Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, October 15, 2018
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Taking the First Step

Joshua 1:1-9 and 5:13-6:5

 We’ve spent the last two Sundays looking at Deuteronomy, but the last time that we picked up the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, things weren’t going so well.  They had a great failure of faith at the place called Kadesh, where they refused to listen to God and go into the Promised Land, fearing that they couldn’t conquer it, and completely forgetting the power of God behind them.

 Forty years have passed since that disastrous day.  The generation that failed the test of faith has passed from the scene, and now their children stand at the edge of the Promised Land.  We talked two Sundays ago about the importance of passing on faith from generation to generation.  And now this new generation is facing its own test of faith.  Will they stand up where their parents faltered?  

 The first test is new leadership.  Moses is dead, and Joshua, his aide, and one of the two faithful spies who encouraged the previous generation to go into the land, has taken his place.  Will they trust God to lead them through Joshua, or can they not “get past” the absence of Moses?  

 For that matter, what about Joshua?  For 40 years he could look to Moses as a source of strength.  Will he trust that God can work through him too?  The Book of Joshua begins with Gods’ words of encouragement to him.  God says, “I am with you.  I will be with you just as I was with Moses.  I will not fail you.  Be strong and courageous.  Be filled with my Word and obey it.”  Joshua is to find his strength in the words and the promises of God.  He has already trusted them, and if he continues to do so, he has nothing to fear.

 Now the time has come to move into the Promised Land.  But first, Joshua sends two spies into the land to scout out the region across the river, especially Jericho.  We might notice that he sends them in secret.  He doesn’t tell everyone that they’re going to spy out the land.  Of all people, Joshua knows the disaster that could result from a bad report.  If they come back and say, “Jericho is invincible,” well, we might be back at square one.  But he needs information!  God has not yet revealed his plan to Joshua.  It’s not wrong to seek good information while we are also seeking God’s will. 

 So they go to scout out the region and “especially” Jericho.  Jericho is a key city.  It was built on a small hill overlooking the plains near the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea.  And the ford of Jericho, the crossing of the Jordan, was the only place to cross the river for miles in either direction.  And Jericho also controlled the only road that went up from the Jordan Valley into the Judean Highlands.  

 At 825 feet below sea level, Jericho is to this day the lowest city in the world.  It also may be the world’s oldest city.  It’s been inhabited since about 8000 BC, so it’s 10,000 years old today.  That’s impressive.  But it was a tough nut to crack.  It was surrounded by a double wall, and the wall was reinforced by houses built into it. 

 Coincidentally, that’s where they end up, in the home of a prostitute named Rahab who lived in the wall.  Hopefully, they just chose this place because it was easy to be “anonymous” there.  

 But they are discovered.  The king is told of their presence.  The Canaanite nation was not really organized as a whole.  Instead, it was a loose confederation of independent city-states, each with its own king.  Soldiers are sent to Rahab’s home, but she sends them away and protects the spies.  A strange thing to do! 

 But we find out why:  She fears the Lord.  Now, everyone in Jericho fears the Lord right now.  After all, they know what God has done to Egypt and others to save his people.  But with Rahab, it’s different.  She is willing to yield and is eager to turn to Yahweh.  Does this mean she thinks he is the only God?  Probably not.  But she has determined that he is a God worth worshipping, more so than any other god.  

 She asks to be spared, along with her whole family.  And she became a part of God’s people.  We know from other parts of Scripture that eventually she became an ancestor of King David, and by extension an ancestor of Jesus.  

 We can learn some lessons from her life.  The first is that we should not judge a person’s interest in God based on their lifestyle.  As a prostitute, it would be easy for us to say, “She is an immoral woman.  Obviously she has no interest in God!”  But she does.  And so do many others who do not fit our mold of a “person interested in God.”  The second lesson from her life is that if a person is willing to turn to God, then God is always willing to receive them.  

 And I think that’s an important point to talk about for a few moments.  You see, one of the most troubling aspects of the Book of Joshua is that the Israelites are commanded by God to destroy the Canaanites and these other nations that inhabit the Promised Land.  And we live in a world today where the concept of “holy war” is often is seen as a reason to reject religion.  After the capture of Jericho, the city and almost everyone and everything in it is to be destroyed as a BAN, a Hebrew word that means “dedicated to God.”  How could “a loving God” do such a thing, many have wondered?  

 We are told in the Scriptures that this is God’s judgment on the intense wickedness of the Canaanites and their neighbors.  In Genesis, Abraham was told that he could not yet inherit the land because the sins of the Amorites, another of the seven nations in the Promised Land, had

not yet reached its fullness.  And they really were pretty bad.  They practiced idolatry and sexual immorality of many different kinds and they routinely sacrificed their children in the fires to their gods.  They were to be removed from the land as divine judgment.  God will destroy sin, and those who refuse to separate themselves from sin by repentance will be destroyed with it.  God is holy, and a holy God he is unwilling to tolerate the ongoing presence of sin.

 Israel was chosen for this task so that it would be impressed on them that sin had serious consequences.  If they followed in the ways of the Canaanites, which they did, they too would be removed from the land, which they were.  God didn’t treat them any differently than the Canaanites. 

 But even in the midst of this book of judgment on the Canaanites, we still see God’s grace at work.  For one thing, the destruction of the Canaanites took place little by little.  So there was the opportunity for repentance.  And second, as in the case of Rahab, we see that those who did repent of their sin were accepted into the covenant community.  God does not desire that any should perish but is patient and gives time for repentance. 

 Is that a completely satisfactory answer?  Maybe not.  But perhaps we will understand God’s justice better in time. 

 So the spies return safe and sound, and the time has come to cross the Jordan River.  But it seems that God has really lousy timing, because he has brought them to the river in the first month of the year, March or April in our calendar; and the river is flooding.  

 But God intervenes and stops the flow of water.  Some Bible scholars wonder if this could have been an earthquake that caused a landslide upstream that blocked off the river.  That very thing happened in 1927, when a landslide stopped the Jordan River for 21 hours.  The Jordan River is in a hot spot for quakes, and Psalm 114, which talks about the crossing of the Jordan, also mentions the mountains and hills “skipping.”  

 Some people say, “Well, then, it’s not a miracle if it was caused by an earthquake.”  Is it any less miraculous for a quake to happen at just the right moment and in just the right place to stop the river?  This theory doesn’t remove the miraculous; it just provides a possible explanation of how God accomplished the miraculous.

 The decisive moment comes when the priests, carrying the Ark, step into the water.  The Ark represents God’s presence among them, so it is as if God himself is going before them.  But what if the priests carrying the Ark had lacked the faith to take that first step?  They might not have known what God had already accomplished for them.  

 At the crossing of the Jordan, Joshua is affirmed as their leader.  God has done a miracle through him just like he did through Moses.  And as they come through the river, they pick up stones from the middle of the river and make an altar as a memorial to the occasion.  That way it could be a “teaching tool” for future generations, a chance to talk about God’s faithfulness in the past.  What about you?  What memorial stones do you have in your life to talk about the ways God has been faithful to you in the past?  

 Once they’re across the river, God gives Joshua the battle plan.  You know the story:  Walk around the city with the Ark leading the way.  Do that a bunch of times, blow some horns, shout, and you win.  Pretty silly plan, isn’t it?  

 The point of this silly plan is to show that the victory comes from God, not them.  God has already accomplished his purposes.  It’s just up to his people to follow along with what he has already done.  And maybe God knew that Israel needed a little encouragement.  After their failure at Kadesh, it would be good for them to get “an easy win” on this try to enter Canaan.  

 I think the most general lesson from the story is that when God asks us to do something, even if it’s something that’s difficult or that doesn’t make sense in the world’s way of thinking, we should do it.  We certainly shouldn’t sit around and think of all the things that could go wrong.  We want to act out of our faith in what God can do, not our fears of what could go wrong.  

 God may call us to fight some big battles.  But if we act on faith, if we take that first step into the flooded river, we may find that God has already won the victory.  Over the years I’ve heard many stories of how people have stepped out in faith, only to discover that God had already taken care of the situation.  In Bible study, we’ve been reading the book Experiencing God, and it’s full of stories of how people were called to do something that seemed impossible or that didn’t make sense, only to discover that as soon as they took the first step, God had already won the victory.  One story that I remember is about how a church was called to start a new congregation in a neighboring town where there were no churches.  But they didn’t have any money to rent a building or hire a pastor to work there.  They decided to do it anyway, and within a week, a check came in the mail from another church that had been led of God to give them money to start a new congregation, without knowing they were planning to do that.  

 So the question is, “Are we going to act out of our faith in what God can do or our fears of what we can’t do? 

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