New place, new commitment - Joshua 5:1-12

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 29th June 2008.

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Fresh starts are opportunities that many people would love. A fresh start with a new job, a family member, a friend, a new house, a new church- whatever it is we just want a clean break and to start again. And often with those fresh starts we long for the past to be erased. Those past memories of pain or embarrassment, the loss we feel, the annoyance we have experienced, we just wish they could be got rid of, wiped out, the memory suppressed or erased. A few years ago, a film came out which examined precisely that longing. It was called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film starred Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet who play two people called Joel and Clementine. The two characters happen to meet at a friend’s BBQ and fall in love. But Joel and Clementine are total opposites, and whilst at first the relationship is fun and unpredictable, later it gets bitter and the differences between the two end in a painful split. In fact things get so bitter, that Clementine decides she will undergo a memory erasure procedure of all the memories of Joel she has, a procedure performed by a company called Lacuna Incorporated. And when Joel finds this out he is so disturbed that he too decides to undergo this procedure. And the rest of the film is an emotional trawl through Joel’s memory as he pays others to erase the memories of his one time lover Clementine. Now if it sounds bizarre that is because it is, but it certainly raises some interesting questions about memories. And one of the questions that the film raises is whether we would truly want all our memories erased of a particular individual, or event, or if in fact we want to hang on to them. And what is even more disturbing is that in 2007, research was done to produce a drug which would alter or even wipe out memories of events that we do not wish to remember any more. Hollywood, it appears, is becoming reality. But it all goes to show that whilst fresh starts are strongly desired by many of us for different reasons, yet often accompanying that desire is a longing for the past to be wiped out, for memories to be erased.

            Now when we come to Joshua 5 we discover very similar themes but a totally different result. Because Joshua 5 is about a fresh start- but the memories of past errors are not wiped out. If anything, the memories are extremely important and they are actively encouraged rather than erased from the memory bank. If you have been here over the last few weeks, you’ll know that the book of Joshua is all about the people of Israel taking over the promised land of Canaan. The first four chapters described the crossing of the River Jordon, which was a huge event. Just as God had parted the waters of the Red Sea when the people had come out of Egypt, so he did it again with the River Jordan in flood, a huge expanse of water, up to a mile wide and many feet deep. But now they are across. They are in Canaan and they are about to embark upon their capture of the land. But before they do so the people pause in chapter 5 and take stock. Because between coming out of Egypt and crossing the river Jordan there have been forty years. A whole generation has died because of God’s judgement on them, as we will see. The previous generation refused to trust the promises of God, and they suffered the penalty. This new generation has a fresh start. The slate has been wiped clean. The sins of the previous generation have been paid for. Now it’s up to this generation to trust the Word of God. They are now in the land and about to receive the promises of God. But before they do, they must recommit themselves to God and remember. Because to forgot the mistakes of the past, and God’s actions in the past is extremely dangerous. No, fresh starts and good memories go together in the Bible. For we need to remember what God has done and what God has said. And in the light of those truths, move forward in the gracious fresh start that he has given us.


So again as we come to the book of Joshua, we need to remember that Joshua is written to encourage not only the people of the writer’s day to press on trusting God’s power and promises. But it’s also written for us. It’s not just history, it is preaching applied to us. For we too are on a journey heading for God’s fulfilled promises. We too have crossed the dark waters of the Jordon, that is the curse of sin and death, through Jesus Christ. We have been saved, just as the people of God were. But the battle is not over yet. We are not at rest yet. There is much to be done, and much fighting to take place, not of course literally for the Christian, but spiritually, as we battle on towards the gracious gift of heaven. And as we too rejoice in the fresh start we have been given in Jesus Christ, so we too must continue to remember and press on in the light of the past events, trusting the power of God to sustain us. So as we look at what happens as the people of God paused before continuing their journey, we will find three challenges for us. Three resolutions that the people of Israel needed to make, and that we as God’s people today need to make as well:

1) Resolve to fight complacency

2) Resolve to remember the rescue

3) Resolve to trust God’s provision

1) Resolve to fight complacency

So first then we must resolve to fight complacency. And that is what the first generation of Israelites failed to do. Now in verses 2-3 we find that the Lord tells Joshua to circumcise all the adult males. Now it may seem a little horrific to us, but we need to understand that circumcision was an important symbol for God’s people. It was introduced to Abraham back in Genesis 17 as a sign that Abraham and his descendants were God’s people. God had promised that he would be their God and that they in turn would be his people. And the mark of that promise or covenant was circumcision. A mark on the flesh which showed you were one of God’s people. And so from that point on, all of Abraham’s descendants were circumcised. That was until the time of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. Because during that time, the practice stopped. No-one is quite sure why- perhaps the people stopped doing it because they were rebellious, or maybe God forbade it as a curse on the people. Either way, it stopped. So a whole generation grew up uncircumcised. And it was that generation that now stood the other side of the Jordan waiting to take the promised land. But the previous generation, their fathers and mothers were now dead. For they had rebelled against God and God had punished them by leaving them to die in the desert.

Let’s read from verse 4: “All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the desert on the way after leaving Egypt. All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the desert during the journey from Egypt had not. The Israelites had moved about in the desert forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the LORD. For the LORD had sworn to them that they would not see the land that he had solemnly promised their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way.” Now why is it that the writer spends a good deal of time explaining what the previous generation did? It’s quite a recurring theme for this post Exodus generation, because the whole of Deuteronomy for example is a warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past. So why here again in Joshua? Well not only is he showing us why the present generation are not circumcised. But he’s also showing us why their fathers did not inherit the land. The previous generation are a warning to the present. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, the writer is saying. Don’t do what they did. You see in short what that previous generation did in the desert was to grow complacent. Just think what that generation witnessed. They had witnessed the angel of death pass over Egypt and kill all the Egyptian firstborn sons, whereas their firstborns had been saved by the blood of the lamb daubed on the doorposts. They had witnessed the Red Sea divided in the middle so the whole people of Israel could cross without getting wet and being in danger. They had witnessed the destruction of the whole of the Egyptian army as the waters crashed around them. They had witnessed God leading them by a cloud at day and a pillar of fire by night. They had seen God provide for them miraculously day after day through manna and quail. They had witnessed all that and more, and yet they still grew complacent. As the writer puts it in verse 6, they “did not obey the Lord.” So when it came to the edge of the promised land, they refused to go in because they were scared. Their hearts grew cold, and they refused to trust God. And it led to complacency. They just couldn’t be bothered. It was the “whatever” attitude applied to the Israelites. “You know God saved you by dividing the waters of the Red Sea, don’t you?” “Oh, whatever!” But that attitude to God was the death of them.

And their complacency sprang from two big errors. They are hinted at here in the passage. For one, they doubted God’s power. Notice what the writer says in verse 1. “Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the LORD had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until we had crossed over, their hearts melted and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites.” This is a description of what happened to Israel’s enemies when they heard that Israel had crossed the Jordan. They were afraid. They refused to attack. Their hearts melted in fear. But actually, this was precisely what God had said would happen forty years before. He told the people then that the hearts of the enemies would melt in fear. It’s the same phrase that the pagan prostitute Rahab uses in chapter 2 to describe what was happening to Israel’s enemies. She got it. She trusted in God’s power. But forty years before, the people of Israel didn’t believe God. They doubted God’s power. And it’s all the more extraordinary given what they had already witnessed God do.

And not only did they doubt God’s power, but they also doubted his promises. Again there is a hint of this in verse 6. For God swears to that first generation that they would not see the land he’d solemnly promised their fathers. In other words, God had promised to give the people the land, but they refused to believe the promises of God. And now because of their refusal to trust God’s power and his promises, that generation is dead, and a new generation has taken their place. And the challenge is, don’t make the same mistakes as the previous generation. Don’t do what they did. Don’t grow complacent of God’s amazing power and promises. Because it’s happened before, and it could happen again. Because that first generation had led their hearts grow cold. After all the amazing spiritual highs of the exodus and miracles of God’s provision, they refused to trust in power and his promises. And they died for it.

Now that is not just a serious warning for the next generation of Israelites in the time of Joshua. It’s a serious warning for us too. Because it is just as easy for us to grow complacent of God’s power and promises. For we too as professing Christians have witnessed and heard about amazing things. We have the wonderful privilege of being the other side of the cross and resurrection. We know that God came as a man to die for us and rise again. We have experienced the power of the Spirit in our lives to give us forgiveness and a fresh start. We have tasted of that heavenly gift as we have trusted in him in the past. But what about today? Where are our hearts today? What about our trust and love for the Lord today? You see it is very easy for spiritual complacency to creep into a congregation or individual hearts like a mould or a fungus on the heart. So we too doubt God’s power- we doubt whether he can save our friends and family. We doubt whether he can get us through the situation we are in. We doubt whether he can change our lives. We doubt whether he’s really that bothered with us. We doubt whether serving God is really worth it, given all the hassle we’re facing. After all our non Christian friends seem to be fine, even doing better! Or we doubt God’s promises- his promises to keep us, to love us, to bring us to heaven. And it all amounts to an attitude which says- Yes, I’m interested in God, yes, I’m a Christian, but really I’m not that bothered. I’ve just got tired. I go through the motions, I go to church, I’m even quite busy doing Christian things, but as regards him, well, my heart isn’t that warm, quite frankly. Now, very few, I would guess, would say such a thing. But is that not a great danger for us? Of simply growing weary, tired, forgetful even. Many of us are so busy doing the Lord’s work, that we’re in danger of missing the Lord himself in all of this. Our hearts are growing cold. We’re in danger of acting as if it really isn’t that important. Serving and honouring God is becoming a chore, a burden to us, or simply just not that exciting. And unless we do something about it, we will find ourselves in the position of these first generation Israelites. They witnessed and took part in so much, but in the end their hearts were cold, and they spent so much of their grumbling against God, and they were found out for the spiritual frauds that they were. What does the apostle Paul say of that generation in 1 Corinthians 10? “These things happened to them, as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” Complacency can be a killer you see.

Just imagine, by way of illustration, that you have to take a small child out for a journey in your car. He may be your child, or a god child or grandchild, or a friend’s child. Either way, you have the responsibility. And as often happens with toddlers, getting him in the car seat is a struggle, a battle that makes the 100 Years War seem like child’s play. The child arches his back and refuses to get in. However much you tickle his tummy, and bend his legs, prod his side, he refuses to get into his seat. So you say to yourself:” Well forget this! I just can’t be bothered. He can just roll around on the back seat. It’s just too much hassle.” Can you imagine the danger of such idiotic complacency. It doesn’t bear thinking about if you have an accident does it. No, with those we love, and especially children we are responsible for, we take great care. Now if that is the care and seriousness with which we treat our children and those we love, then how much more should we care for our attitudes to and our relationship with God, who is our Saviour and Lord. The most important being in the universe, the one before whom we will bow the knee. Half hearted complacency before him doesn’t bear thinking about does it? And yet how often we doubt his power and promises. And our complacency leads us to ignore him and just trundle through each week without much thought for the one who sustains us and cares for us each day. No, says our writer. We need to fight complacency by keeping on trusting God’s power and promises. For he is faithful, when often we are not. And as the second generation of Israelites stood on the edge of the promised land, they needed to be told this, as do we. That we must resolve to fight complacency.

2) Resolve to remember the rescue

But we may well ask what does this mean in practice? Well our next lesson helps to flesh out that resolution to battle with complacency, as we see secondly resolve to remember the rescue. Because as the second generation of Israelites camped just inside the promised land, having crossed the Jordan, they performed two extremely important God given ceremonies. The first was circumcision. Let’s read again verses 2-3: “At that time the LORD said to Joshua, "Make flint knives and circumcise the

Israelites again." So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at

Gibeath Haaraloth.” Now we’ve already seen that circumcision was a God given mark of the people of God. It was a sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham that God would be his God and his descendants would be God’s people. But the sign had fallen into disuse in the forty years of wandering in the desert. That’s why in verse 7 we’re told that this new generation had not been circumcised. But now, on the other side of the Jordan, it’s time for a fresh start. The old generation are gone- this is a new generation, full of hope and expectancy, ready to trust God, unlike their fathers, and take the promised land. So it’s only right that God should tell them to perform the ceremony that marked them out as the people of God. A ceremony that reminded them that they are God’s people. So the whole population of men of military age, probably 18 and over, were circumcised. And notice what the explanation is in verse 9: “Then the LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you." So the place has been called Gilgal to this day.” The reproach of Egypt is the sins of the previous generation that stopped them going into the promised land. It’s all the baggage of the past forty years, all the sin, the grumbling, the heartache, the complacency which hung like millstone around their necks. But now it’s been carried away. God has rolled away the reproach of Egypt. And that’s why they called the place where they did the circumcision Gilgal, because it sounds like the Hebrew for roll away. It became a geographical reminder of how God had given the Israelites a fresh start. It was all of grace. This generation were just as sinful as the previous, but God was willing to give his people another chance, a fresh start, the slate wiped clean. And the ceremony of circumcision was the perfect way to start afresh. They were recommitting themselves, in a very physical way, to God and his promises.

            But notice as well they did something else. They remembered the Passover. Verse 10: “On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover.” Now if you remember the Passover meal was celebrated by the people of Israel the night that they came out of Egypt. The were to kill a lamb, and then smear its blood on the doorposts of their house. And then when the angel of death passed over Egypt, he would see the blood and realise that a lamb had been killed in the place of the firstborn son. The son would be spared. And God commanded the people to eat that meal every year as a reminder of that act of rescue from the hands of the Egyptians. But even if they did celebrate the Passover in the desert, yet it was clear the significance of it did little for the people. They may have recalled the act of rescue but they did not reflect on God’s awesome power and grace, otherwise they would have repented and asked for mercy. It was another reason why their hearts grew complacent and the grumbled against God. So now this next generation, recently brought through the waters of the Jordan, pause to remember the great rescue of God from Egypt. It was the event that shaped them as a nation, the time when God showed the world his glory and power. The time when he saved his people. And now they remembered it. It’s extremely significant that the very first thing the people do when they cross the Jordan is celebrate the Passover. They look back, not forward. They remember something in the past. And it’s that past rescue that gives them great confidence as they go forward trusting God’s power and promises for the future.

            Now all this is extremely relevant to you and me as Christians, because we too need to look back. For that Passover rescue of God’s people from Egypt was just a little foretaste of a far greater rescue. When another lamb died in the place of his people. When his blood was smeared on wood. When because of that sacrifice death might not come upon his people. The exodus points us to us the cross. On the cross Jesus the great Passover lamb died in your place and mine bearing the wrath of God for our sin. It’s an amazing rescue, all the more so given the wretched state of our hearts. And on the cross, as Paul tells us in Colossians, its as if we have been circumcised spiritually speaking. Our heart of flesh stripped away. The old nature dealt with, all our debts and guilt hammered to the cross, never ever again to be taken down. It’s dealt with, gone. All that shame and guilt and condemnation has gone through the death of Christ. And so we too like the OT people of God need to keep looking back. It’s why the Lord Jesus gave us the simple meal of communion, where we are specifically told to remember his death until he comes again. We need to for the good of our souls. Why? Because looking back reminds us what God has done in the past and what is dealt with. For we can never move on from the cross of Christ. And that is what stops us from sliding into complacency. How can you grow complacent when you spend time at the foot of the cross? How can you grow proud when you spend time at the foot of the cross? How can you cuddle and caress your sin and hold on to it at the foot of the cross? How can your heart grow cold at the foot of the cross? So let me ask when was the last time you spent time at the foot of the cross, humbly bowing before God in prayer and praising him for his amazing and awesome rescue? As one old vicar used to say: “Dead is the soul that has ceased to be amazed at the love of God show in the cross of Christ.” The complacent and cold Christian has ceased to be amazed at the love of God shown in the cross of Christ. I have a friend who told me once that he spends one day every week during his quiet time with God simply reflecting on the cross, reading passages in the Bible about the cross, and praising God for the cross of Christ. It’s like spiritual nectar to the soul. It prevents hard heartedness, it cures a guilty soul, it gives rest to eh weary Christian. And each of us, whether we are feeling guilty, hard pressed, worn out, or wonderfully joyful, each of us needs to keep looking back to the cross for the good of our souls. It is vital, absolutely vital for our souls, that you and I resolve to remember the rescue.

3) Resolve to trust God’s provision

But there’s one final lesson we see in this passage. And that is that we must resolve to trust God’s provision. Because the day after the Israelites celebrated the Passover, something happened. Verse 11: “The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan.” All the way from Egypt to Canaan, God had provided the Israelites with food. Manna- a sort of bready like substance which sustained them for forty years. But as soon as they get in the promised land, the manna stops. Why? Because God had promised that the promised land was a land flowing with milk and honey. It would be a place of provision. God didn’t need to provide through the miraculous manna. Now he would provide through the daily provision of food from the land. It was no less miraculous, because God is the one who makes the corn grown and the sun shine. And it was a clear sign that not one of God’s promises had failed to be fulfilled. What God had promised all those years ago to the people of Israel they were now experiencing!  

            And God is no less able to provide for us too, both materially and spiritually. The problem is we often fail to see how wonderfully he does provide for us on a daily basis. Dr John Witherspoon was one of the signatories on the American Declaration of Independence, and he was also President of the College of New Jersey. He lived a few miles from the college and every day had to drive his horse and carriage on an unpredictable and dangerous road. One day one of his neighbours burst into his office and said: “Dr. Witherspoon, you must join me in praising God for his extraordinary providence in saving my life. For as I was driving from my home to the college, the horse bolted and my buggy turned over and was smashed on the rocks. But I escaped unharmed.” Witherspoon replied: “Well, I can tell you a far more remarkable providence than that. I have driven that road hundreds of times. My horse has never run away, and my buggy has never smashed. And I have never been hurt.” God provides for his people in numerous ways every day, often in ways we never notice. And one of the ways to battle complacency is to resolve to trust God for his provision. To thank him for his many acts of kindness to us. For giving us breath in our lungs, good friends to support us in times of need, food on our tables, a stable government, a Bible believing and teaching church. How much do we take for granted. We often long for the miraculous, when actually we fail to appreciate the extraordinary grace of God in providing miraculously day by day. So resolve to trust God’s provision.

            You see so often fresh starts come with a resolve to forget the past. We want the past erased for whatever reason. But the people of Israel discovered that day at Gilgal that the past is intimately linked to the present and the future. They needed to look back as they went forward. And for the Christian, if we are to press on in the faith, walking with God all our days until we reach the promised land, then we must take to heart all three of these resolutions. So resolve to fight complacency, resolve to remember the rescue, and resolve to trust God’s provision.

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