Sunday, 5 June 2011

Joshua, Jesus and the New Covenant

In the couple of weeks since I preached my first sermon on Joshua much has happened, not least in Serbia and now in the Hague.

Ratko Mladic has been captured, and is now to be put on trial.

On the news we have re-lived the disturbing accounts of all that he was responsible for. We have been profoundly disturbed by those accounts of the massacre at Srebenica.

The horror of all that happened is easy to erase from the memory of those of us for whom it was simply an item on the news. It will forever be a scar on the memory of those who witnessed it.

And again there was a religious dimension as 7,000 muslims were massacred. And the fault lines in the Balkans were exposed and linked with religious affiliations, Christian and Muslim at war.

A fortnight ago I preached on Joshua 1. I had come across a commentary that was written in part by Gordon McConville of the University of Gloucestershire, and in part by Stephen Williams, a Christian theologian.

Gordon McConville supplies a verse by verse explanation of the meaning of the text as you would expect in a commentary. What is different about this Two Horizons OT commentary is that Stephen Williams then goes on to offer reflections of the text from the Christian readers’ point of view.

Hence the two horizons – of the text in itself, and the text as it is read by Christian readers.

Between chapter 1 and chapter 24 much has happened, and much that has happened disturbs the Christian reader. I suggested a fortnight ago that two things more than any other disturb. Looking at chapter 1 I reflected on the questions the Christian reader has to grapple with over land. The other thing that unsettles the Christian reader is what happens to the cities and the land that Joshua conquers. There are occasions when what Joshua does is nothing less than the ethnic cleansing that so appals us from Ratko Mladic. What do we make of the command to raze a town to the ground and to destroy all its inhabitants, men, women and children?

For some down through the ages the book of Joshua poses no problem.

This is what God commands his people to do … and therefore it must be done.

But I for one am troubled.

This is not to me the God that Jesus discloses when he commands his followers to love their enemies. It is not the God that Jesus discloses who can be addressed in the intimacy of the Lord’s prayer as abba, father. It is not the God that Jesus discloses when on the cross he says of those who have executed him Father, forgive them …

There is a problem here for me when I read Joshua that I have to grapple with.

Much has happened in the fortnight since we looked at Joshua 1.

Yesterday, I found myself in Winchester Universsity, at a day conference looking at Preaching the Gospel in a Secular World. I contributed thoughts on preaching in the context of science. But it was the other speakers that were most fascinating.

Among the partners who work with Winchester University are a number of courses linked with black-led churches. It was great to mix and to share ideas and to engage with each other. June Boyce Tillman, a couple of whose hymns we occasionally sing was one of the speakers from Winchester, but the key note speaker who got the day off to an excellent and thought provoking start was Adrian Thatcher, Professor of Theology at Exeter University.

I was taken aback, or moved to find that he was addressing the very question I had been addressing in these notes ready for this evening’s sermon. How do you cope with Joshua especially 4-11. They are chapters where whole populations of men, women and children are wiped out.

He reflected on the way the Bible has been taken by Christians to justify all sorts of horrible things down through the ages – he homed in on slavery, racism, anti-semitism, the destruction of the Jews.

The conflicts in the Balkans touch on such abuse of the Bible and the justification of ethnic cleansing.

We know slavery is wrong, racism is wrong, ethnic cleansing is wrong – but how do we handle our Bible when in parts especially of Joshua we find the very things we find so abhorrent done in the name of God?

Adrian Thatcher suggested some principles of Reading the Bible.

1) Read the Bible to learn of God’s Word. John 1 tells us what God’s Word is. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelled amongst us and we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten son.

John is absolutely clear: the word of God is made flesh in Jesus Christ. Read the Bible to learn of God’s Word made flesh – to learn of Jesus Christ.

2) Read the Bible and expect moral and spiritual development within it. In Deuteronomy 23:1-2 Eunuchs are to be rejected and killed. Move on to Isaiah 56:3-5 and Eunuchs are welcome.

In Exodus 20:5 the sins of the fathers are meted out to the second, third, fourth generations. Ezeiel 18:2-3 and Jer 31:29-30 says, no each individual must bear responsible for what they have done.

3) Principle of Sublation – Jesus fulfils the Law and the Prophets – you have heard it said, but I say to you. Jesus then summarises the Law and the Prophets in the words of the Golden Rule: Do to others as you would have others do to you. He summarises the Law in the two Love Commandments. So that means we must read the Old Testament in the light of the love commandments of Jesus.

4) Read the 1st Testament through the 2nd Testament.

5) Read the Bible through the rule of faith – in the community of the church.

6) The Symphonic imperative

What if the Bible is more like the text of a Shakespeare play or the score of a Beethoven symphony where making it come alive involves corporate performance and practical enactment.

Those principles are so akin to the way I am seeking to open up the Old Testament for us as Christians.

As we looked at chapter 1 of Joshua and grappled with the problem of the land, I made the connection with that wonderful book about the Holy Land, In the Steps of Jesus, that so many of the friends on that conference on Reconciliation had signed. Two of those working in the Tantur Institute had signed their name in Arabic and transliterated it into English as Issa. I was told that could be Jesus … a name still commonly used, or Joshua. For Jesus is another form of Joshua.

I suggested we needed to read this book through the eyes of Jesus.

That is even more apparent as we come to the last chapter.

In a way for me the key to an understanding of the Book of Joshua lies in the final chapter.

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges and the officers of Israel and they presented themselves before God. Joshua recounts the story of the people of God so far from Abraham through Isaach, Jacob and Esau and on to Moses and Aaron the deliverance from bondage in Egypt and the journey and occupation of the promised land.

Joshua commands the people to ‘revere the Lord and serve him in sincerity.

The people said to Joshua, The Lord our God we will serve and him we will obey. So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord.


Joshua establishes a covenant.

The covenant established then we read of the death of Joshua and of his burial.

Jesus introduces something new.

There is a new feel to his teaching.

There is something new in that intimate relationship with God as Abba Father he opens up for his followers.

IT is as if Jesus has taken all that is within the covenants of old and made something new of them. And like new wine it cannot be put into old wineskins.

His ministry nearly done, all that remains is for him to go to the cross.

And that is the point when he does something that goes right back to the covenant of old and the feast of the Passover, but at the same time it invests it with a whole new world of meaning

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

What happens here is that Jesus establishes a new Covenant. No sooner is that new covenant sealed with the bread broken and the cup shared than Jesus is taken out to his death and to his burial.

But this is not simply a re-run of the covenant of old.

This is a new covenant.

Not written on stone, but engraved on the heart.

And this new covenant has about it a newness of life that is special.

A new way that is opened up for us by this Jesus.

Maybe the Christian reader reading Joshua is reminded that in the name of religion and in the name of God awful things have been done from time immemorial.

But in the new covenant Jesus opens up for us there is a new way of life to follow that must take seriously love for enemy, and the forgiveness of the God who is love, who draws us into the most intimate of relationships with him as Abba Father.

As we gather around this table we are people of a new covenant and we commit ourselves to a new way, and that way is the way of love Jesus has opened up for us to follow.

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