THE BATTLE OF JERICHO
This morning is a challenge. Today we begin our four-week stewardship campaign leading up to November 11 when we consecrate our financial pledges for the year 2002 to God. But that is not the challenge. We try to make the stewardship campaign here fun. You won't hear me talking about money every week because people who need to hear that message know it's stewardship time and they stay home. So I like to spring most of the hard messages about money for other times of the year when nobody expects it. We won't ignore money during stewardship...to do that is spiritual malpractice. But it won't be our sole focus.
The challenge for this morning comes in introducing the theme for our campaign this year, which comes from the story of Joshua's battle at Jericho. This story has been a perennial Sunday School favorite, but that's the cleaned up version. The complete story poses so many problems for modern sensibilities that it is almost never mentioned in church. The lectionary, the book that gives pastors of many denominations a three year list of suggested verses for preaching, never uses it. Walter Brueggemann, my favorite Old Testament commentator, steers clear of it in his sweep of Old Testament theology. Why? Because it is violent, violence done in the name of God.
The Hebrew people, if you remember, had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years when God called to Moses and told him to go get them out. God promises to bring them to the Promised Land, which is the land that God had given to Abraham many centuries before...more or less the current area of Israel. The problem is that the Promised land was not vacant, Abraham was able to co-exist with and even honor the people he found there. But in the intervening thousand years, famine drove Abraham's descendants out of the land of Canaan and down to Egypt where they were first accepted and then made into slaves.
When the slaves came back, the climate had changed. Now Canaan was occupied by a collection of pagan tribes, loosely called Canaanites, although there were a number of different tribal names. Practices had grown up in Canaanite religion that were an abomination even to other pagan cultures of the time...child sacrifice and cult prostitution in particular. Israel could not co-exist with such practices and remain true to God. So they came to Canaan, not to settle in as the new kids on the block, but to conquer.
Moses gets the people out of Egypt and across the Sinai desert that lay between Egypt and the Promised Land. He dies on Mt. Nebo, just outside of Canaan, passing the task of leading the people to Joshua. Joshua takes over and leads the people in what Biblical scholars call "The Conquest"...Israel taking over the land of Canaan. Jericho is target city number one on the list. The takeover is brutal as the Israelites sack and burn cities and kill all the inhabitants, claiming that this is God's command. Their reputation is so fearsome that some of the cities simply surrender when they see the army coming. You can see why nobody preaches this stuff...at least not in this day and age. Well, welcome to Anne's world, where we pick stuff like this as the theme for a stewardship campaign. Someday, maybe I'll learn.
The trouble is, there is some really good stuff here, if we can manage to get beyond the violence. Getting beyond the violence is tremendously hard, but it is critical if we are to get through our current crisis with integrity. Current acts of violence against Arabs and Muslims, are a direct result of not being able to get beyond the horrible violence of Sept. 11. As horrific as that was and as heretical as it was to do it in God's name, we are not going to find peace on earth until we can get beyond the fact of the violence and ask some larger questions.
For the sake of peace both now and in the future, we need desperately to understand why a very large percentage of the world hates or at least is deeply suspicious of America. While condemning the method, we still have to try with all we have to listen to the rage and hurt underneath. We have to be open to the possibility that a terrorist cause might be rooted in issues of justice, even though their methods are evil. Our anger at the brutality of the attacks is justified and normal. But if we just keep reading that part of the story and shutting the book in rage and disgust, we will soon become as full of hatred and rage as they. Hard as it is, we have to put it to an honored place on the side and keep reading the story.
Wrestling with the violence in the story of Jericho is the exact struggle we have in our current situation. Today we find suicide attacks and anthrax deliveries barbaric and unfathomable. Ancient Israel looked at the Canaanite practices of child sacrifice and cult prostitution and thought the same. The image of a fiery hell actually has its historical roots in the Canaanite valley of Hinnom where children were thrown into the fire as a sacrifice to the gods. As I mentioned, the Canaanites were considered barbaric even by the other pagan nations of the area, and we don't see other nations rushing to their aid as Israel marches into their cities.
But were they right to use violence? The question is timeless. As much as we believe terrorism must be stopped, as much as we are enraged at the images of September 11, we all cringe when Afghani civilians are killed, when thousands upon thousands of Afghans flee their homes and have nowhere to go. Is violence the only way for us to respond? Are we doing the right thing? I don't know. I don't know the answer as it relates to our current situation and I don't know the answer as it relates to Jericho. But I do know that if we can set that question aside for a little while, there is a deeper lesson that Jericho has to teach us. Come with me into uncharted territory if you can.
While I think much of the Old Testament is rooted in history, I believe that the history of God's people is also symbolic. I believe, for instance, that the liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt by Moses really happened, but I also believe that historical event was symbolic of larger things, specifically our liberation from sin through Jesus Christ. It's like God has been showing in history the spiritual truths of the Kingdom of God. I think the same thing about Jericho. It is history, but it is also symbolic of a larger truth.
The purpose of the Conquest was two-fold...to give God's people a home, and to remove a people whose practices were abominable to God. On a spiritual plane, I think this symbolizes just what is needed after liberation. Moses freed the slaves, who then needed a place to go and help to get there. Jesus frees us from bondage to sin. By ourselves we will never make it through the desert and will fall into sin again and again, but with God's help we can get through the rough times and find a better life. I believe that once we have trusted in God to help us out of a life of sin, God will help us to a life that is more happy and secure...in Biblical terms... "a land flowing with milk and honey."
The trouble is, the land is already occupied. The land, you see, is us.. It is our own lives that are to be transformed from the slavery of Egypt to the milk and honey of the promised land, but when we first look, sin is still living in us. God commands us to conquer...to root out every last bit of sin that is keeping us from inhabiting our promised land. God promises to be with us in the effort and to help us, but God doesn't do all the work for us. We must join with God in the effort. We must conquer each stronghold one by one and completely destroy any vestige of sin within it. Only then, with the desire for sin completely gone, will we be able to inhabit a promised land where we can control our sin rather than our sin controlling us.
I think that is the deeper meaning of the Conquest. I think it sits in Scripture to remind us that we have a spiritual conquest ahead of us. God commands us to conquer sin in our lives and gives us the help to do it against all odds. So when we want to see more closely how that is done, we turn to the city that models it all...Jericho, the first city on Joshua's list of targets.
We see from the story of Jericho that the hard part of conquering an ancient city is the walls. Jericho is surrounded by huge, thick walls. The walls were so thick that people actually built homes inside them. A bunch of ex-slaves who have been wandering in the desert for 40 years don't have much in the way of resources to knock those walls down. It is beyond their ability and God knows it. Part of the good news of Jericho is that when something is truly beyond our ability, God will take care of it for us. But still, the people participate. They do what God tells them to do with the walls...march around them for seven days and then shout. And the walls came tumblin' down. With the walls down, taking the city is easy.
This is also a spiritual truth. There are walls that block our ability to conquer sin in our lives, walls that keep us from fully inhabiting the promised land that God has for us. Many of those walls are too big for us to pull down on our own. We need God's help and power to bring them down, even if we were the ones who built the walls in the first place. We have built walls to keep others out; we have built walls to hide behind; we have built walls to protect things that really don't belong to us. For us to find peace, the walls have to come down.
For the next four weeks, we're going to look at different kinds of walls that keep us from living the abundant life that God has promised to us. As we do that, we're going to build a wall across the chancel, week by week, brick by brick. Then, on November 11, the wall will come tumblin' down with God's help and our faithful response.
I hope this analogy makes some sense to you. To me, it's the way that I look at the entire New Testament, as a sort of an object lesson for the spiritual truths that we live with for all time. I think it's God's way of showing us how the universe operates and how our spiritual lives need to be conducted.
On the bricks that you will see appearing next week to build the wall, we want to write things that create walls. It can be anything, either specific or general. It may be things that represent walls you have made, maybe walls that you have run up against. We will write those words and phrases on the bricks, and as the wall goes up you will see the kinds of things that help create those walls.
(c) 2001, Anne Robertson
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