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|Contents|||||Crossing the Jordan Joshua 3 and 4|
Tonight I've chosen two passages that at first sight don't have any very obvious connection with each other. I hope that before long you'll see the links not only of one passage with the other, but of both with our personal situations today. At heart, what we're looking at tonight is how God makes use of our immediate circumstances - where we live, who we meet in daily life, and so forth, in order to speak into our lives. We see this day-to-day if we look for it, but we see it pre-eminently in different Biblical passages where the geography of the land tells us about the spirituality. Some of you know that my wife and I recently visited the Holy Land - a deeply moving experience which I would recommend to any Christian - I can't say enough how profound it is to visit for real these places. We visited the very places we just read about, so there's a very personal air for me tonight.
The announcement of Samson's conception and birth shares a number of features with several other Biblical birth prophecies - not only had the parents not had children, but we learn from the angel's words that they could not have children. This seems to be fairly typical for Old Testament characters - we can think of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel amongst the patriarchs' wives, for example. The typical Old Testament situation also includes the element where the problem was humanly not solvable - for example the couple in question might be very old and past the normal biological time for conception and birth. In passing, this puts a rather different complexion on the birth announcement to Mary in the New Testament, where the barrier was not one of old age but rather the opposite.
Now, typically with these birth announcements we are told that the situation had become painful or shameful for the couple, especially the wife given her culture. But here we have no suggestion that either Manoach or his wife were grieved by it. The angelic words come out of the blue to Manoach's wife - we are told of no prayers to God, no consultation with a priest, nothing, no action to try to redress the situation. I think we can see this state of affairs as a mirror for the situation in Israel as a nation. With most of the earlier oppressions we read of in the book of Judges, we find not only that the people had done evil and been handed over in judgement to a foreign nation, but also that they realised the error of their ways and cried out for mercy to the LORD. But in this case we don't read that: it is as though they had become so demoralised they were no longer able to call for help. The people were not calling for help: Manoach and his wife were not calling for help. Of course this can happen to any of us - sometimes our situations become so crushing that we lose the ability to look for an escape route. This, perhaps, is the state that Israel was in as a nation: this perhaps is the state this couple were in personally. The situation of this couple was a mirror for the situation of the nation as a whole.
Now, when the land was being apportioned by Joshua some years earlier, before the Israelites had really started to move in and occupy their promised territory, Manoach's tribe - the tribe of Dan - was granted a region in the lower foothills below the central hill country towards the coast, an area called the Shephelah. On the coast itself lived the Philistines, and although their main territory was a group of five cities near the sea (including Gaza that is frequently in the news even today), they were eager to extend their territory inland, towards the hill country. Their military ability proved to be too great for the Danites, and at some stage this tribe gave up the fight and migrated en masse northwards to the city of Laish, thereafter called Dan. Tonight's account might be set before they had moved: on the other hand it may be set afterwards, in which case Manoach and others must have chosen to remain in the original location, the land originally promised to their ancestors. His home village is named as Zor'ah, we learn later of another close-by village called Eshta'ol. Both are close to the rather larger town of Beth Shemesh (which Joshua calls Ir Shemesh if you look in chapter 19). The setting is a broad, quite shallow valley with these two villages on the northern side of the slope and Beth Shemesh on the southern slope. When we were there we stood beside the ruins of Beth Shemesh looking towards the other villages. We also saw the northern town of Dan, but that won't come into tonight's message. Along the valley floor runs one of the connecting roads from the coastal plain up into the Israelite heartlands - it was an important arterial route then, and indeed still is today, highway 38 in Israel's road numbering system. In those days, this road was to shape much of the conflict between Israelite and Philistine.
Manoach's name means "at rest" or "passive" - perhaps another hint as to why he had not been engaged in prayer about their childlessness. Indeed, it is his wife who takes far the more active part in the divine visit. This woman is never named - a rather ironic comment on the part of our narrator here, perhaps showing us that Manoach seriously underrated his wife. After all, it is she who receives the initial message from the messenger of the LORD, she who correctly interprets its significance, and she who later adopts a very common-sense attitude when Manoach fears for their lives. On the other hand, it is clear that Manoach does not respect - perhaps does not even believe - her account of the initial meeting. Later on, in verses we did not read, he quizzes the divine messenger to get him to repeat all the things that she had in fact already been told. The angel, on the other hand, most definitely wise and alert to all this, rather dryly points out that this has all been said before… indeed he pointedly reminds Manoach of this twice in just a few sentences. And of course in the end it is this wife who names the child Samson - in Hebrew, Shimshon, which nicely recalls his parent town, Beth Shemesh.
Amongst other things, the messenger of the Lord indicated what kind of lifestyle the promised child should lead. Looking ahead a few chapters, we know that Samson was to break every single one of the required abstinences. There's a rather comical air to his life in fact - he just keeps on repeating his mistakes over and over with no apparent learning process at work in him. Later on, his own clan would rather hand him over to their enemies than work out how to deal effectively with him themselves. His very occasional appeals to the Lord - with the single exception of his final climactic prayer in the temple of Dagon - are very self-centred. All in all, he makes a very odd contrast with Saul, who was to become king soon after this, and would also spend much of his life fighting Philistines. Samson keeps ignoring God and lives a wild, reckless life - but is repeatedly helped and restored - while Saul keeps trying to do the right thing - but is repeatedly rejected. But that's another sermon…
The statement I most want to draw out from this account is that with Samson, the LORD was going to begin the process of liberating Israel from the hand of the Philistines. It would not be finished by him or indeed in his life, but it would begin. This man, this place, marks a starting-point. It is where something begins.
What of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch? For tonight, I don't especially want to talk about Philip. He certainly makes a fine study - his faithfulness to God's instructions, his readiness to listen to other people, his knowledge of the scriptures and how to make creative and careful use of them, and so forth. That is a good study, but it's not the one I want to follow tonight. I want instead to concentrate on the Ethiopian - another person, funnily enough, whose name we are never told. The decision-making focuses on him. Philip has delivered a good message faithfully… but what was this man going to do with it? Who was this man? Well, the passage tells us that he was already a Jew, or at least a convert to Judaism. He had been in Jerusalem to worship, and was now on his way home. So, what happens here does not mark the beginning of the evangelisation of the Gentiles - that was to start a little later with Peter's visit to Cornelius, which we spoke about one evening a while ago - but is does mark the beginning of the spread of the gospel outside the land of Israel. Indeed, the Christian church in Ethiopia lays claim to a very long history going back to this man as their spiritual ancestor: it traces its lineage back to these very early days after the ascension of our Lord. It's one of those claims that cannot be absolutely proved, but it is very credible and quite likely to be true.
You could, without being too far-fetched, liken this Ethiopian to Manoach's wife. Like her, he is nameless, drawing attention to the outworking of God's promise rather than any biographic details. Like her, he was responsive to the message of God. Like her, he had been unable to have children, though in his case because of the work of other men rather than the seeming chance of nature. Like her, he was to have children emerging from God's word who would make a great and lasting name, though in his case spiritual rather than literal children. Most of all, this man also was a starting-point. More than that, the place it happened was a starting-point. And where was this place - we read it in verse 26 - it was on the road from Jerusalem towards Gaza … the same road, the same valley where Samson lived and began the process of liberating Israel from the Philistines.
There was another thing that happened in this same place, a few years after Samson. This episode can be found in 1 Samuel 6 - we're not going to read it tonight but it is worth looking up sometime. As you may know, the war against the Philistines went quite badly at first, with military defeats and setbacks, and at one stage the Ark of the Covenant was captured and taken to one of the Philistine temples. The Israelite shrine at Shiloh, the main religious centre of those early days, was apparently destroyed at the same time - although we don't lean about this in Judges, we do read about it in later Old Testament books, and archaeological exploration confirms that it was ruined at around this point in history. Back in Judges, we learn that things went badly for the Philistines while the Ark was in their possession, with plagues and such like being recognised by their own priesthood as a punishment. So far this was starting to look like Egypt, but they proved to be wiser than Pharaoh and dispatched the Ark promptly back to Israel with gift offerings as compensation. From that time on, the central shrine would no longer be at Shiloh. The Ark rested for some twenty years in Kiriath Jearim, one of the Gibeonite towns, and after that made its way to its more permanent home in Jerusalem. Where did the ark arrive in Israel, marking another new beginning in the life of the nation - where did that happen but along this same valley? The first reception by Israelites and the accompanying sacrifices took place in the fields in the valley below Beth Shemesh, as near as could be to the very same place where the spirit of the LORD had quickened in Samson.
I'm sure you see what I'm getting at here - this self-same place was reused by God over and over again, and on each occasion (whether in the Old or New Testament) was used to signal, to trigger, a fresh start, a new beginning. Something new was happening for Israel - or for the Church - and to help the lesson go home God made it happen in the same place. Geography is a vitally important part of reading the Bible, and I'd recommend anyone as they read a passage, to look it up on a map and find out where it took place, and what else happened there. This happens so often in Scripture once you know to look for it. To pick another example, Luke tells us of a widow's son from Nain, who Jesus brought back from death. The people's reaction was "A great prophet has appeared" - why did they say this? Because back in 1 Kings 17 the great prophet Elijah had brought a widow's son back to life at a place called Zarephath… and Nain and Zarephath are two villages on the same hill, close by each other. The people of Nain remembered the earlier event, put two and two together, and proclaimed Jesus to be a prophet of Elijah's calibre.
So, God often reuses the nature of the land as part of His message to people. Where something happens, and what happened at that place earlier, is a profound and important part of His overall message. But part of what I want to say tonight is that this is not just true of the different parts of the Bible. It is also true of the story He is continually telling us through our lives today. God reuses situations, circumstances, people that we encounter as a means of imparting both grace and instruction. Let me fill that out a little. He uses these things as a means of grace in order to comfort and reassure us, to bring back to mind those ways in which He has helped us, provided for us, and nurtured us in times past. He uses them as a means of instruction by bringing us face-to face with issues, parts of ourselves that He wants us to change.
You may well have noticed in other people how sometimes they just seem to keep on running into the same issues. Maybe they're always getting into trouble at work, or always falling out with their neighbours, or falling always prey to the same temptations. We talked about this very thing with Samson earlier, didn't we, how he just kept on falling for the same old things, he never seemed to recognise the same old traps being set for him. Of course, it's always harder to admit to such failings in ourselves, isn't it! It's one of those things where it is so much easier to see everyone else's specks of dust than our own great clods of earth! This is the kind of thing that people make New Year resolutions about, isn't it? All of a sudden, from January 1st I won't be doing such and such, I won't give in to this or that. But of course, unless something more has happened than just a mental resolve, I do find myself doing so and so, I do find myself giving in. All of us have these areas of prevailing weakness, areas where if we look back over our lives we can start to see a pattern of where we get things wrong on a regular basis.
I don't know what that area is for each of us here in this room - pride, or gossip, or impatience, or lack of faith, anger, lack of self control, disinterest in the plight of others, and so on. I do know that it takes more than a New Year's resolution to change matters. Whatever your habitual point of weakness, vulnerability, it will not be sorted out by your own unaided effort. It needs the work of God, and that will normally be ministered through the body of the church. One of the great mysteries of God's work here on earth - at least, it's a mystery to me - is that He regularly chooses to help people not by His own perfect, sovereign, divine action, but by the loving care of frail, imperfect brothers and sisters around us. This is the pattern he showed us in his son, our Lord Jesus, who on the night He was betrayed washed the feet of his disciples, saying, "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet". This is foot-washing: to work lovingly in each other's lives so that each of us learns to recognise his or her areas of weakness, of uncleanness, and each of us is helped in that area to become clean. You are all servants of each other in this ministry.
This is, I believe, an area where a local church is uniquely placed to serve each other, and in so doing to serve our community and our God. Why do I say that? Because in our church lives we relate to each other week after week, through good times and bad, aware and involved with the great milestones of life such as birth, marriage, working life, family life, gain and loss, life and death, and so forth. We are brought into contact with brothers and sisters who we might otherwise not meet. In my experience, this does not happen to a great extent in other parts of life, such as at work, or in other friendships. The life of the local church is a splendid arena where - with all of the difficulties and frustrations that can sometimes pop up - we can learn to minister to others, and be ministered to by them.
I think it takes considerable courage for any of us to do this, to be willing to turn to each other and say, in effect, help me to understand where I keep going wrong in my Christian life, help me to repent, to change, to grow into Christ. We need each other's ministry in this way, we need to cultivate the humility to be able to accept one another's Spirit-filled wisdom. A word of caution here: this kind of feedback from others is best handled in small groups, where one person's impressions can be weighed up and moderated by the other people there. It can be quite intimidating if it's not done with considerable care and respect for the other. But given that word of caution, this is a most precious way of serving one another, here, in this church.
For me, this has meant (among other things) hearing other people say that when they first meet me I come over as rather cold and withdrawn, so they aren't sure they want to get to know me better. I had thought I was being a bit shy and rather polite, but what came over was something colder. Now, I learned to be that way over quite a few years, and it's not sorted out overnight! I am still, as they say, in process, on the road, being a disciple. But by accepting the loving, caring, Christian witness of other people I become ready to change, to become more who God wants me to be.
You see, this is not just a matter of personal change, which if we're not careful can just be another form of self-centredness. No, what this is about is being better able to carry out the calling of God in our lives, being better witnesses for Him, being more fruitful. Our Father prunes every branch grafted into the vine of His Son, so that we may bear more fruit for Him. Our Christian lives will be the more fruitful, the more we are doing and becoming who He wants us to be, that true self in Christ that He already knows and has called out of darkness. Just imagine how much more fruitful Samson might have been, had his own people worked harder with him, had persevered in loving communication rather than washing their hands and letting the Philistines do the job! Philistines better at communicating with him than Israelites! How shameful is that? The angel's prophecy took into account not just Samson's own character, not just the condition of his parents, but the state of mind of a whole community that was not at that time ready to follow a godly course of life. I wonder how different that prophecy might have been if Samson's wider family, his people, had had a different attitude to the life of faith they had been called out of Egypt to live? It's easy to have a bit of a laugh at Samson, at his bumbling through life in a disorganised manner, going through scrape after scrape, never really living up to all his potential - except maybe in his dying act. But how much of that is due to the failure of his community to seriously get to grips with their God-given duty to nurture him in his spiritual life? Let's try to do things differently here in our communities.
I want to finish on a positive note, concerning how God reuses situations to restore us after calamity. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, his disciple and close friend Peter denied him three times, circling round a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the house of Caiaphas. After his resurrection, Jesus, as it were, replayed this situation in a way that was aimed at healing Peter. On the beach, in the early Galilee morning, he brought Peter to a charcoal fire and had him three times commit himself once again to his Lord and his work. Without that, every charcoal fire that Peter saw would remind him of failure: with it, every charcoal fire would remind him of rededication. I think God often places similar charcoal fires in our own paths, calling us not just to recognise past hurts and sins, but also to set them aside with His help in order to move on in His service. Instead of a place of denial - acceptance. It's not an easy road, but it is one, I believe, He calls us to travel.
Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, so the LORD delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years. A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. The angel of the LORD appeared to her and said, "You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines."
Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the LORD. And the LORD did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. When the angel of the LORD did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD.
"We are doomed to die!" he said to his wife. "We have seen God!" But his wife answered, "If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this."
The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the LORD blessed him, and the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him while he was in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road - the desert road - that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it."
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.