Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
24th August 2003
The Bible Readings in full
Joshua 24 The Covenant renewal at Shechem
Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God.
Joshua said to all the people, "This is what the LORD , the God of Israel, says: 'Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. " 'Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out. When I brought your fathers out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Red Sea. But they cried to the LORD for help, and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians; he brought the sea over them and covered them. You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians. Then you lived in the desert for a long time. " 'I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land. When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you. But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand. " 'Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you-also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.' "Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD . But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD ." Then the people answered, "Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we travelled. And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD , because he is our God." Joshua said to the people, "You are not able to serve the LORD . He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you." But the people said to Joshua, "No! We will serve the LORD ."
Then Joshua said, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have
chosen to serve the LORD ."
"Yes, we are witnesses," they replied. "Now then," said Joshua, "throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD , the God of Israel." And the people said to Joshua, "We will serve the LORD our God and obey him." On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws.
John Chapter 6:56 Many Disciples Desert Jesus
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
Let us Pray
O God, light of the minds that know you, life of the souls that love you, and strength of the thoughts that seek you - bless the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts. Amen.
I am grateful to Sam today for having written the Bible Notes on our two readings. His commentary speaks about the theme of ‘tough choices’ and I want to speak about that in the sermon this morning. Before we go there however, I wonder if we can first of all look at the Book of Joshua from the Old Testament and just spend a few moments thinking through some of the issues raised when we try to work with the learn from the Bible.
You will all probably remember the story of the destruction of Jericho,
perhaps you will remember it from Sunday school. Of course what the Sunday
School teacher often left out was the story of the real carnage which took
place after the walls fell down, when every living thing was burned and the
wealth of the city was plundered. We are told that Joshua ordered only Rahab,
the prostitute who had helped the Israelite spies, and her family to be
spared. Everything else was killed, men women, boys and girl and animals.
Listen to the record in Joshua itself
‘They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it, men and women, young and old, cattle sheep and donkeys’ Joshua 6:21
The word ‘devoted’ means that the city became a huge holocaust, a giant sacrifice. Make no mistake, these events which are recounted so proudly in the Book of Joshua as a record of the war for the possession of Canaan, which was to become the Promised Land, clearly show Joshua and his army leaders to be guilty of incredible war crimes.
Read the pages of Joshua and elsewhere in the Old Testament and we see genocide and dreadful crimes. Moreover these stories seem to show that success in battle is linked closely to religious obedience. The people are faithful and so God helps them conquer in battle and then hands over the enemy to be brutally killed, hence whole cities are wiped out.
How do we as Christians respond to this when we see throughout every generation repetition of the same bloodthirsty mentality among nations across the world ?
Firstly, we need to remember that the Book of Joshua was written in a form that was the conventional ‘conquest-narrative’ popular at the time. In the time when the Old Testament was written, kings went to war and wrote up their victories, attributing their success to their gods. Joshua is therefore YHWH’s victory account. It is written to show his ownership of the land.
Understood in that way, the Old Testament and specifically today the Book of Joshua belongs to its time and at the risk of my using controversial language, the writers at the time knew no better. We can read these passages, and we can learn things from them, but what we must never do is to fail to take into account that there is a growth in understanding shown throughout the pages of the Bible, as different generations learned more about God. This becomes most explicit in the pages of the New Testament, with the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus, the new Joshua, has a very different way of doing things and we need to be reminded of this.
Can any one of us really imagine Jesus commanding the army of the Israelites to commit acts of genocide? If the answer is ‘no’ then we have to acknowledge that we must handle these Old Testament passages very carefully and seek to understand them in the context of a primitive culture and a primitive faith.
I say this because it is important for us to recognize that we cannot simply take passages out of the Bible without carefully recognizing the context and the occasion on which they were written. Those people who say we must just ‘simply read the Bible and believe it,’ have to appreciate that it is impossible to ‘simply’ read the Bible, we all interpret it through thousands of years of history, that is why there are passages over which Christians disagree, and that is why we must listen to one another and not just quote verses at each other.
If we take the Joshua stories at their obvious face value, then we might be tempted to think that we can take on military conquest of our enemies and then burn them when we capture them. Read them carefully and we can see them as stages in the process towards developing a deeper understanding of the nature of God.
Let’s try and do this now as we look at the two passages from Joshua and John, passages which both speak about faith and obedient commitment.
1. The passage from Joshua
The passage from Joshua is extremely challenging to us on the subject of obedience and devotion to God. In Joshua 24, Joshua puts the choice before the people. Joshua begins by reciting the story of God's generosity, and he concludes with this
‘But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD .
This challenge of Joshua’s is met with a firm response
Then the people answered, "Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we travelled. And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD , because he is our God."
That might have been it, the challenge is laid down and the people accept it. God has killed all their enemies and looked after them, they know which side their bread is buttered. But Joshua didn't accept the initial response, Joshua wants more than this, he seeks real commitment and obedience and he challenges the people twice more before he will establish a covenant.
You and I are eager to hear even the most tentative words of commitment and faith from others. Joshua however knew real obedience. Remember when he went as a spy into the land of Canaan, Joshua had such courage and such a positive faith in God, that he trusted God even when, his fellow spies felt like grasshoppers and the Canaanites looked like giants. Joshua and his friend Caleb urged the Hebrews to take them on even when their compatriots threatened to stone them for their advice.
So Joshua is not persuaded by the words of commitment from the people on the first occasion and instead so he reminded them, not once, but three times of the cost of that covenant and the consequences of breaking it. If they dealt falsely with their God, Joshua warned, God would do them harm and consume them. Joshua does not want half-hearted followers, cheap adherents to the faith. He wants people who will be fully obedient and committed, only then will they be embraced within God’s covenant. That is a lesson for all of us which stands the test of time.
2. So look at the passage from John
Jesus made people face the same kind of choices and he too did not want half-hearted commitment. He was extremely challenging and did not make following him an easy option. Think of phrases such as
1. If any man will follow he must deny himself, take up his cross
2. You cannot serve God and mammon
Jesus has no time for the idea that faith is rewarded with military victory, such a Christ would have been readily followed by the Jews who wanted Rome overthrown. But the choice to follow Jesus would not be accompanied with the expectations of blessings and defeat of opponents.
Not only was there an absence of material rewards for the obedient, with Jesus expectations became reversed. Believers will not be rewarded with material riches, instead it is the rich ones who would find faith too costly.
I have just returned form holiday in Scotland, which was very nice, one of the things I was looking forward to was some Angus Beef Steak. I placed my order of a steak and the waiter was just about to leave when I said don’t forget to cook it rare. The waiter said that they only cooked it one way, well done so that there was not to be any blood left in it. I was horrified to think of cremating good food and ruining it in that way, apparently it is something to do with health and safety, which is making all of our lives so much of a misery. Blood is not allowed on the menu at the Hilton Aviemore, apparently they even use pasteurised eggs.
Now if blood is a problem for Hilton, think what a problem Jesus caused when he spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. John records for us in verses 66 that from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. Faith was tough and some could not hack it.
It must have been so hard for them. If you were a Jew brought up in the teachings of the Old Testament and the stories of Joshua it would be almost impossible to understand the words of Jesus in the passage from John today in which Jesus speaks of drinking his blood. For Jesus to speak about drinking blood would have been problematic for any Jew. One of the best known of the many Jewish regulations about food and drink was that blood was absolutely for bidden. (Lev 17:10). Indeed the complex system of Kosher butchering has this among its chief aims, that no blood should remain in the animal and so risk being eaten or drunk.
When Jesus spoke about drinking blood, he was thinking of it in the context of the laying down of life. Jesus thinks of himself as the Messiah who behaves like the Passover Lamb, this was a new and absurd idea. This was not the sort of Messiah that people felt immediately inclined to follow, they wanted a victorious king, not a Passover sacrifice. But Jesus, just like Joshua, wants followers who will be courageous, for the way ahead was not one of ease and material reward.
Over the past few weeks we have been encouraged to recognise that in
Jesus we find the true bread, the one who gives sustenance to our souls. In
the story today we are reminded that some people will choose not to partake
of the true bread and be tempted by junk food. Many are unconvinced by the
claims that Jesus makes about himself - his claims about how he not only
points to God and God's love for us, but that it is in him and through him
that the life of God is conveyed to us.
There are many seekers after truth who recognize Jesus as a great teacher, even as a great miracle worker but who cannot accept his claim that he is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ For some people any religion which makes exclusive claims is automatically out, because there is a prevalence of the view that all religions point to the same God - and all therefore are equally valid. Any exclusive claim made by Jesus to be the True Bread, must be wrong in a world which values the cafeteria approach to spirituality in which we browse the religious shelves and pick up the things we like.
A part of me would love to be able to say that all religions are the same, obviously they are not, this is illogical because they claim very different truths. So my position has to be this
‘I refuse to set limits upon the saving power of God, however as a Christian I cannot point to any other way to God’s salvation than Jesus Christ.’
By this I mean that I do not know begin to understand how God will restore his world and welcome to himself all people so that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I don’t know and frankly it is none of my business. Thankfully God has given to us a truth which we can proclaim, that Christ in Christ we surely do find God.
Now we are an open and welcoming church, which does not ask people to adhere to all manner of human doctrines, we accept those who find faith difficult, and there is room within our congregation for those who struggle with any sort of belief. All people are welcome in our midst and it is not for us to judge others for the frailty of faith. But this does not mean that we do not encourage each other to be courageous in the way that Joshua and Jesus sought.
We do affirm our faith in Jesus as a church, and indeed we draw strength from the voices of others when our own individual faith is weak.
God has revealed himself in Jesus in a wonderful way. The forgiveness, the love; and the life of God is poured out to us through the blood of Christ Jesus, through the life which he gave. Our commitment to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God find their source in Christ Jesus.
We need not make any apologies about this, we are the church of Jesus Christ. It is Christ who makes us who we are. Our faith does not have all the answers, it would not be faith if we did. And we ask God to increase in us the gift of faith
This morning, like the disciples we encourage one another to echo the words of Simon Peter. Seeing others turn away we speak to Jesus and we say
"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."