A purple passage - Joshua 2

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 1st June 2008.

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Life, it is often said, is full of surprises. That was certainly the case for Jacob DeShazer. Jacob DeShazer was an American pilot during the Second World War. He enlisted just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, and when DeShazer heard the news he took it personally. He hated the Japanese and vowed to take revenge on the people who had bombed the American Navy without a declaration of war. Shortly after that event, airmen were asked to volunteer for an extremely dangerous mission. The details were kept secret, but leading the mission was Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle a good leader and a courageous pilot whom all the airmen admired. It wasn’t until the chosen airmen were placed on the Aircraft carrier Hornet, that any of the details of the mission were revealed. The eighty airmen were to fly sixteen B 25 Mitchell bombers for a bombing raid in Japan itself. There was only one snag. There was only enough fuel to get there. They would have to crash land the planes in friendly parts of China, where it was hoped the airmen would be treated well. The mission itself was not a massive strategic success, but psychologically it dealt a huge blow to Japan. She was now vulnerable and it spelt the beginning of the end. But for DeShazer and his friends, there was a great cost to pay. His plane crash landed in Japanese occupied China where he was picked up and became a Japanese prisoner of war. For the next three years he would be so badly treated that one night he thought he was going to die. Four of the eight captured had already died in prison. DeShazer believed his time had come. But in May 1944, something happened that totally turned DeShazer’s life around. Something so surprising that there is no way in the world DeShazer would have predicted it. Life, as many of us know, is full of big surprises.

            Well that was certainly true for the people of Israel, and especially as we meet them in the book of Joshua. They are on the verge of the promised land, and actually this is the second time they have tried to enter it. The first time they failed to believe God’s promises that he would give them the land, despite the large amounts of enemies they faced, and so God condemned them to forty years of wandering in the desert. And now they are here again forty years later, on the verge about to enter. And the book of Joshua tells the story of the conquest of the land. In fact chapter 1 vv 2-4 gives a summary of the book. There we read that the people will cross the Jordan, that covers chapters 1-4, that they will take the land of Canaan, that covers chapters 5-13, and that they will have territory divided amongst them, which takes up chapters 14-24. But it’s very important to recognise that the book of Joshua is not just dry history. In fact the history books as we know them, books like Joshua, Judges and Kings, were known to the Jews as the Former Prophets. The Jews saw the messages of these books as being in some way prophetic. Not that they predicted certain things. All these books simply describe what happened at their particular time. Rather that the writers were preaching to their own generation. They were telling the old stories as sermons to their own present generation, warnings and encouragements, based on the old stories. And if we want to know what the writer of Joshua is preaching about, then we could do no better than to go to 4 vv 23-24: “For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.” Do you see the present application? We’re being told these things so that the peoples of the earth might know God is powerful, and also that God’s own people might always fear him. That is why Joshua is here. Not just to tell the story- it’s not dry history. Rather to preach to us to fear the Lord and not make the same mistakes of the past.

           

But when we come to chapter 2, then we get a big surprise. Because we find here a story about some Jewish spies and a prostitute living in Jericho. And the big question for us is why is this story here? Because if we were to read straight from the end of chapter 1 and then move on to the beginning of chapter 3 and skip chapter 2, then we would lose nothing in terms of the story. It would just carry on with the crossing of the Jordon. So why does the writer include this little story about the spies and Rahab? Well I want to suggest that this chapter teaches us four things about God. Things which when understood will really surprise us, and by the end we’ll see that this chapter is extremely important not just in Joshua, but for the whole Bible’s unfolding story of salvation.

1) Believe God’s Power

So let’s turn to lesson 1, and we discover first that we must believe God’s power. Now let’s just get clear on the story first of all. Joshua, the new leader of the people of Israel, tells two of his men to go and spy out the land, and especially Jericho which was a strategic town just over the border. So off they go and in verse 1, they stay at the house of a prostitute called Rahab. There’s no hint that they indulged in sexual immorality. Rather her home, which could easily have been some sort of tavern or inn, a rather dubious Travelodge, was the sort of place where you could suss out the local situation and get talking to one or two people in the know. The problem is the King gets to hear about it and the secret police come knocking on Rahab’s door. She denies all knowledge and sends the Jericho Gestapo off in a different direction, having hidden the spies on the roof of her home. Now at this point a lot of people get very worked up about the fact that Rahab lies. Is it a good thing, is the writer telling us such lying is OK in certain situations? Well the fact is that the writer says nothing at all. Because to him its irrelevant. The OT history books often simply describe the facts- but they rarely make moral judgement. We already know that deceit is wrong from the law. So the writer would expect us to know that. But the fact is he wants us to focus on something far more important. Because in terms of the structure of the whole story, the heart of the story is Rahab’s confession in verses 8-13. In fact you might be surprised to know that this is the longest speech in prose by a woman anywhere in the Old Testament. Clearly the writer thought this was extremely important. It really is an extraordinary statement by a prostitute in a pagan town. She is confessing the truths about the living God! And she calls God “the Lord” which is his special covenant name, Yahweh, known only to the people of God. So what does she say about him?

            Well notice that she confesses God’s power in verse 9-10. So she says that God has given them this land, and that is before any fighting has taken place. Rahab actually shows more faith here than the whole people of Israel put together when they tried to take the land the first time. Rahab can see as clear as crystal that God is with the people of Israel and he will give them the land. And notice as well how Rahab looks back to the Exodus story as an example of God’s saving power. “We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea when you came out of Egypt.” God’s powerful acts of rescue for his people have become known across the known world. And the only thing standing between Jericho and the people of Israel is the River Jordon. It’s a piece of cake for God to dry that up, since he’s already dried up the whole Red Sea. That’s Rahab’s thinking! He also destroyed Sihon and Og, two of Israel’s most dangerous enemies. And notice the effect of these powerful acts of God. Rahab says that “great fear has fallen” on her people. They are melting in fear because of the people of Israel. And that was precisely what God said would happen back in Exodus 15 v 15. As a result of God’s actions in the Exodus, he said, the people of Canaan would melt in fear. If only the people of Israel had remembered that forty years before, they would have wasted forty years in the desert and almost all of that generation would not have had to die. But here a pagan prostitute called Rahab can see it as clearly as daylight. God is very powerful both to save his people and to destroy his enemies.

            And notice too how she sees God’s power in his sovereignty over creation in verse 11: “When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” This God has sovereign power over the universe, says Rahab. He is in heaven above and the earth below. It’s quite a confession from a woman who as far as we know has had no previous contact with the God of Israel. Clearly something is going on in her heart. See believes in God’s power and his sovereignty. And what is significant for us is that this woman looks back to the saving event of the Exodus as a sign of God’s power. This is the basis for her faith in this God. That’s the basis for her pleading for mercy as we’ll see in a moment. She looks back to that Exodus event and says, “Yes, this God is powerful, and we melt in fear before him.”

            Now that is significant for us as NT believers because we do exactly the same. But we don’t look back to the Exodus. We look back to the fulfilment of the Exodus, the greater Exodus where God’s saving power for his people was seen in the most remarkable way. The cross of Christ. For it was on the cross that God’s power was revealed in all its fullness, when Jesus died in our place to secure our forgiveness and freedom. There God rescued his people from their enemies- sin, death and Satan. We might long for God to act in power today and to display his greatness so that people might believe. But actually he has done all that is necessary. His power is revealed on the cross- and the Exodus was if you like a taster for that greater salvation. And when Rahab heard about the rescue of God’s people, she stood in awe of God and said in effect, “What an amazing God you have!”

            Let’s go back for just a moment to May 1944, to that horrific cell where Jacob DeShazer was being kept. What was the event that totally turned DeShazer’s life around? Well the four men still in the Japanese concentration camp were amazingly allowed to read the Bible. And they each read it in turn. DeShazer was no Christian at all. If anything he was opposed to faith. But in May 1944 he began reading. He was allowed the Bible three weeks, but it was three weeks that changed his life. This is his description of what happened. “I eagerly began to read its pages. Chapter after chapter gripped my heart. In due time I came to the books of the prophets, and found that their every writing seemed focussed on a divine Redeemer from sin, one who was to be sent from heaven to be born in the form of a baby…. Then I went on to the NT, and read about the birth of Jesus Christ, the one who actually fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah… and the other OT writers. My heart rejoiced as I found confirmed in Acts 10 v 43: ‘To Jesus all the prophets testify that though his name, whoever believes in him will have forgiveness of sins.’ And on the 8th June 1944, the words of Romans 10 v 9 stood out boldly before my eyes, ‘If you will confess with our mouth the Lord Jesus and will believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ In that every moment God gave me grace to confess my sins to him and he forgave me and saved me for Jesus’ sake.” It was the beginning of the rest of his life. Is that the God you believe in? Because this is the God of awesome power. Power to save his people, and to judge his enemies. The sovereign Lord over creation. The God who even today is willing to save, as he did in 1944, and as he did in Rahab’s time.

2) Accept God’s Mercy

Which brings us to our second lesson which is to accept God’s mercy. And that is precisely what Rahab did. And we see that in verses 12-13: “Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.” Now there is something very remarkable about what this woman says here. Because if you think about it logically, who is it that should be pleading for mercy? Well it should be the spies, shouldn’t it? They are facing certain death if the Jericho Gestapo capture them. And this woman has them in her grasp! All she needs to do is raise the alarm and it’s all over. But it doesn’t happen that way. It’s Rahab who is pleading for mercy. Because she is totally convinced that Jericho is about to fall and everyone is about to die. Isn’t that amazing faith. She’s not seen an army, because they are miles away the other side of the Jordan. She’s only heard about what God has done. But on the basis of that news, she is willing to put her life into the hands of these Jewish spies. And notice how in verse 12 she pleads for her life “by the Lord”. She wants them to swear “by the Lord” that they will save her. Her death is the death that is certain. And the only way out is to entrust herself to the safety of the people of God. In effect she is saying “May I become one of you, may I believe in this same God and come with you, because I know there is only safety with you and your God.” That is what she is doing. She is pleading for mercy and flinging herself into the arms of the living God.

            And what is even more extraordinary about this pleading for mercy, is who Rahab is. Not only is she a woman of very dubious morals, which we night think is bad enough as it is, but she is also a pagan. She’s a Canaanite. She’s part of a culture which sacrificed children to their gods and were totally against everything the people of God stood for. If ever there was an outsider Rahab was it. If ever there was a person who would never have anything to do with the God of the Bible it was Rahab. But isn’t that precisely the sort of person the God of the Bible specialises in. Someone the world has written off, someone the church may have written off, someone you and I may have written off. Someone we think that does not deserve mercy in the slightest. That’s the person God longs to rescue and bring back to himself.

            Let me tell you about another such person. Strangely this person too was fighting in the Pacific Ocean at the same time as Jacob DeShazer, but this man was on the opposing side. He was a Japanese fighter pilot and he was the lead pilot and commander of the attack on Pearl Harbour. His name was Mitsuo Fuchido, a highly decorated and respected Japanese hero. He was the man responsible for 3000 deaths at Pearl Harbour and numerous others throughout the war. Amazingly he survived many near death experiences, including being in Hiroshima the day after the nuclear bomb exploded. He was one of seventy Japanese called in to investigate the day after. None had protective clothing. Almost all died soon after. Fuchido survived in perfect health. But after the war he became a bitter alcoholic. Japan had been humiliated by defeat and he felt ashamed. Now if we had met Fuchido at that point in his life, would you ever imagine that this man could become a Christian? A trained killer, a typical Japanese atheist, a bitter hardened man crippled by alcoholism. Not a chance, we’d say. But in his grace and mercy, God worked in this man’s life. He’d heard how Japanese prisoners of war had been well treated at the hands of American missionaries. And he was astonished. And then he was handed a Christian booklet at a railway station. And slowly but surely Fuchido changed, to the point where he gave his life to Jesus Christ. This is how he describes that moment: “I seemed to meet Jesus for the first time. I understood the meaning of his death as a substitute for my wickedness, and so in prayer I requested him to forgive my sins and change me from a bitter disillusioned ex-pilot into a well balanced Christian with purpose in living. That date, 14th April 1950, was the day I became a new person. My complete view of life was changed by the intervention of Jesus Christ.”

Yes, God specialises in showing mercy and grace to the outsider. And if you think you are beyond the grace of God, then think again. Because the plain fact is this: All of us are outsiders. All of us are in the same boat as Rahab and Fuchido morally and spiritually. We all need grace and mercy, And not one of us is any better than the other. We can each receive that mercy even tonight. And if any of us Christians have doubts as to whether God can save those who seem so lost, then we need to remember our own spiritual story and the story of Rahab. For like her, we were once lost, but now we are found. Our God is a God of astonishing mercy and grace. And we need to accept it.

3) Obey God’s Demands

But the story doesn’t stop there. Because it leads on to a third lesson. We need to obey God’s demands. And the faith that Rahab shows is put to the test immediately. Because having flung herself on the mercy of God, she puts her faith into action. She takes a massive risk in housing these spies in the first place, probably risking death herself, and then she agrees to their plan. So verse 14, the spies say to her, “"Our lives for your lives!" the men assured her. "If you don't tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land."” Notice in passing how the spies themselves are totally convinced the Lord will give them the land. And they come to an agreement with Rahab. She will get the spies out of the city and send them on their way, without giving them away. And she will get all her family together in her home when Israel attack and hang a red cord out of her window as a sign that this house is with the people of Israel and their God. And in return, the spies will see to it that Rahab and her family are protected. It’s very simple, but it’s a big ask for Rahab. It’s possible she was tempted to tell the authorities about the impending attack. After all her home town, and no doubt friends too were about to be destroyed. It’s possible she had moments of doubt. She has after all much to lose. If she’s wrong about God, then her life is gone. She’ll be found out. She’s hanging her whole life on the message about the living God. But she acts on it and she puts her money where her mouth is. And later in on chapter 6 we find that both she and the spies keep their side of the bargain.  

            And it’s interesting that that’s the one thing the NT says about Rahab. Not that she lied, but that she had faith in God and that faith was put into practice. So listen to these words from James 2: “In the same way was not Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction.” “ Or again from Hebrews 11. “By faith the prostitute Rahab because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” Hebrews 11 is a list if OT heroes of the faith, to it’s astonishing that Rahab is here, the pagan prostitute. But the writer says she was a woman of faith whose words of belief were put into practice. You see Rahab was a woman who obeyed God’s demands. She believed and it showed in real life. And that is what God demands of all his followers. You might be thinking that “demands” is too strong a word. But not when you see what Jesus requires of his followers. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” he says. That’s a demand. Real faith works. Real faith is seen in action. God demands obedience, not to earn his favour, but because of his favour. It’s part of walking by grace. And the story of Rahab is a challenge to us because it’s about a woman who put her money where her mouth was spiritually speaking.

Now for each of us the pressures points of faith will be different. But for each of us God requires us to put that belief into action. For some it will mean speaking out at work. For others it will mean taking a decision on our careers that seems backwards but is better for our spiritual health and the gospel. Maybe less work in order to get to church regularly. Maybe for others it will mean stopping a particular sin.

For Jacob DeShazer the challenge of faith was very acute. If you remember, he was struggling with hatred for the Japanese. It consumed him. But shortly after his conversion, DeShazer found that God was challenging him to live out his faith in a very particular way in prison. Here’s how he puts it: “Suddenly I discovered that God had given me new spiritual eyes, and that when I looked at the Japanese officers and guards who had starved and beaten me and my companions so cruelly, I found my bitter hatred for them changed to loving pity. I read in the Bible that while those who crucified Jesus on the cross had beaten him and spat upon him before he was nailed to the cross, he tenderly prayed in his moment of excruciating suffering, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ And from the depths of my heart I too prayed for God to forgive my torturers.” For DeShazer real faith meant forgiveness. That was what God demanded of his life at that time. And for each of us who claim to love him, the Lord will ask of us to show our faith. He makes loving demands of us which show we are not all mouth and no action. Because true faith is seen in action. And Rahab was a true example. She was someone who obeyed God’s demands.

4) Trust God’s plans

But there’s one final lesson as we finish. And that is to trust God’s plans. Because this story about Rahab has one incredible twist to it. You see when the spies went back to Joshua and reported back what they found, they told him about Rahab. And we discover in chapter 6 that Rahab and her family are protected whilst the rest of Jericho is destroyed. And we’re told that Rahab continued to live amongst the people of God. But what happened to her after that. Well curiously it is Matthew that gives us the answer. Because in Matthew 1 we discover this astonishing verse. “Salmon the father of Boaz whose mother was Rahab.” So the Boaz we meet in the book of Ruth is none other than Rahab’s little boy. And whose descendant is Boaz? None other than David himself, the king of Israel, descended from a pagan prostitute. And of course it’s even more amazing than that. Because Matthew continues the line and eventually says this: “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” Isn’t that extraordinary. Jesus’ great great great and many more greats grandmother was Rahab. This same outcast, this prostitute who these spies just happened to bump into Jericho, this Rahab is the descendant of Jesus. In the amazing sovereignty of God, he uses this woman to bring about the birth of his Son and our Saviour. So can you see now why this passage is here. Isn’t’ it staggering? Humanly speaking if Rahab hadn’t trusted the message about God’s Exodus, then there would be no Saviour and we would not even be meeting here tonight! None of us would be Christians. That is how amazing the plans of God are. It all seemed like blind chance. The spies happening upon this pub, this woman, this part of town. But no, it was all part of God’s amazing plan, not just for Rahab and her family, but for the whole of God’s people. You see that is the God of the Bible, a God who makes plans and brings them to fulfilment. A God who can be trusted.

            And surely it means that if he is planning the big things of life so to speak, then he can be trusted with our lives as well. We may think that things are out of control, perhaps with our families, perhaps with our jobs, perhaps with our health, perhaps with our futures. We worry about them all, don’t we? For each of us sitting here tonight, there will be numerous worries. But take heart from this chapter that God is the God who saves and is sovereign, both in the big things and the little details. He can be trusted. We needn’t be afraid or worry they are out of control. And there are so many things in our lives that when we look back we would never have planned it that way, but we can see the hand of God in it all.

I doubt very much that Jacob DeShazer, the hateful prisoner of war, and Mitsuo Fuchido, the washed up Japanese fighter pilot would ever have predicted what would have happened to them. God is always full of surprises. And there is one last surprise to come in their story. Because who was the man who led Fuchido to Christ. None other than Jacob DeShazer. The booklet that Fuchido read on that railway station had been written by DeShazer just after he was released from prison. It was called “I was a Prisoner of Japan.” And the thing that so impressed Fuchido was DeShazer’s forgiveness for the very Japanese people who had caused him so much suffering. That was how Fuchido came to Christ. They eventually met and become fellow workers as missionaries in Japan. Only the gospel can do that- bringing hated enemies to become gospel partners. Only the gospel of grace can change a person’s life like that. Only the God of sovereign power can plan events like that. That’s the God of the Bible. And that’s the God of Rahab and Joshua. The question is: Is he your God and mine.

           

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