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Trouble valley

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Joshua 7:1-26

Thesis: sin prevents the power of God in our lives.

Goal: Confess specific sins that you might know the power and purpose of God for your lives and ministries.

On April 10, 1912, the ship Titanic left Southampton for New York. She was four city blocks long and featured a French sidewalk café and luxurious suites, but possessed only 20 lifeboats for the 2200 passengers on board. After five days at sea, she struck an iceberg and sank in two hours and forty minutes. 1523 people lost their lives; only 705 survivors were rescued from her half-filled lifeboats. The greatest shipwreck of modern history was especially tragic in that it was so avoidable.

Throughout the day of April 14, wireless operators on board received at least six messages which described field ice and icebergs on her course directly ahead. One message was not posted until more than five hours after it was received. Another was not shown to the captain, since to do so would have interrupted his dinner. Yet another was never taken to the bridge, as the wireless operator was working alone and could not leave his equipment. A final, crucial message was interrupted and never completed when Titanic’s operator cut it off to continue his own commercial traffic.

There was even a visual warning at 10:30 p.m. from the Rappahannock, whose Morse lamp message about heavy ice directly ahead was briefly acknowledged from Titanic’s bridge. The message went unheeded, and was not even given to Captain Smith, now dozing in his quarters.

One of the reasons God hates sin is that he knows the shipwreck it will bring to our lives. He sends us warning after warning, but so often we sail ahead to destruction. We do not break his laws, but ourselves on them. The consequences of our abused freedom are not his fault but ours. Sin always takes us further than we wanted to go, keeps us longer than we wanted to stay, and costs us more than we wanted to pay. Always.

Last week we explored ways to find and fulfill God’s miraculous purpose for our lives. No Jericho can stand before his people when they walk in his power. This week we will learn the converse truth: God’s people cannot stand before any obstacle or opponent when they live in rebellion against their Lord. Little Ai defeated an army which had just participated in the destruction of mighty Jericho. Sin always blocks the power of God.

Let’s learn why, and discover ways to prevent such titanic catastrophe in our lives and service.

Know that God knows your sin (vs. 1-5)

I read recently of a pesticide warehouse in Hawaii which collapsed. Apparently, its roof was termite-infested. Knowing the problem is only helpful when we do what we know to do.

Rahab did. This infamous Jericho prostitute repented of her idolatry and sin, and received part of God’s promised land. By contrast, an Israelite named Achan, from the famous tribe of Judah, would deliberately violate what he knew to be the word and will of God, and lose his share in the nation’s inheritance. We can be Rahab or Achan—the choice is ours.

God had made extremely clear the fact that his people were to keep none of the plunder from Jericho for themselves (6:18-19). Achan’s theft had no pretense to ignorance. Neither Joshua nor the other leaders of the nation saw his sin. But he did not know that their Leader watched it all.

Now the army was ready for its next battle. Ai, a town 15 miles to the west of Jericho, was perched at the top of a ravine overlooking the surrounding valleys. This was a significant place for military control, but a citadel of no compare to Jericho. Joshua’s scouts reported that “only a few men are there” (v. 3).

So Joshua sent a small force to attack the small city. He did not consult the Lord first. He marched ahead of him, despite all the ways God had proven that the people could win victory only in his will and power. Their Lord would have shown them the tragedy which was about to transpire, if only they had asked. Years ago a friend gave me some memorable advice: don’t get ahead of God, for he may not follow. I’ve learned that God would rather lead us than fix us.

Here he must do the latter. The Israeli army was routed by the smaller forces from Ai; 36 were killed, and the rest forced into retreat. The result was horrific: “At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water” (v. 5).

One man sinned by commission, in deliberate rebellion against God’s prohibition regarding material possessions. But another sinned by omission, failing to consult the Lord before he went into battle in his name. Had Joshua sought the Lord to ensure that his people were ready for the next step, seeking confession and repentance wherever it might be necessary, victory would have been theirs. Such a step is always wise, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23). Job’s practice should be ours: “Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular custom” (Job 1:5).

Know that God knows your sin and mine. We should give him regular opportunity to tell us what he knows, for we are more inclined to sin than we want to admit. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once sent identical anonymous telegrams to twelve of his friends: “All has been discovered. Flee at once.” Within 24 hours, all twelve had fled the country. Who wouldn’t?

It is fallen human nature to ignore the reality of sin in our lives, and to excuse that which cannot escape our notice. Thomas Fuller (1608-61) admitted for us all: “Lord, often have I thought to myself, I will sin but this one sin more, and then I will repent of it, and of all the rest of my sins together. So foolish was I, and ignorant. As if I should be able to pay my debts when I owe more; or as if I should say, I will wound my friend once again, and then I will lovingly shake hands with him.” How deceived we are. Billy Sunday was right: one reason sin flourishes is that we treat it like a cream puff instead of a rattlesnake.

Mahatma Gandhi appealed for a holistic approach to life: “One man cannot do right in one department of life while he is occupied in doing wrong in any other department. Life is one indivisible whole.” Achan’s failure would affect the entire nation. So would Joshua’s. So will yours and mine. Know that God knows your sins. Ask him what he knows, every day.

Seek him in repentance (vs. 6-12)

When we are aware that we have failed, we must go hard after God in repentance. Their military failure suggested immediately to Joshua that spiritual causes were at work. And so he tore his clothes, a typical Jewish action of repentance (Genesis 37:29, 34; 44:13; Judges 11:35). He fell facedown, as a servant before his master. The other leaders of the nation joined him. They were right to do so.

Someone asked, How can you fall off a thirty-foot ladder and not get hurt? The answer: make sure you fall off the first rung. Go to God as soon as you know you have sinned. Seek him in repentance, and he will be found.

Joshua’s prayer is a model for us. He began with the proper address: “Sovereign Lord” (v. 7). He acknowledged that God is the Great I Am, and he is the I Am Not. Next, he gave God the specific problem: the Amorites have defeated them in battle, and now the other Canaanite armies will mass against them and they will not be able to escape across the flooded Jordan river. Their national destiny was at stake.

Then he closed with the most significant issue: the glory and reputation of the Lord. “What then will you do for your own great name?” (v. 9) is the “bottom line” in all spiritual conflict. Ultimately we exist to honor the Lord and extend his Kingdom. Our sin will adversely affect his glory. We must repent for our sake, but for his as well.

When we have sought God in genuine and humble repentance, we can next listen for his specific response. He will speak directly and personally to us (v. 10). He will tell us who has sinned, and how. He will tell us what to do about this sin (vs. 10-12). He wants us to know his will more than we want to know it. And such knowledge will make our repentance and restoration possible.

My friend and colleague in Atlanta, Dan Hayes, offers pertinent advice: “Here is an exercise that has worked for thousands…Take a sheet of paper, a pencil, and your Bible. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you any areas that are displeasing Him. Take 30 minutes to an hour and make a list of those sins.

“Then tell the Lord you acknowledge them as sin and accept by faith His forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Determine by His power to turn from them and expect the Holy Spirit to fill you with His power. Make restitution or public confession where necessary. (It may be tough, but it will be worth it.) If you were sincere when you did this, you will be a cleansed vessel ready to become a glowing spark of revival and awakening.”

It will never be easier to confess our sins and repent of them than it is right now.

Lead others to consecration (vs. 13-26)

Now we are ready to lead others back to God. Joshua called the nation to consecration and the removal of their sin (v. 13). They would do this through personal and then corporate confession.

There may be times when those guilty of sin will not admit their failure. Even when Joshua addressed the entire nation, Achan would not confess that sin which had paralyzed the nation and brought the people into judgment and peril. So as the nation assembled before Joshua, the Lord isolated the tribe of Judah from the rest. Then the clan of the Zerahites within Judah. Then the family of Zimri within the Zerahites. Then Achan “was taken” (v. 18).

We don’t know the specific way these identifications were made. It is likely that lots were cast, a typical way of discerning God’s will in that day and culture. It is probably that the high priest used the Urim and Thummim for this purpose (Exodus 28:30; 1 Samuel 2:28). These may have been two flat stones with two identical colors on them, one on each side. If the two stones fell with the lighter color up, God’s answer was affirmative; if the colors were darker, his answer was negative; if the stones disagreed, they were cast again.

Only when Joshua faced Achan personally did the sinner confess. His leader began: “My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and give him the praise” (v. 19). This was a solemn charge to tell the truth, something like the question in our courtrooms which begins, “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth . . .”

Finally Achan admitted his guilt. He had taken a robe imported from Babylon, a very valuable garment; and also five pounds of silver and 1.25 pounds of gold. He hid them inside his tent, an indication that he knew his action was sinful. The rest of his family could not fail to know of his duplicity, making them liable for his sin as well. These possessions were unnecessary for this wealthy family, for they owned “cattle, donkeys and sheep” (v. 24). This was covetous lust and idolatry defined.

Now their sin must be purged from the nation. The people stoned Achan and his duplicitous family, the capital punishment appropriate to their violation of the covenant (Exodus 19:13; Leviticus 24:23). Then they burned their bodies in a symbolic act of purging the land. They named the place the Valley of Achor (Trouble), a play on Achan’s name (cf. 1 Chronicles 2:7, where he is called Achar). Over the place they “heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day” (v. 26) as a sign to the nation that sin must be confessed or punished. Their first monument in Canaan was to God’s grace and power in crossing the Jordan (4:20). Their second was to his justice and power in convicting their sin and protecting his glory. We need both reminders still.

If Achan and his family had initiated the confession of their sin, God’s grace would have prevailed. He deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. I read recently of a time when the Viceroy of Naples was visiting in Spain. He came to the harbor, where he saw a galley ship with convicts pulling the oars. The Viceroy went aboard and asked the men why they were there. One said that the judge was bribed to convict him. Another claimed that his enemies paid people to bear false witness against him. A third said that his best friend had lied to protect himself. Finally one convict said, “I’m here because I deserve to be. I wanted money and I stole a purse.” The Viceroy said to the captain, “Here are all these innocent men and only one wicked man in their midst. Let us release this man lest he infect the others.” The man was set free and pardoned.

So can we be.

Conclusion

The Valley of Trouble teaches three lessons today. First, it shows us that sin can block the power of the Holy Spirit. A small town like Ai can defeat the army of God if that army rebels against its General. There is no sin you and I cannot commit. And no enemy who cannot defeat us if we are disobedient to our God.

Second, this Valley also demonstrates that no sinner is an island. No sin is individual. Every rejection of the word and will of God affects us all. Pornography employs women in degrading ways; drug dealers prey on children and assault innocents; malpractice fraud raises medical rates for everyone. All sin is corporate.

Third, the experience of Israel in this Valley proves that we must initiate confession and repentance while there is still time. God will hold us accountable on the Day of Judgment for every unconfessed sin (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:14; Luke. 12:2-3; 1 Peter 4:5). And such sins will only bring us pain and sorrow. The most miserable person on earth is the Christian living outside the will of God, for the Holy Spirit lives inside him, convicting him of his disobedience, moving him to repentance.

Peter Marshall’s prayer on the Senate floor, dated Thursday, June 26, 1947, is worth repeating at the close of a study of sin and confession:

Our Father, we are beginning to understand at last that the things that are wrong with our world are the sum total of all the things that are wrong with us as individuals. Thou has made us after Thine image, and our hearts can find no rest until they rest in Thee.

We are too Christian really to enjoy sinning and too fond of sinning really to enjoy Christianity. Most of us know perfectly well what we ought to do; our trouble is that we do not want to do it. Thy help is our only hope. Make us want to do what is right, and give us the ability to do it.

In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.