The Land’s Rest From War
September 12, 2021 Rev. Drew Stockstill
Joshua 11: 16-23
So Joshua took all that land: the hill country and all the Negeb and all the land of Goshen and the lowland and the Arabah and the hill country of Israel and its lowland, from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns. None of the Anakim was left in the land of the Israelites; some remained only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod. So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.
When I was in college our nation was at war. Our nation was at that war until two weeks ago. It was a long war. The longest war we’ve ever been a part of. Babies who were born around the time of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, 20 years ago, they grew up with that war. And some of those babies were the last men and women to die in that war, just a few weeks ago. Which is to say, that war in Afghanistan lasted a lifetime.
When I was in college we were still newly at war (if you can consider five years to be newly at war). I was in high school on September 11, 2001. I graduated and went to college while others graduated and went to war. Most Fridays I would pick up the national newspaper they gave away for free on campus. Every Friday that
paper would print the pictures and names of those who had died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their faces filled pages. I was in college, and they died in war. The past weeks I’ve heard the voices of those who served years ago, and some of them cry talking about the cost, wondering about what it was worth.
Clausewitz was an 18th century Prussian general who coined the phrase, “The fog of war.” He said, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” The fog of our forever wars is thick; thickest perhaps for those who fought it hoping, believing, that for those sending them there was lesser uncertainty. History is already telling that story, but the cost is greatest for those who were sent and those who received them, so many wondering about the worth.
One Christmas during those college years, I made a t-shirt that simply said, “His law is love and his gospel is peace.” I wore it to my church’s Christmas Eve Service, thinking I was making a statement. And I cried when my friend sang, “O Holy Night,” in the service, and another friend was there, home from the war for a time. I still get pretty teary during that song, and I wish I knew what happened to that t-shirt.
“Truly, he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace,” says “O Holy Night.” And truly, he did; he being Jesus. Truly, Jesus taught us, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Truly, he taught us, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
But we heard also that, “Joshua made war a long time,” he took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death.” “At that time,” says the Bible, “Joshua came and wiped out,” folks from the hill country of Anakim to the hill country of Judah to the hill country of Israel, “Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns.” Soldiers, civilians, children, even their livestock, “utterly destroyed them.” Many consider that to be genocide.
So, what is the truth about violence and war? We have been hearing for the past few weeks about Joshua and his leadership of the people of Israel from the wilderness into the promised land. And we have been encouraged by his courage and strength to which God commanded him. We have the gospel message, the truth from Jesus, held within the same pages as what we have heard from Joshua this morning. His law is love and his gospel is peace, and also he hardened their hearts so they would, “come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded.” His law is love, his command was battle and destruction. The Bible then is wrapped within its own fog of war. God is wrapped in a fog; most of God unknowable to us, mysterious.
One-way Christians have tried to find their way through the fog is thinking that the God of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, is different from the God of the New Testament who we meet in Jesus. But the God of the Old Testament is also the God of the New. The God that became flesh and blood, born as baby Jesus, is the same God that was with Joshua.
Another way Christians have tried to make sense of this is to see God, or the people who thought about God, as progressing, maturing from a God of violence to a God of peace. But that dismisses as outdated old testament, the holy text of our Jewish siblings. Jesus said of the law in the Hebrew Bible, “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear.” So, we aren’t erasing it. We are looking at it, living with it, listening for God in it, and holding on for our word of grace.
Then there’s the old reliable tactic of, “let’s just ignore it and hope it goes away.” These texts from Joshua almost never appear in Christian churches on Sunday morning. But we can’t just ignore what we don’t like or are afraid of. The whole Bible is the word of God and so, again, we look at it. Nothing good comes from simply turning our eyes away from what we don’t want to accept or deal with.
It is often said, “violence is not the answer.” And I tend to agree, but I’ve never understood the question. What is the question that is asked to which violence is not the answer? And what is the answer to the question about God and violence in the book of Joshua? I don’t know the question and I don’t know the answer. But we know what we
know and there is blood on these pages and there is violence and war in in our world, on our streets. And we don’t have the questions and we don’t have the answers and we have a lot of fog. Even Joshua does not give a clear view of the reason for the violence waged as Israel came into the Promised Land. Here it says God’s command was that the inhabitants of the land were exterminated because this was the land promised to the Israelites. But then Ruth and her people were spared, and here the Hivites made peace, and throughout the Hebrew Bible it’s clear there the Israelites did not remove everyone from the land, they had to learn to live together. So, the practical answer to why all this killing is not clear. Nor is there a satisfying theological answer to reconcile the violence with Jesus’ teachings on peace and the inclusion of all people into Kingdom of God regardless of their ethnicity.
Perhaps what is so unsettling is that we want to look at God and see the very best of us, and we find that in Jesus. But sometimes we look at God and God shows us something troubling: the unspeakable violence that humans wage and rage over the centuries. But God, who is eternal, who is faithful and just, became flesh in Jesus Christ and in him and through him commanded us to love one another. And Jesus put out his hand to stop the violence that may have saved his own life for a time, and he told his followers to pick up not their swords but their crosses and follow him. And so the mysterious fog of grace holds together Joshua and Jesus, which in Hebrew is pronounced Joshua.
So what is the answer to the violence in the Bible and the world? And what is the question to which violence is not the answer?
I’m not sure, but here’s what I am sure of, we are each made in the image of God and we have this shadow and we have this light within us. Humans are capable of incredible brutality, which we remember happening 20 years ago on September 11. And we are capable of incredible strength, honor and courage, which we remember happening 20 years ago during and after those attacks. Some chose to fly planes into buildings and other chose to run into the buildings to save lives. And God was there, the question and the answer.
Here’s what else I know: We can trust God because God is good, and God is faithful, and God keeps God’s promises and that promise is to bless us with the gifts we need to be a source of goodness in the world and that promise is to lead us, sometimes even through the violence, into eternal life within the Promised Land.
Todd Beamer was 32 and on United Airlines Flight 93, from Newark to San Francisco, on September 11, 2001. The flight was hijacked and Todd managed to make a call from the inflight phone to an operator named Lisa describing what was happening. Hijackers had killed a passenger with box cutters, stormed the cockpit and turned the plane around. Todd believed one of the hijackers had a bomb. Lisa explained to Todd that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. She told him, “Our country is under attack….and I’m afraid that your plane may be part of their plan.”
Todd replied, “Oh dear God, dear God, Lisa, will you do something for me?
Lisa: I’ll try….if I can….Yes.
Todd: I want you to call my wife and my kids for me and tell them what’s happened. Promise me you’ll call..
Lisa: I promise – I’ll call.
Todd: You have the same name as my wife…Lisa….We’ve been married for 10 years. She’s pregnant with our 3rd child. Tell her that I love her…….(choking up)..I’ll always love her..(clearing throat) We have two boys.. David, he’s 3 and Andrew, he’s 1…..Tell them……(choking) tell them that their daddy loves them and that he is so proud of them. (clearing throat again) Our baby is due January 12th…..I saw an ultra sound…..it was great….we still don’t know if it’s a girl or a boy………Lisa?
Lisa: (barely able to speak) I’ll tell them, I promise Todd.
Todd: I’m going back to the group—if I can get back I will…
While Todd was away Lisa brought an FBI agent onto the line. When Todd returned the agent informed him he believed Todd’s flight is headed for the US Capital or the White House. They were about 20 minutes away. Todd replied, “I understand…hold on……I’ll…….I’ll be back”
Todd: (breathing a little heavier) The plane seems to be changing directions just a little. It’s getting pretty rough up here. The plane is flying real erratic….We’re not going to make it out of here.
Lisa: Todd, what are you going to do?
Todd: We’ve hatched a plan. Four of us are going to rush the hijacker with the bomb. After we take him out, we’ll break into the cockpit. A stewardess is getting some boiling water to throw on the hijackers at the controls. We’ll get them….and we’ll take them out. Lisa, …..will you do one
last thing for me?
Lisa: Yes…What is it?
Todd: Would you pray with me?
They prayed the prayer that Jesus, God in flesh, taught us to pray, The Lord’s Prayer.
And then Todd began the recite Psalm 23, a prayer from the Old Testament, to God who was with Joshua, who told him to be strong and courageous for I am with you always. And as Todd recited,
“The Lord is my shepherd…
He makes me to lie down in green pastures He leads me beside the still waters… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me….
Lisa could hear others on the flight praying with him.
Then Todd said, “God help me…Jesus help me….
(clears throat and louder) Are you guys ready?……
And Todd picked up his cross and God was with them and through their actions which cost them their lives, they saved countless lives. And I know that God was with them. And God led them through the violence into the Promised Land. Great is the mystery of faith.
Joshua tells us after all this, “the land had a rest from war.” Beloved, may ours as well.