Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Story 7. The Battle Begins


Readings: Proverbs 3:1-10, Deteronomy 18:9-18, Joshua 6:1-7, Hebrews 11:23-31, Matthew 1:1-5
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 13th, 2016

We have reached the 7th chapter of 'THE STORY'. This is the chapter in which Joshua has taken over the mantle of leadership and the Israelites enter their promised land. It's not easy reading. We read about violent conquest and terrible destruction.

In the midst of all the madness we meet unworthy folk like greedy Achan, and read of unwise allegiances that will come back to haunt the nation. On the positive side we meet a lady called Rahab, an outsider whom we discover is totally in tune with God's purpose, and becomes an enduring example of believing.

I'd like to begin with Rahab. She is one of the most amazing women in all Scripture. She lives in the midst of this Mad Max, Apocalypse Now, horrendous, ungodly environment, yet is a person of faith, who trusts in the one, true, God.

It is hard not to focus on the destruction that takes place to some of the cities. But we need to understand just how corrupt these cultures had become. Way back in Deuteronomy chapter 18, we hear the Hebrews commanded “When you enter the land the Lord is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices sorcery... who consults the dead.

Century after century God had given the folk in these cities a chance to turn in God's direction, even placed people like Rahab in their midst as examples of true faith. But they remained as places of deep, deep darkness. History has taught us that there are times when the only option is to seek to eradicate evil.

I think of my parents generation, back in the U.K, who, especially after the horror of World War I, only wanted peace. My dad would never say 'boo' to a goose. When the madness of Hitler's Nazi Germany came knocking on the door, and the bombs started falling from the sky, and it became known about the evils his rule entailed, death camps, annihilation of all who didn't fit the mold, institutionalized racism and hatred based on a godless and soul destroying philosophy, there was the reluctant realization that Nazi Germany had to be stopped.

Some commentators offer the perspective that the judgment that befell these cities in the Old Testament was not so much related to the Israelites entering the promised land as it was due to their institutionalized evil. God had given them opportunity to reform, but their darkness grew deeper and deeper.

Rahab is described in scripture as 'Rahab the Prostitute'. That can raise a few eyebrows, until you consider that prostitution was one of Jericho's religious rites. This wasn't the worst of it. So was burning children alive as a sacrifice to the spirits of their dead. It wasn't O.K. It was horrific. It had to end.

Even though we seek to wipe them out, ideas have a powerful way of reestablishing themselves. The hated propaganda of Nazi Germany has never been fully eradicated and similar totalitarian philosophies, be they religious or political, are like a cancer that we can't quite destroy. We will see in 'The Story' Canaanite ideas continued to negatively impact the development of God's people.

That's what makes the faith of Rahab all the more impressive. She was in the middle of all this and, through faith, rose above it. I've had people say to me, 'Pastor. You don't understand my situation. You don't know my circumstances, the people around me make it hard for me to believe.' You are right. I don't know your circumstances. But can they really be more challenging than those of Rahab?

When the Israelite spies come to her house, she knows they are on the right side, because she knows the God whose side they represent. She hides them. She helps them escape by lowering them over the walls. The New Testament book of Hebrews has a sermon within it that lists all the greatest people of faith who have ever lived. In chapter 11:31 we read 'By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.'

I know there are some parts of the Bible we like to gloss over, particularly those genealogies and long lists of unpronounceable names. If you get a chance, look at Matthew 1:5 and you discover that Rahab becomes part of a family line that not only brings King David into the world, but part of the ancestral line of Joseph, who marries Mary, in whose womb is formed Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.

Here is that 'Upper Story' 'Lower Story' thing going on again. Rahab the prostitute, living in a city so evil that it's about to be erased out of existence, is the one God chooses, not only to bring Israel into their promised land, but to be an ancestor of the ultimate child of promise, the Lord Jesus Christ.

So if we are sitting here today thinking, 'I'm nobody special. Nothing good is ever going to come out of my life, everything is against me' let us put our selves in Rahab's shoes and for a moment dare to dream about what faith can do.

Let's not be like Achan.   Achan, in 'The Story' is only mentioned in one of those linking sections where we are told that 'Everyone obeyed – except for one man, Achan. As a result of Achan's sin, God was not with the Israelite army when they attacked Ai.'

Achan's misdeed was to take some of the plunder that God had explicitly forbidden them. Achan thought he knew better. It's a sin as old as the Garden of Eden. 'Did God really say you shouldn't do that. Oh that God! Such a killjoy. Go ahead, you won't die, what's the worse that could happen?'

When it came to Achan the worst happened. His act saps the power out of the army. It puits on hold the plans of God. And he does end up losing his life. You'd think that the people, particularly the people at the top would be getting the message that when God told you not to do something, it was a safe bet that if you did, there would be negative consequences.

But even Joshua had to learn this lesson over and over. We discover that some deceptive folk from a nearby place called Gibeon arrive and trick him into making a treaty with them. Joshua, instead of consulting God, just goes ahead. 'Yeh. Great idea. A treaty!' This one unfaithful act creates conflict for years to come.

Half way though the Old Testament you find a book called Proverbs, a collection of wise sayings . Among them you find these words 'Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.' (Proverbs 3:5-7)

Throughout our lives we have decisions to make, large and small. Everything from 'What career path shall I follow?' to 'Is this a relationship I should be involved in?' to 'How can I be a part of a faith community?' We can draw up list of 'pros and cons' and still be left scratching our heads. People tell us 'Follow your heart' but sometimes our hearts are not in the right place.

I cannot say this with any greater clarity. 'Trust in God to guide you and God will guide you.' In everything you seek to do, seek God's guidance. Be aware that there is an 'Upper Story'. The only way we connect our 'Lower Story' lives with that 'Upper Story' is through prayer, by reading God's Word, by opening our hearts to God's influence in worship and service, by being in communion with other people of faith who we can trust to help us in our decision making.

This chapter spells that out for us. Whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, compare the outcome of Rahab's life with the actions of Achan. Achan, the insider, loses it all. Rahab, though outwardly a total outsider, finds blessings beyond all imagining.

The way God will guide our lives is always unpredictable. Ask Joshua. The most famous passage in this chapter is the downfall of Jericho. What a crazy battle plan. March around the walls 7 times. Carry the most prized thing you have, the Ark of the Covenant with you. Have 7 priests form a marching band and play their trumpets. But don't say a word till I tell you to shout and then let loose a huge yell, as loud as if an elephant just trod on your toe.

Joshua 6:20 tells us how it worked out. 'When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.'

That was just the beginning of the campaign. In the South, Israel defeats 5 Kings, while in the North they take another 14 cities. The entire land comes under their control, Joshua divides the land among the tribes of Israel and there is, for a while, peace.

Lest there be any doubt that these victories could be achieved without God's help, Joshua, now an old man, aware that his days on earth were numbered,calls the people together for a 'State of the Union' address. His final testament to the people.

'You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. … You did not do it with your own sword and bow. I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. Now fear the LORD and serve Him with all faithfulness. (Joshua 24:11-14)

The choice is laid before the people.
Choose who you will serve.
Choose how you will live.

We are given the example of the faith of Rahab. In the midst of an impossible situation she trusts God and becomes blessed beyond measure.

We can contrast Rahab with Achan who feels he can work things out better in his life, without needing God's help, and he loses everything, including his own life.

We know that 'Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a tumblin' down'. As we seek for God to guide us, we can never say how that will work out. God's ways are higher than our ways. But it always makes sense to align ourselves with God's purposes.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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