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The Fall of Jericho

Summer Time View of Salisbury Cathedral from the South West
Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 31st August 2014

Sermon six of a six sermon series on war, conflict and violence by the Reverend Tom Clammer

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Joshua 6:8-21; Mark 13:1-18

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We reach the end of our summer sermon series this morning, and there may be those amongst the congregation who are quite pleased about that. It has not been an easy summer of listening to scripture and reflecting upon it. For those of you here this morning who are not regular weekly members of our congregation, you need to know that we have been reading difficult passages of the Old Testament which treat violent, murderous episodes in the history of the people of the Hebrew Scriptures. We have heard two accounts of personal murders, one of them a political assassination, several accounts of genocide, and here, for our last passage before we re-join the rest of the Church of England in the lectionary provision next week, we have possibly one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament: the fall of Jericho.

If any of you went to a Church of England primary school, or a Sunday school, you might well know this story best from the children’s song which goes:

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,
And the walls came tumbling down.
You may talk about your men of Gideon,
You may talk about your men of Saul,
But there’s none like good ol’ Joshua,
At the battle of Jericho.

You can look it up on YouTube if you like. It’s got a bouncy, schmoozy tune, very catchy. And it’s an appalling song. It’s a song celebrating the utter destruction of an entire city.

It’s very hard to sing that song or indeed to read the passage this morning, without having those images of Gaza city, or the destruction going on in Northern Iraq – those smashed cities and displaced peoples – rising up to the forefront of our minds.

Context again – very important. The Children of Israel have come out of exile in Egypt, parked themselves in Moab, just on the east bank of the river Jordan, and Joshua has sent out spies into the land of Canaan to see what the people are like. The spies infiltrate Jericho and have a look around, and they are almost discovered and killed, but Rahab, who is a prostitute living in the city, hides them and helps them to escape down the city walls. So they escape and go back to Joshua to report on the city’s defences. Jericho is a major city in the region and the people who live in it realise that they are in significant danger from this new aggressor, and so the people retreat behind the walls and seal the doors. And God says to Joshua – go and destroy the city, and not only destroy the city but destroy everything within it, except Rahab and her household. So not only is the destruction of the physical city sanctioned, but also of the fighting men, the army, and all the civilians including children, and the livestock. This is a brutal, bloodthirsty story. Robert Coote, a biblical theologian and commentator describes it as “an orgy of terror, violence and mayhem in which God takes the land of Canaan…away from its inhabitants and gives it to Israel.”

What is going on here? How is this something which can exist in the canon of scripture?

Well I think this story, and indeed the Gospel reading which I selected to complement it this morning, are to do with how we define ourselves, how we make sense of who we are.

My Geography dissertation, which I wrote when I was a student in Sussex and which has been read by literally three people, was about how communities define themselves. I lived in Brighton and there were these two fascinating communities, suburbs really of the city, called Coldean and Moulscoomb. They had originally almost certainly been little villages or communities neighbouring each other, but a main arterial road, the A270, had been driven between them, and the two communities had begun to redefine themselves. I did a house to house survey of both of these communities, and the question I was asking was really: ‘how do you define yourselves. What makes your community what it is?’ And almost to a person, the people responded: ‘Oh, we know who we are – we are not Moulescoomb. We’re not Coldean’. It was really interesting. The conclusion of my dissertation, which wasn’t anything very radical really, is that it is in the nature of humans and particularly communities, societies, to define ourselves not so much by who we are, but over against who we are not. We are who we are because we are not them. I am who I am, because I am not like you. And again, look at what is happening in Gaza – though thank God for the ceasefire – or in Iraq, in Ukraine, or South Sudan, or even interestingly listen to a lot of the conversation around the Scottish independence debate, and see how a lot of it is just like that. It is those distasteful qualities in you that I reject and so I know who I am.

Both of our bible passages this morning were written quite a long time after the events they are supposedly describing. We don’t have time now to go into all of the evidence for dating these passages but it’s really important to remember that they were written much later on. Now in both cases the people they are describing – the people of Israel, or the Jewish people of Jerusalem – have found their ways of life, their identities badly challenged, or even destroyed. The Davidic kingdom of Israel is conquered and dispersed firstly by the Assyrians, and then by the Babylonians. Then by the time Mark is writing his Gospel, the Romans have destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, ok, so the prophecy put into Christ’s mouth by Mark has, by the time the people are reading it, come true. The stones have been cast down. The Temple is destroyed, and it is never again rebuilt.

And so do you see how it would be natural for people, looking back to a Golden Age, if you like, to want to record stories which celebrate their victories, and punish their apparent enemies, and give definition to the community which they are seeking to hold together. It doesn’t make the story of the fall of Jericho any less distasteful, but it goes some way to explaining why it would be recorded, and why it would seems like a story which gave confidence to a people. Look at who we are – we are the people who used to be able to do this. We construct stories which justify our ambitions, or explain our failures. We look back to golden ages. And we exaggerate for effect. I used to tell a story to stress how cool my dad is. The reality is that he once went snorkelling and saw a small eel. In my story at school he wrestled with a giant sea serpent and defeated it. Stories grow over time and they grow in particular if we have things we feel we need to say about who we are, and how we got to where we are.

Christ’s words to the disciples in the Temple precincts are chilling. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Those in Judea must flee to the mountains, the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. We see this all around us. People, communities, whole societies being exterminated, being driven to the mountaintops, their way of life described as illegal, or abhorrent. We see cities being razed to the ground, the survivors returning to pick their way through the broken pieces and memories of their identity. The call of Jesus on our lives is not to the composition of banal ditties to justify these happenings, it is to renew the proclamation that this state of affairs is deficient and sinful and not what the kingdom looks like. To remind the society around us, through our words, through our behaviour and certainly through practical action like charitable giving, that there is another way to define ourselves. That we can, and we ought, and we must define ourselves as humanity. That we betray our neighbour, and we sell out the Gospel and we cheapen grace when God is the God of me, or of my particular group or gang. Dear Lord and Father of mankind, must be our prayer, forgive our foolish ways.

Not one stone will be left here upon another, says Christ. All will be thrown down. Don’t be deceived by the stories, the justifications, the constructions which tell you who you are now. Who will we become? That’s the bigger question. That’s the braver, riskier, question. What we shall be has not yet been revealed, says St Paul, but surely our calling must be to be people who don’t allow the Kingdom of God to be collapsed into anything less than that, and who, in the words of one of the Collects, as we pass through things temporal, lose not our hold on things eternal.

Amen