March 9 & 10, 2019 – Lent 1
Joshua 7: 16-26
Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
Do you ever wonder about the thieves on the cross? What did they do to earn a punishment so horrible as to be tortured to death? After all, they’re not called murderers, or even robbers. They’re called thieves. What did they take that was so valuable that demanded their torture and their very lives in reparation? Or who did they steal from? Was it Pilate himself? Even so, doesn’t torture and death seem a harsh punishment for thievery? What ever happened to “let the punishment fit the crime”?
“Let the punishment fit the crime.” That principle has been guiding legal systems worldwide ever since God told his people in Deuteronomy 19:21, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Or ever since God commanded Noah in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”
But today in our sermon text we are talking about a man who stole (and he stole from some dead men who wouldn’t even miss what was taken) and yet the punishment hardly seems to fit the crime. The man, and his sons and daughters, cattle, donkeys and sheep, were all stoned to death, then burned, then buried. Did the punishment fit the crime? Let’s find out as we read a portion of the first lesson from Joshua 7:
Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory now to the Lord, the God of Israel, and give him praise. Now tell me what you did. Do not conceal it from me.” Achan answered Joshua, “It is true. I am the one who has sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel, and this is what I did: Among the plunder I saw an expensive Mesopotamian robe, a fine one, and two hundred shekels of silver and one wedge of gold—it weighed fifty shekels. I coveted them and I took them. Now they are hidden in the ground inside my tent, and the silver is underneath it.” So Joshua sent agents. They ran to the tent, and there it was! The robe was hidden in his tent, and the silver was underneath it! They took them from the middle of the tent and brought them to Joshua and to all the people of Israel, where they poured them out before the Lord. Then Joshua took Achan son of Zerah and the silver, the garment, and the wedge of gold, as well as Achan’s sons and his daughters, his ox, his donkey and his flock, and his tent and everything that belonged to him—so all Israel, led by Joshua, brought them up to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought disaster on us? The Lord will bring disaster on you this day!” Then all Israel stoned Achan to death. They also burned him and them with fire, and they pelted them with stones. They erected a large heap of stones over Achan, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from the heat of his anger. For that reason the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor to this day.
Wow! Harsh punishment wasn’t it? Why death? After all, what was the big deal? The people he stole from were dead. They certainly weren’t going to miss their coat or a few bars of silver and gold. Wasn’t God being a bit unfair here? Did God just have a bad day and needed to take it out on someone?
No. There’s more to it than that. You see Achan wasn’t just stealing from some dead guy. He was stealing from God. In Joshua 6:17-19 God told Joshua: “The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the LORD... 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. All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the LORD and must go into his treasury.” For stealing from the plunder ALL of the Israelites would be subject to punishment. With a bit of a pun God says that for taking the devoted things of God they would all be devoted to destruction.
And even when it was discovered that someone had taken some of the devoted things and risked the lives of the entire nation, Achan still didn’t confess his sin. During the entire lengthy process of revealing who the culprit was, he remained silent—nervously biting his nails and sweating it out, hoping they wouldn’t discover it was him. It wasn’t until he was caught that he finally admitted any guilt.
And even then, when he finally did confess, “It is true. I am the one who sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel,” (7:20) he used the word for sin that means “goofed up” or “made a mistake” rather than the more honest word for what he did that means “deliberately sinned” or “chose to rebel.”
Was the punishment unjust? Far from it! God was actually being gracious to his people and taking care of the problem before it spread and killed them all. As Caiaphas, the High Priest of Jesus’ day, said, “It is better for us that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) And the memorial of piled rocks would remain so that all of Israel would learn from Achan’s bad example and remember it.
What a vivid lesson for Israel. And what a vivid lesson for us. But, wait a second. We’re not like Achan, are we? We’re no thieves, right? I mean, I’ve never gone into a bank and held it up. I’ve never robbed a little old lady in some back alley. I’ve never broken into anybody’s home to steal what wasn’t mine. And I know that I certainly haven’t robbed any graves lately. I’m no Achan and neither are you, right?
Well, maybe we haven’t robbed a little old lady or held up a bank. But why not? Out of love for God? Or out of fear of getting caught? What if you could get away with it? Maybe you wouldn’t steal a DVD or a CD from the store, but if you could download it on your computer without paying for it? Maybe you wouldn’t take petty cash from work, but a few office supplies? After all, no one will notice right? You’re not hurting anyone. Do you see how much like Achan we can be?
In fact, even if you’ve never actually taken anything that wasn’t yours, you and I are still thieves. You see, we sin against God, not only by what we do, but also by what we don’t do. Do you always work your hardest at your job? Or do you sometimes take extra breaks? Do you ever take care of personal business while you’re on the clock? Then you’ve stolen from your employer. They’re paying you to work, not to be lazy or do your own thing. The money they paid you for the work you didn’t do, really belongs to them.
Realize that you still sin against God when you are discontented with the blessings God has given. It’s as if we say to God, “What do I care about all that I have? You still haven’t blessed me with enough. You’re holding out on me. You don’t really love me. You’re a cruel and unloving God.” And we have all earned the punishment of hell, a punishment that does fit the crime of our rebellion against God very well.
And make no mistake. We may be able to hide our theft from everyone else, like Achan did, and bury it deep in our hearts where no one else can see it. But don’t be a fool like Achan was. You know that you can’t hide any sin from God. So don’t try to hide it, but give glory to God and confess your sin to him. And when you do confess your sin to him with a sincere heart, a beautiful thing happens. He takes that sin away with a punishment that fit your crime, not his.
You see, Caiphas didn’t prophesy on his own when he said, “It is better for us that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) But as High Priest he prophesied and spoke from God. You see God punished Jesus even though he committed no crime.
Though Jesus had no earthly wealth, no house, no land, no donkey or horse, though all he really had was the clothes on his back, he remained perfectly content. When Satan tried to tempt him with the riches and wealth of the nations, Jesus said, “No, thanks. I’m not interested.” He trusted in God and was content with what he would provide. He always remained perfect and he gives that perfection to you and me.
And he took our sins of theft and every sin on himself on the cross and he paid for them with his death. Remember what Jesus said to that thief crucified next to him? “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) In other words, “Every one of your sins has been forgiven. Every theft, every crime, every attitude of greed or discontent is erased and gone. For it was better that I should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish, or that you should perish. So I’m now going to take the punishment of hell that your crime deserves. So then you are perfect and therefore, qualify to enter into my paradise of heaven.”
And Jesus has said the same to you and to me. That’s why he came to this earth, to forgive the sins of thieves like that man on the cross, like me, like you by taking the punishment that fit our crime. Now, you won’t be stoned to death for your sin. You won’t be burned. Not in this life and not in the life to come. You will never experience the hell that you deserve for your sin and for your foolish attempts to cover it up. Paradise is yours. And think of the glory that awaits. There are no words we can understand now to describe that great life we will have in heaven.
So, let’s thank Jesus by first learning to be content with what we have as we appreciate the rich gifts that he has given us: forgiveness, salvation, heaven and so much more. Let’s thank him by generously giving of our time and offerings to his church and to others in need and be good managers of these gifts. For when you die or when Jesus returns it won’t matter how much money you have or what clothes you wear. It will only matter that, because you cling to the truth that he took the punishment that fit your crime, he will say to you, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 24:43) Amen.