Sunday November 3rd 2019
Pastor Galen Zook
Joshua 6:12-17; James 2:14-26
Every day we are faced with a multitude of decisions. Often these choices have little to no long-term consequences. The color of the socks that we choose to wear. Whether to eat a bagel or toast for breakfast, or whether to take the bus or lightrail to work.
But then there are those moments in the midst of an otherwise seemingly ordinary day when we are faced with the choice to right, or to do wrong. In situations like these, doing the right thing often requires courage and fortitude, and strength of character, and it usually entails sacrifice on our part.
On the other hand, doing the wrong thing often seems like the path of least resistance. Often the “wrong” thing is not really a thing at all. It’s inaction, when what is called for is action. It’s refusing to step in or step up when an injustice or abuse is occurring. It’s neglecting to tell the truth when what is required is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Sometimes these decisions seem small at the time, and choosing to do the right thing may not seem to make a difference at all. But often when we look back with the benefit of hindsight, we realize that it is everyday moral decisions such as these that have the power to change the world, or at the very least the trajectory of our own lives.
Such was the case with the decision facing the Canaanite prostitute Rahab, when she was faced with the decision of whether or not to open the door to the two Isrealite spies who came to her home seeking a place to hide.
Forty years prior to this, God had miraculously brought the Isrealites out of slavery in Egypt and had promised to give them the land of Cannan. When they arrived at the promised land, however, and sent out twelve spies to explore the land, ten of the spies came back with a report that there were giants in the land (Num. 13:33), causing the people of Israel to be afraid and to doubt that God could in fact help them take control of the land. And so they were forced to wander in the wilderness for forty years until they could pluck up enough courage to believe that God would indeed give them the land.
Now the forty years have come to an end, and their leader Moses and all of the older generation who had come out of the land of Egypt have passed away, with the exception of the two spies who had given the “minority report” forty years earlier, stating that God would indeed give them the land (Num. 14:6-9).
One of those former spies, Joshua, is now the leader of the people of Israel, and during these past forty years Joshua’s faith in God has grown only stronger.
And so Joshua leads them to the edge of the promised land, and sends in two spies to scope out the first fortified city they will come to — the walled city of Jericho. And it is there that the spies encounter Rahab.
Rahab and the Spies
Joshua chapter 2 tells us that the two spies spent the night in the house of Rahab, who was a prostitute. Other sources tell us that she was an innkeeper, and in actuality she was probably both. Inns in those days sometimes doubled as brothels, and as strangers to the city of Jericho, an inn/brothel was an ideal location for the two Israelite spies to blend in with other travelers and foreigners and gather intelligence.
Unfortunately, they were found out, but when the king sent soldiers to search Rahab’s home for the men, she lied and told them they had already left the city, when in actuality she had taken them up to the roof of her house and hidden them under stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof.
This was probably not the first time that Rahab had lied to someone about who had spent the night in her home, and perhaps it wasn’t even the first time that she had used the old “hide someone on the roof under stacks of flax” trick.
But in this case, Rahab didn’t hide the men in order to protect their reputation. The men hadn’t bribed her to keep their secret. Instead, she hid the men because she had an appropriate and healthy fear of the one true God. She believed that the God of the Isrealites was in fact the God of the whole earth (Josh. 2:11). She knew and believed that God had given the Israelites the land of Canaan. She had followed their story from the time that they left Egypt forty years prior to this, and even though not all of the Isrealites had trusted and taken God at God’s word, this Canaanite woman trusted and believed in the power of the Almighty God.
Rahab wasn’t just a believer in God’s power. She also put her faith into action by helping the men escape out of the city by letting them down by a rope through the window of her house, which was on the outer side of the city wall, and giving them instructions about where to flee so they would not be found. She only asked the two spies to “deal kindly” with her and her family because of the kindness that she had shown to the spies.
In exchange, the spies instructed her to hang a scarlet cord from her window when they came to attack the city. She followed their instructions, and she was indeed spared when the Israelites marched around the walls of the city, and the walls came tumbling down. Joshua himself instructed the soldiers not to destroy Rahab and her family, “because she hid the messengers” (Joshua 6:17).
Rahab’s decision to hide the men in her home was one of those small, seemingly everyday moral decisions that had a long-term impact. It was a decision about whether or not to help a stranger in need. It’s not unlike choices that we might face on a daily basis — about whether to help a homeless person who asks us for change, to stop and help someone who is having car trouble, to step in when someone is being hurt, or to speak up when we come across an accounting error at work.
Getting involved often entails a sacrifice on our part, and although it may be the right thing to do, it’s often easier to just not get involved.
For Rahab, hiding the Israelites spies must not have been an easy decision. It meant not only getting involved in the lives of strangers, but since these men were foreigners and spies to her city, harboring these men could have been seen as a betrayal of her own people. Hiding them on the roof of her house, lying to the soldiers and sending them in the opposite direction would have most certainly been considered a traitorous act.
And yet for Rahab, the choice was clear. And although she may have been a woman of dubious character, she decided to provide safe haven to these spies because of her fear and faith in the one true God. She did what she believed was right, no matter the cost, and in the end she and her whole family were saved.
Rahab: Hero of the Faith
In the New Testament book of Matthew, we learn that Rahab was an ancestor of King David, and therefore also an ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Rahab and her family were apparently incorporated into the people of Israel after they entered the promised land, and Rahab became a hero of the faith!
The book of Hebrews tells us that “it was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies” (Hebrews 11:31).
The book of James uses Rahab as an example of someone who “was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road” (James 2:25). James points out that Rahab didn’t just have an intellectual belief in God — her belief in God was expressed in right action.
All Saints/All Souls
Today is the Sunday after All Saints Day and All Souls Day, when we remember those heroes of the faith who have gone on before us, as well as all those who have passed away during this past year.
And there is no more unlikely saint and hero of the faith than Rahab. Rahab, a Gentile Canaanite. A prostitute, and a traitor in the eyes of her own people who was willing to betray her own people in order to provide safe sanctuary for enemy spies. Rahab, a woman who had such a strong fear of God that she was willing to lie to protect God’s messengers, who had such a deep and profound faith in God that she was willing to go to any means necessary to do what she believed was right.
Rahab. A saint and a sinner who believed not only in the might and the power of God, but also in God’s grace and forgiveness. A woman who ultimately aligned herself with the people of God, and became an ancestor of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Many of the saints that we remember this morning were actually unlikely heroes. Many of the saints who have gone before us were complex individuals, like Rahab, whose methods we might often disagree with, yet whose actions were driven by their undying faith and trust in God, and their love for those on the margins of society.
Like us, they faced countless everyday decisions. Some of the decisions they faced had obvious moral implications, others did not.
So often when we look back on those who have gone before us, we wonder how people who were supposedly saints and who did such wonderful things could also have so many blindspots? And on the other hand, we also may wonder how someone who had such a morally disgraceful occupation such as Rahab the Prostitute could do something so wonderful as to provide refuge to the Israelite spies?
But we don’t call people saints because they were perfect. We call people saints because, when faced with a decision between right and wrong, action or inaction, they had the moral courage to stand up and do the right thing, even if it meant persecution, or imprisonment, banishment or even death.
Saints were and are people who stand up for what is right, no matter the consequences. They put their faith into action, they put their money where their mouth is. They’re willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, and they’re willing to make mistakes. They will not stand by and watch injustices occur. They will jump in and do something, even if it ends up costing them their lives.
In the New Testament, the word “saints” is used to describe all followers of Christ (c.f. 1 Cor. 1:2, Rom. 1:7). It’s not because followers of Christ are perfect, but rather that following Christ involves not only intellectual belief in God, but choosing to do what is right, both in large and in small ways, in those normal everyday moral decisions that we all face at work, or at school, or at home. Having the courage to do the right thing in small everyday decisions helps prepare us to make the right decision if and when we’re faced with decisions that are more consequential. And added up, a lifetime of even seemingly small decisions can have a major impact on the world and on those around us.
This morning in a few minutes we will be invited to the table to celebrate Holy Communion. We’re invited not because we are perfect, but rather because we, like Rahab, have a fear and understanding of God’s power and might, and of God’s mercy and grace. We come to the table to receive God’s blessing in our lives, remembering Jesus who was perfect, and who gave his life for us. We remember Jesus, who always chose to do what was right, who stood up against injustice, who always spoke the truth. Jesus who loved even those on the margins of society.
Jesus healed those who were sick even when it was against the law the heal on the Sabbath. He touched those whom society considered unclean. He cared for the marginalized and the oppressed, even though doing so got him in trouble with the religious leaders. He crossed racial, and cultural, and gender barriers to proclaim God’s love to anyone who would listen. Some may have considered him a traitor to his own people because he loved those on the outside. And ultimately Jesus gave his own life to save anyone and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord for salvation.
So may we follow the example of Rahab, and even moreso of Jesus. May we express our faith in God through right belief and through right action. May we choose to do the right thing, whether the matter is large or small. May we ask God to give us the moral courage and fortitude to do what is right, no matter the consequences. And may we, like Rahab, throw ourselves upon the mercy of God’s grace, for our forgiveness, and for our salvation.