My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
In Rio de Janeiro 11,178 athletes of 215 countries are competing in 306 events of the Olympic Games. Billions of people will watch the even over the next two weeks on every conceivable device. Advertisers will rake in big amounts of mon
ey; and remarks reflecting the current social and political worldview – some outspoken, others subtle but well targeted – will reach the unsuspecting audience.
They say it is the biggest event in history. Really? All of this will be over and forgotten in just a few weeks from now. Athletes will go home, have moment in the sun when they march through city streets, and then the world will carry on.
There was another event which took part just outside Jerusalem about 2000 years ago. Some people gathered for a spectacle when three men were nailed to crosses. On the cross in the middle was nailed the carpenter of Nazareth, the Son of God. He died the death of a criminal – lonely and abandoned. Three days later He conquered death. That was the biggest event in history. This Man, Jesus Christ, every man, woman and child will meet one day – He will either be judge, or advocate.
His death and resurrection we celebrate today. We are commanded to do so till He comes again.
God ordained that we, because of our lack of faith and short-sighted obedience, have sacraments. The Westminster Larger Catechism helps us to understand what a sacrament is:
A sacrament is … instituted by Christ … to signify, seal, and show … the benefits of his mediation. [This is] to strengthen and increase their faith… to bind them to obedience; to testify … their love… and union one with another… (Q&A 162)
Looking at the redemption of Israel and how the were brought to the point of crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land, the Scripture teaches a few things.
The presence of the Lord assured redemption
Israel was camped at Shittim, on the eastern side of the Jordan. God’s plan with his people was to get them on the other side where they would inherit their promised land. The Jordan was in flood and there was no bridge for them to use to cross the river. They just had to trust God for his mighty power. This God is not only almighty and strong, calling even the forces of nature to obey Him; He is also holy. He would go before them.
When the feet of the priests carrying the ark touched the water of the Jordan, the Bible says, the water stopped flowing. God ahead of his people! What a wonderful and assuring grace this is. When God is ahead of us, nothing can stand in our way.But, because God is holy, there is a distance between Him and us.
Although He is our Friend and our Saviour, we must always remember that God is far more than a human being. He is holy. Joshua commanded the people:
“However, there shall be between you and it [the ark] a distance of about 2,000 cubits by measure. Do not come near it, …” (Joshua 3:4)
The closest we may come to God is to take hold of the righteousness of Christ where we will always see our unworthiness to always cling to his merits. This is what communion is proclaiming to us. By faith we come to our Father through Jesus Christ.
God is the living God who reveals Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Joshua said to the Israelites:
“By this you shall know that the living God is among you, …(Joshua 3:10)
The power of the Lord delivered redemption
The way the living God acted on their behalf would be known in the way He would command the water of the river to stop flowing: this way He would open the way for them, in the same way as we learn of our Lord who is our only Way to the Father. Just as the Israelites were not at liberty to cross where, or even when, they wanted, so everyone should know that Christ is the only way, the only door to eternal salvation. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.He secures the victory of the battle against the enemy. The text says “He dispossesses the enemy.” This is what Christ did for us. Paul writes in Colossians 2:15
When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. (Colossians 2:15)
Joshua impressed on the hearts of the people that day that their God is the only God. He uses a special phrase here: “the Lord of all the earth”. This expression is of huge encouragement to us who are pilgrims on our way to the promised land.
To the Israelites it meant that their God is indeed the God of the gods. He is all-powerful and almighty. When they came in contact with the gods of the nations they were to dispossess, they could know for sure that these gods are nothing in comparison with their living God.
But it also means this: God is not limited to a certain sphere of power. He is God of all the earth. all powerful – He commands the stars to shine, the clouds to form, the rain to fall – and He commands the waters of the Jordan to stop flowing. He did so in the midst of the annual flood to demonstrate to the people who He was. It was not trickle of water, which might allow unbelievers and those who scoff at the Word of God the luxury to argue the point that the Israelites got across by their own strength.
Our Saviour is Christ, the only Saviour. His blood is all-sufficient; He is Saviour to the nations; He is our protector; He is our Joshua. He chained Satan and threw him into the pit where he will remain until the Lord has accomplished by his Word through his church what He has ordained from all eternity. All power and authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and there is no title which He has not assumed. We need to remember this on our pilgrimage to heaven.
The means of the Lord safeguarded redemption
The priests were appointed to carry the Ark of the Covenant. At that point in time they became the means which safeguarded the redemption of the people. Yes, it was God who was with them, but the priests, whose task it was to stand between God and his people, did so that day.
The waters stopped flowing when their feet touched it. And all along, while they were standing in the middle of the Jordan, the people could march trough on dry ground. It was safe only were the priests were.
This picture tells us of Christ Jesus. He fulfilled the demands of the Law which was in the Ark of the Covenant and became our righteousness; but He was our perfect High Priest whose intercession brings us salvation; He brings us to God. And this is what we celebrate this morning at his Table: the means of our our salvation in grace in Jesus Christ only.
The memorial of the Lord celebrates redemption
Before we enjoy the signs of God’s salvation in the wine and bread, let’s just ponder this: salvation comes first, then the signs.
The nation crossed on dry feet. We get the impression that the waters of the river were still held up by God when He commanded Joshua to instruct twelve men, one from each tribe in Israel, to take twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan. These stone were to serve as a sign
‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4:7)
It was not an act which preceded their rescue, it was a sign that they had been rescued. The job was done, they were safely on the other side. We have bread and wine – they represent the body and the blood which brought salvation. If we are asked, “Why do you do this?” we point back to the cross of Christ – and we proclaim the victory of Jesus Christ over death till He comes again.
The elements do not save; they are signs and seals of redemption. As the pile of stones were to the people of Israel a commemoration of their rescue and salvation, so the signs of the sacraments are to us pointers to the redemption in Christ. We do not need to cross the river again, we are on the other side already. The wine and the bread are things we can taste, smell, handle, eat, and consume to bring assurance of the full salvation of the almighty God.
Whilst on our way to the promised land, God gave us the signs and seals. Taking them, holding them, tasting them and consuming them, our faith is strengthened knowing that God secured a powerful redemption in Christ. He who called us will allow nothing to pluck us out of his hand. I belong to Him for time and eternity. This is the promise and seal of the signs.
You ask, “What do these signs of bread and wine mean?” The answer is: God in Jesus Christ, took us from being foreigners as his children and He gave us a home. These signs we have till He comes again. And there, across our Jordan, we will enjoy, one day when He
returns, a feast which will never end.
Come sit at the table, and enjoy God’s salvation! Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 7th August 2016 (Communion Sunday)