Overcoming Obstacles by Faith Audio
It’s interesting to reflect on the importance of symbols. I wear a wedding ring on my left hands as a symbol of the lifelong commitment I’ve made to love honour and cherish my wife. In your workplace you may wear a name badge or lanyard as a symbol of your right to be there. When I was growing up people would wear a symbol like a Mercedes Benz icon with an extra vertical line at the bottom as a symbol of their desire for an end to war. This week you may well have seen images of the 911 memorial on the World Trade Centre site set up as a symbol of the nation’s stance against terrorism and as a reminder of those who died in that attack 20 years ago.
Well, as we progress through the book of Joshua you’ll find that symbols play an important part in the telling of the story.
Two weeks ago we heard about the crimson cord used by Rahab as a symbol of her faith in the God of Israel; last week we heard about the pillars of stone set up by Joshua as a reminder of their crossing of the Jordan, as a symbol of God’s presence with them as they enter the promised land; and today we begin with two even more significant symbols for Israel.
The Israelites have crossed over the Jordan and are camped at the bottom of an escarpment with the pass up into the hills protected by the walled city of Jericho.
You can imagine how the people are feeling: after seeing the waters of the Jordan parted just as they’d heard that the Red Sea had been parted when Moses was leading them; and then hearing the report of the spies’ encounter with Rahab with her strong statement about them being unstoppable because God was with them. They’d be excited, raring to go, to attack Jericho. It’s a leader’s dream scenario. But what does God tell Joshua to do? “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” Hang on! What’s going to happen if he does that? The situation is that since God told the people that no one over the age of twenty would enter the Promised Land, they haven’t been circumcising their sons. Perhaps they thought God had left them so it didn’t matter anymore.
Well there are some 600,000 men and all of those under the age of forty, the majority, had to be circumcised. If you thought it was taking a long time to vaccinate everyone in Victoria, imagine what Joshua is being told to do. This will both delay the entry into the Promised Land and leave the army vulnerable to attack for some time while they recover from this painful operation. So why does God demand it? What’s so important about circumcision that it couldn’t wait until after they’d defeated their enemies?
Well the text tells us doesn’t it? These are the children of those who’d disobeyed God in the wilderness, who’d earnt God’s anger, by complaining, by wanting to return to Egypt, by wanting to have an idol, something tangible, to worship rather than the living God. But God is a God of grace. He was angry with their parents, but not with these men and women; and they need to know that. They need to be reminded that they are still God’s precious possession; a holy people; that is, a people set apart for God. They need to hear that God has forgiven them and made them pure again. In fact God makes a play on words out of what’s been done to them. He says “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt,” hence the name “Gilgal” which means “A Rolling”. You see circumcision is the sign, the symbol, of them being set apart. But it’s also a symbol of their cleansing from sin, and of their commitment to cast off sinful ways and to serve God in faithfulness and righteousness; it’s a symbol of a commitment to the same purity of God that’s behind his intention to utterly destroy Jericho.
Paul, in Romans 2, takes this idea and applies it to Christians where he says: “29[Now] circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” (Rom 2:29) For us it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit that shows that we’re set apart as God’s people and that changes our hearts to want to please God and to serve him in purity and righteousness.
But then there’s one more symbolic act to carry out. That’s the celebration of the Passover. Again, this is a reminder that they’re here because God has rescued them from slavery. If they’re to enter into the Promised Land and make it their own it will be because God gives it to them.
It’s worth saying here that what they’re about to do isn’t an act of empire building. This isn’t the Conquistadors coming to Mexico or Peru to enslave the native peoples and make their European king rich, all in the name of religion. This isn’t the Portuguese taking over the East Indies for the sake of the spice trade. This isn’t Britain sending their navy to push out the indigenous people of Australia to create a penal colony. No, this is God fulfilling a promise he’d made to Abraham 400 years before to bring his offspring back to this land when the iniquity of the Amorites was complete. (Gen 15:16) This is a once off event, not a model for empire building, as some Christian leaders have tried to make out in the past. We also need to understand that these weren’t defenceless natives who’d lived here for 50,000 years. The various tribes of Canaan had, themselves, taken over this land from others. They were a warlike people, constantly fighting among themselves, trying to extend their territorial control, as the subsequent history of Israel shows. And they were worshippers of idols of the worst kind, with practices that included child sacrifice. And as we’ll see in what follows, the conquest of this land will depend entirely on God.
So they celebrate the Passover in the plains of Jericho and on that very day, we’re told, the manna stops falling on the ground. It was harvest time so they were able to eat of the crops of the land, another sign that God would provide for them in this land of blessing.
Well, the next thing we’re told is that Joshua is standing somewhere near Jericho one day and he gets a fright. A man appears with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua confronts him: “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He’s probably wondering whether there’s an army just over the hill waiting for this man to call them to attack. But he doesn’t need to worry because the man replies “Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.”
By the way, have you noticed how we tend to say God was on Joshua’s side, but here he points out that that’s not the case. He’s actually on God’s side. As I said, this battle, like their previous victories, will be won by God, not by the strength of the Israelite army with a bit of help from God.
Now Joshua knows when to command and when to take orders. So he falls on his face and asks what he wants him to do? Well, the first thing he has to do is to take off his shoes because he’s standing on holy ground. And we immediately think again of Moses, this time at the burning bush, don’t we? I’m sure Joshua does. He instantly obeys because it’s God who’s speaking to him.
So now we’re told that the LORD speaks to Joshua. And what does he say? “See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers.”
Now we’ve just been told that Jericho is shut up tight but God says he’s already given it them. This is a fait accompli. Jericho looks impregnable but not through God’s eyes. So he gives Joshua detailed instructions. They’re to march around the city in silence once a day for six days, with the priests blowing seven trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark of the LORD. Then on the seventh day they’re to do this seven times but on the seventh time Joshua will give a command to shout, the priests will blow one long blast on their trumpets and everyone is to shout. Then the walls will fall down.
What do you reckon? Would you have believed that?
Imagine the people walking around the city looking up at the walls every day for 6 days. Imagine the soldiers up on the wall looking down laughing at them; jeering at the futility of this rabble walking around just out of arrow range, looking for some way to enter, day after day. Would you have been able to maintain your faith that this would work?
We were living in Canberra in 1988 when the new Parliament house was opened; and Christians from all over Australia came to Canberra to hold a prayer march around the Parliament hill. Some of you might even have been there. I think the idea was that we would symbolically take possession of the Parliament precinct for God, like Joshua at Jericho. This was a massive prayer meeting, praying for good and godly leadership by our parliamentary representatives; praying that they’d pass just and compassionate laws; that they’d care for the weak and powerless; that people who loved God might be elected to national leadership. I guess some of those prayers have been answered though I could hope for more. But I wonder, if we did that today would our faith be sufficient to trust that our prayers would be answered?
I think that’s the sort of question that may have been going through some people’s minds during this week of long walks around a fortified city. Was Joshua’s confidence justified? Would God do what he said? How could these walls that look so strong, so thick, just fall down? Is that how you feel when you pray for godly leadership by our parliaments?
On the seventh day they rose at dawn and Joshua gave them one last set of instructions. “17The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction.” This was God’s battle and all the plunder from the city was to be his and no-one else’s; everything else was to be destroyed. This would be a symbolic victory over the pagan tribes of Canaan. This would be a symbolic cleansing of the evils of Canaan. So he adds a warning: “18As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it.”
Next week we’ll think about the idea of corporate sin, but sufficient for now to hear that word of warning. If someone gives in to covetousness it will be a problem not just for them but for the whole nation. Remember what I said about God having chosen them as his special possession, his own nation out of all the nations in the world? Their identity was now a corporate identity. They weren’t Joshua or Benjamin or Nathaniel or Caleb, etc. They were the people of God and everything they now did was bound up in that corporate identity. Be here next week to think more about what’s, for us 21st century people, a difficult concept to grasp.
Well, this time they march around the city seven times. You can imagine the tension rising, the cries from the walls growing louder and more dismissive as the day wears on, But then at the end of the seventh circuit Joshua cries out “SHOUT!”, the trumpets sound a long blast and everyone in the army joins in with a deafening roar – and the walls fall down flat! God has done it!
But there’s still work for the Israelites to do.
The people charge into the city and take it by the edge of the sword.
I know we don’t like this sort of gruesome story but it is 1200BC and this is how battles were fought back then. These days we’re much more civilised aren’t we? Now we use long range rifles and missiles and remote control drones rather than swords and knives. We have carefully crafted rules of war to limit its brutality – for what they’re worth – but the end result is much the same.
The point though is that while God has won the victory for them they still have to take part in the battle. The land won’t be won if they’re not committed to winning it, even at the risk of their lives.
In this case God has claimed everything in the city as his and so they proceed to destroy everything and everyone – except for Rahab and her family. The two spies are given the honour of bringing out Rahab and all of her kindred to safety outside the city and we read as the episode finishes that Rahab and her family have lived in Israel ever since.
The city is burnt to the ground and all the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron are taken to be put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. Jericho and everything in it belongs to God. This is important to remember. We sometimes think that Palestine belonged to the Israelites but in fact it really belonged to God. It was God’s land where all the people of the world could come to receive the blessing of living under the Living God. (Zech 8:23)
Well before we finish let’s spend a few moments reflecting on what we find in this story that may be relevant to us. There’s plenty in the account that we find foreign: the savagery of warfare; the thought of God driving out the inhabitants of Canaan to plant his people in their place; even the idea of circumcision of all the men in the army with flint knives may put you off.
But there are lots of positives to think about.
The importance of symbolism is one. As human beings we need physical, visual symbols to remind us of things that are important for us. I mentioned wedding rings but there are other symbols that as Christians we hold dear to. The cross is clearly our most important symbol. We have the equivalent of the Passover meal in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, to remind us not of rescue from physical slavery but from spiritual slavery, slavery to sin. One of the problems with being in lockdown is that when we’ve celebrated communion online we’ve lost or at least weakened one of the key elements of that sacrament, which is our physical joining together in that act of worship. When we celebrate communion together we affirm our belonging together just as the Passover meal was important for the Israelites because it reminded them of their shared history.
Similarly as we see the commitment of the fighting men to affirm their place in God’s people first by being circumcised, then by risking death fighting against God’s enemies, we’re reminded that God stills requires us to commit ourselves to serving him at whatever personal cost it requires. For us the call isn’t to take up arms, it’s to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Jesus has won the victory but we have to continue the fight against our own weakness and sinfulness.
For us there’s the same need to maintain our faith in God, to trust that he is in control even when we appear to be facing unassailable barriers, even when our prayers don’t seem to be making a difference; to trust that he’ll provide our every need in his good time. We’ll think about that some more next week.
And finally we need to try to grasp the holiness and purity of God that leads us to fear him, in the right sense of that word. I think we’ve lost that sense of needing to remove our shoes when we’re in God’s presence. Maybe that’s a good thing because it reflects the fact that God now lives within us through his Holy Spirit. Nevertheless God still expects of us utter purity of life and thought and word and deed. Our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit, Paul says. So we need to keep praying that God would change us to be more like him every day as we continue to serve him in faithfulness and righteousness.