Sermon for Sabbath, February 25, 2017
At Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Joshua was God’s man. No doubt about it. Moses, the famous leader of the Hebrew people, the invincible leader who had led them out of slavery in Egypt and had managed this horde of uncivilized former slaves for forty years had died. Joshua was the new leader, the new chief.
The succession had been announced by Moses before he died, and now God confirmed it by appearing to Joshua. God appeared to Joshua and announced, “I was with Moses. I will be with you. Moses got the people out of Egypt. You are going to get them into the Promised Land. Moses brought them across the Red Sea. You will take them across the Jordan River.” God ended his encounter with Joshua with these words:
Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
It’s hard to imagine a more rousing affirmation than this.
Joshua sent two spies across the Jordan River to check out the country ahead. In the city of Jericho they were suspected and would have been arrested except for the quick thinking of an inn-keeper named Rahab. She hid them from the police and told them that the entire population was quaking in fear. According to Rahab, everybody knew that God had promised to give the Hebrews the entire land, that God was on the side of the Hebrews. And everybody had heard about the victories the Hebrews had achieved in their fights with the Egyptians and several other nations. They appeared to be unstoppable. Rahab’s own protection of the spies was motivated, at least in part, by her desire to win favor with the invaders. Look, she said, I’ve saved you life, now you save mine. And the spies agreed to do so.
When they finally made it back to Joshua, the spies reported.
The LORD has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us.” Joshua 2:24
Joshua must have been pretty pleased to hear this. It’s one thing to have a high opinion of our own calling. It is something else when others, especially our enemies, confirm that God is with us, that God is on our side.
Some days later, on the morning the Hebrews were going to cross the Jordan River and enter the land of Palestine proper on the other side, God appeared to Joshua and gave this reassurance:
Today, I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Joshua 3:7
It was a dramatic day. The massive crowd of Hebrews marched down to the bank of the Jordan River. At their head were priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant. The priests carried the sacred box down the slope toward the water. The river rolled on in front of them, in spring flood.
The priests finally reached the water and stepped in. At that moment the water from upstream stopped and the water began dropping away downstream. This kept on until the river bed presented a bare, gravel path to Palestine.
The people poured across and began setting up camp on the other side. Joshua set up a monument to commemorate this incredible event.
The Bible offers this summary statement.
On that day the LORD magnified Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared Moses, all the days of his life. Joshua 4:14
I guess so! Moses opened the Red Sea. Joshua opened the Jordan River. Clearly, God was with Joshua. He was God’s “new man.”
News of the crossing raced through the land. The local people had been following the progress of the Hebrews for four decades, ever since they escaped Egypt. Those wild people out there in the desert were a threat. What if they came toward Palestine? In recent months that potential hazard had suddenly become an acute risk. The distant threat became an immediate danger. These wild desert people were now on the wrong side of the river, on the Palestine side. Chapter Five begins:
Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites. Joshua 5:1
The Israelites were unstoppable. For the Canaanites, the future was dark. The Israelites were on a roll. And God was on their side. And Joshua was God’s man.
While Israel was camped there on the west side of the Jordan, Joshua headed out of camp for a walk down by the river. At some point on the walk he suddenly finds himself face to face with a stranger, raised sword in his hand.
I imagine Joshua’s hand finding the hilt of his own sword. “Whose side are you on?” Joshua demands. “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
It’s a scene right out of the Prince’s Bride. I couldn’t help myself. As I pictured this scene this week I kept hearing, “My name is Inigo Montoya . . . Prepare to die!”
I wait to see Joshua whip out his sword and launch into a fierce duel.
But it doesn’t happen.
“Whose side are you on? Are you for us or for our enemies?”
Neither?????? How can that be? Everyone has heard about the advance of the Hebrews. Everyone knows that all of Palestine is living in dread of these wild desert people. You are either with them or agin’ em. There are only two sides. It’s us versus them. Whose side are you on?
“I am not on anybody’s side. I am the commander of the army of heaven.”
Joshua’s hand fell away from his sword. He bowed himself to the ground. “I am at your service, Sir. What word do you have for me?”
Take your shoes off. The ground you’re on is holy ground.
Joshua removed his shoes.
Note the change of posture.
When Joshua first encountered the stranger, he was full of swagger and bluster. He imagined himself as the greatest, ready to take on every challenge, every challenger.
When Joshua realized who he was talking to, when he encountered God, he bowed.
His language changes. Instead of issuing a challenge, he now voices readiness to accept direction.
This kind of transformation is the mark of direct encounters with God. Meeting God changes us. It creates humility. It creates a readiness to listen.
Again, I want to emphasize, Joshua’s idea that his world could be neatly divided into two sides—our side and the enemies’—and that God was on his side . . . this was perfectly natural, and it was wrong.
It shows up repeatedly in the history of Israel. It even showed up among the disciples in Jesus’ day.
Once the disciple John reported to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name. But he wasn’t part of our organization, so we told him to stop. That was the right thing to tell him, right?”
Adventists believe that one of our founders, a woman named Ellen White, had a prophetic gift. We believe God spoke through her. This is wonderful. Unfortunately, fundamentalists among us have fallen into Joshua’s error imagining that the spiritual realm can be divided into two camps—friends of Ellen White and enemies. The current international president even went so far as to urge Adventist universities to invite only friends of Ellen White to speak on their campuses. (A position he has backed away from at least tacitly)
The most famous Christian story of an encounter with God is the story of Saul who became Paul. He was a young zealous conservative scholar on a crusade to protect his people from heresy. The purity of Jewish identity was being threatened by a new community that formed around the disciples of a rabbi named Jesus. This new community included non-Jews, Romans, Ethiopians, Syrians, Spaniards, etc.
Saul did everything he could to exterminate this new people. When he had managed to rid Jerusalem of the last public evidences of the community—forcing them into exile or hiding—he asked for authorization to go after the Christians up in Syria. Authorization granted, he headed off with a team to Damascus.
He was on the outskirts of Damascus when God interrupted him. A blinding light stopped him in his tracks.
Who are you?
I am Jesus. The one you have been persecuting.
Saul, the Christian killer, became Paul, the Christian evangelist.
Saul switched sides.
It is generally not a good idea to ask God, are you on our side? You don’t really want God on your side. If God is on anyone’s side, the Bible is uniform in naming God’s side: God is on the side of the loser.
The Bible never says God is on the side of the rich, the successful, the comfortable.
God is not on the side of the rich. And we are rich.
God is not in the side of America. And we are Americans.
God is not on the side of white people. And we are white.
God is not on the side of the powerful. And we are powerful.
God is on the side of foreigners and the lowly and downtrodden, the poor and sick, the blind and lame, the widow and orphan—or in our culture, the single mother abandoned by her children’s father.
When we encounter God, the wise response is to bow and ask, What word do you have for me? First God will invite us to remove our shoes. To spend some time being touched, shaped, purified, invigorated by the divine presence. Then God will send us to act as his agents in helping the world take one more step in the right direction.