September 28, 2014
If you’ve ever been to the funeral of a military veteran, whether family member or friend, then you know one of the most profound moments in the funeral ceremony often happens out in the cemetery at the gravesite. When someone is buried with military honors, “Taps” is played on a bugle. Guns are fired in unison. Two service men or women carefully fold and salute the American flag with proper esteem. And finally the folded flag is offered solemnly back to the surviving spouse or other designated loved one.
Although I never served in the military, I have great appreciation for the ritual involved in a military honors ceremony. I am consistently moved by the quiet reverence. I admire the precision of the service men and women performing various parts of the ritual. And I’m always struck by the deep gratitude of those who witness the ritual and the respectful way in which the ritual venerates the one who has died.
If you listen carefully at a military honors ceremony or perhaps if you ever watch a drill team or a military regiment, you can hear particular verbal commands repeated more than once. For someone who has served in the military, those verbal commands are learned and ingrained. But the commands can also be understood, at least on some level, by someone not in the military.
For example, the first command you often hear in a military setting is “fall in.” No matter what a serviceman or woman has been doing previously, the moment they hear the order to “fall in,” they stop and shift into gear and start marching.
The second command you might recognize is the easiest to understand and the most commonly repeated. “Attention!” It means stand up straight and give immediate focus to what you are doing.
The third command you would likely hear. “Mark time.” When you are marking time, you are marching in place. You aren’t going backward or forward. You’re just waiting for the next set of orders.
And the fourth and final command usually follows right after the “mark time” order. “Forward, march.” Pretty self-explanatory…start moving forward.
The reason why I’m highlighting these four commands is I see Joshua giving his version of those same four commands to God’s people over the course of this morning’s Scripture lesson.
As we pick up this morning’s story, Joshua is camped with God’s chosen people on the far side of the Jordan River. On Joshua’s side of the river there was wilderness. On the near side of the river was the land of Canaan flowing freely with milk and honey.
After three days passed on the far side of the river, God instructed Joshua’s officers to go through the camp and issue a set of commands. Command number one? Fall in. According to God speaking through those officers, the Hebrew people had wandered long enough. They’d been homeless and uprooted and adrift and now it was time to fall in.
Fall in. It’s something God repeats every so often. “You’ve been practicing those same old habits for a long time and they’re not serving you well. Fall in. You’ve been asking for forgiveness for that same old sin for a long time and now I’m telling you to “fall in.” You’ve been praying that same prayer and making those same excuses and wasting time procrastinating for a while. Right this moment is the time to fall in.”
So the Hebrew people under Joshua’s leadership started to fall in. They were sleeping in tents which were meant to provide only temporary shelter. And after three days it was time to pick up those tents and pack up those tents and move on. When we’re stuck and we’re not going anywhere, God intervenes and commands us to fall in.
Which leads to command number two. In verse three of today’s Scripture lesson the officers said to the Hebrew 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.”
When I hear that verse of Scripture, I hear God calling the people to attention. Pay heed. Take notice. Focus your full attention on the ark of the covenant.
If you remember in the Old Testament, the ark of the covenant was a central, sacred symbol. In that ornate chest, the very presence and power of God was supposed to reside. Because it was considered so holy, people weren’t supposed to mess with the ark. They weren’t supposed to touch it or stare at it or get too close to it.
Instead, people were supposed to pay attention to the power and presence of God the ark symbolized. So much so that God sent word through the officers that the ark of the covenant needed to shift position from the middle of the people to the front of the people.
It was a visual lesson hard to miss. Put the ark of the covenant up ahead. In other words, put God first in your life. Keep your heart and your mind and your spirit focused on God and everything else will follow from it. Attention…
Command number three? Mark time. With the priests carrying the ark of the covenant ahead of the people, they arrived at the edge of the Jordan River. The priests knew that if they didn’t wade into the water, the Hebrew people wouldn’t wade into the water either. But God told priests to walk into the Jordan River and then to stand still.
Well the priests did as they were told, stopping in the middle of the river somewhere and waiting for further instructions. Meanwhile, the Hebrew people waited as well. Waited patiently by the riverbank to hear what they were supposed to do next. Everyone in the story was marking time…
You and I know what it means to mark time. To feel as though we’re living in neutral...unable to go forward or backward. People who are lonely spend lots of days and nights marking time. People in desperate financial straits mark time waiting and hoping things will get better. People in broken relationships mark time praying that healing and reconciliation will come about. People diagnosed with health issues mark time until the doctor or the surgery or the medication causes a turnaround.
Marking time is in-between time. It’s in the meantime time. The time between the crisis and the resolution. The time between the problem and the solution. The time between the damage and the repair when we’re waiting and wishing and praying and longing for something to happen…
Command number four is the really good news, though. Because there’s only one command that follows marking time. “Forward, march.”
Picture those priests standing out there in the middle of the Jordan River. Holding the ark of the covenant high enough on their shoulders so that it wouldn’t get wet. Waiting for God to give the next set of orders. Watching the Hebrew people back on the far bank of the river hanging out and marking time.
Then all of a sudden something amazing did happen. God rolled back the waters of the Jordan River on the left. And God rolled back the waters of the Jordan River on the right. It was like the Exodus all over again when Moses and Miriam led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea. But this time it was Joshua. The water separated on either side creating a dry highway right through the middle of the Jordan River. And the priests and the ark of the covenant and Joshua and all his Hebrew brothers and sisters passed through the riverbed unharmed.
When the time for marking time is over, there is only one command left. Forward, march. As I referred to a moment ago, when Moses crossed to the other side of the Red Sea he looked back and saw Pharaoh’s army swallowed up by the water. And what did Moses say to the Hebrew people? Forward, march…to the Promised Land.
In the Book of Daniel when Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the raging, fiery furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar looked inside and saw those three young men milling around in the midst of the flames. They were busy marking time. Until God issued the order. Forward, march. And Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego strolled unharmed out of the furnace, followed by a fourth person…who may well have been none other than God by their side.
Later on in the New Testament, Jesus Christ took his last breath on the cross. And Joseph of Arimathea buried his body in a new tomb. Jesus Christ marked time on Friday night and Saturday morning. He marked time on Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening. Until God sent word through an angel early on Sunday morning. My son, you’ve been marking time long enough! Rise up out of this tomb full of life and appear to your people and all people. Forward, march…
Fall in. We’ve been doing the same thing we’ve been doing for long enough. Attention. God wants our undivided attention. Mark time. Wait patiently, hang in there and don’t give up. And forward, march. When the fourth and final command comes down be ready to go.
God gives us marching orders every day. Your task and my task is to listen carefully and respond faithfully. In order that our lives may glorify and honor God. Amen.
NOTE: Inspiration for this sermon came from a sermon entitled, “Marking Time.” It was preached by the Rev. John Tunstall and can be found on pages 124-131 in the book, Out of Mighty Waters: Sermons by African-American Disciples. (Chalice Press: 1994)