The way ahead - Joshua 1:1-18

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 25th May 2008.

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One of my favourite quotes about heaven is from the atheist George Bernard Shaw. He once said that, “Heaven as conventionally conceived is a place so dull, so useless, so miserable that no one has ever ventured to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the sea shore.”

And he’s right, isn’t he? Heaven as conventionally conceived isn’t a particular crowd puller. So yes as we talk about our future we do get some things right. The praise of Almighty God for his amazing plan of salvation. That’s a wonderful experience to look forward to. Or what about the prospect of living forever in the company of God and in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ? I say, “Bring it on”. What a delight to know my Creator intimately and to live out my eternity surrounded by people who love me.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do think we normally mention many exciting prospects when we talk about our Christian future. However, my fear is that what we do frequently is surround these future blessings with an idea that is far from Christian. This is the view that our future existence will not be physical.

Just think about the typical images people have in their heads when they imagine the Christian future. There are clouds and harps and there is usually talk of leaving the earth and arriving at the pearly gates for a future that is very different from anything we currently experience.

My friends, this is not the Christian hope. Yes we are to be with God and yes we are to spend eternity with God’s people, our brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world and across the centuries, but all this is to take place in a physical new creation. Life in the future will not be completely different from what we experience now. All the effects of sin will be removed but if we trust in Jesus we are destined for a physical existence beyond the grave and not a spiritual liberation from the physical world we currently inhabit.

And this is what I was reminded of as I read through the book of Joshua in preparation for our new sermon series. Joshua is certainly an action packed book full of many stories but if there is one big theme which dominates its 24 chapters it is the land which God has promised to his people.

In chapters 1-5 we learn how the people entered the land, then in chapters 6-12 we discover in detail how God’s people took possession of the land, in chapters 13-21 we hear how the land was divided up between the various tribes and then in chapters 22-24 we discover how the nation of Israel was to keep the land.
But do you see all the way through it is the land of promise which dominates the horizon. The whole book is about how God’s people finally arrive in the place he promised them long ago.

To get us started tonight I want to answer two questions from Joshua chapter 1. You’ll see them on your handout.

1.    Why was the land given?
2.    How was the land taken?

You might be thinking, “So what? Who cares? What does this ancient historical book have to do with me?” I would say in response, “Wait and see. Be patient. It does have much to do with our current practice and our future hope. But to see the relevance we must first answer the basic questions.”

First of all, why was the land given? Have a look at verse 1, “After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant: ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Great Sea on the west.’”

It’s not very difficult to find the key word in these verses. Why was the land given to God’s people? Well, not because they had earned it or because they had done something spectacular to deserve it but simply because God made a promise and God is a promise keeper.

In these verses we’re told that the promise was made to Moses and of course this was true but for the next few minutes I want to take you on a tour of the Old Testament to show you the history of this big Bible promise.

You’ll need your bibles for this and first of all I’d like you to turn to Genesis 12. It’s on page 13 of the church bibles. Listen to these promises that God made to a man called Abram, who would later be known as Abraham. Verse 1, “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. ‘I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’ So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.”

This promise is repeated many times as the Bible story continues. Let me give you a few more examples.

Turn to the next page in your bibles and listen to what God says to Abram in Genesis 13:14, “The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, ‘Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give you and your offspring forever.”

It’s going to be massive, isn’t it? And if we flick on to the end of Genesis 15 we are told some of the exact dimensions of this promised land. Look with me at 15:18, “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendents I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.”

From this point onwards one of the big questions we are supposed to be asking is, ‘When will God keep his promise?’

He has promised a place for his people to call home but when will he be true to his word and let them occupy the land?

From Genesis 16 to Joshua 1 there are many ups and downs. To begin with it starts pretty well. For a number of years Abraham’s descendants do live in the land but in then during a time of famine they relocated to the land of Egypt and then found themselves eventually living as slaves under a cruel Egyptian tyrant.

So what about God’s promise? That’s the question we are supposed to be asking as we read the book of Exodus. What about this promise made to Abraham that his descendants would live in a land of their home?

Turn with me to Exodus 2:23. It’s on page 59 of the church bibles. “During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”

If we read on in the book of Exodus we will discover what God did to help his people. They were in slavery but through his almighty power rescued them and led over a million people out of captivity and brought them to the edge of the promised land.

This is an exciting development in the story of God’s promise. They were on the edge of a new life. They were on the boundaries of a new beginning.
But then disaster struck. Do you remember? The Israelites sent scouts to explore the land and most of them came back with a very negative report. They told how the people of the land were big and how the cities were heavily fortified and how unlikely they were to win any battles against this superior force. It was a test of their trust in God’s promise to give his people victory when the odds were against them. But they failed the test and the consequences were enormous.

Let me show you what happened from the book of Numbers. Turn with me Numbers 14:26. It’s on page 151 of the church bibles. “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: ‘How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very things I heard you say. In this desert your bodies will fall – every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them to enjoy the land you have rejected.’”

That’s exactly what happened. The Israelites spend forty years in the desert when God was true to his word and then after the rebellious generation had died out we reach the book of Joshua, when God’s people are again on the edge of the promised land.

Over the next few weeks we’ll discover in detail how they took possession of this land but tonight I want to focus on the extraordinary dimensions of the promised land. We first heard them in Genesis 15 and they are repeated in Joshua chapter 1. God says, “Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates…to the Great Sea on the west.”

Today this would include Syria, Jordon, parts of Iraq and parts of Saudi Arabia. This is what God was promising his people and this I think provides us with a problem.

As you read through Joshua although they take much of the land they don’t take it all and they certainly don’t take all of the shaded areas. So we are left asking the question, “When will God keep his promise?” When will his people inherit all of this?

During the reign of Solomon there was a brief period of time when the borders of Israel did stretch out to vast dimensions – see 1 Kings 4:20-21. But this rule didn’t last for long and the story goes downhill after this. Gradually more and more territory is taken by the vast superpowers of the day, first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks and then the Romans.

So by the time of Jesus we should still be asking the same question as we were after Genesis chapter 12. When will God keep his promise to give his people a place to live?

Some people don’t think the New Testament has much to say about the promised land. They think by the time of Jesus the land of promise has been spiritualized and therefore is not relevant any more.

But listen to what Jesus actually says during the Sermon on the Mount. It’s from Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

A physical piece of land is still important to Jesus. And not simply to Jesus but to many other New Testament writers. This is what Peter says at the end of his second letter, “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

This is what John says in the book of Revelation, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”

Do you see the point? The promise of a land has not disappeared in the New Testament. The promise of a physical place to live has not been replaced by a spiritual liberation from our physical bodies. In fact, the territory mentioned in the New Testament is even bigger than the promise he made in the Old Testament.

God is a promise keeper and what we are being told in the New Testament is that ultimately he will keep his promise to Abraham on a grand scale by transforming this current earth and making it a truly glorious place for his chosen people to inhabit.

My friends, God has promised us a place to live in and it will be here on this earth, transformed yes but not completely dissimilar to the world we inhabit today.

What does all this mean? First of all, it may be that we need to change our view of the future. The Bernard Shaw vision of the Christian future is boring but his is not the Bible’s view of our future. Some of us may have to change our view of the future.

Secondly, we should now see the importance of our behaviour in the present. When Christians have abandoned a physical view of the future in favour of a spiritual future then they have tended to treat physical things in the wrong way.

There are two dangers. First, there is the view that what we do with our physical bodies doesn’t matter. If I am spiritual inside then it doesn’t matter what I do with my body. But God is interested in the physical and the Bible always connected true spirituality with physical behavior. God is interested in how you look after yourself physically.

The other danger is not to appreciate the physical beauty all around us. When God made the physical world it was not a mistake. The problem with our world is not because it is physical but that it is full of the consequences of human sin. But when you find yourself enjoying the physical world then this is okay. God made the physical world to be enjoyed.

Thirdly, we should appreciate God is a promise keeper. Sometimes we run into problems when we think God has promised something he never has and then we get angry at God for not delivering what he has never promised. It’s vital to know what God has and hasn’t promised.

Has God promised a life free of suffering? No.
Has God promised that those close to you will never fall ill or die? No.
Has God promised that your prayers for healing will always be answered? No.
He has promised to take you to be with him, to deal with your sin and order your life so that you are made to be more like Jesus Christ, and he has promised to give all the followers of Christ an eternal future in a wonderful New Creation.

These are some of the lessons I think we can learn when we discover the answers to our first question, why was the land given?

What about the second question? How was the land taken?

Turn back with me to Joshua chapter 1 and we’ll find out.

How was the land taken? Two answers. By a leader and by the people.

First of all, by a leader. Look at what God promises Joshua in verse 5. “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will never leave you nor forsake you.” On the basis of this promise look at what Joshua is called to do. Verse 6, “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

This is such a vital truth to recognize. God’s people in the Old Testament needed a leader called Joshua to lead them into the promised land. And this leader was to be strong, courageous and godly. He was to be obedient to the law of God and if he was then he would be successful in his role of leading the people of God into the promised land.

We’ll see the implications of this truth in just a moment but before we do let me show you what else had to happen for the promised land to be inherited.

Verse 10, “So Joshua ordered the officers of the people: ‘Go through the camp and tell the people, ‘Get your supplies ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordon here to go in and take possession of the land the LORD your God is giving you for your own.’”
Or in other words, although the land was a gracious gift from the God who owned the land it still had to be taken by the people.

And in verses 12-18 Joshua reminds the people of God that they have a responsibility to do this together. You may remember that by this point two and a half tribes had already settled in their new home but in these verses Joshua makes sure that they work together with their fellow brothers and sisters in the great task of taking possession of the rest of the land.

What I find very exciting is that there are two principles laid down here that we meet again in the New Testament.

How will we inherit our promised land?

The Old Testament people of God needed a leader and so do we. What is remarkable is that we have a leader of the same name. The Hebrew word that we translate as Joshua when translated into Greek, the language of the New Testament, gives us the word that we translate as Jesus. This is no coincidence.

The Old Testament sets up a pattern that helps us understand the mission of Jesus Christ.

The New Testament presents him as a new Joshua who leads his people into the promised land of the New Creation. He had to be strong and courageous and godly. He was the perfect one who came to die in the place of his people so that they could be ready for an eternity in the New Creation.

Jesus in the Garden of Gethseme.

So as we read Joshua chapter 1 we are supposed to think ahead to Jesus and all that he has done for us.

Our temptation is to apply Joshua 1 directly to us. And say we need to be strong and courageous.

But instead let’s be thankful tonight that Jesus has been strong and courageous and has perfectly kept the law in our place so we can now inherit the promised land of the New Creation.

How will we inherit the promised land? First of all, we need a leader but, secondly, we need to take possession of it.

In what sense do we need to take possession of our future home? If we are destined to live here then the enemies of God are all around us.
How do we take possession? Not through violence or through marching around claiming the ground. But through speaking the message of reconciliation.

We tell people the gospel about Jesus. Ultimately God will clear the ground in the day of judgement but before that we have a ministry of reconciliation where we invite folk to stop being enemies of God and become his friends.

I know this is hard and we often feel inadequate or discouraged. We don’t witness vast numbers of people coming to Christ but my friends this is our major task as we live on this earth.

We are to do this together. How can we promote gospel ministry together?

•    We can pray
•    We can give
•    We can help out
•    We can speak
•    We can invite
•    We can come

We have a special mission weekend coming up on Saturday 21st to Sunday 22nd June. Family Fun day, Jazz café and two guest services. What about asking that friend or neighbour? What about praying?

You may feel discouraged. You may feel it will never work but can I encourage you to give it a go.

We are going to the promised land but it is now our responsibility to claim the ground as we speak the gospel and witness the enemies of God become his friends.

So let’s pray as we finish that God will give us the energy, the motivation, the boldness and the enthusiasm to continue playing our part in this most vital mission.


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