Finding Faith in Jericho
(Rahab) The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.
(Bartimaeus) Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Prostitution is tragic under any circumstances. Prostitution is demeaning. It is not a “profession” young people aspire to take up. Prostitution, however, that is enjoined as a religious act and defended by a religious argument is more than tragic and demeaning: it’s disgusting. Jericho, Rahab’s Jericho, was a Canaanite town; their goddess worship trafficked in religious prostitution and led to widespread promiscuity. We know that sexual abuse demeans and damages; prostitution no less so. And when prostitution is sanctioned by societal ideology, religious or otherwise, debasing of humans and the perverting of the highest human instincts follows.
1. I point these things out to you in an effort to help us read this story about Rahab. When you read how the spies Joshua sends to “view the land, especially Jericho,” entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, you have something of the backstory that sheds some light on Rahab’s life. Jericho is not the sort of place you expect to find faith. Are you ever surprised by where you do find faith; where you encounter someone who is thinking about God? We have been well schooled that talk of religion and politics is off limits at work and school. Have you even sat in a crowded restaurant and wondered if anyone here believes in God? And when a conversation with someone actually turns to thoughts of faith we are surprised. What should not surprise us is that God is calling to people; God is ever making incursion into people’s lives to foster faith.
Rahab says to these two spies “I know that the Lord has given you this land … . The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.” Here, as in many places in the Old Testament, when you read the word “Lord” it stands in the text for the name of Israel’s God Yahweh. In fact “Yahweh” isn’t in the text either. Israel so revered the name of God they wrote four consonants to indicate this name rendering it unpronounceable. (It was Christians who put vowels with these letters making the word “Yahweh.”) So the word “Lord” was read in the scriptures in place of the unpronounceable name. All that being said to indicate the remarkable faith of Rahab. She is taking to these Israelites about their God—I know that “Yahweh” is God of heaven above and the earth below,
We aren’t told how she knows this or comes to this place of faith; surely God has been making incursion into her life. She may not know much about this God. She may have no idea of the commands of God given Israel; commands that would effectively release her from captivity to prostitution; commands that call humans to live their true dignity. But she begins by trusting as much of herself as she knows of herself to as much of God as she knows of him. She knows the land has been given to the people who serve this God and she seeks to join them; she wants to live among them.
One of the complaints the Pharisees and scribes leveled against Jesus was that he welcomed sinners to eat with him. The gospel writer Luke tells us that “all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” (Luke 15:1-2) Prostitutes would be among such people. In other words these people with troubled lives found in Jesus a ready welcome. Rahab seems to know the same thing about this God of Israel, Yahweh. She isn’t repulsed by God but drawn to trust in this God. Many people think that the God of the Old Testament is harsh compared to Jesus. And yet Rahab experiences what the people who met Jesus experienced—she believes that God would welcome her to join his people.
I am fully aware of the story of Jericho with which we are more familiar. How Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down; how Israel is being led by God to drive out these pagan Canaanites. So we wonder how to regard the story of Rahab in light of destruction of the rest of the people of Jericho. One thing the story tells us is that God’s incursion into Rahab’s life points to God’s calling of the rest to himself.
This brings me to say a couple of things about the enigma of evil in the world. There is no rational explanation for evil and the corruption of human life by sin. Old and New Testament alike take the view that the whole world was lost in sin, without God and without hope. Not only was there no true knowledge of God, but the most debasing features of society found their focus in false religion. Idolatry went hand in hand with the blunting or perverting of all the highest human instincts, and became synonymous with lust and cruelty and the withering even of natural affections. In point of fact many women end up in prostitution because of the role abuse played in damagimg self-image.
Further we don’t know what sin means to God nor apprehend evil from God’s perspective. Other than we know we should resist evil, how evil is resolved from God’s perspective is beyond complete explanation. God is holy and radically different. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.
By way of answering the question “Who is God?” scripture always directs us to two other questions: “What does God do?” and “What does God effect?” “What does God do?” refers us to God’s activity on our behalf, what he does “for us”. “What does God effect?” refers us to God’s activity “in us”. What does God do for us? He incarnates Himself in Jesus of Nazareth. He redeems His creation in the death of Jesus, restoring its access to Him. He raises Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus and declaring him to be sovereign over all, Lord and Messiah. What does God do in us? He visits us with His Spirit and seals within us all that He has done outside us. He steals over our spiritual inertia and quickens faith. He forgives the sin in us that He had already absorbed for us on the cross. While we can say these things about what God does, it is beyond us to know how our Lord’s sacrifice resolves and defeats evil finally.
In a similar way to see God’s resistance to the corruption of sin in humanity through these events in Israel’s history is to understand God’s judgement on sin; at the same time it is never to say that his mercy isn’t over all his creation as Rahab’s faith attests. These events need to be understood through the prism of the cross. In these events in Israel’s life God is keeping his promise to Abraham to bless all the nations of the earth which finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. These questions need more time that we can dedicate to them in a single sermon. We note that just as Rahab couldn’t apprehend all that was going in what the Lord was doing through his people Israel, yet she trusted as much as she knew of God. So too for us, in time, holding and probing our questions regarding evil God will help us comprehend what we can. Faith ever seeks understanding.
But back to Rahab’s faith. As this story unfolds Rahab and her family are preserved and they find their way into the commonwealth of Israel. (Joshua 6:25) The next time we hear of Rahab in the Bible is in Matthew’s gospel where her name appears in the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:5) Apparently, in the commonwealth of Israel, Rahab comes to enjoy a different way of life; she marries and has children and turns out to be the great great-grandmother of King David. She is one of three women named in Jesus’ genealogy all of whom are gentiles. God is keeping his promise to bless the world through Abraham’s seed and that promise runs right through Rahab’s life.
Rahab gets honourable mention in two other places in the New Testament. She is one of the people mentioned in the faith hall-of-fame in the book of Hebrews. Alongside luminaries like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses we read, “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.” (Hebrews 11:31) The second mention is by the Apostle James (Jesus’ brother). James is speaking about the nature of saving faith; faith is never mere confession of a code of beliefs but always includes a response to Christ’s love that can be seen in how we live. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?” (James 2:24-25) Rahab demonstrated her faith in what she did.
The promise to bless people given to Abraham that ran through Rahab’s life wasn’t something Rahab could possibly have foreseen. She could never know that in living out her life in Israel, getting married and having a family, that she would be named in the genealogy of the Saviour of the world. She simply lived out her life as faithfully as she knew how. The Apostle Paul wrote that we are, by faith, Abraham’s offspring. “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29) We too cannot see what God will do through our witness for a future people God wishes to bless in the Son. We come to church and support one another in faith and add our part to the proclamation of Jesus. One day God will show us what he did through such faithful living and it will amaze us to see the many who were blessed.
2. In Jesus’ day Jericho had become a place you passed through while on you way to somewhere else. Jerusalem is about 24 kilometers from Jericho and the elevation change is approximately 915 meters. When Jewish people from Galilee travelled to Jerusalem for the festivals they typically came south along the Jordon valley and made the turn to go up to Jerusalem at Jericho. Of course, there was a seat of taxation in Jericho—an ever present reminder of the Roman occupation. Herod had a palace near Jericho and Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector there.
There was no institute for the blind in Jericho. Unless you have some means such a condition reduced you to begging as it did for this blind man named Bartimaeus. And Bartimaeus knew just where to sit along the roadside where most people would pass by. We have no record of Jesus preaching in this city—Jesus’ preaching ministry was mainly in Galilee and the Decapolis. But there were lots of pilgrims who passed through Jericho from Galilee and it seems clear that Bartimaeus had heard of him; heard enough about Jesus to call out to him as he passed by “Son of David”—indicating Bartimaeus’ conviction that Jesus was the Messiah.
How does Bartimaeus come to believe this? He hasn’t met Jesus before. Again, is this not God making incursion into this blind man’s life? He begins by trusting what he knows of himself to what he knows of God. Like Rahab he too lives on the margins of society—everybody sees him but nobody really wants to talk with him. Like Rahab who risks much to hide the spies and seek their help, Bartimaeus takes a risk acting on his faith shouting after Jesus knowing that others will try to shut him up. There is a point of risk we all must come to where we stop clinging to empty things we are used to relying upon and make the leap to trust God. The world my think me nuts but I am going to trust you Jesus!
Jesus is on his way up to Jerusalem—the Triumphal entry to Jerusalem, the beginning of what we call Holy Week is next in Mark’s gospel. And he stops for anyone calling out to him in faith.
In just such a place people find faith in God. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
Notice that the gospel writer Mark is careful to tell us that Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way”, meaning on the way to Jerusalem. When Bartimaeus has his sight restored he is so overwhelmed by the love of Jesus he is compelled to follow him. Just like Rahab follows the God who rescued her so too Bartimaeus. Believers who know themselves freed from sin can’t help but follow. When you put the three gospel writers together—Matthew, Mark and Luke—we find out that there were two blind men healed that day but Mark only mentions one and does so by name. Matthew and Luke don’t give us names. Why does Mark drill down on Bartimaeus? Now this is a guess but and educated one given other examples in the gospels. It is likely that Bartimaeus is known to the church Mark writes to and he wants to tell them of how Bartimaeus came to know Jesus and be part of the church. Like Bartimaeus the story of how you came to cling to Jesus in faith is an encouragement to others—don’t be afraid to share your story.
Jericho. It was an unlikely place to find faith and yet here we find faith. What about Unionville?