"All This Has Happened Before," by Claire Helton
YHWH said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to make you great in the eyes of all Israel so that the Children of Israel will understand that I am with you just as I was with Moses.
8 Tell the priests who carry the Ark of the Covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the Jordan’s waters, wade into the middle of the Jordan itself, and stand still.’ ”
9 Joshua said to the Children of Israel, “Gather close, and hear the words of YHWH your God!”
10 Joshua continued, “By this you will know that the living God is in your midst, who at your approach will completely dispossess all the peoples of the land:
11 watch what happens when the Ark of the Covenant of the Sovereign of all the earth crosses the Jordan ahead of you.
13 When the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of YHWH touch the water of the Jordan, it will stop flowing: the water flowing from upstream will be restrained as if it were dammed up.”
14 So when the people set out from their encampment to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant led them to the water.
15 The Jordan was now at flood stage, for it was harvest time. But no sooner had the priests set their feet in the edge of the river
16 than the water upstream stopped flowing. It piled up for a great distance, as far away as Adam, the town next to Zarethan. The water flowing down to the Sea of Arabah—that is, the Salt Sea—was completely cut off. And the people crossed over at the spot opposite Jericho.
17 The priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH stood firm on dry land in the middle of the Jordan until the entire nation had crossed the river. This is one of our sacred stories, Thanks be to God.
“All this has happened before, and it will happen again.” It’s a line from a TV show, but before I tell you which one let me set the scene. There I was, the semester after graduating college, spending most of my days alone in a new apartment in Waco, Texas. I had graduated in December, a semester early, because Zach and I wanted to get married in January, he was already in his first year of seminary, and I was planning to start that fall so I thought taking the spring off before starting my Masters would be a nice breather. …Which is how I found myself introverted, new in town, and in a job that enabled me to work from home, which was great for the flexibility but meant I had even less occasion to interact with people in real life. It was also right around the advent of the binge-watching phenomenon, shows were just starting to stream online so you could watch an entire series without having to carry around a box of DVDs, and now here I was alone in my apartment, working odd hours and watching lots of TV in between. This is how it came to pass that I allowed Zach to talk me into watching the first episode of Battlestar Galactica – the reboot, not the original. I was skeptical. Then I got hooked. He left for class the next day and when he came home I was hours-deep into this fictional world of dramatic suspense, ethical dilemmas, and a healthy dose of inquiry into the nature of what it means to be human. If you haven’t seen the show, don’t worry, I’m not going to get bogged down in plot points. I bring it up mostly because these were the words I could not get out of my head this week as I sat with the text from the book of Joshua, as I looked at the world around us today, even as I found myself reflecting on this earlier season of my life when I spent a lot of time stuck in my apartment, working from home, not seeing many people face to face. The resonances seemed clear enough. “All this has happened before, and it will happen again.” In Battlestar, it was a refrain that popped up from time to time, sometimes as a comfort, and at other times as a warning: “This has happened before, and it will happen again.” It had that prophetic, sci-fi ring to it in the show, of course, but the thing is that what most good science fiction does is explore truths that are difficult for us to look in the face, and so they shift a few key elements – like what planet the characters live on or the degree of self-awareness held by the machinery on said planet – and it does the trick. We’re shaken out of our element enough that we can come to accept the truth, learn the lesson, without all the defenses that automatically go up for us when someone tries to tell us the truth about ourselves directly. And in our case, that truth is: all this, all the chaos we see around us, all the fear and division, the plague and the politics, it’s all happened before, and it will happen again. It’s a sentiment the Hebrew people seemed to grasp, as they often told stories that, in our canon, function as echoes of stories that precede them, or whispers of stories later to come. The scripture for today falls squarely in the middle, serving as both an echo of an older story and the foreshadowing of another that they would tell in later generations. On this day, in the book of Joshua, the people of God had concluded their wilderness wanderings, had reached the Jordan River and had a significant milestone to mark: their official entry into the land God had promised to Abraham. As they approached the river’s edge, God gave familiar instructions: enter the waters, and the waves will roll themselves back. The people crossed through the Jordan River on dry land just as their parents and grandparents had crossed through the Sea of Reeds, and as they did, they must have sung the familiar hymns of praise that had been passed down through the generations. In walking the path their forebears had walked they must have found solace for the journey; they must have found courage to take the first step, they must have found hope that God would see them through. This is what it is to find ourselves in a place we have been before. Generations later, a prophet among them named Elijah would be carried away on a chariot of fire. And in his wake, he would leave behind a bewildered servant of God named Elisha to carry on the work he had begun. As Elisha stood there at the river’s edge, it should come as no surprise to us as readers that, here at this milestone moment, his Spirit-formed instinct is to part those same waters and walk across on dry land. And in walking the path his forebears had walked he must have found solace for the journey; he must have found courage to take the first step, he must have found hope that God would see him through. This is what it is to find ourselves in a place we have been before. Of course, there’s a flip side to those transitional moments at the water’s edge. When we find ourselves facing the beginning of a story, one that we’ve seen play out before, we also have the hindsight to know how the story often goes. And so, alongside the courage and trust that walking a familiar path can bring, perhaps there’s a different kind of fear – not of the thing itself, the transition itself, not the crossing of the river itself – but of what awaits us on the other side. Joshua and the children of Israel approached the Jordan’s edge with full knowledge that after their parents had blazed that trail through the sea at the Exodus, they had somehow wound up wandering aimlessly in the desert for a whole generation. Their parents should have been the ones to cross this river, too, and yet, here they stood, carrying with them the bones of their parents, still searching for a home to bury them in. They faced this moment of decision with a hard-won wisdom that told them that trusting in God to see them through this moment did not guarantee smooth sailing once they reached the other side. Elisha must’ve known the same thing, centuries later as he stood at the river’s edge, once the smoke had cleared and the fiery chariot had gone from view. He had the benefit of knowing what happened when Joshua led the people across the Jordan: how they had become a people endlessly sucked into a cycle of corruption and repentance, following one good leader after another until each, in turn, led them astray. No wonder he had taken up the task of the prophet, speaking truth to those in power. Elisha must have known that in the face of this seemingly never-ending cycle, all he could do…was what he could do. The notion that all this has happened before and all this will happen again…it’s a powerful sword to cut through the fear of whatever challenge we face, but it’s a sword that cuts both ways. Finding ourselves in a cyclical story is both an opportunity to draw courage and strength from the lessons of the past, and to hold them up as a cautionary tale, a call to vigilance. So, friends, here we are: It’s the Sunday before Election Day. All this has happened before, and it will happen again. The circumstances may change, sometimes drastically, but the cycle goes on, and as it does, some truths remain. These are the truths I hope we will be able to hold onto this week, whatever the outcome of the election, and whenever we know it: The first truth is that come Tuesday night when the polls close, no matter the outcome of the election, we’ve each done what we could do, and hear this: it cannot be otherwise than it is. Surely, you’ve been through an election that turned out otherwise than you had hoped, you probably don’t have much trouble calling that experience to mind. Whether you voted in it, whether you abstained or forgot or voted in a way you wouldn’t vote now, the truth is none of that mattered once the votes were cast. We live in the world we live in, and to spend our time wishing that we lived in a different one is not only foolishness, but it betrays those here in this very real world who need our help here and now. So, come Tuesday night, take the burden of the world off your shoulders, and take a moment to rest in the knowledge that it will be what it will be. The second truth is that no matter how long it takes us to find out an official result of this election, we will spend more time waiting than we’re used to (truly – haven’t we already in this ‘election season?’) and this is an opportunity for growth. They don’t say that patience is a virtue for nothing. In the Christian tradition we are well versed in practicing patience, in cultivating a spirit of active waiting. And isn’t that the key? We don’t wait on our sofas with curtains drawn for days or weeks on end – we go on with our living, we go on with our serving, we go on in cultivating love in this world. We wait now in a hope that is borne out by our actions, and no matter the name of the man in the oval office, we will go on sowing love in this world. The final truth I want us to hear going into this week is this. On the day that we hear a result, and it’s the person you voted for, these things are sure: God’s love remains, and our call is clear. On that day, we must do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God. And likewise, on the day that we hear a result, and it’s not the person you voted for, these things are sure: God’s love remains, and our call is clear. On that day, we must do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God. As we prepare to mark this milestone, as we step foot into the water at the river’s edge, knowing that we are not the first to cross and we will not be the last, may we find solace for the journey; may we find courage to take the first step, and may we find hope that God will see us through. This is what it is to find ourselves in a place we have been before. Not for nothing did the wisdom writer say, “There is nothing new under the sun.” All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. And when it does, God’s love remains. Amen.
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
· What do you feel when you consider yourself as part of a cyclical story? Does it inspire hope? cynicism? fear? contentment? What does that tell you?
· In what ways have you found it to be true in your life that ‘patience is a virtue’?
· What is one concrete plan you can make for how you will wait actively for election results this week? How can you do justice, love mercy, walk humbly while we wait?