before, you will do again. These waters, as troubling as they appear, will part, too. Indeed, You will do wonders among us. I live in that promise. I find rest in that promise. Amen.