Achan And Ai audio (10MB)
During the week I represented a man in a family law mediation. He had recently separated from his wife, and we were negotiating for him to have contact with his children. It’s hard to imagine, for those of us who haven’t been through it, what it would be like to be negotiating with total strangers, about how many hours a week you are allowed to spend with your own children … especially if you have been in a Christian marriage.
The couple in this case were both practicing Christians – active members of their church. There hadn’t been any violence or abuse or adultery in the marriage. The relationship had simply broken down irretrievably for no obvious or striking reason … although they were, as many couples are, under financial pressure and pressure from extended family … my client finds himself in a situation he never imagined he’d be in … sitting with me in the Legal Aid Dispute Resolution Centre, praying, that he will still be able to have a relationship with his kids.
As I sat in the mediation and listed to the mediator carry on about what children need after separation … and tolerated the discussion that canvassed everything but what God might have to say about it all … I wondered … why are we here? Why are two believers even subjecting themselves to this process? - arguing against each other before an unbeliever? (and Paul says this in 1 Cor)
This couple haven’t broken the law. Why has the church palmed them off to the civil authorities? Why can’t we help them internally? Or are we so ashamed when we fail, when our people divorce, that we’d rather not get involved?
I noticed that the woman who ran the mediation was watching us very intently. Watching us pray. Watching our behaviour … and the world does have its eyes on the church, and people watch intently to see exactly what we do when things go wrong.
And the world wants to know …
When your people have failed marriages, what do you do?
When you have disputes amongst yourselves, how do you resolve it?
When your people fall into sin, what do you do?
When you hit hard financial times, what do you do?
When people stop coming and your churches are empty, what do you do?
What do you do when your minister is caught having an affair? Or when your clergy get divorced?
What do you do when the police uncover widespread sexual abuse in your schools and seminaries?
What do you do when it all goes pear-shaped?
It’s not our sin or short-comings that people are most critical of … it’s how we handle it … how we resolve conflict and respond to tragedy …
Because when the rubber hits the road, where faith really counts is when hard times hit … and how we respond (in those times) tells people who we really are, and what we really believe.
Today’s story from chapter 7 of the book of Joshua, is a story about just this …
It’s a story about things going wrong.
It’s a story that teaches us what to do and how to respond when we stuff up and when our mistakes make us lose face in our world.
As is often the way in life, things go badly for the Israelites suddenly, unexpectedly and immediately after they’ve just had huge success. They’ve crossed the Jordan and settled at Gilgal. The walls of Jericho have come down and victory is theirs. God is on their side and that makes them winners … until suddenly they’re losing.
They’ve sent 3000 men into the smaller city of Ai … strategically this is their next target if they’re gonna conquer the hill country … and they are defeated, and thirty six of their men have died.
They have no idea why this has happened. Things were going so well. They have been faithful and for no reason that they can see, suddenly, they’re losing the battle. Their hearts “failed and turned to water”. (7:5)
When has your heart failed and turned to water? When has all of your strength and courage suddenly left you, because something that you thought would never happen to you or your church, did happen … perhaps suddenly … perhaps unexpectedly?
We need to know as individuals, and as a community, how to respond when this happens … and today’s scripture passage teaches us to do two things … it’s a simple two step process …
Step 1: Ask God ‘why’?
Joshua is an exemplary leader. His immediate response (we see in v6) is not what we usually see when this go wrong – we often see denial, blame, or let’s employ some outside professionals to fix this mess for us. Joshua immediately gets down on his knees in prayer, and buries his face into the ground … (demonstrate) … it’s an act of worship (of saying you’re God, I’m not) … and it’s an act of repentance … he says Lord, ‘why have you let this happen?’
… he waits on an answer … he wants to know exactly why …
Before trying to solve the problem. Before attacking Ai again, this time with more men. Before trying a new strategy or enlisting help from outsiders … he needs to know why this trouble has come on his people.
And the answer to that question wasn’t written in scripture … and it wasn’t something Israel could work out themselves by just analyzing the situation … they had to hear God’s voice, answer them in prayer …
So Joshua and all the priests remained in prayer like that all day, until God answered them …
I’d like to see this happen at Synod you know (Synod is our annual church council – it’s happening next week). Day One the Archbishop says, “Our church is in trouble. We’re losing people, money and influence. Before we have a debate about Fresh Expressions, lets all get on our knees for 24 hours and ask God to tell us why this is happening to us.” … now that would be an interesting Synod …
And God’s answer … I would be very interested to hear … because it might very well be something we haven’t thought of you know … this was certainly true for Joshua.
Who would have thought, that the reason God turned on the Israelites and allowed them to be defeated, was because of one man named Achan, who stole some stuff that belonged to God, and hid it under his tent? You might recall from last week that God had put a ban on anyone keeping anything from Jericho. Since this was the first land to be conquered it was to be dedicated to God. One man broke that rule. All of Israel suffered.
If I were in Joshua’s shoes I might have thought ‘What? It’s because of that? You let 36 of my men die because of one stupid man who stole a gown and some silver and gold?”
So, in hearing God’s answer, we learn something about God, and something about the nature of sin.
First of all, Joshua argues with God, “What will you do for your great name?” (7:9) In other words, ‘So God, are you just gonna let your people fail and get defeated? Don’t you know this makes you look bad? Why are you letting bad things happen to good people? Why are you letting your church come under attack? Why is your response so violent, so harsh, so extreme?’
It’s the big ‘why’ question that we come against all the time … it’s the reason many churches want to avoid preaching on stories like the story of Achan …
But God does answer us when we call to him … but how often do we want to hear his answer? …
In the church we like to come up with our own answers … and there are some pretty bad ones out there … let’s consider some of them ...
Why does God let his people suffer and fail?
Some Human Answers:
1. Suffering is creative and God will use it to teach us something
- sure, God will use all things for good, but that doesn’t mean he wants his people to suffer … God desires good for his people
2. Winning isn’t important to God … so church growth isn’t ultimately that important
- No, God’s pretty clear in Joshua and in the New Testament that he is on Israel’s side … and he wants to see his church grow in number and to have victory over the evil in our world
3. God doesn’t cause suffering but he does suffer with us
- Sounds good, but it’s not the case in this passage … God does ordain the defeat in Ai because he’s angry – yes he suffers with us, but he also allows suffering to occur
4. There are outside factors that we can’t control … secularism, postmodernism, technological changes …
- Again, the bible won’t support this … right throughout the book of Joshua we see the people conquering Canaan because of God’s power and sovereignty … and nothing is more powerful than God
In the end you’re really left with a couple of options .. you can dismiss the passage and say it’s just an account of how the people of Israel have interpreted their own history and it isn’t God’s word at all … or, you can accept God’s answer to Joshua’s prayer.
God tells Joshua, that the reason why the people are defeated is because of the sin (of one man) … and because of his sin all of Israel is deemed guilty … all of Israel will suffer the consequences. It’s kind of like when you’re in school and because a handful of students are being naughty, the whole class gets kept in at lunch. This is a way of the teacher saying that what we do affects others and as a group we are responsible to each other.
So God treats us as individuals (and ultimately Achan dies because of what he’s done), but God also treats us as a whole group …
Perhaps this seems unfair, painting the picture of a blood-thirsty God … why should people die because of one little theft?
What we can learn from this is that Achan’s theft wasn’t insignificant to God. Achan coveted and stole … and to God, sin is a very serious matter. So serious that it leads to death.
Don’t make the mistake of trying to bury this in the Old Testament? Or think that those were more brutal times, not like today.
Coveting another person’s goods .. theft … these still lead to the death of innocent people. The sin of coveting is the reason that thousands of people own over 40 credit cards they will never afford to pay back, and will never have to as long as they system cancels their debt at bankruptcy. Is it any less theft, when multi-billion dollar credit card companies sell credit to the poor and uneducated … and lock them into a life of debt because after one payment default interest rates go up to 50%? Eventually, the economy crashes under this kind of theft, fraud and deception … and who does it hurt the most … the poor … and the poor are dying every day ….
Global poverty is a corporate reaping of individual sin. Sin has consequences. We reap what we sow.
The bible tells us this over and over:
- “… you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7)
- And not only reap, but reap an increase of what is sown
- “for they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7)
This shouldn’t be a foreign concept to us. One of the first things we teach children in the early years of school is that their choices have consequences, for themselves and others. It’s God’s law. It’s really no different to physical laws, such as the law that:
- for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; or
- the law of gravity
The law of gravity isn’t only real if I believe in it.
I can say, ‘I don’t believe in gravity. Gravity isn’t the reason we’re all tied to the ground.’ (but I know when I let go of this pen, it will drop to the ground)
Or ‘Gravity is only real if you believe in it’ (but when I drop my pen, same result)
Or ‘Gravity is only a theory, you can’t prove it’ (again, the pen will drop)
God’s law of sowing and reaping is the same. The community will reap from the sin of individuals. How many church pastors have fallen into the trap of denying this … thinking that as long as they preach good sermons, it’s ok to have a marital affair or evade paying taxes … as long as the people never know about it, it can’t hurt them … but eventually (drop pen) it does every time …
The effect of sin can be ugly … and yes, today’s bible story is ugly too.
Sometimes life is ugly … things we never thought would happen, happen. Even when we strive to be faithful, we can unexpectedly find that what we thought we had, has been taken from us … where we hoped to succeed, we are failing.
So, what do we do when this happens?
Slide 6: 2 Steps
Step 1: Ask God Why?
Step 2: Repent
After Achan’s sin is disclosed to Joshua, Achan openly confesses his sin (v19-21), and he and his family are killed. This is needed before Israel can go on to have victory. It’s pretty ugly stuff. But God takes the problem of sin very seriously … (enough to go to the cross) …
God takes sin very seriously. It is the root cause of all that’s wrong in our world. Because it’s the law, that we will reap what we sow.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law … but to fulfill it.”
The law of sowing and reaping was fulfilled in him because he reaped the consequence of our sin … and his death lifts that burden from us .. so he can say, ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Even good Christians fail in life. We stuff up and sometimes our churches seem to be losing the battle. The reality of sin and the law of sowing and reaping still exist in our world …
But there is a way out … just as there was for Israel .. it takes two little steps …
1. We turn to God and ask why (we ask him to show us the sin that is leading to the suffering)
2. We repent of it … “to one another” (James 5:16) … not just in our heads .. to someone.
And the moment we do this God places the cross between us and the reaping of our sin. And we can be free. And we can share in his victory.
So let this be our habit at St Thomas … that we regularly confess our sins to our family and friends in the church.
And that we regularly wait on God in prayer, and learn to hear him answer us, and reveal our sin to us. Let’s do this in our staff meetings, our task groups, our small groups …
And let the cross of Jesus Christ stand at the very centre of our community life … and let the world see that when things go wrong, this is who we turn to … not our own answers … because we know that there is only one answer to the problem of sin.