As you might know, I have been a volunteer church camp director. For four years I directed at Camp Adventure, and one of my favorite activities at that camp is “the blob.” The blob is a water activity that basically involves a giant air mattress. One person sets on the edge, and other person jumps from 30 feet up. Simple physics does the rest, and the person on the end goes flying up in the air. One of the reasons why I enjoyed this activity is because I tend to outsize most Jr. High campers. This means I displace a lot more air than the camper sitting on the edge does, and the more displaced air, the greater the result. Like this:
Every single year though, there was always at least one group that had a less than positive blob experience. This is because inevitably a teen (usually the one who demanded to be first) will get to the top, and completely freeze. Even though the safest way down from the platform is to jump on the soft air pillow below, they are unable to get over their fear. This causes the lifeguards to try in vain to convince them to jump, as the time fleets away, and eventually the person has to be helped down the steep stairs. A lot of the activities at church camp like the blob or the high ropes course are designed to help youth overcome their fears. When they do, it is awesome to see. For example, this year there was a teen who was afraid of heights, but his mother had on her bucket list to go down a zip line. Even though he was scared the entire time, this teen successfully navigated the high ropes course and reached the zip line at the end just so he could tell his mom he did it. The flip side though is when a teen succumbs to fear, they cannot overcome, and they give up-feeling defeated. In my experience at camp those times are uncommon, but they are always heartbreaking to witness. The Bible story we are going to focus on today, is yet another story that we are probably most familiar of from our childhood. In fact for those of you from a certain generation, you probably most familiar with this story from this old song:
Joshua and the battle of Jericho is about much more than the walls tumbling down. It is a pivotal story in the bible, and it is one that illustrates what faith is and what fear is. This story is also more than the basis for a catchy tune, but it is one that can teach us how to live a life of commendable faith today.
The story of Joshua and battle of Jericho can be found in Joshua 5:13-6:27, but to fully appreciate the story we have to go way back to Number 13. This is a full generation before the battle of Jericho. The Israelites had left Egypt and were heading towards the promise land. Scouts were sent out and spent forty days surveying the land. When they came back they reported, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger that we are.” In response to this report, the Israelites gave in to fear and terror. They refused to go claim the promise land, and wanted to go back into slavery in Egypt! This made God furious, but in the end God forgave the people. However, there were consequences and the generation that left Egypt was not going to be allowed in the promise land, so the Israelites were wondering nomads in the desert for forty years.
At the end of this time, the chosen people once again are ready to enter the promise land, but they once again have to overcome their fear. The first obstacle standing between them and the promise land is Jericho. Jericho was truly an ancient city. For thousands of years before Joshua people had lived at that site. It was also a walled city, with an extremely formidable wall that was over 30 feet tall. Just as before, the Israelites send scouts into the land to spy and gather information. These Israelite spies are shown great kindness by the prostitute Rahab. We do not know much about this woman, but she converted from the Pagan moon worship of Jericho to believe in the one true God. She takes a great risks to herself. When the king of Jericho comes looking for the Israelite spies she hides them, and she explain herself by saying “The LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family.”
The spies report back about the formidable walls, and the Israelites had to face their fear. This time though the Bible does not record they gave into it. Joshua has to decide what to do, and he comes up with an answer by having a divine experience. Joshua 6:13 records, “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.” This was no ordinary man, nor was it an angel. This man who claimed to be the commander of God’s army also told Joshua to take off his shoes because the ground was holy. This is the same thing that Moses was told at the burning bush. This had led several biblical scholars and theologians, including John Wesley, to conclude that it was Jesus himself that met with Joshua. In this meeting a battle plan was given. The army of Israel was to march around the city for six days. During this time seven preists were to carry trumpets in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Then on the seventh day, they would march seven times, then after a loud shout the walls would collapse.
The Bible makes no mention of what happened next. It simply states “Joshua had spoken to the people.” Can you imagine how that conversation had to go down? His battle plan was to march around the city, and wait for the walls to fall. That was it. Can you imagine the skepticism? Can you imagine what they naysayers might have said? There had to be doubt among the Israelites. There had to be fear. However, unlike the last time the Israelites were to take possession of the land the Bible does not say that fear won out. Joshua did as God had commanded, and the people did as Joshua said. They marched around the city, but still they had to be afraid. Now presumably, they marched outside the range of arrows. Still though, there had to be fear as they walked. Surely the soldiers of Jericho tried to see if they could get close. Can you imagine the fear of walking, seeing the arrows fly through the air and not knowing if you were out of range or not? Even then, each day had to be a new day to conquer fear. After two or three days of making the same march it had to be a bit predictable. There was no guarantee that their enemy had not set a trap. Each day, each step around that city would have been one filled with fear.
Despite the daily battle with fear, the Israelites were faithful. They followed the directions, and on the seventh day after the seventh lap, the trumpets blew, and the walls fell. There is archeological evidence that supports this part of the story. Excavations of ancient Jericho reveal that the cities walls did fall, most likely due to an earthquake. The Israelites completely defeat the army of Jericho, and they have taken their first step to claiming the promise land as their own.
At first glance it seems extremely odd that God would give such specific instructions about how to take Jericho. Other than God clearly loves the number seven, what is the reason for marching seven days, with seven trumpets, and on the last day marching around the city seven times? At first glance, the whole thing seems rather odd. We have to remember though, that the first time the Israelites were supposed to enter the promise land, they gave into fear. This time though, God put them to the test. The real reason for the specific instructions was to see if the Israelites would listen, to see if they would be faithful in trusting God. This was also done in a way that, while not endangering the Israelites, caused them to face their fear. The book of Hebrews commends Joshua and the ancient Israelites for their faith. Hebrews chapter 11 first defines what faith is: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” It continues in verse 30 “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.” God brought Jericho’s walls down, but the Israelites had to be confidence and trust in God to deliver. To do this though, they had to face their fear.
Faith and fear have an inverse relationship. Fear is easily one of the greatest enemies of faith. In his classic book Dune, Frank Herbert wrote: “Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” Fear can rob us of our faith. If faith is confidence of what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see, then fear is what erodes our confidence and makes us doubt what we are sure about. I know I have experienced this, and perhaps you have as well. At the end of worship I am fired up, I feel led to do something great for God, but somewhere between the altar and the door that fire fades. Fear causes me to question and think things like “I could not really do that,” “it wouldn’t work anyway”, or “I am just not the right person for that.”
Fear causes us to play it way too safe and not follow where God is leading us. When we act out of fear, we cannot act out of faith. We cannot have confidence when we are terrified we are going to fall. At camp, this is why it was always so disheartening to see someone succumb to fear especially on the high ropes course. Because of all the safety equipment, the high ropes course is easily the single safest place in all of camp. There is almost zero chance of getting hurt, and falling is a practical impossibility. Despite that, fear wins. Fear is the mind killer. It does not allow us to look at things smartly, and makes it impossible to take anything on faith. The campers were so scared they could not have faith that the harness was going to hold them, that the steel wire would not break. They had zero faith in themselves and in the safety equipment, and they let fear win.
When we have faith, when we trust in God, and fully confidence in Him, then fear does not win. This does not mean we are not afraid, this does not mean we have zero doubts. What it means is that we claim the truth that God is greater than our fear, that God is more powerful than our terror, and that we are confident in what we hope for and we have assurance in what we do not see. An incredible example of what this kind of faith looks like is the story of George Muller. Muller, a Christian man from England, lived in the 19th century. He was led by God to be the director of the Ashley Down Orphanage. Muller sought to provide the children under his care with a safe, Christian environment. He also relied on God to provide. He never solicited donations for his orphanages, but he always had what he needed. Once, the orphanage was out of food, but Muller still led the children in a prayer giving thanks for the breakfast that God would provide. Almost as soon as he said “amen”, the neighborhood baker knocked on the door with enough extra bread to give to feed everyone. Just minutes after that, a milk truck broke down outside of the orphanage, and the milkman gave the children the milk instead of letting spoil. Muller had an unshakable faith that God would provide, and throughout his ministry that is what happened. Muller went on to open a total of five orphanages that cared for over 10,000 orphans during his lifetime. He also opened schools that taught poor children, mostly orphans a Christian based education. During his lifetime 120,000 children received an education due to Muller.
We should seek to emulate that kind of faith and that kind of certainty that God will provide. God gave the Israelites a mission to claim the promise land, and he gave them specific instructions on how to defeat Jericho. To do so, the Israelites had to overcome their fear and have faith in God. God gave us a mission to love our neighbor, to care for those in need, to make disciples, and to transform our world. I sincerely believe that both to us as a church and as individuals, God continues to lead us in specific instructions on how to do that. How is God leading you? What do you placed deep on your heart, that you know that you need to do? Who do you need to reach out to, invite, serve, or love? God is leading each of us, God is inviting us to jump. Will you do it? Or will you give into the same old fears: “I am not the right person”, “they will never listen to me”, “I do not want to offend”, or “I just do not have what it takes.”
May you not let fear, the mind killer and soul crusher, win again. May you be confident in what we hope for and have assurance in what we do not see. May you be faithful in following God. Whatever, God is calling you to do might be a bit scary. That is good, everything that is truly significant and meaningful is at least a little scary to do, but by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit may you overcome and be faithful in spite of your fear. May you have the kind of faith to be commended for, and may your faith be the kind of faith that inspires others to tear down their own walls of fear.