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|Contents|||||Unexpected consequences Joshua 9|
Tonight is a slightly unexpected pleasure for me, as Stuart's request to speak here came immediately after I had got back from a holiday in the Lake District. So it seemed suitable to pick as a theme "unexpected consequences" - the two passages I have chosen each highlight an event that was not only unexpected in itself, but also led to major and momentous unexpected developments. Both the Israelite leader Joshua, and the early church leader Peter had their own plans, their own agendas for how things were going to develop… and both were wrong. Before we go into how they were wrong - what-happened-next, and why-it-matters-to-us - I want to summarise the two episodes. They're both quite long, and we deliberately only read parts of the whole story so as not to get bogged down in details.
Joshua first. Prior to this, the Israelites had crossed into the land of Canaan from the Plains of Moab, had sacked the town of Jericho, and (after a rather shaky start) had used a ruse to defeat the inhabitants of the town of Ai. Before proceeding further, Joshua had then carried out a formal religious ceremony at which he and all Israel renewed their covenant commitments to God. Now, their arrival had caused some of the local city rulers to be justifiably anxious, and they had started to meet to make their own alliances and make preparations for war. But one group of four towns and their surrounding villages - Gibeon, Kephirah, Be'eroth, and Kiriath Jearim - decided to take a different tack. They decided to play their own ruse in order to secure peace. I have to admit that what these people did quite fascinates me. They were abandoning their own heritage and the apparent security they enjoyed. The Bible identifies them as Hivites by racial descent, and we know that other Hivites fought against Israel, so these people were, perhaps, turning against their own close kin in order to cleave to Israel. Of course we know the later pages of the story, we know that they were in fact betting on the winning side, but at the time they had to make their choice I don't believe it would have been at all obvious. We can only presume that so far as they were concerned, they had weighed up the alternatives and chosen this one. Luke recounts a parable that Jesus told, about a king who considers whether his army or his enemy's is stronger, and if need be sends a delegation while there's still time to make peace. I wonder if Jesus had this episode in mind when he told that?
So anyway, the Gibeonites came up with this trick whereby they made it look as though they had come from a long way off - rather than a few miles up the road - and strung together a story for Joshua's benefit. The plan relied heavily on the Israelites not knowing the territory - as the crow flies, Gibeon is about as far from the camp at Gilgal as Winchester is from here. But the story they came up with was, so far as we can tell, not an outright lie. There is good evidence that the Hivites had not long been in the land of Canaan themselves. So far as we can tell, they had migrated down from what we now call Turkey only a few generations before, so their tale of coming from a far country was, as we say, economical with the truth rather than downright false. Their claim, that the fame of the God of Israel and the military success of the people had spread far and wide, was appealing to a common theme of this era - we know of several similar cases, including some where trickery was used to secire an agreement. The situation Jesus describes is also well documented. It also, of course, flattered the Israelites and played on their sense of national calling.
We learn quite a lot about how early Israel was governed from this passage. Most of the book of Joshua focuses on his pre-eminent role as leader, but here we see the way in which in practice other community leaders and representatives had a voice in the matter. It wasn't perhaps what we would call democratic, but on the other hand it wasn't a dictatorship either. The interests of the tribes were represented: they had a voice. Joshua certainly led the negotiations, but he involved others as well, and the treaty had to be agreed by a group of Israelite leaders, not just a single man. The one group of people who seem not to have taken part was the priesthood - a rather ironic fact given that the failure to consult the Lord over the matter is presented as a crucial one. The text doesn't help us decide, but I do wonder whether the fault was on the part of the people for failing to ask the priests, or on the part of the priests for failing to get involved with social issues.
Of course when the truth came out about the Gibeonite cities being just up the road, in Winchester as it were, there was a certain amount of recrimination. Joshua's point was very simple - the people had to honour the commitment, even if it had been made under slightly suspect circumstances, and the most that could be done was to insist on some special terms in the agreement. Quite apart from the moral importance of keeping the promise, history was to prove him right. The Gibeonite people were to be sound allies of the Israelites, and were in the very near future to assist in defeating a Canaanite coalition. They were also to play an important role in the religious life of the nation - although Joshua simply required them to carry out manual labour, the end of the chapter shows that they were to become involved in the Temple. This continued for years. When Solomon started his reign considerably later, and wanted to offer sacrifices to the LORD, he went to Gibeon as the most important of the holy sites to do this - not Shechem, Shiloh, or Jerusalem - and it was on the night after he did this, while still in Gibeon, that he received the dream in which God granted him wisdom beyond that of all others and set the tone for his rule.
Let's turn for a few minutes to Acts, and the account of Peter's meeting with Cornelius. There are several episodes recorded in the New Testament in which army centurions are shown in a favourable light - they exercised responsibility about the same as a modern lieutenant or captain, and it is normally their qualities of fairness and leadership that are commended. This man, as we read, received a vision in which his acts of piety were commended, after which he was given very specific instructions where to go and what to do. Peter was about 25 miles away down the coast, in Joppa - modern-day Jaffa, just down the road from Tel Aviv. Peter, meanwhile, had had his own revelation, which meant that he attended to the request of this Gentile without hesitation. When he got there and found a large crowd - relatives and friends as well as immediate family - Peter barely had time to begin speaking when, as it were, God took over and the hearers were converted, with miraculous signs of this being a kind of tangible proof of the reality of conversion. Now, miracles are not an inevitable sign of the Christian life, nor an infallible one, but on this occasion they provided a kind of legal evidence that Peter was going to discover was necessary… not at all to the new believers, but to his own co-leaders back in Jerusalem. The organisation of the early church was in certain ways very like that in Joshua's day - as well as the acknowledged leaders and key figures, there was apparently a wider group of people assisting with church government. It was here, with these people, that Peter found he had a need to justify his actions. He had gone to Gentile unbelievers, he had eaten with them, he had baptised them. There followed some slightly heated debate in which Peter defended himself, and the evidence that swung the day was in fact the occurrence of miraculous signs.
But I don't want to dwell tonight on the miraculous, but on the ordinary. It's interesting, isn't it, how sometimes the church at large fails to get on with jobs that, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we can see are essential. It is hard to understand now, nearly 2000 years down the line, why the church leaders had been so reluctant to get involved with the Gentiles. I suspect that most of us, perhaps all of us, here tonight in this room are Gentiles, and our inclusion in the church, our grafting in to the community of God, can be traced back to this event. What's more, it was not the early church that took the initiative, but a Gentile, someone on the outside wanting to find out what was going on. The description Peter gives of his vision, and the state of mind that accompanied it, makes it clear that he would never have entertained the possibility of going to the house of Cornelius on his own initiative. His traditions, his habits of thought and action, his attitude, his upbringing meant that such an act was literally unthinkable. We have compassion on the person who wants to do something but finds it difficult - the person who wants to be loving but struggles with a history of cruelty in their own life, or the person who grapples with personal problems - but here we have a person, indeed a whole church, to whom the idea of doing this did not even occur… despite the commission by Jesus that they should be taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Both our texts tonight have the same kind of situation at their heart: God's people were approached by outsiders wanting in. Joshua had not gone to the Gibeonites, and Peter had not gone to Cornelius. As matters turned out, the Gibeonites proved to be profoundly important in the religious life of Israel, and in the same way the Gentiles have proved to be profoundly important in the religious life of the Christian church. Where would we all be, I wonder, if these people, these outsiders, had not taken matters into their own hands and taken on the challenge?
It's easy to be critical, isn't it, especially as so much of today's church consists of Gentiles - but I wonder what areas today's church is simply blind to? This might be on a local level - things in our local communities - or it might be on a much wider scale. I am thrilled that many of today's big global social issues have Christian involvement - debt relief, making poverty history, emergency disaster aid, fair trade, and so on. I've no doubt that this church, along with others, is actively taking part in issues to do with Baddesley and the immediate area. I think churches generally have made great strides in working together, and so dispelling the myth that different denominations invariably fight each other. The problem, of course, is in trying to recognise the things we're not doing! Since they're things we have a bit of a blind spot towards, they're hard to see! Where are we as regards education, or the performing arts? Where are we in health care? One of the lessons that the two readings tonight have to teach us, is that we have a duty to take note of the things that we are being asked to do by outsiders. It may well be that they, by their requests, are highlighting something we should be doing, but are not. Of course, they may not be asking it in ways that we think are "proper". As we've seen, the Gibeonites were not completely honest in their dealings - indeed they had obviously concluded that honesty would be unlikely to give them entry into Israelite society. I have a suspicion that there are a great many people like that around us today. How many people, I wonder, on introduction to a new job, or a new neighbour, or a new church, choose to keep important facts about themselves secret? Sadly, I suspect many people feel when they come into a church that they must appear respectable, should keep quiet about things. I wonder what they - what we - are failing to mention? If someone has had terrible experiences in their past, or has lost loved ones, or has made mistaken lifestyle choices, do we really expect them to say that at first meeting? Of course not. I dare say we would do much the same. So when we get requests to become involved with something, let's not just assume thoughtlessly that all is as we've been informed about. It very likely isn't… very likely you are not being given the whole picture… but that is not a reason for standing back. Joshua honoured his agreement, even knowing that it had been secured under false pretences, and history was to prove his decision right.
So we need to take heed of the requests that are made of us, especially those that come from outside the church. But there's something else that is important here. Both Joshua and Peter were not idly sitting around waiting for something to happen. They both had a plan, an agenda that they were following. Joshua's agenda was based on what he had leaned from Moses, and his own strategic skill. It's clear that from time to time he found the lack of response from the people at large frustrating - at the start of chapter 18 he was to say to them, "How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land?" - but it is clear that his plan for crossing into and occupying the land of Canaan was shrewd and well-conceived. The sudden arrival of the Gibeonites gave him an opportunity - once he had worked out where they really lived - to split the Canaanite region into two and deal with it piecemeal, little by little, south and north. We don't know what his plan would have been like without this… but we do know that he was flexible enough to change strategy in the light of events.
The same is true of Peter. He did not stay in Jerusalem waiting for something to happen, but in the chapter before Cornelius turns up, we read that he "travelled about the land… to visit the saints". Now, it had not occurred to him to visit the Gentiles, but he was getting on with the job of being the Lord's apostle. Again, he was flexible, taking on new plans and doing new things as they arose. So both of these men had a prior agenda for action, a plan of campaign, but both of them were ready to change it when it became clear that God had other things in mind. I think we need to imitate their attitude. By all means let us have plans, strategies for action as churches and as individuals… let us not sit around idly in the face of needs that we know about… but let us be ready to change them if need be, especially if the things we are asked to do originate out of a previously unmet need outside the church.
This, I believe, is the key. There are bound to be things we are not doing at the moment, as individuals, as churches, or as the entire community of God's people. We may not realise what they are until someone outside the church asks that we do it. But, we will only get asked to do these things if we are already out and about, getting on with the Lord's work that we are aware of. Exactly what that work is for each of us, is something that we have to determine for ourselves. For some, it will be in very practical pursuits, helping to enrich the lives of others, visiting the sick, giving time and effort to those around. For others, it will be at work, or in local community activities and clubs. For some, it may be writing, or politics, or music, or charitable work. It may be in the public eye or in private. It may touch the lives of those living in this community, or it may engage with people in other countries. But of this I am sure - we will only get asked to do unexpected things, we will only be invited to bring the life of Christ into new situations, if we are already getting on, each in our own way, with the tasks and responsibilities we already know about.
There are some other things here as well. Both Peter and Joshua felt that it was profoundly important to honour the agreements and commitments they had made, even in the face of opposition from their own people. Now, I'm not advocating here that we should deliberately engage in arguments within our fellowships, but I am saying that we may well face opposition when this sort of thing comes along. Both Joshua and Peter were prepared to argue their corner, to make their case heard, rather than just back off at the first sign of trouble. There is, I think, a delicate balance here. Any Christian should be accountable to his or her church, both membership and leadership, and any Christian should be prepared to think through how their life-choices fit with their calling by the Lord Jesus. But equally, when sudden, unexpected opportunities arise, churches collectively have a duty to uphold their members, and especially when their choices are the result of a genuine call from our Lord. Peter, I think, shows us this in action. He followed the immediate call of Christian duty, and went places and did things that surprised himself. But when called by the Jerusalem leadership to account for this, he went in person and defended his case, not with embarrassment or antagonism but also not backing down. The leadership listened to him and endorsed the decision… and in so doing began a process of including the Gentiles into the church that has echoed all the way down to this church, here in Hampshire all those years afterwards.
So in summary, let's get on with whatever work we know that God has given us to do, but let's at the same time listen to the needs and cries of the world outside. It surely is a needy and pained place, and when the world's ache comes to us as believers, we have, I believe, a duty to become involved. Let's not expect those calls and cries to be eloquently expressed or full of truth, but let us deal with them with the same grace as our Lord offers to us. If our choices then need explanation to our churches or our church leaders, then let us do that with honesty and integrity. And who knows what great consequences may come from these things?
However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse: they went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. The men put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and mouldy. Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us.”
The men of Israel said to the Hivites, “But perhaps you live near us. How then can we make a treaty with you?”
“We are your servants,” they said to Joshua.
But Joshua asked, “Who are you and where do you come from?”
They answered, “Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the LORD your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan - Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth.”
The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not enquire of the LORD. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.
So Joshua saved them from the Israelites and they did not kill them. That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water-carriers for the community and for the altar of the LORD at the place the LORD would choose. And that is what they are to this day.
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing, he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius”.
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. The Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.