Keeping Your Focus - Joshua 8:30-35
You probably don’t know the name of Phil Vischer but I suspect most of you know what he used to do for a living. If you have heard of Bob the Tomato or Larry the Cucumber and the rest of the Veggitales® group, then you know about the Big Idea Studios which was created by Phil Vischer.
Vischer has written a book called “Me, Myself, and Bob”. He tells the story of the meteoric rise of the Big Idea Studios and how he ended up having to sell his studio and the characters he had created, due to bankruptcy in 2003.
As Vischer looks back, he believes the loss of his company was due to the fact that he lost his focus. He was “successful”, selling truckloads of videos every day, but he started following his own plan to become the next great animation studio (like Disney) rather than waiting for the Lord’s plan for his life. In his defense, he wanted to make an Impact. He was making an impact, but the fruit of the Holy Spirit was not growing in his heart and life. Vischer believes God took Big Idea away from him so that he could get back on track. He has now formed a new company called “Jellyfish Labs”. He named it what he did “because jellyfish cannot choose their own course, they are driven instead by the current.” Vischer now wants to be driven by the Spirit of God rather than the success models of men. [Leadership Journal Spring 2007, p. 15]
Big Idea studios faced a problem that is very common: a loss of focus. One wise man put it this way, “In the Christian life, the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” This morning we are going to look at Joshua 8:30-35 where we can learn some things about keeping the main thing the main thing.
Let’s review. In Joshua 7 we saw Israel struggle because Achan was guilty of looting Jericho after they captured the city. Israel went off to Ai feeling cocky and they suffered a great defeat. After the sin was removed from the camp, chapter 8 tells us of the subsequent defeat of Ai and the people’s careful obedience to do what God had said. At the end of Joshua 8 we read what seems like an odd account,
“Then Joshua built on MountEbal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the Israelites.” (Josh 8:30-31)
If you look at a map you see that MountEbal is some 20 miles north of Ai. From a military perspective heading North at this time when you are just beginning your conquest, doesn’t seem like such a good idea. However, if the Israelites had learned anything it was this: do what God tells you to do! If you look at Deuteronomy 27 you see that they were given very specific instructions that Joshua carried out in our text. In this simple account we learn something important about keeping our focus.
WE MUST CONSTANTLY BE REMINDED OF OUR OBJECTIVE
Israel had won a great battle and now it was time to re-focus. Moses had told them,
When you have crossed the Jordan into the land the Lord your God is giving you, set up some large stones and coat them with plaster. 3 Write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over to enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you. (Deut 27:2,3)
In the Near East in that day it was customary for kings to celebrate their greatness by writing records of their military conquests on large stones covered with plaster. It was a way of advertising and proclaiming their power to all who would see the monuments (think billboard). By writing the law on the stones Israel was acknowledging that their victory came from the Lord and not their military might.
This monument instructed those who were new to the faith. There were children who needed to learn the ways of God, there were people like Rahab who had turned to follow the God of the Hebrews, there were people in the surrounding towns who would want to know about their God. These people needed to know the laws of God.
But this monument was also there to remind the people of what they already knew. Like post it notes that we put up to help us remember what we are afraid we might forget, this monument was a reminder to Israel of what they must not forget.
I feel it is important to read a book on marriage every year to remind me of what a good marriage requires. I read books on Bible basics and books of Christian theology because it helps me to keep focused on the essential matters of the faith. I suspect many of you have manuals, magazines and other things you read on a regular basis so you can keep sharp and up to date in your field of work. We must do the same thing with our relationship with God.
It is easy to lose our focus. We lose sight of who we belong to, who we serve, and who knows what is best for our lives. We can loose our focus in the difficult times. Things don’t go the way we expect and we get discouraged. We want to give up and run away.
We want out of the relationship
We want to resign from our post
We want to run away and move to a new location
We want to “punish God” by diving into sin (as dumb as it is, we do this)
In the times of discouragement we need to turn to the Word of God. In Psalm 73 the Psalmist talks about his complaining and being a “brute beast” until he returned to the house of God and regained perspective. In the difficult times we need to do the same thing. We need to turn to the church and the fellowship of God’s people. We need to turn to the teaching of God’s Word. We must read our Bibles. In times of hardship we need to make sure our focus is in the right place.
But this lose of focus can also happen in times of great victory,
We experience a religious high
Our church, organization or company goes through a period of rapid growth
We are given a position of greater influence
We receive a public honor
Or, like Israel, we win a great battle
In these times it is easy to feel WE have gained the victory. There’s a sense in which we feel we “have things under control”. We seem to feel that we don’t need God’s “help” right now. When that happens we have lost our focus.
Here’s a simple principle: there will NEVER be a time when we have our faith figured out. There will NEVER be a time when we have discipleship mastered. Like an athlete that has to keep practicing fundamentals, or the musician who constantly needs to practice his scales, the believer needs to keep refocusing his life. One commentator puts it this way,
The community of faith is not to be an autocracy, in which one person exercises dominion. Nor is it to be a democracy, with all parties deciding together their common will. Rather, the covenant community is to be a theocracy, every person seeking God’s intention and being shaped by a divine purpose.
We need to recount these truths time and time again. This is one of the reasons we worship every week. We need to refocus.
FOLLOWING CHRIST IS PRACTICAL IN EXPRESSION
The people traveled to the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim. The mountains are only 500 yards apart from each other at the bottom and about a mile and a half apart at the top. From on top of these mountains you could see a great deal of the Promised Land. The two mountains also formed a natural amphitheatre. The acoustics were perfect. A person could stand on one mountain and recite something that could be heard perfectly on the other!
The people were told to divide into two groups by tribes. One group (on MountEbal) was to “announce the curses” and the other group (on MountGerizim) was to announce the blessings. You can read the curses in Deuteronomy 27 and the Blessings in Deuteronomy 28. As the Levites read the each of the curses the people on Mt.Ebal said “Amen”. Next they read the blessings and everyone on Mt.Gerizim said “Amen”. If you look at the curses you see that they relate to behaviors of:
Disrespect of the family
Issues related to injustice and a lack of compassion to the needy
A Lack of Integrity in our dealings
A disregard for the value of human life
The blessings related to family, health, prosperity, and life in general. This is the answer to the question: “What difference does it make if I follow the Lord?” If you live life the way God has commanded, you will experience his blessing. We will enjoy life more fully if we live the way God has called us to live. If you do not live according to His will, life will be less enjoyable and you may experience his discipline.
Throughout the Bible we are taught that faith is active, not passive. True faith in God means obeying Him and following Him. It is easy for us to think that being a “believer” is really about knowing and believing certain truths. Theology is important. What you believe certainly matters. However, genuine faith is not just about what you believe but who you are willing to follow. Those who truly follow the Lord will, by the strength of God’s Spirit, do what God tells us to do. The person who does not follow may still be “successful in the world’s eyes” but they will be empty within.
THE WAY OF SALVATION IS THROUGH GRACE NOT OUR WORKS
There is one more lesson in the text and it is seen in the altar that was erected. First, notice how the altar was built. It was to be built with uncut stones. The altar was not to be a showplace. It was not about the altar but the sacrifice on the altar. There was a lesson for the people and for us: the way to God is not through the works of men. Understand the importance of balance here. We do not become children of God by what we do but being a child of God changes what we do!
Archaeologists may have actually found this (or a similar) altar. They have been working since 1980 on their excavation and revealed sizeable remains of a large altar, built of unhewn stones. The altar was ascended by a sloping ramp. Numerous animal bones were scattered on the pavement of the courtyard that surrounded the altar.
Another interesting thing about the altar is where it was erected. We are told that it was erected on Mt.Ebal (the mountain from which the curses were to be read), rather than on Mt.Gerizim, (the mountain where the blessings were read). Why is this significant? I believe it shows that the altar is for sinners. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” God has set the standard for our behavior but He knows that we will fall short.
Dr. James Montgomery Boice writes,
It is interesting that a thousand years later the Samaritans built their altar on Gerizim, not Ebal. So when the woman of Samaria told Jesus, “Our fathers worshiped on this mount, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem,” she was pointing to Gerizim (John 4:20). Jesus responded by turning her away from that mountain to himself and his coming sacrifice. The chief characteristic of the Samaritans of that day and of our day is self-righteousness. The Samaritans would not come to God as sinners, confessing their need of a cleansing, substitutionary sacrifice. They came as righteous people. [Boice, JOSHUA p. 60-70]
God understands our situation and provided a sacrifice that took the curse we deserved and made it possible for us to experience the blessing of God. That sacrifice was the cross of Christ. He took the curse that we deserved and made it possible for us to know the blessing of God. We call this extraordinary gift: grace.
Aren’t you glad that God’s provision of grace is not reserved only for good people? If that were the case, none of us could be made right with God. Practically, this means that NO MATTER WHAT YOU HAVE DONE, you can find new life and forgiveness in Jesus today. The Bible tells us if we will confess our sin with a repentant heart, and if we will turn to Jesus for forgiveness and new life, we will be made clean and will become a child of God.
Two sacrifices were offered on the altar. The first was a burnt offering. In this offering the animal was completely burned up. This was designed to pay for sin. The second offering was a fellowship (or peace) offering. In this offering some of the offering was offered to the Lord, and the other part was eaten by the priests and the people (God acting somewhat like the host). These offerings picture the fact that through Christ, our sin is paid for (the burnt offering) and as a result of this, our relationship with God is restored (the fellowship offering).
Think about a family conflict. Something offensive happens. The offending family member(s) apologizes and perhaps even makes restitution (if needed). The apology pays for the sin and removes the debt. However, the payment of the debt does not mean the relationship is truly restored. They may still not be invited over for dinner and could still be excluded from family gatherings. Resolving a conflict and renewing intimacy are two different things. Jesus does both of those things. Through the blood of Christ our sin is not only paid for, our relationship with God is also re-established.
Let’s wrap this up with some questions for personal evaluation. First, may I ask, “Are you drifting?” Do you find your spiritual life is on “autopilot”? You may be “successful” in the world’s eyes. You may even be viewed as someone who is spiritual. I’m not asking about your reputation, I’m asking about your heart. Are you drifting?
Are you growing in your relationship with God?
Are you becoming more Christlike in your behavior?
Do you hunger for God’s Word?
Are you growing in compassion for the lost and hurting?
Do you sense God’s hand guiding your life?
If the answer to these questions is an honest “No” then it may be time for you to take a trip to Ebal and Gerizim. It may be time for you to re-focus your life and remind yourself to focus on the main thing (which is serving the Lord in gratitude). Perhaps it’s time for you to re-examine your calendar and re-order your priorities in life. We need to do this on a regular basis.
Have you come here today afraid the roof is going to cave in because you are here? Do you feel like you don’t belong because of the sinfulness of your life? Do you wonder if God could ever love or forgive you? Are you living in fear that people are going to find out the truth about you? If so, you need to come to MountEbal and put your trust in the sacrifice made by Jesus for people just like you . . . and me. A Christ-follower is not a person who has not sinned, it is a person who admits his sin and turns to Christ for forgiveness and new life. You don’t have to worry about the roof caving in . . . you are right where you belong. You are among people who understand the wonder of grace.
Finally, are you a follower of Christ in name only? This account in Joshua reminds us that God’s blessing comes to those who do what He says. If you find that your life seems to be lacking the blessedness from the Lord, take a good look at your life. Check to see if you have started to embrace the ways of the world rather than the way of God. Are you ignoring some of His commands? Have you stopped seeking His guidance and counsel? Do other things have more influence in your life than He does? Are you so intent on changing the world that you have forgotten that your goal is supposed to be to allow God to change you? Take a lesson from Veggietales®. Return to the Lord with your hands and your heart open. Align your life with His Word once again so that you can make the main thing the main thing once again and experience the rich blessings of walking with God.