Sermon Text: Joshua 7:16-26
Pastor Steven Pagels
In the name of Christ Jesus, dear friends:
The thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat. If you are old enough, you might recognize those words as part of television announcer Jim McKay’s weekly introduction to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. But they could also be used in a very different and ancient context to describe the beginning of Israel’s conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua.
Their first foray into the Promised Land was an unqualified success, and there is a good chance you know the story. The Israelites approached the heavily fortified city of Jericho after they crossed the Jordan River. The fortress surrounding the city looked more than formidable, and the walls appeared to be impregnable. But God had a plan, an unconventional plan that would guarantee victory.
The armies of Israel marched around the city once a day for six consecutive days, with the priests blowing their trumpets and the ark of the covenant leading the way. On the seventh day they marched around the city seven times. The priests blew their trumpets, the soldiers gave a shout and the massive walls of Jericho came crashing down.
It was a total victory for Joshua and the Jewish army. And because the Lord had given them the victory, the Lord told the people to dedicate all the plunder, all the gold and silver and everything else they captured, to him. From General Joshua’s perspective, everything had gone according to plan. And he was confident that they would conquer the rest of Canaan with blitzkrieg like speed…until the army came up against the city of Ai.
We will review the tragic events of Joshua 7 in a few moments, but before we talk about what happened let’s ask ourselves why God wanted this sad episode in the history of his people to be recorded in the first place. What does God want us to learn from it? What can we take away from it? There are several lessons to be learned, but let’s keep it simple. Let’s focus our attention this morning on this fundamental spiritual truth…
SIN IS SERIOUS
With the ruins of Jericho smoldering behind them, Joshua’s forces set their sights on the city of Ai. Joshua sent spies to spy out the region, and they returned brimming with confidence (or perhaps overconfidence). They reported that the battle would require only a small detachment of soldiers, at the most two or three thousand men, to capture the city. Joshua went with the higher number and sent three thousand soldiers to take Ai. But what was supposed to be a quick and easy victory became a crushing and embarrassing defeat. The men of Ai routed the Israelites, and thirty-six of Israel’s best soldiers lost their lives.
This devastating defeat cured the Hebrews of their hubris, and their fearless leader suddenly became afraid. Joshua tore his robes and fell to the ground and prayed to the Lord: “Why? God, why did this happen? How could this happen? And what will happen next? I know what will happen. Our enemies will unite against us and rise up to destroy us. And your people will be wiped out along with your great name.”
The Lord listened to Joshua’s lament, but he didn’t agree with Joshua’s assessment. The Lord wasn’t about to let his name be dishonored or his chosen people be destroyed. They had lost one battle. One battle. Not because of overconfidence, but because of their disobedience. The Lord told Joshua: “Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies…I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction” (11-12).
The Lord’s message to the leader of his people was clear: sin is serious. And the sin that had been committed needed to be exposed before the conquest of Canaan could go forward. The Lord told Joshua to share what he had said with the people. And then the Lord revealed his plan to expose the guilty party, along with this warning: “He who is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done a disgraceful thing in Israel” (15)!
Early the next morning Joshua assembled all the tribes and clans and families of Israel, prepared to systematically narrow down the possibilities until the culprit was identified. If you are wondering why the Lord chose this system, if you are wondering why he didn’t just tell Joshua who was guilty (because of course, God knew), here is a possibility. Perhaps the Lord was giving this individual the opportunity to come clean, to come forward on his own and confess his sin and ask for forgiveness.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and everything went according to the Lord’s original plan. Judah was taken from the tribes of Israel. The Zerahites were taken from the clans of Judah. The family of Zimri was taken from the clans of Zerah. And Achan, son of Carmi, was taken from the family of Zimri.
When Joshua called upon Achan to acknowledge what he had done, he did. Instead of making excuses, he made a very detailed confession: “It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath” (20-21).
What happened next is probably offensive to our twenty-first century sensibilities, and it has been used by critics and skeptics to dismiss the God of the Bible as barbaric. All Israel, with Joshua leading the way, took Achan and the items he had stolen and his family and all his possessions to the Valley of Achor. There they stoned them and burned them and heaped up a big pile of rocks on top of what was left of Achan.
This is about the time the questions start flying, questions like: Does the punishment really fit the crime in this case? Achan was found guilty of stealing, but as a general rule in our legal system we don’t execute people for theft. Achan confessed his sin too. Shouldn’t he get at least a little credit for that? And what about Achan’s family? Why were they stoned along with him if he was the one who committed the crime?
Working backward, here are some possible responses. There is some debate among Bible scholars about whether or not Achan’s family was actually executed along with him. Those who believe that they were stoned contend that the family was aware of what Achan had done. If he hid the stolen items in the family tent, they would have seen the evidence. And their silence would make them accessories to the crime.
About the crime, Achan was guilty of theft. That is serious in and of itself, but Achan was guilty of a much greater sin, knowingly and willfully disobeying a direct command from God. That was Adam and Eve’s first sin too. Not eating a piece of fruit. Disobeying God. And you will recall that the greatest consequence of that sin was death (Genesis 3:19).
And what should we make of Achan’s confession? We need to remember that he didn’t admit his sin until he had no choice. Was he truly sorry for what he had done? Or was he just sorry that he got caught? Did Achan really repent? Did Achan ask for forgiveness? Will we see Achan in heaven? We don’t know. Only God knows.
What you and I do know, and what this account makes undeniably clear, is that sin is serious. Deadly serious. God hates sin, and in his Word God declares that he will punish sin. And if you are a member of this congregation, my guess is that you are okay with me saying that. You have heard similar words preached from this pulpit many times before. In our country, in our culture, even in many churches that call themselves Christian, sin has become a four-letter word. But not here. We get sin. We embrace the reality of sin. At the beginning of this service, at the beginning of almost every worship service, we confess our sins.
We talk about sin all the time, and that’s not a bad thing. But do you think the devil could use that to his advantage? After hearing the gospel lesson for today do you have any doubt about how crafty and cunning he can be? Has he ever tried to convince you: “You confessed your sins. You know that you are forgiven, so you don’t have to worry. You can relax.” Or even worse, has Satan ever tried to put thoughts like these into your head: “I can commit this sin today and confess it tomorrow, and then everything will be okay.” Or perhaps this is his most diabolical logic of all: “I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not as bad as someone like Achan. He stole from God. An then he tried to hide his sin from God. And that is something I would never do.”
Very few people are found guilty of embezzling funds from the church (and when they are it makes the news), but there are no people in the church, including this church, who are immune to temptation. You know your weaknesses. I know mine. God knows them all. And he wants us to remember that every sin we commit is serious because sin separates people from God.
Lutherans Christians aren’t afraid to talk about sin, not because we are sadistic, not because we are gluttons for punishment, but because we know this is not where the conversation ends. Sin causes all kinds of serious problems in the world and in our lives. Achan learned the hard way that the wages of sin is death. But sin is not our master. Satan will not have the final word because the problem of our sin has a divine solution.
We talk about that solution during the season of Lent. Especially in our midweek services, we focus on what Jesus did for us, or what Jesus allowed to be done to him, to take away our sins. He was arrested. He was convicted. He was beaten. He was abandoned. He was crucified. Did you notice what all those verbs have in common? They are all passive. For that reason, we sometimes refer to Jesus’ suffering and death as his passive obedience.
But the Savior’s work of salvation did not begin on Maundy Thursday. No, for the thirty-three years of his life prior to that, Jesus never faltered. He was obedient to his parents. He respected his elders. He never lied, never lusted, never cheated. Jesus resisted every one of the devil’s temptations. And he was tempted. More than the three temptations we heard about today. More than you and I will ever know. Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are, except for one difference. He never sinned. Jesus obeyed his heavenly Father perfectly to remove all of our imperfections, to make us perfect in the eyes of God.
The account of Achan doesn’t present us with a pretty picture. One of the commentaries I consulted included an artist’s rendering of Achan’s stoning, and believe me, it is not a pretty picture. But if a picture, even an ugly one, is worth a thousand words, what message does God want this account to convey? Take your sin seriously, but don’t dwell on it. Don’t become paralyzed by it. Confess your sins. Ask God to give you the strength to say “no” to the devil and his temptations to sin. And then rejoice because Jesus has forgiven all your sins. Amen.