Monday, October 21, 2013

The Great Story - The Battle: Rules of Engagement

Preached on Sunday, October 20, 2013

Scripture readings: Joshua 1:1-11, 16-18; 10:1-28

My Uncle Eddie sent me a short video, by email, of how cats take over dog beds. It’s true. My mom has a black Labrador retriever and a black cat; and the cat rules the dog and takes over everything it wants.
Nishinomiya-Tsutakawa Japanese Gardens, Spokane, WA
July 2013
Although I like both dogs and cats, I really think that dogs make better Christians than cats do. Dogs are humble. Dogs do share. Cats aren’t, and don’t.
Among the dogs, the smaller dogs are more assertive toward the invasion of the cats. Chihuahuas, poodles, and terriers resist and persist. The medium and big dogs (like Boxers, Labs, and Shepherds) are more half-hearted. They do more surrendering and whining, or compromising. They might try to squeeze themselves in around the cat.
We have reached a part of the great story of the Bible that looks like much more than an invasion of space. It’s a terrible invasion. I my dog versus cat comparison, God’s people start their invasion like feisty, monster cats and wind up being gentle, whiny German Shepherds. So I struggle with my dog favoritism.
We are traveling through the part of the great story as it is found in Joshua. It looks like God’s people invading other people’s spaces and doing terrible, bloody work in the process. It’s true.
In another way this part of the great story is actually God’s invasion. As to the question of “why all the blood and slaughter”; the very skeptics who will condemn the blood and slaughter also condemn the idea that there can be a good and all-powerful God who also allows evil to continue. The bloody invasion of the land of Canaan (the Promised Land) would have put an end to great evils.
The Canaanites had public religious sexual orgies in order to make the gods give them fertility and prosperity. They burned babies and children as living, human sacrifices to their gods to get the gods to give them success.
When the Israelites stopped driving the Canaanites out, they learned the Canaanite way of worship. Sometimes became their way of worship. The Canaanite gods became the gods of the Chosen People because the invasion had not been complete. God’s people had not everything they could to eliminate the contagious evil.
How do you destroy evil? Isn’t it costly? In the Bible, God’s most nonviolent way of ending the power of evil involved his own death on the cross. In history, how did the evil done by the Nazis end? In the Second World War, the end of genuine evil was genuinely costly. It was horrifically bloody. The Great story of the Bible, in the invasion of the Promised Land, tells us about the high cost of destroying evil.
In this part of the great story of the Bible, as we come to the book of Joshua, we find that, when God promises his people a home for grace, and for justice, he keeps his promises. The world, both then and now, is no real home for grace and justice.
It seems to take some kind of supreme effort, in the form of a fight or a struggle, to make such a home in this world. The world does not give up any space without such a fight or a struggle.
I don’t know what to say about the slaughter that fills the book of Joshua, and so much of the Old Testament. God’s people were commanded to be violent in order to create a home, and to keep that home.
The fact is that, without this bloody invasion, we would never have heard of Israel at all. There would have been no King David, no prophets, no Jesus. The world had no room for such things. The world would not make room for these willingly.
In the Exodus and the wilderness, God’s people had been kept alive by artificial means: by means of manna (or bread from heaven) and by water flowing miraculously from rocks in time of need. There would never be any room for God’s people to be God’s people, in a place of their own under normal conditions, without an invasion.
The slaughter of whole cities was not an Israelite thing. It was a thing that everyone did, and they would have done it to Israel, if they had had the chance. How would God’s people survive in such a world?
In the beginning of the invasion, God’s people were banned from taking anything for themselves for their own gain. This was a symbol that none of this invasion was for their personal gain. The invasion was only for a place that would be the gift of a home for grace.
They did not invade for power or glory, because they were not to have a king like other nations. The plan was for them to learn to be a humble people. And they were not called to conquer the world, but only make a place where they could be God’s people.
They did not invade because they had the right to invade. They were not better than others, though the others seemed to be worse. Most of all they were going into the land to make it their home because God had promised a home to their ancestors.
In Deuteronomy Moses told them this about that. “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Deuteronomy 9:5-6)
They did not invade to dominate other people. In the Book of Leviticus their law says this. “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
When one of the cities that were fated to be destroyed tricked the Israelites into making an alliance with them, Israel was honor bound to protect them. By trickery the people of Gibeon became the alien in their midst. The people of Gibeon were being attacked by an alliance of other Canaanite cities because they had this alliance with Israel, so they called on God’s people for help, and they got that help. (Joshua 10:1-15)
Giving help to the strangers and aliens who were in distress was God’s requirement for his people. They owed grace and mercy to the alien in their midst. That was God’s law, even when God’s people were invading the land. Think about that.
Remember that we were strangers and aliens to God. Grace to strangers and aliens, in Joshua’s time and ours: that’s the strange and wonderful law of the word of God.
This helps us understand that ancient, bloody invasion. And we need to understand this because, in our own way, we too are invaders. We are struggling to make a place, or to become a place within our fellowship, where people are free to become God’s people, and free to live out a new way of life: a life of grace and mercy.
The Israelites did not deserve the land, because they were “a stiff-necked people”, and so are we. We don’t deserve a place for grace. If we are able to create a place in this world that is full of God’s grace, it’s not because we are good at grace ourselves, no matter how much grace we have received. We only try to make a place where the law is all about learning and giving grace.
One of the conditions of a successful invasion was going to depend on keeping close to the Word of God, as God’s people had received it. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.” (Joshua 1:8)
The Book of the Law is the Torah. Torah is the Hebrew word for law in the Book of the Law, but it is not so much about rules and procedures. The Book of the Law is the whole first five books of our Old Testament. The creation in the Book of Genesis is part of the law. When God, in the beginning, “created heavens and the earth” and said “let there be light”, that is part of the law. (Genesis 1) When the Lord said to Abraham, “I will bless you” and “you will be a blessing”; that is part of the law. (Genesis 12)
 Torah (or Law) means way. The Law is God’s way of working, the law of God’s nature. It reveals who God is, and what God wants to give us, just as much as it reveals what God wants from us and what God wants us to be.
When the law says, “It is not because of your righteousness or integrity”, and “love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt”, the law is about grace. The sacrifices in the law were about the costliness of grace in God’s forgiveness of our sins. The sacrifices in the Old Testament point to God’s own sacrifice, in Jesus, on the cross. It is about grace just as much as it is about goodness and holiness
We must let God invade us to make us about grace. We must meditate on this law of grace in order to be faithful to it and not imagine things about ourselves, or our rights, that we don’t deserve.
When we invade our part of the world to make a family, or to make a community (like a church), or to make the world around a a better place, we meditate on the Word of God, the law of grace and goodness, so that we do not create dishonest and self-righteous patterns of living. Otherwise our families and our church will not be holy ground at all.
We seek to be a blessing to the world around us. We seek to be a blessing to our neighbors. It is a kind of invasion of love and service to our community and to our neighbors. We have to be people who dwell in the word of God, and take it with us and live out its patterns and ways of goodness, and grace, and humility.
We are not told to read and know the word of God and be able to quote it, chapter and verse, in order to prove that we are right and deserving. We are told to obey it. We are told to live it, and the heart of this living is grace.
Grace is the opposite of the ways of this world. Grace destroys the world as it is, wherever we set our feet. The Lord told Joshua, “I will give you every place you set your foot.” (Joshua 1:3) Just take the grace of God with you wherever you go and you will destroy the world as it is.
The word of God disciplines us because it has been designed to change us. It has been designed to teach us about the God of grace and the life of grace. Otherwise it teaches us nothing of value.
The Book of Joshua shows us a way of life where God speaks and God’s people listen. Sometimes they actually talk to God before he talks to them. Most of the time, in Joshua, God speaks first. Joshua begins with God speaking.
This is prayer, and this is essential if we are to be faithful to God’s invasion of us, and our invasion of the world. We cannot be God’s people without being on speaking terms with God; and most importantly, being on listening terms with God.
Often, in the Book of Joshua, God’s people renewed their identity as God’s people. They were always making promises to God. They made a memorial of God’s intervention in their lives when they crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. They were circumcised when they crossed the river.
The adult men, for some reason, had not been circumcised during the Exodus, as all male babies were supposed to be. We need to remember that circumcision is for babies. The grace of God begins with us as babies. God’s people begin their identity as God’s people, as babies. Grownups, if they want to be identified as God’s people, need to see their babies as God’s people.
God’s people celebrated the Passover for the first time since their ancestors did it in Egypt. They built altars of remembrance. They gathered together to renew their covenant with God many times during their battle for a home.
We allow the invasion of God into our own lives by renewing our identity as God’s people. We can only allow God’s invasion of our families, and our church, and our community, and our world, as we renew our relationship to God.
Sometimes we do this as we listen to other people confess their faith and commitment. Sometimes we do this when we confess our faith by repeating the ancient creeds or statements of faith that have been handed down through the centuries of the church. Sometimes we renew our relationship with God when we confess our sins together and hear the word of forgiveness together.
Joshua is in line with the whole of the word of God. The whole Bible gives us the model and the example of how God’s people are not merely his as individuals.
I commit my life to the Lord every day, and there is no other way to be God’s people. But that is not enough. All of God’s people are always God’s people by means of coming together, struggling together, serving together, and praying together in the promises of God.
Baptism is our identification with the grace and with the common life we share as God’s people. Baptism is never something we do to ourselves. It is always done to us. The Bible never tells us to “get baptized” but to “be baptized”. It is passive. It is never something we do for ourselves, because we can only belong to God by grace. We have to “let it be”.
In some ways there are great advantages to being baptized as a baby. You can’t claim the beginning of God’s work in your life. God began his work before you could add or subtract anything from it.
For me, God’s love was always, only, a gift that I could only respond to, and receive. I committed my life to God in Christ as the unconditional surrender to something that God had already done for me, in Christ. The beauty of God, the beauty and the horrible extremity of the cross, were simply something I could not say “no” to. I was afraid to say “yes” to God; but I was much more afraid of saying “no”. How do you say “no” to the cross?
The daily discipline of the law of grace in the word of God, and in prayer, and in constant renewal of our relationship are how we allow God’s invasion of our lives, our family, our church, and our world. These disciplines form our “rules of engagement”. They tell us how we go forth. They tell us how to engage with people around us: the people we love, the people we don’t know, even the people who seem to be against us.
If we are in a battle, if we are in any sort of struggle, these disciplines tell us how to do it. They tell us how to fight.
It is a constant reminder of who we are and who we struggle to be. It calls us to go out into the world, and to take the kingdom of God with us, with great humility and grace toward others.

God humbled himself on the cross, in Jesus, to give us grace. Grace is how we do battle. Grace is our rule of engagement. Grace is how we will succeed.

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