Sermon 07-21-13: “Summer Vacation, Part 4: Camp Meeting”

July 25, 2013
In part 4 of our series, we'll go camping with the Israelites outside the walls of Jericho.

In part 4 of our series, we’ll go camping with the Israelites outside the walls of Jericho.

Last week, the sports world turned its attention to the latest scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in Major League Baseball. Never mind the harmful effects of PEDs on a player’s health: we don’t like that PED-using athletes achieve records that they didn’t earn and don’t deserve.

Fortunately for us, God isn’t nearly as concerned about our getting what we deserve!

This sermon is about God’s grace, as seen through the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho. We can’t earn God’s love or our salvation, nor should we want to. I also challenge us to imagine ourselves not on “God’s side,” with the Israelites outside the walls of Jericho, but on the other side of the wall—with Rahab, the Gentile convert. Her mission is also our mission.

Sermon Text: Joshua 6:1-5, 15-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game was last week. The American League won, unfortunately. But that event was overshadowed by much bigger news in baseball: which is, the most recent scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs. There was a medical clinic down in Miami called Biogenesis, whose doctors, according to one report, are responsible for juicing 20 current Major League players, including one of the highest-paid—Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees.

I heard an interview on sports radio with infamous former Braves closer John Rocker, who said, “Who cares about doping in baseball? Wasn’t the game more exciting back in the ’90s, when PED-using superstars like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were chasing or breaking homerun records?”

Well, that was exciting back then… before we knew the truth. When we thought, perhaps naively, that these athletes turned into Incredible Hulks by merely sweating it out at the gym. The problem with PEDs is that players like Hank Aaron, Roger Maris, and Babe Ruth earned their records the old-fashioned way, without artificial enhancements. Although Barry Bonds was an amazingly gifted player before drugs, he wouldn’t have achieved his single-season or lifetime homerun record without them. Which is why I support putting an asterisk by his name in the record books. Because he doesn’t deserve it!

Fortunately for us, God isn’t nearly as concerned about our getting what we deserve.

In today’s scripture, the people of Israel have just crossed over the Jordan River, into the Promised Land, and they’re camped out outside the fortified walls of the city of Jericho. How does Israel hope to prevail over this stronger, better-armed, better-equipped enemy? How will they take possession of the land that God says he’s given to them, when everywhere they turn they’re surrounded by enemies who want them dead? Will they succeed by outsmarting, outwitting, outflanking, and outfighting them? No. God has something else in mind, something that—militarily speaking—is, well… nothing short of ridiculous. Instead of sending soldiers to overtake the city with battering rams and swords and shields and spears and flaming arrows, God sends a group of—get this!—trumpet-playing preachers to march around the city walls—once each day for six days and then seven times on the seventh day… All the while playing trumpets.

Which reminds me… I like jazz, and one day I was listening to Miles Davis, who’s like the greatest jazz trumpeter ever. And my wife, who hates jazz, walked in the room and said, “That is the worst record I have ever heard!” So I thought: maybe that’s what the Israelites were doing with these trumpets: torturing the enemy with Miles Davis music until they couldn’t take it anymore! But it wasn’t just the trumpets… when the signal was given, the people also shouted. Then the walls collapsed.

Not exactly a strategy they teach at West Point, if you know what I mean. But it was successful nonetheless. I think the reason that God commanded Israel to follow this seemingly ridiculous plan was so that, when the battle was over, not one of the Israelites could say, “We earned this victory. We deserved this victory.” They would instead look at the results and say, “God obviously did this, not us! It’s only by God’s grace that we’re successful!”

I hope that we here at Hampton UMC accomplish something about which we can say, “God obviously did this, not us! It’s only by God’s grace that we’re successful!” Amen?

Remember the movie Saving Private Ryan? If so, you may remember the dying words that Captain Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, spoke to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in the unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller says to Ryan, “Earn this… Earn it!” And then we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, did he live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for him so long ago? Did he deserve the life that their deaths made possible for him?

And his family reassures him: Of course you did, Dad!

And I’m like, Really? Who are they kidding? Look: the movie is a powerful reminder to appreciate the sacrifices others make for us, to live life to the fullest, to not take life for granted—and by all means that’s a good message. But the truth is, Ryan’s family got it wrong: Private Ryan didn’t “earn” it. No matter how well Ryan lived his life after the events of France in 1944, he could never begin to deserve the life that he was able to live and enjoy because of other people’s sacrifices. And by the way, that would be true even if Captain Miller and his men hadn’t sacrificed their lives for his!

All of us, just by virtue being alive, are deeply indebted to God. How do we pay God back for the gift of our parents, for example—and all the sacrifices they made or are making for us? How do we pay God back for the gift of these bodies, which can do so many amazing things? How do we pay God back for the love and loyalty of true friends? How do we pay God back for dedicated teachers and coaches who give so much of themselves to us? How do we pay God back for the pleasures of falling in love? How do we pay God back for the gift of children or grandchildren? How do we pay God back for the joy of hard work and vocation and the reward of a job well done? How do we pay God back for sunsets and beaches and mountains and rivers? How do we pay God back for the companionship of dogs and cats and other amazing creatures? How do we pay God back for laughter and tears and dancing? How do we pay God back for music and books and movies and poetry? How do we pay God back for this heartbeat that God is currently giving us? How do we pay God back for the blood that is pumping through our veins? How do we pay God back for this breath that he’s currently enabling us to take?

We can’t earn this!

And that’s just life in this world. How do we pay God back for the gift of eternal life that he gives us through faith in his Son Jesus? While in the movie, mere mortals sacrifice their lives for Private Ryan; in real life, God-in-the-flesh sacrificed his life for ours. Another difference is that when Jesus sacrificed his life for us, he didn’t say, “Earn this.” He said, “This is my free gift to you; no strings attached. I love you and want you to have it! Please take it.” Every moment of life, every moment of eternal life, is nothing but sheer grace, from beginning to end.

It’s good to be reminded that we don’t deserve it, and we can’t earn it.

Besides, what does “deserving” and “earning” have to do with love anyway? My friend Mike is my age. He’s never been married. Would like to be. He does the online dating services— and eHarmony. He’s at that age where he to do the Fred Sanford routine in order to read the menu at the restaurant. And he’s deeply embarrassed to do this in front of his date—you know, his potential future wife. The only thing would remedy the situation is if he pulled out his reading glasses, but that’s embarrassing to him, too—because he wants to put his best foot forward. He wants to make a good impression. He wants to deserve his potential future wife’s love and affection. He wants to earn it. That’s not really love, though. Wait till you get married and put on 20 or 30 lbs. and lose your hair—then we’ll see what love looks like! No one said Amen to that?

Think of how a parent loves a child. At times, at our best, a parent’s love for a child is about as unselfish—as selfless—as Christ-like—as human love can get in our world. We parents don’t often achieve this kind of love. I’m reminded of something Bill Cosby said that his father would say when his dad lost patience with him. He would say, “Son, I brought you into this world. And I can take you out of it. And it don’t make no difference to me—I’ll make another one that looks just like you!”

But most of the time, despite the fact that I’m an imperfect and sinful human being, I am madly in love with my three kids. Each of them in his or her own unique way is the apple of my eye. Lisa and I are giving nearly everything we have to provide for their health, safety, and welfare. We’re doing our best, most of the time, to provide for them a happy and loving home, and it’s totally worth it. We give and give and give to our children, and guess what? When they turn 18, we are going to hand them an invoice and say, “You owe us this much for all the room and board and medical expenses and clothes and athletic fees and piano lessons and other living expenses you’ve incurred since we gave you life, or since we adopted you—not to mention compensation for all the pain and suffering you’ve caused us.” We’re not really going to do this! We wouldn’t think of doing that! They are our kids! It is our pleasure to give to them! We love them more than anything! And they don’t deserve it, and they can’t earn it, and it doesn’t matter.

Don’t you imagine that God our Father loves us like that… except that he loves us infinitely more than we humans are capable of loving because he loves us perfectly? We sometimes think that we have to earn God’s love. When we think, for example, that we have sinned beyond the pale, and maybe God could forgive the 238th time I did this, but now I have crossed the line and forgiveness is no longer coming. To which I ask, “If you weren’t accepted into God’s family on the basis of what you did, why do you think you’ll be kicked out on the basis of what you do?” In surveys, most Americans report being Christians, and most of them think that they have to earn it when they say that in order to go to heaven, you need to be a good person. I hate to break the news, but going to heaven is not about being a good person. And if you think it is, I would ask you: how good do you think you have to be, according to God’s standards, and how confident are you that you measure up?

So… I hope I’ve convinced you that our relationship with God is all about grace. Except… even in today’s scripture we have all this killing and destruction  and genocide? The Israelites wipe out the entire town save one family—every man, woman, and child. And God sanctions it. Where’s the grace here? What do we make of this scripture? What do we do with it?

Well, according to C.S. Lewis, there are two things we don’t do. “First, we don’t believe on the strength of this passage or any other that God is in any way evil. Second, we also don’t get to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that he is.” You can be sure that behind any shocking passage of scripture, Lewis writes, there is “some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in some ways we never dreamed of.”[1] The truth is, we humans are finite, mortal, and time-bound, and God is not. We will have some questions about God that we’ll have to save for the other side of eternity.

In the meantime, however, there are some things we know for sure: We know that we aren’t so different from the people of Jericho—that is, apart from God’s grace. Like the people of Jericho, apart from God’s grace, we are enemies of God. Like the people of Jericho, apart from God’s grace, our sins deserve God’s wrath. Like the people of Jericho, apart from God’s grace, we are all facing destruction—eternally, in hell. Again, apart from God’s saving grace.

See, I believe that one reason we struggle with the violence and bloodshed in today’s text is that when we read it, we imagine that we’re on God’s side. And we’re on the same side of the wall as God’s people, Israel. And most of us have probably been Christians for such a long time that we don’t remember what it’s like to be on the other side of the wall. On this side it’s comfortable and safe and secure.

But for the sake of the people of Hampton, Georgia, can we please imagine that we’re on the other side of the wall?

Instead of identifying so easily with the people of Israel, let’s identify with Rahab. She was a former prostitute, and a Gentile convert, living on the other side of the wall. And because of what she did to save the lives of a couple of Israelite spies, they promised that she and the rest of her family would be saved while the rest of the city was destroyed. All she had to do was tie a red cord in the window of her house, and the lives of the people inside the house would be spared. As it says in verse 17, Rahab and all who were with her in her house were saved. See, there’s a little bit of grace, a little bit of gospel, right there—even in this most difficult passage of scripture!

Now, Rahab knew that the wrath of God was on its way. Think how eager she was to bring the message of salvation to her mother and father, her sisters and her brothers. Think how eager she was to invite these people she loved into her house before God’s judgment fell upon them. Think how eager she was to convince them to join her. She knew she only had a limited amount of time to share this good news.

Brothers and sisters, Rahab’s mission is our mission. Like her, we are living inside the walls of Jericho. Like her, we have been saved by God’s grace. Like her, we know the way to salvation. Like her, our mission field isn’t some place far away; it’s right here where we live. Like her, we have loved ones who haven’t yet been saved. Like her, God wants to use us to save them. And like her, we have only a limited amount of time to show them the way to salvation.

What are we going to do about it? I want all my friends and family and people I work with and people I meet to have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life alongside mine—each with an asterisk by it with a footnote that reads, “They didn’t earn it. They don’t deserve it—their names are written here only because of God’s grace.” Hallelujah?

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Perplexing Passages,” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 239.

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