This is the manuscript of a Sermon I preached at Good Shepherd Covenant church on October 18, 2009.
Joshua chapter 2.
It’s dark in here. These flax stalks are poking me.
I can’t believe we are in this situation. Why did she hide us in here anyway? Maybe she didn’t want us to see when the guards come and drive their spears through our bodies.
She told us to lie here and wait. I hate waiting.
Let’s assess the situation.
We were camped out in Shittim. Joshua told the two of us to swim across the river and scope out the land. Especially this city – Jericho.
It was easy enough to get through the city gates, but we knew it wouldn’t be long before people recognized that we were not from around here.
That’s when we saw her. The prostitute. For the record, it was my partner’s idea to follow her. I thought he was crazy, but people were starting to talk around us and I knew we had to act fast.
When we approached her, she didn’t even flinch. She just invited us in to her house. I suppose that makes sense. She’s used to letting strange men into her house all the time. Filthy.
A prostitute. Can you believe it. I just hope no one caught this on tape. If that video ever got on YouTube, my life would be destroyed. Can you imagine? They would definitely throw me out of the club. And, what would I tell my mother? She would never understand.
But, here I am, hidden under these flax stalks. My fate in the hands of Rahab, the prostitute.
At first she seemed a little disappointed that we weren’t here on business, but when she heard who we are, she changed. Her face got really serious. Just then some men started pounding on the door. The guards.
She hid us up here, and now we wait.
Shhh. Someone’s coming.
It’s Rahab. She’s telling us to come out. The coast is clear.
She lied to the guards and told them that we had already left and sent them on a wild goose chase after us.
Now she tells us that she believes that our God is the true God and that the whole city of Jericho is melting with fear. They heard how God delivered my people from Egypt and they are afraid that we will be able to destroy them as well.
Now she’s stepping over the line. She’s actually asking me to make a covenant with her. A trade. Our lives for her family’s life. If she let’s us free, then we have to promise to spare her and her family when we invade the city.
Could this situation get any worse? Not only am I in the house of a prostitute, but now I’m making a deal with one? What choice do I have?
We make the deal and I tell her that, on the day we invade, if she hangs this red rope in the window, then anyone who is inside her house will be spared.
She agrees and lets us climb out of her window and we head for the cliffs and hide in the caves.
For three days we wait and then we head back to camp.
I was surprised, but Joshua honored the agreement we made with the prostitute Rahab.
That is the story of Joshua 2.
It’s good to be back with you again.
When Hollis called and told me that he was going to be at a conference and asked if I would be willing to fill in for him I was glad to do it.
He told me that you are studying the first part of Joshua because you are moving into new territory as a church. I think that’s great.
On one hand, it makes sense.
Israel was moving from the desert and heading into Canaan. They were faced with many unknowns. The land was filled with people, fortified cities, and warriors. How would they be able to do it?
There are some great lessons to learn from this passage. It speaks of God’s faithfulness and the people’s obedience.
On the other hand, there are some problems.
If you’ve studied this part of Israel’s history before, perhaps you’ve noticed these things as well.
From where we stand, on this side of Jesus’ life, and his teaching about love and peace and forgiveness, the Old Testament looks like a tale of brutality and bloodshed, and immorality.
First, let’s look back at Deuteronomy 7:1-6, and find the instructions that Moses gave to the people about entering the land.
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
In the law, God told them not to kill.
But here he tells them to go in and kill everyone. How is this possible?
How can this be the same God that would send Jesus to teach us to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us.
In our world, we call this genocide.
Then, there is a second problem with this passage. It’s Rahab. I have two problems with Rahab.
First, God specifically said to not spare any of them and to not make a covenant with any of them. What’s the first thing they do? They make a covenant.
And with whom do they make the covenant?
This is my second problem. They make the deal with a prostitute. What’s up with that?
This issue has plagued Bible students for centuries.
Some have said that the Old Testament should be thrown out all together.
Some have claimed that the god of the Old Testament is actually a different God than the one Jesus called Father.
Before we look at this passage, I thought it might be helpful to adjust our lenses and learn a little bit about how to approach the Old Testament.
When you study the big picture of God’s dealings with the people in Scripture, there is one phrase that summarizes it. One phrase that tells us how God deals with us.
God meets us where we are, and then pulls us forward.
God meets us in a physical space. In our geography. Yes, geography does matter.
When I was a kid, growing up in Sunday School,
I remember hearing the stories of the Old Testament and thinking they were bigger than life.
I’m not sure what it was about these stories. Maybe it was the flannel board that the teacher used to stick the paper characters to.
Perhaps that board seemed like magic to me. It was a window into a cosmic reality that represented all of life.
The Plagues of Egypt.
Moses parting the Red Sea.
The Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
The Walls of Jericho crashing down at the sound of the trumpet.
When we read these stories it is easy to exaggerate them in our imagination.
As odd as this may sound, it is important that we bring these stories down to size a little bit.
In this passage we see that the tribes of Israel are encamped in a village named Shittim. This is on the east side of the Jordan River. Joshua sends two spies out to scope out the city of Jericho.
Let’s match this to something we know. If the city of Shittim were right here, where Good Shepherd sits, the entire city would be about the size of the Good Shepherd campus combined with Blaine High School next door. That’s it.
Now, in relation to this city of Shittim/Good Shepherd/Blaine, the city of Jericho would be downtown Anoka. Both in distance from here and in total size.
Let’s zoom out a little further. All the great stories of the Bible from the time of the Exodus, all through the Judges, and the Kings, take place on a plot of land stretching from Egypt up to the sea of Galillee.
To put those places and distances into something familiar to us, think of LaCrosse Wisconsin as Egypt. To travel from Egypt to the sea of Galilee would be like going from La Crosse to St. cloud.
We’re talking about 180 miles of land. Zoom out further and look at that in regard to the entire planet. That is just a speck.
At the time of this story there were giant, thriving civilizations all over the planet. Massive dynasties had risen and fallen in China. Philosophers were thinking great thoughts in southern Europe. Civilizations were developing in North, Central, and South America. None of which had any knowledge of Israel, or Egypt.
Think back to the founding father of the Old Testament story, Abraham. When Abraham had his first encounter with God, the pyramids in Egypt were already ancient.
That begs the question.
How did God deal with people before Abraham?
How did God deal with the Chinese?
How did God deal with the Native Americans?
Were all those millions and millions of people condemned to Hell because they lived before Abraham?
That’s not a question we are going to answer in this message, but it is one that helps us to frame the Old Testament.
Here’s what we learn from the geography.
This is not a global story.
This is an Abraham story.
God made a promise to Abraham, and God was faithful to the promise He made to Abraham. He told him that he would make his descendents into a great nation, and he did.
The story of Joshua is a continuation of the story of God’s faithfulness to his promises.
God also meets us in another place. He meets us in our Theology.
Wait a minute. That doesn’t make sense. How can God meet us in our theology? I thought theology was the correct understanding of God.
Actually, theology is our description of God, based on what we know. And our understanding and knowledge base is constantly growing.
Back in the days of Joshua, everyone believed that the world was flat, that the sun, moon, and stars existed in the same space as the clouds, and that the gods lived on the mountains and in the rivers.
That was the Theology of the day, even for the Israelites.
Today, we know that the universe isn’t like that, so our theology has adapted to our knowledge, and we talk about God in a very different way than they did back then.
God meets us where we are, then pulls us forward.
In that day the people believed that the gods lived on the mountains, or in the sea. So, where does he show up to bring the law? On a mountain. Had he done anything else, the people wouldn’t have recognized it as God.
The tribes and people of Canaan were warriors. They fought and killed each other all the time. It was the accepted theology of the day that each city had a god that ruled over that city. When the people warred against each other it was really a battle of the Gods.
My god’s bigger than your god.
As brutal and savage as it may seem to us, it was the way things were back then. That doesn’t make it right, it just was how it was.
So, God revealed himself to them in a way that they could understand and dealt with them at that level.
Not only does God meet us in our understanding of Him, he also meets us in our understanding of ourself – in our identity.
Let’s look to see how this plays out in everyday life. With children.
I have four children, and none of them are alike. They each have a different personality, and a different idea about who they are.
Let’s say you are a parent and you have two children.
One of your children is incredibly outgoing and has a big mouth. She isn’t afraid to talk to anyone. When she meets a stranger she rushes right up to them and starts airing all your family’s dirty laundry.
Your other child is just the opposite. He is extremely shy and won’t look anyone in the eye. He feels like he is invisible and no one would want to talk to him anyway.
Where she exudes confidence and is overbearing, he lacks confidence and is timid.
How do you train these kids? What kind of instructions do you give them about meeting new people?
Is it the same? No, it isn’t.
To the one, you tell her to watch her mouth, slow down, think first, and be polite.
Do you have to tell those things to the other one? No. Just the opposite. You have to push him toward the people and tell him to get aggressive.
God is like that with His children. He has different instructions for different kinds of people and for different kinds of nations.
This is where we run into a lot of problems when we try to interpret the Old Testament today.
Who were the children of Israel in the story of Joshua?
They were a beaten down people. For the last 400 years they had been enslaved in Egypt. Slaves.
We know a little bit about this in our country.
How long were African people enslaved by Europeans in America? 400 years.
That is a really long time. That is twice as long as the United States has been a country.
What do you think happens to a people group after they have been enslaved for that long? What happens to their sense of identity and their place in the world?
It is crushed. They feel helpless. After that long, they feel like it is their only possible place to be. They are beaten and oppressed. They need to be delivered from the hands of the Empire that has beaten them down.
They need to be taught that they are valid human beings, loved by God, and they need to be empowered to stand up for equality.
When we read the Old Testament, we need to think of Israel in these terms. They were the beaten and oppressed, not the mighty nation.
What kind of instructions does God give to a nation that has no idea how to be anything other than servants to a massive empire?
He gives them laws to govern their every action, because they don’t know how to behave in a healthy way.
He tells them to have courage and to go to war against Canaan, because all they have ever known is defeat.
It is through those lenses that we must read the story of Exodus and Joshua.
God meets us where we are. They were oppressed and needed empowerment.
At this point we need to stop and take a reality check.
The United States is not Israel.
The United States is not God’s chosen people.
Also, the United States is not an oppressed nation.
Perhaps, when the country was founded, and we were 13 colonies under the hand of a tyrant, we were a little bit more like Israel was.
But we aren’t today.
If you were to choose who we were in the story of the Exodus, we would be Egypt.
The message to Joshua and his people was a message to a young and weak nation.
Later on, when Israel grew in strength and power, and became a strong nation under David and Solomon, the message from God changed. He started to warn them about abusing their power.
The reason I bring all of this up is because I have heard a lot of Christians use the Exodus story to justify a holy war today. As if killing our enemies was what God wants us to do.
We are not Israel.
We are not the oppressed people.
God met them in that place, and pushed them. We are not in that place.
Hopefully, that crash course in Old Testament interpretation will be helpful for you as you read the rich stories of God’s dealing with Israel throughout history.
But, it leaves us with a big question.
So, where is the message for us, today?
Here we sit, the wealthiest nation on the planet.
The majority of us in this room sit in the highest place of privilege.
We are white, middle to upper middle class Protestants.
We are the Empire and people are banging on our doors trying to take away what we have, or what we think we have.
How should we respond, and what does the book of Joshua have to teach us?
In Joshua chapter 2, there is an important message found in one word, Rahab.
God meets us where we are, and then pulls us forward.
Have you ever noticed that God is in the business of making rules and then breaking His own rules?
Look again at Deuteronomy 7. He said,
Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them.
In the very first city they encounter, before they even attack. What does he do? He makes a treaty with Rahab!
Joshua 2:12 (NIV)
12 Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign
Not only do they make a treaty with her, but they obviously intermarried with her. Turn to Matthew chapter 1.
This is the geneology of Jesus. It starts with Abraham, goes to David, then ends with Jesus. Look who’s listed in verse 5. Rahab.
God didn’t just break a rule and let it slide under the radar. He broke a rule, big time, and posted it in his son’s geneology so that no one would ever forget.
Now, here’s the really scandalous thing. Rahab was a prostitute.
Let me ask you this question. If you were one of the two spies, would you have gone into the house? What would people think? Guilt by association, right? I mean, a godly, upstanding citizen would never lower oneself to muck around in the mire of such lowliness and sin.
God meets us where we are, then pulls us forward.
That’s what Jesus did all the time.
Jesus took a cup of water from a Samaritan woman. She was a half-breed, divorcee, who was currently living with a man, on the wrong side of the tracks. The conversation itself made Jesus unclean in the eyes of God’s people.
Jesus touched the leper, and in so doing made himself unclean.
Jesus ate meals with tax-collectors, thus becoming unclean.
Jesus worked on the Sabbath, thus making him a law breaker, and unclean.
One of Jesus’ closest disciples was a prostitute.
God loves prostitutes.
I heard a Bible Teacher named Tony Campolo tell this story.
(Although I’ve heard story many places, I copied this text from http://www.swapmeetdave.com/Bible/Agnes.htm)
A few years ago Tony flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.
He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The fat guy behind the counter comes over and asks, “What d’ya want?”
Well, Tony isn’t so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, “I’ll have a donut and black coffee.”
As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night’s work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend nastily replies, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”
The first woman says, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“The one right next to me,” he asked, “she comes in every night?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she’s here every night. She’s been comin’ here for years. Why do you want to know?”
“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”
A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man’s chubby cheeks. “That’s great,” he says, “yeah, that’s great. I like it.” He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, “Hey, come on out here. This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes’ birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here.”
His wife comes out. “That’s terrific,” she says. “You know, Agnes is really nice. She’s always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her.”
So they make their plans. Tony says he’ll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he’ll make a cake.
At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.
At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She’s stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.
And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that’s when she totally loses it. Now she’s sobbing and crying. Harry, who’s not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake.”
So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, “Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!”
But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if…I mean, if I don’t…I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”
Harry doesn’t know what to say so he shrugs and says, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want.”
“Oh, could I?” she asks. Looking at Tony she says, “I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I’ll be right back, honest.”
She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.
So Tony gets up on a chair and says, “What do you say that we pray together?”
And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. Tony recalls, “I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.”
When he’s finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”
What kind of Church is Good Shepherd Covenant Church? I honestly don’t know, so I don’t ask the question with any accusation or hidden agenda. I simply ask.
Are you a church that has fallen into the mindset of the Empire. Do you see yourself as the protectors of all that is good and right and try to keep the corruption of the world at bay?
Or, are you a church on an adventure with God? Are you a church that follows the rule breaking pattern of God and reaches out to the people outside the boundaries?
God is a loving God. He meets us where we are, and then he pulls us forward.
He meets the oppressed and beaten people, who function out of the fear of being beaten further down and gives them courage to speak out and fight for what is right.
He meets the powerful people who operate out of the fear of losing their power and comfort, and gives them the courage to open up and touch the unclean.
Where are you today? God wants to meet you there and pull you closer to Him.