Life is filled with battles. There are military battles, moral battles (such as when life begins; who should decide when life ends; should marriage be extended to same sex couples; should we be messing around with genetic engineering) and legal battles. There are physical battles (with health issues). There are Theological Battles (What is the true nature of Christ? Is Jesus the only way of salvation? Is the Bible reliable? Is God Sovereign? Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New Testament?) And there are interpersonal battles (disagreements and conflicts in the home, workplace, places of recreation, schools and everywhere else).
The truth is that many of you today are weary and battle fatigued. Some of you feel like life is simply one battle after another. For you, the beginning of every work week is something you face with dread.
This morning we turn to Joshua chapter 5. On first reading it may sound like this is a historical text that has very little contemporary relevance. It is the story of Israel’s preparation to advance toward Jericho and the land that God had promised to His people. The descendents of Israel (formerly called Jacob) had miraculously crossed the Jordan River. They were confident, excited, and ready for the fulfillment of 40 years of dreams and hopes. It was at this moment that God had all the men circumcised and they celebrated the Passover. Irrelevant? I don’t think so. What we see here are some important clues on how we can face the battles that come our way.
GET RIGHT WITH GOD
At heart, every battle we fight is a spiritual battle. Paul wrote,
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph. 6:12)
No matter what kind of battle you face, no matter what mountain you stand before, at the heart, it is a spiritual battle. In each situation the foremost challenge is to draw upon and rest in God’s strength, proceed with God’s wisdom, and pursue God’s glory. Because of this fact, before we enter into any battle, our first challenge is to make sure that our hearts are right before the Lord.
This is why God told Joshua to stop the advance into the long-awaited Promised Land and do a spiritual inventory. On the surface this is a foolish move. The people of the land were trembling before the invading army. They were basically defeated already. By all earthly wisdom, that was the time to strike. They needed to seize the momentum that was theirs and move forward.
God had a different plan. God told Joshua to camp and to do something we think was odd. He told him to circumcise the Israelites again. We are told,
They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way. 8 And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed. (Joshua 5:7-8)
We don’t know why the Israelites hadn’t been circumcising their children while they wandered in the desert. Circumcision was established as a sign of God’s promise to Abraham and his seed way back in the book of Genesis. Male infants were to be circumcised on the 8th day after birth. This simple act was a sign that God had made a promise not only to the people but to their seed. The act was already understood to be something more than simply a physical surgical procedure. It symbolized a more important circumcision: a circumcision of the heart. In other words, circumcision, similar to the New Testament rite of baptism, was an outward sign that signified an inward reality.
There are several suggestions as to why the Hebrews had not circumcised their children.
- Since this was a time when they were often traveling, circumcision was impractical. (However, circumcision was conducted on infants 8 days old so it would not have hampered travel).
- It was a further sign of the rebellion in the heart of the people.
- God told them not to do so because his covenant blessing had been withdrawn from them.
In short, we don’t really know why there were so many uncircumcised men in Israel. But there is another question here: Why did God choose this time to circumcise the men? Why not do this before they crossed over the river? It was a ridiculous thing to do. To circumcise your fighting men would put them out of commission for several days. In other words, to obey God would leave the people vulnerable to attack from the inhabitants of the nations.
God was making a point: Joshua and the people had to learn that obedience to the Lord is more important in the battles of life than our physical strength, our strategic planning, our military superiority, or our keen intelligence. God’s strength was necessary to fight such formidable foes. We need to trust Him in the battles of life. The evidence of trust is obedience. A military soldier is taught to obey orders and to do so without question. Those facing the battles of life must learn to do the same.
Joshua and the people obeyed God. The circumcisions were performed. Time was taken to heal. And then God said to Joshua in verse 9, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” The time of slavery, bondage and wandering was now over. Israel was home. They were again fully God’s people.
Passover. The second thing that took place in the desert was a celebration of the Passover. Our text does not tell us that the Lord commanded that they celebrate this grandest of all commemorative feasts. It appears it was simply time to celebrate the Passover. (Like we would take time to observe Thanksgiving). I don’t know whether they had observed the Passover during the time in the wilderness. Either way, this was a good time to stop and remember where they had been, and to remind themselves of how they had arrived at this point. The Passover celebration allowed them to do just that. By looking back, they were prepared to face the future. They were reminded of God’s wonderful sufficiency.
Before Israel went a step further into the Promised Land, they made sure their hearts and lives were right before the Lord. It is significant that we read,
The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. 12 The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate of the produce of Canaan. (v.11-12)
God had sustained the people in the wilderness. Now they were home. The land would provide for them. They had reached the land God has promised to them!
But what are we to learn from these acts? The chief lesson is: We are not prepared to do battle with the giants of life until we have first become right with God. Before we are ready to do battle, we must first look at our lives and see if we have neglected the things of God. Before any battle we are wise to do a personal inventory.
- Have we drifted in the wilderness? Are we guilty of wandering off to do our own thing? Have we become so concerned with our families and careers that we have neglected the things of God? Have we pushed God off to the side in our lives so that we can attend to “more important things”? If so, we must repent and return to the Lord or we will face the battle weak and vulnerable.
- Have we neglected the things that God has called us to do? Have we been lax in our worship, our obedience, and our growth in the truth? Have we ignored God’s commands to repent, to be baptized, to forgive, and to follow Him?
- Have we adopted the values of the world? Do we need to re-define what is truly important? Have we been seduced by the idols of our contemporary society? If so, we must throw off these things and return to the Lord.
- Have we truly put our trust in the Lord or are we still relying on our own perceived goodness? Have we been playing at faith or truly exercising it?
These are important preliminary questions. If we enter into battle without doing a personal and spiritual inventory, we will find ourselves fighting some battles that shouldn’t be fought because they are petty and grounded in our own sin. We will be like the soldier who refused to pay attention during basic training and now doesn’t know what to do. Our hearts need to be right before God before we step on the battlefield.
REMEMBER YOU ARE NOT ALONE
There is another scene in this chapter that helps us discern two more principles for preparing for battle.
13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. [Joshua 5:13-15]
Imagine the setting. Joshua was out pacing, seeking the Lord’s counsel for how best to proceed in the battle at Jericho. He’s weighing all kinds of options. Maybe as Joshua pondered this new beginning for the children of Israel, he was overwhelmed with the responsibility before him. Was he really up for the challenge? Was he the right man for the job? How did he get to this point where he felt so under qualified? Suddenly, there before him was a magnificent man with a drawn sword. It appears the man just stood there. Joshua took a deep breath, went up to the man, and asked, “Are you on our side or the side of our enemies?” Good question!
The man told Joshua that he was the Commander of the Army of the Lord and that Joshua must take off his sandals for he was on Holy Ground. Joshua knew immediately that he was in the presence of the divine. Some believe this man was actually an Old Testament appearance of Jesus, or what is called a Christophany. They may be right.
I wonder if Joshua thought of Moses’ account of his meeting with the Lord at the burning bush. At that meeting, Moses was tapped as God’s man for a big job. Moses felt overwhelmed just like Joshua, but God worked through him. This encounter reminded Joshua that this was not a battle that he had to fight on his own. Joshua would be fighting alongside the army of God.
It reminds us of the story of Elisha in 2 Kings 6:8-23. One morning Elisha’s servant got up to go get water for the day he saw that the city was surrounded by the Aramean army. The servant knew they were there to get his master, Elisha. This servant, understandably, was quite frightened and upset. However, Elisha said,
16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
17 And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
The army of the Lord was with Elisha! When we face our battles, we have the confidence that “greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4). We know that “if God is for us, no one can stand against us.” (Romans 8:31). As children of God, we may feel desperately alone and overmatched at times but God has promised that He would NEVER leave us or forsake us. God’s resources are at our disposal. Please hear this, child of God: You are not alone
- As you face chemotherapy
- As you recover from a divorce
- As you try to build a new life after the loss of a mate
- As you face an unjust lawsuit
- As you fear starting over after losing our job
- As you are forced to live in a body that no longer works the way it should
- As you try to break a powerful addiction
- As you comb through the rubble of what once was your home
- As you face the future with a special needs child
- As you dare to stand up for Christ in a hostile academic environment
Perhaps you can’t see the army of God that is with you and are filled with fear. It doesn’t matter whether you see them or not, the army of God is at your disposal. God lives in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. He has given His angels charge over us.
YOU MUST MAKE SURE YOU ARE FIGHTING THE RIGHT BATTLE
There is one more thing to notice. When Joshua asked the Commander of the army of the Lord which side he was fighting for, his answer was not, “the Hebrews”, or “I’m with you”. He answered “Neither” or “none of the above”.
Joshua was asking the wrong question. The question was not whether the man was fighting with Joshua. The question was whether Joshua was fighting with Him! Joshua’s task was to fight the battle of the Lord. Joshua would be successful if He was on the Lord’s side.
Too often we are guilty of trying to make God the champion of OUR cause rather than seeking to be obedient in HIS work. We often try to win God to our opinion rather than submitting our hearts and minds to His. We want God to support
- Our political leanings
- Our approaches to worship
- Our national allegiances
- Our theological distinctives
- Our personal preferences and opinions
We have things turned around! The Spirit of God works as it wills…..not as we will. I’m afraid many of our battles are on the wrong front. We are fighting about petty things and ignoring the significant things. We divide over the color of carpet and don’t seem to notice that the nature of Christ is under attack. We argue styles of worship but don’t seem to notice that our theology is being drawn more from pop culture than the Word of God. We debate about programs designed to amuse the faithful and don’t seem to notice that we have stopped reaching out to a lost world. We debate bias in the news media while we ignore the standard of truth, the Bible. Before we go into battle we need to ask: Are we fighting with God or are we hoping to get God to fight with us?
In a meeting with a small group of missionaries in China, James Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship) reminded them that there were three ways to do God’s work: “One is to make the best plans we can, and carry them out to the best of our ability . . . or, having carefully laid our plans and determined to carry them through, we may ask God to help us, and to prosper us in connection with them. Yet another way of working is to begin with God; to ask His plans, and to offer ourselves to Him to carry out His purposes.”
We all face battles of some sort in life. What I hope you have seen in this passage that we first see as irrelevant and strange, is that Joshua can help us learn about the battles we face today. When we face battles we’ve learned we need to do three things:
- Ask yourself: Is there something in my life that I need to do to get right with God? Is there a sin to confess? A job to do? An attitude to change? A soldier makes sure his equipment is in order before going into battle. Likewise we must make sure our heart is in order before we enter the battlefield. Some of the most significant battles of our lives are internal.
- Rely on the Lord for strength. Remind yourself of God’s promises, His character, and His past faithfulness. Remind yourself again and again that you are not alone. Even if you can’t see God’s angels around you, see them with the eyes of your heart.
- Be clear on the true nature of the battle. (Is it really about whether or not you will be cured of your illness or is it about being faithful whether you are cured or not? Is the battle about alleviating pain and removing pressure or is it about remaining faithful? Is the battle about “winning” or is it about holding fast to the truth?) Too often we try to fight the enemy while we are looking in the wrong direction
I wish I could tell you that if you do these things every battle you fight will go the way you want it to go. I wish I could tell you that if you do these things there will never be any pain or heartache in your life. Of course, I could tell you those things, but it wouldn’t be the truth. What I can say with confidence is this: if you and I will do these things we will have the strength we need to fight the battles that need to be fought. We will frequently see walls of opposition come down. We will see significant victories in our life and walk. We will grow strong. We will stand firm. We will be courageous. We will serve Him with honor.