“Valley of Trouble and A Window of Hope”1
Scripture: Joshua 7:1-26
December 11, 2011 – Third Sunday of Advent
New Hope Church, Lexington KY
Fresh off the victory at Jericho, Joshua embarks on another military campaign against the city of Ai. The Israelites are full of hubris, and when the spies come back and report that the city is small, Joshua send a skeletal fighting force against Ai and the results are dissastrous. There are Israelite casualities and the Israelites are defeated and chased away. This is a huge embarrasement. The Isralites shift from being fresh off the victory to living in a valley of trouble. “Why are we even here?” they ask.
Joshua and the Elders then do exactly what anyone should do when they find themselves in a valley of trouble: They turn to God. They throw themselves down in front of the ark and ask for God to help them understand what has gone wrong and ask what they must do.
Now, we have to ask, “What was Joshua thinking?” Did he not remember who “gave” him Jericho? Jericho wasn't won because of anyone's military skill; Jericho was won because Joshua was obedient to the commands of God. Jericho was God's victory. Jericho was taken because the Israelites did what God told them to do. We anticipate that God will tell Joshua that the defeat is due to the fact that he did not seek the guidance of God, (and I expect that possibly Joshua had thought about that) but God does not address this at all. Instead, God is ready to deliver some shocking news.
While Joshua made an arrogant mistake the primary reason that this defeat came is because there was sin in the camp of the Israelites and someone was disobedient to the command of “herem” given by God. If you remember last week, we said that God told the Israelites to destroy everything that was Canaanite so that the Israelites would not adopt their sinful and idolatrous practices. This week, we find that someone did not follow these orders, and this single act of defiance has caused this defeat.
At this point the action of the story hurtles forward like a fast snowball rolling down a steep hill: The elders cast lots. They determine the culprit is from a certain tribe. The tension builds as they cast lots again and determine that the culprit is from a certain family. The tension builds as they cast lots again and determine that the culprit is one certain man; Achan.
Achan readily comes forward and confesses his crime. “I couldn't stand to see the beauty go to waste,” is his excuse. He tells Joshua exactly where to find the goods. Joshua dispatches some men to the tent of Achan and sure enough they find that which has been stolen; the gold, the silver, the robe. It is frightening how sin follows us and finds us.2
The elders turn to God for a remedy. They are told that Achan, his family and things must be destroyed for Achan, in taking the things of the Canaanites has become Canaanite himself.3 Herem now applies to him. The sentence is carried out and everything is thrown into a valley and covered with rocks. We are told that this valley came to be known as The Valley of Achor, or “Valley of Trouble” as a reminder of the trouble brought to the Israelites because of one man's sin.
Now, the sin is removed and God's blessings return.
There are lessons so numerous that we could spend days on this passage alone! I believe, however, that there are two main lessons, one having to do with Achan's motivation and the other having to do with Joshua's actions.
What motivated Achan to violate God's command? What makes a person steal? People steal for different reasons:
Some steal because they have a psychological problem. We have all heard stories like this – I'm sure kleptomaniacs have been special guests on Oprah for years. We hear of them all the time. Wealthy people who cannot stop themselves from stealing underwear from Walmart. But, this is not the motivation of Achan.
Some steal out of need. I know of a man that faced with the prospect of feeding eight children one night, and having no resources, stole a loaf of bread and bought a carton of milk with the last bit of money in his pocket. We certainly feel sadness when we hear these stories. We can never excuse stealing, but we have empathy in a case like this. But, this is not the motivation of Achan.
Some steal because they are dissatisfied and they want to “make things right”, and they want to do so on their terms. This could be part of the motivation of Achan. Certainly having spent years in a tent, he must have felt some level of dissatistaction.
Anyone growing up in poverty knows that feeling of, “The first chance I get, I'm going to get out of here. I'm going to go someplace better. I'm going to get myself the things I never had!” Perhpas that is part of his motivation. James Montgomery Boice suggests that Achan may have been dissatisfied with his life in a tent, his constant wanderings, and his subservient, nomadic life. Maybe he saw the silver, gold and goods as a way to elevate himself.
Some steal because of greed and greed is definitely a component of Achan's motivation. “I saw it, and wanted it, and I took it.” Achan flat out admits that he was motivated by greed. He gave into his greed and the result was the breaking of a whole host of covenant laws. Achan placed “things” over God. He coveted, he stole, and he lied.
Dissastifaction and greed lead to a whole host of sins that violate the laws of God. If we have either of these elements in our life, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and rid ourselves of both. Dissatisfaction needs to be dealt with swiftly. This story shows us how easy it is to slip into sin when we let dissatisfaction sit open and festering. Unfortunately, the story doesn't tell us precisely how to deal with it – we may to cut ourselves free, we may need to wrestle it to the ground, we may need to make an internal change of attitude-- there is a host of ways that our dissatisfaction might be managed. All depends on the specific circumstances. We find ourselves dissatisfied in relationships, marriages, work situations and even... churches. Make a plan and deal with it because if you do not you will very likely head down a path that will lead to sin.
Greed, on the other hand, just needs to be cut off. Rather than focusing on those things that we don't have, wish we had, want to have, we need to focus on what we have been given. So often I hear people lament what they don't have. They look over the fence with desire and let their hearts swell with greed. The truth is though, that what they think they see over the fence may not really be what they imagine it to be, nor is always really what would make them happy. Greed is a dangerous emotion and if it is mixed with dissatisfaction, the results are troubling.
If one has either emotion, the emotion must be dealt with, for if it is not, it is likely that sin will result. We like to think that this sin like this might only affect us, but the truth is that even sins that seem so personal have ways of affects others and the story today demonstrates this. We see so clearly how one man's greed harmed an entire people. Achan's sin entered and infected the entire camp. Think for a moment of the families that experienced casualties at Ai. These deaths were a result of Achan's sin.
Now, I would love to talk about Joshua's arrogant mistake in his military campaign at Ai, but God doesn't really deal with it in this passage so I won't either! Instead, I want to focus on Joshua's response to the trouble he finds himself in. He and his elders swiftly and without hesitation fall before God and ask for help. This is wisdom! Turn to God first!
Where do you turn when you find yourself in a valley of trouble? My guess is that some of us turn to our parents. My guess is that some of us turn to friends. My guess is that some of us turn to google. My guess is that some of us phone our lawyer. Do we remember to turn to God first? I have to confess that sometimes I find myself picking up the phone to call Michael and I have to stop myself because I realize that God needs to be first on the list.
The second thing we note about Joshua is that he is careful to listen to what God has to say and to execute the remedy God commands. This means that we too need to be open to what God has to say to us. When we are in a valley of trouble and we turn to God, we need to be ready to hear things that we may not want to hear. Almost all the trouble we find ourselves in is the result of sin – either our own sin or the sin of another and we need to be ready to hear God tell us this and act on his message.
This is a very hard story to read. I personally feel a little sick when I read it. I have sympathy for Achan. He is no greater a sinner than any of the rest of us. He comes forward and admits his crime and seems to feel real contrition, yet the punishment, the harsh, harsh punishment, still befalls him. Why? Can there be no grace, and love and mercy?
Maybe there is.
We do not know the rest of the story. We do not know how God ultimately deals with Achan for eternity. I would like to think that Achan's heart was right with God in the very end and that love, grace and mercy was given to him and that he resides in heaven with God now. We don't know but we do know that God gives us that love, grace and mercy. Why would that not be a possiblity for Achan?
We see this story and it makes us fearful of God's judgement and we feel pessimistic. Well, honestly, that is one side of this coin... but the truth is that this story also gives us a window of hope. The window of hope stems from God's love.
God loves his people and therefore makes covenant with them. The old covenant applied to the Israelites and the new covenant, slightly tweaked, applies to us. The covenant is two sided. If we are obedient, God will bless us. If we are disobedient, God removes the blessing. The covenant is pretty straightforward. God loves us so he keeps the covenant and sure enough, when we are obedient he blesses us and when we are not, the blessings are naturally removed.
Of course we don't like this! We want to be obedient and disobedient and STILL get all the blessings. We want God to overlook our disobedience, but this story is here to remind us that he will not. But the very fact that he will not overlook our disobedience indicates that he is keeping the covenant and this should give us hope! Oh, God, throughout history could easily have just thrown up his hands and walked away leaving us on our own, but he did not and does not. He steadfastly holds and maintains the covenant and this is why there is hope:
When we are obedient he blesses us. When we are disobedient he takes away our blessing. BUT, when we remove the sin or disobedience and come back to him the blessings are readily restored. This story demonstrates this so clearly. In fact, these are the last lines of the passage, “Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger.” The blessings are restored!
On this, our third Sunday of Advent we think of God's love. His love is steadfast. He has made a covenant with us that he maintains, no matter what, and the very fact that this covenant is kept by our all loving God means that even after we have strayed, that God is happy to restore the blessings to his people when they choose to turn back to him. The covenant gives us a window of hope whenever we find ourselves in our own valley of trouble.
1J.M. Boice speaks of Gods restoration as the “door to hope”. I readily borrowed this idea.