Jul 16, 2017

“Getting on God’s Side” 7-16-17

Joshua 5:13-15
July 16, 2017

This morning we continue our journey with Joshua and the Israelites. They are now located west of the Jordan River, and they have encountered their first significant challenge in the fulfilling of God’s promise to them – the walled city of Jericho. In order to enter into the land, the people would have to overthrow Jericho and its warriors. But how was this possible? It is within this context that we discover our text this morning. Joshua has a vision of the commander of the army of the Lord. I cannot say for certain who or what this figure is. My inclination is that this being was an angelic visitor, though some have identified the commander with a pre-incarnate theophany of the Lord Jesus himself. However we sort out this matter, it is clear that the being represents God and his interests personally.
I should stop here and remind you that there are two themes threading their way through this sermon series. The first is that Joshua is a book for God’s people in transition. Even as God’s people were called to move into the future in Canaan that God had promised to them, so in every generation God’s people are called to enter into the inheritance which is theirs in and through Jesus. If you are in a season of transition, this book, under the working of the Holy Spirit, is a resource and a guide. The second theme is that Joshua is a book about God. Joshua shows us the character and action of God and leads us to the perfect revelation of God in Jesus. So how can we understand this strange angelic encounter and find guidance for our own lives of faith?
We will do so by attending to the questions that Joshua asks. There are two questions in our text, and they will be the pegs on which we hang our study. So first let us observe the question that Joshua asks upon first encountering the angelic visitor – “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” With the inevitable battle with Jericho approaching, Joshua was understandably curious upon encountering this fierce warrior. We might paraphrase the question as “Whose side are you on?” The answer is thought-provoking – “No, but I am the commander of the army of the Lord.” Unexpectedly, God’s interests are presented as being different than those of either opposing army.
The reader of Scripture should find this curious. Doesn’t God love Israel? What about the promises to Abraham and the patriarchs? It needs to be said at this point, that though the Bible makes clear that God is faithful to his people, he does not outright take their “side.” Nor does he simply oppose and reject the other surrounding nations. The portrait which emerges in Scripture is far more complex than any simple “us vs. them” narrative. God has his own interests.
Let me use Scripture itself to show you some of the layers of complexity. Let’s start with the Canaanites. There are some curious things in Scripture that we would be wise to attend to. All the way back in Genesis 15, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for hundreds of years in a foreign land, and then after that time they would return to Canaan and claim the land of promise. Why the delay between promise and fulfillment? The only explanation that God gives is that “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). Though we cannot speculate too much on these few words, they let us in on something rather interesting. God had a relationship with the Canaanites that was independent of his relationship with Israel. He was watching them and holding them accountable for their sin, and he would not allow their culture to fall until precisely the moment when the culture became irredeemable. For hundreds of years, God had allowed the sun to rise on Canaan. His justice would not permit judgment to come one moment too soon, not even for the sake of his people.
And even if there came a time when the social institutions and cultural ethos became irredeemable, God still held out the hope of salvation for individuals. This is the reality of the story of Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, who we read of in Joshua 2. The Israelite spies promised Rahab that she and all who take refuge in her home would be spared in the destruction of Jericho, and we learn in Joshua 6 that this is exactly what happens. Rahab and those with her become a part of Israel. It is my own speculation that God would have spared the whole population if they would have but taken refuge in that prostitute’s home. So God would not compromise justice in the timing of the fall of Jericho, and God extended his mercy even when the fall was inevitable. This is no simple “us vs. them” situation.
We can look at the matter from the perspective of the Israelites as well. During the conquest of Jericho, one Israelite man named Achan decided to keep some of the treasure of Jericho for himself, against the explicit orders of God that all was to be destroyed. This breach of faith led to the military defeat of Israel at the hands of the army of Ai. When Achan’s sin was discovered, he and his household were executed. It is hard to process this story, but it does make one thing clear. God is not an ethnocentrist. As one of my professors put it, “If you act like a Canaanite, you will be treated like a Canaanite.” The foreign-born prostitute and her band of refugees are extended mercy and a home. The insider with knowledge of the Lord’s ways finds himself on the outside of the camp. Again, we see that this is no simple “us vs. them” story.
This pattern of God’s “other” perspective continues into the pages of the Gospels. One small example comes from our first lesson. After the man on the mat who had been sick for thirty-eight years is healed, Jesus tells him to take up his mat and walk. The Pharisees immediately begin grumbling both because the man is carrying around his mat on the Sabbath and because Jesus has the audacity to heal someone on this day. If we were writing the passage, we would probably let this be a classic “us vs. them” story – the hypocritical Pharisees vs. the loving Jesus. But the actual story takes a strange turn. Jesus says to the healed man, “Stop sinning, before something worse happens to you.” What? Such statements on the part of Jesus hardly fit the modern preoccupation with inclusivity and being non-judgmental. Clearly Jesus has his own agenda that transcends our simple narrative.
Of course, nothing so decisively overturns the “us vs. them” narrative like the crucifixion of Christ. The tragedy and horror of the crucifixion speaks not only peace to the Christian but also a reminder of the ugliness and brutality of our own sin. On the flip side, the crucifixion is a sign to our enemies. Forgiveness is possible. Reconciliation with God is possible. Jesus’s death means peace and pain to believer and unbeliever alike.
How might we who are in our own times of transition make some application of this truth? We should recognize that change often brings conflict. Conflict can come both from within the church and from beyond the church’s borders. What do we do when we find ourselves in conflict with our brothers and sisters? We might at times feel betrayed by fellow Christians. We also could be absolutely right in our opinions over against those of our opponents. But we must remember that God is not in the business of taking our side. He has his own agenda and purpose and is actively at work in the lives of his people, even when they disagree. God is doing his own thing in the lives of both parties in the church conflict. When we disagree, we have to step back and recognize that God’s agenda takes priority over our own.
Sometimes conflict arises from those who do not know Jesus. Opposition runs from simple shunning all the way to fierce and violent persecution. At times the believer will cry out in the language of the Psalms, calling for God’s judgment to fall upon the enemy. But even then, we must remember that Paul told us that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. The one who is an enemy today might yet come to know the saving power of Jesus. God’s grace has been known throughout history to claim the hard-hearted. The one we call “enemy” today may yet be “brother” or “sister” tomorrow.
Having rejected the “us vs. them” narrative, we are now free to attend to Joshua’s second question. “What do you command?” Having realized that he was dealing with God’s representative, Joshua falls to the ground in worship. Often Bible people have this reaction to God’s holy, transcendent presence. Think of Isaiah when he encounters God’s enthroned presence or Peter after the miraculous catch of fish. It is an unfortunate part of our modern, materialistic lifestyle that we have so little room it seems for spontaneous worship when confronted by holiness. Joshua’s question demonstrates a shift in perspective. If the first question was designed to determine if the being was on one side or the other, the second question then frankly acknowledges that God has a perspective different than the agendas of earthly powers. Maybe we could paraphrase the question, “How does one get on God’s side?” The answer, at least in this context, is that one must bow in humble adoration before God.
This scene seems then in keeping with the overall theme of the Bible. Or so says God in Isaiah 57:15: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Or hear the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
Joshua in that time can offer no payment, make no plans, and take no action. All he can do is stop and see that God is God and that he is not.
And I suppose that this is where we too must end when confronted with the temptation to construct simple “us vs. them” narratives. We must stop and worship God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We must remember that God is God and that we are not. We must put aside our efforts, our credentials, and our moral rectitude and take the place of the poor in spirit. If our conflict lies with brothers and sisters, then we should seek to worship with them. If our conflict lies with non-believers, then we should worship in their midst, gathering around God’s table even in the midst of enemies. We must pray for them even as we pray for our own daily bread. And as we worship, God will make his presence known to us and he will carry us into the inheritance which is ours in and through Jesus. Let us pray together.

Associate Pastor Scott Cress
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906