His Baton or Yours?
James C. Denison
In the battle of Jericho, Joshua had the priests blow “seven trumpets of rams’ horns” and march around the fortified citadel (Joshua 6:8). I’m a “priest” (as it were), and I play the trumpet (or at least I used to). I’ve often wondered what they played. Perhaps “Taps” for the inhabitants? “Reveille” for the Israelites? It’s actually a trick question. I played a “rams’ horn” in Israel–it made only two notes (and sounded like a dying cow). Their part was easy.
Ours is harder. Our instruments have valves and scales and options. How can you be sure that you’re playing what God wants? What’s the relationship between your hard work and practice, and his direction and plan? I’ve struggled with that question for much of my Christian life. My hard work cannot save a single soul or change a single life. And yet God has given me gifts and abilities, and you as well. What is the relationship between his will and our work?
Recently in my journal I recorded a metaphor which helped me greatly: God is the conductor and I’m in the orchestra.
He alone has the score for the entire orchestra–in fact, he wrote it. I can see only my part. Sitting in the orchestra, I can hear only those playing right around me. I cannot hear the oboe player in Brazil or the cellist from 600 years ago whose contribution is part of this concert of the ages.
I can play my part as I want, ignoring the conductor, but I’ll most likely play out of time and he won’t be able to use my part in the eternal CD he’s recording. Or I can watch his baton, his downbeat, playing as he directs. Then he will use my abilities and hard work as part of something far greater than anything I can play by myself. And best of all, as I focus on the Conductor’s baton, I get to know the Conductor.
Where do you need his direction today? What question, issue, challenge have you come up against with your instrument? How can your life know and follow the Conductor of the universe this year, starting today?
Prepare to play for the Conductor (vs. 1-13)
Every musician knows that a concert consists of two parts: practice and performance. For every hour you hear played on the stage, there are hundreds of hours of preparations you don’t hear. It’s the same with the orchestra and plan of God. Here’s how to prepare for the concert he intends for your life this year.
First, trust in his direction (vs. 3-4). Know that the Conductor is with you, whether you can see and feel him today or not. And know that his direction is always best for you as you play in his orchestra.
The “ark” was the most sacred possession of the people. Overlaid with gold, it was constructed with a golden angel at either end. Only four feet long by 2.5 feet wide and 2.5 feet deep, it was so sacred that it was carried on poles attached permanently to its sides because no human was allowed to touch it. It contained the Ten Commandments, as well as a jar of manna from the wilderness (Exodus 16:33-34) and a copy of the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 31:24-26). It was the most significant symbol of the Jewish nation, much more than a flag to us, for it represented the throne and presence of Almighty God himself. When the ark preceded the people, they would know that the Lord was present with them, marching at their front, leading them into the river and the land beyond.
Today the ark is no more. Lost or destroyed in the Babylonian captivity, its fate has never been determined with certainty. Some Jewish archaeologists believe that it was stored by the rabbis in tunnels beneath the Temple Mount when the Babylonians were approaching, and awaits discovery at a time when the Muslim authorities permit such excavation. Others think it was taken with Jeremiah in exile to Egypt or on to Babylon, or hidden on Mt. Nebo in the country of Jordan today. And some think the Jews destroyed it lest it fall into pagan hands. But no one is certain.
Nor is it needed now. After Pentecost, God’s people are God’s temple, with God’s Spirit living in us (1 Corinthians 3:16). His word is no longer kept in a box, but is alive in our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).
Our Conductor is just as present in our lives as he was with their ark. And his will is best for us, as it was for them. As we step into the water of obedience, we can trust his presence and plan. As we play our instrument in his orchestra, he will direct all our notes to be their very best.
Second, practice for your performance (v. 5) In preparing to see the power of God, the people must first believe that his presence would lead and protect them. Next, they must be ready spiritually to walk in that holy presence: “Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you'” (v. 5).
How do we “consecrate ourselves” today? We ask the Holy Spirit to show us anything which is wrong between us and God, any notes we have played out of tune or rhythm, and write down what comes to mind. We then confess these sins specifically, humbly, and honestly to God, claiming the forgiveness he offers by grace (1 John 1:8-10). We throw away the paper in gratitude, and submit our wills and ambitions to his perfect purpose. We crown him our Lord anew, placing him on the throne of our hearts. We draw close to him, knowing that he will draw close to us.
If you were a musician with a concert at the Meyerson coming up, you would practice your part. Think back to a job interview, and the attention you gave to every detail of the day. If you are married, remember all the months of work invested in 30 minutes of wedding ceremony. Does our Father deserve less? If we are not experiencing the power of God in our lives and ministries, perhaps this is an issue worth examining. When we humble ourselves and pray, seek his face and turn from our sins, then our God can hear from heaven, forgive our sin, and heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).
Third, follow his leadership (vs. 6-8, 13) The priests would step into the river while it was still flooded, carrying the symbolic presence of the Lord into the torrent (v. 8). Then God would stop the flooded river so the entire nation could follow (v. 13).
How does God lead his people today? Where do you need his word and will for your heart and relationships and problems? He leads us rationally through his word. Start your day by reading Scripture, asking the Spirit to speak from it to your mind. Use a study Bible to look up passages which deal with your subject or problem. Ask a teacher or friend to help. Do what you must to find his word on your problem, for it is still true and relevant.
He leads us pragmatically through circumstances, open and closed doors. Ask him to do that for you. He leads us intuitively as his Spirit speaks to our spirit and we sense what we should say and do. Ask him to speak to your heart and soul.
Know that the Conductor wants you to know your part more than you do. Seek his direction for this day and year, and it will be yours.
Joshua and the nation were called to trust God’s presence, consecrate themselves, and follow as he led. You and I are God’s people today, called to the same preparations. Do you trust God’s presence and will to be best for you? Have you prepared to play? Are you following his lead?
Play as he directs (vs. 14-17)
Now the concert begins. The people broke camp and marched toward their future (v. 14). What did they find? The Jordan “at flood stage all during harvest” (v. 15a). The river flows north to south, over 200 miles from Mt. Hermon to the Dead Sea. It drops nearly 2000 feet down across its journey, but typically flows in a peaceful, meandering stream.
However, every year the spring rains and melted snow from Mt. Hermon combined to turn the stream into a raging torrent. It is now a mile wide, 12-15 feet deep, rushing by so swiftly that it promises to drown any who stepped into it. The cattle and possessions of the nation will be lost. The children have no chance to survive. Few adults can expect to live through this flood.
Now comes the crucial moment in the performance, with the future of the nation suspended in the balance. Picture the scene in your mind. The priests take up the Ark, grasping the poles which support its weight. They lift these poles to their shoulders. They march toward the river. They stop. No one speaks. You can hear only the pounding of the water as it rushes by, crashing against the shore. You can feel its spray against your face and smell the mist as it rises. It’s a torrent.
They don’t have to do this. They can stay where they are, secure and at ease. But they’ll never inherit the promises and power of God. They can try to find their own way across the river, but they’ll likely fail and drown. Or they can step out in faith. And they do.
Instantly, the pounding waters stop. The foam ceases, the spray dies. The river’s roar falls silent. All is quiet and still. And where only moments before there had been a deep, torrential river, now there lies before them a dry bed anyone can cross.
How did it happen? “The waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan” (v. 16). Adam was some 20 miles upstream. The Jordan would take several hours to flow from there to here. And so God began this miracle hours before his people knew it or could participate in it.
Now the people are required to demonstrate their own faith (v. 17). Would the flood stay blocked? Was it safe to step into the river bed? It would take the nation half a day to cross. Imagine parents with children in hand, all their worldly possessions at their side. What would your response have been?
Theirs was unanimous–the entire nation followed God by faith. They stepped into the miracle. And only when they did, could they see its power and experience its provision.
It is still the same with us today. As the orchestra followed the Conductor, it played a concert for the ages.
Now your instrument is in your hands.
You have only the notes of this moment’s measure of music before you. You cannot know what is on the next page. Only the Composer and Conductor know that. Only they can see the score of eternity.
You can choose to play whatever you want, however you want, for as long as you want. When you’re done and your music dies with you, no one will remember that you played it.
Or you can play what the Conductor has given you, each measure at a time. You can trust his direction, practice your part, and follow his lead. And your music will be a beautiful part of the concert of eternity. You will never play as well as this. Your performance will never be so joyous. And best of all, you’ll know the Conductor himself.
Last Monday night, Craig and I were privileged to go with some dear friends to a remarkable concert by the great trumpet player Chris Botti. I’m so glad he’s not here to listen to my trumpet flailings. Hearing him perform brought to mind a wonderful story about the great Polish pianist Paderewski.
A little boy just learning the piano was taken to a concert by the master. He slipped away from his mother, sat down at the concert piano, and began to play Chopsticks. The crowd reacted with anger, shouting for someone to take the boy away. Paderewski quickly walked to the piano, put his arms on either side of the boys’, and began improvising a wonderful composition to the tune. All the while he whispered to him, “Keep going. Don’t quit, son. Keep playing.”
It’s a wonderful story, but historians say it never happened. Maybe a great musician never played Chopsticks with a small boy, but the Composer and Conductor of the ages is ready to play a composition of eternal significance at your side. The next note is up to you.