7. 'ůmy strength now is as my strength was thenů'
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
I often say that characters we find in Bible stories aren’t necessarily there to be moral examples for us. We’ve talked about some people who use out and out deception to achieve their ends - Tamar, Jacob, Rahab, the entire Gibeonite nation. Time after time we see characters who remind us that the Bible is not merely a set of morality tales. Occasionally though we come across someone who is a bastion of faithfulness. We have such a one today in the person of Caleb. In this story we have a picture of the 85 year old just completely gung ho to claim his portion of the land of promise. In Caleb we have an example of what it means to show initiative in light of what God has done, to be obedient to God’s voice and to possess what God has promised. Let us take a look at today’s story and hear what God has to say to our hearts.
When we last left the Israelites they had been tricked into making a treaty. The nearby Gibeonites had concocted a ruse by which they led the Israelites to believe they had travelled from a far country, and so it would be no problem to make a treaty with them. When the treaty was signed and the ruse found out, the Gibeonites became hewers of wood and drawers of water – servants not only to the Israelites but assuming a central role in service to God. In Joshua 10-12 we read about Joshua’s military conquests, as well as a list of the land yet to be conquered. It is at this point that the second part of the book of Joshua begins – the division of the land from chapter 13 to 22. These chapters are often overlooked because of their “listiness”, but there is important information to be learned about God even from the lists. The land is portioned out evenly by lot. As Jerome Creach puts it in his commentary on Joshua – “The distribution of land emphasizes that Canaan is apportioned for the good of all Israel, not just for a privileged few… The land allotments were to be an inheritance… land kept within families and passed on to future generations as a sign of relationship to the covenant-making God.” So even in the distribution of land we see that the idea of loving God and loving neighbour was inherent. What do these stories mean for us if it is our desire to follow Christ and dwell in the land of promise? What do these stories mean if we wish to claim God’s promises and live how God created us to live? To live in a right relationship with God and with one another - to be reconciled with God through the person of God’s son and filled with God’s Spirit. What does all this look like? What does it mean?
If we want to know what it looks like for us who follow Christ and want to know what it looks like to live in the Promised Land, we need look no further than Caleb. We hear him introduced as the son of Jeppuneh the Kenizzite – the son of a foreigner. As such he joins a list of people we encounter in the Promised Land who show a zeal for God and a faithfulness that we might not have expected. Even his name is no big harbinger of great things – it means “dog.” He’s a recurring character though. We first encounter Caleb in Numbers 13 where we have a list of the spies who are sent to scout Canaan out. Two of the spies are Joshua and Caleb. When the spies come back 10 of them say that the nation is faced with an impossible task. All of them except for Joshua and Caleb. Caleb tells the people “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” When the people of Israel complain about the giants that they’re going to encounter and are about to choose a new leader to take them back to Egypt, Moses and Aaron fall down on their face before the crowd, Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes and say “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land… do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us…” This is the same message we’ve been hearing from the beginning of the book of Joshua isn’t it? The Lord is with us. God is with us. Emmanuel- God with us, is with us!
For Caleb this meant a promise. The promise came from God in Numbers 14:24 - “But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.”
Here we have this great scene 45 years latter where 85 year old Caleb strides toward Joshua and says in v 6 “You know what the Lord said to Moses the man of God in Kadesh-barnea concerning you and me. I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land; and I brought him an honest report… And Moses swore on that day, saying ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholeheartedly followed the Lord my God.’”
This whole series has been called “Living in the Land of Promise”. We’ve been talking about what it means to cling to God’s promises. Promises of accompaniment. Promises of forgiveness. Promises of victory. Here we see Caleb and he’s been clinging on to this promise for many years. It’s been a long time coming hasn’t it? Caleb presents himself as living proof in v 10 “And now, as you see, the Lord has kept me alive, as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel was journeying through the wilderness; and here I am today, eighty-five years old.” How many of us have been following Christ for 85 years? How about 45? Isn’t it wonderful that our very lives can show that God is faithful to his promises? Let me speak to those of us for whom this is true for a few moments. How has God been faithful to his promises throughout your life? How is it that we can sing a hymn like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and know in our hearts that this is true because we’ve experienced it in your own life? How can we say, along with Caleb, “…and now as you can see…” because you are living proof that God is faithful, that when God makes a promise God keeps it? We need to tell these stories. We need to share these stories. Share these stories with those who’ve been following Christ for maybe less than 85 or 45 years. Share them with people who aren’t sure, with people who don’t know him, or don’t yet know that they’re his beloved children. Young people, ask the question. What has God meant in your life? How have you seen God being faithful to his promises in your life?
We need to share these stories. I think that’s partly why we’ve been handed so much of God’s word in story form. We’re not meant to do this Christ following on our own. Our following Christ finds its fullest expression in a community of faith. We figure out together what that community needs to look like. Surely some of this must be the sharing of our stories. The sharing of what God has done in our lives, the way he has filled in our cracks, without fear of condemnation or judgement. Often the gap between the promise and the fulfillment of the promise is long. For Caleb it was 45 years. Forty years of wilderness wandering and five more after the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River.
For Caleb, God was a God who sustained. “I am still as strong today as I was on the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war, and for going and coming.” I read this line and I think of what we read in Deuteronomy 28:6 about being blessed – “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” The Psalmist writes something similar – “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:8) For Caleb it seems that physical strength was a factor for him. There is war to be made on a quite literal level, after all. It’s not always about physical strength though. Remember when we looked at chapter 1 of Joshua and talked about what it looked like to be strong and courageous. We talked about how these were commands to trust in and depend on God. We talked about how being strong and of good courage meant waiting on the Lord in all the different ways that we do that. “I’m as strong now as I ever was,” Caleb is saying. “For my going and coming” – in other words for all that is involved in life. For war. We talked about the fall of Jericho and about God fighting our battles and of Christ who fought for us not against people but against the powers and principalities. Neither is our fight against people but against the same powers and principalities. The fitting and proper response to Christ who fights for us is worship. All of life worship. Presenting ourselves as living sacrifices holy and acceptable to God. What does this mean? We see it lived out in Caleb. Having the strength and the courage to remain faithful no matter what our circumstances. Having the strength and the courage to be thankful for all things, in all things to make our prayers and supplications known to God because he is near, because he has promised to be with us, just as he was with Joshua. Just as he was with Caleb. “I am still as strong today as I was on the day that Moses sent me; my strength now I as my strength was then, for war, and for going and coming.” For anything this life holds. I was talking recently about how we need to read these stories as if we were in the middle of them. It’s hard as we know how they turn out. When we read these stories we must always remember that the characters are living in them – just as we live in our own stories. What happens next is as unknown to them as what happens next is unknown to us. They face the vicissitudes of life just as we do. In Caleb we see someone who is acknowledging that he’s still alive because of God. That his zeal for God continues unabated no matter what life brings. That his desire to know God and to seek God is as strong as it ever was.
All of this causes Caleb to take initiative. Look at what he asks for. “So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day; for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; it may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out, as the Lord said.” Who were these Anakim he’s talking about? They’re a bunch of giants who lived in the southern section of Canaan. Caleb is referring back to the report of his fellow spies in Numbers 13 who reported “Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of the Anak there.” The Anakim. Caleb says “Give me that section!” Note Caleb’s uncertainty too – “It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out, as the Lord said.” Caleb is living in the middle of the story and he doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out. He’s willing to step out in faith and trust God who has shown himself to be trustworthy. I love that line. It reminds me of Mordecai, Esther’s uncle. When he’s telling his niece that she needs to take action or her people living in Persia will be killed, he says – “Do you not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise from the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Who knows? How much can we identify with that statement? We live in the unknown too don’t we? Who knows…
Who knows? God only knows. Can we trust him? Has he proven himself trustworthy to us? Where is God asking us to step out? Where is God asking us to go where it might look impossible? Where if it were all and only up to us it would be impossible? Next week we’re having a service to recognize the Out of the Cold ministry that’s been going on here for 21 years. Who knew what that would be like 21 years ago, as you waited for guests to arrive. Wondering if anyone would show up. Wondering about security. How much did that look like this land full of Anakim about which Caleb is saying “Let me go up there!” If it were all down to us would that ministry have been going for as long as it has? We need to remember there’s a third person in this struggle, just as Joshua was reminded when he encountered the man with the sword before Jericho. Just like Caleb knew. We looked at Flemington Public School and said “Let us go up there.” We didn’t know who might help us. We didn’t know how we might get the word out. We didn’t know if any children would come. Three days before the camp a young man is shot in the school yard. It may be that the Lord will be with us. Five years later and how many children have come through that camp. How many people have had the chance to take a week out of their lives and be formed and changed by it? Where is God calling us to step out – either as individuals or as a community of faith? Where is God asking us to step out into the unknown?
It’s important that we’re doing this. It’s important that we’re listening for God’s voice. It’s important that we be like Caleb. That we be obedient. We may chafe at that word. It may conjure up negative images. There’s a book called Compassion by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison. They say this about obedience – “The word obedience very often evokes in us many negative feelings and ideas. We think of someone with power giving orders to another without it. We think of orders we follow only because we cannot refuse. We think of doing things others say are good for us but the value of which we do not directly see.” When it comes to being obedient to God, it is all about listening to God’s voice. Did you know that at its root to be obedient means to listen? It’s the same thing in Hebrew and Greek. Latin too. Listen. Listen to the Father. “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.” “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went to a lonely place and prayed there.” How’s our listening? It can be difficult. Finding the time is difficult. There is so much to distract us. It’s vital. Here’s the thing. When we’re talking about living in the land of promises and claiming God’s promises in our own lives, the extent of their fulfillment will occur only as far as the extent of our response. Look at the promise here – “Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholeheartedly followed the Lord my God.” The foot has to tread. What’s our part here? Obedience. Listening for our Father’s voice. We’ve talked about some of the promises – God’s presence. Come to me all you who labour and I will give you rest. My peace I give you. If we desire to live in the land of promise and make these promises our own, they will be fulfilled to the extent that we are open to listening to our Father’s voice.
Caleb did this. He took the initiative. He stepped out in faith. He was obedient. He listened. What was the result? “And the land had rest from war.” The promised rest. We’re not there yet. We get a foretaste of it though don’t we? We need it, don’t we? The promise of rest. Of peace. It’s not just me is it? There are lasting consequences to being like Caleb too. In the next chapter we read about Caleb’s daughter being given to Othniel in marriage. We read about Othniel in the book of Judges. He becomes Israel’s first judge. The land will have rest for 40 years under him. There are lasting consequences, you see, when we are listening for our Father’s voice. Be like Caleb. God grant that this may be true for each of us.