A longer sermon, developed on the base of an earlier one on Joshua 5:13-15, that actually needed to be delivered on this particular Sunday.
The Hebrew Scripture for today is Joshua 5:13-16.
It’s an unusual text for a Sunday morning.
For one thing, it’s unusual to hear anything from Joshua in church, especially if the pastor chooses texts according to the Revised Common Lectionary, which a lot of pastors do, because Joshua only shows up three times in the 156 weekly selections of the RCL, so it will only be considered less than 2% of all the Sundays, and even then it will sometimes lose out to another selection for that Sunday, like a Psalm or another NT reading!
For another thing, this particular short text from Joshua isn’t one of those three choices – so the chances of ever hearing it in church in the normal course of things are especially low.
And then finally, the story itself is pretty unusual – although if someone wanted to say that a lot of Bible stories are unusual, I suppose I wouldn’t argue with that. Ancient Christian readers, like Origen, said that when Biblical stories are especially unusual, like the stories in the book of Joshua, the Bible is trying to tell us not to take them as factual accounts, but instead to listen for their spiritual meaning. Even then, though, we have to ask ourselves what it means, and what that means for us – Here is the NRSV [with some modifications]:
Once when Joshua was [in] Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing [opposite] him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” He replied “[No!] But as commander of the army of the [HOLY ONE] I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” The commander of the army of the [HOLY ONE] said to Joshua, “Remove the [sandal] from your [foot], for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
What a mysterious little story!
It’s such a vivid encounter, and yet, it’s so brief, and so other-worldly, I wonder whether Joshua himself ever wondered, later, whether it had really happened or whether it was a dream. It has that kind of dream-like quality to it, especially coming right where it does in the longer story that opens the book of Joshua …
Because here’s the set-up: the Israelites are getting ready, finally, after 40 years in the wilderness, to come in to the promised land, the land of Canaan, the land on the west side of the Jordan River. Moses has died, so Joshua is their new leader;
Joshua isn’t Moses, and he knows it; but in the first chapters of the book of Joshua, God speaks to Joshua – the way God spoke to Moses – and tells him to be strong and courageous, and reassures him of God’s presence with him; then Joshua leads the children of Israel across the Jordan River, on dry ground, the way Moses led them across the Red Sea – this is with God’s help, obviously! So Joshua is shaping up to be a worthy successor to Moses.
Joshua has received some instructions about how to conduct the military campaign that is going to take possession of this land from its current inhabitants, from Moses, back in Deuteronomy. So now, he and the Israelites are facing the city of Jericho, a walled city, and the stage is being set for a showdown.
The first thing Joshua does is send in some spies, and the first thing the spies do is show up at Rahab’s place. Now Rahab is a professional woman – the oldest profession, in fact, and presumably not Jericho’s most upstanding citizen; maybe this is why the spies go there first; but she helps them, in fact, she saves their lives when the good citizens of Jericho come looking for them, and she also negotiates a deal with them: when the Israelites conquer Jericho, which she seems to be sure they will, they need to spare her and her family, and she rattles off a long list of kin she wants to make sure they include. Honestly, it sounds like she’s going to squeeze as many people into her house as she possibly can, sort of the Schindler’s List of the ancient world …
Anyway, the spies go to Jericho, Rahab saves them, they go back to Joshua … and then the Israelites undertake a couple of important preparations. They circumcise everyone who hasn’t been circumcised while they’re in the wilderness, and they celebrate Passover – in other words, they reaffirm, in practice, two of the most important signs of their covenant with God. And now that they’re on the other side of the River, in the land, we’re told, there’s no more manna, they have to begin to eat the produce of the land they have been looking forward to for so long …
So now everything is in place for this battle – and most of us have probably heard about the “battle of Jericho,” we maybe sang that song about Joshua and how he fit the battle of Jericho in VBS or at camp –
But first, at least the way the Bible tells the story, the action of our little story this morning takes place. And that story starts out with Joshua being in Jericho.
So right away, there’s a mystery in the story, because How can Joshua be in Jericho, when the next verses tell us that Jericho is locked up tight, and no one is going out or coming in, and the Israelites themselves are camped on the plain outside the walls that separate the insiders from the outsiders, that separate the Others from God’s people? Is Joshua dreaming? Is he having a vision of the future? Is the memory out of place, is this something that happened later, so that the Bible is getting ahead of itself the way we do sometimes? Where is Joshua in this story?
Somehow, the book of Joshua seems place Joshua in two places at once, both before the city of Jericho before the battle, and yet already in the city, and that could happen if Joshua were having a vision …
A startling vision. Suddenly, look, a man, standing in front of him with a drawn sword. Admittedly, the sword probably startles Joshua a little less than it would startle us, since the real-life context – assuming the book of Joshua has a real-life context, as well as a spiritual one – is essentially an army camp, getting ready for a battle between these Israelites with their foreign way of life and their new religion and the defended native Canaanites. So, in that context, the sword makes sense.
But it wouldn’t hurt us to remember that swords in the Bible are also symbolic; they represent decision, the dividing line between the past and the future, like the flaming sword at the gate of paradise; “the sword of the spirit” in Ephesians is the Word of God, the standard that separates known from unknown, truth from falsehood; and Hebrews reminds us that that Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division between joint and marrow, soul and spirit – that is, the fine dividing line between the soul, the life we receive from God, and the spirit, the desire and will that directs the course of that life, whose choices make that life, over time, who and what it is.
Anyway, the man stands there, sword drawn, and I am immediately inclined to think he is an angel, but if he is, he is not an ordinary angel, because he doesn’t tell Joshua not to be afraid.
Joshua’s speaks first, he asks the man a perfectly natural and reasonable question: are you for us, or for them? Implicitly – I think – he’s asking: am I safe with you, or should I be running for my life from you?
But this man’s answer is hardly reassuring: “No!”
No, which? No, not for us, or no, not for them? What does that “no” mean?
Maybe it means: no, wrong question. Maybe, no, not for you, not for them, not stuck in your false dichotomy.
Maybe: Joshua, you don’t even know what you don’t know. There are forces involved here that you haven’t even imagined, let alone considered. There is more going on here than begins to fit into your inadequate “us” vs. “them” view of the world.
Implicitly, it seems, “the man” – who tells us he’s the commander of the hosts of the Holy One, the Living God, implicitly, this man is saying: look, for you or for them isn’t how this works, now I’ve come, the question isn’t whose side I’m on, it’s whose side you’re on.
Despite appearances, Joshua, this is not the story about “us” vs. “them” you think it is, and the good guys and the bad guys in this story do not line up according to the lines you’ve drawn.
God’s cause does not rest on one side or the other of the racial line between us Israelites and them Canaanites, God’s cause doesn’t even match up neatly with the religious affiliation of us Holy God-worshippers and them pagans, so using those lines to decide whether you’re “in” the right camp, on the side of what’s good and right, is a mistake.
Instead – and this becomes explicit later in this story, the big story told in this book of Joshua, the story that starts in Jericho, is a story about decision and action; it’s a story about recognizing this moment, here and now, as holy ground. About recognizing this moment with its competing opportunities for loyalty and disloyalty, its offer of different ways of life and their different consequences, as that ground on which you ask, or fail to ask, what the forces of the Living God are there to do, the ground on which you take off your shoes to worship the God you encounter there, or leave them on and run for your life.
The life which, as someone else said, centuries later, if you save, you lose; but if you lose, you find (Mt. 16:25 … among other places).
The holy ground where Joshua turns out to be standing in this story is, I think, the ground of practical encounter with God and God’s demands here and now; where he has to decide what obedience means in this situation, with its consequences for who he is and for what happens to other, and whether he will choose for it or against it.
Joshua has instructions about how to conduct this battle of Jericho. In real life, in modern warfare, those instructions would violate the Geneva Convention; that may be one of the reasons we don’t read Joshua in church that often; it’s definitely one of the reasons the ancient readers of scripture were less comfortable reading this book as a literal history than as a lesson in personal spiritual conquest, the battle for our character, the battle for our souls.
But whatever we believe about those instructions, we are going to find out in the next chapter or two that Joshua and the Israelites don’t kill everything that breathes in Jericho. They are going to save some people anyway, they will save Rahab and her whole family that is in the house with her, and that action appears to have God’s approval. In fact, Rahab herself, according to a lot of commentators, is going to turn up again in the first chapter of Matthew as one of the ancestors of Jesus. So from that, it’s pretty clear that loyalty to the cause of the Living God is not a simple matter of following every single instruction to the letter, any more than it is a simple matter of standing on the right side of the wall of Jericho, of standing in the right racial or religious camp.
But if we can’t go by those camp boundaries, and if we can’t just get our rulebook in hand, what are we supposed to do to line up with the cause of the Holy God? Well, when Joshua asks that question – what are you telling me to do – he gets the answer “take your sandal from your foot,” since where you are is holy ground. Here’s another place that Joshua is like Moses – Moses got this instruction, too. But Why? What is it with the shoes?
According to the rabbis, shoes represent a lot of things, that are incompatible with standing in the presence of God – in particular, they represent power, possessions, and protection. Those are the opposite of the humility and vulnerability necessary to encounter God.
And that, maybe, is where this story comes to meet us. Because we are not in Jericho, or outside it; but each of us, daily, faces the radical demands of the conquest of our own characters. If only, Origen says, God would give him power “to trample upon the necks of the spirit of wrath and rage,” for instance. And if wrath and rage are not our personal problems, if they are not the fortified opposition in our lives, something else is. And we face the same kinds of confusions that were present in Joshua’s situation: the same temptations to imagine that the groups we see as “us” and “them” somehow line up neatly with those mysterious forces of the Living God – this story reminds us that they don’t; the same temptation to substitute unquestioning adherence to a set of instructions for humble attention to the more complicated requirements of kindness, and justice. The practical decision of who we will really serve rises up to meet each of us day after day after day.
So, although we are not in Jericho, literally, we, like Joshua, are on holy ground. Because holy ground is wherever God is; holy ground is wherever we come face to face with what it means to align ourselves with God and God’s cause. For Christians, that really is this ground – this world, here and now, because each moment we declare ourselves and those declarations make us who we are and reveal who and what we love.
We may never see the commander of the hosts of the Holy One, but we can be sure that those hosts are present in this world and its situation. We can be sure that if we asked Joshua’s question – are you for us, or for our enemies – however we conceive of them – we’d get Joshua’s answer: No! you’re asking the wrong question. Who are you for, whose instructions do you follow? The instructions to wipe out the enemies on the other side of the wall? Or the instructions to love your enemies, to overcome evil with good, to trust the God who sends his sun to shine on the just and the unjust? Are you serving a god of power, possessions and protection? Or the one who includes Rahab in the genealogy of the messiah who comes to this world barefoot, giving up his power, his possessions, his protection, to come and live with us, and to make this world, in which we live, this moment of history, the place where God also is, the holy ground on which we, by the grace of God, have a chance to be on Christ’s side.