Marching Orders: A Sermon by Bishop Peggy Johnson

Bishop Peggy Johnson

Sermon preached on January 17, 2011 for the Martin Luther King Day Celebration

Joshua 3:1-17

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.’

To the priests Joshua said, ‘Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass on in front of the people.’  So they took up the ark of the covenant and went in front of the people.  The Lord said to Joshua, ‘This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses.  You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant.  When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan you shall stand still in the Jordan.’   Joshua then said to the Israelites, ‘Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God,’ Joshua said ‘By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan.  So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.  When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off: they shall stand in a single heap.’

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people.  Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest.  So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing towards the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off.  Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho.  While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan

Marching orders!  When you hear that term you think of a commander of an army sending troops into battle for a strategic attack.  We read about Gideon, who led the Israelites in battle against a vast Midian Army with only 300 men.  He ordered them to surround the enemy camp in three groups and blow a trumpet and hold up a torch and shout “For the Lord and for Gideon.”  Amazingly this sudden light and sound attack threw the Midianites into confusion and they turned their swords on one another and fled.

We read about King David who was instructed by God to attack the enemy when they heard the sound of marching in the balsam trees.

Nothing can be more impressive to me than the moment when the children of Israel, after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, finally arrived at the banks of the Jordan and prepared to enter the Promised Land.  The marching orders were from God, the message was clear, the purpose was unmistakable.

Today as we celebrate the life and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. I can’t help but ponder the amazing parallels between Hebrew people entering into the Promised Land and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.  The marching orders had many similarities. The march goes on with us in this present time in history. Civil Rights is a cause that is far from won on this planet we live on and the marching orders of the past call us today to continue to the work and ministry.

So what are the marching orders?   God leads where you don’t know. In the case of the Israelites, Joshua commanded the people to follow the Levites who will carry the ark of the covenant.   He said,  “Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before.”

God led Martin Luther King to a place he had never been before as well.  He was the son of a Baptist minister, educated at Morehouse College, Crozier Theological Seminary and Boston University.  While studying in Boston he was transformed by the teachings of Ghandi, who struggled for human rights in India and accomplished it using the principle of non-violence.   King described it this way “Non-violence is not sterile passivity but a powerful moral force that makes for social transformation”.    This was a radical and effective way of doing human rights work.  With this philosophy in mind King led successful boycotts and marches and peaceful demonstrations.  He traveled all over the country to places he never could have imagined.

Still today God calls us to do things in new ways and go places where we don’t know.  Marching orders are a call out of the comfortable and the familiar to something new, different and unexpected.

Mary McLeod Bethume got an unexpected a call from God.  She was in church one Sunday and a visiting minister urged her to move to Florida to manage a new mission school.  She packed up everything and went.  She taught at the mission school and this eventually led her to build her own school in Daytona, Florida.  She had a dream to open a school for African American girls.  She started with a bare house, some cast-off crates for desks and five students. Within 3 years she was able to move to a permanent facility with 14 buildings and 400 students. God used her because she was willing to go where she did not know.

I love the hymn “The Summons.”  It says: “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name….will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?”  Be willing to go where you don’t know and you will be following the marching orders of God.

A second marching order involved sanctification.  Joshua ordered the people to sanctify themselves in preparation for this crossing into the Promised Land.  This required the ceremonial washing of their clothes, bathing and abstinence.   Joshua told them to do that because “tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”   God can do whatever God wants to do but God has chosen to order this world in such a way that we are partners with God in his amazing acts of redemption.  By the acts of sanctification the people are preparing not just their clothes and their bodies but their hearts, clean before God with right motives, solely dedicated to God’s purpose and free from sin.

One of the things that made Martin Luther King such an incredible leader is that he called people in the Civil Rights movement to sanctification of self and he warned people of the sins that could get in the way if folks were not vigilant.   He said:  “There is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice.  In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.  Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.  We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.  We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.  Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Booker T. Washington once said a similar thing:  “I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”

Still today people in the ongoing Civil Rights movement are called to exhibit the highest standard of respect and civility for those they disagree with, while maintaining our positions.    The moment people become bitter and demonize those from the opposing side then the cause is compromised.

Finally, marching orders call for risks and sacrifices. The most amazing part of this text from Joshua is when the Jordan River parts so that the Children of Israel could cross over on dry ground.  It is reminiscent of the day long before that when the Israelites fled from the Egyptians and the Red Sea parted and they passed through in safety.  The pursuing Egyptian army drown as the waters returned after the Israelites had crossed over.

This is a wonderful miracle but do you see the faith part in the story?   God orders the priests who are carrying the ark to go and stand in the river.  He did not say “when you get to the river’s edge I will part the waters and then you step in.”  No, he asks them to walk in while there is still water there.  This wasn’t a little stream.  This was a river…I’ve been there.  What God was calling for was faith and a willingness to take a risk out of obedience.   Once they took the risk and showed God that they were willing to obey, THEN the waters parted.

Martin Luther King is considered a hero.  Temple University psychologist Frank Farley writes about heroes.  He says in all the national polls about who people consider a true hero, King’s name is always on the list, along with Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.  Farley explains there are three kinds of heroes: people who are heroes in situation, like pulling someone from a burning building.  There are heroes who engage in life saving work as a part of their job like ambulance drivers and fire fighters.  Then there are life-long heroes who have made a significant contribution to humanity.  They have courage and strength, are loving and kind, have skill, expertise and honesty, and are risk takers.

King was willing to take risks.  He once wrote:  “If physical death is the price that some must pay to save us and our white brothers from eternal death of the spirit then no sacrifice could be more redemptive.”    He also reminded his followers: “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells.  Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.  You have been the veterans of creative suffering.  Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”

Martin Luther King paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life.  He stepped into the waters of this movement waist high out of obedience to God.  His death and his life was redemptive and his sacrifice did much to further the work.

I love the hymn “O Young and Fearless Prophet”…O young a fearless prophet of ancient Galillee…thy life is still a summons to serve humanity, to make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd, to stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.”

Every day we can make a difference in this world for good if we would be willing to obey the call of God, no matter how outlandish it sounds, and take the risk to step into the waters of sacrifice.   We only get one chance at this life!  Live it to the fullest following God’s call for your life.

In conclusion, on this celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, remember the marching orders of God:  go where you don’t know, sanctify yourself for the work and be willing to sacrifice.  By doing things God’s way you will always win the battle.