Joshua 13-15, Psalm 69, John 3
Joshua 13 – 15
These chapters can be read quickly. This is not a section that greatly guides the Christian life. Joshua is now old and getting and his life is drawing to a close. Like a Pope who will not let a cardinal retire until he is very aged, the Lord notifies Joshua that there is still much land to conquer, including the land of the Philistines. Yahweh tells his old general, “I will myself drive them out from before the Israelites; only allot the land to Israel for an inheritance, as I have commanded you.” (Josh. 13:6)
Joshua then divides the land carefully among the tribes of Israel, not granting an equal portion to the Levites, for their livelihood will be provided by a portion of all the sacrificial animals slaughtered and offered to Yahweh in the Temple and monies spent on purchasing sacrificial offerings. They will, however, be allotted towns and cities in which to live and some pasture lands for their flocks and herds. (Josh. 14:4) If Joshua 14:10 is correct, then Joshua was 40 when Moses was 80. Moses died at age 120. Five years have now elapsed. Joshua has battled fierce tribes for half a decade and is 85 years old.
A warrior to the end, Joshua notes, “I am still as strong today as I was on the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war…” (Josh. 14:11) Apart from Joshua, Caleb was the only other remaining Israelite who had been circumcised at the time of the Covenant and allowed by Yahweh to live and enter the Promised Land. Joshua now offers him Hebron as his inheritance, a city that will become one of the great Palestinians centers of the West Bank.
Hebron is located 19 miles south of Jerusalem. It is home to over 250,000 Palestinians, making it the second largest city in the West Bank after Gaza. Hebron is the traditional burial site of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs making it the second holiest city in Judaism after Jerusalem. It is also sacred to Muslims, because of its association with Abraham.
Many readers of the Bible struggle when reading through the entire Psalter. The psalms that we read in church on Sunday are sanitized. We never, for example, read all of Psalm 137 in church. We read,
By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (Ps. 137:1-3)
What we never read aloud in church are verses 8-9,
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (Ps. 137:8-9)
Episcopalians are too tactful to say things in church, even if there are moments where we think them. The Psalmist often sounds like a politician caught in a scam with the FBI, the police and the state attorney general’s office tightening the noose and preparing to arrest him. We read,
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me. (Ps. 69:1-2)
There are, however, within Psalm 69 gems of wisdom that can guide us spiritually. The Psalmist notes,
O God, you know my folly;
the wrongs I have done
are not hidden from you. (Ps. 69:5)
How true this is. We can deceive ourselves, our spouses, children, parents, neighbors, colleagues, employers, employees and friends at church and beyond, but we can never deceive God. God is the one being who knows everything about us. God knows are going out and our coming in.
This morning, I gave a breakfast talk in Greenwich, Connecticut to a group at Christ Episcopal Church called “Men on Fire.” That’s not a common name for a men’s group in an Episcopal church. Most Episcopalians are more like a smoldering ember, rather than a lit fire when it comes to reading and sharing the Bible. This group has wonderful leadership. The leader is 81, and he is developing a ministry to help men and women prepare for the end of life and know that they are ready to meet their maker, having accounted for the good and the evil that they have done. It is a much needed ministry.
I think of John Wesley, who spoke of the “blessed assurance” that comes when we know that we are saved, that despite all of our faults and transgressions. God has reached across the great divide to offer us salvation. We simply know deep down that God that has redeemed us through the gift of Christ upon the cross. Such a blessed assurance is grace. It cannot be earned or purchased. The Psalmist notes,
It is for your sake that I have borne reproach,
that shame has covered my face. (Ps. 69:7)
How many of us have suffered any reproach for following and serving God? The Psalmist offers a line that the author of the Fourth Gospel quoted in John 2,
It is zeal for your house that has consumed me. (Ps. 69:9)
Jesus’s disciples knew this psalm and this verse. After Jesus had created a whip of cord and used it to drive out the money changers and the sheep and cattle from the Temple we read, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” (John 2:17)
The Psalmist knows where to turn for help. “With your faithful help, rescue me from sinking in the mire,” he writes, (Ps. 69:13b-14) adding,
But I am lowly and in pain;
let your salvation, O God, protect me.
I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving. (Ps. 69:29-30)
For the Lord hears the needy,
and does not despise his own that are in bonds. (Ps. 69:33)
Here is a humble person, not too proud to turn to God and clearly aware that God listens, hears and responds to the prayers and cries of the needy and those who suffer. The author turns to the right resource, to Yahweh, creator God, when life is troubled and full of challenges. The author calls out not only to lament, but to offer prayers of praise and thanksgiving, which is always the sign of a healthy soul.
Only John’s Gospel mentions Nicodemus, whose name means “conqueror of the people.” Nicodemus was a devout Jew, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. He was attracted to Jesus, but struggled to understand him. John does not reveal to us whether or not Nicodemus became a disciple.
Perhaps because he did not want to be seen with Jesus, Nicodemus came under cover the darkness to see Jesus. Call it stealth evangelism. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2)
Jesus informs his visitor that no one can see the kingdom of God “without being born from above.” Nicodemus thought that Jesus was referring to being “born again,” as evangelical Christians maintain. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus. Jesus tells him, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6).
My wife and I were friends in our previous church with a wonderful couple who sadly experienced several miscarriages. Unfortunately, The Book of Common Prayer has no service for someone who has suffered a miscarriage. These losses are often left to be mourned very privately and are rarely discussed. A couple planning what color to paint the nursery, discussing what name to give the baby and dreaming of a future life with a new member of the family must mourn alone and without support.
The husband said something to me after I asked him how they were doing. “We have learned that there are people who swim on the surface of life and there are others who because of the challenges and losses that they have faced dive deep and can discuss things that are important and sometimes difficult. They are people of true substance. That’s who we now choose to spend our time with.”
There are many explanations as to what Jesus was trying to convey here, but I think that our Lord was trying to convey that there is a profound depth to life that comes after pain and suffering have been broken us and we have recovered and grown stronger in the places where they have been broken. When that occurs we now live more by the Spirit and less by the flesh.
Jesus was astonished that Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel and yet did not understand these things. This is a bit like most Episcopalians who fear that they know too little about the Bible to teach Sunday school. We can actually attend church for decades and fear that we do not understand enough of the Bible to teach a roomful of third graders. This is the challenge with the way that Episcopalians fail to engage Scripture more regularly. We must read the Bible and not just let it be read to us in church.
The most important verse in the Fourth Gospel is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus makes it clear that God loves “the world.” The text does not say, “the Church” or “the Roman Catholic Church,” “Episcopalians” or “Christians.” It says, “For God for so loved the world…” God’s love knows no boundaries. God loves members of the Taliban and Hamas, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, thieves, adulterers and loan sharks. God may despise much of what they do, but God loves the person.
God loves each person so much that the Holy One “gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” John’s Gospel presents many dichotomies between light and darkness, flesh and spirit, life and death, heaven and earth, good and evil. In John’s Gospel Jesus forces us constantly to make choices. We are free people capable of making decisions, and our decisions ultimately determine what kind of person we shall be. Jesus says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” (John 3:36)
The Greek word for “believe” is pisteo. It is a verb. Christianity is a verb, not a noun. Each day we are called to believe anew. Christianity is not a “one and done” exercise. It is totally inauthentic to say, “I had the kids baptized, and now they’re done.” It is like getting married over the weekend and divorced on Monday and saying, “I know what it’s like to be married.” Marriage is a long faithfulness in the same direction with another person, and Christianity is a long faithfulness in the same direction with God.
Jesus adds, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) God is not looking to destroy or condemn the world. God came to save the world and to make each person “whole” or give them salvation. Christians must never forget this, nor stand silent while people attack the God of Christianity as a God who condemns the world. Scripture says just the opposite.
The Church therefore must be “for something” as opposed to being always “against something.” Some Christian denominations and groups are against this and against that. What I would like to know is “What are you for and what do you bless?” God came to save and not to condemn.
Jesus adds, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (John 3:20) Years ago, I knew a man who stopped coming to church. His wife wondered why. He complained that he did not like the changes made in the church’s liturgy. The church was celebrating the Eucharist and no longer using Morning Prayer. This may have bothered him, but I suspect that there was more. We eventually learned that he had a serious drinking problem and did some dreadful things while drunk. People living an immoral life avoid the light. Worshipping in church, praying to God, hearing the Bible and listening to sermons makes them feel very uncomfortable.
The Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of John the Baptist is concise. John the Baptist was a prophet in his own right and had a significant following that at times must have rivaled Jesus’s own. (1:19, 3:22-26; 4:1) Yet, the Fourth Gospel makes it clear that John was very aware of his subordinate role. John the Baptist said one of the great lines of the Bible. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) This same line is true for each of us. We can only go further on the spiritual journey by letting Jesus increase as we ourselves decrease. We were put on earth to serve One who is far more loving and greater than us.
O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you. (Ps. 69:5)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. (John 3:20)
He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)
How many of us feel so passionately about our church and God’s house of prayer that it could be said of us, “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.” (Ps. 69:9) How do we balance passion for our church and moderation, knowing that our passionate beliefs may sometimes me overzealous or wrong? How do we stay zealous, while also being able to listen and learn from others? How wide is God’s love? Is everyone included in God’s embrace? Are any condemned?
Gracious God, we know that you sent your only begotten Son into the world not to condemn the world but to offer us salvation. We are sinful and less than whole human beings. There is not one of us who is not deeply imperfect. Strengthen our wills and help us to be the finest people that we can be, but above all help us to acknowledge that we can never redeem ourselves. We depend completely upon your grace to heal, forgive, strengthen and restore us to salvation. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania