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Joshua 6:1-6, 20-21, 26-27
The Gospel of Mark doesn't tell us Jesus is in Galilee or on the lake just to fill in the narrative. Mark uses geography to say something about the Good News of the Kingdom of God. We might say that in Mark, geography is theology. So why does he tell us that Jesus' last stop before Jerusalem is the city of Jericho?
The first thing we do when we ask a question like that is look to see what the Old Testament says about a place. So the Old Testament reading today is about Jericho, which was the city which blocked Israel's entry into the Promised Land.
I was taught about this story as a child that it showed God's power; there was even a song, "then the walls came tumbling down..." What we didn't choose to see, what we were blind to, was that this is a story of massacre and genocide. We have a selection of verses to give us the gist of the story.
Now Jericho was shut up inside and out because of the Israelites; no one came out and no one went in. 2The Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers. 3You shall march around the city, all the warriors circling the city once. Thus you shall do for six days, 4with seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets. 5When they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and all the people shall charge straight ahead.’ 6So Joshua son of Nun summoned the priests and said to them, ‘Take up the ark of the covenant, and have seven priests carry seven trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark of the Lord.’ 7To the people he said, ‘Go forward and march around the city; have the armed men pass on before the ark of the Lord.’...
And now we come to the seventh day...
20So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. 21Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys...
26 Joshua then pronounced this oath, saying,
‘Cursed before the Lord be anyone who tries
to build this city—this Jericho!
At the cost of his firstborn he shall lay its foundation,
and at the cost of his youngest he shall set up its gates!’
27 So the Lord was with Joshua; and his fame was in all the land.
There are some things to say about this reading. At first sight there is nothing edifying about the reading. But what the reading does is tell us about ourselves. We destroy. We seek to build nations and empires by conquering and destroying others. The Old Testament takes good care to show us that the life of Israel in the Promised Land is always com-promised— do you hear what is in the word compromised— life in the Promised Land is always compromised and undone by violence and massacre.
And did you notice the curse? It is a prophecy about child sacrifice. 1 Kings 16:34 tells us that when a man called Hiel rebuilt Jericho, he sacrificed his first born child and laid the body in the foundations, and built the gates over the body of his youngest child. It explicitly says this was a fulfilment of Joshua's curse at Jericho. These sacrifices were made to keep the city safe. We build up our cities and our civilisations at the expense of the weakest. How much has changed?
The Gospel: Mark 10:46-52
Here are some things to note.
This is the last story before Jesus enters Jerusalem. It is the story before Palm Sunday. And although it seems the rich man could not give away all his possessions, just a few verses before, BarTimaeus gives up all that he had. He throws off his cloak. If you remember the Palm Sunday story, the disciples take off their cloaks for Jesus to sit upon on the donkey, and the people throw their cloaks onto the road. The message might be that to have our eyes opened we have to give up all we have... or, like the rich man, we will go away sorrowful. Let's listen to the story...
but one more interesting fact: Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Jeshua; that is, Joshua. There were two Joshuas at Jericho! What is different between them?
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Sermon: Leaving Jericho Behind
The saying goes that nothing is certain, except death and taxes. It's not quite true; there is one more certainty: Things fall apart. I don't mean things like car engines. I mean that no matter how well we plan, no matter how high our ideals, human institutions always seem to strike trouble. Even our best and greatest hopes unravel, despite our constant attention. Things fall apart, and the small discontents and disappointments of a congregation are mirrored in the assassinations in parliaments, and in the wars of the world.
If we try to unpack what it is that defeats us, we find that somewhere in our plans there was an argument over power; it can begin with a minister who must have things his way. The need for power always leads to some kind of violence. And to keep the violence under control... we turn it, or focus it, upon a scapegoat— when things go wrong, we always find someone else to blame.
And at the bottom of all that, the reason we get into this spiral with everything, is our fear of dying. People will do anything; they will give all they have, to save their lives, Satan tells God in Job 2:4.
Everything human falls apart, and the fear of death is at the bottom of that. Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called God is not Great; Religion Poisons Everything. He was wrong. Religion is our attempt— good or bad— to stop the poison. It is the fear of death... which poisons everything.
Sometimes people deny this. From my personal experience I can only agree with research psychologist Richard Beck, who says,
you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do...
And that's because love forces us to face death. True love costs us deeply; it gives up our power to stay safe.
If I wanted to give a name to this unravelling of all our best intentions and hopes, this thing that undermines us all, I'd call it Original Sin. That's because it is the thing that keeps us out of the Promised Land, out of the Garden of Eden, if you like— it's the thing which undercuts all our potential for human fulfilment. This Original Sin eats away at the edges of everything we do. We fear being diminished, because to be diminished moves us closer to death, and the fear of being diminished means that we end up diminishing... everything we do.
This fear even infects the way we imagine God to be. Coming to Jericho, the city which stood between Israel and the Promised Land, Joshua imagined that God wanted everyone in that city to be killed. The only way to enter the Promised Land was to kill. God, people imagined, was a bigger and more violent version of us. God had enemies who had to be destroyed. How else could it be we ask!? —God cannot be weak, or God will be destroyed.
We now know, because Jesus has taught us this, that God is Love. In fact we read in 1 John 4, that anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. But our love always seems to come undone because we are afraid of dying. So, too often, we crave for God to destroy our enemies so we will be safe. But how can a God who is love do that!??
The tragedy of Jericho is that it was utterly destroyed so a people could have a life. And the greater tragedy is that that violence followed Israel into the Promised Land. In the very next verses in Joshua comes a story of violence and scapegoating at the very heart of the community. The anger of God burns against Israel who begin a ritualised scapegoating process, single out a victim, and stone them, and burn them and their whole family.
And they go on into the land, killing nearly everyone in their paths, eventually even burning Jerusalem— the city of God— itself. (Judges 1:8)
It seems we cannot escape the violence. There is some infection in us, some wilful blindness which prevents us seeing what we are doing, which means the violence of Jericho comes back again and again, in all times and in all places... and we embrace it, for a time, ... as something good.
We have just witnessed the national apology to children who were abused in institutional care. Before this, we have had the national apology to the stolen generation— many of whom were also sexually abused in— inverted commas— "care." And all the while, during the Inquiries and Commissions and Hearings which finally opened our eyes to these events, as the walls of oppression were being pulled down, the nation has been building new walls... around more children... in what seem terribly similar to concentration camps. The author Richard Flanagan wrote in 2015
One day, many years from now, another prime minister will stand up and to a teary gallery apologise for the damage done to refugees in detention. We will be told that we didn’t know then what we know now. We will hear testimony of destroyed lives. But we did know. We always knew. We just chose not to hear and to silence those who tried to remind us of the truth.
And on Thursday— only the third day after this latest apology to the children— it was reported that the government, which has repeatedly fought in court to prevent suicidal children, and children seriously ill in other ways, from being brought to Australia for medical treatment, against all that is decent— the government is now challenging the right of the courts to hear such cases.
How are we so blind? How can we get out of this mess? Not just the mess of Manus and Nauru, but the whole unravelling of everything we do, which means that when we honestly unpack who we are, we see that even great civilisations are built upon blood.
The Gospel of Mark calls us to follow Jesus... which means that we have to follow Jesus first of all to Jericho. We have to face the violence— the mass murder— of Jericho before we can go to Jerusalem, or else the Kingdom of God will simply become one more unravelling promised land founded upon blood. We need our eyes opened and our blindness healed. We need to be made whole. We need to throw off the cloak of violence which has been wrapped around us for all of our history and follow a new way.
Here is what Mark is suggesting to us by telling us Jesus went through Jericho:
A man whose name meant "God saves" came to Jericho, and so that God could save, killed all its people, and took that genocide on throughout the land. It says "Joshua ... left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded. " (Joshua 10:40) And eventually Jerusalem itself was burned.
Another man called "God saves" comes to Jericho but instead of destroying people, he makes the poorest people whole. And so that God can save, this Jesus... also goes into the Promised Land, on the way to Jerusalem... but lets the land kill him... because he understands that death has no real power, and that God has nothing to do with death.
Jesus or Joshua: Which God will we serve? One dies to bring life made whole, and the other kills for a life— for a promise— which always unravels into bloodshed. One way flees from death, doing anything it can to avoid death, destroying others that it may live, ... but always dies. The other way— Jesus' way— faces its death and finds life.
Instead of seeking power, it serves.
Instead of sacrificing the children of God for its foundation stones, it would rather cut off its own hand or pluck out its own eye. It builds up those who are the least rather than building upon them and destroying them.
Instead of lording it over others, it serves all people, even those who would kill it and drive it out.
This is against all common sense. It means loss, even death.
But the promise of the Good News of this new Promised Land which Jesus calls The Kingdom of Heaven is that death does not poison everything. Death is not the end. Facing death instead of fleeing it allows our eyes to be opened and our blindness to be healed. It allows us to see that life and power lies in serving all people. And of course, from our point of view it turns everything upside down. It places the top at the bottom. It seems a crazy idea.
Yet we know that everything which is good comes from this; we know our greatest achievements spring from selflessness, and from the giving of ourselves, instead of building ourselves up at the expense of others: we call this.. love. But love must look with clear eyes at Jericho or it will always deceive itself. It will always have the fear of death, and all the violence of that fear, built into its foundations. And then the violence will follow us everywhere. Jerusalem will always be destroyed until we leave that violence behind. Love has no place for violence because God has nothing to do with violence or with death.
The power of God is that God sits and waits... and suffers us... until we are ready to listen and to walk to Jerusalem in weakness... which is what Jesus does.
Mark offers us no scientific proof. Like Bartimaeus we are called to Jesus and asked what we want. If we want to see a life where death does not poison everything we must leave our violence, our security blanket, behind us, and simply trust and follow the new way of Jesus.
Before Joshua, Moses said, See I place before you life and death...
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. (Deuteronomy 30:15-16)
Jesus has shown us the Way— the only Way. Amen
Andrew Prior (2018)
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