Sunday, 22 May 2011

I am with you wherever you go - Joshua 1

Some books are more precious than others. And this is one of them.

Kathleen O’Gorman had been one of the leaders of our conference on Reconciliation at the Tantur Institute in Jerusalem. She teaches New Testament at the University of London.

“What book would you suggest I could best get hold of as a memento of our time in the Holy Land?”

Without hesitation she recommended Peter Walker’s In the Steps of Jesus. It had been published only two years before. Peter Walker is a New Testament specialist they at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. His book works not just as a wonderful pictorial guide to the Holy Land, but also as an accessible, but scholarly guide to the archaeology, history and social history that comes alive when you visit the Holy Land and brings the text alive ever afterwards, and at a third level it works as a commentary on St Luke.

I have since bought the companion volume ‘In the Steps of St Paul’ a pilgrimage I undertook 40 years ago. It serves the same purpose, but also acts as a commentary on Acts.

On the Sunday of our stay four of us had worshipped at the East Jerusalem Baptist Church with its Pastor, Alex Awad, who had also been one of the speakers at our conference. We had made our way by public transport across Jerusalem and walked from the old city to the Baptist church with every intention of visiting the Garden Tomb on the way back as it wasn’t necessarily going to be on our itinerary. We were disappointed to find it was closed on Sundays.

You can imagine our excitement when over coffee after the service in conversation with Alex Awad we found that the couple who were the resident curators of the Garden Tomb were present at the service. Quick introductions were made and we found ourselves having our own personal guided tour of the Garden Tomb when no one else was around. It was, as you can imagine, most moving.

Later in the week, on our last day in Jerusalem, we found ourselves with the whole of our group making it for a second time to the Garden Tomb, though this time it was heaving with people and not quite the same.

On the way out we had to go through the souvenir shop and book shop, as you invariably do at such tourist places anywhere in the world.

And there it was on the shelves.

I bought my copy of ‘In the Steps of Jesus’ there and then.

It was our last night in Jerusalem and on a whim, I decided to do something I am so pleased to have done.

I began to collect signatures of everyone who was there on the conference.

And so in the front inside cover is a wonderful collection of signatures of all those people, complete with greetings.

At the end of our week at the Tantur Institute we had got to know a little the staff who were at reception. And heard something of their story. I asked them to sign as well.

How glad I was that I did.

There in the endpaper are two signatures in Arabic with an anglicised form of the ‘Christian’ names.

They both had the same name.

The anglicised it as I s s a

They explained it was the name, Jesus.

In our culture that is a name not given to children. But among their Arabic, Christian community, it was as common a name now, as it had been 2000 years ago in the time not only of Jesus of Nazareth but also of Jesus Barabbas and many other Jesus’es too!

It was a common name, of course, because it comes into English in another form, a form that actually is still used in our culture as a Christian name.


It’s maybe no coincidence that we look to Jesus of Nazareth, who bears the same name as Joshua for Joshua is seen as the right hand man of Moses who acts as leader and maybe ‘saviour’ of the people bringing them finally to the place of safety of the land flowing with milk and honey. The name, Joshua, Jesus, means of course Saviour.

How appropriate to have two Arabic signatures bearing the name I S S A, Jesus, Joshua, in a book entitled In the Steps of Jesus.

I want to hold on to that connection and the title of that book as we turn to have a look at the Book of Joshua.

The Torah has come to an end, we now move into a set of hooks that appear in the Hebrew ordering of Scripture as Prophetic books. Known as ‘the former prophets’ they are ‘history with a message’.

Jesus lays claim to fulfilling all the Law and the Prophets. And so his claim is to fulfil ‘Joshua’ as much as the books of Moses. In some senses he is very much another ‘Joshua’.

Joshua has first occurred in the story of the people of Israel as early as Exodus 17:9 when Joshua is very much along with Moses. Now at the point at which Moses has died on the threshold of entering the Promised Land it falls to Joshua to lead the people over the river Jordan and into the Promised land.

After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, ‘My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites.

I deliberately chose to read from the New Testament the account of John the Baptist batizing in the Jordan. John tells us that it is Bethany by the Jordan. That is towards the south end of the river Jordan just before it enters the Dead Sea. You cannot get to that spot from the West Bank because the Israeli military regard it as a military zone. You can get to it from the East Bank of the river which is in Jordan – and there is a church in that place.

The Israelis have set apart a little stretch of the Jordan far off in the North where you can share in baptisms in the river Jordan at that point. Complete with its tourist shop. There is something very moving about that place, especially seeing people sharing in baptisms.

But some of our teachers suggested there was significance in the actual location so carefully identified as near the Judean wilderness in all the Gospels, and specifically located in John as Bethany by the Jordan.

The significane is that John took people out to be baptised in the Jordan at around the place where Joshua led the people over the Jordan. Our guide suggested that John would have led the people out of Jerusalem – and into or even over the river. Think shallow, narrow river more akin to a larger River Chelt than the Severn Estuary!!!

John is dressing as an Elijah, but also re-enacting a ‘reclaiming of the land’ as Joshua had arrived. Jesus lines himself up with John the Baptist’s movement and also recalaims the land.

The new Jesus, as the old Joshua, starts his ministry as he comes up out of the Jordan and moves into the wilderness which is the route to Jerusalem. He is going to roam all over the land until he finally reaches Jerusalem.

Joshua receives the promise of the land.

‘My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory.

In readiness for our arrival in the Book of Joshua I got hold of a newly published commentary on Joshua.

It’s in a series called ‘The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary’. And it is written by two authors. Gordon McConville is based here in Cheltenahm, was with us on our Good Friday walk of witness through the town, and teaches Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire. He will be there on Tuesday evening, when the Regius Profess of Theology in the University of Cambridge, David Ford will be giving the tenth or eleventh lecture in a series on Biblical Theology and Interpretation – if anyone wants to join me say the word.

Gordon McConville does what you expect in a commentary. He gives a chapter by chapter set of comments on the text of the book of Joshua. It is a good commentary, as you would expect!!!

That is, as it were, the first horizon. It is a study of the Hebrew text of the Book of Joshua in its own right.

Then comes the twist in this particular commentary series. Stephen Williams is a Christian theologian. He then writes a sequence of essays exploring the way a Christian will read the book of Joshua. There then follows an conversation between the biblical scholar and the theologian.

Stephen Williams identifies a number of problems in the book of Joshua for a lChristian reader.

Two problems are major ones.

First the problem of ‘the land’.

This could not be more timely this week.

The sight of Netanyahu literally facing off President Obama the day after Obama gave his speech on the Middle East was remarkable, the like of which I have never seen.

Obama said the USA would insist on a two state solution with the 1967 boundaries. Netanyahu explained that ‘changing demographics made that not possible. He was referring to the proliferation of Jewish settlements accommodating in excess of 600,000 people dotted all over the West Bank, and taking over the very East Jerusalem where we had worshipped in that Baptist church.

What should we think?

If we read these verses in Joshua then it would seem that Jewish people must occupy not only the whole of this land, but even as far as the Euphrates – right up to Iraq and Iran. This is what drives many of those settlers. It is a policy espoused by many Christians in some parts of the world too.

Do we support Obama? Or Netanyahu.

Stephen Williams offers us a clue.

He observes that it is significant that Jesus does not anywhere make an issue of ‘the land’. Jesus speaks of fulfilling the prophets who later in Isaiah speak of the land reaching through the people of Israel to Gentiles. And this is significant. He opens up a Gospel for Jew and Gentile alike, where God’s love is for ‘the world’ and not rooted in a specifc piece of l and.

I want to come back to this book, In the Steps of Jesus.

We are those who follow in the steps of Jesus. I think it significant that Alex Awad, those committed to the Tantur Institue, all the great historic Christian churches of East Jersualem, the West Bank, Israel and Palestine urge us to reject the view that the land must be entirely occupied by Jewish people but to be a placed shared by Jew and Gentile alike where there is room for all.

That I believe to be the response we should make as Christians following in the steps of Jesus.

For he leads us towards a new heaven and a new earth where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one in Christ.

And as we follow in the steps of this new Joshua, this new Jesus, the promises made to the Joshua of old apply now as ever.

No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous;

But that is not narrowly of the claim to a specific piece of land, but now as we walk in the steps of Jesus in the whole world.

A year ago I was invited to preach at the welcome service of Adrian Wyatt to the pastorate at Kingswood, Wooton under Edge – he chose this passage to preach on. IT was wonderful to do so at such a service. For if we follow in the steps of Jesus, we should also rise to this command.

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful

Joshua is thinking back to the ‘book of the law’ that in the unfolding of the sotry of the Torah had just been written – for us the Book of Deuteronomy.

That classic principle is alluded to. The need to abide by it.

As those who follow ‘in the steps of Jesus’ we look to the whole of our Bible – particularly seeing it through the eyes of Jesus – for us it is the whole of this bok that we wiust meditate on day and night, so that we act in accordance with it.

Then comes the most wonderful of promises.

It meant the world to Joshua.

It meant the world to Jesus.

It means the world to each of us.

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’

What a wonderful command.

We face fears on a personal level.

I think at times we can feel a little fearful of what is unfolding in our world at the moment, in the Middle East, in the Holy Land.

This is the promise we hold on to.

It is the very promise Jesus not only held on to through his life, but it is the promise he shared with his followers in those very last words of his in Matthew 28 when he said, I will be with you always.

In his morning devotions in a Japanese internment camp, Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame stood as it were to attention at the beginning of each day to hear the words of Jesus for that day.

It’s no bad thing to stand before Joshua-Jesus and hear these words at the start of each day.

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’

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