December 11, 2011

An Act of Betrayal

I hope that everyone was able to go home and process our story last week because it was a wild one.  I haven’t yet figured out a good reason why someone in Hollywood hasn’t figured out that making movies based on Bible stories without changing any of the details would probably make them a lot of money.  They wouldn’t even have to worry about all the movies getting a G rating.  Our story last week as a movie could possibly have warranted an R rating.  The story of Judah and Tamar is a wild one and fortunately, we don’t have to stop with marveling that something of this nature is included in the Bible.  We can push through to see that when we look beyond the obvious with the Spirit’s help, there is a call here to the kind of lifestyle that honors God.  As we talked about, it’s the kind of lifestyle—lived out in entirely common ways by common people—which can enjoy the sweetest fruits of the Advent season.

With this in mind, we are now into the second week of our series, Fanfare for the Common Man.  In this series we are accomplishing two things.  First, we are looking at the stories of some of the notable individuals in Jesus’ genealogy to be reminded that it was not merely for the up-and-ups, the holier-than-thous, the super-righteous that Jesus came to earth.  It was to work the miracle of salvation in the life of common people dealing with common problems over the course of their common lives.  People just like you and me.  Second, we are taking some time to also be reminded of the kind of lives we common people must be living in order to experience the full power of the season of Advent, the full power of the season of hope and anticipation for the coming Savior.  In the story of Judah and Tamar, we were faced with the fact that there are times over the course of our lives that we are not living in a manner honoring of God.  Now, this does not necessarily disqualify us from being followers of Jesus.  In fact, as we are going to see again this morning, God is perfectly able to work in and through the lives of people who are far from perfect.  Absolute holiness and righteousness are not prerequisites to being called by God to the task of expanding His kingdom.  They are necessary to enter fully into His presence and they will certainly be results of the process of working with Him, but they are not necessary to start walking the path.  Instead, what God needs is openness.  When He invites us to be a part of what He’s doing, He is going to confront us with the truth about our lifestyle.  When He does this, we need to embrace this truth and adjust our lives to it.  When we are faced with reality, we need to embrace it.  Just as Judah put the brakes on his lifestyle when confronted with the injustice he was working in the life of his daughter-in-law, so also we need to put the brakes on whatever it is in our lives that God calls us from in order to follow Him.  It may seem like something fairly insignificant or it may be something absolutely central to our identity.  Whatever it is, though, if we continue forward with our life-blinders on, it will prevent us from ever being of much use to the kingdom.  Thinking seasonally, it will rob us of the ability to experience the true spirit of Christmas: the hope, joy, peace, and love of the coming Savior.

With all of this said, there are going to be times when God’s calls to leave behind something in our life that is keeping us from enjoying the full measure of His grace will be tough to answer.  There will be times when such a departure seems to go against everything we thought we knew to be true; times when it seems as if we will have to betray the people around us for the sake of the kingdom.  Now, at first hearing, I will quickly grant that such an idea sounds pretty far out there.  But in our story this morning we are going to see that it sometimes isn’t quite so far out as we might think.

Speaking of our story for this morning, you can find it in your Bibles in the second chapter of the book of Joshua.  Now, the book of Joshua is best known for the story when the Israelites go marching around the walls of Jericho and the walls come-a-tumblin’-down.  Our story takes place a few weeks before that one when Joshua, the leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses, sent a couple of spies into the Promised Land to get one last confirmation that their mission would be a success.  The spies were to check out the land with a special focus on the city of Jericho because Jericho stood as a garrison city guarding a key route the Israelites were planning to take on their journey into the heart of the Promised Land.  Our story actually focuses in on the interaction between the anonymous spies and one of the more well-known women in the Bible: Rahab, the Canaanite, prostitute, pagan, great-great grandmother of King David.

Let’s start reading together in Joshua 2:1.  “Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying ‘Go, view the land, especially Jericho.’  So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there.”  Let me give you a few details to help this make a bit more sense.  This is all happening fairly recently after the death of Moses.  Moses died before leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land because of his sins on the journey and Joshua is appointed as his successor.  Understanding that Joshua was a bit nervous about the size of the shoes he was filling, God comes to him to reaffirm His choice of him as the leader of the people for the task of entering Canaan.  This happens in chapter 1.  All that remains is for Joshua to take the people across the Jordon River, which runs along the eastern border of modern Israel, and start cleaning house, so-to-speak.  This all happens starting in chapter 3 of the book.  Before this happens, though, we get this interesting little story about Joshua secretly sending a couple of spies, or scouts, into the land to “view the land.”  If you’ll remember, the last time a leader of Israel (Moses) sent spies into the land to check things out before all the people went in, they brought back a pretty gloomy report and the people ended up wandering around in the wilderness for forty years as a punishment for their profound ingratitude towards and outright rejection of God.  Joshua was one of that group of spies and one of only two men alive who was older than twenty when that happened.  He probably remembered what happened pretty well.  Why, then, he felt the need to send more spies into the land is really not clear.  God didn’t tell him to do it that we know about.  What he hoped to gain from their report isn’t clear either because there’s no evidence he did anything with the information they brought him.  In any event, the men sneak into town and stay in the home of a woman named Rahab.  She’s identified for us as a prostitute, but we can probably think of her in terms of an Old West saloon owner who doubled as the innkeeper and the Madam.  She wasn’t a common prostitute, but this didn’t grant her any more sterling a reputation among the townspeople.  She was the kind of woman politicians rail against when they need a convenient campaign moral crusade but who makes a good bit of her living off those same politicians.

Well, the spies certainly sought to be incognito—thus they stayed in the city wall in a house of ill-repute—and yet word of their arrival reached the “king of Jericho” who, sticking with our Old West metaphor, would have been more like the local mayor or sheriff.  Jericho, you see, although independent of its neighbors, was really ruled by Egypt.  Thus it didn’t have a king in the way we think of a king today, but the operative Hebrew word for leader or ruler is consistently translated as “king.”  And as far as staying “in the city wall” goes, v. 15 tells us that Rahab “resided within the wall itself.”  Many ancient cities had walls that were two layers thick.  In between the layers was living space.  This is where Rahab’s house was.  In this way she was both figuratively and literally on the margins of her society.  In other words, this was the perfect place for the spies to stay in order to avoid attention.  Because of this it was also the perfect place for the mayor to keep an extra set of eyes for men like these spies who might not have the best intentions of his people at heart.  Let’s read a bit further starting at v. 2: “The king of Jericho was told, ‘Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.’  Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.’  But the woman took the two men and hid them.  Then she said, ‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from.  And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out.  Where the men went I do not know.  Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.’  She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof.  So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords.  As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.”  We are going to come back to this episode in just a minute, but for now let’s state the obvious: Rahab just sold out her people.

Stick with me in v. 8 and we’ll see how this betrayal went down.  “Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you.  For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed.  As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you.  The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.  Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family.  Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.’  The men said to her, ‘Our life for yours!  If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.’”   The men go on to lay out the things she must do in order to secure their help and Rahab agrees.  She then lowered them down through her window—a luxury of living in the city walls—because the gates were shut, and they made their way back to Joshua with their report.  When he heard it, all Joshua could do is marvel at the words of Rahab and thank the Lord for preparing the way for them.

Well that’s the story.  The main feature of the story that all the Sunday school lessons tend to focus on is Rahab’s hiding the spies from the king so they can return safely to Joshua.  Some of them will give a cursory mention to her acknowledgement of who their God is and the fear present among the people of the land.  They might make some point about God preparing the way for His people when He sends them into spiritual battles.  But I want to spend a couple of minutes on what Rahab did in hiding the spies.  I said it before, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read anyone give it much in the way of attention.  Yes, Rahab probably lived on the margins of her society.  Yes, her culture was pagan and probably pretty brutal on the whole.  She probably didn’t have a great life.  She got by okay, but her existence was still hard.  She was either unmarried or a widow.  She probably got into the business she was in to make ends meet.  I’m certain she did not jump into it with both feet.  All apologetics from the porn industry to the contrary, no woman enjoys being in a business in which she is routinely reduced from a human person to an object of someone’s desire.  All of that is true.  But is still doesn’t justify for me the fact that she sold out her people.  All of them, with the exception of as many family members as she could cram into her house when the Israelites arrived in force.  Think about that for a minute.  She blatantly lied to the mayor and betrayed everyone she’d ever known.  And she garners glowing praise for her faith for this?

I think I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had recently finished Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer.  If you enjoy history at all, particularly World War 2 history, it should be on your Christmas list.  Anyway, one of the things that really made an impression on me in the book was getting a bit of the German perspective on World Wars 1 and 2.  As a point of fact, they wanted to win.  In American history books Germans are portrayed as the enemy and often as the evil enemy; especially in World War 2.  But what comes out in Bonheoffer’s biography is that Germany was far from united behind Hitler’s war efforts.  Yet still, as much as they hated Hitler and thought his cause hopeless and evil (and many of them hated him a great deal), they still didn’t want to lose because they loved their homeland.  In spite of all the potential details of Rahab’s life, she was still a Canaanite. She was still a resident of Jericho. She was not part of the people of Israel.  They were foreign invaders who were coming to destroy the only way of life she had ever known.  When she lied to the king and helped the spies to escape she betrayed everything she had ever known as familiar.  Because we are in a church environment in which we are primed to think about God’s cause as always right, we celebrate her as a hero.  But British Revolutionary War hero Benedict Arnold has a statue up in his honor in England.  He’s celebrated as a hero over there.  I’m not trying to say that God’s cause wasn’t right here.  It was.  The cultures of Canaan that the Israelites displaced were vile, bloodthirsty, sinful, and evil.  They had judgment coming and God chose to use Israel to carry out their sentence of judgment in much the same way as he would use the Babylonians against Israel many years later.  And I believe Rahab was a hero.  Her faith should be celebrated because it was enormous.  I’m just trying to get you to think about this in a way you haven’t before.   Rahab sold out her people.  She turned on her world.  And for what?  The answer to that question reveals the second aspect to an Advent ready kind of lifestyle.

I just want you to be ready for this because it isn’t going to be easy.  Why did Rahab turn on her people?  Why did she sell them out?  Why did she lie to the mayor?  Was it simply to make sure her family was protected?  Of course not.  How could she have known her people were going to be destroyed?  Yes, the Israelites had destroyed Sihon and Og and the Amorites, but Jericho was impregnable.  Why did Rahab do what she did?  The answer lies in her speech in vv. 9-13.  She did it because the Spirit of God spoke to her heart to give her insight in what He was doing that could have only come from Him.  When she saw all of this, she wanted to be a part of it.  She wanted to be a part of what God was doing, a part of God’s world, so badly that turning on her own was the only real choice she could have made.  Let’s not fool ourselves into believing it was easy for her.  But she knew it was right without any doubts or drawbacks.  You see, sometimes being a part of God’s world means turning on our own.

Just let that sit for a second.   Sometimes being a part of God’s world means turning on our own.  Can you imagine a situation in which you would actively betray your friends and family for the sake of the kingdom?  Honestly, I struggle with trying to invent one.  Let’s not go all the way to full on betrayal.  How about this: can you imagine a situation in which you would choose the kingdom of God over supporting your friends or family or spouse or kids in some line of activities?  Just how important is expanding the kingdom of God to you?  Consider this: Jesus came to earth with one mission that overrode and helped to interpret everything else He did, namely, announcing and revealing and helping people know how to enter the kingdom of God.  That defined everything Jesus did.  If it didn’t expand the kingdom Jesus didn’t do it.  If it did expand the kingdom there wasn’t a force in His world powerful enough to keep Him from it.  When He returns in the near future He will bring the kingdom with Him.  He promised as much several times during His life on earth.  If we are going to back up our claims to be His followers then such a dedication to the kingdom, to God’s reign on earth as He does in heaven, should characterize everything we do.  And the hard fact about such a dedication is that there will be times when the calls of our world will come into conflict with the kingdom.  When such conflicts occur, if we have pronounced our devotion to Christ then our choice is simple.  It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.  But very simple.  Sometimes being a part of God’s world means turning on our own.

Now, who is capable of such a dedicated decision?  Surely it must be limited to only the holiest of the holy in the church, the saintliest of the saints.  Right?  Well, if that were the case we wouldn’t be reading this story this morning.  Remember: Rahab was a pagan, Canaanite, woman, prostitute.  Even with a mercy-rule fourth pitch in there she still strikes out on all counts.  In the eyes of her culture Rahab making this kind of God-honoring choice would have been about as likely as a gay, Muslim, suicide bomber doing the same thing.  Furthermore, when she chose to reject her people in favor of the kingdom, she didn’t magically come to know everything about God she needed to know in order to be His dedicated follower for the rest of her life.  Look at her little speech again.  She didn’t acknowledge that God was the only God and that her gods were all false idols.  She merely added the God of Israel to her little pantheon as the most powerful of the bunch.  She recognized that the God of the Israelites could squash all the gods of her people like bugs.  That’s a good recognition to make, but it’s a far cry from the nuanced faith of someone like Paul.  As far as God was concerned, however, it was enough.  Choosing God’s world over ours doesn’t mean being a super Christian.  It means taking a single step in His direction.  And a step in his direction may very well likely mean stepping in a direction that goes directly against what seem to be the interests of the people closest to us.  Sometimes, being a part of God’s world means turning on our own.

At the end, then, I will grant you that all of this seems a bit depressing.  It’s perhaps not so seasonally heart-warming as a happy little message on Christmas joy.  I have two responses to this, though.  First, if we want to experience the full power of Advent, we have to be prepared to put the kingdom of God ahead of everything else in our world.  Sometimes that doesn’t seem so hard, but sometimes it will require turning against everything familiar to us.  Sometimes being a part of God’s world means turning on our own.  Considering for a minute the number of different directions in which our worlds call us at this time of year, this reminder is germane.  Second, although it may not feel it at the time, putting God’s kingdom first is actually the most loving thing we can do for the people around us.  Resisting this truth may reveal that our beliefs about the kingdom aren’t what they should be.  If we believe that God’s kingdom being made manifest on this earth—which is what Jesus’ entering our world as a baby was all about—is the best shot this world is going to have to experience real and lasting peace, hope, joy, and love, then putting it first should be a given.  The problem here is that the people in our worlds are not going to choose the kingdom on their own.  People naturally work in a direction opposite the kingdom.   Being faithful kingdom citizens—as Rahab was—is sometimes going to mean going against our world.  Sometimes being a part of God’s world means turning on our own.  But in this turning away, we are really making the best turn towards it.  May you have the courage to be fully a part of God’s world this season in order that you might fully know the power of Advent.