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It’s the first test for Israel in the land of promise. The first obstacle that they see. They had heard that the cities they were going to encounter were fortified up to heaven, and after they cross the Jordan, they see such a city in Jericho. The story of Jericho goes from a vision that Joshua has of a man standing with a drawn sword in his hand, to the description of the people of Israel marching around the city for seven days, to their obedience to a command to spare Rahab and her entire family. As I thought about this story, I considered how we create walls made out of boxes and have our Sunday School kids march around them and then knock them over. It’s not really a very child friendly story though is it? The fall of Jericho’s walls is followed by the killing of everyone in the city, young and old, animals – everyone but Rahab and her family. What are we to make of this? Does this create a difficulty for us? Jerome Creach summarizes the account of the fall of Jericho this way – “By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days” (Heb 11:30) With this characterization of Joshua 5:13-6:27, the writer of Hebrews captures the essence of the Jericho story. Jericho’s defeat was a great sign of Israel’s trust in God.” Let us look at this story this morning and see what God may have to say to our hearts….
When we last left the Israelites, they had crossed the Jordan, accompanied by the Ark of the Covenant – the symbol of God’s presence with them, of God’s going before them. We read about God’s great saving act in stopping the Jordan so they were able to cross, which was reminiscent of God’s great saving act in parting the Red Sea during their flight from Egypt. In Joshua chapter 5 we read about Israel’s response to God’s great saving/delivering act – and their response was one of worship. The first thing the Israelites do is to circumcise every male that had been born in the wilderness. The second thing that they do is celebrate Passover. They are marking the sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham so long ago. They are marking the saving event in their history when God delivered them out of bondage in Egypt. As such they are following the command that we read about in chapter 1 to act in accordance with all that Moses had commanded them. So far so good. It is at this point that Joshua has a vision.
“Once when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Who was this person? We can’t know for sure. Was it an angel? Was it Jesus? One thing we do know – when people in the Old Testament see an image of the angel of the Lord there is no differentiation made. They are having an encounter with God. God had promised Joshua that he would be with him as he was with His servant Moses, and here we have the seeming fulfillment of that promise. This figure is a reminder that there is a third party involved in the battle that is to come. Interestingly enough Joshua misses this as he approaches the man. I said when we began this series that while we may believe that we need God theologically or even theoretically speaking, functionally we sometimes operate quite differently. We operate like everything depends on us. “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” In other words “Are you with us or are you with them?” The answer that comes back is not perhaps what we expect – “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Is God not on Israel’s side? This story isn’t about God being on the side of any one nation. I would say that no story is ever about God being unequivocally on the side of any nation. We were speaking about circumcision not long ago. There’s a verse in Deuteronomy that goes “Circumcise then the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.” (Deut 10:16-18) God is not partial. What God demands is a circumcision of the heart – hearts that love and are in step with the same things God loves. Israel does not have free rein to go in to Canaan and do whatever it thinks best. Israel has been told what it means to love God and neighbour in this land that God has given it. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise, he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.” (Deut 10:19-21) This is what it means to succeed. This is what it means to be prosperous – to worship God and hold fast to him and praise him and for this worship and holding and praise to work itself out in how we love one another. A nation is not Christian because it says “God” in our constitution or because the Queen is the head of your church or because your money says “In God We Trust”. I think we can measure how Christian a nation is by how well we adhere to the greatest commandment.
As usual, Joshua has the good and proper response when confronted by God’s presence. I often talk about how Bible stories aren’t moral tales necessarily, and how the people in them often aren’t models of perfect behaviour, but Joshua so often is. “Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped…” He worshiped him. He got down on his face and worshiped. Do you ever get down on your face, if you’re able to, before God? It’s meaningful isn’t it? Getting down on our knees, down on our faces. He worshiped him. Joshua asks this man, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” This is a good question. Appearances by God are often accompanied by commands. Moses was told “I will send you to Pharoah to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” After trying to explain to God for about a chapter and a half why he isn’t the right man for the job, Moses accepts. What is it that God is going to ask Joshua to do? He tells Joshua to simply worship. I say simply like worship of God is not the most important thing we could ever be doing with our lives. It’s like when we say “Well I can only pray” like praying isn’t the single most important, most meaningful, truest thing we could do. He tells Joshua to worship. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.
The battle here, friends, is God’s. God plays God’s part. God tells Joshua to play his part – which is to worship. “See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its kings and soldiers.” When it comes to dependence on God on the part of the Israelites this story couldn’t be clearer. There is no battle plan. There is no siege plan. There’s no plan for how to breach the city gates, or to build a siege ramp up against its walls. There is no ruse in order to gain entrance into the city. There is only worship. Many of us are familiar with the details. “You shall march around the city, all the warriors circling the city once. Thus you shall do for six days, with seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets. When they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpets, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall charge straight ahead.” Joshua lets the people know what God has commanded. They have to do so little when it comes to tasks here that they aren’t even supposed to say anything each day. There is so little to resemble a regular siege here that the people of Israel return to their camp each night to sleep – what a great detail, and sleep is important after all.
The people of Israel are to worship, and God will bring victory. They do exactly as God had commanded. The walls come down. They are told to destroy everything in the city except for silver, gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, which are to be put into God’s treasury. We read “They devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” Is this difficult? Everyone in the city killed by the Israelites. The word “devoted” here is a translation of the Hebrew word herem, which is translated as “devote to destruction” or “utterly destroy”. It’s a concept that existed in the ancient world that was applied to people and objects captured in war. In the Old Testament herem is closely linked with not following other gods – as in Deut 7:4. It’s also linked with justice. There is a command in Joshua 11:6 where God tells Joshua to hamstring horses and burn chariots. Was this God being unnecessarily cruel to animals? It had more to do with the fact that chariots were like the tanks of the ancient world. As such they were symbols of oppression – think of the Israelites being pursued by Pharoah’s chariots after their flight from Egypt. It is thought by some that the sacrifice of everything in Jericho was a sort of firstfruits offering. That this along with the command by Joshua not to build there meant it would stand as a symbol of God’s saving power. It’s still a difficult concept for me to get my mind around and I don’t think there’s any easy answer here. Perhaps it’s one of the things we have to take on faith. One thing to note though is how the writer of the story juxtaposes the order and commission of destruction with the fact that the one person whose name we know in Jericho – Rahab – is saved along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and all who belonged to her. (Joshua 6:17, 21-22)
It has been thought by commentators such as Wesley and Calvin that Jericho represented an offering. A first fruits offering made on behalf of the Israelites as they entered the land of promise. In the middle of this destruction and this offering comes redemption. Rahab is saved along with all her household. We can’t think of an offering being made on behalf of others – an offering being made so that others might live without thinking of he who was sacrificed on the cross. While we can never get our minds fully around the meaning of the cross, the idea of Christ as our sacrifice is certainly one. Jesus’ sacrifice is not a passive act. Jesus’ act on the cross is compared to him fighting for us. God is portrayed throughout the OT as a divine warrior – one who fights for his people, oftentimes they need only stand still. This is what the Israelites are told when they are trapped at the Red Sea, about to face the wrath of the Egyptian army. “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” The Psalmist writes in Psalm 20:7 “Some take pride in chariots and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.”
This image of God as warrior is carried on in Christ. He’s not the type of warrior people were expecting. Our King who rides into town on a humble donkey. Our King who, as Paul wrote “made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Col 2:13-15) The rulers and authorities. Our fight is never against people. God will fight for us. Jesus has fought for us and won the victory, Jesus will fight for us and ultimately win the victory. What is our role here? Our role is to worship.
Let’s look again at what happens when Joshua realize he’s in God’s presence. He fell to his face on the earth and worshipped him. “What do you command your servant to do, my Lord,” he asks. The answer comes back, “Remove the sandals from your feet for the place that you stand is holy.” I know in many Christian traditions we consider certain spaces holy ground. We revere worship places in our own tradition as being special, and there’s merit to that. I believe though that when Christ walked the earth, when he was crucified outside the wall of the holy city and rose again, that he made all space sacred. What is our role here? Our role is to worship. Wherever we find ourselves. When we talk about worship of course we’re not just talking about our corporate worship, the worship that we do together. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes this wonderful doxology taken from Job – “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:33-36) How should we respond to this? “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sister, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (made acceptable through Christ’s sacrifice!), which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1) How do we get there? It’s something we figure out together isn’t it? The people of Israel were all in on this battle. They were together. Do we want to be together on this? In figuring out what it means to present our bodies as living sacrifices? In figuring out what it means for us to live in the land of promise, following Christ and claiming his promise of redemption and peace and wholeness? Of what it means to love him, to rest in him, to walk with him together just like those ancient Israelites walked around Jericho and to see him win the victory!
Of course we worship together too. We gather around this table to remember, to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. To celebrate Christ’s victory on the cross. To celebrate God’s grand salvation plan. To acknowledge that we want to be caught up in it, changed by it and used by God to make his saving love known. To acknowledge our trust in him and our willingness to be single- minded in our love and devotion – our willingness for God to work out his love and mercy in and through us. May we come to this table today with a strong desire – a yearning even – for this to be true in our lives.