Joshua led the people of Israel to a great God-empowered victory against the city of Jericho.  God caused the walls to come down and gave the city into Israel’s hands.  All the people were killed except the household of Rahab the prostitute who helped the spies of Israel.  Prior to the invasion, Joshua told the Israelite soldiers to kill everyone and destroy everything except the articles of gold, silver, iron and bronze that were to be devoted to the Lord’s treasury.  Joshua warned, “Keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it.” (Joshua 6:18)

The next city in Israel’s siege of the Promised Land was Ai.  The spies of Israel assessed Ai as a vulnerable city that a portion of Israel’s army could conquer before lunch time.  A handful of the Israelite soldiers went up to attack Ai, and they were routed from Ai and 36 of the Israelite men were killed.  Joshua and Israel’s leaders were shocked and dismayed.  Where was God? Where was the commander of the army of the Lord?  Had God abandoned them and left them in limbo at the disposal of their enemies?

In assessing the Christian community today, it seems to resemble the state of Israel after the defeat at Ai.  Our Christian communities are besieged.  Sickness, addiction, broken relationships, corruption, sexual immorality, deception, disagreement and financial problems seem to be rampant among Christians.  And these are needs of those inside the church not only those of the lost.  Concern for the salvation of the lost often falls way down on our prayer lists.  It seems like Christians are being routed by the enemy and falling to the side.  Are we destined to be continual victims of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or of our own “brokenness?” Are those who commit to ministry in the church and world going into battle only to be scattered by various “enemies?” I think that on the whole the church seems stuck between past victory and present defeat.

Our posture and bewilderment is not unlike the leaders of Israel after their defeat:

So about three thousand men went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water.   Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads.  And Joshua said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan!  O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies?  The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”  (Joshua 7:4-9)

In our churches today, this seems like our ongoing responses to life’s difficulties.  The hearts of Christians seem to melt like fear in the face of the onslaught of sickness, addiction, immorality, compromise and the call to discipleship.  We rarely stand in faith against pain and illness.  We rarely declare freedom in the face of addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography, shopping, the internet, etc.  We think that we surely cannot stand in holiness against the lures of sexual immorality.  We excuse ourselves from the call to discipleship and holiness, because they are too demanding for us.  Too many of us have our religious ways and dare not venture from them despite the urging of the Holy Spirit to pursue the fullness of his presence for our lives.

We are content, like the crowds of Israel—the people of God who presume to expect the entitlements of God’s promises, to let a handful of spiritual soldiers go up against these enemies of our “promised land.”  Christians in general will let “those called” do the hard work of intercession, Bible study, discipleship, mentoring and evangelism.  As Israel acquiesced to their pride, self-righteousness, complacency and leisure, churches say “Let the few go up against the enemy.  I will stay in the camp in my tent indulging and fantasizing about the promises of God.”

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But the few cannot carry the burden.  The few devoted cannot overcome the enemy and deliver the many back at the camp so they can reap the rewards.  The few become wounded, burned out, targets for the enemy, taken out and then criticized by those back at the camp who point their fingers.

The leader Joshua and the elders, like the devoted among churches today, see the tragedy and mourn and pray and cry out to God on behalf of the people.  They come near to despair for the vision God has given to them and wonder what will happen now in the midst of defeat.

The Lord responds surprisingly harshly to his people’s leaders:

The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?  Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions.   That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. (Joshua 7:10-12)

I am really surprised by how the enemy of God’s people today seems able to undermine ministry endeavors so easily.  Sickness, pain, stress, conflict, sinful habits, career difficulties, deceptions, vacations, busyness, sports or whatever take people out of their ministry calling all of the time.  How are the forces of evil so successful? Is it just coincidence that so many afflictions befall those who have taken steps of faith in their intentions to do ministry or in their actions of ministry?  I don’t have the exact answer, but I see patterns, and I believe that God brought this event from Israel’s history to my mind to consider “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16)

God called out Israel’s sins.  He rebuked them and allowed them to face the consequences of sin.  36 innocent soldiers were killed due to the sinfulness of those back at the camp.  No matter how skilled they were or how hard they fought, they were doomed from the time they set forth to battle Ai, because of the compromise of the people of God to rebellion and sin.  This is why the people of God cannot stand against their enemies.  Could this be why so many Christians are victims to our spiritual enemies and their manifestations today?  How do we know and what do we do?

God tells his people:

 “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: That which is devoted is among you, O Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove it.   “‘In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe that the LORD takes shall come forward clan by clan; the clan that the LORD takes shall come forward family by family; and the family that the LORD takes shall come forward man by man.  He who is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done a disgraceful thing in Israel!'”  (Joshua 7:13-15)

I believe this is a message for the church to consider today.  “Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow.”  You, Christian, consecrate yourself!  What are your dreams for tomorrow?  Are they worth consecrating yourself fully to God to see them fulfilled? What is your calling, your vision?  What is your desire for your loved ones? What affliction or trial are you facing?  Examine yourself, confess, repent, receive and go forward toward holiness.  This is the way of discipleship—the way of the cross and resurrection.  It is the ancient way of the faithful.  And it is not for a select few who are called or professional religious people or those who happen to be into that sort of thing.  You, average Christian and your church, cannot stand against your enemies because of hidden sinfulness and compromise that includes apathy, worldliness and religious legalism. The sacrifice of Christ, his resurrection, his ascension and the power of Pentecost give you power and grace and all you need to consecrate yourself through Christ.

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In the story of Israel, God leads the inquiry for sin to a man named Achan who had taken gold, silver and clothing from Jericho and hidden it in his tent.  Achan bore the punishment for his sin, and Israel was consecrated and able to go forth and conquer Ai at the direction of the Lord.   How would this be instructive for our lives and our churches?  I think the Lord is waiting for our churches and individual Christians to “stand up,” consecrate ourselves and destroy from among us that which is devoted to sinfulness, apathy or compromise.  Otherwise, the warning of the Lord is apropos: “I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.” (Joshua 7:12)

So, let us examine ourselves, our lives, our devotion, our allegiances and our habits and attitudes.  The Lord may reveal that we are holding onto destructive things and practices and that we have been slack in our devotion to prayer, Scripture, our sanctification and to the ministry for which God has called us.  He may show us that we are undermining the advancement of God’s kingdom.

After Israel deals with its sin and rebellion, God doesn’t send only a handful of soldiers out to conquer Ai.  He sends out the full army and instructions for victory.  I believe that until the majority of Christians in our churches become consistently active in prayer, worship and ministry, we will not see the victory that the Lord desires for us over things like sickness, pain, addictions, divorce, immorality, unbelief, rebellion, etc.  We each have to decide whether it is worth it to give up what is undermining the advancement of God’s kingdom and its fullness in our lives.  The Lord is waiting for us to grow up in our faith and deeds.

The upcoming season of Lent prescribes a step of faith and devotion that is not ordinary and not necessarily comfortable.  It is the season of self-examination and going forward in the mission of God.

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