It has been my plan for some time to begin a morning series of sermons on the book of Joshua upon completion of the series on the Gospel of Luke. But I did not know when I began making those plans that the first of these sermons would fall on the first Sunday in Advent. I thought of delaying the start of this series for a week, but then realized that I didn’t need to. Joshua fit the bill very well. I will preach the same paragraph we read this morning next Lord’s Day as well and consider it as the introduction to the book, which it very obviously is. But this morning I want to consider it and, for that matter, the entire book of Joshua in another way.
Before we read our text, however, let me remind you that the writers of the biblical narratives — that is the books of history that make up a great deal of the Bible: Genesis, much of Exodus, and Numbers, Joshua through 2 Chronicles, parts of the prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, and, in the New Testament, the four Gospels and Acts — were interested in much more than simply providing an account of what happened. Someone has described the narratives of the Bible as “preached history.” That is, it is history told with a purpose, an historical narrative written from a particular point of view and with a particular purpose in mind. To be sure it is history that we get in such a book as Joshua, an accurate account of what happened, but we get much more than that. Recent study of the literary art of the writers of biblical history has thrown new attention on how much theology and ethics are taught in these books and how powerfully, though sometimes subtly, they are taught. Joshua is history that very pointedly, intentionally, and persuasively teaches the faithfulness of God, the reliability of his Word, the divine initiative in salvation, the necessity of faith and obedience on the part of God’s people, the distinction between the church and the world and many other such fundamental doctrines of our faith. It is a book that accents the terrible importance of the choices we make in life, the ways in which we either prove or disprove in the moment our loyalty to God and his Word. [Hawk, Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, xxii-xxiii]
There is a reason, after all, why the Jews refer to the books we often call “the historical books,” as “the former prophets,” and why, in that way, they are grouped together with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve so-called “minor prophets.” Prophets were preachers and the author of Joshua was most certainly preaching his history!
In fact, it is in just these subtle but very clear ways of conveying the author’s theological interpretation of the history he recounts that help us to understand and resolve the great problem, indeed the scandal of this book, a scandal that has made many Christian people distinctly uncomfortable with the book of Joshua in our modern day. It is a book, after all, that seems to recount Israel’s conducting of a pogrom, the very sort of effort to exterminate a people that we have learned to loathe with a vengeance in the age of the European settlement of North America at the expense of the native population, the racial atrocities of Armenia or Auschwitz, Stalin’s purges and man-made famines, Pol Pot’s effort to exterminate certain classes of Cambodians, ethnic and religious cleansing as practiced in the middle east and Africa, and so on. What are we to do with the report that the Israelites killed the men, women, and children of the Canaanite cities they conquered? How are we to understand that as an expression of the character of a just and merciful God or the calling of his people to live lives of love and compassion in imitation of himself?
Well, there is, in fact, a great deal to say from the book of Joshua itself: a great deal to say about what actually happened and why. But one does not find a statement by the author that simply explains it all or justifies what took place. One finds instead context, qualification, literary devices such as hyperbole, and some often subtle interpretative comment woven through the fabric of the narrative. We find people of Canaan who enter the community of Israel and we find Israelites who are cast out of that community. Clearly racial identity is not what matters in the long run. The defeat of the Canaanites is clearly the long-delayed judgment of God, and much else. We will see all of this as we proceed. But today, Joshua as a whole.
As you may remember, Joshua means “Yahweh saves,” and his name is a fitting title to a book that recounts how the Lord granted victory, life, and the promised land to his people.
Indeed, in this opening paragraph the Lord is speaking throughout about what he has promised and what he is about to do. The protagonist in the book of Joshua is Yahweh himself, much more than Joshua his servant.
The report of the death of Moses, reported twice in the opening two verses forms an inclusio with the final verses of the book at the end of chapter 24 where we read of the death of Joshua and Eleazar, the priest. The book will relate what happened between the death of Moses and the death of Joshua.
It is a point of some importance, even for our consideration this morning, that Israel never once in her history occupied this entire territory. The heartland of the ancient Hittite empire was present day Turkey.
Now I said that the opening paragraph of Joshua would make for a sermon appropriate for the first Sunday in Advent. “Advent,” as you know, means “Coming” or “Arrival.” In the Christian liturgical calendar Advent, which begins the liturgical year (the first Sunday in Advent is, in that sense, the Christian New Year’s Day), is the celebration of two “comings”: 1) the coming of the incarnation, the arrival of God the Son in the world as a man, to save his people from their sins, that is the Christmas history, and 2) his Second Coming at some future date that we celebrate in anticipation. Most Christians tend to forget that Advent is a celebration of the Second Coming and think of it instead as simply the run-up to Christmas, but, in fact, Advent. as it developed through the years, came to be the place in the Christian year when both of the Lord’s “comings” were to be remembered and celebrated. In our modern world, attention to the Lord’s Second Coming has been overwhelmed with the celebration of Christmas, but as the season begins we should remember that there are two “advents,” not one, and both are essential to our Christian faith. What is more, if the Second Coming is not celebrated at Advent, it is not celebrated anywhere in the Christian calendar and that can’t be right. Our entire faith rests on the foundation of a future that will be revealed when Jesus Christ appears in the world a second time.
Some of our most beloved Christmas hymns explicitly tie the first coming of the Lord, his incarnation, to his Second Coming. I remember a fellow minister in our presbytery years ago objecting to the singing of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel because the hymn seemed to him to suggest that Jesus had not yet come! But if you read the hymn you will see that the hymn beautifully trades on Israel’s long waiting for the appearance of the Messiah to describe the anxious waiting of Christians, the new Israel, for his Second Coming.
“O come, O come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
until the Son of God appear.”
“O Come, thou Key of David come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.”
Just as an Israelite believer could sing that 500 years before Christ was born, so we can sing those words today.
The twelfth century Christian who wrote that hymn, knew very well that Jesus had already come in the flesh. He was praying for him to come again as he promised he would. As the ancient saints had waited for his first coming, so we wait for his second, but more confidently, since he has already come once!
Now, as I said, Joshua has something to tell us about Advent. Joshua represents both in biblical history and biblical typology a “coming” of the Lord, a consummation, a fulfillment of a promise made long before. The New Testament reminds us that Canaan, the Promised Land that Israel would occupy under Joshua, was a type, an embodied prophesy of heaven. In Hebrews 11 we are told that the saints of the ancient epoch knew very well that Canaan was only a picture of the true Promised Land and that those believers were looking for and waiting for a better country, a heavenly one. In Hebrews 4 we read that when Israel entered the Promised Land under Joshua, they did not enter the true and final “rest” of God. That rest is heaven and one gets to heaven not by occupying real estate in this world, but by a lifetime of patient faith in the Lord. It is no surprise then, that Jerusalem, the city that would become the capital of Israel once she had taken possession of Canaan, would become in the New Testament, the name of heaven itself, the New Jerusalem.
This prophetic relationship between Canaan and heaven is so clear in the Bible that it was an easy and natural step for our poets and singers to liken Israel’s crossing of the Jordan to the death of believers and her entering the Promised Land to the believer’s entering heaven.
“I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home, a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”
“When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside, death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side.”
A great many more statements like those in our hymns and songs have fixed the history of Joshua in the church’s mind and heart as a pattern or type of the entrance of every believer into the true and eternal Promised Land. It was from the history of Joshua that John Bunyan got his idea to liken the death of his pilgrims to the crossing of a river.
But, like that arrival, which every follower of Jesus Christ looks forward to with eager anticipation, Israel’s entrance into Canaan came only after long centuries of waiting. Some six-hundred years separated the Lord’s first promise that he would give Israel her own land, a land flowing with milk and honey, from Israel’s occupation of that land. Six hundred years is a long time. Six hundred years ago, Columbus had not yet sailed westward to find the Indies; the Reformation was still years in the future; indeed, the printed book as we know it had not yet been invented.
During those six hundred years, Abraham would have sons and grandsons and great-grandsons who would eventually find their way to Egypt and to prosperity there. But as the years passed, prosperity would turn to slavery and misery and for generations the descendants of Abraham would live at the beck and call of cruel masters. By the time Moses appeared on the scene to lead Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land many generations of Israelites had come and gone, hoping to see that land themselves, but never to do so.
But now, as Joshua begins, the nation sits poised on the east bank of the Jordan to enter the land and take possession of it. Why the delay? Why had it been necessary for so many Israelites to live their lives in disappointed longing? Well, we are told one thing. The iniquity of the Amorite was not yet full. The Lord told that to Abraham himself as far back as Genesis 15 in explaining why it would be many years before Abraham’s descendants took possession of the Promised Land. The Lord is just and merciful and to give Canaan to the Israelites he would have to take it from the Amorites, a general name for the inhabitats of Canaan. He gave the Amorites time — a lot of time as it turned out — to repent of their sins, and vicious sins they were, though they never did. In the same way, we are told that we must wait for the Lord’s Second Coming for the same reason. As Peter tells us in his Second Letter and as we read at the end of Hebrews 11, we must wait for the Second Coming precisely because there are others yet to be saved and because God is determined to give the human race every possible opportunity to repent. And so Israel waited for the coming of the Promised Land and so we wait today.
Still for those of us who must wait, we find it a difficult thing to do. Christians wait for so much. In some ways, this waiting is the very essence of the Christian life. It is certainly a principal feature of the life of faith as it is described in the Bible. God withholding the fulfillment of his promises and not coming immediately to the aid of his people in crisis and in need is a common motif in the Psalms. But the immediate satisfaction of desire does not produce a holy life, does not train and exercise faith, and does not serve to keep believers looking upward and forward as Christians must.
Here is a principal difference between Christians and non-Christians. The unbeliever lives for the present. He wants his goods now. He does not live his life in antication of what will be his only in some future day, perhaps some distant future day. And that makes for a very different life, lived in a very different way. Isn’t it obvious that many of our problems as a nation today stem from the fact that people want their desires satisfied now, not later. And so we borrow money instead of save it; we throw caution to the wind and mortgage the future for the sake of the present. We rarely seriously consider the long-term consequences of decisions that promise short-term benefits.
Florence and I joined Amazon Prime the other day. The chief attraction was free two-day shipping. I ordered some books on Tuesday morning, they arrived at the office Wednesday before noon. That is the American dream, is it not? You hardly have to wait at all, for anything. But no one can live the Christian life that way. What Christians long for most are invariably the things they have to wait for longest. All their lives they work and pray for the conquest of their sins, and no matter how much real progress is made, at the end of their lives they are still waiting to be made the righteous and loving people they desire to be and know they ought to be.
They wait for justice to be imposed upon this sin-sick world in which so much injustice blights the lives of vast multitudes of people, and no matter how long their lives last, the world will be largely — has always been and will always be until Christ returns — as unjust a place as ever it was before. And they wait for the salvation and the blessing of others and while in some cases it happens, even quickly, in many others we wait our lives through hoping, longing, praying for God to be gracious to others in the same way he has been gracious to us. How many times has it happened that it was only after a person’s death that the one he or she had been praying for finally saw the light.
I’ve recommended to you ladies before Elizabeth Leseur’s diary, published after her death under the title My Spirit Rejoices. There is something very typical of her life story. It is the kind of story that nowadys would justify a television mini-series, if only there were producers and directors and writers who cared to tell a story as fascinating and as important as this one. Plagued by ill-health most of her adult life and married to an unbelieving man who had no respect for her Christian faith — indeed who did his best to undermine it and, at one point early on almost succeeded –, remaining steadfastly loyal to Jesus Christ while living amidst the swirl of Parisian high society, Elizabeth waited with longing and an often broken heart for the Lord to reveal himself to her husband. Her diary is punctuated with entries like this one:
“It is a great and double affliction that I [suffer]: my life and the great solitude of my soul, so different from what I would have wished. To be always with dear ones or friends to whom one an never open one’s heart even for an instant, to whom one can never reveal anything of one’s inmost being, is an intense grief. Jesus Christ must have known it, He who had so much to give of Himself and who endured painful rebuffs and reverses beside which the ones I sometimes suffer are nothing.” 
Then, entries like this one:
“A short conversation with my dear Felix a little while ago deeply stirred the hopes and desires of my soul concerning that dear soul.” 
And this one, from the last entry she made in her diary before her death from cancer in her forties in 1914:
“Do not delay…O my God, [hearken] to these desires that Thou knowest well. Give great and Christian happiness to these beloved children and sanctify them all. … Unite with my soul the souls of those I love, the soul I love best of all, and put an end to this grievous solitude of spirit, which weighs on me so much. … Help me, dear Savior.” [193-194]
But it was not to be. She died with her husband still an unbeliever. But upon the discovery and reading of her diary after her death, his life was transformed, so much so that he eventually entered the Christian ministry. Elizabeth Leseur’s life was a waiting life, as every Christian life must be in many important respects: waiting for much in our own individual lives and waiting for much in the life of the world. We are always longing for the advent of the Lord, always counting on his coming, his arrival to make up what is lacking in our lives and the life of the world. It is the very nature of our faith to do so, because ours is a faith in what God has promised to give us but which we do not yet possess; it is confidence in the Word of God which holds before us endless rapture and perfect fulfillment of human life which none of us has yet experienced or ever shall in this world.
Now, the history that is recounted in the book of Joshua is, as we said, a certain kind of advent or arrival. A long-awaited promised is fulfilled as Israel enters and occupies the Promised Land. But though it portends the advent, the arrival, it is not that advent itself. Even Joshua himself, great man that he was, and as great as were the things he accomplished, was no Moses. We take a step down in Joshua 1:1, do we not? Moses dominates the Bible more than anyone beside Jesus himself. His name is mentioned 767 times in the Old Testament and 79 times in the New. Joshua is mentioned twice in the New Testament. There are ups and there are downs in the life of faith and the life of the church, times of advance and time of retraction, comings and goings if you will, as there are great leaders and good leaders, and poor leaders.
And, as we well know, that Israel occupied the Promised Land under Joshua did not mean that she was to live worthy of this gift in the centuries to come. She would more often betray the Lord than prove her faithfulness to him, and her betrayal would eventually reach the point that she was driven from this same Promised Land into exile and, upon her return, would remain in it at the pleasure of more powerful states, servants in her own land.
But this too is typical of the biblical history and the history of the church ever since. The Lord’s advents have been and are anticipated in times of spiritual advance and blessing. The exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan were not the incarnation, but as the dramatic fulfillment of promises made by the Lord long before, they were powerful demonstrations that the Lord will always be as good as his Word and that if he had promised that the Messiah would come, it was only a matter of time. In the same way, the Lord’s first coming was the dramatic guarantee of his second coming. So has been the progress of the gospel through the world and the millions upon millions of lives that have been transformed by him over the ages since. Every time the Lord bestows his blessing upon his people in some noteworthy way, every time he fulfills a promise, our confidence in his second advent is increased. Every time he reveals himself to us in his love and power, we are made the more sure that his Second Coming is only a matter of time.
The book of Joshua begins with Joshua succeeding Moses who has just died. The book ends twenty four chapters later with the death of Joshua and Eleazar the priest, and with their burial and the burial of the bones of Joseph, which Israel had carried with her when she departed Egypt at the time of the exodus. Three burials, but the point is that all three were buried in the Promised Land. God had been true to his Word. He had kept his promise. He had told Abraham that his descendants would be given Canaan as their own land and now Israel had occupied the land and made it their own. Nothing said ownership in those days more than a family grave. And the point is, as we begin our celebration of Advent, every promise the Lord has already kept is proof that he will keep those yet to be fulfilled. And as Advent is a time of joy, remember that nothing so increases joy than having to wait for it.
God’s help is always sure,
His method seldom guessed;
Delay will make our pleasure pure,
Surprise will give it zest!