Joshua 7-9, Psalm 67, John 1
Jesus came among us full of grace and truth
Joshua 7 – 9
Years ago, an educator said to me, “What does it take to have a good class in school? It usually takes just one or two really good kids who set the tenor for the entire class. What does it take to have a bad class in school? It usually just takes one or two really bad kids to make the entire class difficult.” The same plays out in history.
The Israelites quickly fell into lock step with Joshua for he was a good man who obeyed the law and commanded his followers to do the same. As a result, God blessed them and Jericho quickly fell into their hands, but this rapid success was not to continue. Despite being warned by God not to take any of the “devoted things” that were used for pagan worship, Achan son of Carmi could not help himself. He took some of the pagan devotional items and “the Lord burned against the Israelites.” (Josh. 7:1)
The result was an embarrassing defeat at the gates of Ai, where 36 Israelites were killed, a relatively minor number compared with most battles mentioned in the Pentateuch. Fortunately, Joshua was a careful understudy of Moses and approached Yahweh, urging him to not let his reputation as a powerful God be destroyed. “Then what will you do for your great name?” Joshua asked. Yahweh responded, “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I imposed on them.” (Josh. 7:11)
Joshua took matters into his own hands and quickly discovered who had breached God’s trust. Once Achan’s theft was discovered, Joshua and his soldiers marched Achan and his family and livestock and booty to the Valley of Achor, where “all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. (Josh. 7:25-26)
Having captured and killed the violator, the Lord revealed to Joshua a stratagem for ambushing and destroying the men of Ai. The destruction was total. “For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the sword, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. (Josh. 8:26)
What was the secret of Joshua’s success? It was obedience. “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the aliens who resided among them.” (Josh. 9:25)
The Israelites were not the only shrewd people in the Levant. When the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to the inhabitants of Jericho, they plotted to protect themselves. Dressed as weary travelers who had journeyed from a great distance and exhausted their supplies, the Gibeonites met Joshua and struck a covenant with the Israelites, who thought that they lived in a land far away. Three days later, the truth was known. The poor travelers were actually Israel’s neighbors.
While Joshua and his soldiers honored their covenant and did not put the Gibeonites to the sword, their new neighbors proved useful. “The leaders said to them, ‘Let them live.’ So they became hewers of wood and drawers of water for all the congregation…” The Gibeonites were enslaved by the Israelites.
Whatever happened to the Lord’s frequent command to care for resident aliens, because you yourself were once aliens in a strange land? How quickly those who have been oppressed and be transformed into oppressors once they are in a position of strength and able to rule over others.
Psalm 67 gives rise to many blessings that will be offered not only by Jews but also by Christians in the centuries to follow. We read,
May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us…” (Ps. 67:1)
Centuries later, an Irish blessing echoes similar sentiments,
May the road rise to meet you,
may the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of his hand.
In the Episcopal Burial Office, the priest echoes this blessing at the graveside Committal praying,
The Lord bless him and keep him,
the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace.
The Prologue of John (John 1:1-18) is one of the most beautiful and famous passages in the Bible. These verses read like poetry and are so different than other parts of John’s Gospel that many scholars have questioned whether a different author wrote them than the author of the Gospel of John.
Few sections of the Bible have received more attention. Every word and every verse is laden with meaning. These opening words have been dissected and studied countless times over the centuries. “In the beginning…” (Luke 1:1) These first three words immediately hearken back to the Book of Genesis, where we read, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1)
John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1) The Word or logos as it is known in Greek is Jesus. He is the Word of God. John wants us to know that Jesus was present at the creation of the universe. Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke who offer stories of Jesus “the man” and Matthew and Luke who present birth narratives of Jesus, John presents a cosmic and metaphysical introduction to Jesus.
Certainly, John is the most philosophical of all the gospels. It was written for a Greek-speaking Gentile audience, who were familiar with the term logos or the Word, which according to the Anglican theologian John Macquarie can be translated as “the divine organizing principle.” In a lecture given at Yale Divinity School, Macquarie offered this translation of John 1:1-4,
In the beginning was the divine organizing principle, and the divine organizing principle was with God, and the divine organizing principle was God. The divine organizing principle was with God. All things came into being through the divine organizing principle, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in the divine organizing principle was life, and the life was the light of all people…
John then tells us the story of John the Baptist. It is a sort of cosmic introduction. We read, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. “ (John 1:7-8) Matthew, Mark and Luke portray John the Baptist as a human, but stranger than life sort of figure. Matthew and Mark tell us, “Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matt. 3:4, Mark 1:6)
We are told that John the Baptist came as “a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. John was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (John 1:8) What is interesting is how quickly the author can advance his gospel by telling his story symbolically. The name of Jesus does not appear until verse 17, but in verse 1 we know that we are already focusing on Jesus.
John tells us that “[Jesus] came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11) This verse appears to summarize the Parable of the Vineyard. Fortunately, there is more to this story than a complete failure by all parties concerned to accept God’s messenger. Rather we read, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
We then read one of the greatest lines in the Bible, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) The author states that Moses gave us the law, so “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
As in the other gospels, John plays a minor supporting role. John came to “testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:8-9) The prologue is full of metaphorical language. Jesus is “the Word” and “the true light.” Elsewhere, we shall read that he is “the life” and “the way” and “the truth.” (John 14:6) He is also described as the “gate” of the sheepfold.
We also read that Jesus is “the Lamb of God.” (John 1:29) This designation is even more profound, as it can be read not only on a metaphorical level, but from a historical, liturgical and theological perspective. Jesus is the ultimate and final sacrifice offered on behalf of humans, even unknowingly by his crucifiers, to atone for the sins of humanity. Just as unblemished lambs were offered for centuries on the altar of the Jewish Temple as sacrificial gifts to appease God, so, too, Jesus offered himself upon the cross as the Lamb of God, the only being who was fully human and fully divine, capable therefore of atoning for the sins of humanity and building a bridge of redemption between sinful human beings and a forgiving God.
There are many who will argue, “What kind of God would demand such a sacrifice? How could God allow his only son to die?” Those are questions that I cannot offer a cogent, rational answer. Ultimately, as the Apostle Paul writes, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” The Christian faith can never be completely explained by rational arguments. As magnificent as his Summa Theologica was, Thomas Aquinas realized toward that end of his life that all that he had written “was but straw.” Our human ability to grasp God is very limited. Anyone who pretends differently is apt to be filled with hubris.
I must confess that I hold strong, but a simple belief in the atonement, which some scholars refer to as the “at-one-ment,” Christ’s self-offering upon the cross which restored humanity to union with God and brought about our redemption. St. Paul tells us in his epistles that just as all humanity became subject to sin after the First Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, so, too, all of humanity was restored and sanctified by the death of the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. John’s Gospel offers us a new language, theology and set of metaphors by which to comprehend the life of Jesus and enter the heart of God.
Each gospel is characterized by a symbol. Sometimes, these are carved into a pulpit or a rood screen to depict the four evangelists. Matthew is symbolized either as a winged man, because Matthew begins his gospel by tracing Jesus’s genealogy or by the symbol of a lion, for the lion represents the tribe of Judah and Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels. Mark is depicted by a lion for the same reason or by an ox, which is a sacrificial animal. Luke is depicted by either the ox or by a man, since Jesus’s humanity is most evident in Luke as well as his great compassion for those who suffer. There is no confusion about John’s symbol. It is the eagle. In the ancient world, eagles were believed to be the only bird that could soar directly into the sun and not be blinded. Likewise, John’s Gospel takes us further and into more mystical realms than any of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark or Luke).
Whereas Matthew and Luke give us a birth narrative, John offers a metaphysical, poetic proclamation. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) This is completely different from Luke, who writes like a newspaper reporter, historian, biographer or novelist, “And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)
Already, we see why John is simply called “the Fourth Gospel” and is not part of the Synoptic Tradition, which means “capable of being seen together.” The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke follow a similar timeline and storyline. John has his own timeline of events, often scripted to convey a unique theological intent, and the way in which he tells the story also is different and difficult to compare alongside the Synoptic Gospels. Nonetheless, John offers a brilliant, beloved and vital portrayal of Jesus.
He informs us that “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” After wading through the Pentateuch and reading “thus says the Lord…” over and over again, we come now to read of grace and truth. The problem with those who maintain that they are spiritual but not religious is that it is easy to craft our own religion, which almost always offers no accountability system. I merely do whatever feels right for me or makes me feel more spiritual. Sin is rarely a vital concept for those who are spiritual but not religious. Religion, however, demands accountability. We have a relationship with God, and just like a relationship with a spouse or a parent or a child, there has to be some accountability. That is where the law plays a major role. Without grace and truth, however, the law is dry and lifeless and leaves us feeling empty and bereft of love.
John the Baptist is quick to inform others that he is not the Messiah and points his followers to Jesus, whom he refers to as the Lamb of God. When John’s followers approach Jesus and say, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus responds, “Come and see.” This invitation travels down through the centuries to every reader of the Bible. It is made directly to you and to me. “Come and see” who Jesus is and what he invites us to do and to be.
What happens next is rapid evangelism. Andrew, who remained with Jesus that first day, went and found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah.” (John 1:41) Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, who renamed Simon “Cephas,” which can be translated as “Peter,” which means “the rock.” Peter will become the foundational stone of the Church. The next day, Jesus found Philip, and Philip found Nathaniel sand said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth.” (John 1:45) The Church is now off and running.
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us… (Ps. 67:1)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
What role does obedience play in your spiritual journey? How does the law of God function in your life? What place do grace and truth play in your spiritual understanding? Do you appreciate metaphorical religious language or prefer a more straight-forward narrative? How much room is there in your life for a mystical understanding of God and Jesus? Do you appreciate religious mystery and can you live knowing that many of Christianity’s greatest questions lead us to holy mysteries that cannot be answered in a sound bite or even Aquinas’s Summa Theologica?
Holy and Loving God, you invite us on a journey full of grace and truth. Each one of us is precious to you. Help us to spend time with those who can appreciate our unique gifts and to defend ourselves from those who belittle us or fail to see our giftedness. Allow us to experience your warm embrace and unconditional love so that we might share these gifts with others. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania