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A Surprise Lesson from Joshua

The burning bush and Red Sea parting may be some of the most well-known stories of the Hebrew Bible.  But do we realize Joshua had his own exceptional signs of God’s guiding presence?  This came to light recently while rereading Joshua.

Some quick background:  Moses had finished his role leading the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, guiding them through the wilderness for a generation.   Finally, the twelve tribes were within sight of the land Yahweh promised and, in one of the tougher parts of the Bible, Moses’ story abruptly ends.  This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there (NRSV, Deut. 34:4).

Brass serpent sculpture at top of Mt. Nebo. Photo courtesy of Travelfeatured.com

One of the special joys of traveling to Jordan is seeing this site of commemoration at Mt. Nebo.   An immense snake sculpture stands as tribute to the Hebrew lawgiver recalling one of the many ways Moses’ obedience saved his people.   As Numbers 21 relays, Moses followed God’s directive to create a brass serpent fixed on a pole for the people who had serpent bites for their disobedience.  Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!  (NLT, Num. 21:9

And now, it’s Joshua’s turn.  As second in command under Moses, we read:   Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses (NRSV, Deut. 34:9)

That ‘spirit of wisdom’ Joshua demonstrated included exceptional leadership qualities we need in today’s leaders as well:   courage, strength, humility, obedience, and single-minded focus on mission– to name just some the text cites.  Reading Joshua is a handbook in leadership development – whether in a family, school, community organization, church, business or politics.

The surprise that stood out in this reading is an event that occurs after the Jordan crossing into Canaan.  Joshua needed ‘signs’, indicators that he wasn’t alone but being guided by the unseen power the Israelites knew to be God.  The people also needed it.  The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses (NRSV, Joshua 3:7).  The parting of the Jordan, so similar to what they had either seen firsthand or learned from their parents’ generation, was one of those.

But now that they have crossed into a land filled with tribes and Joshua’s leadership is far from over.  Suddenly Joshua has a vision:

“…he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand… “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” 14 He replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” 15 The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so (NRSV, Josh 5:13-15).

This was one of those sweet surprises that come when we’re quietly reading our Bibles.  I realized Joshua needed his own version of the burning bush Moses had seen, his own unique assurance he was never alone.  He must have heard Moses share the story of suddenly seeing a bush that wouldn’t burn and then hearing that directive voice to leave the desert and confront Pharaoh to free his people.  Joshua knew that was the beginning of Moses’ journey that would change not only the Hebrew people’s lives, but the world – with the Ten Commandments becoming the basis of Western civilization’s law codes for centuries.

Now Joshua needed his own sign, knowing his role was to clear the land of Canaan and fulfill the Biblical promise harking back to Abraham, the covenant promise of not only ancestors but of a land where they could live.  An image of someone with a sword must have been exactly what Joshua needed to boost his courage and forge ahead.

And that’s how Biblical signs continue:  precisely suited to meet our individual needs.  I hope every reader of this column has discerned at least one such sign created just for you, on which you are building your life.  Such signs have been for me, the greatest treasure and encouragement.  Reinforcement of the importance of these spiritual markers in our lives is one of the many reasons that daily Bible reading brings such appreciable joy.

Example of markers for Horner Reading Plan.

We offer a specific reading plan on the Bibleroads website.     If you’ve tried reading the Scriptures straight through, beginning in Genesis and getting bogged down around Leviticus, perhaps the Dr. Horner reading plan is also for you.  Here’s the Bible I’m reading through this year with its markers as an illustration of how simple it is to set up. Please let all of us know how you’re doing with any reading plan and what it has meant for you—especially those surprises, tailored for your unique spiritual journey just as they were for Joshua.

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What Mark’s Gospel Can Teach Us – Announcing new in-depth Study Opportunity!

Saint Mark the Evangelist, Guido Reni (1575-1642)

While national characteristics can be exaggerated (i.e. ‘all Italians talk with their hands’), the description of Americans as a people of action is born out in hundreds of examples.  And that’s one reason why the Gospel of Mark might have special appeal to anyone with a proclivity toward action.

Mark is the Gospel that most depicts Jesus on the move–‘immediately’ on the other side of the lake, ‘immediately’ discerning his critics’ innermost thoughts, ‘immediately’ healing a fever.  It also depicts a relentless progression of narrative and events that climax in the Master Christian’s crucifixion and resurrection.

With its lack of an infancy story, and compression of Jesus’ ministry into a single year, Marks gospel  is the shortest of the Canon’s four (including Matthew, Luke and John).   Yet scholars think it is chock full of eyewitness accounts, conveyed from Peter to his traveling companion, John Mark, who most consider its author.  Mark’s focus on Jesus’ identity, explored through numerous characters, makes us ask if we understand his identity as well–who he is in relation to the cross, to the Messiahship, to his ultimate role as the mediator between God and humankind (I Tim. 2:5).   The Gospel has much to say about discipleship and one’s faith, causing the reader to ask tough and candid questions about one’s own followership.

These are a few of the many reasons we have chosen it for our annual in-depth study at Cedars’ Camps, October 11-15th, 2018.  Enrollment has recently opened and we hope you’ll consider giving yourself the luxury of four days to go deeply into one of the New Testament’s most descriptive books about Christ Jesus.   Please don’t wait too long as this program sells out.

Join us to explore more deeply Jesus’ ministry and how each chapter of Mark’s Gospel builds on the last.  A workbook with questions per chapter will be available to participants and afterwards through BibleRoads.   All of this study is approached not simply as an academic exploration, but a way to mine new depths of the Gospel’s message to your daily life today.  We hope you can join us in this beautiful Fall location in the Ozark’s.

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Breaking barriers in Joppa: Lessons in Inclusion

One of the wondrous things of landing at Tel Aviv’s shiny, modern airport is being transported to an ancient Biblical site within thirty minutes of clearing customs.

Joppa at sunset over Mediterranean with St. Peter’s Church on right.

On a recent trip we did just that – left Ben Gurion airport for ancient Joppa, the southern part of a 1st century C.E. (Common Era) port city, now Tel Aviv.  Walking up to the city’s Acropolis provided a spectacular sunset view that verified why the site was named Jaffa or Joppa (today called Yaffo), meaning lovely or pretty.  Looking out to the Mediterranean, we had our first look at the Franciscan “St. Peter’s Church”, built over a medieval citadel from the 13th century, dedicated to when the disciple visited Simon the Tanner.

Acts 10 tells us the story, first opening with the appearing of an angel to Cornelius, the Italian centurion who will become a sign of the ever-widening ministry of the early Church beyond the Jews.  As “a devout man” (Acts 10:2) who both generously gave to the people and prayed constantly to God, he was an example of the spiritual hunger among Gentiles drawn to the monotheism of Judaism.  Such seekers were called “God-fearers”.   Little did Cornelius know his faith would play a key role in the unfolding development of Christianity, teaching the disciple upon whom Jesus said his church would be built, a life-changing lesson in Christian inclusion.

No one — not Jew nor Gentile — is excluded from God’s all-encompassing love.  All are welcome to experience this great love, explained by Jesus as the Kingdom of Heaven already come.  As he directed his disciples when he sent them out:  “Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously” (Matt. 10:6,7).

Back to Acts, the angel directs Cornelius to send men to Joppa to retrieve Peter, who is ‘lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside’ (Acts 10:6).   Acts is full of the Holy Spirit bringing disparate parties together, and this story in Acts 10 is the second account of holy pairing to further God’s purpose.  (The first appears in Acts 8, about Philip meeting and baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch.)

The author of Acts, (thought to be the Luke, the writer of the Gospel), is a compelling storyteller and the scene shifts to Simon’s home.  We’re told Peter has gone up on the roof to pray.  Why?  While the text doesn’t say, archaeologists discovered that ancient tanners used urine in their work for the curing of leather.  One would have known exactly where Simon lived by the smell!  Under such circumstances, going on the roof to pray while getting some fresh seaside air makes sense.

It is this prayer in which Peter is told three times to let go of the kosher dietary laws he has practiced throughout his life (Acts 11).   They won’t have a place as the Gentile world learns the message of grace and love embodied in Christ Jesus’ teachings and will increasingly embrace.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 9:34).

The Hebrew Scriptures names this port city as well:  when Jonah decides to flee from God’s directive to save the people of Nineveh. It is Joppa where he catches the boat to Tarshish, in today’s Spain, and one of the remotest parts of the Roman Empire.  That this only Old Testament parable cited Tarshish for Jonah’s new destination would have been an obvious object lesson to early listeners – knowing that it was the most opposite direction of Nineveh one could find!

The book of Acts also tells us the faithful disciple, Tabitha,  lived in Joppa.  Always taking care to balance experiences of both male and female disciples, Luke tells Tabitha’s encounter with Peter just prior to his stay at the house of Simon.  Dorcas (Tabitha’s name in Greek) had died, Acts 9 explains.  Having heard that Peter was in the nearby town of Lydda, two men were sent to bring him to Tabitha’s bed side.

Pause and consider what this group of new converts to Christ Jesus’ teachings believed:  that just as Jesus’ had raised Lazarus from the dead and himself had been resurrected, they must have reasoned that death could not have been this woman’s final chapter.  They were learning to challenge the most common and aggressive view of humanity’s end – death – and say, no.   Life is here, right where this body appears.  When Peter came to Tabitha, he proved them right, raising her from the dead and ‘calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive”  (Acts 9:41).

It’s no wonder that he stayed in Joppa ‘for some time’ at Simon’s home, probably preaching and continuing to share and heal with the powerful message of Christ Jesus’ teachings that the Kingdom of heaven has indeed arrived and is among us.

Modern day pilgrims on Joppa’s ancient Acropolis.

Sometimes searching a Biblical location and seeing all that happened there is a marvelous way to ground ourselves in the stories.  Joppa gives us three powerful examples of the spiritual lessons the Scriptures reveal (Cornelius, Tabitha and Jonah).  No doubt we will never see it again as only an ancient site–as this group of Pilgrims can attest.

 

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Why Resurrection Cover-ups Failed

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me tangere’ , Rembrandt (1651) Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Germany

Cover-ups have a bad historical track record for one reason:  people talk!  While that might be disastrous to a conspiracy being hatched, it was ideal for Christianity.  Isn’t that one of many reasons 2.2 billion Christians continue to celebrate an event that rocked the world 21 centuries ago?  And there are more.

Check out Paul’s account in I Corinthians 15.  The letter was written sometime in the mid-50’s, about 15 years after Jesus’ resurrection but before a Gospel account recorded it.

…That he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died (I Cor. 15:4-6, NRSV).

Those 1st century Jews who believed in resurrection, having poured over Daniel 12, knew it wasn’t some amorphous event but “the literal reanimation of a dead corpse”, as the New Living Translation explains.  But huge effort was made to disguise its actuality when it happened to Jesus.  The arguments ranged from: ‘he never really died but was just unconscious’, to ‘the disciples only dreamed it’.

But my favorite ‘it never really happened’ explanation was the one Matthew’s Gospel records in chapter 28.  Matthew gives us the back story of the Jewish religious leaders asking Pilate to order soldiers to guard the tomb so Jesus’ followers wouldn’t steal the body.   When the guards found it empty on the third day, they told the priests who called an emergency meeting then bribed the guards with this response:

  You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed (Matt. 28:13,14). 

So with all the efforts of an attempted cover-up that makes Watergate pale by comparison, how did the truth emerge?  Here are six reasons and would love to hear others you think made a difference.

  1. The simplest:  the tomb was empty. Something happened to the body that had been placed there.
  2. Women were witnesses. Why would anyone conceive such a bizarre account and then use women to confirm it when it was culturally assumed they would be less reliable?!
  3. The consistency of the several accounts of those who saw him: the disciples in the upper room; then when Thomas joined them and Jesus appeared again in the same place; the witness of Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus; the morning meal prepared for the disciples by the risen Jesus Christ;
  4. The significant shift in the disciples – from fearful followers to bold apostles.
  5. Jesus’ followers’ ability to prevail over the disgrace and dishonor embedded in Deut.21:23 (anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse). Similar to having women as eyewitnesses, why would you conceive of a Jewish leader with such a resume?!
  6. The healing ability of his followers, accounts which fill the book of Acts, indicating what he did was not confined to him personally but could be replicated by those who followed his teachings.

It leaves us with the question for today:  how do people know by my life that ‘He is risen’?  Only you can answer that one!  Happy post-Easter everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about “The Week that Changed the World”, listen to a free video talk given by me on Good Friday (3/30/18) for Third Church of Christ, Scientist, New York  (thirdchurchnyc.org) and download the free handout.

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Gethsemane: Holy Place of Prayer

Gethsemane– a word almost universally recognized and filled with meaning like few others—is the subject of the February video and blog.

Although mentioned only once each in Mark (14:32) and Matthew (26:36), Christians know it well as the place of Jesus’ difficult prayer prior to Judas’ betrayal and the Master’s arrest.

        They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray (Mark 14:32).

Its 1st century use as an olive orchard located on the Mount of Olives gave the garden its name and meaning, gath shemane being Hebrew for ‘oil press’.  While Luke’s Gospel certainly recounts this momentous night of prayer, he refers to the larger area, the Mount of Olives.

Luke also gives us a hint of how often Jesus must have gone to this peaceful garden, so close to Jerusalem yet with the Kidron Valley between to provide some distance from the urban clamor.

        He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him (Luke 22:39).

In fact, the frequency of Jesus’ retreats there to pray are why scholars believe Judas knew where to tell the Jewish authorities to find him later that night.

One can’t help but wonder if Jesus, on this night or previous ones of prayer, thought also of David’s experience on the Mount of Olives.  Knowing the Hebrew Scriptures and identified as the prophesied Messiah and ‘Son of David’, Jesus must have been familiar with the story of David fleeing to this sacred place as he was forced to escape Jerusalem. Absalom was out to kill David and take the throne, so with family and loyal friends around him, the Bible relates David also paused here at a critical moment:

            David walked up the road to the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went. His head was covered and his feet were bare as a sign of mourning. And the people who were with him covered their heads and wept as they climbed the hill (II Sam 15:30).

The Gospels reveal Gethsemane as the lowest point of Jesus’ earthly career, evidenced by what Matthew relates he told his disciples:

            My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me (Matt 26:38).

Yet Gethsemane also represents that consummate moment of self-surrender that shines as a model for all who want to yield to God’s will for their lives:

            My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away–unless I drink it, your will be done (Matt 26:42-43).

More than any place in Israel I’ve traveled, Gethsemane is ‘holy ground’.  A wall surrounding these ancient olive trees, still bearing fruit,  helps Christian pilgrims pray quietly where the Master prayed, look across the Valley to Jerusalem, and hope that their lives provide even a fraction of the healing oil of his.

 

 

 

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