Joshua 4-6, Psalm 66, Luke 24
Jesus is with us in a new and more powerful way
Joshua 4 – 6
Years ago, my wife, Mims, taught first grade Sunday school. I remember entering their class one day at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia and watching as the class painted Noah’s Ark. The girls were painting waves, the ark, Noah and his family and lots of animals. At the other end of the painting, boys were painting sharks, blood in the water and body parts! I realized in that moment exactly how different boys and girls are.
The story of the Battle of Jericho and the miraculous destruction of its walls has been an object of fascination for countless Sunday school classes as well as adults in every country where the story has been told. The story is found in today’s readings.
First, we are told that the Lord asked Joshua to take twelve stones from the Jordan River and create a memorial so that the Israelites would never forget what had occurred during their miraculous crossing. “About forty thousand armed for war crossed over before the Lord to the plains of Jericho,” we are told. (Josh 4:13) This is a much smaller and more reasonable number than Numbers 1:46, where we read that, “six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty” men were enrolled in Moses’ army.
What of the beauties of Judaism, is that it specifically calls for parents to transmit their faith to their children. In doing so, the family becomes the locus of much teaching. “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” (Josh. 4:21-24)
The Lord then commands Joshua to circumcise the Israelites a second time! We quickly learn that this is only for those who were not born when the Israelites were previously circumcised. This act is pivotal, for “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today, I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’” (Josh. 5:9)
The manna finally ceased, and for the first time the Israelites began to eat crops from the land. One day, when Joshua was near Jericho, he saw a man standing before him wielding a sword. This became Joshua’s epiphany, similar to Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” asked Joshua. The stranger informed him that he was the commander of the Lord’s army. Joshua fell to his face. The stranger commanded, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” (Josh. 5:15) In Exodus 3:5, Yahweh commanded Moses to do the same.
The stage is now set for the destruction of Jericho. Yahweh tells Joshua that he has handed over the city to the Israelites, but first all of the warriors must circle the city once a day for six days as seven priests bearing seven trumpets march before the Ark of the Covenant. Crusaders reportedly carried the True Cross of Christ encased in gold in a similar fashion as they marched into battle against the Muslims while trying to conquer the Holy Land. The True Cross was reportedly lost in battle and was never seen again.
Now the priests and warriors marched around the city for the seventh and final time. “As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it.” Every man, woman, child and animal was killed. Good to their word Joshua insured the safety of Rahab the prostitute and her family, since she had shielded the two Israelite spies during their reconnaissance mission to Jericho.
It was not uncommon for both an inn and a brothel to function within the same building, thus going into Rahab’s building was not necessarily a deviation from Joshua’s military orders for the soldiers. It was like entering a bar or hotel to seek information. Rahab became the first gentile convert, and her name remarkably appears in the genealogy of Jesus. (Matt. 1:5) She is also an ancestress of King David. After the battle we read, “So the Lord was with Joshua; and his fame was in all the land.” (Josh. 6:27)
The question is, “How much of this story is true?” Perhaps the walls of Jericho were destroyed by an earthquake. The first scientific investigation of the site of Jericho was led by Captain Charles Warren in 1867. Warren’s primary interest was to identify biblical sites. His investigation was not deep, but he identified and investigated the Tell-es-Sultan, which is commonly believed to be the ancient settlement.
Further investigations by the Austro-German team of archaeologists of Sellin and Watzinger from 1907-1909 and again in 1911 suggested that Jericho was unoccupied at the generally-accepted time of the Conquest circa 1400 B.C. Their work penetrated to pre-pottery Neolithic levels and exposed the massive defensive system of late Middle Bronze Age Jericho.
These findings were challenged by the work of John Garstang, who was inspired by William Albright, the best-known Palestinian archaeologist and historian of his time. Garstang’s work from 1930-1936 suggested that Jericho offered the earliest evidence of humankind’s move towards urbanism. More importantly, as a Bible student, Garstang discovered a network of collapsed walls that appeared to have fallen in some dramatic fashion rather than decayed from natural forces. His work overturned the conclusions or earlier digs. These walls that he found, however, later proved to be the town walls from the declining Early Bronze Age city.
Albright later encouraged the famous English archeologist Kathleen Kenyon to excavate Jericho. Kenyon was hard-headed and stubborn and grew up a tomboy, fishing, climbing trees and playing a variety of sport. Her father was a biblical scholar, who later ran the British Museum. Kenyon headed a joint Anglo-American team that dug from 1952-1958, doing the most thorough study of Jericho to date.
Her excavations reached the bedrock in sufficient places to determine that the height of the mound was 82 feet at its maximum and extended over 10 acres. Inside this mound were represented successive stages of human occupation from the Mesolithic to the biblical period. Kenyon reported that Garstang was wrong and the Austro-Germans were right. Jericho had been deserted at the time when the Bible claims that the Conquest occurred.
Kenyon’s work at Jericho made her world famous and established a lasting legacy in the archaeological methodology of the Levant or Eastern Mediterranean. Her ground-breaking discoveries concerning the Neolithic cultures of the Levant were made in Jericho. Her excavation of the Early Bronze Age walled city and the external cemeteries of the end of the Early Bronze Age, together with her analysis of the stratified pottery of these periods established her as the leading authority on that period. Kenyon focused her attention on the absence of certain Cypriot pottery, arguing for an older destruction date than that of her predecessors. Because of her work, Jericho was recognized as the oldest continuously occupied settlement in history.
More recently, in 1990, biblical archeologist Bryant Wood and colleagues proposed that the pottery recovered during the excavations of Garstang and Kenyon pointed to a destruction date of Jericho around 1400 B.C. rather than the 1550 B.C. date, as concluded by Kenyon. Wood argued that Kenyon’s conclusion was based on expensive, imported Cypriot pottery that was not found at the excavation site and that Kenyon had ignored the vast amount of local pottery that was recovered. In addition a carbon-14 sample of a single charcoal piece found in the destruction debris supported the 1400 B.C. destruction date.
In 1995, however, Kenyon’s result was corroborated by radiocarbon texts indicating that test samples dates from 1562 B.C. (plus/minus 38 years) with a certainty of 95 percent. The charcoal sample that Wood referenced was found to be in error and was re-dated to 1590. The destruction of Jericho continues to be of great fascination. It makes for wonderful programming on the History Channel.
Consensus remains that Jericho has had an occupational history beginning around 8,000 B.C. and continuing intermittently at or near Tell-es-Sultan since then. Unfortunately, there is little evidence at the mound pointing to the Jericho of Joshua’s day.
McDonald’s has Happy Meals, and the Bible has “Happy Songs.” These are the psalms of thanksgiving such as Psalm 95 and 100 and today’s Psalm 66. Psalm 95 calls us to sing:
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Ps. 95:1-2)
And Psalm 100 states,
Make a joyful noise to the Lord,
all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing. (Ps. 100:1-2)
Likewise, Psalm 66 is the perfect psalm to follow miraculous news we have read about God helping the Israelites to cross the Jordan River on dry land and defeat the inhabitants of Jericho. We read,
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
sing the glory of his name;
give to him glorious praise.
Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!
Because of your great power, your
enemies cringe before you.
All the earth worships you;
they sing praises to you,
sing praises to your name. (Ps. 66:1-4)
We are told that we have ample reason to trust God. God has done great deeds for the Israelites. All they must do is obey the law and teach their children about God’s great love for their nation. We read,
Come and see what God has done:
he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.
He turned the sea into dry land;
they passed through the river on foot. (Ps. 66:5-6)
Truly these words appear to allude to the Conquest. The Psalmist writes also about providing for burnt offerings. (Ps. 66:13) In the ancient Near East, it was common to sacrifice one’s one firstborn child and take that which was most previous and give it to God. This was replaced by animal sacrifices, which were replaced by grain sacrifices, which were then replaced by no sacrifices. The Psalmist writes,
I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will repay my vows… (Ps. 66:13)
Psalms such as Psalm 66 were prayed by people who were sent from Jewish villages to offer sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. While individuals were away in Jerusalem offering sacrifice, members of their village would recite psalms such as this. The person offering or commissioning the sacrifice would also request that a psalm like this to be sung while his or her sacrifice was being offered in the Temple.
We are told that on the “first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb.” (Luke 24:1) There are aspects of each of our lives that can go horribly wrong. We make bad decisions or unfortunate things happen to us. Our relationships unravel. We waste time and resources in misguided endeavors. There are moments when our life feels like a tomb. In these moments God invites us to experience resurrection and to trust that God has the power to reorder our lives and bring forth life from where death has ruled, even for a long time. Trust in Luke 24. It is the very essence of hope for our lives.
First, we must recall that Luke is a two-fold tale. The author of this gospel also wrote the Book of Acts, which is its sequel. Both Luke’s Gospel and Acts hinge on Jerusalem. The gospel is the story of the journey to Jerusalem and up the mountain on which it is built. The gospel culminates with Jesus’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Acts picks up from here and tells the story of the journey down the mountain to spread the Christian faith throughout the world.
First, the women, who have come to the tomb in the early dawn to anoint Jesus’s body, encounter “two men in dazzling clothes.” (Luke 24:4) This is clearly an epiphany, which reminds us of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matt. 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36), where we read, “And while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29)
After the angels reminded the women how Jesus had told them “that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again,” they remembered his word and left to tell the disciples what they had seen and heard. (Luke 24:7-8) A women’s word unfortunately was not accepted in court as testimony in those days. Women were deemed inferior to men. In addition, the women were very disturbed by Jesus’s death as well as by what they had seen and heard. Their words seemed “as idle tale” to the 11 disciples who listened to them.
How often that is true for us. Hearing about someone’s religious experience or reading books that people have written about Christianity is not as potent as actually sitting down to read the Bible prayerfully and engage the story on our own. The Bible has a way of convicting us. It is a one to one encounter with God, which forces us to say, “Either I accept the veracity of the story and must reorder my life in accordance with its teachings and God’s commands, or I must dismiss it.” We are forced to take it seriously and to make important choices.
Luke alone offers us the story of the amazing encounter on the road to Emmaus, which took place on the same day when the women encountered the angels by the empty tomb. The disciples were walking toward a village almost six miles from Jerusalem. They were not sulking at home, but they were walking and moving forward, which is always a good thing to do as we process pain and grieve losses. The 23rd Psalm reminds us, “Ye though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” that we must keep on moving. We are not called to “wallow” in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but to move through it.
While they were talking among themselves, Jesus joined them. The Bible reminds us that whenever two or more are gathered together in Jesus’s name, he will be among them. This teaching alludes to the study of Scripture, not hanging out at a coffee bar with Christian friends, but the truth is that whenever Christians gather, Christ is present, if we have the eyes to see him and ears to hear him.
It was not while walking, however, that they noticed him, but when they stopped and invited him to stay with them. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” (Luke 24:30-31) Luke now offers us another way to experience Jesus. It comes through the Eucharist. Jesus is known to us in the breaking of the bread. He did four things, which liturgists note mark the essence of celebrating the Eucharist. Jesus “took” bread, “blessed” it, “gave thanks” and “gave it” to them.
This is what God does with each of us. God takes us, blesses us, offers thanks and gives us to others that we might be life and hope-bearing gifts to one another. At every Eucharist, we offer ourselves to God, symbolized by the money that we put in the offering plate, which is blessed by the priest and placed on the altar, as an outward and visible sign that our labor throughout the week has been a gift from God poured out through us to bless the world.
Episcopalians and Anglicans believe that we are never closer to God than in the moment when we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, manifested in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. When we extend the hands of a believer and receive Jesus’s Body and Blood, we ingest God’s presence and become what we eat. God’s presence fills us, heals us, strengthens, comforts and transforms us. We read, “Then [the disciples on the road to Emmaus] told what had happened on the road, and how [Jesus] had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35)
Then we read a fabulous line. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?” (24:32) Luke assures us that the Risen Christ is made known to us not only in the Eucharist but in Scripture. As we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Word of God, we feel Jesus’s presence. We learn from him, and he strengthens, comforts and heals us.
Jesus then physically appeared among the disciples. The Book of Acts explains that Jesus made numerous resurrection appearances during the 40 days that followed his crucifixion. Luke recounts how Jesus stood among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” He invited them to inspect his hands and feet. “See that it is I myself,” he said. “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39) Jesus is reaching out to those who need physical proof. The testimony of the women was not enough for some. Hence, Jesus makes physical appearances to many. He even asked them for something to eat, to demonstrate that he is no phantom or soul wafting through the air. This is Jesus, flesh and blood, meeting with those who loved him.
Throughout both Luke and Acts the Holy Spirit is the chief actor. It is present everywhere, inspiring people to break out into song or to recognize Jesus in their midst. Jesus commands the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they “have been clothed with power from on high” for “I am sending upon you what my Father promised…” (Luke 24:49) Jesus is speaking about the Holy Spirit, which Acts will describe, relating about the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit alighted on the followers of Jesus. (Acts 2:1-13)
Luke alone tells us about Jesus’s ascension, which is also mentioned several times in Acts (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9-11; Luke 9:31, 51). According to Peter’s speech in Acts 10:39-41, “They put [Jesus] to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Following his resurrection appearances, Jesus led his disciples outside of Jerusalem to Bethany, a nearby village, where he blessed them. “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51) The disciples returned to Jerusalem filled with joy and spent their days in the Temple praying and blessing God.
The ascension does not signal Jesus’s removal from the disciples or from us, but rather that God is now with us in a new and powerful way. Jesus is present to each of us at all times. We can call upon his name in faith, seeking his wisdom, counsel and love. Just as Elijah was carried up into heaven by a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1-12) and left his disciple Elisha with a double portion of his prophetic spirit before he left, so, too, Jesus blessed his followers and on the Day of Pentecost they received his Holy Spirit.
Jesus’s Passion predictions (Luke 24:6) are now fulfilled as are “all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:25-26, 44) We read, “Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are my witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:45-48) In concluding with this, Luke sketched out the basic plot of Acts. “The period of the church is a period not of Jesus’s absence, but of his presence in a new and more powerful way,” as Luke Timothy Johnson, one of the great New Testament scholars notes.
But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. (Ps. 66:19)
Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me. (Ps. 66:20)
Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us? (24:32)
Do you keep a gratitude journal? Have you tried beginning each day by thinking about or writing down five things for which you are truly grateful? Have you sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life? Do you trust that wherever you go, God is with you? Where to you experience Jesus most profoundly? Is it in worship and the Eucharist, in prayer, in Bible reading or in fellowship with other Christians? In what ways are you fulfilling Jesus’s mission to journey forward and bear witness to Jesus with others?
Almighty God, Holy, Divine and Triune, you have given us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we may trust that your Son Jesus is present with us at all times. When we sense Jesus’s presence, we know that there is nothing that we can undergo in this time where Jesus and you are not with us in every situation, challenge and opportunity that we face. We are forever grateful. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania