October 15th, 2018

What God Wants

God wants to be known, not understood.

Joshua 7:1-15

Not enough patience

When I went out to get the paper before church a few weeks ago on a Sunday morning, I met a neighbor I’ve never met before even though we’ve lived three doors apart for almost twenty years. Michael was out walking his little white dog (whose name is “White Dog”). Michael walks almost every morning with a man named Bill, who lives one street over. Bill is 88 and walks a mile every morning unless it rains.

Bill moved here about a year ago and lives down the street from his son. He used to go to church all the time, but now that he doesn’t drive he can’t get there. Since that day, someone has brought Bill to Corinth every Sunday. On the mornings Michael’s not able to walk with him, Bill walks with our men’s exercise group.

Bill has had both pain and blessing in his life, but he’s always so positive. “I only remember the good stuff,” he tells me. He’s outlived two wives, and has only good things to say about them. He brags on his son Don, who’s actually a stepson from his first marriage, and how well Don looks after him. He says Don won’t do things for Bill that he can do for himself. Don often tells Bill, “Hurry up!”

Bill likes to stay busy. So after his morning walk he rides a motorized scooter 100 yards up the hill to Don’s workshop. There Bill spends his days with a scroll saw, cutting patterns from plywood. He’s given dozens away, including several to me that I passed on to some guys from Exodus Homes that I hired to help me with one of my projects.

Bill said he was talking to Don once about his pattern cutting, and Don said, “I could do that.” Bill answered, “No, you couldn’t.” Don said, “Yes, I could.” Bill said, “No, you couldn’t. You haven’t got the patience.” Don paused and said, “You’re right.”

“You haven’t got the patience.” I’ll return to Bill’s story later in the sermon, but for now I want to invite you to turn to a biblical story about patience in Joshua 7.

“We got this”

Last week we studied the fall of Jericho, the first major battle when Israel entered Canaan. The way the narrator told the story, the battle itself was almost anti-climactic. It’s not that Israel didn’t have to fight. They did, but the battle was quick and decisive after the walls of Jericho fell down. This was only the latest example of the way the story plays out in the first six chapters of Joshua. The transition from Moses’ leadership to Joshua’s has been seamless. God is working miracles through Joshua, like the crossing of the Jordan and the crumbling of Jericho’s walls. Chapter 6 ends, “So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.”

Precisely because everything has been going so well, the first word of Joshua 7 is startling: “But….” If you paused right there, you’d wonder what was the “But….”

“But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things.” The “devoted things” refer to the fact that everything in the city belonged to God. Precious and practical metals (gold, silver, iron, and bronze) were to be set aside for God’s use. Everything else was to be burned as a sacrifice. Last week we wrestled with the most difficult issue in Joshua – people as “devoted things” – but don’t forget we’re also talking about furniture, tools, clothing, food, decorations, and more. The Israelites are just setting up homes in their new place, and everything you could find in a Walmart was to be destroyed even though they might have found it useful.

So the “But” is about disobedience, and immediately the narrator gives us the name of the primary guilty party. “Achan” literally means “Trouble.” He is double trouble for Israel, as we’ll soon see – costing them not only time but defeat and despair. But notice in verse 1 that God is not just angry with Trouble; his “anger burned against Israel” (emphasis added). You the reader know this; Joshua and the people do not.

On the heels of their victory over Jericho, Joshua thinks he hears God’s voice saying, “Hurry up!” The text doesn’t say that, but it implies it. Joshua now believes he has the blueprint for success in the conquest, so he does what he’s done before. He sends spies to the next logical strategic city, a place called Ai in the hill country west of Jericho. We’re not sure exactly where Ai was, but the narrator places it near two other cities that are more certain, so it seems Joshua is thinking about the key trade routes.

The spies return with a good report. Ai will be much easier for Joshua’s army to take than Jericho was. The town is so small and the defenses will be easy to overcome (3). With Jericho the Israelites sent their entire fighting force. This time they’ll need only 2 or 3 military units. Ai was about 15 miles away, and the spies assured Joshua that there was no need to “weary” the whole army. “Let’s not wear our fighters out.” So three military units set out to take Ai while the others rest and wait (4).

I realize it’s an argument from silence, but I just want to point out in this “Hurry up!” strategy that unlike Jericho there’s no instruction from God, no prayer, no ark of the covenant with them, no priests, no shofars. There’s just the presumption that they’ll win at Ai like they did at Jericho.

It doesn’t happen that way. Instead, the soldiers from Ai are ready for them. They counterattack and send the Israelites scrambling down the slopes. Thirty-six men die. When that report reaches the Israelite camp, the same thing is said of them that had been said about the Canaanites: “their hearts melted in fear.” Only the narrator adds a new phrase to make it even more dramatic: “and became like water” (5).

Oh, Oh, Oh!

At this turn of events Joshua is completely perplexed. Remember, he doesn’t know what we know – that Achan took some of the devoted things and that God is angry with his people. All he knows is that this is Israel’s Pearl Harbor – its most infamous set back. This is Israel’s Vietnam War – the only war America ever lost.

So Joshua “tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads” (6). They are mourning and praying and repenting and questioning God.

Joshua puts their collective thoughts into words (7-9). Once again, don’t skip over the first word: “Alas!” It’s an exclamation of pain. The Message says, “Oh, oh, oh!” You almost don’t have to know what he says to know what he’s thinking. He’s probably eighty years old by now. He’s been preparing for this role as Israel’s military and spiritual leader all his life. He’s watched Moses lead the children of Israel out of Egypt. Joshua waited forty more years in the desert as the rebellious generation died out. Moses died too, and Joshua led the people across the Jordan, through the reinstitution of circumcision and Passover. Then he led the quick and decisive but miraculous conquest of Jericho. They were on a roll.

Now this defeat. “Oh, oh, oh!” Is this what the mysterious commander meant when Joshua asked, “Whose side are you on?” and he answered, “Neither one”?

Joshua’s actual words express his anguish to God. He almost sounds like the rebellious generation that wanted to return to Egypt when he says to God, “Why did you bring us across the Jordan to let the Amorites destroy us? We should have stayed on the other side of the Jordan!” He says, “Israel has been routed by its enemies,” and now the Canaanites “will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth.” OK, that’s a bit of overreaction and maybe hyperbole since they’ve only lost one battle and three dozen men out of a fighting force of 600,000. But it’s clear he expected consistent and dramatic victories with no setbacks. Do you ever pray like that? “God, you led me into this marriage, this job, this venture, this calling. Why is there trouble?”

He closes the prayer with language that reminds us of what Moses said to God after the great rebellion. God had said he would wipe out the whole nation and start over with Moses. Moses answered God that God’s own reputation was at stake. Everyone would say God doesn’t keep his promises (Numbers 14:13-16). Here Joshua says something similar: “What then will you do for your own great name?” Keep in mind that at this point Joshua still does not know about the sin of Achan.

Verses 10-15 give us the Lord’s response to Joshua. If you’re expecting empathy, you’ll be disappointed. “Stand up!” Yahweh says. “What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned.” Note again the focus on the corporate nature of the sin. “Israel has sinned” (emphasis added). “They have violated my covenant,” he continues. “They have stolen. They have lied.” Listen to this shocking conclusion: “I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.”

Finally, God gives instructions how to find the devoted things and the person who is guilty. It seems to be by casting lots, roughly comparable to tossing die. In other words, it’s going to look random, but God will guide the random process. Many commentators believe Joshua used the Urim and Thummim, of which we know little beyond that it was the way to discern God’s will. The perpetrator will be identified. He and “all that belongs to him” will be “devoted” to God, meaning “destroyed by fire.”

We stopped our reading today at that point, but had we completed the chapter we would have read a tension-filled story. Joshua waited until the next morning, because apparently God’s response to him came late in the day. Joshua lined up the twelve tribes, presumably the leaders of the tribes – and Judah was chosen. Then he narrowed down the tribe of Judah by clans and families and finally man by man. Achan was identified, and he confessed to stealing a beautiful robe, gold and silver. The items were produced from his tent, and then Achan and all those items, plus all of his other possessions, including his animals and, depending on how you read the text, even his family members, were all killed and burned. The end of the chapter says, “Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger,” and the people named that place the Valley of Trouble. It was a lesson they would never, ever, ever forget. What was the lesson?

What God wants

Once again, as we’ve said before, you can’t make these stories mostly about Joshua, or in this case about Ai, or Achan. They aren’t even about Israel. If you make these stories about the people and places, you’ll get stuck on issues like this:

  • It isn’t fair for God to hold all Israel accountable or to make Achan’s innocent family pay for his sin.
  • If Joshua had prayed first and sought God’s direction, this would have turned out differently.

An even greater danger is to make the story about you. If you make this story about you, you’ll respond with pride, guilt or condescension. You’ll think, “It’s a good thing I’m not an Achan,” or you’ll think, “I don’t belong here because I’m a sinner” or you’ll start wondering about or maybe even accusing others who have brought sin into the camp.

The stories in Joshua are about God. They are stories early in biblical history, and what we need to look for are the lessons about God that are enlarged and repeated throughout the Bible. We don’t have to say this was the “Old Testament God” or a “primitive God.” The same God is working in a very different era and situation than ours, so he works in different ways. We call this the “progress of doctrine” in the Bible.

In this passage God wants us to understand what he wants.

First, God wants a holy people. There are many directions that we could take this, and some of them come right back to guilt or pride or condescension. Let’s be careful, lest we imply that sinners aren’t allowed in the congregation. The unfolding lesson of the Bible is how common sin is, that there is none righteous, no not one. One of the reasons the Old Testament highlights these dramatic lessons about sin is to remind us that the only way God could have a holy people is to create a way to declare unholy people as holy, and that’s what he did on the cross of Jesus. This fulfills the promise of a new covenant God made through Jeremiah 31.

The New Testament still stresses a holy God desiring a holy people, but the motivation is no longer fear; it’s gratitude. God has declared you holy, so live like it!

Second, God wants to be known, not understood. God doesn’t need to be validated by you or me, as if he has to explain his ways or his judgments. I’m fascinated by the fact that the Bible feels no need to justify stories like this so we feel better about God. If you wait until you feel better about everything God says and does, you’re in for increasing distance from God. From one end of the Bible to the other, the focus is on how God is so far beyond us. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” I read just yesterday in my devotional reading (Isaiah 55:8).

To be known is something completely different. It is a word of relationship. God wants relationship with you, and central to every relationship of intimacy is vulnerability and openness. You can’t be intimate with someone who is hiding something that will destroy the relationship. God doesn’t tell us everything about him, but neither does he hide anything that we need to know.

Think about how foolish it is for Achan to try to hide something from God. “I’ll slip this stuff under my coat on the way out of Jericho, and no one will ever know I did what God said not to do.” No one? How many times as a pastor have I dealt with some brokenness or betrayal that had its root in hiding something – abuse, addiction, pornography, adultery, financial catastrophe. Intimacy requires self-disclosure.

Since the Garden of Eden, this is what we all do, isn’t it? Maybe the question is not, “What sin are you hiding?” Instead it’s “What sin do you think you’re hiding?” If you want to know God or even another human being, you have to come out of hiding.

Third, God wants to be called on early and always. The text doesn’t say it explicitly, but I can’t help but see verses 2-3 as a sin of omission. God had given explicit instructions to Joshua about Jericho and they were followed precisely. Now after one victory Joshua and the others think “We got this.” We know the formula. Send spies and check out the problems. Send foot soldiers and God will give them victory. Nobody remembered that part of the strategy was, “Ask God how this is to be done.”

The point is not even that calling on God will always get explicit results. The point is that calling on God is what the believer does. We depend. We trust. We look to him. We need him. We don’t need answers from him. We need him.

Remember my friend Bill? He really is a very patient, positive person. He spent his entire career in Michigan as an independent trash collector. He started with a pick up truck, moved all the way up to a large commercial vehicle, and worked long hours. He loved to work. After our exercise group walks, Bill sits in his chair/walker and grins at us doing jumping jacks and pushups and curls and burpees. “I never had to do that,” he says, thinking of all the times he picked up large trash cans and threw them on the truck.

Bill came to know the Lord during those early years in Michigan, then he brought his wife to church. I see his patience and positive attitude as a direct result of his faith. I love talking to him. Bill knows life is good because God is good. He can “Hurry up!” or just be patient because his trust for this life and the life to come is fully in the Lord.

The Apostle Paul tells us why these stories are recorded in the Bible:

These are all warning markers – DANGER! – in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes. Our positions in the story are parallel – they at the beginning, we at the end – and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were. Don’t be so naïve and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence. (1 Cor. 10:11-12, The Message)

Paul at first sounds like the stories are, indeed, about us. But they are about our knowing God so we can cultivate God-confidence. We pray, “God, I want to do something great for you.” He answers, “You haven’t got the patience.” We develop patience the more we know God. Amen.

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