On March 10, 1974 Lieutenant Hirro Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army finally surrendered. 29 years after the surrender of the Japanese military at the end of World War II, Lieutenant Onoda accepted the command of his long-since retired former commander and came down out of the jungle hills on the Philippine island of Lubang. For 29 years he had ignored the leaflets and the loudspeaker announcements that the second great war was over, that Japan had surrendered. For 29 years he continued his guerrilla war because for him the battle was not over – his orders wouldn’t allow it – he had to go it alone. When he surrendered at age 52, he made this comment, “Nothing pleasant during those 29 years in the jungle.” He died five years later. A tragic misperception of reality.
In the great battle of faith – this daily Christian life with its struggle against sin and trials of life that plague us – there is a temptation to misperceive things. A temptation to be fighting off in the jungles our own personal warfare – against sin, wickedness, enemies, society – and to totally miss the nature of faith and what it means to be God’s people – people who trust in God’s great power. To keep us from such tragedy then this morning, let’s think about the nature of our battle with Israel’s general, Joshua.
Joshua was “near Jericho”. He’d been mulling over that blue blocky shadow, sitting on the horizon in the waning daylight. He was the general. His was the task of directing Israel in its first-ever siege battle. And these the questions: How would Israel take that city? How many men would die? What tactics should he employ? Surely Joshua had plans, fears, hopes. And then the man with the sword appeared.
Joshua’s question does not betray some kind of misunderstanding, necessarily. Perhaps it betrays an engagement in his vocation. Rightly, on the eve of a battle, in enemy terrain when a man with a sword appears any warrior worth his salt would ask, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” What’s interesting is the man’s response – literally, he says, “No…” The kind of response that makes you second-guess what you’d said, “I’m sorry, maybe I wasn’t clear. I meant, are you for Israel, on our side?” “No…” “So you’re for Canaan, God’s enemies then?” – “No…” That’s heavy. And if you’re Joshua, as the man goes on you might ask, “Apparently God isn’t for Israel, his own people? After all this time and trouble?”
It makes sense, though… There was no real difference between Joshua and Jericho. Not if you look from God’s perspective. Do you remember what Moses had said, before he died, to Israel? It’s Deuteronomy, chapter 9, just before Israel crosses the Jordan River. “Understand that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Dt. 9:6)
Totally true: a whole generation of Israelites had died in the desert because they wouldn’t put their trust in God’s mighty power, after all they’d seen his power do! Red Sea crossing & Egypt’s army crushed, desert miracles – manna from heaven that had just recently stopped appearing, days before this reading… And much more. In the balance, Canaanites for hundreds/thousands of years had been sacrificing to false gods in pagan worship – God had pointed it out to Abraham hundreds of years before; and all the while Israel daily struggled with worshipping themselves. Both were sinners. So the battle really wasn’t “God for Israel and against her enemies.” No, as the man said, “[A]s commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” It’s like this one who commands the forces of Almighty God in the pursuit of God’s truth and righteousness was just inserting himself into the middle of things… Which makes me think… Perhaps it’s to reset Joshua’s perception about what was really going on around Jericho that the man makes him take off his sandals… Because this was not Israel’s future home; nor enemy territory; not even really the precipice of a terrible battle… No, “[T]he place where you are standing is holy.” It’s God’s place.
To reason in reverse, do we understand always that the place where we are standing is holy? That we may many times miss that all of this is God’s – it is his battle, his world, his terrain on which we walk.
Don’t you ever get caught up in your faith-life with this idea that it’s “us” vs. “them”? You’ve got little Jerichos on your horizons, don’t you? It’s the ex-spouse who plagues you with custody and questions and trouble; the political pundits whose comments more and more are against traditional morality; or as a church – all these churches that cave to this garbage; the classmate who will not pay attention to you, associate with you, or just not when others are around. And it’s as though you’re battling against this person, this force, this society – it’s us vs. them. And, inevitably, we struggle with what God is doing – for us? Is he really? Or is he for them? And usually, we ask it as though he ought to be for us – we’ve been okay – at least we’re not for that kind of stuff those people advocate. Because we’re always tempted in our judgments to color others as poor as can be and to color over who we really have been – and not really to think about whether the sword of God’s justice ought to fall on us just a well.
When the Son of God as the commander of God’s armies walks onto the scene – interested in the Lord’s truth and righteousness – perhaps it is in part to remind us of the true nature of things. That, if we are a church of any kind, the question is always “Are we for God’s truth? Or not?” And if we are people of any kind, the question is always, “Are we for the Lord of Angel Armies?” And regarding all those others – churches, friends, people – out there, the question really isn’t that we’re against them. It’s “Are we against the one who holds them hostage, who enslaves them – Satan himself?” And for all the times we find we have instead been for “us” we must repent.
And this will be our confidence so to do: we recall that God doesn’t arrive on the scene to tell us he’s disinterested. No – obviously he’s in it – he showed up. Just as you have seen in the greater Joshua, Jesus. In the gospel the centurion’s not worthy, but Jesus worked anyway – in grace and mercy he brought healing. That kind of grace and mercy that forgives our sins by the blood of God’s Son – by his battling in our place on the cross, by his victory that we cannot achieve… That kind of grace and mercy is in God’s truth and righteousness – he is concerned with sinners and has brought his mighty power to win our salvation – to make us fit to stand on his holy ground. And not just to stand, but to fight at his direction…
What a crazy set of things the Son of God directs Joshua to do! Some comforting realities like that the battle’s already done. Literally, God says, “I have given Jericho over into your hands.” It’s done – past tense – in God’s governance of things, Jericho’s already lost. There’s only the matter of how that will happen in human history. To his credit, Joshua is very interested to hear what God will say, to receive his will, and to serve. “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
What is the message, the tactic, the victory plan? It’s three “brilliant” parts: 1) March every day for six days one time around that city with the armed men. 2) On day seven march seven times around blowing horns. 3) On day seven, wrap it off with a big horn blast and a shout. And the result: the wall will collapse and you go on up and mop it all up – kill Jericho off – take the city. Now, that’s just dumb. I bet some little part of Joshua was saying, “If this were my battle, we’d…” This is dumb – marching and trumpets. And I think probably we should put away any part of our brains that tries to un-dumb it – some explanation of the divine physics of it – shofars and a million voices combined could maybe cause rocks to ring and sing and *skidoosh implode… Isn’t God instead just saying, “Hey, this isn’t your battle…and I don’t fight like you do…and…my servants fight as I command…and then they win.”
God calls us into his battle. He calls us by faith to his methods, things equally absurd. Let’s ask the local TV station to come and witness “God at work” on a Sunday morning, yes? We’ll show them all his power in our talking and reading from this thousands-year-old book, in our confession and absolution, in the baptisms – water with that Word, in our communion – body and blood in with and under bread and wine – and that in all these there is forgiveness, new life, and salvation for sinners. And surely they will rejoice that God is powerful and mighty. Probably they will laugh. But we will continue to serve just as he commands with the methods he has given. We put on “the helmet of salvation” and take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17) Because God promises his Word “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training” in what it means to walk on holy ground: righteousness. Faith trusts that, in these things the world calls absurd, the work the world does not think it needs is actually done – God’s mighty power converts human hearts and wins souls from Satan’s service for salvation.
And, to further the absurd, you and I will live by faith in ways that will show we’re not after this world’s approval but that we’re seeking to serve Christ. We’ll hold to that Word of God in an orthodox way – pursuing every single thing it says, many of which nobody will like. And we’ll share that Word even with those we’re tempted not to like. And we will own James’ good Word and consider it entirely joy when we face trials – be they persecutions, daily struggles with sin, maybe a move to a new town – for we will know God’s design to profit us – develop perseverance in us such that we stay in his ways, and he will mature us and complete us. And we will do crazy things like take pride in our lowly position and have great humility in the midst of our blessedness. These aren’t our tactics, they’re God’s methods. So we know that by then the walls will come down – of sin or fear or animosity or spite. By faith in his great power, he will do mighty things through us.
When we know that he has won the war and the crown of righteousness Christ gives is waiting to be set on each of our heads then we will not fight for us but for the Lord. This will be the nature of our battle. We will stand fully aware that this is his holy ground and, trusting in his promises and mighty power, take up his methods and march at his command and sing his praise until we also go up into the victory he has already won.