Few, if any, heroes in the Old Testament were more faithful to God than Joshua. Yet when he realizes that he’s in the presence of the Lord in today’s scripture, he encounters a potentially deadly problem: The Lord is holy, Joshua isn’t, and he’s afraid he will be destroyed. This is a problem that all of us share with Joshua. The good news is that today’s scripture points to a solution.
Sermon Text: Joshua 5:13-6:5
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
When the summer Olympics begin in Rio next month, one member of our U.S. Olympic team will be the most decorated Olympian in history, the 22-time medalist Michael Phelps. Eighteen of those 22 are gold medals, the most by far of any Olympian in history. And he’s now the first American male swimmer to make five Olympic teams. He qualified for number five just last week.
He told USA Today that, of all the things he’s done, qualifying for his fifth Olympics “means the most. With everything that’s happened, being able to come back, that’s probably harder than any swim I’ve had in my life.” Everything that’s happened includes being arrested for driving drunk in 2014, being suspended from swimming for a period, and, finally, entering rehab. But for the past year, according to both him and his teammates, he’s a changed man. He’s been focused solely on Rio.
Well, he’s got to be if he’s going to be successful. There’s no such thing as a part-time Olympic champion. Being an Olympic athlete isn’t one thing you do in your life among many other things; it is your life. You don’t say, “I’m going to spend this many hours a week training, and this many hours doing this other thing, and this many hours doing something else.” No… If you’re a champion, you eat in order to win the gold; you drink in order to win the gold; you sleep in order to win the gold. You are single-minded.
I haven’t known an athlete with that level of commitment before. But I did meet a classical musician who was close. She was a 16-year-old student at my wife Lisa’s school. She performed in a musical that her school was putting on. And she played violin. After the show I was introduced to her as one of Lisa’s students. So I complimented her. I said, “You were great! You didn’t sound screechy at all.” I was just trying to make small talk. I didn’t mean to damn her with faint praise. But, in my experience, 16 year-old violinists sometimes sound screechy.
She looked at me, and in a completely deadpan way, said, “Thank you. I practice four hours a day, every weekday—eight hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays—and I’ve been doing that for ten years!” No wonder she didn’t sound screechy! But if she was going to make it professionally, she knew that she’d have to have this single-minded focus on violin.
By the way, I was listening to a talk show host, Chris Dimino, on a local sports talk station recently. And he said, “If you ever hear someone say to a world-class musician or champion athlete, ‘I would give anything to be able to play like you,” you can disregard everything else that comes out of their mouths because they are liars! Because what they really mean is that they would give “anything” except, you know… the hours upon hours of practice, week in and week out, over the course of many years, in order to play like that!
Well, it’s a good point, you gotta admit!
I share all this because Joshua’s single-minded commitment to God—to serving God, to obeying God, to putting God first in his life, to putting God above all other interests, activities, and people—is at least a little bit like a musician’s commitment to music or an Olympic athlete’s commitment to his sport. Joshua could surely relate to the apostle Paul’s analogy between Christian faith and sports. In fact, Paul may even have had the original Olympic Games in mind when he said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” That’s exactly how Joshua was running his race of faith. He was running to win!
Forty years earlier, in fact, Moses and the Israelites were in the same place that Joshua and the Israelites were in today’s scripture. They were on the edge of Canaan, the Promised Land. And Moses sent twelve spies to gather information and intelligence about the people who lived there—their land, their cities, their defenses. And the spies came back. Ten of the twelve spies told Moses, “The land flows with milk and honey. It’s as good as advertised. But the people there are strong, and their cities are well fortified—cities like Jericho. We seemed like grasshoppers in comparison to some of their men!” So they told Moses, “There’s no way we can defeat them and take over their land.”
But two of those twelve—Joshua and a man named Caleb—disagreed. They had faith. They knew God would give them the victory. So they said. “Let’s go at once and take the land.”
So God punished that generation of people… Because of their lack of faith, because of their rebellion, because of their fear, none of them would live to enter Canaan. Their children, and their children’s children would enter, but not them. In fact, of all the Israelites who followed Moses out of Egypt, only these two men—one of whom was Joshua—would live to enter the Promised Land.
But as faithful as this great hero Joshua was, as committed as he was to serving the Lord, as single-minded as he was in his devotion to the Lord, even he wasn’t holy. Why do I say that? Because when he discovers that he’s in God’s presence, what does he do? He falls on his face. God tells him to remove his sandals because the ground on which he’s standing is holy ground. It’s holy because God is there, and God is holy. And Joshua’s sandals, which are the the dirtiest thing on him are removed as a symbol of his own dirtiness—his own sin, his own lack of holiness.
Where does that leave the rest of us?
Because make no mistake: If we are going to enter the Promised Land that God promises us—which is heaven when we die and resurrection into God’s renewed and redeemed world in the future, we need to be holy. What does Christ say? “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Perfect is another word that implies holiness. The apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
But we don’t like that teaching. That’s too hard! God’s Law tells us, “Be perfect” or “Be holy,” and we water it down to mean, “Try harder” or “Just do your best.” Then we turn to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, hoping that he will give us some relief from the impossible demands of the Law, and we hear Jesus say things like, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” We hear Jesus tell us that getting angry with someone is the spiritual equivalent of murder—and we’ll be judged appropriately. We hear Jesus tell us that cursing someone may send us to hell. We hear Jesus tell us that divorce in most cases is sinful and remarriage in most cases is adultery. We hear Jesus tell us that lust in our hearts is the spiritual equivalent of committing adultery.
Poor Jimmy Carter… When he was running for president in 1976, he gave an interview to Playboy magazine, in which he was asked if he ever committed adultery. And he replied, “Only in my heart,” and that answer nearly cost him the election! But it was a good and honest and Christian answer—except for the adverb “only.” There’s no “only” in God’s eyes! When it comes to the obstacles in our lives that prevent us from being holy, our main problem, Jesus says, isn’t with our actions; our main problem is with our hearts.
This is why he was constantly going after the Pharisees. They believed they were holy because of their outward actions. In their behavior, they did all the right things. In their hearts, however, they were lost and dying and bound for hell. This is why Jesus calls them “white-washed tombs.” They look pretty on the outside, but inside… Inside, they were using their obedience to God’s Law to make themselves look good in the eyes of others—to enhance their reputation; to win friends; to win praise; to elicit sympathy from others; to ensure that they would get the best seats at the table.
But Jesus says that God looks at our hearts, our motives. Not “Are we doing all the right things,” which is hard enough, but “why are we doing them?” Holiness means that we are 100 percent committed to loving and serving God. It means we surrender every part of our lives to him. It means, like the most committed Olympic champion, our sole focus in life is doing what pleases him!
So… how are we doing at that? [pause]
We’ve had a bad week as a nation. We were shocked early last week by two unnecessary shootings of black men by police, captured on smartphone video for all the world to see, followed on Thursday evening by the murder of five police officers—as if that evens the score in some sick, twisted way. It’s evil. We are righteously angry. When we hear about this kind of evil, we can take cold comfort in God’s Word, which tells us, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
In Luke chapter 13, Jesus is responding to a senseless, tragic, evil event, which was “in the news” of his day—and everyone was talking about it: Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, had recently murdered some Galileans, in cold blood, in the Temple. Jesus rejects the interpretation that God allowed this tragic thing to happen because these God was judging and punishing the victims for their sins. He asks his audience: “Do you think they were worse sinners than you? No, but unless you repent,” Jesus says, “you will all likewise perish.”
It’s O.K. for us to be righteously angry about events over the past week so long as we remember that we, too, deserve God’s judgment, God’s wrath, and hell for our sins, too. We, no less than Micah Johnson, deserve this sword of God’s judgment that the “commander of the Lord’s army” is carrying in today’s scripture.
Does that mean we’re lost? Does that means we’re without hope?
No… Thank God! Because the identity of the commander who wields this sword of judgment is none other than than Jesus Christ.
“Now hold on, Pastor Brent. Isn’t this an angel?” No. If he were an angel, Joshua wouldn’t be worshiping him. There’s a place toward the end of Revelation when John falls at the feet of the angel who’s giving him this prophecy, and starts to worship him. And the angel gets upset and says, “Don’t do that! I’m like you—I’m a fellow servant, alongside your brothers and sisters who believe in Jesus.” This angel may be a thousand times more powerful than John, but he’s a fellow creature just like John—he’s created by God, just like John. To worship a fellow creature—whether it’s a calf like we saw last week in Exodus 32 or an angel—is idolatry. Faithful Jews don’t worship angels! But in today’s scripture, this so-called “angel” not only receives Joshua’s worship—he tells him to worship him more by removing his sandals.
And this happens in several places in the Old Testament: Someone known as “the angel of the Lord”—not any old angel, but the “angel of the Lord”—appears. He appeared to Hagar, he appeared to Abraham, he appeared to Moses in the burning bush. These people mistake him for a “regular” angel at first. Before long, they realize they’re seeing God; they’re talking to God. And they worship him as God.
This “angel of the Lord,” like a regular angel, is sent from God—yet he’s different from God, distinct from God. But he’s also somehow God himself. And his purpose in coming to deliver his people, to save his people—to save Hagar from dying in the wilderness with her son Ishmael, to save the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and, in today’s scripture, to save them from and give them victory over a much more powerful enemy.
Does this ring a bell? Sent from God the Father, distinct from God the Father. And sent to save his people? Sent to bring victory?
There’s a messianic passage in Malachi 3:1, which says, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” The word “messenger” is the exact same Hebrew word for “angel”—whether it’s the supernatural kind of angel or human messenger depends on the context. In the gospels, Jesus identifies this messenger with John the Baptist. But listen to the next part of the verse: “And the Lord whom you seek”—who is Jesus the Messiah—“will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant”—literally angel of the covenant—“in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”
The Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is identified here as God is also called an “angel,” the angel of the covenant.
Therefore, as Christians throughout the centuries have rightly understood, this angel in today’s scripture is none other than a pre-incarnate Jesus, God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity.
And he’s also our judge, as scripture teaches—symbolized by the sword that he’s carrying.
There’s a lot of symbolism about swords in scripture. For instance, remember when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God places a sword, a flaming sword, over the entrance to the Garden—to keep them from returning to the Garden and eating of the tree of life, which would literally give them eternal life. This sword of judgment would fall on their heads if they attempted to have eternal life. Because what does the Bible say? “There is no one righteous. Not even one.” “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And “the wages of sin is death.”
So we would all fall under this sword of judgment, except for one thing: God sent his Son Jesus into the world to let the sword fall on him instead:
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is this: God demands holiness. We aren’t holy; we can’t be holy, in and of ourselves. So God sent his Son Jesus to be holy for us. To take upon himself our unholiness, our sins, on the cross, and give us in return his holiness—his righteousness. This is a free gift.
1. 1 Corinthians 9:24
2. Matthew 5:48
3. 1 Peter 1:15-16 ESV
4. Matthew 5:18 ESV
5. Matthew 23:27
6. Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19
7. Paraphrase of Luke 13:3
8. Paraphrase of Revelation 19:10
9. Romans 3:10 NIV
10. Psalm 130:3 ESV
11. Romans 3:23 ESV
12. Isaiah 53:5 NIV