(Joshua 22: 11-34)
Everybody hearing or reading this sermon has experienced war in one form or another during their lifetime. For our more senior members their memories go back to World War Two with memories of relatives who fought in World War One. We then had the Korean War which all of a sudden seemed different from World War Two. Korea was followed by the Vietnam War which was all together different from any other war ever fought. Vietnam was followed by the Gulf Wars and then the war in Afghanistan. And during this one-hundred-year history of warfare we also experienced threats of war such as the Berlin Air Lift, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most recently North Korea’s flirtation with missile tests and nuclear weapons. And, of course, we’ve had the tensions in the Middle East ever since the nation of Israel was established after World War Two. As a child I grew up on the John Ford-John Wayne war movies that stirred patriotic fervor and glorified the war effort, the wars to end all wars. But then along came America’s television war. The war in Vietnam played out on the evening news and all of a sudden it didn’t seem so glamorous, especially as I approached my 18th birthday in 1970. My grandfather, a Methodist minister, a man of God and a man of peace, had already sent one son and two grandsons off to war and was now drawing the line. I was not going, and he told me he was ready to take me to Canada. War was not the answer and spilling the blood of more young men was an exercise in futility in his mind. I declined his offer, told him I had a sufficiently high draft number, and would pick my branch of the service if necessary, but to be honest with you, I was scared to death. Guys from my small town were coming back from Vietnam and it wasn’t pretty. Cooler heads needed to prevail.
And cooler heads prevailing is what our scripture reading for this morning is about. The Book of Joshua is about the small nation of Israel crossing the river Jordan into Canaan, and through Joshua’s military victories, gave Israel undisputed access to the sparsely settled Central Highlands of Canaan with each tribe receiving an allotment for settlement. Chapter 22 tells us that, after the settlement, Joshua gave permission to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh to cross back over the Jordan to the land given them by Moses and settle with the admonishment to remember to carry out the commandments and instructions given to them by Moses, the Lord’s servant. They left with Joshua’s blessing and settled in the land of Gilead. The people of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh built an altar by the banks of the Jordan River on the Canaan side of the river, an altar that appeared to be immense. Well, this didn’t sit too well with the Israelites who took great offense and assembled at Shiloh making preparations to go to war against their own people. Before launching an all-out attack, the Israelites sent Phineas, son of Eleazar the priest, along with ten leaders, one each from the ten tribes who were from important families with strong military connections, to talk to the leaders of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. Phineas told them that all the Israelites were talking about this immense altar and said this is what they are saying: What’s this disrespectful thing that you’ve done to the God of Israel? Today you’ve turned away from following the Lord by building yourselves an altar as an act of rebellion against the Lord, and then went into great detail as to how wrong and offensive it was to them and God. Phineas told them not to rebel against the Lord and not to involve them in their rebellion by building an altar for themselves other than the altar of the Lord, their God.
The representatives of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh were set back on their heels by this accusation and show of force and said: The Lord is God of gods! The Lord is God of gods! He already knows, and now let Israel know it. They then went on to explain that it was not their intention to offend them or turn from God, and if that was the case, may God not spare them with his punishment. They said no way was it an act of disrespect. The construction of the altar was for their children to serve as a witness between God’s people on both sides of the river and their descendants to come. They said: Look at this replica of the altar of the Lord that our ancestors made. It isn’t for entirely burned offerings or for sacrifice but to be a witness between us and you. Phineas the priest, the leaders of the community, and the heads of the military units of Israel who were with him heard the words spoken to them and approved them. They went back across the river and reported back to the people who were all riled up and ready for war. Upon hearing this explanation, the Israelites agreed and blessed God. They no longer spoke of going to war against them to destroy the land where the people of Reuben and Gad were living. Cooler heads prevailed, a crisis averted, and there was no needless war over a disagreement about an altar.
And here we are, twenty years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the end of America’s longest war in Afghanistan, and many people are wondering why, and are still searching for answers. Do we feel as if we’ve accomplished anything worth the countless lives lost both in military men and women and civilians, and the physical and mental wounds suffered by tens of thousands? We are left wondering when the next attack will come and from where. We wonder when and where we will be fighting next, and for what? From where do we get our guidance? It can’t be from the politicians who find it too easy to send more troops into harm’s way along with billions of dollars of equipment only to be sacrificed on the field of battle. Our direction has got come from God as it did for Phineas the priest who recalled the instructions found in Deuteronomy 13: 12-19 where a story was told about a rumor regarding a town that had been given by the Lord to inhabit where the citizens were being led astray by wicked people who were urging the worshipping of other gods. The instruction was to look into the situation very carefully to see if it’s true, and if it is true, the inhabitants of the city must be struck down with the sword. And that’s what Phineas did, he looked into it to see if the rumors were true, and they weren’t. War was averted.
So, where do we as United Methodists get our guidance, other than the word of God? Well, in our Book of Discipline in the Social Principles section it addresses War and Peace in paragraph 165 C where it says: We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and examples of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral first/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. You know, “shoot first and ask questions later.” As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them. Again, just like in our scripture reading, Phineas felt it was his moral duty to take some leaders with him and try to resolve by peaceful means the dispute that was arising between two peoples who worshipped the same God. We advocate the extension and strengthening of international treaties and institutions that provide a framework within the rule of law for responding to aggression, terrorism, and genocide. We believe that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. What this means is that the problem is one of global consideration and not one of a dispute among the tribes of the nation of Israel or any other neighboring countries. Peace loving countries must work together and apply the appropriate diplomatic pressure on those who choose to act aggressively against their own people, their neighbors, or those they believe have aggrieved them no matter where in the world they live. It is for this reason that in the United States that a civilian government is in control of the military and not the other way around. These proxy wars do nothing but eventually put weapons in the hands of those who will use them against innocents and those called in to defend the innocents from aggression. The section concludes by stating: Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. To quote the Beatles: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
I wish I had the answers. All I know is that continual war for one reason or another is not always the answer. It’s exhausting and depletes us as a people. Sure, we have to have standing armies to act as a deterrent and sometimes we have to get involved as we did to stop Nazi fascism as we did in Europe or when we were attacked in the Pacific by the Empire of Japan. We’ve had to come to the defense of innocents in other parts of the world because these people were also our neighbors deserving of our love as we wouldn’t want to be treated as they were being treated. What’s ironic about our current state of world affairs is that all the parties involved all claim Abrahamic faith, in that they all claim to worship the God of Abraham. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their roots back to Abraham who is in the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran. Jewish tradition holds that the 12 tribes of Israel came from Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Islamic tradition holds that the 12 Arab tribes come from Abraham’s son Ishmael. Both claim Jerusalem as their Holy City and have been fighting over it since The Crusades when European Christians tried to reclaim it for Christianity. In the 1924 novel Beau Geste by P.C. Wren he mentions a “jihad” where the Arabs fought the French Foreign Legion with swords seized from fallen Crusaders. It goes back that far, if not farther. Ironically, we all worship the same God and have that in common as our lowest common denominator.
So, before we get embroiled in another war to prevent the slaughter of innocents or correct some perceived slight, maybe we should look for a Phineas and a team of world leaders to sit down with the other side and talk out the differences before we resort to a war where nobody wins. Maybe we should seek peace and study war no more.
Let us pray.
This is our prayer, O God of all the nations, a prayer of peace for lands afar and mine. This is our home, the country where our heart is; here are our hopes, our dreams, our holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as ours. This is our prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms: Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done. Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him, and hearts untied learn to live as one. O hear our prayer, thou God of all the nations; ourselves we give thee; let thy will be done. In Jesus’ name, the Prince of Peace, we pray, Amen.