Tomorrow is Memorial Day. What does that mean? It probably depends on who you talk to. Children are eager to get out of school. Travelers will lament the long security lines at the airport. The media is interested in everything from the beginning of hurricane season to how many beach-goers will fall victim to shark attacks to the ongoing presidential campaign. And what often gets lost in the wash? The real meaning of Memorial Day. The reality that the reason that we can travel and go to the beach and peacefully elect a new leader is because men and women in the armed forces paid the ultimate price to gain and preserve those freedoms.
While it’s sad when people forget the purpose of Memorial Day, a far greater tragedy is that many more people don’t know or remember Bible history – and the memorials it contains of what God did to serve and save our sinful human race. The Church exists to prevent this kind of forgetfulness. Today we travel back in time to the region of Canaan, just west of the Jordan River, to the fortified city of Jericho. Our text only gives a brief overview of the battle of Jericho – but what do you remember about it? Do you recall the Israelites marching around the city blowing horns and shouting? Does your imagination run wild with images of Jericho’s walls tumbling down on the seventh day? While those are the right details, if that’s all you remember, then you’re missing the point. Tomorrow, don’t let the memory of those who gave their lives for your freedom get lost. But today, let us remember Jericho, a memorial to the Lord – where we see that in impossible circumstances, His promises are sure.
The Israelites should have learned this lesson by now. After all, their very existence was only a result of God’s power and promises. God freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them through the depths of the Red Sea. God provided food and water as they wandered in the wilderness. God held back the Jordan River so that they could cross into the Promised Land on dry ground. God had promised a home flowing with milk and honey, and the spies had verified that Canaan was just as promised. But now an immovable obstacle seemed to stand in front of God’s promise. That obstacle was Jericho, the heavily fortified city that guarded access to the Promised Land. Joshua, recognized how impossible this situation seemed. That’s why he was off on his own, looking over the city, probably formulating a battle plan.
In the midst of his strategizing, [Joshua] 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?” A natural question when someone pulls a sword on you. The man’s answer is clearer in another translation: No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come. (ESV) No? No, you’re not on our side? What kind of an answer is that? This is an important point. We often ask, in our minds and prayers, “God, are you on my side?” That’s the wrong question. The proper question is, “Are you on God’s side?” The Lord is not a mercenary for hire. He does not take sides in human battles. The man made it clear from the outset to Joshua, that if he planned to emerge victorious, he had better be on God’s side, fighting for the Lord and following his will.
Joshua got the message. He took off his sandals and fell on his face before the man. See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. According to the Lord’s commander, the battle was as good as won. The Lord was giving his word that the mighty, never before conquered city, with all its warriors and weapons would be taken by the Israelites. But here is where faith comes in. For the Lord didn’t tell Joshua to arm his men or prepare to besiege the city. No, he said march around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in. Instead of preparing for battle, the Lord told Joshua to do what? Worship. Worship the Lord for seven days by marching around the city with the Ark of the Covenant, blowing horns and giving a loud shout.
It probably sounded like a foolish, impossible plan, but the Israelites believed and did it anyway. And on the seventh day when the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. Everything happened just as the Lord said it would. He kept his promise. Jericho was leveled and the Lord emerged victorious. What did Joshua and the Israelites contribute to the victory? Nothing. God had done everything. He had destroyed the walls and handed them a conquered city. This was to establish an important precedent for Joshua and the Israelites as they continued their conquest of the Promised Land. This ruined city was to be a memorial to the Lord – a reminder to them that no matter how impossible the situation seemed, the battle is the Lord’s and with him and his promises the victory is sure.
The whole point of a memorial, whether it’s a day, a monument, or a written record – is so that people don’t forget. But how often don’t we do just that, forget. How easy it is to forget that we wouldn’t be able to gather here to worship our Lord in freedom and without fear if it weren’t for those who gave their lives to preserve our religious freedom. How often we take for granted and forget that the privileges we have as American citizens – the freedom of speech, to bear arms, to due process, even the ability to vote – aren’t absolute human rights, but privileges purchased with blood. Tomorrow, don’t forget that freedom is not free.
Today, don’t forget the lessons of Jericho. How could we? The message is so clear. The memorial to the Lord at Jericho tells us that no matter how impossible the battle seems, both the battle and the outcome are the Lord’s. But in the midst of life’s turbulence, it’s so easy to forget. And when we forget the Lord, we will fall into one of two ditches of unbelief. The first was on display the first time the Israelites had come here, to the threshold of the Promised Land. Moses had sent spies to scout out the peoples and cities and quality of the land. The majority of spies forgot God’s promise and reported: we can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are…the land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size…we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them. (Numbers 13:31-33) 40 years earlier, when faced with a similar set of circumstances, the Israelites had forgotten God’s promise, doubted his power and spent 4 decades wandering and dying in the wilderness as a result.
Doubt kills faith. But we all face situations that tempt us to doubt God’s power and love. Normally we think of cancer or disease or death. But those are by no means the only impossible situations we face in life. Raising God-fearing children in a godless world is a challenge for every generation of parents. Living with a spouse who is unfaithful or absent or unloving can feel like a burden too heavy to bear. Dealing with the fallout of divorce puts enormous stress on everyone involved. Facing financial uncertainty or frustrations at work is not easy for anyone. But are they impossible situations? For us, sinful humans, alone – yes. On our own we can’t even defeat the common cold, much less the more serious issues of life. And in moments of weakness we sometimes ask the wrong question: are you on my side, Lord, or not? It’s a question that reveals doubt not faith. It’s also an arrogant question, for it presumes that we know what is best for our lives. When faced with impossible circumstances, don’t doubt the Lord’s promise and power. Fall on your face before him in the humble understanding that his ways are not our ways – good or bad, what he decides is best.
The other ditch is just as dangerous. As the conquest continued, the Israelites set their sight on the town of Ai. The spies gave presumptuous report: not all the people will have to go against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary all the people, for only a few men are there. So about three thousand men went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai. (Joshua 7:3-4) Just like that, the Israelites forgot Jericho. After one victory they began to believe that they could conquer Canaan without God.
For us, arrogant self-reliance might be more subtle. It happens when I credit myself for the food on my plate, forgetting that every meal is a gift from God’s gracious hand. It happens when I imagine that exercise, a healthy diet, medication and therapy can keep this body alive one second longer than God has determined. It happens when I trust my nest egg or pension to secure my future. Even here, sinful pride can raise its ugly head. When we begin to believe that if we can just find the right method or strategy to make the church grow – we are pretending to be God’s equals instead of God’s subjects. Whenever we start to take the credit or rely on ourselves for the victory we are doomed to fail – because pride kills faith too.
And so, in part, Jericho is a call for us to repent for doubting God’s promises and thinking we don’t need his power. The memorial at Jericho reminds us to have the humility to recognize that we are not God; we are not in control, he is. When he promises victory, don’t doubt, believe. When he tells you to trust him and not your own strength or cunning, listen. That’s all wrapped up in the 1st commandment, as Luther explained: we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
But there’s good news in Jericho, too. Where? Do you remember the man who confronted Joshua with a drawn sword? It wasn’t an angel – angels don’t accept praise or worship from men. This was the pre-incarnate Savior. This was Jesus. Here is the good news: the one who commands us to trust and forbids us to doubt is not some far off, disinterested deity – he is a warrior. He is the King who came down from his throne in heaven to wage war against our greatest enemies: sin, death, and Satan. And on the cross he defeated them once and for all, winning the battle for your soul. That same Jesus promises to go to war for you in the rest of life’s battles too. Whatever the circumstance is, remember that the battle is the Lord’s. Take it to him in prayer and let him fight. And trust that with Jesus fighting your battles, final victory is as sure today as it was in Jericho.
Tomorrow, remember those who gave their lives to preserve our freedom. Every day, remember the one who gave his life for our salvation. Remember that even though he died to win our freedom, he didn’t stay dead. He rose to life to live with us and to wage war for us. Remember what Jesus did at Jericho. Remember what He did for you on the cross. Remember, believe and in any and every circumstance trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5) Amen.