We pick up this morning at chapter 8 of The Story.
God has shown his mighty power in delivering his people out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea, and provided everything they needed to get to the Promised Land. How did that generation respond?
They grumbled and complained. They looked across the border, saw their enemies, and believed their doubts rather than trusting in God.
That generation wandered in the wilderness, until their children grew up and took their places. Joshua became the leader in place of Moses, and they trusted; they entered the promised land, and were victorious in everything God gave them to do.
God fulfilled his promises in greater and greater ways. And I don’t know if you picked up on this in the story of Joshua and all that follows, but there’s an important point to tuck away in the back of your head for everything we’re going to read between now and Christmas.
God told his people to be holy: to be set apart for his glory, to be holy people – to be sanctus (is the Latin word); to be saints.
How do they do that? Well it’s actually quite simple – God said it straight up when they were at Mount Sinai: be holy – be saints, is our English word – by keeping my commandments and remembering my testimony; or, in other words, the saints are those who live as God directs (which means asking for forgiveness when they mess up), and telling the story of God’s mercy, love, and power.
And it’s important to point out that, when God makes a new covenant with Joshua and his generation, God adds something new. It’s a phrase repeated at least 10 times in chapter 7, a phrase that is key to overcoming their enemies, to knocking down the walls of Jericho, and inheriting the land God had promised to them.
Let’s see if we remember… Joshua said to them, “be…” (what was it?)
Be timid? Be insecure? Be weak?
No! What was it God said? “Be strong and courageous”
Be strong and courageous because the Lord is with us.
Be strong and courageous because the Lord has given them into our hand.
Be strong and courageous because the Lord will finish what he started.
That’s the key to living in the promised land. Live as God directs (“keep my commandments”), keep telling the story (“remember my testimony”), but to cap it all off, be strong and courageous! Live as those who know that God does keep his promises, and does defend those who trust in Him.
…Pretty straightforward, right?
And that brings us, then, into chapter 8 where we see the exact opposite. Chapter 8 begins the long and sad story of a people who forget God’s testimony, who set aside his commandments, and who – more often than not – cave and cower in fear almost every time they need to have a little faith.
In Chapter 8 we saw snapshots of those who trust in God – those who were strong and courageous – side by side with those who didn’t, who trusted in worldly wisdom and found themselves crushed under the weight of the world, as happens every time.
There’s some fabulous characters in there: Othniel the warrior who was the grandson of one of those original spies sent into the promised land; Ja’el, that courageous woman who drove a tent peg through the head of an enemy king to prove that God’s power can be shown through mighty women; Gideon the reluctant leader who took the time to make sure it really was God who was speaking to him; and the graphic depiction of a king so large that a sword got lost in amongst his rolls.
So many directions we could go, but in the big picture, the thing that ties it all together is God’s command: keep my commandments, remember my testimony, be strong and courageous, and I will be with you.
That’s what ties all of these together: when they do those things, God is with them to provide what they need; when they go their own way, they realize just how weak they are on their own.
Ignorance or Disobedience?
The big take away from this is a simple but earth-shattering message. God has revealed himself to the Israelites. And that changes things. From God’s perspective, there’s a distinction between ignorance and willful disobedience.
God goes out of his way, again and again, to reveal himself to those who do not know him, who have not heard about his love or his power. And, as much as God is always ready to forgive, when he’s revealed himself but we then choose to disobey and go his own way, he lets us do that, even if the results are disastrous.
Let’s zoom in on the story of Samson. Samson is the miraculous answer to the prayer of a barren woman. An angel appeared to his mother and told her God’s plan, that her son would lead Israel in overcoming the Philistines who had made them slaves once more.
He was raised and became a Nazirite: that’s someone who make a special vow to live in a holy way in order to be an effective servant of God. There’s three vows that they make: The first is to abstain from wine; the second is to have nothing to do with corpses or graves; the third is not to cut their hair.
Now, God have given Samson awesome strength; like the angel said to his mother, he was supposed to be a strong leader to free God’s people from slavery.
And I know it’s easy to get caught up in the fascinating details of Samson’s life, but, when you stop to think about it, how did Samson do with the work God had given him? Or, how did he do with keeping his vow?
This is the part we overlook: In all that we read about Samson, we see that he’s violent and proud; he relies on his strength, and does incredible things. But, when you go home, flip back through the story of Samson. What’s missing compared to all the other leaders we saw so far? Samson never spoke with the Lord!
He was given a divine purpose, called to be another Moses to free his people from slavery. He was given unique gifts that would help God’s people. But he was so occupied with his own ambitions that he doesn’t stop to ask what the Lord actually wants him to do.
And, in the process, multiple times, he breaks his vows. He, himself, holds a drunken feast in his honour; he doesn’t avoid corpses – he makes them, and then strips 30 of them off to take their clothes to pay others for losing his bet.
God had great things in store for Samson, but he becomes a blind guide (literally), and rather than freeing God’s people, finds himself enslaved in a prison workcamp. He was meant to lead the Israelites to freedom, but, scripture says, he accomplished more when he died than in all the years he was alive.
That goes to show that strong and courageous alone isn’t the key – it’s a package deal. The holy people of God, the saints of God – you and I – have to keep God’s commandments, remember his testimony, and be strong and courageous.
No, my friends, Deborah is a better example: a faithful, wise, strong, and courageous woman who led all of Israel. She didn’t rely on a palace with strong walls, or a mighty army of guards to be her protection. Remember where she ruled from? Under a tree!
Those who rely on worldly wisdom will be crushed by the weight of the world.
But those who keep God’s commandments, remember his testimony, and are willing to be strong and courageous will always find that God keeps his promises, that he will finish what he starts, and he will show forth his glory through his holy people, through his saints, even you and me.
And so, as St. Paul says, we’re not to run aimlessly; we’re not to throw punches into the air and call it boxing. No, we’ve been given work to do – each of us – and we need to be strong and courageous, running forward, knowing that God is with us.
And we can trust in that, even when our knees are knocking and we’re shaking in our boots. We can choose to be strong and courageous even in the face of fear, because Jesus said that he knows his sheep, and no one will snatch them out of his hand – all it takes is for us to hear his voice, trust in the Good Shepherd, and follow him.
As we renew our baptismal vows and our commitment to be one of the saints of God, do so remembering all that you’ve read in his word this week:
What does God ask of us?
Keep my commandments
Remember my testimony
Be strong and courageous
God will be with us.
God will finish what he starts.
And if we keep his commandments, remember his testimony, and be strong and courageous, he will be glorified in his saints… even you.