Scripture: Joshua 8
Message: AFTER DEFEAT: VICTORY or
A SACRIFICE ON THE MOUNTAIN OF CURSES
(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg
Keep your bibles open as we will read Joshua 8 in two pieces.
Then the LORD said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city."
So Joshua and the whole army moved out to attack Ai. He chose thirty thousand of his best fighting men and sent them out at night with these orders: "Listen carefully. You are to set an ambush behind the city. Don't go very far from it. All of you be on the alert. I and all those with me will advance on the city, and when the men come out against us, as they did before, we will flee from them. They will pursue us until we have lured them away from the city, for they will say, 'They are running away from us as they did before.' So when we flee from them, you are to rise up from ambush and take the city. The LORD your God will give it into your hand. When you have taken the city, set it on fire. Do what the LORD has commanded. See to it; you have my orders." Then Joshua sent them off, and they went to the place of ambush and lay in wait between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai--but Joshua spent that night with the people.
Early the next morning Joshua mustered his men, and he and the leaders of Israel marched before them to Ai. The entire force that was with him marched up and approached the city and arrived in front of it. They set up camp north of Ai, with the valley between them and the city. Joshua had taken about five thousand men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. They had the soldiers take up their positions--all those in the camp to the north of the city and the ambush to the west of it. That night Joshua went into the valley.
When the king of Ai saw this, he and all the men of the city hurried out early in the morning to meet Israel in battle at a certain place overlooking the Arabah. But he did not know that an ambush had been set against him behind the city. Joshua and all Israel let themselves be driven back before them, and they fled toward the desert. All the men of Ai were called to pursue them, and they pursued Joshua and were lured away from the city. Not a man remained in Ai or Bethel who did not go after Israel. They left the city open and went in pursuit of Israel.
Then the LORD said to Joshua, "Hold out toward Ai the javelin that is in your hand, for into your hand I will deliver the city." So Joshua held out his javelin toward Ai. As soon as he did this, the men in the ambush rose quickly from their position and rushed forward. They entered the city and captured it and quickly set it on fire. The men of Ai looked back and saw the smoke of the city rising against the sky, but they had no chance to escape in any direction, for the Israelites who had been fleeing toward the desert had turned back against their pursuers. For when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that smoke was going up from the city, they turned around and attacked the men of Ai. The men of the ambush also came out of the city against them, so that they were caught in the middle, with Israelites on both sides. Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors nor fugitives. But they took the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua.
When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. Twelve thousand men and women fell that day--all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Ai. But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the LORD had instructed Joshua. So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day.
He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.
People of God:
Sin has the power to bring the curse of defeat upon God's people. That's what we found last Sunday as we looked at the Defeat at Ai. Achan had rebelled against the clear command of God breaking the covenant. His secret sin cost the lives of 36 men and that sin had to be purged from the nation of Israel at this foundational stage of their existence in the promised land - their future depended on it.
Sin brought defeat to Israel. We did not take the time last week to look at the power of that defeat, especially in the heart of Joshua and all of Israel.
You might remember what happened. Joshua and the elders of Israel fell on their faces in grief, placing dust on their heads for the entire day. And the first thing that Joshua did was blame God for their failure. And then he started longing for the good old days when they were still on the other side of the Jordan river with very few enemies to face. Why grow, why reach out, if it causes failure? And then in a very real picture of the power of defeat, Joshua made the big leap, he anticipated the total destruction of Israel and the defamation of God's reputation because of this one defeat at Ai.
I suspect most of us can relate Joshua's feelings and thoughts in failure. Maybe, in earnest response to God's call to witness, you choose to speak to your neighbour about the love of God - and you attempts at witness positively bombed, in fact it strained your relationship with your neighbour. You regret witnessing, wish you hadn't, choose not to do so again - your going to leave it to the experts. Maybe in deep concern for your neighbour or somebody you love, you have poured out your heart to God in prayer and all of your prayers seem to be absolutely ineffective.
Failure deflates, it takes the winds out of our sails, it discourages, it paralyzes with fear, it makes us hopeless. After failure we're afraid to get back into the fight. There is nothing the spiritual forces of evil and the powers that we battle against want more than for us to turn away in defeat! If we do, they have won, and they don't need to fight us any more!
This morning, notice the Lord's first words to Joshua in this chapter. "Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged!" God called Joshua to go back to work, back to the battle, back to the effort of gaining the victory. The Lord gives to Joshua very clear instructions about how to take the city of Ai, without repeating the entire battle plan, let me highlight just a few aspects about this battle.
First - this plan of attack was dramatically different than the plan of attack on the city of Jericho. Israel did not have to march around Ai 7 times or blow trumpets. The important thing to understand here is that God's strategies vary from situation to situation. What worked last time might not work this time. What works in one place likely will not work in another place. God's strategies are as varied as God in his infinity is faithful. Throughout the history of the church, God has done his work overcoming the powers in amazing ways. So to, as we as a church look forward this year, asking ourselves "What is God's strategy for us in the coming years?" we will find that God has a plan for us. What has worked somewhere else might not work here. God has a plan tailored to who we are, where we are, what we are with the challenges we face, and his future is to bless us and make us a blessing.
Second, notice the value of Israel's defeat. Israel has learned not to be over confident. Now instead of an army of 3000, the entire Israelite army is to be involved in this next attack. Again, a principle that we ought to be aware of. God's design is for us to fight the spirits of this age together. One of the many things that I have learned is that fighting against spiritual forces by myself, or with very few turns people into victims of spiritual attack. We are in this battle together.
The second value of Israel's defeat is that it informs and shapes the battle strategy for the next attack. The enemy has become convinced that the Israelites are a bunch of chickens, ready to turn tail when the fighting gets fierce. Knowing that their defeat has trained the enemy, Joshua, following the Lord's instructions, takes advantage of it making it look like the Israelites have taken to running away from battle a second time, thus drawing the enemy away from their own stronghold so that the stronghold itself was vulnerable. It is by our defeat that we learn truths about ourselves and the enemies we face. It is by our defeats that we come to understand the wiles of the forces of evil, their strategies in taking us down. It is often by our defeats that we learn our weaknesses in temptation and develop strategies for avoiding or overcoming them. Defeat is the hard knocks teacher. Wisdom is to listen carefully to her. By her lessons, we will be trained in righteousness and effectiveness in the battles that we face.
Now this story of the defeat of Ai concludes with a covenant renewal at the strangest of places - turn to verse 30
Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses--an altar of uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used. On it they offered to the LORD burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings.
There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua copied on stones the law of Moses, which he had written. All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, facing those who carried it--the priests, who were Levites. Half of the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had formerly commanded when he gave instructions to bless the people of Israel. Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law--the blessings and the curses--just as it is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them.
Joshua was following the instructions of the Lord from Deuteronomy 11:26-29 and 27:13-15 (see below). As they traveled from Ai, they traveled between two mountains near the city of Schechem, the place where Abraham renewed his covenant with the Lord years before. There, Joshua sent 6 of the tribes of Israel onto the slops of Mount Ebal and 6 of the tribes onto the slopes of Mount Gerazim. The two mountains, we know today, formed a amphitheater, a place of worship where speakers could be heard without the help of microphones and amplifiers. There, between the two mountains, Joshua and the Priests shouted out the law of God, from Deuteronomy, especially chapters 27 and 28. When each of the blessings were read for obedience, the tribes on mount Gerazim shouted in liturgical response "Amen!" And when the curses for breaking the law were read, the tribes on Mount Ebal shouted out "Amen!" Thus Mount Gerazim was known as the mountain of blessing for obedience, and Mount Ebal the mountain of curses for breaking God's law. There, on Mount Ebal, Joshua built an altar of uncut stones, and on he made burnt offerings and offered fellowship offerings to the Lord.
After all this renewed success, why build the altar on the mountain of curses? Why not put it on Mount Gerazim, the mount of blessing, why not put it somewhere in between? Why build an altar on the mountain of curses?
To us this might seem like an insignificant question, but we realize the significance of the question when we see in the New Testament (John 4) that one of the major conflicts between the Samaritans and the Jews were the mountain on which they worshiped. The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerazim, the mount of blessing, the Jews worshiped on the Mount of Curses, mount Ebal. Why did Joshua make Israel's sacrifice on the Mountain of Curses?
The answer of scripture is clear. Those who live according to the Law in flawless obedience earn the blessing and have no need for a sacrifice. But those who fail to keep, even the smallest part of the law of God, the curse is upon them, and they have only one hope - a sacrifice to atone for what they have done. Joshua choose, in true self awareness of his own sinful nature and in self awareness of the nature of all of God's people, to build this altar and give this sacrifice on the Mountain of curses where a sacrifice of atonement was necessary.
This morning, as we come together to the Lord's supper, this has a very clear application for us. The Lord's Supper, and the Christian faith, for that matter, is not for people whose self awareness highlights their own goodness, righteousness. Very simply, people who think that their good qualities earn them God's favor, well they have no need for a Savior. Maybe the Samaritan women at the well believed this - until Jesus pointed out her sin to her in the many men she had lived with. The righteous don't need a Savior, a sacrifice.
Sinners need a Savior. This morning as you come to the Lord's table, you come as a sinner, deserving the cursing consequences of breaking the law, you come to worship on the mountain of curses, but in coming to worship, in coming to the Lord's table, you come acknowledging a sacrifice - Jesus the Lamb of God, sacrificed on the hill called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death. You come to proclaim his death, proclaim in boldly, a sacrifice for you, for as Galations 3 states,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
So this morning, come, eat, drink, worship, knowing your sins have earned you the curse, knowing that the wages of sin is death, knowing that on your behalf, in your place, the sacrifice was slain, and by the body and blood of Jesus alone, you have gained eternal life, the eternal blessing of God.
Deut 11:26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse--
blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving
27:13 And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses:
Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.
3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse
for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.