On Dry Ground
My formative years were in the golden age of chain email forwards. As a pre-teen and young teenager, I had just gotten access to email around the same time that people discovered that chain letters were much more efficient when you didn’t need a stamp, and envelope or an address, and started sending massive numbers via email. What a time to be alive. If you had email at this point in your life, you probably remember this era. Letters telling you to pass them on 5 people so they’d reach everyone. Emails with bright colored text on a white or black background. Scrolling down through pages and pages of arrows to get to the bottom. Phrases like, “If you send this to 7 people in the next 7 minutes your crush will kiss you in the next 7 days.” They weren’t all like that, some had jokes, or bizarre horoscopes, and some of these chain letters were religious in nature. I remember one specifically, that I must have received at least 10 times. It went something like this:
I had a dream one night that I was walking on the beach with my Lord. I saw scenes from my life flashing in the sky. For each scene, there were two sets of footprints in the sand, one for my Lord and one for me. I noticed that during the difficult times in my life, there was only one set of footprints. I asked my Lord why, during the hardest times in my life, were there only one set of footprints? Why did you abandon me?
My Lord replied, “I didn’t abandon you. It was then that I carried you.”
It’s a good bit older than email chain letters. No one is sure who wrote it (at least six people claim to), but it showed up in a newspaper article in 1978, a host of political speeches in the 80s and 90’s, and at least three pop songs that made the charts. It was already a cliché by the time it reached the internet, and then the internet did what the internet does – it spread the story everywhere. I would be truly surprised if someone came up to me after the sermon and said they’d never heard the story before.
But here’s the thing about clichés. They become cliché because they resonate with a lot of people. Sometimes they reflect poorly on us, like the phrase, “the old ball and chain” that implies that marriage is more a prison than a joy. But other times, and I would argue that this is the case with Footprints in the Sand, they reflect something universal about our experience. The story resonates because so many of us have experienced that feeling of being abandoned by God, and then looking back to realize that God had seen us through.
It was even true for the Hebrews in the wilderness. Every morning they woke up and collected manna off the ground that God had provided them to eat. God showed them where to go with a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire in the night. And they carried with them the tabernacle, where the very presence of God dwelt, and followed Moses, who had seen God and was so transfigured by the experience that he wore a veil the rest of his life so as not to scare anyone. In spite of all this, we read story after story of Hebrews in the wilderness who feel that God has abandoned them. At every setback they cry out that God has abandoned them and they should go back to Egypt. When Moses spends too much time talking to God, they create a golden calf. The nice thing about an idol is it will never leave you. It can’t, it’s just a rock. It didn’t matter how much God did for them, they always felt abandoned when things got rough.
Our story for today marks a crucial moment in the narrative. The people of God are about to embark on a completely different adventure. They have wandered the desert for 40 years. But when they cross the Jordan, they won’t be wanderers anymore. They will be settlers. For 40 years they had gathered manna from the ground. Now they will plant and reap and watch over cattle and sheep. They slept in tents for 40 years, but now they will live in cities and towns and build things out of stone. Everything about their life is changing. They are embarking on something completely new and different in their lives. What is ahead of them is completely different from what was behind them. The challenges that they face will be completely new to them.
This may be true for some of us today. Maybe we’re starting a new job, or getting married, or embarking on some new adventure or challenge that is different from what we’ve done before. It will certainly be true for all of us at some point in our lives. I know it’s true for me. I remember when I was a teenager, I was going off to a 3-week summer camp, a camp that was different from anywhere I’d been before. I remember worrying a lot about it, and trying to figure out what I was going to do. But since I didn’t know anything about it, I couldn’t prepare for it in any way. So I just had this mix of excitement and anxiety swirling around in my head, and I wasn’t sleeping well because I was trying to figure out how to plan for it. It finally got quiet when I accepted and said to myself, “This will be different from anything I’ve ever done before, and there’s no way I can know in advance what it will be like.” And I thought of other times that I’d done something new, and different, and reminded myself that it had turned out okay.
For the Hebrews—soon to be Israelites—crossing over into the River Jordan, it’s sort of like that. They were doing something that was different from anything they’d ever done before, and they had no way of knowing what it would be like.
But here’s what happens when they come to the Jordan River to go across. The river has overflown its banks (as it does occasionally); the water level was high. And they bring the Ark of the Covenant with them. And God tells Joshua to have 12 priests carry the Ark into the river. And the moment that the soles of their feet touch the water, the river is cut off. And all the waters stand up in a heap. And the people cross over on dry ground. Now that is something that they have done before. When the Hebrews were fleeing Egypt, with Pharaoh’s army behind them, God told Moses to stretch out his hand, and the waters were divided. And they stood up in a heap. And the people crossed over on dry land.
At the moment that they are entering into the dawn of a new era, God gives them a reminder of how God has carried them thus far. The Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, who provided manna for you in the wilderness, is the same Lord who is with you now. Though you may be embarking on a new journey, the Lord that brought you here is the one who goes with and before you. You might be having to learn a new job, or develop new skills, or live in a different place than you were before, but the God that got you here is the God that will get you through. That’s the promise of
After they finally finish crossing, when the priests are still standing in the middle of the dried up river, Joshua sends some folks back. To dig up twelve stones out of the bottom of the river. Because he knows that we can never get enough reminders. And they set up those stones at a place called Gilgal, so that when they’re children asked them what those stones were, they tell them how the Lord cut off the Jordan river and they crossed into the Promised Land on dry ground.
Only after they had dug up those rocks and set them up in Gilgal did Joshua finally give the order for the priests to leave. I imagine they were tired, holding the ark all day while the whole nation crossed over, trudging through the riverbottom on their way across. I imagine they were all looking for a warm dinner and a place to rest their heads. So I don’t know if any of them looked back, as they went up out of the river bottom, and the Jordan started flowing again. But I bet if they did, they would have only seen one set of footprints in the sand.