5. ...and be thankful
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This one is tough. I used to joke when we I preached about once every other month or so how it seemed like the texts that fell on my weeks were the most challenging ones. We go through Genesis and I get The Fall. We go through the minor prophets and the prophet that falls on my week is Nahum which is all about asking God to rain judgement down on Nineveh – no “Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever flowing stream” or “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines… yet will I rejoice in the Lord”.
It’s still happening but of course I have no one to blame but myself. We could have skipped chapter 7, maybe just on to chapter 8 and talk about the victory at Ai. Sometimes you hear people saying “They never talk about sin at church!” Well this morning we’re going to talk about sin friends. You cannot have the good news without having the bad news, after all, yes? This morning we have the flip side of Rahab and her family being saved at Jericho. We have Achan and family and his tent and all that he had and people are stoned to death and burned with fire and stones are cast on them and a heap of stones is raised over them and the place is called the Valley of Achor which means “trouble” and there is a lot that is troubling in this story.
Sin is trouble and God take sin very seriously. I was joking earlier but this is a very serious subject. We need to look at this chapter seriously. Let us look at this story this morning friends and hear what God may have to say to our hearts.
It has been so far so good for the people of Israel in the land of promise. Last week we looked at how Joshua’s response to being in God’s presence was proper and fitting. He got down on his face and worshipped. We looked at how God promised victory in the battle of Jericho. How the only thing the Israelites had to do was worship. We talked about the devoted thing, or herem in Hebrew. How the entire city was to be devoted to God. The idea of herem was, as one author puts it, “more a state of being than an action”. It was to signify that there were things that were to be given over to God. It was a sign of the covenant relationship that the people of Israel had with God, and ultimately a sign of their dependence on him. No spoils were to be taken from Jericho that would entitle a person to profit from the God given victory, or imply that the victory was a result of human endeavour, and thus somehow deserved.
This is where things begin to go wrong for the Israelites in a serious way. Chapter 6 ends with “So the Lord was with Joshua; and his fame was in all the land.” This is followed by an ominous “But” – “But the Israelites broke faith in regard to the devoted things: Achan son of Carmi son of Zabdi of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things; and the anger of the Lord burned against the Israelites.” Just like we had in the Rahab story, we see expectations being subverted there. Remember when the Israelites met Rahab, a prostitute living in a land where they had been warned about the wickedness of the people there, they encountered someone who was not only proclaiming the sovereignty of God and the fact that God’s presence was with the people of Israel, but she was demonstrating God’s hesed – God’s steadfast love – in saving the lives of the two spies. She called on them to do the same, to demonstrate the same hesed in their own lives, a call that extends of course to us today.
In the person of Achan, we have someone who we might expect to be faithful to the covenant, the loving agreement that God has made with the people of Israel. Achan is an arch-Israelite after all – this is why the details of his lineage are put here – son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah of the tribe of Judah. His credentials are well established! Unfortunately, credentials alone are no guarantee that one is going to be faithful. We understand that all too well don’t we? I remember talking about lying at one point and our neighbour Christopher once talking about lying saying “Pastors don’t lie” and thinking “Oh gosh maybe we’d better qualify that somewhat…” and him seeing my look and he added “in church”! This was better I thought. Credentials alone are no guarantee of anything. In Rahab we have a Canaanite acting like an Israelite – acknowledging God’s sovereignty and presence. In Achan we have an Israelite acting like a Canaanite – like someone who does not know the God who has made himself known to the people of Israel. He took some of the devoted things. He fell short of what God expected. He missed the mark when it came to God’s design for how God’s people were to live in the land of promise. Stanley Grenz describes the essence of sin this way – “The biblical writers describe our human problem as “failure”… In its essential nature, ‘sin’ describes our inability, or even our set refusal, to fulfill God’s design for us. Simply stated, we ‘miss the mark’ and ‘fall short of God’s glory’.” The essence of how God designs us to live was summed up by Jesus when he quoted Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”(Matt 22:36-38) We have not been made to go through life on our own, trusting in our own adequacy. Trust me, says God. Depend on me, says God. Live in such a way that others can trust in you, can depend on you. We fail in this. We’re all too painfully aware of this. People fail us and we fail people and it makes trusting hard. We say “The only one I can depend on is myself.” Kierkegaard wrote that the sense of human adequacy is the primary barrier to faith. The belief in human autonomy. The temptation to put all our trust in things, in money, in systems, in knowledge – wherever we are tempted to put our trust.
For Achan this manifested itself in taking some of the devoted things. A beautiful mantle from Shinar. Two hundred shekels of silver. A bar of gold. What did he think? I’m going to need these at some point? I had a hand in this battle, I deserve to get something out of it? What was it for Achan that made it impossible for him to see his need to depend on and trust in God. This was the question we asked back in week 1 of this series. We looked at God’s command to be strong and courageous and how we see the same command in the Psalms bracketed by the command to wait on the Lord – to trust and depend on the Lord. We asked what makes it difficult for us to trust and depend on God. Often they’re not bad things in and of themselves, no more than the mantle or silver or gold in this story were. They can be gifts, talents, goods. What makes it difficult for us to know our need to trust and depend on God. What in our lives acts as a barrier to faith?
This is an important question not only for ourselves, but for our entire faith community. Often these things are hidden. For the Israelites this sin was hidden. Nobody knew about it. The stuff was under Achan’s tent. The effects were far reaching. Look at v 1 – it doesn’t say that Achan broke faith in regard to the devoted thing, it says the Israelites broke faith with the devoted thing. This is another reason that Achan’s lineage is spelled out – his failure to live up to the covenant God had made with Israel was not just something that affected him only. It affected his whole community. We were talking two weeks ago how one of the marks of the Israelite nation under Joshua as they were crossing the Jordan was their unity. Remember the references to “all Israel” in that story. Here, however, we see Joshua acting on his own (without any word from God) in sending men from Jericho to Ai to spy out the land. We see the men coming back and reporting “Not all the men need go up; about two or three thousand men should go up and attack Ai. Since they are so few, do not make the whole people toil up there.” The sense of human adequacy is the primary barrier to faith. I’ve got this God! No problem here! I’ve got this. I was saying not long ago that God doesn’t coerce. God is quite willing to let us say “I’ve got this.” To fall prey to those things that keep us from realizing our dependence on him. What does this look like for you? What are those things? I’ve often said for me I have to watch that I don’t approach Sunday morning with this kind of attitude. I’ve got this God. I’ve been trained how to exegete, how to put a service together. I need to come before God week after week saying “What would you have me do here, what would you have me say.” Human adequacy is the primary barrier to faith.
It’s been said that when it comes to sin, there are no degrees in terms of some being better or worse than others. When it comes to consequences, however, this is clearly not the case. Sometimes the consequences are a matter of life and death, as they were in our story this morning. Thirty-six men dead. In no case is sin a victimless crime or something that only affects the individual. We may like to think this in our highly individualized society but it just isn’t true. Stanley Grenz describes sin as the disruption of community. We believe we were created to live in a right and loving relationship with God and in a right and loving relationship with all of God’s creation. When we sin we miss the mark here. Here is how Grenz puts it:
“…sin entails an improper valuation. In sin, the self rather than God becomes our criterion of value. We may simply refuse to see ourselves as God’s good creation, or we may actually elevate the creation rather than the Creator as our sovereign. Sin’s improper valuation extends to human relations as well. Insofar as we erroneously view ourselves as either better than or less than others, our sin leads to broken relationships and the sense of personal insecurity or insignificance. Sin likewise affects the way we view the creation around us, as we see nature as having value insofar as it serves us.”
We know these things are true don’t we? We see the effects of sin all around us. We’ve seen the effects of our own sin. We know what it’s like to see ourselves as better or less than others. To view people as commodities. To view God’s creation in nature solely as a commodities.
Sin is serious. It’s pernicious. It can be hidden. Its effects are far reaching. What is the answer? The answer for Joshua in our story was to seek God’s presence at the ark. To get down on his face. This is a good start. He’s asking the wrong question though. Instead of “What have we done?” it’s “What have you done?” The problem with not keeping covenant is not with God. “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I imposed upon them. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have acted deceitfully, and they have put them among their own belongings. Therefore the Israelites are unable to stand before their enemies…” Their defeat was not the result of God’s unfaithfulness, but their own. God tells Joshua to stand up and take action.
Action is taken. Early in the morning Israel is brought forward tribe by tribe. The tribe of Judah is taken. From them the clan of the Zerahites is taken. From there the family of Zahri. When Zahri’s household is brought foreward Aachan is taken. Note that Joshua doesn’t condemn the man. “My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and make confession to him.” These are Joshua’s words. Aachan makes confession. The mantle, silver and gold are found under his tent. All Israel stoned him to death, they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised a great heap of stones that remain to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger. Therefore that place to this day is called the Valley of Achor, or trouble.
This is difficult stuff isn’t it? Why did his whole family have to die? Even the animals? Perhaps it has something to do with how seriously God takes sin. Perhaps it has something to do with the corporate nature of sin and its effects. I think though that when we’re looking at this story and considering how seriously God takes sin, we need to be looking at Jesus who didn’t condemn either. We need to be looking at Jesus who, when a crowd wanted to stone to death a woman who was caught in adultery told them “Let him who has no sin among you cast the first stone.” Jesus who even when he was being betrayed didn’t accuse, but asked a question. “Do you betray the son of man with a kiss?” Jesus who invites us to confess our sins. We need to take sin seriously too. I heard of someone in church once who didn’t like that the church prayed together, confessing their sins and asking God for forgiveness – even the pastor! Imagine. God took sin very seriously. He took it so seriously that he sent his son to bear the sin of the world. Imagine. No longer would it be about being stoned to death for sins. No longer should it be about worrying that God is going to strike us down with a bolt of lightning because of our sins. As Michael Knowles used to say in class, if you want to see God as someone waiting to throw a lightning bolt if you do something wrong, consider that he threw his lightning bolt, and it hit his son.
We need to take our sin seriously too. We need to examine ourselves. We all need to do this. There’s a spiritual discipline called the examen in which you look back on your day at the end of it. Part of this discipline is examining where we missed the mark that day. Recognizing it and asking for forgiveness. Recognizing that the hidden, the unaddressed sin can be poison in a faith community. It’s not about beating ourselves up. It’s about resting in God’s grace. Asking God to change us – to create in us clean hearts and renew right spirits within us. We need to take things like confession and absolution seriously. There’s a Lutheran pastor from Denver who I was listening to recently – Nadia Holz-Webber. She talks about how they do private confession in her tradition, and how the rite contains this beautiful question – “Do you believe that the word of forgivness that I’m about to proclaim comes from God?” We shouldn’t be afraid of the subject of sin. As Holz-Weber puts it – “It’s hard to know why the good news is so good unless we’re super clear on why the bad news is so bad… There is no reason to be ashamed about our jagged edges and the things we’ve done, because they are these spaces that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks. Why would we be ashamed of that?”
Friends in the light of God’s grace, we’re called not to a spirit of fear but a spirit of love and thanksgiving. We should talk sin in church. If we’re not going to talk about it here where are we going to talk about it? We need to cling to the promise that “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To fill in our cracks. For this may we always be thankful.