Joshua 5:13-6:20, Matthew 11:20-30: Whose side are you on?

This Sermon was delivered at St Mary the Virgin’s, Diss at Evensong on the 14th October 2018. Readings: Joshua 5:13-6:20, Matthew 11:20-30.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It was with a certain amount of wry amusement that I discovered tonight’s old testament reading from Joshua begins with a story I referenced in my sermon on Angels two weeks ago. If you were here you’ll remember that I confessed my conviction that in many of the stories where angels appear there’s an unmistakable sense of disruption which suggests to me that its a record of an encounter, rather than simply a poetic or mythical representation of a moral fable. These encounters may well be presented within particular literary styles, but it’s hard to throw the sense that ‘something happened’.

This episode in Joshua’s adventures is no exception. Joshua seems to have gone off on his own ahead of his forces to assess the city of Jericho’s defences for himself. Jericho happens to be one of the earliest continuous settlements in the world. Some suggest that it may date back as far as 9000 BC. As a city, its fortifications and walls were impressive and would be a challenge for his men to take. I suspect that he was trying to get to a higher place to get a good view of the situation. As he looks up he sees before him a man standing before him with his sword drawn. Note, once again, the absence of any fluffy wings. Joshua demands that he identifies himself, are you friend or foe? Clearly, the adrenaline is pumping and should this man be an enemy then Joshua is prepared to fight him. One commentator wonders if the presence of this warrior outside the city walls might have been considered a champion approaching on behalf of Jericho much as Goliath will be later for the Philistines. In the event, this was not the case for the warrior responds: ‘Neither, I have come as the Commander of the Lord’s Army’. A moment before we could imagine Joshua reaching for the hilt of his blade. Now he drops to the ground before him and worships. I told you last time that when angels are worshipped they say ‘don’t do that, worship God not me’. But here the angel seems to accept being worshipped. However, it’s followed by the curious declaration that the place where Joshua stands is holy ground; reminiscent of Moses’ experience of the burning bush. Just as we can have confidence in saying that God isn’t a burning bush but was present through the sign of the burning bush we can say here that the Angel stands before Joshua in the Name of God and that Joshua worships the one whom the Angel represents.

Our reading continues with God giving Joshua instructions on how to take the city of Jericho, instructions which presumably are spoken by the warrior and are understood to be the words of God himself.

Joshua obeys, the city falls and in verse 27, which we didn’t hear tonight, it says ‘So the Lord was with Joshua and his fame spread throughout the land’.

Before we continue the theme of destroyed cities, it’s worth pointing out a small yet crucial detail. Joshua asks the sword-bearing warrior “whose side are you on?”

“Neither, I have come as the Commander of the Lord’s Army”. God is on God’s side. Not our side or their side, but his side. Later Joshua will offer his famous choice to the people of Israel: “If choosing the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose this day whom you will serve, whether the Gods your forefathers served beyond the river, or the Gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living (that is, for us today, the gods, ideologies and cultural values of society around us). But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

And this is a serious question, for what is Jesus talking about in Matthew 11?

“He began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent”.

We have a God who is greater than we can possibly imagine. This is the God who died for us on the Cross and who was raised back to eternal life so that we might be forgiven of our sins and be set free from destructive habits to live our lives to the full. This is the God who spoke reality into existence. What he imagines becomes reality. He healed the sick, he cast out demons and performed signs and wonders; feeding the five thousand, turning water into wine, giving the blind the gift of sight. Matthew writes in chapter 9 that when the crowds saw this they were filled with awe and they praised God.

It’s at this point I’m reminded of a joke which has happened a few times in different films and TV shows. Things are difficult for the main character, often they can’t find a valuable object which means a lot to them and the story. They get on their knees and start praying to God, “Dear Lord, I know we haven’t been on speaking terms lately but I really need to find the missing thing and if you could just help me find it then I’ll believe in you and become your servant forever and – oh, nevermind I found it!”.

In essence, that’s what has happened here. It’s like the story of the healing of Ten Lepers.Jesus is asked to heal ten men who were suffering from leprosy. He does so and after they’ve been to the priests and been announced as ‘clean’ once more nine of them just return to their normal lives; returning to their families, looking for work. Yippee! So what? Only one of them came back to find Jesus to say thank you.

This is actually a similar situation to the choice Joshua gave to Israel, they had seen and knew that God had taken them out of captivity in Egpty and brought them into the promised land but some of them still didn’t want to worship God.

I wonder what this has to say to us?

Sometimes we might say that God hasn’t done that much in our lives, after all, Jesus isn’t walking around Diss doing miracles by the Mere. However, I’m sure that most of us can point to moments in our lives when we have experienced something of the presence of the divine. Maybe a moment of intense realisation of the reality Grace? Maybe a quiet moment of forgiveness and the peace which comes from releasing long-held grudges against others and ourselves. Maybe there’s a sense of beauty which speaks to your soul when the choir sings the anthem, maybe we’ve seen Jesus in our dreams or in those coincidences which are just too perfect, too fortuitous, to be readily dismissed.

Do we – can we – continue on as before?

Or do we come to Church on a Sunday morning ready to do business with God, to repent of our sins and prepare to encounter God in the Eucharist?

Jesus says to come, all you that are weary, and I will give you rest; learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Do not be lulled into a false sense of security, this is the same Jesus who has just said Woe to the unrepentant cities! This is the same Lord whose commander of his heavenly army stood with his sword drawn before Joshua and then directed him as to how to conquer Jericho. The gentleness of Jesus is not weakness, but rather the tender application of immense strength. And thank God for that, for some of our burdens are cripplingly heavy, and the work we have set before us can seem to be more than we can bear. Yet if we come to him we can be assured that he and his love is strong enough to embrace all of who we are and give peace and rest to our souls.

And so, choose this day who you will serve, the Gods of our imaginations and the values of the culture around us, or the God who has made himself known to us in Love through his Son Jesus Christ? As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of our heavenly Father.