Message: Finding Meaning in the Middle | Scripture: Joshua 18:1-10 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Something I discovered over the years is that historic European towns and cities were built around a city core—a city center. It was within the city center where not only the great debates, discussions, and forums were had but where life was intimately lived out, culture experienced, new ideas formed and publicised, and where one’s sense of place was cultivated. Where there was peace in the city center, there would be peace in the home and in one’s relationships. Where there was chaos and confusion in the city center, there would be chaos and confusion everywhere else.
So, it’s no surprise, then, that when we look at our culture today, we see a lot of chaos and confusion—because cities, at least here in North America, are not usually built around a core or center. Sure, we have downtown areas and pockets that are more densely populated, but many cities today are amalgamations of a number of neighbourhoods—each having their corresponding feel—none being more defining to the people living within it than another. There is no unity in the diversity, there is now just a lot of diversity. Everyone can think whatever they want and do whatever they want because there is no common understanding of thought, belief, or practice.
Just think of our own major city, San Francisco, or the city I grew up in, Toronto—there are a bunch of interesting areas. A lot to do. Major hubs of intellectual and artistic domains, but no single center. No single, agreed upon area or place that you might call its heart.
This is problematic because what our text tells us today is that place—in every sense of the word—physically, spiritually, etc.—cannot be absent from the definition of our identity. In fact, what we learn this morning is that without place—without a center—all other things around us will inevitably crumble. And this is true not only from a macro perspective, but also in our micro experiences. This is true in our families, friendships, and homes.
So, what I want to preach to you this morning, and what I want to make sure we get right as a church, more than anything else, is that as we build this house—as we establish this heavenly kingdom on earth—we make certain that God is its center—God is its foundation—its heart. This is what we’ll be unpacking in our text as we go through it, but before we do that, let’s turn to read it now—Joshua 18:1-10. TWoL:
Then the whole congregation of the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them. 2 There remained among the people of Israel seven tribes whose inheritance had not yet been apportioned. 3 So Joshua said to the people of Israel, “How long will you put off going in to take possession of the land, which the LORD, the God of your fathers, has given you? 4 Provide three men from each tribe, and I will send them out that they may set out and go up and down the land. They shall write a description of it with a view to their inheritances, and then come to me. 5 They shall divide it into seven portions. Judah shall continue in his territory on the south, and the house of Joseph shall continue in their territory on the north. 6 And you shall describe the land in seven divisions and bring the description here to me. And I will cast lots for you here before the LORD our God. 7 The Levites have no portion among you, for the priesthood of the LORD is their heritage. And Gad and Reuben and half the tribe of Manasseh have received their inheritance beyond the Jordan eastward, which Moses the servant of the LORD gave them.” 8 So the men arose and went, and Joshua charged those who went to write the description of the land, saying, “Go up and down in the land and write a description and return to me. And I will cast lots for you here before the LORD in Shiloh.” 9 So the men went and passed up and down in the land and wrote in a book a description of it by towns in seven divisions. Then they came to Joshua to the camp at Shiloh, 10 and Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh before the LORD. And there Joshua apportioned the land to the people of Israel, to each his portion.
A kingdom, a city, a church without God is a place without hope, but where God is the center of our lives, there isn’t only hope, there is peace. There is joy. And what I want for us, above all the other things, TCCBC, is that we might have peace and joy in superabundance because we know and have God in our midst—in this place—a God who is in himself superabundant. God must be our center, and we can ensure that this is the case in three ways—three ways that the author of Joshua tells us we can make God the center of our house—the center of our community here—and the first way that we do that is to:
1) Acknowledge His Constant Presence
These verses in Joshua 18:1-10 may not seem like it, but they’re absolutely pivotal for what’s taking place in this section of the book. I’ll remind you that from chapters 14-19, we’re reading about the distribution of land—of Israel’s inheritance—first to Caleb in chapter 14, then to the twelve tribes—2 and ½ on the east side of the Jordan and 9 ½ on the west side. Of the tribes that have received their allotment on the west side of the Jordan, so far, we’ve discussed all of their failures to properly possess the land—that is Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh—all except for Caleb and his clan.
All this means that seven more tribes remain to inherit, and this is a problem because we’re not even halfway through the distribution of land before the reader is left flummoxed with the direction in which things are heading. As they’re reading, the Israelites can probably feel the vanity of their conquest and the opportunity that was slipping away from them.
And yet despite their shortcomings, the author of Joshua constructs and records the narrative in such a way so that we know that failure is not the prevailing theme of this book. He actually does this throughout these chapters, like breadcrumbs for us to follow and find our way back. As the darkness looms over Israel’s future, we’re given brief snapshots of hope in Caleb and his gift of his daughter and land to Othniel, then the daughters of Zelophehad and their faithfulness to receive the land as they were promised.
In those stories, we get brief intermissions of how God’s plan is still being revealed. Even in the midst of man’s sin and rebellion, God’s plans to fulfill his promises are not thwarted. There is hope in what seems to be hopeless. There is faithfulness in those places that seem to be faithless. God ensures it by his sovereign providence and his electing grace through his servants.
But what we know is that man cannot live by breadcrumbs alone. At some point, we need true sustenance, and verse 1 delivers it to us because what is being introduced here isn’t just a shadow or a type of Saviour. It’s not an Othniel nor the daughters of Zelophehad. It’s not even a Caleb or Joshua. What Israel is reminded of as they go from Gilgal, where the events of chapters 14-17 take place, up north onto a mountain, is that the feast—the full portion is here. There on Shiloh, we get the long awaited and triumphant entrance of God himself as the King in his Kingdom to dwell among his people and to rule in their midst.
Such a place is important for Israel to establish because, on the one hand, it sets Israel apart from the nations and their pagan places of worship. It’s in this place where you meet the true God over all other gods. But even more importantly than this, it gave Israel a tangible image of God’s dwelling amongst them—they had heard of this throughout their time in Canaan, but now they could see where he was. Deep down, the Israelites always knew that God was with them, that he was the source of their courage and strength, and that he contended for them, but now to behold his house and to stand upon holy ground with the maker of heaven and earth, this was something different altogether.
On the day of our marriage, I could have rattled off for you all the things I knew about Candace as I waited to see her. I knew how much she loved me. I knew how much I loved her. I knew how many children she wanted. I knew her favourite colour and activities. I even knew the contours of her face. But when those doors at the back of the sanctuary opened, I remember bursting into tears because in that moment I realized that all that I knew about her became like nothing to me as I looked upon her for what seemed like the first time ever. Suddenly, I loved her more. Her face became more radiant to me. Her smile more perfect. Her joy more effusive. To have known about her as I waited to marry her had no comparison to actually beholding her as she walked down that aisle towards me, standing there in her presence as we exchanged our vows and rings, and hearing that pronouncement that this person was now not only my best friend but the wife of my life. No semblance of anticipation or knowledge could have sufficiently prepared me for the joy that I felt that day. It is enough for me now, when I think of it, to give pause and to be staggered by the grace of God in my unworthy life.
Brothers and sisters, chapter 18 verse 1 is a pregnant pause—it’s theologically staggering because here in the midst of the division of land—in the midst of this tedious effort—in the midst of their disobedience and sin—is the culmination of everything Israel had been waiting for ever since Deuteromony 12 when Moses told them that God was going to choose a place to dwell in their midst where they would worship him in faithfulness, joy, and security. And I can guarantee you, what they knew about this event had no comparison to what was actually taking place.
Here, in the middle of our narrative on the distribution of land—between Caleb and Joshua’s inheritance in chapters 14 and 19, between the 2 and ½ tribes’ inheritance and the remaining 7 tribes—we’re told what it’s all been about. It’s all been about God drawing near to his people, upholding them, loving them, reminding them that all that they do and have is a result of all that he is for them. Being with him and possessing him not just in the mind or in the heart but in direct and personal relationship—this is the moment when it all happens.
And in his coming, he fulfills, in part, what had been long anticipated not just under Abraham but under Adam when God commanded that first man to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Because there, at the end of verse 1 of Joshua 18, what are we told? The land lay subdued before them (same word with an intention to reference Gen 1:28)—the intention of creation accomplished! Peace had returned to the earth—this is why God could dwell in their midst. But he could do this not because of anything Israel had done. Not because Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh had been obedient, but because God had accomplished it for them. His coming was the height of their hope and salvation.
How much more, then, TCCBC, are we to give a pregnant, theological pause to our own situation—that God’s dwelling place is not only in a tent that we gather around, it’s not only in a building that has been consecrated to his name, but it is now in this place, and more significantly, it is now in us. And it is not in us by accident. It’s in us because Christ came to subdue and atone for our sin upon a cross, to ransom us from our destruction and death—His coming is the height of our hope and our salvation. In him, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and by his death, he has given to us that fullness so that he is at all times and in all places now with us. He has not forsaken us—his plans to flourish us in his love persevere, and because of him—because we possess him, our hope is secure.
So, I hope there is no mistaking the charge—in building this house—in building our lives as covenanted brothers and sisters, we are to make absolutely certain that God is at its center. That he is our foundation. That we give evidence that he is in our hearts not only by what we say but by every inch of who we are—in our serving, in our praying, in our evangelizing, in our meeting, in our worshipping, in our teaching—all of it must be centered on God—not for show, but for life. Make this church entirely about him, and as you do so, let his presence be the source of your peace—of your joy—of your everlasting hope.
2) Resist Your Self-Centered Sin
What we need to be careful of, however, as we seek to acknowledge the constant presence of God in our midst, which fuels our undying hope, is that our lives ought not be distinguishable or different from that hope. The great heights of our theology have to meet the low valleys of our anthropology. We are not to become drunk with the presumption that because God is with us, he requires nothing of us. What we know about God being with us has to fuel how we live for God all around us, and the author of Joshua pinpoints for us the two ways where we often fall short.
In verse 3, Joshua says to the people of Israel, “how long will you put off going in to take possession of the land, which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you?” This word for “put off” is the same word that is used in Joshua 1:5 when God says to Joshua and Israel, “I will not leave [or let go of] you.” So, the rebuke that Joshua is laying upon the people of Israel here is that they not let go of the call from God to possess the land.
In other words, he’s telling them to stop being lazy and afraid. He’s telling them to go on believing that God is with them, that he has kept them this long, and that he shall continue doing so out of the abundance of his grace. Here, we see the first thing that stops us from placing God as the center of all things, and that is our unbelief.
Yet, there’s a second thing that the author of Joshua cautions us against, and it’s a little more hidden. When we read verses 4-7, amidst the command for three men to go into the land, to draw up boundaries for the remaining seven tribes, and to return to cast lots to see who gets each portion, the author reiterates for us that Judah and Joseph have already received their allotment, that the Levites will have no portion apart from the priesthood, and that Gad, Reuben, and ½ of Manasseh have already received their land east of the Jordan.
Why does he do this? Why does he give us these details again? Remember, it was expensive and time consuming to write things down back then. And the reason is not only to tell the remaining seven tribes to stop worrying or to stem their unbelief—they will each get a share—but it’s also to remind the tribes who have already received their share that they are not more important or more valuable to God than the others. Despite having been allotted their portion, Judah, Ephraim, Manasseh, Reuben, Gad, and Levi are to serve their kindred—three men from each tribe are to go out and do the work. None is more entitled to the grace of God than his brothers. God loves and gives freely to all his heirs. All of them are united not by right but by grace.
This then is the second sin that the author of Joshua warns God’s people against: their pride. These are the two sins that Joshua tells Israel, specifically, to resist—pride and unbelief. In fact, these are the two sins that characterize all sins. When you disobey God, you are always simultaneously unbelieving that He is sufficient for you and prideful in the thought that you are sufficient for yourself—or that you can find your sufficiency in something or someone other than him. This is the hot pot that Judah, Ephraim, and Manasseh have fallen into in chapters 15-17. Their pride and unbelief are what prevent them from possessing the land as they ought to, and Joshua is cautioning the rest of Israel from following them.
Why? Because sin—pride and unbelief—tears apart any desire that we have to be selfless, to pursue unity in the truth of God’s presence and character, and instead, it perverts our desires. It prevents us from looking outward to forces us to look inward. It creates schisms and factions. It leaves us isolated and bitter. It makes us self-centered to the point where not only unity becomes impossible but makes any form of reconciliation untenable because our ground for truth, our hope for salvation, our perspective for what we need is found in and defined by ourselves.
So, this is why Joshua not only sends these three individuals from each tribe out into the world to do the work of God selflessly and sacrificially for their brothers and sisters, but he requires them to come back—to return to the place where God is—so that they might recognize that in the midst of all their labouring, it is God who is building his house. He wants them to make sure and remember that as they obey—as they carry out their human responsibility—they are, at all times, immersed under his sovereign grace.
In God’s house, there is no place for pride, and in his presence, there is no room for unbelief. You are to resist your self-centered sin and cling to God not only because he hates your sin, but because, by the gift of himself, he frees you to see and savour that which is far superior than anything you might find in yourself. So, let me say it again, as you build this house, as you go out into the world to proclaim his majesty, make sure that he is in the center of it all. Don’t just come to church to be here or to meet with family and friends—come to church to be with God. Do this, firstly, by acknowledging his constant presence, secondly, by resisting the self-centered nature of your sin, and:
3) Find Your Treasure in Him
This point is quite simple. God’s house is not only a place full of people who resist sin, but it is characterized more importantly by those who have exchanged their desire for sin for something far more desirable and worthy of their affection. And in verses 6, 8, 9, and 10, Joshua doesn’t just give us something, but he gives us someone.
What I want you to notice about these verses is that the emphasis is on the act of casting lots—as the three individuals from each tribe return, they’re to give their report, then Joshua is to cast lots to see who gets the divided portions of land. And what the action of casting lots implies is that the outcome of all of Israel’s work is completely outside of their hands.
This approach as to who receives which part of the land is probably completely unexpected by them. They’re likely thinking they’ll receive land according to what they deserve—according to their merit. But God doesn’t it do things according to what they expect. It seems like he leaves the distribution of land to chance, and yet, we are to understand that he leaves nothing to chance. He is, of course, in absolute control of his house, but what the casting of lots tells us is that we are not always privy to the reasons for his actions, and that is because he wants us to trust him more than our reasons for trusting him. He wants our satisfaction to be in him more than the things that come from him.
He does not have to explain himself to us. He is God, and we are not, and that is meant to be reason enough to love him. We aren’t meant to chase; we’re meant to treasure. He gives according to his good pleasure, and we are to receive whatever it is that he apportions to us because you can be sure that whatever it is that we receive will always be better than what we could have obtained on our own.
And we find that to be truest in nothing other than the gift of himself through His Son. Remember that on the day of his crucifixion, there were men, soldiers, stationed at the foot of his cross, and what is it that we find them doing? We find them casting lots. Yet, as the lots are cast, where is it that they fix their gaze? It’s not on the Son of God nailed to the cross bearing the sin of the world and establishing for himself an eternal kingdom for those who repent of their sin and believe that he is Lord.
No, their eyes aren’t on him. Instead, they’re fixated upon the things of God—on the things of Jesus—on how he can enrich them in this world, rather than seeing that he is the treasure in himself. And this picture of these soldiers attentive to and longing after the wrong things is exactly the picture and warning that we are supposed to behold as we look upon Israel here in Joshua.
We are not to miss the fact that God is establishing his house. He’s at work. He’s pouring out the infinitude of his grace by showing us himself—showing us himself most magnificently in the death of his Son. And we not only have a responsibility to acknowledge this but to enjoy it and treasure it. We are not to miss the grace—that while we were still sinners Christ died for us and saved us! As the world’s eyes are affixed on where their lots might fall—as the rest of the world is obsessed with itself—as their attention and hope is placed in uncertain things that will fade away—God accomplishes that which will never fade away—he builds his kingdom, and through Jesus, he beckons us in so that we might find our greatest treasure with him.
May the Lord build his house so that our labouring over it is not in vain. May he give us strength to go out into the world and proclaim the gospel so that more might enter into his presence with thanksgiving and praise. May he cause us to return to his Word, as often as he enables us, to mine for that treasure of incomparable worth, and more than anything, may he forever reveal to us that he is at the center of it all.