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09.26.10 The Secret to Overcoming, Joshua 5:13-6:20 Sermon Summary

by on September 27, 2010

Summary Points

  • How to read the Bible as testimony in order to cultivate adult faith
  • Three things to do when faith is weak: obedience, patience, devotion
  • Four steps to take to increase faith: worship, detach, stewardship, generosity

For some of us, the accounts in the book of Joshua require a second look, and if we are to have faith, another interpretation. One way to enter this needed interpretation is to recognize that Joshua isn’t about history as much as it is about testimony. And liturgy, that is, worship, is the best way to enter the realm of religious testimony.

Joshua is the military warrior leader who succeeded Moses and led the ancient Israelites into the Land of Promise and the conquest of Canaan. The story of Joshua says the campaign took all of five years (Joshua 14:7-10). It reportedly included the suspension of the sun’s orbit for a day (9:12-14), and the overthrow of Jericho, which is one of the most well-known stories from this book and among the most beloved children’s stories, as long as it ends with verse 6:20.

Joshua contains many clues that it can be read as religious testimony, in a liturgical sense. It contains at least two significant covenant renewals, circumcision, the first Passover in the Land of Promise, and in our story, liturgical processions repeated seven times. Biblical scholars tell us that Joshua was compiled as a book during the Exile of the 6th century before Christ (the events of Joshua take place in the 13th century). During the Exile, God’s people needed encouragement and the means to maintain their religious identity in foreign land—a land not the Land of Promise. Exile is the land of remembrance, and worship is primarily about remembering, about testimony.

The overarching theme of the biblical testimony, Joshua included, is that God is faithful, and we are called to respond to that faith. It’s about what God does, and what we do in response. To use theological jargon, it’s about God’s grace and our vocation. It’s about God’s promises and our faith in them. In the language of the Confession of 1967, “Life is a gift to be received with gratitude, and a task to be pursued with courage.” It is this dynamic that makes God’s Word “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12), as we hear in the testimony of God’s faithfulness a call to us to be faithful in response. That response reincarnates God’s Word in our lives.

In Joshua, the testimony is of God’s faithfulness to the promise to deliver the people to a new land. The called for response is the people’s faithfulness to God in order to keep the land. This testimony provides the context for reinterpreting the account of Jericho for today.

It is God who gives the land and the victories throughout the book of Joshua. This is made manifest in the encounter Joshua has with the divine warrior at the end of chapter five. That is what God does. What are we to do? According to the testimony of Joshua, three things.

(1) We are to be obedient. When faced with an obstacle to God’s promises, the walls of Jericho, the ancient Israelites were commanded to march around the city once each day for six days, then seven times the seventh day. When God’s promises seem distant, there is always a choice at hand, a command to which we can be obedient. These manageable steps of obedience will lead to the fulfillment of God’s promises. The ancient Israelites had to wake up day after day, march circuit after circuit, however illogical it seemed, in order to see God’s promise fulfilled.

It is the same for us. When our faith is suffering, and the promises of God’s presence, deliverance, and redemption of our lives seem distant, God gives us some THING to do, some way to be obedient, that will take us one step closer to God’s fulfilled promise.

(2) We are to be patient. The ancient Israelites had been told a time would come when they would be told to shout. But they had to wait through each march around the city, waiting to hear the command. And it is the same for us. In our obedience to steps at hand, we have to be patient. We don’t know how many such small steps there will be before we hear the command to shout. But if we are obedient and patient, we will see God’s promises fulfilled.

(3) When the time comes, we have to storm our Jericho and devote it the Lord. The actual time of devotion comes before the victory, in our intentions. Perhaps this is the reason behind marching around Jericho—for generating whole-hearted devotion of the victory to God, before the actual victory. One person failed to do this, and in the next chapter the whole people of God suffer the consequences. Instead, what is intended, is complete devotion to God, and the narrative depiction of this complete devotion is horrific—the genocide of Jericho.

We should all be disturbed by the account of 6:21, “They devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” Some of us are so disturbed by this action, that we feel we can no longer believe in a God who would sanction, even require, genocide. Reading this account as testimony rather than history allows us hear God’s Word again—a word of promise, of fulfillment, a word calling us to whole-hearted devotion to God, whatever the nature of the “Jericho walls” that confront us.

Here are four things to remember, that we learn from the testimony of Joshua, on how to overcome obstacles to faith.

  • Remember and be grateful, that is to say, maintain worship. Remember that Joshua is testimony, and religious testimony is best exemplified in worship. In worship together we remember God’s faithfulness in the past and to others so we can be encouraged in our own lack of faith.
  • Do not be attached to things. Ancient Israel was not to maintain devotion to anything other than God. All other things were to be devoted to God, especially the substance of God’s promise, in their case, the land. If you have an inordinate affection for some thing, that is an idol for you, and an obstacle to your faith. Jesus said where your treasure is, there your heart is also. He called his disciples to divest of themselves and give to the poor. He said it is impossible to have two masters—things and God.
  • Remember you’re a steward, and only steward. When we fully embrace number 2, it will change the way we view everything in and about our lives. We are merely stewards of that which belongs to God, and we will then begin praying for how to be good and faithful stewards. And part of that will be number 4.
  • Show generosity to others. Joshua recognized that Jericho was a gift, and in receiving it he and the ancient Israelites received hospitality from a stranger—a foreign prostitute. In gratitude, and in good stewardship, Joshua spared Rahab and her family. He showed generosity out of the gift he received.

Discussion starters with kids

Discussion starters with kids

  • I just finished watching a documentary on the genocide in Darfur. How do we talk to our kids about the divinely sanctioned genocide of the Older Testament, especially the “conquest of Canaan” presented in the book of Joshua? One thing we must not do is dismiss the horror casually with such comments as, “everyone deserve God’s wrath, we’re blessed by grace not to get what we deserve,” “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” “every ancient society, and even some contemporary ones, commit genocide.” To whatever degree there is truth to these responses (and the degree varies widely), it is disrespectful to the victims of genocide, dismissive of the compassionate angst of the questioner, and theologically lazy to be so cavalier with the decimation of human life.
  • The Bible records atrocities committed by God’s people and against God’s people. Perhaps the first answer, then, is all humans need to better understand God and love God the way Jesus presented God. That is to say, by loving one’s neighbor, especially the most weak and vulnerable among them. Had ancient Israel done that, and had Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and Rome done that, the world ancient and modern would be a much more hospitable and peaceful place.
  • In Joshua’s case in particular, as I tried to point out in the message, we can take some comfort that the genocide wasn’t as exhaustive or divinely sanctioned as the record would have us believe. The “conquest of Canaan” was more of a settlement that took up to 100 years according to some scholars. The number of ancient Israelites exodus-ing from Egypt could not have been 3 million. Jericho was not, in the 13th century BC, a fortified city. The most helpful corrective is the historical and theological context of the writing/compiling of Joshua and the whole “Deuteronomist History” as biblical scholars call it. Simply put, “We’re in Exile in Babylon in the 6th century because people didn’t completely eliminate the Canaanites under Joshua and uphold the Law of Moses in the land.” In other words, “If we want to get back to being Jews in the Promised Land, we have to observe God’s Law better.” At its root, this is the kind of legalism Jesus tried to free us from so that we could love God by loving our neighbor.
  • So depending on how old your child it, and how complex her thinking might be, (1) you can introduce some of these nuanced readings of the biblical text. (2) You can explore their feelings in a patient and non-judgmental way, not letting God off the hook too easily and processing their confusion and fear. For that is what results at first when we let God off the hook with easy answers: “I thought God was love and this doesn’t seem very loving, and if God is like this, then God can do this to me.” (3) You can be honest about your own apprehension about such passages, if you really are apprehensive. This will open the door to a lifelong exploration of faith with your child. (4) You can do what, at its core, the story intends you to do, which is to exalt Joshua as a man of faithful obedience. This is what I meant to do in the message. While we might criticize his actions, his faithful, patient obedience is to be commended, as well as his faithfulness to Rahab. (5) Above all, such passages have to be interpreted in light of the revelation in Jesus Christ, who calls his disciples to love the stranger, to turn the other cheek, and to live and die as a servant of others.
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