Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"No Survivors": A Sermon on Joshua 10:28-42

That day Joshua took Makkedah. He put the city and its king to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it. He left no survivors. And he did to the king of Makkedah as he had done to the king of Jericho. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it. The Lord also gave that city and its king into Israel’s hand. The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there. And he did to its king as he had done to the king of Jericho. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Libnah to Lachish; he took up positions against it and attacked it. The Lord gave Lachish into Israel’s hands, and Joshua took it on the second day. The city and everyone in it he put to the sword, just as he had done to Libnah. Meanwhile, Horam king of Gezer had come up to help Lachish, but Joshua defeated him and his army – until no survivors were left. Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Lachish to Eglon; they took up positions against it and attacked it. They captured it that same day and put it to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it, just as they had done to Lachish. Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to Hebron and attacked it. They took the city and put it to the sword, together with its king, its villages and everyone in it. They left no survivors. Just as at Eglon, they totally destroyed it and everyone in it. Then Joshua and all Israel with him turned around and attacked Debir. They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to Hebron. So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded. Joshua subdued them from Kadesh Barnea to Gaza and from the whole region of Goshen to Gibeon. All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign, because the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel.” [[Joshua 10:28-42]]
If ever there were a 'hard saying' among Bible passages, this passage seems like it could be a finalist. Looking on the surface of it, it sounds so unpleasant. Conquer this, Joshua; conquer that, Joshua. No survivors, Joshua. You know, every now and then, when I'm reading the morning paper, there'll be an article there about a car accident, a train wreck, a plane crash. You know what phrase makes me sick? “No survivors”. How many times have you been glad to read those words? “No survivors”. But Joshua makes it sound like a good thing. “Hooray, no survivors”? How can we possibly grow in grace by reading books that are happy that there were no survivors?

Before we can see what God wants to show us here, we have to wrestle with a lot of discomfort. We have to see first where this fits in God’s story. Well, like a lot of things in the Bible, we need to retrace our steps back to a man named Abraham. God promised him that all the peoples in the world would get their blessings from God – through one family, his. Somehow, what God has been up to all this time is going to get funneled through Abraham. To do this, God promises Abraham a few things. One of those is that his family is going to own a nice plot of land called Canaan.

But God cautioned Abraham not to expect Canaan too soon. There were other people in the land, the Amorites or Canaanites. They wouldn’t be too thrilled to learn that God signed the deed over to somebody else. But Abraham doesn’t have to worry about that, God says. In a few generations, his family will take a detour through slavery in Egypt, and only after that do they get the land. Why so long? Well, God says in Genesis 15:16, it’s because “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure”. God isn't going to kick them out of the land without good reason. He’s going to give them a few centuries longer to get their act straight – and only then, after they keep refusing, will Abraham’s family get what God promised them.

And that's the plot of the story. Hundreds of years pass, and Abraham's family – a people called Israel, newly rescued out of Egypt – are standing at the border of the land, terrified to go in. Their spies came back with bad news. They think it's impossible, but Moses promises otherwise. Moses says if they step over that boundary line in faith, victory is a given. He says God will “subdue them before you” so that Israel can “drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you”. That’s what it says in Deuteronomy 9:3. Why do they get the victory? It isn't on account of Israel's strength or goodness, but “it is on account of the wickedness of these nations” and “to accomplish what [God] swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”.

Now who were “these nations”? These Canaanites were not a pleasant people to be around. Even the gods they worshipped were into adultery, incest, bloodthirsty violence, bestiality, and child sacrifice – and the Canaanite apple didn't fall far from that tree. These people make Romans 1 look like an understatement! They know, deep down, that what they’re doing is sin – but they crush their consciences so they can do their worst, do it with gusto, and cheer for everybody else to join in. And that's why Leviticus 18:25 warns the Israelites that it's for doing these kinds of sins that “the land was defiled” and “the land vomited out its inhabitants” – and when the Israelites later fall into the same trap, they get the same punishment. But for now, God has one command: go to Canaan and clear house.

So another generation passes. Moses is dead, and Joshua is in charge. He and the Israelites are done pitching their tents in the middle of nowhere. They move across the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. What kind of place do they find? They come into a land where most people don't live in cities. The cities are for soldiers, like military bases; most civilians live in the country. The Israelites come into a land that’s heard some rumors. Rumors about a new God on the scene who can beat even the gods of mighty Egypt. This new God can lead a people through land and sea, and this God who has clear intentions on Canaanite turf. They should know their time is up. But, disobediently, they ignore their final notice.

And that's where the Israelites come in. The first fortress they see is a place called Jericho. We know the story. They march around it in worship seven times to give Jericho a chance to surrender. The only one who does is the local hotel manager, a woman named Rahab. Jericho falls; Rahab lives. Those who listen to God’s last warning get brought into God’s people; those who don't, learn what happens when God’s centuries of patience have finally run their course. The Israelites can't let the Canaanites keep dominating the land. Later on, they'll have a hard enough time being faithful even with the Canaanites in the minority. Israel’s faith in God has to survive, or else the rest of the world can't be blessed through God's ultimate blessing, Jesus Christ – and yes, that includes even Canaanites who repent.

So the Israelites break down Jericho. The Israelites break down Ai. One place they don’t break down is Gibeon, since Gibeon made a peace agreement. But some other Canaanites want to make an example of Gibeon. So Joshua 10 tells the story of how the Israelites went the extra mile to save their new friends, and how God himself was committed to the cause. A few miracles: hailstones, omens in the sky… the usual. God has Israel's back. And so the army of Israel wins against five local generals who tried their hardest to teach Israel’s new friend Gibeon the wrong lesson. It happens at a place called Makkedah.

And that's where this passage comes in. Joshua and all Israel strike down a few bases in the south. Seven victories, just one campaign. The soldiers living in Makkedah, Lachish, Debir – they weren’t innocent. For hundreds of years they'd defied God with glee. When the last eviction warning came, and they had three options: give in, get lost, or go sour. Sadly, many picked what’s behind Door #3. With a target that was nothing if not guilty as sin, the survival of human history and God’s plan for it all had to rest on 'no survivors' just this once.

But even so, this isn't an easy passage to deal with in the church. It's hard to see what a monotonous litany of destruction and violence and carnage and mayhem could possibly have to do with our lives. But it gets clearer when we realize one important thing: when these verses talk about 'the LORD, the God of Israel', that God is our God. The God of Joshua is the God of Jesus. The God who crumbled the walls of Jericho is the God who through the cross crumbled the walls of sin that stood between him and us. The LORD God of Israel is the Lord God of the Church; and when we see that, it opens up the whole Old Testament to us in fresh ways.

Now, does that mean that God wants us to storm over to Rothsville and wipe it off the map? No, no, no. If that's news to anybody, we should talk after the service. So then what's the point? The point is, our warfare is not against flesh and blood, not against any city or fortress built by human hands – and yet there does remain a warfare for the people of God. And that warfare is against the spiritual powers behind the scenes, the strongholds of sin that clutter our spiritual life together. God may not command us to strike Makkedah, but he does call us to strike at pride in the church. God isn't sending this church against Libnah, but he is sending us against our own gossip and dissension. Our fight isn't against Lachish, but our fight is against our difficulty in forgiving each other. Our war isn't with Horam the king of Gezer, but we are at war with the king of all worldly ways, the devil who accuses God's people. Our battle may not be with the city of Eglon, but our battle is against spiritual stagnation, that hardening of the heart that clings more to our pet traditions than to the very grace of God. Our conflict has nothing to do with Hebron, but our conflict has plenty to do with our own petty anger and the damage it does to our relationships. And we may not march against Debir, but we are to march against the advancing forces of anything in our lives that keeps us from total devotion to the kingdom of God. In short, God wants to direct our church on a campaign for church holiness. And nothing less than a holy church will do.

But that's a huge challenge. Most churches are still cluttered with strongholds of sin. It was true in the days of Peter and Paul. It was true in the days of Martin Luther, true in the days of John Wesley, true in the days of Jacob Albright – and it's true here today. All of us brought baggage, myself included. But our mission is to tear down strongholds. I'll be the first to confess that my own human power isn't enough to tear down these strongholds in my own life, let alone the life of the church. This fight isn't just difficult. This fight is impossible... if we fight it without help. We can't forget is that this campaign is a commandment of God. And the commandment of God comes with the promise of God. The command is proof enough of God's faithfulness. Remember how the story ends? Verse 42: “All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel”. There's the key! There's the promise! Because they obeyed when the LORD commanded, the LORD fought for them. That LORD is our Lord. If we obey, if we set our sights to the bringing down of these strongholds, our Lord Jesus Christ will fight for us. He will lead us in victory. That's not a nice daydream; that's a promise.

But there's a reason this passage always says, “Joshua and all Israel”. This is not a private fight. We have to make war against these sins together. Our aim is to be one church united in holiness – and that means cooperation. It means sticking together. It means tearing down our walls and being vulnerable to one another's love. It means honestly letting each other into our business. It means sharing burdens, even the burdens of struggling with sin. It means all of us working on patching up this church's wounds and scars – every single one of us, without exception and without blame. The command of God is for all, and the campaign for holiness is for all. Just drifting along is not the Christian lifestyle. Everyone in this sanctuary right now is called to strap on the armor of God and enlist. Holiness is our victory, and we can accept no substitutes. That order doesn't come from me. It comes from the commander of the army of God, and that is Jesus Christ. And I leave you with this promise in his name: If we will fight on against this church's sin, and if we will fight that good fight in faith, in hope, and in love, then God will fight for us – and if God is fighting for us, then it doesn't matter what principalities and powers are standing against us! They will crumble before the awesome presence of our God – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who poured out his blood on the cross. Jesus died, not just to give us a get-out-of-jail-free card, but to make us one church and to breathe into us resurrection life through the Spirit of God-given holiness. And that God is the God who said, “I am the LORD your God: consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy”. By God's grace we can live it out – together and in the power of the living God. He is faithful, and he will do it when we join in the campaign. When it comes to sin in this church – not the sinners, but the sin – hear this word of the Lord: “Leave no survivors”. Let no sin survive in us. Amen.