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Famous Last Words (Josh 23:1-16)

Well this is the last week of our journey through the book of Joshua and I can’t help but wonder how it has been for you? Speaking for myself, I have found it enlightening, challenging and confusing in almost equal measure — and none more so than today. I have to admit that I even lost some sleep this week as I tried to find my way through today’s reading.

We have followed Joshua’s journey and challenges over the last 5 weeks and now, as he nears the end of his life we are presented with his final words.
Now famous last words from across the years have taken all sorts of forms.
Some are amusing.

You already know that Spike Milligan’s epitaph — something that I take to be his last words — was:

“See, I told you I was ill!”

Other final words have been more reflective or introspective — almost apologetic. Take the words or the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton for example. He had spent his whole life pushing back the boundaries of science and had come up with some amazing theories and discoveries that are still used today. But when he was faced his own mortality, he became very humble. This great man fully recognised his own shortcomings and limitations and he understood that there was still work to do as he said:

“I don’t know what I may seem to the world. But as to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than the ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Perhaps those words were intended as a gentle challenge, not just to scientists but to theologians as well, to take in the bigger picture in the search for truth. But other final words have been a declaration of faith like those of Thomas Becket who, before he was killed by the sword, faced his assassins and said:

“For the name of Jesus and the protection of the church
I am ready to embrace death.”

But perhaps the most useful final words are those, like those of Joshua, which are used to pass the baton on to the next generation — words which are intended to provide encouragement and issue a challenge to continue the good fight, words of advice and support which need to be passed on even as death approaches. And so I turn to those final words and look at the themes which Joshua thought were important enough to be uttered using his last breath.

Firstly — Joshua urged the other leaders to reflect on all that had happened in recent years. (v3)

“You yourselves have seen everything the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake; it was the Lord your God who fought for you.”

In other words, be aware that none of your achievements are yours alone. Moving on to verses 4 & 5 he then tells them to continue to trust in God with the words:

“Remember how I have allotted as an inheritance for your tribes all the land of the nations that remain between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. The Lord your God himself will push them out for your sake. He will drive them out before you, and you will take possession of their land, as the Lord your God promised you.”

But there is a catch — for God’s promises to be fulfilled they must continue to obey. In verse 6 Joshua says:

“Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left.”

You see, to receive God’s promises you must walk in God’s ways without deviation. And Joshua points out to those present that up to now, under his own leadership, (v15)

“not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”

But covenants are two way promises — ‘if you will keep your side of the bargain I will keep mine’ — and so it is here. Joshua finishes by summarising the downside of disobedience (v16).

“If you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.”

Now if I could stop there it would be all well and good — clear instruction with and upside, a downside and a way forward — but the more observant of you will have noticed that there is a massive elephant in the room and, like many of you, I struggled to make sense of it.

In the midst of his closing words Joshua warned his people not to ally themselves with any of the survivors from the conquered nations — which I suppose is fair enough if you don’t want to risk starting a revolution. But he also told the people not to intermarry with them or associate with them because, he says, if they did, God would no longer drive out those nations before them (v12). He then warned them that, if they failed in this way, the foreign nations would become snares and traps, and whips on their backs and thorns in their eyes, until they perished from this good land, which the Lord your God had given them. And I found myself from thinking — REALLY?

That instruction smacks of a ghetto or of apartheid! Physical separation or barriers between people of different nations and ethnic backgrounds keeping them apart. Not only that, those words seem to be in direct conflict with the final instructions of Jesus himself

“Go and make disciples of all nations!”

You cannot make disciples of people whom you keep at arms length — to make disciples you must embrace them, befriend them and be willing to mix with them.

If you find that hard to believe, just look at Jesus himself — he spent his life surrounded by the unclean, the damaged, the disbelievers and the outcasts. In the eyes of the Pharisees, if Jesus had even touched just one of them, he would have risked spiritual uncleanliness and eternal damnation but he was not deterred.

And so I ask, were Joshua’s words, intended as words of instruction or could they be interpretted as a prophesy?

For me, there are certain parallels contained in the parable of the Good Samaritan which help to bring it all into focus: if you would like to refresh your memory look it up in Luke, chapter 10 beginning at verse 25.

In the story, a priest and a Levite, both upholders of the Law of Moses, were so concerned for their own spiritual welfare that they crossed the road, and refused to go anywhere near or touch a man who may already have been dead. But the real friend ignored the man-made laws and stretched out a helping hand — and in doing so restored the injured traveller to life.
But notice also that in tending to the injured man, the samaritan put himself at risk. The body on the ground could just have been a trap: there could have still been robbers or brigands hiding behind the rocks, and by placing the injured man on his own donkey, the samaritan was slowing himself down and opening up the possibility of further attack or the ravages of nature — further opportunities for the robbers to find him, or another night under the open stars perhaps, or even the exhaustion of his own food and water supply.

Jesus was like that samaritan: he spent his life befriending sinners and outcasts; people perceived as enemies of the established church if you like; people who should be shunned and avoided at all costs but whom Jesus befriended. It was work that did indeed become a snare and trap for him. Jesus was ambushed by the Pharisees then, falsely accused, he was taken before Pilate, his back was lashed with a whip and a crown of thorns was pushed onto his head — and I feel that we are hearing echos of Joshua’s words:

“Foreign nations will become snares and traps, and whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you.”

Was Jesus fulfilling the words spoken by Joshua? Certainly, through Jesus, God was no longer to be seen as driving nations out of the land of Israel but in drawing all people back in to himself.

On the face of it, there are differences. Joshua’s words seemed to be about building walls whilst Jesus’ words were about building bridges. However, like Joshua, Jesus was showing people that, throughout their own trials and tribulations, God would always be right there, with the faithful … as he is here with us today in the midst of everything that is happening in our world … the good, the bad and the ugly.

Throughout everything that has already happened, or may happen in our lives at some point in the future, God’s support is constant and true … all we have to do is trust, be faithful and obey.

Alan Dowen