Joshua: context, character, cross

Preached on: Sunday 9th May 2021
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here.
Bible references: Joshua 5:13-6:20
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

Come Holy Spirit, change our hearts and minds to be more like Jesus. Come Holy Spirit, soften our hearts to the Word of God. Come among us Holy Spirit, with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Up to this point in Joshua things have been quite easy for us, the readers. We’ve heard God’s call through the early chapters…
to commit ourselves to His purposes, daunting though that is, but nonetheless God calls us to it because He promises to be with us. And so, as a united people we can press forward, we can dream again, for we know and remember that God can do the incredible, that He is calling us to greater things, and He showed His power and grace when He gave His life our us in Jesus upon the Cross.

But with the story of Jericho and its defeat, we enter upon uncomfortable reading, for none of the city are spared, except Rahab…
and her household. These kind of passages raise hard, disquieting questions, and reconciling what we read here with what we know of God through Jesus is a challenge to say the very least.

As such, Christians have tended to spiritualise these parts of the Scriptures, maybe seeing in the fall of Jericho a metaphor for other things in life. Or, we’ve simply ignored or rejected anything we find offensive, including the difficult portions here. To be honest, we’d probably rather tear out the pages.
So, what are we to do with this kind of material? Does it have any relevance for us today? In answer to these questions, I have three words to structure our thinking this morning: context, character and cross.

Firstly, ‘context’. As with every passage of Scripture it’s always important to remember the context and there are various parts to this context. We need to note, for example, that we read Joshua through modern lenses tinted by our culture’s abhorrence of war and violence and — in the case of Christians —
by Jesus’ ethical teachings. The world of Joshua’s day jars with us because it is so distant from our time and sounds so harsh to our ears. The reality is that the ancient and modern worlds are truly different, with a huge chasm of three thousand years and vast cultural differences between their time and ours. As one commentator said: ‘…in a sense, readers’ discomfort with Joshua is a good sign: it shows the depth with which the gospel has transformed them.’

And not just transformed Christians, but…
transformed wider society as well. Sure, we still have our issues with wider society today, but it was the Christian Scriptures that fuelled faith and dreams to treat women and children better, and to end the slave trade, and to influence the shaping of laws where love for neighbour and even your enemy was unknown before Jesus spoke those words.

Under ‘context’, we also need to remember the wider story in the Scriptures, because there is a context which leads to this point in history. In Genesis, we read these words:
‘…the Lord said to [Abram]…In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’ (Genesis 15:16)

For four hundred years, God had patiently observed the peoples of Canaan, the Amorites, and had seen their moral decline. A decline which led to child sacrifice as part of their worship of false gods. The name Jericho means ‘moon city’ and likely it was dedicated to worshipping the mood god. This is part of the context.
So, let’s move onto ‘character’ and in particular the character of God. Can God be truly loving when it is His actions that led to the fall of Jericho? Is there a disparity between the God of the Old and New Testaments? Has God got a split personality?

Well, let us first note that the New Testament shows no unease about Joshua’s actions and Jesus never disowns the Old Testament or how it portrayed God. In fact, Hebrews chapter 11, where we read of great heroes of the faith, includes the story of Jericho…
and affirms God’s people, as well as Rahab, as individuals who acted in faith. The early church was able to look back on this story differently than what we do. Why is that?

As part of the New Testament reading plan, it’s been really helpful working through the book of Acts again, and along the way certain words and ideas have been jumping out for me. Of relevance for us today, is part of a speech which Peter makes to people who want to know more about his faith, and so Peter says this about Jesus: ‘We are witnesses of everything [Jesus] did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen…He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.’ (Acts 10:39-42)

If someone asked you about your faith, what would you say? We might speak of Jesus, we might speak of the Cross, but would we dare to mention that Jesus is judge of the living…
and the dead? I’m not sure, because it makes us and others uncomfortable. Now, there could be any number of reasons for this. For example, the early church faced great persecution and Christians were executed for their faith, so I wonder if it is easier – maybe even helpful – to speak of Jesus as judge when we face great evil.

Nevertheless, the idea of God, of Jesus, being judge is a truth affirmed throughout the Scriptures and even in the teaching of Jesus. In fact, it could be argued that when…
Jesus speaks of judgment He’s even tougher than a lot of the Old Testament. And let’s also remember that God is described in the Old Testament as the One who is truly righteous, a merciful ruler of all peoples, a defender of the weak in all nations, and that ultimately it will be the coming of His kingdom which brings an end to war and true peace for all.

What is more, God is on record as stating His preference for life and blessing, for He says through the prophet Ezekiel: “As surely as I live…I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!’ (Ezekiel 18:23)

Across the Scriptures, we see that God reveals Himself as loving, life-giving, merciful and gracious. But He is also holy, righteous and so the judge of all. Paul writing to the Corinthians, says that love ‘…does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.’ (1 Cor. 13:6) It is not incompatible to having a loving God who also judges evil, judges all sin, and that is what happens with Jericho.
As we read earlier, God waited, He knew the Amorites were on a trajectory of moral decline and eventually He would judge them for that, using the nation of ancient Israel as the agents of His judgment. That may be why the angel, who met with Joshua, said he was neither for Israel or its enemies; God was not taking sides there, and Joshua needed to remember that he was part of something bigger.

However, this role for Joshua and the people was a specific and time-limited calling, and the Old Testament rarely recalls the violent…
conquest of Canaan, it never glories in its harshness, and never promotes it as policy for the future.

But let there be no mistaking: God is judge, yet He is a judge who is kind and patient, offering grace after grace. Indeed, He shows that even to Jericho, because He didn’t have to instruct Israel to walk around the city for 6 days – God could have judged it in other ways. But that procession around the city was a final, repeated last chance – a bid, a call to surrender to God and turn from their ways,… grace still remained a possibility, as seen in the treatment of Rahab.

The balance of God as judge and as loving Creator, is brought into sharp focus with our third word: ‘Cross’. The story of the fall of Jericho reminds us that God does not overlook sin forever, and that one day we must all give an account to God. This is an uncomfortable claim, and we may try to push back, seeking to justify our actions, that we’re not on a par with the Amorites, that they deserved judgment, but not us, not me.
In the New Testament, we find the church teaching otherwise, for Paul will say to the those in Rome: ‘…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). We all have sinned, we all have gone astray, following our way rather than God’s, we do not live up to His standard, His glory. It does not matter if our lives are outwardly better than the Amorites, we all have sinned – and so when we stand before our judge, we come before Him as imperfect, and only that which is holy, on a standard with the glory of God, will share in His future kingdom.
Friends, would you claim holiness? Is your holiness on a standard with God’s glory? When I came to faith, I was at my moral lowest, brought face to face with my sin. Now, in the nineteen years of following Jesus, I’ve grown, I’ve matured, my character is better than it was. Yet, even this past week I could name multiple times when my anger led me to sin, when hurt or apathy has led me to minimise others or treat them poorly, even in righteous anger for an injustice someone else faced I entertained thoughts that were less than loving and not reflective of God’s glory.
Friends, we all have a sin problem and nothing we do can cover over that or wipe the slate clean. Indeed, just before Paul said that all have sinned, he also wrote this: ‘… no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.’ (Rom. 3:20)

Paul is saying that nothing we do, not our religious activity, nor our morally good actions, make us right (or righteous) before God. God’s law simply helps us see how far short we fall of the glory of God.
So, is that the end of the story? Is God simply circling around the world, waiting for the time to bring judgment upon us all? Well, no – hallelujah! Because Paul goes on to say: ‘…righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith.’ (Rom. 3:22-25)
By faith, Rahab turned to the living God and was spared. By faith, we too can be made right with God if we turn to Jesus. Because on the Cross He died as a sacrifice for us, He took upon Himself the sin of the world and faced the consequences on our behalf. Yet, to benefit from His death we must respond in faith, we must call upon Jesus for salvation. If we do, then we are ‘justified’ as Paul says. Justified can be understood as ‘just-as-if I’d-never-sinned’; the sin that separates you from God and brings you under the judgment of God, is transferred to Jesus,…
and it leaves you in perfect, unspoiled, reconciled relationship with God, and it’s upon that basis – the free gift offered in Jesus – that God, the judge, can declare us justified.

Friends, upon the cross of Jesus, the righteousness and love of God are perfectly balanced, and He waits with open arms to receive you back into relationship with Himself if you will but acknowledge your sin and receive forgiveness through Jesus. It’s a choice we all face, just like Rahab had to. Would she continue listening to her culture – to the traditions, upbringing and influences around her? Or would she turn to the living God in faith and find life?

Brothers and sisters, friends, sometimes the Scriptures bring an uncomfortable word, speaking from their context into ours such that we might see afresh a fuller picture of the character of God. He is a loving Father and loves you enough that He gave His Son for you. But He is also holy and righteous, and He will not overlook sin forever, and so He will judge when the time comes.
I hope and pray that we each have put our faith in Jesus, receiving then the forgiveness and reconciliation He secured through His death for each of us.

Before we close our service, I feel it’s important we take a moment to pray, so let us pray.

God the Judge? (James 4:11-5:9)

Preached on Sunday 1 March 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-03-01-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-morning.
Text: James 4:11-5:9
Sunday 1st March 2020
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

In 2019, we welcomed 13 people into membership here as part of Brightons Parish Church. We are unique in these numbers compared to our sister churches across the Braes area, for only one other congregation welcomed any new members, and that congregation only welcomed one new member all year. It’s my hope that in a few weeks’ time we may see another person come into membership here and I know of at least one other young mum who wants to explore membership with us by attending the “Open Door” course in the summer term, and so if anyone else would be interested in finding out about membership, then please do come and speak with me.
When someone comes into membership, I discuss with them the foundations of our faith, and when we formally welcome them during the service, we collectively affirm the Christian faith. Often we do this by saying together the Apostles Creed, which summarises the core beliefs we are taught in the Scriptures. The creed reads:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father… I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy universal Church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Hopefully we’re familiar with these words and beliefs, and to stray from any of this is to stray from Christianity. But did you notice that there’s a line missing? It reads: ‘He [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead.’
Of all the lines in that creed, I suspect this is the one which raises within us the greatest concerns and questions. We like the idea of the forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the body; we like the idea of a Saviour and a Father that loves us. But the idea of there being a Judge and of all people being judged, well that’s an idea we’d rather not think about too often; we’d rather skip those passages, like in James today, which speak of God being the sole Judge…
After all, isn’t this idea just antiquated, relevant for a darker age? And anyway, what gives God the right to stand in judgment of us at all?
It’s fitting that we consider such matters on the very day that we celebrate Communion. I would like to read you a short fictional story, which engages with some of these issues. I’m not sure of the original author but I remember reading this in a Christian book at some stage in my early faith journey and being very moved by it. So, let us imagine the scene…
At the end of time, billions of people were standing on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back… from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with shame – but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?”, snapped a young woman. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror…beatings…torture…death!”
In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black!”
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such people. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.
How lucky God was to live in Heaven, they said, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So, each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because they had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro, a person from Hiroshima, other individuals horribly deformed by ill health. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.
Let that man be born a Jew, to know the meaning of unjust discrimination. And let him be born into a poor family, in suspicious circumstances, so that the world sniggers behind his back about who his real father is.
Give him an almost impossible job – a task so difficult that even his family will think he is out of his mind when he tries to do it. A task that turns the authorities of the country against him so that they seek his life and hunt him down.
Let him live as a wanderer with no real income and no real way to make money. Let him live off the charity of others.
Let him be betrayed by one of his closest friends and brought with false charges before a cowardly judge. Let him be tried by a prejudiced jury, convicted on false evidence, and sentenced to death… by the cruellest means of punishment devised by man.
But first let him be tortured, while all his friends desert him, and no-one puts out a hand to save him. Let even his father turn his back on him and disown him. Then he will know what it is to be truly alone.
Only then let him die. Publicly. Stripped, beaten, and in full view of a hostile crowd. A long, slow, agonizing death that spares him none of the pain that misused men and women have suffered at the hands of tyrants and oppressors through countless centuries. May he taste the full depth of it.
As each leader announced their portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
As the last word was spoken, a hush fell upon the crowd. Across all this vast multitude there was not a sound. A silence fell, so deep it seemed as if the entire universe was holding its breath…For at that moment, all realised…that God had already served his sentence.
In the person of Jesus, the Lamb that was slain, the Holy One who was crucified, God served His sentence. But not because He had done anything wrong, rather He came to give His life that we may know eternal life; He came that the evil of the world would not go unpunished, and the suffering of this world would not go unnoticed or unending. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, showed on the cross the holiness, the justice, the righteousness of God.
James speaks of these matters in the beginning of chapter five, highlighting the abysmal treatment of the poor by the rich, such that the injustice shown by the rich likely lead to the death of the poor, and as such James can say that their selfishness was a form of condemnation and murder of innocent people.
To both parties, rich and poor, the judgement of God brings a message. Wrongs will be righted. Evil will be punished. The cries of the poor have been heard. As such, James exhorts us: ‘Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming…be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:7-9)
Knowing Jesus will return and that when He does He will judge the world, ushering in God’s Kingdom, well that’s supposed to help us persevere, to wait patiently, and in our waiting show grace to one another.
Friends, God is Judge, He alone is qualified to be Judge, and in His righteousness, He will set the world right, evil will be punished, suffering does not go unrecognised. The idea of God as Judge is not some antiquated idea, but a truth as relevant now, as for any time. Thank God He is our righteous, holy Judge!
Based on this view of God, we might be a little more open to that line from the creed: ‘He [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ It almost sounds like good news now – evil punished, wrongs righted, suffering
recognised and eradicated for the glorious new heaven and new earth will be ushered in upon the return of Jesus as Judge.
But the first part of our reading from James issues another reminder – we are temporal, like a mist that is here one day and gone tomorrow. As such, God alone is the one Lawgiver and Judge, and so we should humble ourselves under His authority, we should submit to His Word, the teaching contained in the Bible.
In verses 11-12, James raises the idea that to speak ill of another is to speak against the law, God’s word. For in the Scriptures God forbids speaking in slanderous ways and to do so then is to break the law or speak against it, and when we break the law, when we speak against it,…
we are in effect judging the law, we are saying this bit of God’s law ought to be obeyed and this other bit can be ignored, rather than allowing the whole of God’s law to shape us.
The central issue is: will we humble ourselves under God’s Word? Will we see that He alone has ultimate authority, He alone is Lawgiver and Judge?
James wants us to have a right understanding of God and of ourselves, and in that place of humility, find freedom, because when we appreciate something of the glory of God, including His rightful place as Judge of us all, then we can then more fully heed the words of Jesus, who said: ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ (Mt. 7:1-2)
So, once again, thank God He is our righteous, holy Judge! He will come again and set the world aright, and that can give us perseverance. But knowing He will come again as Judge, upon our own lives, means we are free to stop judging, it means we are free to live in humility.
Yet, we need not fear God as Judge, because knowing Him as Judge is simply meant to cultivate perseverance and humility, not fear, because as Paul reminds us: ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). He reaches this affirmation because of what he understands God has done through Jesus. Earlier he wrote: ‘For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood…God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.’
(Romans 3:25-26, New Living Translation)
Friends, God our Judge has made a way for us to be forgiven, a way for us to be set free from condemnation and come into right relationship with Himself: all we need to do is trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in that moment of humility, in that split second of decision, all fear of judgment goes, all fear of God being Judge goes, for we appreciate that it was because of His love He sent Jesus, because of His love He calls us to humble ourselves, and when we appreciate His love, all fear goes.
Brothers and sisters, on this day when we remember, when we celebrate and make known the death of Jesus through bread and wine, we affirm these truths – that, in righteousness, God will judge sin and He must, His holiness will not allow Him to overlook the slightest blot or stain.
But equally, equally, in love, God paid the price of our sin, He wants all of us to be forgiven, all of us to be in right relationship with Himself, and so He gave His life for us.
All that remains, is for you and I to humble ourselves, to come near to God, asking for His forgiveness, and trusting in His great promise to do so.
I pray we all will come before Him with such humility, knowing then that we are welcomed into His family and welcomed to the table which reminds us that God is Judge and God is love.
May it be so. Amen.