Is That What Strength Looks Like? - thrive UMC Official Blog

Is That What Strength Looks Like?

Last week, we started a new series on the book of Joshua.  And there we read God’s call to the people of Israel to cross over the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land.  Remember how God told Joshua these words: “Now get ready to cross over the Jordan with this entire people to the land that I am going to give to the Israelites.  I am giving you every place where you set foot, exactly as I promised Moses” (Joshua 1:2,3).

This week, we’re picking up right where we left off, and today we’ll see how Joshua responds to the message he received from God.  Here I strongly encourage you to open your own bible so you can see this for yourselves.  Open them up to the first chapter of Joshua so you can see what God says, and then look at what Joshua says. Our reading picks up in Joshua, chapter 1, verses 10-18.  It says this:

10 Then Joshua gave orders to the people’s officers: 11 “Go through the camp and give orders to the people. Say, ‘Get supplies ready for yourselves because in three days you will be crossing over the Jordan to enter the land and take it over. The Lord your God is going to give it to you as your possession.’”

12 Then Joshua addressed the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh: 13 “Remember the command that Moses the Lord’s servant gave you: ‘The Lord your God will give you rest and give you this land.’14 Your wives, children, and cattle may remain in the land that Moses has given you on the east side of the Jordan. But all you brave fighters, organized for war, must cross over in front of your fellow Israelites. You must help them 15 until the Lord gives a rest like yours to your fellow Israelites and they too take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving them. Then you may return and take over the land that belongs to you, which Moses the Lord’s servant has given you on the east side of the Jordan.”

16 They answered Joshua, “We will obey everything you have commanded us and go anywhere you send us. 17 We will obey you in the same way that we obeyed Moses. Just let the Lord your God be with you as he was with Moses! 18 Anybody who stubbornly opposes what you declare and doesn’t obey any of your commands will be put to death. Be brave and strong!”


Did you catch that?

As we read last week, God had said: “I am giving you every place where you set your foot;” and then, “Be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you.”

And Joshua, hearing this, turns around and tells two and a half of the tribes of Israel: “all your brave fighters, organized for war, must cross over in front of your fellow Israelites.”

Now, to me, it’s incredibly interesting that the story was recorded this way –because, if you’ll notice, when God talks to Joshua, there’s no mention of war or anything explicitly violent.  God just tells Joshua that the land will be given over to Israel, and that they need to go. But when we hear Joshua shouting his orders to the people, he makes it abundantly clear that the way they’ll move will be in battle formation.  In other words, this isn’t simply a home-coming parade, but instead these Israelites are marching prepared for blood.

So, why was the story recorded like this?  After all, it would have been much more efficient to say: “God told Joshua to get the people moving across the river, and to wipe out anyone who stands in their path. And then Joshua did it.”  Right?  If this were just a simple story just about the things God did for Israel, then the only commentary we would need about Joshua was that he did it –or that he failed to do it.  Either he was faithful, or he wasn’t.  But instead, what we have here in this passage, and which is so characteristic of the whole rest of the Bible – is that we get to hear what God has to say, and then we also get to see how the human leaders interpret that divine message.  And more often than not, what we hear from the leaders is not at all a mere word-for-word repeat of the message God had given them.

And here I think is a very subtle, but powerful, invitation to sit in Joshua’s shoes for just a moment.  Here he is, given a tremendous calling: lead this stubborn people home, Joshua!  Get them across that river! This is your job, assigned by God.  Go do it.

If we were to spend even a split second there with him, we’d first have to realize: wow, this is a big deal!  God has something for me to do, and this thing is hundreds of years in the making! So much of all the history that has gone before is culminating in this moment –with a task given for me to live out!  What an honor!  I mean, holy cow, God must really think a lot of me to give me such an important job to do.

But then in the very next moment: holy crap; how am I supposed to make that happen?

Some of us, I think, have had rare moments like this.  Moments where God seems to speak clearly to us; and for just a split second, we know what we’re supposed to do with our lives –or at least for some chunk of it. Maybe we’re deep in prayer or contemplation, or maybe we wake up from a crazy dream, or maybe we’re just walking along one day and a thought, which doesn’t seem to be our own, suddenly sprouts in our brain, saying: ‘here’s what you’re supposed to do!’

Some of the time it’s not even stuff that seems all that big or important –it might just be that we should take the long way home from work, to enjoy some scenery; or maybe it’s just a reminder to be grateful.  I can remember being at Methodist Hospital downtown about seven years ago, and this nurse hands me this little blanket burrito, with a suspicious little alien face peeking out, and I felt God tell me, “You’re a father now….”

And I was like, ‘oh wow!’  I just couldn’t believe it.

But then God went on:  “So now it’s time to act like one, Jeremy.”

What’s that supposed to mean, God?

And at first, I was so overwhelmed with awe, I only thought: ‘of course: I’m a dad now!’  But then as I sat down in a rocking chair in that weird infant-incubation room, with this terrified alien-burrito in my arms, it suddenly hits me: I have no idea how to do any of this!  I had changed one diaper in my whole life up until that point; and in all honesty, I had some pretty mixed feelings about babies in general. So how was I ever going to be a father?

Even to this day, I still wonder about that sometimes.

Perhaps it was like that with Joshua in our story too –and indeed this is the suggestion we seem to get from the scriptures: that God told Joshua what to do, but He left out the ever-important details about how he should do it.

Brothers and sisters, for just a moment, I want to invite you to sit with Joshua.  He’s just received word from God that he has something of great importance to accomplish.  God has called him to lead God’s people home. Step one is just to get them across the Jordan River, to set foot onto the land that will thereby become their home.  But don’t forget that all-significant catch: other people already live there! Strong, well-established people. It’s their home.  They have cities and warriors and lush crops and also little beautiful children of their own running around.  But your people are tired and dusty and hungry from a lifetime of wandering.  You know that once you cross that river there will be conflict. It’s pretty much inevitable, because their ways are not like your ways.  What they worship and hold sacred, is not the same as what you do.  And you can bet that if you spend any amount of time in their proximity, it will get messy.  So what do you do?  How do you prepare for this monumental shift?

Will you commit to being their neighbors and sharing the land –no matter how hard or messy it gets?  Or would you march over and take what’s yours by force, no matter the price paid in blood –just so long as it’s theirs and not your own?

What would you do?

And how would you do it?

God told Joshua to be brave and strong as he leads the people across the Jordan River, and Joshua, who had served as a military commander under Moses for the last 40 years, seems to just naturally conclude that this must mean war. Indeed, when we sit down to read this first chapter, it doesn’t seem like there’s any choice in the matter, or any other possible way to go about things.  After all, God calls a soldier to lead Israel to the Promised Land, so that must mean that God wants them to conquer the people who live there.  But there’s one little detail here that we must not overlook: the action God told Joshua to take was to make sure he remembered the Instruction Scroll and obey it. Now, if you don’t know what this Instruction Scroll is that God mentioned in last week’s reading, that’s okay.  The Instruction Scroll was a written copy of all of Moses’ most essential teachings and commandments, which were to serve as a guide for Israel when they entered their new home. Allegedly the scroll was penned by his own hand, and was stored along with the stone tablets in the Ark of the Covenant.  Scholars believe that we can find the scroll’s contents recorded in Deuteronomy, from about chapters 4 through 28.  And in that passage it reads: do not kill/ murder.  Do not steal.  Do not covet your neighbors’ wife, house, field, servants, animals, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

It also contains prescriptions to care for the widow and the orphan and the immigrant in your midst.  And it speaks of how God is the God of the whole world, and doesn’t choose favorites.  But it also tells the Israelites to take their land and smash their neighbor’s gods.

‘Don’t forget to obey all of that, Joshua,’ commands God, ‘as you step into this new land I’m giving you.’

Joshua, the new leader of Israel, hears this and announces to the people: ‘Men, get ready for war!’

And the people respond: we’ll do everything you say, and if any one disobeys, we’ll kill them!  “Be brave and strong!”

There are, I think, at least two ways of reading this strange book called Joshua.  The first way to read it is the simple one, where Joshua is the leader Israel has always wanted and longed for.  He’s the one who always knows what to do, and his decisive action always wins the day.  In this reading, Joshua is so intimately attuned to the voice and plans of God that everything he does is on God’s authority and approved by God.

But the other way to read Joshua is through the lens of the Babylonian Exile.  The book, as we have it today, was indeed written down after Israel was wiped off the map, and after the nation of Judah was taken into captivity.  And from that point in history they looked back on their ancient hero with different eyes.  For, by then, they knew firsthand what it was like to have a foreign people, sent by God, come in swords-flashing, and to take the precious gift that had been given to them, according to a scorched-earth policy.  In this reading, Joshua looks uncomfortably like an Israelite version of Nebuchadnezzar, storming from town to town, with ruthless efficiency.  And with great grief and pain in their hearts what little is left of Israel has to concede that they had been too gruesomely like their savage neighbors.  And their kingdom too was built with blood and corpses, so contrary to their own teachings and values.

Of course there is great value in both readings, and I find myself personally going back and forth between the two, caught in an eternal tension.  But I bring this up because I believe it illustrates a critical point for us: it shows us that we need to take great care in how we discern and respond to God’s call.  Because God leaves that part open to us.

Joshua, as a solider, responded to God’s call, prepared for violence. He had a sense of who he was and what his gifts were, and so he responded out of a sense of his integrity.  And for that, I find no space to condemn him.  But there was also another Joshua in our tradition who heard a remarkably similar call to bring God’s people home.  We call that Joshua Jesus.  He too stepped into the Jordan River to enter his kingdom.  But instead of leading his people to kill, Jesus instead invites his followers to surrender their lives.  In Matthew 16:24,25 he says, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”

God’s eternal call for us is to come home.  And to heed that call, we have to move in both our bodies and our spirits. We must enter a space where we’ll be challenged and tried. And in that space there will be conflict.  But it’s up to us to discern our best course of action. We need to decide ahead of time the means by which we’ll approach our neighbors.  Will we try to destroy them, and eradicate their competing values and sense of identity –or will we seek to be a loving gift, sharing the blessings and the grace we have with our neighbors as parts of ourselves?

One way or the other, it’s our responsibility to know ourselves, and our gifts, well enough to be able to act out of our integrity. Joshua the soldier was faithful as a soldier is faithful.  And Jesus the Son of God was faithful as one who is capable of perfectly divine love and courage.  And we too must respond to God from who and where we are. We are not any other church, and so we shouldn’t feel compelled to serve God like other churches do. And we need not degrade them or ourselves for our differences. God has called us to be us, and that is enough.

Here in today’s America, we love action.  We love making plans and decisions and setting about our busy-ness.  But here today I want to draw your attention to that sliver of a moment that happens between hearing God’s voice and lifting up your own.  Because in that brief silence is an emptiness that beckons to discern: how does this call apply to us?  And who are we –and what do we possess- in order to bring that calling to life?  What would it look like for us to cross the threshold and emerge into God’s kingdom, here on earth?  And how shall we approach our neighbors as we go?

For just the space of a Sunday, may we hold our tongues and listen to the voice of God, and to those of our neighbors, as we begin to pray.