Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Joshua 3) transports me to the Mines of Moriah in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo and his band of fellow travelers are trapped deep in the mountain. Gandalf warns them, We have but one choice, to face the long, dark of Moriah. Be on your guard. There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world. They find one of these older and fouler creatures, the feared and fierce and fiery Balrog, at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, which is their only way out. Gandalf steps into the breach and battles the creature, so that the others can cross the bridge into safety. He uses all the powers at his disposal to defy the Balrog, commanding the creature with the famous words, You shall not pass! before uttering his final words to Frodo and the fellowship, Fly you fools! They follow his direction, crossing the bridge into safety, and continue their quest.
When the early Hebrew people conjured up fearful images, it was not fiery creatures of the deep, but rushing waters that came to their mind. The fear of water was woven deep into the fiber of their being. Having the ancestral DNA of a nomadic, desert people did not prepare them spiritually or emotionally for encounters with bodies of water. The root meaning of the Hebrew word for fear, yara, literally means to flow and brings up images of a rushing river. So when Joshua led the wilderness wanderers to the edge of the Promised Land, their hearts undoubtedly sank when they saw that the Jordan River barred their path. The Jordan was not the peaceful stream we see painted onto baptistry walls. This river, whose name means rapid descent, falls more than 2000 feet over its 80 mile journey to the Dead Sea, and along the way there are 27 sections of dangerous cascades and roaring whitewater rapids. The currents and undercurrents are strong, and many who have tried to cross it have been swept away to a terrible death. So it was a wonder of wonders and a test of faith for the people to even consider crossing this feared river, no matter how much milk and how much honey was on the other side. God used this test and this wonder to confirm Joshua as the new leader of the people. The priests carrying the ark of the covenant, that magical box representing God’s presence, were to put their feet into the rushing water. Once they were all in, God pulled a Gandalf and spoke to the monstrous river: You shall not pass! causing the Jordan to heap up into a massive wall as the riverbed dried. And then, we can almost hear Joshua using Gandalf’s other command in addressing the nervous and anxious people eager to find a way of escape, Fly you fools! And they did; the fellowship of covenant people crossed over on dry land, with the river continuing to heap up to their right, awaiting the last of them to gain entry before pouring back down into its course.
To me, this scene gives us a wonderful description of the role of priests, spiritual leaders, in a community of faith. We all have our monsters, our fears, that we have to encounter in our journey of faith. The priests are the ones who embody the presence of God as they set foot into the rushing waters of our deepest fears, and give voice to God’s defiant command to those free-flowing fears: You shall not pass! And as the fears heap up, we see that there is a path across the riverbed, and if we have enough faith, we follow that path, even as the massive and monstrous wall of fear seems ready to pour back into its course at any moment. And just as fools rush in where angels fear to tread, the foolishly faithful followers of the Way of love fly across into lands of promise. Our lands are not so much defined by milk and honey, but by grace, by mercy, by sharing all things in common, by welcoming the stranger. Thank God for those who are called and who are willing to carry the presence of God into those fearful spaces and get their feet wet, so the rest of us can cross over on dry land in our quest to discover the beloved community.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Google+, FB, Twitter, etc.