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November 4th, 2018

We pray big prayers because of God’s nature and character.

Joshua 10:1-15

 

The Corinth Hope Center

It was a day like no other.

This past week Linda and joined the Nicaragua team for a part of their mission trip to Matagalpa, a city of about 200,000 two hours north of the capital, Managua. It’s been seven years since the Hope Project International began their work there. The level of poverty is difficult to describe, but here’s one example: during the rainy season, some children have to stand all night holding their belongings because the mud floor floods.

What the Hope Project International is doing on the impoverished mountain suburb of Sor Maria is, well, bringing hope. I said in my message at the dedication service that hopelessness is caused by the present (lack of food, clean water, clothing, shelter), by the past (the awareness that the situation was no better for parents and grandparents), and by the future (despair that nothing will ever change). What the Hope Project does is to bring love for the present (food, water, simple homes that cost $5,000 to build and far exceed the current standards), hope for the future (tutoring, education, vocational training), and faith for eternity (the Gospel of Jesus).

We were there to dedicate a building, but I told the staff that evening that buildings don’t change lives; people do. What you did through our Corinth Legacy campaign was to provide a place where they can do what God has called and equipped them to do. What a place it is! A brightly painted, 2-story steel and concrete structure on the top of a hill that lies between a sewage pit and a trash dump, constructed to American standards of structural stability, the Corinth Hope Center might as well be the Taj Mahal.

We pray that the children in Sor Maria will remember the day that everything changed for them. We want that place to be a symbol of hope restored, a building that constantly reminds them not only that we know and care, but that God knows and cares. They are no longer stuck in a generational cycle of malnutrition, abuse, and poverty. The dedication of concrete walls and brightly lighted classrooms, computer labs, and gathering areas point to a day like no other when God showed up.

When the sun stood still

Joshua 10 is such a day for the people of Israel. The story is different, but the purpose is the same. It’s the day that God showed up in an unforgettable way.

This chapter has a personal history with me, and perhaps with other Christians of my generation. It’s one reason I wanted to make sure we included Joshua 10 in our sermon series. In the early 1970s, when I was in high school, a very credible-sounding report circulated that NASA scientists had proved the truth of the Bible as recorded in Joshua 10. Harold Hill, whose company had a contract with NASA, claimed that NASA engineers had attempted to forecast the future positions of the sun and moon for the purpose of positioning future satellites. When the engineers looked backward in time, their computers suddenly ground to a halt, unable to account for a missing day. Then one of them remembered a Sunday School lesson about Joshua 10, and the scientists had to acknowledge that the biblical record was scientifically accurate.[1]

What amazes me is how widely this story circulated without the Internet. My brother Jim said he heard it in an Old Testament class at Wheaton College. Back home in Portsmouth, Virginia, I remember a good bit of buzz about it. The story had enough detail in it that those who wanted it to be true were sucked in and proceeded to share it in sermons, youth groups, and newsletters. The problem is that it had no basis in fact and a NASA spokesman took the time to deny it in writing. A parallel story I remember circulating was that Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the most famous atheist of her generation, had requested the FCC to remove all religious programming from radio and television. Christians needed to flood the FCC with petitions to counter her efforts. As Jim pointed out, these are instances where the Internet actually succeeded in halting the spread of misinformation. These kinds of stories were harder to counter before people could just grab a smartphone and search for the source.

Let’s first see what Joshua 10 actually says.

The story picks up where we left off last week. To review briefly, Joshua and the Israelites have completely destroyed two Canaanite cities, Jericho and Ai, devoting everything and everyone to God as a burnt offering (1). The Canaanites decide they are not going to be sitting ducks, waiting for Joshua to invade their city-states one at a time. The kings of the southern cities form a coalition to fend off the Israelites in a counterattack. Before that can play out, the leaders of one of their major cities, Gibeon, betrays them and makes a peace treaty with the invading Israelites (1). The Gibeonites had resorted to deception, convincing Joshua and the Israelite leaders that they were not one of the Canaanite cities. Joshua honors the treaty anyway.

The Canaanites don’t want other cities to break from the coalition and besides, they need Gibeon’s cut-above army to fight with them (2). They decide to teach Gibeon a lesson by turning against them (3-5). The Gibeonites send an SOS to Joshua:  “Help!” (6). Joshua mobilizes his forces to defend Gibeon (7). Once again, the LORD appears to Joshua for encouragement (“do not fear”) and a promise (“I have given them into your hand”) (8). This is important because twice already Joshua has made the mistake of moving without consulting the LORD, both times with disastrous results.

Joshua uses the cover of darkness to move his troops into position for a surprise attack (9). What happens next is summarized in verse 10:  “The LORD threw them into confusion before Israel, so Joshua and the Israelites defeated them completely at Gibeon.”

There are two important human aspects of the victory. First, Israel fought. They not only positioned themselves for the surprise attack then stayed with the battle for one very long day, they pursued their enemies into the coastal plan (10b). Second, Joshua prayed. The wording of verse 12 is interesting because it says Joshua spoke these words publicly to Yahweh, but the actual words are addressed to the sun and the moon. I don’t think that means he thinks the sun and moon are gods, but rather that he was commanding the sun and the moon in the name of Yahweh to “stand still.”

Then there’s God’s part. Two miracles happen to aid the soldiers fighting on the ground. The first is not one that Joshua asks for. A terrible hailstorm devastates the retreating Canaanite army, killing more of the enemy than Joshua’s soldiers had killed (11). The second is in response to Joshua’s prayer:  “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky,” verse 13 says, to give Joshua and the Israelites time to finish their pursuit.

Trying to explain this story with modern scientific data and terminology is, in my view, just silly, leading well-meaning Christians to the kind of fiction Harold Hill promulgated. We end up believing and even spreading lies, which in the long run does more damage to the truth. The whole point of the story is that what happened that day was unique and boosted the faith of the warriors on the spot and the readers of Joshua’s book. God showed up at Gibeon that day in an unmistakable and visible way.

My faith is simple here because I trust the Bible. If I had been there and witnessed the event, and if I then read Joshua’s account, I believe I would say, “That’s what happened.” But I wasn’t there, and I can’t read Hebrew with the same eye that someone could 3500 years ago. The summary statement of the narrator is important in verse 14:  “There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the LORD listened to a human being. Surely the LORD was fighting for Israel!” (14).

The rest of chapter 10 details the violent end of the Amorite kings, who are killed and then then hung on poles in disgrace, and the complete and utter destruction of a series of other cities in the same fashion as Jericho and Ai. This is the part of Joshua that troubles modern readers. I don’t take it lightly. If you would like some more perspective on it, come back four weeks ago. (Or click here for the sermon on Joshua 6.)

BHAGs in prayer

Since the book of Joshua is not primarily about Joshua or the Israelites or the Canaanites, but about God, this story is about the God who answers big prayers.

If you’re in business, you’ve probably heard about BHAGs – big, hairy, audacious goals. Does God want us to pray BHAPs – big, hairy, audacious prayers? I’m going to answer with an unqualified, “Yes!” I would say Joshua 10 is about the God who invites us to pray big prayers. That, of course, raises questions for many of you – because of the past or maybe the present. What about the times God doesn’t come through?

Linda and I spent the latter half of the week in Columbia, SC, for our 40th college reunion. In advance of the reunion, we were asked to share the story of something that had happened since 1978 that only God could do. At our sharing time, with my mind on Joshua 10, I asked my classmates also to share, if they were willing, a time in their lives when they wanted God to show up, but it seemed like he let them down.

Shirley Ritchie Shiflett was there with us, joining a class reunion for the first time since 1988, our 10th reunion. She shared the horrific story of what happened on her way home. She and her husband flew a private plane home from South Carolina to Colorado.  Thw plane crashed on their way home, bursting into flames. She and her husband survived, badly burned. Their three children, ages 5, 3, and 4 months, perished in the crash and fire. Shirley went through months of hospitalization and years of surgeries and therapy. She asked God why she had to live when her children were gone and so was half her face. She and her husband later divorced.

To be sure, there is grace written across that story. God blessed Shirley with two more daughters. After her divorce, she remarried Allen Shiflett of Lenoir, and together they run Bethel Colony, an addiction recovery facility for men. Still, how many times did she ask God to answer big prayers without any visible result?

We also heard stories last week of big prayers answered. Dr. Mark Smith, the current President, shared one of his BHAPs. While Columbia International University has expanded and modernized its facilities, the two-mile stretch of Monticello Road between the interstate and the school has descended into decay, with abandoned or crime-infested buildings. Dr. Smith started praying about acquiring eight properties for economic development, none of which was even for sale. The school has now bought seven of the eight and is working with neighborhood leaders to revitalize the whole area. I like that BHAP.

What’s your BHAP? “God, heal this cancer!” “Transform this neighborhood!” “Lord, bring peace in the Middle East.” “Give hope to Matagalpa.” “Please, God, convert that skeptic. What a story of your power that would be!” “I give my BHAG to you, Father! Let this dream become reality.” “I join Jesus in praying that the church will be one.” “Bring revival to the nation.” Have you prayed prayers like this? Have you stopped praying them because nothing happened after literally weeks of praying? Or years? Why keep praying a big, hairy, audacious prayer if heaven seems unmoved?

Does the New Testament teach us to pray BHAPs? Yes! Jesus said something like this on more than one occasion:  “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be done” (Mark 11:24). Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…” (Ephesians 3:20).

If you struggle with what seems like those blanket promises, I suggest Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Chapter 17 offers some helpful and hopeful perspective on “Unanswered Prayer.”

When asked to teach his disciples to pray, Jesus’ model prayer included “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In my view, that’s bigger, hairier, and more audacious than the sun standing still for 24 hours. More people have undoubtedly prayed that prayer more often in more languages and places than any other prayer. But his kingdom hasn’t come – not in that ultimate sense – and we can all relate a thousand ways in which his will is not being done on earth.

So why keeping praying big, hairy, audacious prayers? Because of God’s character and nature. We pray big…

Because God says. We pray big prayers in obedience. That’s enough reason.

Because God can. The God who can stop the sun and moon in their tracks is the God who made sun, moon, stars, and earth and everything in them. We pray big prayers because he’s a big God.

Because God does. There are many examples in the Bible, but there are also many stories you have heard – and perhaps some you’ve experienced – that are “only God can do that” stories. We keep praying because sometimes God does do the inexplicable.

Because God is. Because God is God, and we’re not. The whole reason we pray for these impossibilities is because we can’t do anything about them. BHAPs are different from BHAGs because BHAGs are what we can do while BHAPs are what only God can do. Prayer is a way of releasing the situation into his sovereign hands. It’s a way of letting go of the need to control outcomes.

Because God loves. In Romans 8, Paul urges us to believe that if God did not spare his only Son, we can trust him to provide for all we need. On the cross, God showed that he will go to any length to be for us. There’s much we cannot understand about what God does and doesn’t do, but as believers we never doubt that he loves us.

So, brothers and sisters, remember that we don’t pray those big prayers primarily because of what happens next. We pray them because of God. Amen.

 

[1] For more detail on this story, click here.

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