People in the hands of an angry God - Joshua 7

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 13th July 2008.

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Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about the famous encounter towards the end of the Wizard of Oz. I’m sure you know the scene I’m talking about. At last Dorothy, the cowardly lion and the tin man have made their way to the Emerald City and are very close to meeting the Wizard of Oz. They are scared. As they approach there is a booming voice, lots of noise and they are terrified about who could be responsible for all that they see and hear. You know what happens next. Totto the dog pulls back the curtain to reveal a man who is completely different from what they expected. He is not a terrifying giant but a tiny man who is rather harmless. Their expectations were wrong and once the curtain was pulled back they saw the Wizard as he really was.

I was reminded this week as I prepared to preach on Joshua 7 that every time we read the Bible we are being given a Wizard of Oz experience. We come with all sorts of views and opinions about who God is. Friends, family, work colleagues, media, TV, radio, newspapers, gossip magazines. But the Bible draws back the curtain and allows us to perceive God as he really is.

And yet here is the crucial difference. In the Wizard of Oz their wrong idea was that the Wizard was a disturbing character, someone to be feared and revered but after the curtain was pulled back they discovered a rather harmless old man.

This is not our cultural condition. Many like to think of God as that rather benevolent grandfather on the sky, who would never be angry, never get angry and never sent anyone expect a few nasty individuals to an eternity in hell. This attitude creeps into Christian thinking as well. When we approach God we can often view him incorrectly. What the Bible does is withdraw the curtain and show us what he is really like.

Here is the difference with the Wizard of Oz. When the Bible draws back the curtain it reveals a God who is far more disturbing than we often realise and a God who operates in ways that are very alien to the natural inclination of our sinful minds.

This is certainly the case in Joshua chapter 7. Look at what we are told in verse 1.

“But the Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. [Here is the disturbing bit! Not so much that God is angry but that he is angry at his own people.] So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel [His own people!]”
Do you not think that is disturbing? The LORD, that is the God of Israel, burned with anger against his own people. The people he had rescued from Egypt, brought through the wilderness and now he had brought into the Promised Land. The LORD’s anger burned against Israel.
The reason was because a man called Achan took some of the devoted things.

To refresh our memories in regard to these devoted things all we have to do is look back to Joshua 6.

Look with me at Joshua 6:15-19.

They had to destroy everything. Nothing of this evil place was to remain standing. Because God loved his people and didn’t want them corrupted by a wicked civilisation, they were to destroy the city of Jericho and everything in it.

However, there were some things that could not actually be destroyed, mostly the gold and silver. These were to be dedicated to the God of Israel and used in his service. They were not to be kept by any of the Israelites.

And yet what do we hear at the beginning off chapter 7? The Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things and as a result God was furious.

In verses 2-5, we are told how God’s anger was seen in practice.

Look at what we are told in verse 2. Read verses 2-3.

The spies come back and say this is trivial in regard to Jericho. Let’s not sent our best, let’s send the B team in and let’s not send many of them.
I’m sure this happens when anyone plays Scotland at football.

What happens to the Israelites? Read verses 4-5.

Some people say the problem was that they were overconfident or that they didn’t pray but this is all reading between the lines and then allowing our own interpretation to change the meaning of what is actually said.

What is the disturbing (and it is disturbing!) reason given for Israel surprising defeat? It is because God was angry with his people and as a result they couldn’t win even the smallest battle.

Pause and let this sink in.

As a consequence of this Joshua and his military commanders tore their clothes and fell to the ground in front of the ark of the Lord - that massive golden throne that was carried before God’s people as a symbol that God was their true King and that he won their battles for them. This was where they were.

And we’re told what Joshua said in verse 7. Read verses 7-9.

We need to remember that Joshua does not know what we know. He has no idea about Achan’s sin but nevertheless his prayer to God is not a model of godly enquiry. He is panicking and making all sorts of wrong conclusions about the future. He thinks this minor defeat will result in full-scale annihilation. The rest of the Canaanites will hear and will wipe out the whole people. Good bits in here mingled with his fear. He is concerned about God’s great name! But what is staggering is how in the emergency of the moment he has forgotten the promises of the past. God said he would fight for them if they were obedient. He does not have all the information at his fingertips. Should he not have asked God why this defeat happened?

We do this so frequently don’t we? Our temptation when something bad happens in our life is to question God’s motives or his character. We need to trust his promises of the past and wait until all the information is in.

It was something Joshua failed to do and as a result look at what God said to him in verse 10. Read verses 10-12.

Vital things to put out. Notice who has sinned. What do we read in verses 10-12? Israel has sinned. They have violated my covenant. They have taken some of the devoted things. They have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. As a consequence God threatens that his presence that he has already withdrawn will continue to be withdrawn from his people.

Who had sinned and stolen some of the devoted things? One man called Achan. And yet as a result of this man’s sin the whole people of God have to experience the discipline of God withdrawing his presence.

Many of us brought up in the atmosphere of Western individualism feel this is somewhat unfair. Why should other people suffer the consequences of another person’s actions?

The teacher at school who keeps the whole class behind. But they don’t know the culprit. God does know the culprit so why do the rest of his people need discipline because of Achan.

In the Bible, there is an important individual element. We must come to God on our own. But there is also a link between the actions of the one and the many and we need to abandon our Western thinking at this point and submit to what the Bible teaches.

A Wizard of Oz moment.

The difference between running the 100m and the 4x100m relay. If you are running the 100m and another runner deviates from their lane and you get disqualified then it’s unfair. But if you are running the 4x100m relay and one of your team drop the baton then you are disqualified. You don’t cry unfair because you have your expectations right.

Unfortunately, too many people think being a Christian like running the 100m. It’s just about me and God. It isn’t! Our actions affect the spiritual condition and experience of other people. We may not like this doctrine but it’s a real truth and we have to live in the light of it.

In Joshua’s day this led to the people of God failing to win even the smallest battle. God had withdrawn his presence because of one man’s sin. Until this was dealt with the people of God suffered a withdrawal of God’s presence.

What about us who live on the other side of the death and resurrection of Jesus? You only have to read the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3. Because of the sins of some Jesus threatens to withdraw his presence from the congregation.

Could this happen to us? Of course it could.

In those cases the church will ultimately close. But I would like to suggest that God can remove his presence and the doors still be open.

How do we know if God has removed his presence from us? Perhaps when despite our best efforts we see no fruit for our labours.

We need to be careful here because two different spiritual situations can lead to the same result and so we need to diagnose the situation properly.

It could be that a church is living in the day of small things. So in fact things are okay within the church. We love Jesus and we are trying with the best motivations to get the gospel out. It’s just that the soil is tough and we see little fruit. In those cases we simply have to be encouraged to keep on going.

However, the same results can happen when a church is being disciplined by the LORD because there are secret sins being committed by its members. Perhaps as a way of exposing those sins God removes his presence.

Psalm 127:1, “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain.”

Consequence? When God stops building and we continue it’s a pointless exercise.

Me and my dad on the building site.

When God stops building and we continue it’s a pointless exercise.

How can we diagnose our situation rightly? Use we use our wisdom but let us also cry out to the LORD and ask him to reveal the truth to us. Look for his revelation in his providential arranging of people and events.

How are we doing as a local church here?

If sins are found then what should be done? The next part of Joshua 7 is all about appropriate church discipline.

Look at what God says to Joshua in verse 13.

Read verses 13-15.

And so verse 16…

Read verses 16-18. You can imagine the tension.

Achan stands on his own before Joshua. Joshua says to him, “My son, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and give him the praise. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.”

At last Achan confesses his sin and reveals how he had stolen a beautiful Babylonian robe, a mass of gold and silver and then had hidden all of this underneath his tent.

Once his story has been checked out the appropriate discipline for this serious crime is carried out. Verse 24…
Read verses 24-26.

The stoning of his family. Did they know? Were they witnesses of accomplishes? Or is this another case of the actions of the father have consequences for the family? We don’t know for sure but it was thought appropriate.

Notice also the stress on who carried out the stoning. The middle of verse 25 – “All Israel stoned him.” Not literally everyone but appropriate discipline needs to be carried out.

This is a very sobering passage and an easy way out for me would be to say that in the NT everything changes. We know Jesus takes our punishment and we have nothing to fear. This is true but there is also much teaching on appropriate church discipline when people do sin. Form of discipline has changed.

We should never be thrilled at the prospect of carrying it out but unless it is carried out in a Biblical way there may be consequences for the whole church. It is much easier to look the other way and think there will be no consequences but this is not the case.

Various places to look for instructions but perhaps the best two places are Matthew 18 and 1 Corthians 5. From these places let me offer a few guidelines…

•    We must not look the other way and it may be your place to say something.
•    Not advocating spying on one another.
•    It may be that you have a quiet word if you know the person.
•    Speak to one of the clergy in private. We may know something you don’t.
•    Further things that can happen.
•    Exclude from the church. It may sound harsh but the reality is that sin spreads.

Discipline is for the good of the church and until it takes place the LORD may discipline a congregation by withdrawing his presence.

This is all very disturbing. Can God’s people really find themselves in the hands of an angry God? If this is what the Bible teaches, and I’m convinced it is, then what we must do is tremble and act.

Let’s pray for God’s diagnosis and let’s have those conversations as need be.

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