The faith of a prostitute
Sometimes it's hard to have faith. When something goes wrong in our life, our instinct isn't to go to God and ask for his help; instead, we try to "triage" and "damage control," doing our best to make sure the worst doesn't happen.
It seems like it would be easy for us to have faith: after all, if we are believers, we have seen God's direct intervention in our lives. But that's not how it works. Those of us who should have the most faith try to manage things "for God," instead of allowing God to take over for us. It sometimes seems that the people who know the least about God are willing, at first, to follow Him most faithfully.
And that's the story of today's first lesson. Today, we return to the Israelites, whom we left arguing in the wilderness. By way of summary, we'll recall that Moses has led the Israelites through the wilderness of the Siani Penninsula for forty years. Finally, after all of the generation of those who refused to go into the Promised Land at first had died, and only Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb were left, God tells Moses that he may go and see the Promised Land.
Of course, even Moses doesn't get to cross over, and it is up to Joshua to lead the people into their inheritance. God gives him very specific instructions about how to conduct the military campaign that leads God's Chosen People into their land. Basically, get the priests, grab the Ark, and go: follow Me, and you will win.
And they do. Finally, they've made it all the way up from the Sinai to the Trans-Jordan (where today's Kingdom of Jordan is located), and they are encamped facing the largest and strongest city of the Canaanite peoples: Jericho.
God again lays out special instructions for Joshua and the folks. They are to take the Ark, march around it with all the people once each day, with the priests blowing the ceremonial shofar horns (made of rams' horns) as they go, for six days. Then, on the seventh day, they are to do this seven times; on the last time, at the end, all the Israelites are to give a great shout, with the priests blowing their horns, and the Lord will give Jericho over to his people.
Very specific, and very God-centered. God wants his people to remember that it was not they, themselves, who conquered their new land, but God out of his love for them. Even with these specific instructions, though, there's a temptation to do a little planning. Try to prepare for God's failure -- as if that were possible.
And so Joshua, himself a faithful man in what was once an unfaithful generation, himself gives in to a temptation to plan -- to attempt control. This, in and of itself, is a lesson of how no one is invulnerable to the challenges of sin: like Moses being prevented from going into the land, Joshua falls before the Lord. Like we all do.
What is the fruit of this plan? The story in today's text. Joshua, in giving in to temptation, can't help but go and scout the city in case the Lord's plans fall through. He sends in spies to determine how strong the city is. He says, "Go, view the land, especially Jericho." Off they go.
Did you guess they'd end up where they did? The Bible says, "So they [the spies] went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there." Do not pass "Go," do not collect $200; go straight to the nearest prostitute.
Why did the Holy Spirit inspire the author of Joshua to leave in that little tidbit about where the spies went to? Why are we meant to see that these men -- presumably loyal, faithful men whom Joshua could trust with something as important as his scouting mission of Jericho -- go straight to the house of a prostitute? And, in case we try to find an excuse for the spies, the Bible says "[they] spent the night there." At Rahab's.
This doesn't just shock our understandings of proper behavior as twenty-first century Christians, either: remember that only one book ago, these people literally heard the Voice of God give the ten commandments and saw the Tablets written by the very finger of God delivered from Mount Sinai at the hands of Moses. And they can't keep their lust satiated long enough to do a job for a man that they trusted and respected.
The spies could have had hidden in a barn, in the house of any person they saw fit. Some say that they chose Rahab for the very reason that she was an outcast. But would she have been? In a culture that worshipped Baal and Asherah, would a prostitute been someone scorned from society? Indeed, might she have even been a priestess of the pagan religion? Regardless, the spies are not being obedient in hiding out at Rahab's.
But, as he does for us so many times, God takes the spies' sin and disobedience, and turns it into glory for himself.
Somebody found out that the Israelites were over at Rahab's, and the authorities come looking for the Hebrews. Rahab had two choices: she could give them over to her own countrymen and co-religionists and give them warning of the imminent Hebrew invasion, or she could hide them and help them in their mission, which she could only see as one from God.
You can imagine the Israelite spies cowering on the roof, overhearing the angry soldiers and court officials demanding that Rahab turn them over. You can sense the moment of decision for Rahab that must have seemed to last for eternity. But in that instant, the prostitute, the scarlet woman, made a choice. She could have chosen to continue to live for herself, making money and influencing the high-ranking officials who could have afforded her services.
She could have. But she didn't. Rahab says, "‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.’" She hides the Israelites. Having only known them in the heat of one night's passion, she makes a decision that forever alters the course of her life.
The soldiers left, and Rahab brought the spies back out. They were dumb-founded. They knew, for certain, that they were bound to be executed. Surely, their faith was wavering as they sat in the afternoon sunshine on the roof of Rahab's home. As the prostitute, the unexpected savior, retrieves her wayward patrons, the explains what she has done.
"‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below."
What a confession. What an admission. What an incredible willingness to take a leap of faith. Rejecting her homeland, her people, and the false gods to which she offered sacrifice her entire life -- and perhaps to the false gods which she had acted for as a temple prostitute -- Rahab makes a decision for the God of the Israelites. "The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below."
You can see the Israelites with their chins down, shuffling their feet as they realize that this woman, who in her life had known nothing but sin and the heartache of life as a discarded commodity, had more faith in God than they. The same men who had witnessed countless and daily miracles throughout their entire lives, from the very same God, were shone faithless by a pagan woman of the night.
Rahab's simple plea is almost heart-breaking: "Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.’" Please, she says, save my family and I. Just let us join you and live for the Lord. Let me escape this horrible life. Please.
Their hearts convicted, and challenged, by the overwhelming faith of this amazing woman, "[t]he men said to her, ‘Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.’" No more do they doubt that God is with them: for when the pagan prostitute gives way the Lord, who can doubt that the Lord is God, and that Jericho is prepared for the people of God as a bride for her groom.
For us, too, the most challenging examples of faith come from places where we least expect it. When people who struggle to eat every day come up with the provision to help others whom they consider "less fortunate," our hearts are challenged, and our faith is renewed. What, but an Almighty and Everlasting God, could cause selfish, fallen people to love one another to the point of challenging even death itself?
The faith of spies and prostitutes seems an unlikely source of encouragement in a world, like today's, where wars, rumors of wars, and daily fears of economic and security collapse are imminent, but the same God who promised to deliver Jericho into the hands of God's people promises today that we can have the liberty of his eternal Promised Land. Let us pray that we can be like Rahab and declare, "[t]he Lord ... is indeed God in heaven above and earth below."
O Lord God, King of the Universe, we confess that we are distracted from our work for you, as the spies of Israel were, by the pleasures and lies of this world. We confess that often our faith pales next to that of the simple babes-in-Christ. We adore your mighty power, that delivered the Promised Land into the hands of the Israelites, and we proclaim the greatness of your power that raised Jesus from the dead. Help us, Lord, to remember that you are a God of mighty power who can and does save his people -- even today. Save us, Lord, from the unbelief of planning and of seeking to control our lives. Let us be wholly devoted to you and your purposes, giving you thanks for all the blessings you have bestowed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forver and ever, Amen."