The Bible Challenge 2015 – Day 78

Joshua 1-3, Psalm 65, Luke 23
Why does God lets evil occur?

Joshua 1-3
Psalm 65
Luke 23
Key Verse

Joshua 1 – 3

By now, we are all aware that there are portions of the Bible that are long, tedious and frankly boring. These portions are like walking through the desert. We must slug through them. Today’s readings are different. They are rich and interesting and much occurs.

Joshua tells the story of the Conquest. It portrays the takeover of Canaan somewhat similar to German invasion of Poland in World War II or Russia’s quick conquest of the Crimea in recent weeks. The Book of Judges will later offer a much different account of the Conquest, portraying a slow, more complicated and less decisive and complete takeover of Canaan. Hence, the Book of Joshua is an idealized account of the Conquest. God is depicted a Warrior God who orchestrates and insures the Israelites success in war.

Scholars view the Book of Joshua as part of a longer section known as the “Deuteronomic history,” which also includes Judges, Samuel and Kings. The Book of Joshua describes the crossing the Jordan River and the destruction of Jericho (chs. 1-6), the conquest of the south through battles and alliances (chs. 7-10), and a final battle at Hazor ending the Conquest (ch. 11). Chapter 12 summarizes Joshua’s victories, followed by the division of the land among the tribes (chs. 13-22). The final two chapters offer Joshua’s farewell discourse, the covenant ceremony at Shechem and the death of Joshua (chs. 23-24).

A lot occurs in chapters 1-3. A good succession plan evolves. Authority is assumed and respected. “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… (Josh. 1:1-2) God now speaks to Joshua as he spoke to Moses and affirms that he will be the God of Battle and the Israelites’ strongest weapon. “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…” (Josh. 1:5-6)

God’s loyalty and support does not come free. “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.” (Josh. 1:8a) These words are highly reminiscent of Psalm 1, where we read,

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.” (Ps. 1:1-2)

The whole notion of prayerfully engaging Scripture in the morning and evening is optimal for any Christian. It creates brackets around our daily living and is at the heart of The Book of Common Prayer, which offers us Morning and Evening Prayer. These can create a wonderful rhythm to our life. We then read, “For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.” (Josh. 1:8b)

The word to focus on is “prosperous.” Select passages such as these have generated a theology called “Prosperity theology” or “the Prosperity Gospel,” which maintains that God is looking to bless us with health, wealth and success. Living with faith, using positive speech and making donations to Christian ministries will lead to our own material wealth. This is a non-traditional Christian theology, which relies greatly on the Book of Malachi and various isolated Scriptures of the Bible.

Prosperity theology focuses on personal empowerment, stating that God wills for humans to be happy, secure and free of illness and poverty, which are viewed as curses that come from broken faith. Visualization and positive confession can help us succeed and receive God’s blessings. The prosperity gospel has been preached by televangelists such as Oral Roberts and more recently Joel Osteen and Kenneth Hagin. Prosperity Gospel churches tend to be non-denominational and directed by a sole pastor, where the worship includes a major focus on teaching about giving and requesting donations from the congregation, encouraging positive speech and faith. It is very popular in South Korea.

Theological criticism leveled by Pentecostal, Charismatic, Roman Catholic and mainline Christians notes that prosperity theology creates idolatry, is irresponsible and contrary to Scripture. Opponents claim that prosperity gospel churches are susceptible to becoming authoritarian organizations with leaders controlling the lives of their followers. The biggest criticism is that little evidence can be found in the gospels for prosperity theology. Jesus died on cross, not in a mansion in Beverly Hills, and 10 of the 12 disciples died as martyrs rather than American Express Gold Card members relaxing at Club Med.

We then read a fabulous verse, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Josh. 1:9) This verse is worth memorizing or inscribing inside the cover of your Bible. You can bank on it. The verse does not promise us prosperity, but rather that God will be with us always. This is our theology and our reality.

The Israelites then state their allegiance to Joshua. They tell Joshua, “Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you,” adding, “Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses!” (Josh. 1:17-18) A marvelous story then demonstrates that Yahweh is on the Israelites side. Just as Moses sent spies to scout the Promised Land, so Joshua sends a two spies to survey Jericho. The spies entered the home of a prostitute named Rahab. We are not told for what purpose!

Rahab has prophetic qualities. “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.” (Josh. 1:9) The inhabitants of Jericho are aware of the Jewish Exodus, how Yahweh dried up the Red Sea so that the Israelites could cross over and how the Israelites decimated the Amorite kings.

Rahab hid the spies on the roof of her home and persuaded king’s men that the two men had left the city, but could be pursued and caught. This diversion allowed the spies escape. In turn, they promised to spare Rahab and her family when the Israelites sacked Jericho. “Give me a sign of your good faith,” requests Rahab. The deal was settled on word of mouth or a handshake. How rare is this today!

Chapter 3 builds clearly upon Rahab’s mention of the Exodus when we witness a mini reenactment of the Red Sea Crossing. The Israelite officers command the soldiers to set out from their places once they see the levitical priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, which embodies God’s commitment to the Israelites. Religion and violence are comingled. The God of War goes before the Israelites.

Yahweh commands Joshua to carry the Ark into the Jordan River, whose waters will stop flowing. Soon “…all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the Ark of the Covenant stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.” (Josh. 3:17) Indeed, Joshua becomes a little Moses and the Jordan River crossing becomes a little Red Sea.

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Psalm 65

One of the important things about reading the Bible according to The Bible Challenge reading plan is that we hear echoes between the Old and New Testaments. Today’s psalm is an example. We read,

You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples. (Ps. 65:7)

Is this not exactly what Jesus did in stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee? (Matt. 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25) After Jesus has performed this miracle, his disciples asked, “Who can this be? He gives his orders to the wind and the waves, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25) Living in a culture where Jews memorized and recited the psalms daily, it would not take long to connect the stilling of the storm with the words of Psalm 65 and know that Jesus had the power that only Yahweh had demonstrated.

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Luke 23

It has often been said that truth is the first casualty in war. Just listen to Vladimir Putin describe the reasons for Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and you will realize that we have a Hitler and Goebbels rolled into one man. Not since Hitler have we witnessed such aggression upon Europe and distortion of truth.

Luke says the “assembly rose at a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse [Jesus], saying ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:1-2) For centuries, texts like this have been used to accuse the Jews of being “Christ killers,” and to justify Christian oppression of Jew, which is tragic.

At the same time, more recent efforts have been made to expunge the Jews of any guilt, which seems equally misguided. A wiser tact is to note that it was the Jews historically, but that it could equally have been any of us. There is a dark side of every human, group and religious body that can become savage.

It is interesting to note Jesus’s silence, which speaks volumes. Jesus does not defend himself. He offers no Christian apologia or defense. Pilate clearly recognizes that Jesus “has done nothing to deserve death.” (Luke 23:15) Three times he asked the crowd, “What evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death.” (Luke 23:22) But “their voices prevailed.” (Luke 23:23) How often has one man’s weakness, desire to be popular and willingness to bend led to tragic injustice?

It is happening every hour of every day around the world in Syria, Iran, Iraq, the South Sudan, Crimea, the Ukraine, Russia, Venezuela, Columbia, Honduras and even in the United States. Those who suffer in bread lines, who cannot find a piece a chicken or a cup of milk to feed their starving children because of a dictator’s evil, cry out “to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’” (Luke 23:30)

Pilate said, “I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” (Luke 23:22) Flogging is torture. A man was tied to a post with his back bent in order to make it easier to expose his flesh to whip, which had pieces of bone and glass attached in order to rip strips of flesh off the victim. Amnesty International is one of the most vital organizations in the world today, focusing on corrupt governments, which use torture and violence to punish and intimidate humans. As evil as Al Qaeda and terrorists are, the United States must avoid stooping to torture and do what evil governments routinely do.

As Jesus hung on the cross, he had the composure to pray, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Humans, who have received Jesus into their heart, do not inflict evil upon others. It is when we deny belief in Jesus and when we make no room for him in our heart, that evil takes root and we bring about mayhem.

One of the thieves crucified beside him uttered words that each one of us must wrestle with at some point in our life, when we ponder the impotence of God in the face of tragedy or illness and long for God to heal, restore or prevent illness or tragedy from occurring. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his Chosen one!” (Luke 23:35) God allows evil to occur. Either it is beyond God’s power to prevent it, or God chooses not to act at times. We shall never know fully in this lifetime. The issues of theodicy or why God permits evil is one of the great mysteries of our faith.

The other thief was wiser and called out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) This is the most profound promise of our faith. Does it extend to those who do not believe in Jesus? That is one of the great questions of Christianity. We must be careful from quickly assuring others that the promises of Jesus extend even to those who do not accept Christ or follow his teachings and his call to serve.

On the other hand, Christ assures a man, whom he has barely met, who is probably not a practicing Jew and who committed crimes, that he shall inherit eternal life. It is between these polarities – the narrow door which claims that only those who believe in Jesus and follow him shall enter heaven and the wide door that permits a dying thief to inherit Paradise – where the tension of our belief in heaven resides.

Mark and Luke provide more additional information about Joseph of Arimathea then Matthew. We learn that Joseph is a good and righteous man, respected by the Sanhedrin, who “had not agreed to their plan and action.” He was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 23:51), which hearkens back to chapter 2 where we read, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” (Luke 2:25)

Joseph treated Jesus’s body with utter care, but Luke speaks as though it were a mere object. “Then [Joseph] took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.” Jesus’s lifeless body has now been reduced to an object. It is but a shell or the miraculous reservoir that once was filled by the Holy Spirit and bore the name of Jesus.

Now the crowds have left beating their breasts. The women have come and have seen the tomb and have left to prepare spices to anoint Jesus’s body. It is the Sabbath. “They rested according to the commandment” and did no work! Resurrection then as now entails Sabbath rest.

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Key Verse

Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Josh. 1:9)

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Why have we lost the ability to let our word be our bond? Why has a handshake become meaningless? Why have we failed to be trustworthy and to honor our word? What would have happened had Pilate not handed Jesus over to be flogged and crucified? Do you believe that God is sometimes impotent in the face of evil, illness and tragedy? Why does not let evil occur?

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Almighty God, grant that each day we may center our hearts on you, taking time in the morning and in the evening to create a sanctuary where you may speak to us and help us to see where and what it is that you are calling us to do. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

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© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania