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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer we have focused on one of the five guiding principles of the Reformation, Sola Fide, by Faith Alone. For Martin Luther, faith alone was the solid, unshakable confidence in God’s promise which allowed the believer to act in a broken world. This morning we continue our sermon series on the Old Testament characters mentioned in the Book of Hebrews who embodied this faith. Today we turn to Joshua.
From Hebrews 11:30
By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
Sunday School children love to tell riddles hidden in the Bible. For example, where is baseball mentioned in the bible? In the “big inning.” What excuse did Adam give to his children as to why they no longer lived in Eden? Your mother ate us out of house and home. Where is the first tennis match mentioned in the Bible? When Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court. Which Bible character had no parents? Joshua, son of Nun.
Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel once described Joshua son of Nun as the perfect disciple and successor to Moses. Like Moses, Joshua felt inadequate, unqualified and even unworthy of his task. But Wiesel also noted that, unlike Moses who was always interceding on behalf of the wayward and belligerent Israelites, Joshua possessed a dark, melancholic side. While Moses had the task of taking the Israelites out of Egypt, Joshua had the challenge of taking Egypt out of the Israelites.
Joshua would be remembered as the commander who led the conquest of Canaan, but he began as an obedient and humble servant to Moses. We read in scripture that Joshua was devoted to Moses. He was always stationed at the entrance to his tent, and served as the guardian of the door. He appeared at Moses’ side only when he was called. He would never disturb Moses in his solitude. It was Moses who gave him his name. He had once been called Oshe, which mean salvation, but Moses called him Joshua, “God saves.” Interestingly, Jesus’ Hebrew name is also Joshua.
During the first year of the exodus from Egypt, as the Israelites neared the borders of the promised land of Canaan, Moses organized a reconnaissance team of 12 spies to go ahead and search the land. Joshua and Caleb were counted in that number of 12. Moses knew that the land was occupied, but he wanted to know “whether the population was strong or weak, few in number or many, if the country was is good or bad, if the towns were open or fortified, and whether the land was fertile or barren, if there were trees or not. The expedition took 40 days across the frontier into Canaan. When the 12 spies returned there were two differing reports. Ten spies stated that Canaan was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey, but that it could not be conquered. They said that the feared giants of the earth, the Nephilim were living in the land. The Israelites would be like grasshoppers standing against them. Joshua and Caleb, however, said that this was not true, and that the land could be conquered.
When the two groups reported their findings, the Israelites were terrified, and rose up with cries and lamentations against Moses and Aaron: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt.” Joshua and Caleb tried to reason with them and to encourage the demoralized Israelites to join them. Some of their kinsmen attacked the two and were ready to stone them. Others began a revolt against Aaron and Moses. That day God would place a judgment on this rebellious nation. The Israelites would be destined to wander in the wilderness for one year, for each of the 40 days the spies had traversed the land of Canaan. That overwhelming, depressing day would remain marked in Joshua’s memory. It was the day when God decided that out of all those who came out of Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb would enter the Promised Land. The ten skeptical spies would die soon after from the plague, and the others rescued from slavery in Egypt would perish in the desert. Joshua’s own beloved teacher Moses, and his brother Aaron, the founder of the priestly order, would not enter into the Promised Land. And so the nation wandered with Moses 40 years in the wilderness.
The story continues 40 years later in the book that bears his name, Joshua. He is now portrayed as the harsh, melancholic military general he has become. As Elie Wiesel writes, “It (Joshua) depicts a degree of violence, even a thirst for violence, that is found nowhere else in scripture. The conquest of the land of Canaan occurs with fire and blood.” As for Joshua, he has no human trust. His confidence is in God only.
The Book of Joshua begins with Moses’ death. Before he dies, he places his hands upon Joshua son of Nun, to receive his spirit of wisdom, and then God whispers into his heart., “As I walked with Moses, I will now be with you. I will not fail you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” After crossing the Jordan River, they face their first great challenge- the fortified city of Jericho.
In ancient warfare such cities as Jericho were either taken by assault or surrounded and the people would be starved into submission. The invaders, like the Israelites, might try to weaken the stone walls with fire or by tunneling, or they might simply heap up a mountain of earth to serve as a ramp. Each of these methods of assault, however, took weeks or months, and the attacking force usually suffered heavy losses. Joshua’s strategy seemed foolish and naïve. God simply told Joshua to have the people march silently around Jericho for six days, and then, after seven circuits on the seventh day, to shout.
By faith, Joshua and the Israelites followed God’s instructions to the letter. When the people did finally shout, the massive walls collapsed instantly, and Israel won an easy victory. It was there that Joshua recognized that when his people obeyed God, they did well. But when they disobeyed, the consequences were bad. Joshua’s military strategy continued through Canaan, and the Israelites prospered under his leadership.
At the end of the Book of Joshua, when the land of Canaan had been conquered, and a portion of territory allotted to each of the tribes, Joshua gathered together all the people. He wasn’t sure whether the Israelites would truly choose to be faithful to God. It was easier to place their trust in a false, visible god, than the invisible God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So he exhorted them, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua was so uncertain of the Israelites true convictions, that he challenged them a second time to forsake their idols and false gods.
According to the midrashic legend, Joshua having fulfilled the mission that God and Moses had entrusted to him, retired and lived in an isolate, desolate place. He was old, and the country rested from war. Poor Joshua died alone and was buried in a place called Har gaash—a kind of angry mountain, a sort of volcano. The Talmud comments that this illustrated the ingratitude of the people toward their leader. And why was the mountain angry? Because God, in his wrath, was ready to punish his people. Why the rage? Because no one took the trouble to come to Joshua’s funeral. Everyone was too busy. Some were cultivating their gardens, others their vineyards; still others watched over their fires. It may seem unbelievable. In war, Joshua had been their leader. Afterwards, the people no longer needed him, to the point that no one came to pay him their final respects. It was perhaps why Joshua was so melancholic. The same is true of faith- even today. When people no longer need faith and the strength that God offers, they quickly discard their convictions and practices as unimportant.
So what does the story of the Battle of Jericho and Joshua’s challenge to God, teach us? Let me suggest two lessons. The first, is to be mindful of the small things in life. The story of the Battle of Jericho reminds us that God calls us to do little things for the sake of our families and for their faith. These gestures may seem insignificant and routine. Praying daily with your children, reading scripture, worshiping routinely together with those you love. It is a disciples that may seem old-fashioned and naïve, but it is a discipline of small actions that give life. As Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things. Only small things with great love.”
The second lesson is about choice. We live in a world of choices. Indeed, we make choices every day. We choose the clothes we wear, the way we travel, the movies we watch, and the places we shop. From time to time we make bigger choices as well: the neighborhoods we live in, and the jobs or universities or schools we go to. These choices give us a measure of control over our lives. But not all the choices we fret over are truly worth the energy we devote to them. The choice of faith should be of ultimate consequence. Unfortunately, many spend little time in its pursuit. Joshua understood that, and that is why he challenged nation of Israel to choose wisely and to put aside their false gods.
Why is this story of small things and choice so important? Because the small actions of faith can make walls in your life crumble. The walls of despair, frustration, hatred and anger that separate you from others, can come tumbling down. But with no faith, with no discipline of prayer, with no small acts, and no life of marching with God, the walls that separate you from God’s promised land will remain. So, my friends, “Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus.