Joshua fought the battle of Jericho…. [all join in] and the walls came tumbling down…
Imagine you were a watchman, a sentry on duty guarding the walls of Jericho: a very necessary occupation, for the city stood in the middle of the fertile plains of central Canaan, and was subject to constant attack by various tribesmen; then as now this was all disputed territory. That’s why the city was so well-fortified, with strong walls, and closely-guarded gates – and so far no-one had succeeded in attacking the city. They had tried all the usual means: night raids, battering rams, catapulting molten pitch and maybe other stuff over the walls, but the city had proved impregnable, and you and your mates had easily warded off all attacks.
But then one day you hear this strange, raucous sound – like nothing you have ever heard before. You look down over the walls, and see this weird procession making its way round the foot of the walls – in silence, apart from this spine-chilling noise produced by rams’ horns, seven of them, blown by strangely-dressed figures. It’s an eerie, terrifying noise. Behind them comes a kind of cupboard on wheels, obviously some sort of sacred emblem – and then a small army of fighting men. Along they go, in silence, and you can’t make it out at all. What’s occurring (as they say)? The procession moves solemnly around the walls, going full circle, and then disappears as suddenly as it arrived. The next day the same thing happens; and the next – and so on for six days, with these priests blowing their ear-splitting trumpets and the army parading in silence behind them. You and the rest of the city guard are seriously worried, but all you can do is watch and wait.
Then, on the seventh day, back they come again; only this time, instead of processing once round the walls, they keep on going – again and again, seven times in all; and finally, the soldiers let out this almighty shout, and total chaos ensues; the walls of the city are collapsing all around you, and in march the invading armies and take control of the city without the least resistance, without a sword being drawn.
It’s a strange, fantastic tale, this story of the battle of Jericho which was no battle: a story from the early annals of Israel. Perhaps it was told to explain how a once-mighty fortified city lost its power overnight, and became a heap of ruins (then as now, the middle east is littered with such sites). Maybe the foundations of the wall, apparently so strong, had been weakened by the din of the rams’-horn trumpets, by an acoustic stratagem. The story was certainly told and re-told as a sign of the superior might of the God of Israel, whose laws and statutes, literally paraded round the city walls in the sacred Ark, prevailed over human strength – so that his chosen people could take possession of the promised land, just as he had promised. This war was a holy war; the seven days’ siege, and the seven circuits of the city, is a sign of this, for seven was a sacred number.
The God of battles, the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament, the god of territory, seems a long way from the words of Jesus in tonight’s second reading, the gentle Jesus who says come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest (though remember how these words follow on words denouncing those cities whose inhabitants had not repented: Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum: he predicted that their downfall would be as sure as that of Tyre and Sidon, two other once-great cities from ancient times.)
What links these two readings is the conviction that resistance to God is futile; God will find a way in. That is true both of nations and communities that set their face against God, but also of individuals, of ourselves. We may imagine, like the watchmen of Jericho, that we are strong, and self-sufficient, and in control of our destinies – but it takes very little for our foundations to collapse, and for the walls to come tumbling down. They turn out to be built, not upon the rock, but upon sand; the storms of life come and beat upon us, and the whole structure, apparently so secure, simply crumbles. It is at such times that we long for God to come in and take control, and break down our resistance. John Donne, the poet who was Dean of St Paul’s in the 1620s, developed this theme in one of his Divine Meditations, imagining how God lays siege against our souls, as against a fortified city; it begins
Batter my heart, three-personed God: for you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new. And it ends
Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthral me, never shall be free…
So we need not, must not resist God, build barriers against God; even if we can keep out everyone else, we cannot keep out God. Rather, it is in joyful submission to God that we find our strength: the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom. Let God enter and take control. Instead of the yoke of self-sufficiency, the heavy burdens of one sort or another that weigh us down, the desperate need to prove ourselves, to go it alone in our own strength, we can take on the yoke of Christ, which is easy to wear. On the other hand, Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it.
And so we pray,
‘Batter my heart, three-personed God’: for ourselves and the church, that we may build in God’s strength alone, and that he will find a way in to our stony hearts; and that all our endeavours – including the Cathedral Close – may be for his glory alone.
A Celtic prayer:
God build your community:
from brokenness and indifference, build love and caring, for you, for each other, for your creation.
God build your community:
from self-centeredness and independence, build friendship and compassion,
for the marginalized, the abandoned and the despised.
God build your community:
from mistrust and misunderstanding, build unity and togetherness, for other peoples, religions and nations.
God build your community:
may we be built together as living stones, bound together by love and joy, linked to all your people,
all the earth and all creation.
‘Knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend’: on this Harvest Festival Sunday, we give thanks for God’s prodigal generosity in creation; for all who work to bring our daily bread, in this country and around the world; for those who cook and bake, that we may share in food and fellowship; and we pray for all who are hungry and thirsty in our world; for a right sharing of earth’s resources, to mend its injustices; for the work of all agencies that help communities to feed themselves, and campaign in the harsh world of agribusiness; and nearer at home, for the work of food banks in this and every community..
A Christian Aid harvest prayer:
The earth is fruitful: may we be generous.
The earth is fragile: may we be gentle.
The earth is fractured: may we be just.
Creating God, harvest in us joy and generosity
as we together share in thanks and giving.
‘Except you enthral me, never shall I be free’: we pray for all who struggle to find their freedom in a chaotic world; all who feel their lives have no meaning; all who are tempted down extremist paths; all who suffer in any way, remembering those for whom our prayers are asked in this place….
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask,
and our ignorance in asking;
we beseech thee to have compassion upon our infirmities;
and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask,
vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.