“Get Back Up”
February 28, 2010 - Second Sunday in Lent
She fell to the ice on a triple jump early in her routine. But she was right back up again in a second and moving on. Canadian Cynthia Phaneuf had difficulties Thursday evening in the women’s figure skating event. Once at age 15 the Canadian champion, she battled a disorienting growth spurt and injuries to be on the ice in Vancouver this winter at age 22. After her fall you could see disappointment on her face. She had lost any chance for a medal. Yet she got up and skated on, executing beautiful spins and a fine sequence of spirals.
Of course, the best known story of Thursday evening was the other Canadian skater, Joannie Rochette, who received the news on Sunday that her mother had died. Yet she got up, went back out on the ice last week and won the bronze medal. More about her later. Right now let’s think about Israel getting back up after the disastrous fall we heard last week in chapter 7. After a glorious victory at Jericho, the Israelite army was sent running back down the hill by defenders of the much smaller fortress of Ai.
Chapter 8 is the story of how Israel got back up and tried again. Humbled and chastened, they listened to God, obeyed all His directions carefully and to the letter, and this time successfully captured Ai and destroyed that fortified city.
It’s hard to get back up when you’ve fallen. We enjoy stories like Rochette’s bronze medal and Israel’s victory, but we don’t know how it will come out while lying there wondering whether to stand up and try again. Phaneuf got up pretty sure that she wasn’t going to win any immediate victory. Why not just stay down and give up?
Getting back up is hard. Like Israel’s defeat by Ai, some losses are deeply painful, deeply humiliating. You flunk a test and all your friends know. You get fired because you just can’t handle a job you thought you could do. A friend expects you to be something you’re not and ends up deserting you. You don’t get the house you made an offer on or the scholarship you applied for or the girl you’ve been trying to impress. It’s all so demoralizing, so embarrassing, so depressing. It’s hard to get back up.
It’s also hard to get back up when failure or loss is spiritual. You just knew that God was leading you into a fresh business venture or a brand new relationship and it all ends up in disaster. It’s been six months or maybe six years and you find yourself committing that same old sin you thought you’d left behind. You started the year out fresh with a daily quiet time of prayer and Bible study and did it faithfully for three weeks. Now, here at the end of February you’ve just slipped out of the habit. And it’s hard to start over again.
It was hard for Joshua. Remember how he was at the beginning of chapter 7, facedown on the ground, crying out to God about the defeat Israel had suffered, wondering why God had even brought them to this place. You don’t shake off that attitude like a skater shakes off a tumble on the ice. Even with the sin in Israel identified, even with the perpetrator dealt with and punished, Joshua doesn’t just shake it off, call up the troops and march off again.
Defeat is part Joshua’s fault. He relied on his own strategy to send off spies and go by their report. He didn’t consult God. He didn’t learn beforehand of the corruption in the ranks which would lead to losing the fight. One of his soldiers was guilty, but as commander in chief the buck stopped with him. Joshua had failed and so Israel failed. Even Achan’s misdeed might have been prevented if Joshua had policed his fighters more carefully, warned them more strongly about the consequences of disobedience.
The damage was done. Thirty-six men died in a botched battle. Achan and his family died in punishment for their sins. Those lives couldn’t be brought back. Not all the loss could be recovered. That’s how it is with our own failures and sins. No matter how we repent, no matter how sorry we might be, we can’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. The harm and hurt of what we’ve done or failed to do is still there. And that, like it did for Joshua, may make us want to give up altogether.
In verse 1 of chapter 8, we read, “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.’” Which means that’s exactly how Joshua was feeling right then, afraid and discouraged. He was looking up the road toward Ai and wondering if there was some easier route to take, some smaller, weaker town they could conquer. He’s sulking in his tent, like Achilles at the battle of Troy, while his men wonder what’s going to happen next.
God comes to Joshua as he’s flopped there on his bed roll thinking dark thoughts. God comes and nudges Joshua with the flip side of the command He gave him at the very beginning. Remember? “Be strong and courageous!” Now it’s “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” “Don’t be an idiot this time,” we may read between the lines, “take the whole army with you and attack Ai.” “For I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land.”
Then at the end of verse 2, God offers Joshua a strategy. At Jericho the Lord worked a miracle and brought massive walls tumbling down. But here He relies on the strength and courage He expects of Joshua and the people. So He gave them a plan, a military approach that was much better than a brute force assault. “Set an ambush behind the city.”
God blessed Joshua with another chance, blessed him with a promise of victory, even blessed him with a strategy for carrying it out. God made it possible for Joshua to get back up by offering His blessing. He does the same for you and me. He blesses us with another chance, a promise of victory, and sometimes even a strategy through Jesus Christ.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we see a moment when our Lord might have been as discouraged and afraid as Joshua. In Luke 13:31 people come to Jesus and warn Him to get away, to turn His course toward Jerusalem. Herod the king wants to kill Him. In John chapter 11, verse 7 the disciples warn Jesus to stay out of that region, reminding Him that His enemies there had already tried to stone Him once before. But Jesus gets up and keeps going forward. God had blessed Him, blessed Him with a strategy, a crazy plan to die on a Cross. God had also blessed Him with the promise that the Cross would be His victory.
It’s all there symbolically in the second battle of Ai. Joshua takes the whole army to camp north of the city, but, as God told him, he sent a large contingent around to the west to lie in wait, to prepare an ambush. There’s a little confusion about the numbers between verse 3 which says he chose 30,000 of the best fighting men for the ambush detail and verse 12 which says it was 5,000. The latter makes more sense. 30,000 is a pretty big force to go sneaking around in the dark and to remain concealed from those watching on the city wall.
One answer to the number problem is that the word for “thousand,” may not mean the same in both places. Just as a Roman “century,” which literally means “one hundred,” came to designate a force that was actually eighty soldiers, the Hebrew word “thousand” might in verse 3 be a designation for a kind of military unit that was smaller than a thousand, say thirty units of about 170. Then the number in verse 12 is the actual, literal force of around 5,000.
The main thing however is to see that the main force, the visible force that attacked from the north was there to draw the army out of the city, to make the men of Ai think they could chase Israel down the hill just like they did before. So they pretended to be weak, to run and let Ai’s army come after them, so that the ambush could enter the now unprotected city from the west and destroy it. What looks like weakness is actually strategy and strength.
You and I have the same kind of blessing Jesus had, that Joshua had. We are blessed with crazy strategies for succeeding spiritually. We are not to win with a frontal assault on sin, marshalling our willpower and pushing Satan away with our own strength. No, the wild strategy Jesus gave us is to win by losing, by acknowledging our failures, by turning the other cheek, by loving our enemies, by letting others get the better of us. It’s a strategy of weakness that turns out to be strength.
Just before the lesson we read from Philippians 3 today Paul said that he put no confidence in his own strength, in his own accomplishments. Instead in 3:10 he says he wants to become like Jesus in His death, to participate in His sufferings. But the clincher, the spiritual ambush in Paul’s favor, is that he wants to participate in Jesus’ suffering and death so as to join Him in His resurrection. So the verses we read today, Philippians 3:20 and 21 say, “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
Like Joshua, we are blessed with a strategy, and we are blessed with a promise of victory. We will raised. We will be made like Jesus. And so we are also blessed with a second chance. Whenever we fail, whenever we’re down, God comes to us like He came to Joshua, blessing us to get up, to not be discouraged, to not be afraid, but to find His strength, His victory even in our weakness, even in our failures.
With the second battle of Ai, the morale and strength of Israel was restored. Today we would say, “They’re back!” They take the city and this time they obey God perfectly in how they handle their victory. It’s a great moment of renewal and fresh beginning that leads on to more victories in chapters to come.
To mark the moment, at the end of chapter 8, Joshua has the people carry out a ceremony that was commanded before they ever crossed the Jordan. In Deuteronomy chapter 27, Moses gave directions for the Israelites to come to two particular mountains, Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim standing near each other in Palestine, and to join in a ritual to renew their covenant with God. It’s a ritual of cursing and blessing.
The first step in Deuteronomy 27:4 and 5 is exactly what Joshua did here in chapter 8 verse 30, to build an altar to God on Mt. Ebal and sacrifice burnt offerings there in thanks and praise to God. But then in Deuteronomy 27:12 and 13 Moses told the tribes to divide and take up places on the two mountains, half on Mt. Gerizim and half on Mt. Ebal, and from there to speak to each other words that Moses commanded, words of God’s covenant with them, words of cursing and words of blessing.
In our text in Joshua, in verse 33, the people do take their places just as Moses said, half on the face of Gerizim, half on the face of Ebal. But in verse 34 it seems that Joshua did most of the speaking, maybe because there was only one scroll. They stood on the sides of the mountains and Joshua stood in the valley between and read to them “all the words of the law—the blessings and the curses—just as it is written in the Book of the Law.”
That moment in a natural amphitheater was the precursor of a practice that became the habit of Jewish people, to assemble and listen to God’s Word, ultimately in what they called a synagogue. It’s the precursor of our own Christian worship as we listen to the reading of Scripture and hear a preacher speak to us what God has to say. And it’s still about the same thing, cursing and blessing.
If you look at the end of verse 33, you see that in Joshua’s mind, it was mostly about blessing that day. He understood this to be Moses’ command to bless the people. Yes, the curses were there, but the people already had first hand experience with being cursed. In Deuteronomy 28, Moses listed the curses that would come on the people if they disobeyed God and right there in verse 25 you can read, “The Lord will cause you to be defeated by your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven…” Oh yes, they knew about the curses.
The primary thing then was to remind God’s people of the blessings that awaited them when they put their trust in God and did what He commanded. That’s the scene there between those mountains in Palestine, a scene focused on renewing, restoring, encouraging and blessing people that had gotten off track.
That’s why we’re here, to encourage and bless each other. We’ve all gotten off track in some way or another. We’ve all slipped in our devotion, failed in our relationships, been unfaithful to God in one way or another. We’ve all suffered some hurt, some disappointment, some loss, some painful defeat at the hands of Satan our enemy. So we all need the blessing, the encouragement, the love which God asks us to bring each other in Christ our Lord.
I mentioned Joannie Rochette earlier. There she was last week with the crushing, defeating news that her mother had died suddenly of a heart attack. She said her mother was her biggest fan and her advisor. She said that her mother “would come to where I trained once a week and comment on everything I did and helped me make sure I was reaching my goals. She was tough on me but when I needed support, she was always there.” But at the key moment her mother wasn’t there. She was gone. Nobody would have blamed Joannie if she had just gone home, just given up and left this year’s Olympics.
Yet Joannie decided to honor her mother by staying in the games. And the crowds that came to watch her blessed her for her courage. They cheered her through her routine and stood and gave her a marvelous ovation. She was embraced and encouraged and blessed by the people in the stands. She said, “…I felt so much love…It really helped me get on the ice and skate for myself, my country, and my mother.”
We all come here each week with the things that discourage us and make us afraid. We come with our losses, our heartbreaks, our sins. Some of us are skating toward disaster or on thin ice. Some of us have already fallen down and don’t want to get back up. So by the grace of Jesus Christ who turned defeat into victory through the Cross, we are here to bless each other, to help each other get up and try again.
In a moment we’re going to stand and in a ceremony a little like the Israelites experienced on Ebal and Gerizim, offer blessing to each other. Yet as we do, remember that blessing each other does not end when we leave this room. Someone needs your blessing this week, an encouraging word, a kind phone call, a cheery e-mail or hand-written note.
You yourself may need a blessing. Don’t be afraid to ask for it and don’t hesitate to offer Jesus’ blessing to others. God wants you and wants those around you to know His grace and blessing and renewal through His Son. Offer it to others and receive it from them. Be renewed today as God’s covenant people in Christ. Bless others and let them bless you. Be people of blessing.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj