8. United by God
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Transitions. Transitions signal a change from one position or state to another, it is the end of something and the beginning of something different. We all go through various transitions in our life. Some of us have children who will be going to universities and moving out. We might be transitioning from different age groups – from babyhood to childhood, from childhood to teenage years, from being a teenager to adulthood, from adulthood to senior years, from being a young senior to an older senior. Some of us transitioning in our new jobs and still finding our way around or some of us leaving our jobs or businesses and some of us are retiring. Maybe we cannot live on our own anymore and we are looking for a retirement home. We might have lost a spouse, a child, or other loved one or we just got married or expecting a child. Or we might be empty nesters. We might be immigrants and still finding our way around. Maybe we had a surgery and on our way to recovery and have to change our lifestyle. I have no doubt that all of us can think of at least one transition that we have been through lately or we are going through right now. No matter what the transition is, there will be some gain and some loss in the life of a person or community who is going through transition.
The same happened with the Eastern tribes, (the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh) who are also called Transjordan tribes; they were going through a transition. They were finally coming home to their families whom they have not seen for a while. This is their high point, they will be united with their loved ones. They are excited for they will see their spouses, their children, siblings, relatives, friends… The low part is, they were leaving 9 ½ tribes behind on the other side of Jordan. They fought the battles together as they conquered Canaan, and now they will not see them for a while.
I can understand what they might be feeling as I felt similarly when I went through a transition. I left my friends, my grandparents and other family members in Lithuania and was immigrating to Canada where my mother lived. I was sad that I will not see my relatives for a while unless I visit them but I was excited for I will meet my mother again and I will live in Canada.
The Eastern tribes are returning home. We know from Numbers 32 that the Eastern tribes asked Moses and Eleazar the priest for an inheritance on the East side of Jordan. The Reubenites, the Gadites and half-tribe of Manasseh promised Moses that they will not return home unless the Israelites received their inheritance as God promised them. We also know from Joshua 1:12-15 that Joshua reminded the Eastern tribes their promise to Moses. Now, the land is conquered and divided among the Israelites. So now, Joshua releases the Eastern tribes from their service and their obligation. They are free to go home!
Before the Eastern tribes left, Joshua summoned them and told them that they carried out God’s given mission to them. They have done everything that Moses commanded them and also they obeyed all that Joshua commanded them. Now they can return home but they must keep the commandment and the law given to them through Moses. They must love the LORD their God, their Yahweh, walk in all His ways; serve Him with all their hearts and all their souls.
Actually, Joshua’s words remind us of two Jesus’ greatest commandments “To love God with all our heart with all our mind and soul and love our neighbour as ourselves”. We will come back to these Jesus’ words later.
The Eastern tribes took Joshua’s words seriously and went home. Yet on the way home near the region of Jordan they build an altar of a great and imposing size.
Right after they built the altar, in verse 11 we see that the Israelites heard what the Eastern tribes did. It does not say how long it took for the Israelites to spread the word, to spread the rumours regarding what the Eastern tribes did. We know that there were no emails, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram... then. In spite of absence of media and electronic devices, the word spread like a wild fire. The Reubenites, the Gadites and half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar!!! How can they do it when Joshua asked them to be faithful to Yahweh! They were supposed to obey God’s commandments!!!
We might think today what is the big deal about the altar? It is just an altar, even if it is an imposing one. Although biblical altars convey many meanings, the dominant meaning of an altar is always the place of slaughter, the place of blood sacrifice. This is because the Hebrew word for altar is “mizbeah” that comes from the Hebrew word of “zabah” which means “slaughter”. Besides, during that time the blood sacrifice could only be done in one place, the altar of God.
As the rumours spread, the Israelites believed that the Eastern tribes sinned. They assumed that the Eastern tribes turned away from God. If that was the case, then they might be doomed. The Israelites still could remember what happened to Achan, and few weeks ago Pastor David preached about Achan’s sin and his punishment in Joshua 7. The Israelites were afraid that God’s wrath would fall upon all of them because of what the Eastern tribes did. So, the Israelites decided to wage a war against them.
Have we ever been in a situation like the Israelites? Did we ever assume that somebody is guilty without confronting them? Were we part of any rumours or maybe we even started one? Did we or our loved ones were ever wrongfully accused? I have been in a situation like this.
I will call the person Mrs. X. She improperly remembered what my sister told her about me 10 years ago. Then, two years ago, Mrs. X accused me with all kinds of wrong and started to spread rumours. Sadly, it was all lies and distortions of a situation. The point is her rumours truly hurt me. I tried to explain to her the truth. Also, I told her that I forgive her for all the lies that she spread, but her response was that she does not need my forgiveness. The war on her side was waged on.
I am glad that this was not the situation with the Israelites. Even if it started as a rumour, before they waged a war, the Israelites decided to give the benefit of the doubt why the Eastern tribes built an altar. They decided to find out the true reason. So, the Israelites sent Phinebas with the 10 chiefs to the land where the Eastern tribes lived. They did not choose just anyone to go to the Eastern tribes; they strategically sent Phinebas with the 10 chiefs. Phinebas was the son of Eleazar, the grandson of Aaron, Moses brother. Now, Phinebas being the head of this expedition shows that the situation is more religious than political. Nonetheless, the 10 chief men that he brought along were the highest-ranking people in the tribes of Israel. They were the heads of each tribe, so they would be like the provincial premiers in Canada or like the state governors in the United States. This was a very serious matter.
When Phinebas with the 10 chiefs came to Gilead, the first thing that they said to the Eastern tribe is “What is the treachery you committed against the God of Israel?” This was the question that was burning in their hearts. They are accusing the Eastern tribes of committing a violation against God by turning away from Yahweh by building an altar. They saw the building of an altar as rebellion against Yahweh.
The Eastern tribes respond to Phinebas and the 10 chiefs but they respond by addressing God, Yahweh, first. They say twice “The Lord, God of Gods. The Lord, God of Gods.” What a great way to give an answer to anybody when we are being accused of something that we are not guilty of. We address God first, for He knows the truth, He knows our hearts.
Only after the Eastern tribes address Yahweh and say that God knows the true reason why they built an altar, only then did they addressed Phinebas and the 10 chiefs. They respond by using the same words the Israelites accused them of in vs. 16; if they built an altar in rebellion or in breach of faith against the Lord, then they should not be spared. They are basically putting a self-curse upon themselves to prove their innocence. The Eastern tribes say that Yahweh can call them accountable and take vengeance upon them if they built an altar to turn away from God. I wonder if any of us would do today what the Eastern tribes did? Would we be bold enough to call upon the Lord and say to Him, judge us and punish us if we are guilty of wrongdoing? We know that we live under grace today but we also know that God is our Ultimate Judge!
The Eastern tribes say to the Israelites “NO”, we are not guilty of what we have been accused of. We are not guilty by offering burnt, grain or well-being offerings on the altar that we built. We will continue to present our offerings on the altar of God. We did not turn away from following Yahweh.
The Eastern tribes are saying to these leaders that they did not act in rebellion to God; however, they built an altar for a different reason. Their reason was fear and anxiety.
The Eastern tribes were worried about their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were concerned that the future generations of the Israelites could convey to their offspring that they are not connected to the Lord. Moreover, they were anxious that they would stop revering Yahweh and stop worshiping Him. This is the reason why the altar was built. The altar is supposed to serve as a witness between the Israelites and the Eastern Tribes and between their descendants that all of them serve the same God. They did it for the purpose of unity!
What a misunderstanding! The Israelites feared that the altar was built because of an infidelity to Yahweh, their God, while the Eastern tribes built an altar in order to prevent infidelity. If Phinebas and the 10 chiefs did not clarify why the Eastern tribes did what they did, a war would have been waged. Thanks God for the wisdom of the leaders; the war was averted and Phinebas with the 10 chiefs returned to the Israelites and shared the good news; their brothers did not sin and did not rebel against Yahweh.
The Eastern tribes built an altar for the purpose of unity, how about us? What are we doing for the sake of unity?
We know that the main subject in the Bible is God, and God is the central focus in this chapter because Yahweh is mentioned 36 times in 34 verses. The Israelites and the Eastern tribes were united by Yahweh. Today, all of us, Christians, are united by Jesus Christ. The Bible is clear that Jesus is the head of the church, and we, the church, are his body. This truth is with us no matter what kind of transitions we face. This truth unites us as the followers of Christ. God has extended this to us through Christ. Jesus does not see us as Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Anglicans, and the list of the divisions of the church can go on. Jesus sees us united with Him as one body.
So why do we at times not feel as united? Actually it has to do with our hearts.
Yahweh commanded the Israelites to love their God with all their hearts and all their souls and walk in His ways. Jesus, the head of the church, gives us the same commandment and now I would like to come back to it. Luke 10:27 says, we must “love God with all our heart with all our mind and soul and love our neighbour as ourselves”.
He gives us this commandment but do we obey it? If we do not like what our neighbour did, do we spread rumours about them or we show them love? Don’t be surprised but these things could happen in church too. Do we truly love others and genuinely care for them or we smile to their faces and then turn around and talk about them? Did you see what that person wore to church? Did you know what she or he said? And we start to gossip, and spread rumours about people. My dear brothers and sisters this is not love. We love our neighbour by being kind and caring and always giving them the benefit of a doubt.
We must also keep in mind that our neighbour is not only our brother or sister in Christ. Our neighbour can be a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu…and you fill in the blank who is your neighbour.
When we love our neighbour, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a should be our model regarding what love is and how to love others, “4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
How many of us can truly say to our Lord Jesus, I love my neighbour with this kind of love? I know that I cannot. I wish and pray that I could love others with this kind of love that Paul spoke about to the Corinthians. However, we do not have the perfect love that God has. Only through His grace, He can empower us to love others with this kind of love through His Spirit.
We can ask God to help us to love our neighbour with this kind of love. Often we do not know the whole story or situation but we are quick to make conclusions especially when we only see the end result. We are too quick to judge. However, Phinebas and the 10 chief men serve us an example of what we should do. They were sure that the Eastern tribes were guilty; they had an altar to prove it. Nonetheless, before waging the war against them, they first went to the Eastern tribes to find out why they behaved this way. We should do the same. If somebody hurt us or we heard some rumors, we do not spread the rumors but we talk to the people involved in the situation as Matthew 18 teaches us.
The Eastern tribes fulfilled their God’s given mission to them. We have a mission too given by our Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew 28:19-20 says, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Sometimes we are afraid to go and share Jesus with others because we might think that we have to stand in the streets and talk to strangers about Jesus. However, that is not the only way to be God’s disciple. Not all of us are called to be evangelists or pastors but all of us are called to obey Jesus’ commandments. God has given us different spiritual gifts and we disciple others by exercising those gifts.
However, we cannot be disciples of Jesus unless we accept Him as our Savior. If some of you have not given your life to Jesus because you have some doubts, please speak to me or Pastor David or Pastor Abby or any of our deacons after the service. But if we are followers of Christ, we can start by being Jesus’ disciples by doing simple acts of kindness to our neighbour. We can greet them with a smile, ask them how their day was and listen attentively to their stories. We can rake the leaves or shovel the snow of our elderly neighbour, or we can bake a pie or cookies and take it to our neighbours. We can spread God’s love by being God’s ambassadors here on earth with simple actions of love.
The Israelites and the Eastern Tribes were united by Yahweh. We, the church, are united as the body of Christ by our head Jesus Christ. Let us be careful the words we say about each other and always err for one’s good and not evil. Let us love our neighbour as ourselves and do to others what we would like them to do to us.
Let us remember 1 Cor. 12:24b-27 as we walk in unity, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”