Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Long After the Stink is Gone

Reading: Joshua 7 – 10   
In Joshua, rocks played a different role than they do in our day. Five different times rocks were piled up in order to remind people of something.
For instance, in Joshua 4, after Israel had crossed the flooding Jordan on dry ground, the people were to take 12 stones from the middle of the river and carry them to Gilgal (means circle of stones) where they camped that night. There they piled them up so that “in the future when your descendants ask their fathers, 'What do these stones mean?'” they could teach them what the Lord had done in bringing them across the Jordan.
There is a part of this story which always fascinates me. It keeps me wondering. That is the part in which the waters stopped flowing. We read,
...the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (the Salt Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. (Joshua 3:16)
I can't help but wonder if God was painting a picture for future generations here. As He stops the waters from flowing into the Dead Sea (the Salt Sea), He brings the water all the way back to a town called Adam. Of course, it could have stopped 100 feet away. But instead, He stops it at a town called Adam. Given the obvious potential connection between crossing through the river and baptism, in which Adam's sin is dealt with and we are no longer condemned to death, I have to wonder if there is an intended connection. But I am left to wonder.
Then, after Achan's sin of taking the devoted things for himself, all Israel stoned Achan, rather than burning his body, as they did the rest of the family, we read,
Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor [trouble] ever since. (Joshua 7:26)
Again, after hanging the King of Ai, we read,
He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day. (Joshua 8:29)
Once more, after five Amorite kings are hung on trees we read the following:
At sunset Joshua gave the order and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had been hiding. At the mouth of the cave they placed large rocks, which are there to this day. (Joshua 10:27)
I can't help but notice the repeated phrase, “which remains to this day.” What is the point of piling rocks up over these dead bodies? These events are to be remembered long after the stink is gone! Whether it is the consequences of Achan's sin which must be remembered lest we follow in his path, or the victory over wicked masters (kings) which God graciously gives us to remind us of his power and mercy, we must remember these events in order to live in the freedom they provide. And, we must remember them long after the stink is gone.
Baptism is like a pile of rocks for us. At least that is something I take from Romans 6:1-4.
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  3Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
When we are first saved and delivered from the ruling power of sin, it wasn't so hard to remember the slavery to corruption from which we were delivered. Sin was bitter. Sin carried with it a foul odor. However, I find in myself, and in those I pastor, that many years after we have been saved we tend to forget the smell. Or, for those who are saved at a young age, often they can grow up not realizing the foul stench of wickedness. Baptism is like that pile of rocks. Baptism reminds us of the consequences of sin. Baptism is a moment in our lives we can all remember, and Paul draws the memory of the Romans back to it.
Paul's argument against the idea that grace leads to more sin is quite simple on one level. “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” When did we die to sin? In Christ. And the visual picture of that event is baptism. Paul reminds us, “We were buried with him through baptism into death...” Every time I remember baptism, I remember being buried in a grave (going down into the waters of death)—that is the consequence of sin. Just as stones reminded Israel of the consequences of Achan's sin, so baptism reminds me that the end of my life of sin was death. Just as stones reminded Israel how God's power was sufficient to deliver from wicked masters who would rule over God's inheritance, baptism reminds me that God miraculously delivered me from Satan's power over my life.
Baptism is a gift from God to the believer; a means of grace. You may not smell the stink of sin as you go about life in the midst of God's community in the same way you did when “you were dead in my trespasses and sins...” (Ephesians 2:1), but you can look at the reminder and say,
How can I live in sin any longer? I died to sin. I understood the judgment for my life of sin as death by execution under the wrath of God. And a substitute was given me. I accepted that substitute, Jesus Christ, and through faith I was executed with Him. Then, in baptism I was symbolically buried with Him (you don't bury living men, but dead); then raised with Him and free. Why would I return to that which brought death. It didn't just bring some rough times, it brought death...stench and all. And while I can't still remember the stink, I can remember the grace God gave me to realize all this and to flee from it to Christ. I won't stop fleeing to Christ today.”
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Have You Ever Feared for Your Life?

Reading: Joshua 9  
As I read Joshua and the accounts of Israel's conquest of the promise land, frankly there are many ways in which I cannot relate. Of course there are places where I connect to heart issues, like Achan who coveted and took what belonged to God. Been there; done that. But by the mercy of God I wasn't stoned with my family and burned. Thank God.
Today I found another place which all believers should be able to relate to. And it is found in the curious little story about the Gibeonites and their deception. Israel had defeated Jericho and Ai completely...not leaving anyone alive, not even the kings. When news of this spread, we find two responses. First, the kings of the Jordan joined together to make war against Israel (Joshua 9:1-2). This is a logical response if you don't believe that God is behind the Israelites. “If we join together, we will be stronger, and we will defeat them.” From a human reasoning standpoint this makes a lot of sense: Brute force against brute force; the one with more wins.
The second response is the most interesting, because these folks don't set out to fight against the Israelites, but to save their own skin. “However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse...” (Joshua 9:3-4). These guys were actors par excellence, setting themselves up to look like they had traveled from a distant country for many days, beginning by extolling the fame of the Lord in what He was doing through the Israelites in defeating Ai and Jericho, as well as Sihon and Og on the other side of the Jordan. The Israelites made the fatal mistake of not seeking the Lord but by using only their senses to test the situation. “The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord.” (Joshua 9:14)
So Joshua made a treaty of peace with the Gibeonites, only to discover a few days later that the Gibeonites were their neighbors. Now they are in a fix: here are people whom they cannot destroy in the promise land, and they can't break their word, their oath. They must walk in integrity before God. (This raises a whole other topic to consider: how many of us would have justified breaking our oath because they deceived us?) So Joshua summons the Gibeonites. Listen to what he says, and the Gibeonite response (Joshua 9:22-25):
"Why did you deceive us by saying, 'We live a long way from you,' while actually you live near us? 23You are now under a curse: You will never cease to serve as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God." 24They answered Joshua, "Your servants were clearly told how the LORD your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you the whole land and to wipe out all its inhabitants from before you. So we feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this. 25We are now in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right to you."
Joshua tells them they will be servants, hard laborers for the house of God, and they respond by saying, “Do to us whatever seems good and right to you.” They certainly were not American Evangelical Christians. Why in the world did they so willingly accept enslavement? Real simple: they feared for their lives. It was death, or treaty. If treaty involved enslavement, then so be it.
The difference between the Gibeonites response and that of the other kings west of the Jordan is that the Gibeonites believed that God was really behind the Israelites and therefore they would be destroyed. So servitude makes for acceptable terms.
In the church world today, it often seems many want to negotiate terms for how they serve God. Their own fulfillment is often at the top of the list. It seems so foreign from the New Testament concept of being slaves for Christ, giving up our lives, taking up a cross and following Jesus. Some seem to have never counted the cost. Maybe they have never been “clearly told” of the wrath of God as the Gibeonites had been told of their impending doom.  
According to Luke 14:31-33, we are at war with a king—God—and we are not able to win. We find ourselves in the same situation the Gibeonites did. We need to send a delegation just as they did to ask for terms of peace. However, since we cannot deceive God as they were able to deceive the Israelites, the terms of peace are very clear: give up everything you have. Then and only then can you be a disciple of Jesus.
“But you don't understand, we are Americans. We have rights. We need to be fulfilled. We don't want to be unwise in how radical we are in serving God.” Then you need to join in with the other kings west of the Jordan and fight; possibly you think you can win. But as for me, I think the wise approach is realizing the truth: our lives are worthless now... we are heading for the wrath of God. We give up everything... every right to negotiate on our terms, every right to complain about what role God calls us to, every right to do as we please with our lives, our money...everything.
The king of Jerusalem and its people were alarmed when they heard what the Gibeonites did (Joshua 10:1-2). Why would they do this? Gibeon was large and the Gibeonites were skilled fighters. But they were also smart—they knew a good deal when they saw one. Being a servant of God is a good deal, when we understand what's coming. Oh the mercy of God that we would be spared and allowed to serve in God's kingdom. We don't come with our importance, we don't come with our fighting abilities, we don't come with all our royalty... we come as sinners condemned to die to a merciful God who spares us, and we come to serve however He wants.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,