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Is God on our side? Does God take sides?

Meditation on Joshua 5:13-15 (New International Version)

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand.
Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.”
Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.”
And Joshua did so.

Personal and socio-political issues arise and easily polarize and divide people into: “Are you for me/us or against me/us?” It happens in marriages and families. In communities and nations. Including The Church. Theologians, pastors and local churches are painfully divided from time to time by personal-social-economic-political-ethical issues like land expropriation without compensation, poverty & wealth, women in church leadership, gender dysphoria & LGBTIQ, mass (im)migrants, environmental issues, EU & Brexit, terrorism, war, abortion, death penalty. These, and more, reveal how divided Christians are, let alone general society. We are more a copy of society than a model of God’s Kingdom come in Jesus Christ. We are more “evangelized” and “discipled” in our thinking and acting by the dominant consciousness of partisan ideology than by the Good news of God’s Kingdom.

We quickly appeal to God to give legitimacy and authority to our viewpoint. God is on our side because we are simply doing what is right, what God’s Word says (so we believe). Thus “the other side” is wrong. They are against God, thus our enemies. This is how we domesticate and co-opt God to serve our agenda – “knowing” it is “God’s” agenda!  

Presidents and politicians infamously do that, often co-opting God and the Church to get (and keep) them in power, as Hitler did with the German Lutheran Church in the name of “Christian” national socialism. As in WWII, here in South Africa under Apartheid, Christian fought against Christian. Some white Christians said God was on the side of our “Christian nation”, our “Christian” Nationalist Government, and God was against the “communist hoards” that want to destroy our “Christian civilization”. While black theologians and leaders proclaimed, “God is on the side of the oppressed, to overthrow the enemy oppressor, this evil Apartheid regime”. Both sides prayed to the same God. Or god?

Whose side is God on? Does God take sides? Whether with persons, leaders or nations?

When Joshua saw a man with his sword drawn, ready to fight, he challenged: “are you for us or against us?” That’s often our mindset: We accept or reject (even attack) people on the basis of their answer, “us” or “them”. We “other” people, then label them, to secure ourselves. Because we are unable to think through and respond to polarizing ethical issues from a genuine biblical worldview, from Jesus’ Kingdom of God mindset. Are you for us or against us is more a conformation to the pattern of this world than a transformation, by the renewing of our mind, into God’s thinking and acting in Jesus.    

The man’s answer was decisive: Neither!

Instead, “As Commander of God’s army I have now come”. I am God’s Warrior-King, the leader of God’s army, of God’s agenda. This was a “theophany” (manifestation) of God, of God’s “angel” – the pre-incarnate Christ?   

The implication was immediately clear to Joshua: Who’s side am I on? Am I on God’s side? It’s NOT a matter of God being on my side, and thus against my enemy.  

Putting aside the technicalities of interpretation and “holy war” in the destruction of Jericho and all its people (except Rahab and her family), the point is simple:

Do we see God for who God is? Or do we project onto God who we think God is, or want him to be (for us)?

God comes to us, encounters us, in various ways – even in the form of our (supposed) enemy! Why? To provoke our fear. To see our reaction. To reveal our heart. For us to see ourselves more accurately in light of “the stranger”, who turns out to be God with human flesh. How do you respond to “the stranger” among us?

And, do we choose to bow down to God (revealed in Jesus)? Do we let GOD be God? Or do we make a human being our god? Or do we unconsciously (even consciously) use God “on our side” to make us (look) right, to fight our battles, to defeat those with whom we disagree? This, in effect, is making God bow down to us. Then we play God. We become (G)god – the ultimate deception of evil.

Be like Joshua. Fall facedown to the ground in reverence before God, surrendering to God’s Warrior King. He is the true Joshua (Jesus, meaning “Yahweh Saves”) who leads us into the fullness of God’s Promised Kingdom. The only adequate response to seeing and knowing Jesus for who he really is, is to kneel in full surrender to HIS rule and reign: “let YOUR Kingdom come, let YOUR will be done, on this piece of earth, here and now, as it is in heaven”. Not MY Kingdom, MY will, MY turf, MY truth, MY rightness, MY rights, MY church, MY people, MY culture, MY (Christian) nation.

Joshua embodies the posture of all true followers of Jesus: bowing the knee ONLY to God in Jesus Christ – to no other human being – no matter how Christian they say they are. They can turn out to be anti-Christ, the opposite of the “the stranger” who turned out to be God’s representative. The posture of humility, reverence and surrender is: “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” We are nothing more than God’s servants who find their identity, meaning and purpose, in Jesus, in serving HIS Kingdom. We wait at his feet for his directive in the social context of us and them, of painful polarization, of deep division.   

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” The response from the Commander in Chief! Wherever God is, THAT place is “holy” (meaning “set apart, belonging to God for his Kingdom purposes”). And God is everywhere! God is “the Lord of ALL the earth” (Joshua 3:11,13). “The EARTH is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Plus, wherever you’re standing – like Joshua – THAT piece of earth belongs to God and his purposes. And you take your stand on the side of The Commander in Chief and become his instrument to bring GOD’s Kingdom where you are, right now.

The Commander’s reply anticipates the New Covenant that the Hebrew prophets said Messiah would institute. Messiah Jesus has fulfilled and transcended holy war, holy nation (ethnic Jews), holy city (Jerusalem), holy land (Israel), holy temple. From Jesus’ water baptism, through his ministry of the Kingdom, to his death and resurrection, the heavens AND the massive curtain in the Temple were “torn open” (Mark 1:10, 15:38), signifying heaven come to earth. God is out and about on every street, everywhere, meeting people as Jesus did – now through Christ-followers – no longer “locked up” in heaven or the “Holy of Holies”. Every separating barrier and dividing wall (spiritual, political, economic, social, cultural, geographic) is torn down in Messiah, who creates “one new humanity” that is trans-ethnic, trans-cultural, trans-national, trans-territorial. That is Christ’s Church, God’s true holy nation, God’s new living temple, where ALL are welcome – even our enemies, whom we love as Jesus loved. “Blessed are the meek (Jesus referred to his followers), for they will inherit the earth” – not a slice “holy land” in the middle east. Israel today is no more holy than any other nation, no more holy than they were 2000 years ago in the Promised Land when they rejected their Messiah and his perfect Peace Plan – “the best deal” not only of the centuries, but of all human history – still available to Israel and the nations today.   

“And Joshua did so” – he obeyed. He took off his sandals as Moses did when encountering God in the burning bush. As God was with Moses so he was with Joshua. God being “with us” (Immanuel) does not mean that God is on our side. No. God graced Israel with his manifest presence as long as they were on God’s side, fulfilling God’s purposes. But God withdrew from them, even turned against them – became their enemy, sent them into exile – when they repeatedly presumed on God by worshipping idols. They used God as their servant for their convenience, when they needed him, as many Christians do today.  

A final thought: Obedience in small things leads to faith and obedience in big things. “What message does my Lord have for his servant” was answered in two steps. The first was a small act of obedience, “take off your sandals”. A simple symbolic act that acknowledged,
a) God as the owner and ruler of the earth, who makes all of created reality holy;
b) that we are God’s surrendered servants, humbling fulfilling God’s purpose in the place where we stand and live with God, on God’s side.

There was a second response and instruction that immediately follows in chapter 6 (there should be no chapter division). A far greater obedience, a much bigger risk of faith, of life and death: “Advance… march… for I have delivered Jericho into your hands”. That was huge! (I plan to write a meditation on this story) The lesson is: if we do not do the “small obediences” – a long obedience in the same direction – we will not have the character, the moral muscle and faith capacity, to do the big obediences, to win the big (spiritual) battles, when God requires them of us. This includes not taking sides, but making sure we’re on God’s side, whatever it may mean or cost us. Then God’s Warrior-King fights HIS battles for, with, and through us, to advance his Kingdom for human salvation!