Next Man Up
April 8, 2019
This is the first message in a series called “Building the Future” from the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament. Let’s begin with the observation that Joshua takes his place as one of the greatest military leaders in history. He stands in the top rank with Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Napoleon, and the Duke of Wellington. General Joshua compares favorably with the best military leaders America has ever produced.
His story begins this way:
“After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead” (Joshua 1:1-2).
That sounds like very bad news. Moses is dead!
Moses is dead!
He confronted Pharaoh.
He called down the plagues.
He parted the Red Sea.
He met God on Mt. Sinai.
He led the people through the wilderness.
“Moses is dead!” What will we do?
“Moses is dead!” Who will lead us?
“Moses is dead!” We might as well go back to Egypt.
Most of you have heard of John and Charles Wesley. John was the preacher who traveled across England and up and down the East Coast of America. His brother Charles wrote over 9000 hymns, including “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” God used them to ignite a movement of gospel preaching and holy living that has lasted more than 280 years. In 1876 a monument was erected in their memory in Westminster Abbey in London. At the base are these words by Charles Wesley, “God buries his workmen, but carries on his work.”
That could be the theme of the opening verses of Joshua 1:
God’s workers die, but God’s work goes on.
Moses is dead.
God’s workers die, but God’s work goes on.
Football coaches like to say, “Next man up!” It means you have to be ready at all times because you never know when your name will be called. If a starter gets injured, it’s next man up.
Joshua was God’s next man up.
We only know a few basic facts about his background. He is called the “son of Nun,” and we know he came from the tribe of Ephraim. In Hebrew his name means “Jehovah saves.” He spent forty years as Moses’ #1 assistant. He and Caleb were the two spies who brought back a good report when Moses sent out 12 spies at Kadesh-Barnea. Since we know Caleb was 40 years old at that time (Joshua 14:7), we can assume Joshua was the same age or a few years younger, which means as this book opens, he must have been at least 65 years old. I take from that the good news that God loves to use older men and women.
Joshua was God’s next man up!
Above everything else, he was a soldier. He knew how to lead, how to fight, and how to win. He must have been a brilliant tactician because he led the Jews to a long series of victories over the Canaanites, starting with the brilliant attack on Jericho.
He was not as famous as Moses, but that is no criticism because he served God just as Moses did. Moses walked with God in a way Joshua didn’t, but Joshua won battles Moses could not fight.
Can God be trusted once our leaders are gone?
Here’s a simple outline of the book:
Taking the Land (Chapters 1-12)
Settling the Land (Chapters 13-22)
Retaining the Land (Chapters 23-24)
For each of these sections, we can discern a simple command:
Taking the Land: Fight!
Settling the Land: Move in!
Retaining the Land: Be faithful!
What will happen now?
The people of God face a big question. Moses is dead. What will happen now? Behind that question lies a bigger theological issue: Can God be trusted once our leaders are gone? We all face that question sooner or later.
The pastor we loved is leaving our church. What will happen now?
My husband of 51 years has died. What will happen now?
The founder of the ministry is gone. What will happen now?
“Nothing That Matters Has Changed”
I can recall a conversation from thirty years ago that took place shortly before I left Texas to pastor a church in Chicago. As a young man who grew up in the South, Chicago seemed like a foreign country to me. I remember visiting the church and feeling out of place. Chicago seemed too big, too fast, and too crowded for me. Besides, the people talked funny, which of course is what they said about me. It was a different world than the one I had known. I felt unequal to the task and fearful of what might happen. One day my friend Michael Green took me out for lunch. He understood my uncertainty and knew I felt overwhelmed at the idea of moving to Chicago. I can still picture us standing in the parking lot chatting before we parted ways. He told me, “Ray, don’t worry about anything. You’ll do fine in Chicago. Just go up there and preach the same gospel you’ve always preached. Be yourself and things will work out fine.” He ended with this exhortation: “Remember, nothing that matters has changed. You have the same God, the same Bible, the same Jesus, and the same gospel. The surroundings may be different, but the message is the same.” He closed by repeating his main point: “Nothing that matters has changed.”
He was right.
Nothing that matters has changed
But it takes time to figure that out. After the death of Moses, the Jews must now discover that truth for themselves. Moses is dead, but nothing that matters has changed.
Each generation must answer the same questions:
Can we trust God in this new situation?
Can we trust God when so much has changed?
Can we trust God when our leaders have left us?
Or said another way,
The God of Abraham, is he our God too?
The God of Isaac, is he our God too?
The God of Jacob, is he our God too?
Now the Jews must find the answer to this question:
The God of Moses, is he our God too?
You have to find out for yourself
Christian young people must figure this out. Each generation must find the answer to the question, can we still trust God today? It doesn’t matter what I say. You’re going to have to go to the Jordan River and find out for yourself.
With that in mind, let’s look at four steps to the future as they are revealed in the first few verses of Joshua 1.
Step # 1: Let Go of the Past
“Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River” (v. 2).
Is it a bad thing that Moses is dead? No! He served God in his own generation, and when his work was done, God took him home. This is the normal order of things. No one lives forever. Some leaders must go so that others may arise.
It’s okay to miss the past, but don’t miss the future because you’re living in the past. The Lord gave me a series of simple statements I call the First Law of Spiritual Progress:
I can’t go back.
I can’t stay here.
I must go forward.
I can’t go back
I can’t stay here
I must go forward
You can’t go back to the past—not to relive the good times or to undo the mistakes you made. But you can’t stay where you are either. Life is a river that flows endlessly onward. It matters not whether you are happy in your present situation or whether you seek deliverance from it. You can’t stay where you are forever. The only way to go is forward. When you are tempted to despair, remember that you can’t go back, you can’t stay where you are, but by God’s grace, you can move forward one step at a time.
Step # 2: Get Ready to Move Forward
“Get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites” (v. 2).
The following verses talk about the extent of the land God promised to his people. God never intended for his people to have a little toehold in the Middle East. He wanted them to build a nation that would stretch from the desert to Lebanon and from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean Sea. God promised this vast area to them if they would only move out and take it: “I will give you every place where you set your foot” (v. 3). If they did not take possession of all that God had promised (and they didn’t), it wouldn’t be God’s fault. He would give them as much land as they could stand on. That’s quite a promise and quite a challenge.
Opportunities and enemies often go together.
For the moment, let’s focus on what they had to do first. They must cross the Jordan River. But what’s on the other side of the river? The Promised Land and the enemy. They crossed at a spot not far from Jericho with its enormous double walls, reminding them that they must fight to obtain all God had promised them. But this is not unusual. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, he offers this comment on the situation in Ephesus: “A great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me” (1 Corinthians 16:9). That’s always the case, isn’t it? Opportunities and enemies often go together. Dr. Bob Jones Sr. put it this way: “The door of opportunity swings on the hinges of opposition.”
Here’s the message to God’s people:
“The door of opportunity swings on the hinges of opposition”
You can stay where you are, but the action is somewhere else.
You can stay where you are, but the miracles start at the Jordan River.
You can stay where you are, but God is calling you to move forward.
What God said to his people then, he says to us now. If we want to see God work, we must move forward by faith, knowing that as we go through the open doors, adversaries await us.
Will we have the courage to go forward anyway?
Step # 3: Affirm the Promise of God
“No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you” (v. 5).
As you think about this amazing promise, don’t overlook one little phrase: “As I was with Moses.” Joshua knew all about Moses because he had been his right-hand man for many years. Moses stood before Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go.” When Pharaoh said no, Moses said it again. Eventually God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not show mercy. Then the plagues came down—boils and frogs and darkness and hail and water turned to blood. Pharaoh still would not relent. Finally, one terrible night the death angel passed over the land, taking the life of every firstborn child in Egypt. Only those with the blood of a lamb on the doorpost were spared. Only then did Pharaoh grudgingly relent.
Moses! What a man!
When the people of God were trapped at the Red Sea, Moses stretched out his staff and the waters parted, so they walked across on dry ground. Later Moses went up the mountain to talk to the Lord face to face. He came down with the Ten Commandments written in stone by the finger of God. Miracle after miracle happened while Moses was alive.
For 40 years their shoes never wore out.
For 40 years they never ran out of food.
For 40 years they never lost a battle.
Moses! What a man!
Now he is dead.
Will God be with Joshua as he was with Moses?
The answer is yes.
Why? Because God said, “I will never leave you.”
That’s a wonderful promise.
About a week after my bike accident in early January that left me with a mangled ankle, Harry Bollback called me after my first surgery to see how I was doing. He was as cheerful and as chipper as he could be. He gave me a word of advice: “Don’t say you had an accident. Christians don’t have accidents. We only have incidents. What happened to you on the trail was an incident the Lord allowed in your life.” That’s just a shorthand version of Romans 8:28.
Christians don’t have accidents. They have incidents.
As I thought about what Harry said, it cheered me up. The ice on the trail didn’t happen randomly. Who was behind that? God! Who was dumb enough to ride his bike on the ice? Me! I’ll take responsibility for my part of it. God knew what was going to happen that day. He allowed my bike wreck as part of his plan for my life. I have no doubt about that.
Most of us know the antiphonal chant between the pastor and the congregation that goes like this:
Pastor: God is good.
Congregation: All the time.
Pastor: And all the time.
Congregation: God is good.
Somewhere I read that that chant started in the churches of Nigeria. When I mentioned that in one of my sermon emails, I got a note the next week from a lady in Lagos, Nigeria who said, “It’s true. We do say that in our churches. But we add something. After we say that chant, everyone then says in unison: ‘I am a witness.’”
I am a witness!
Then I heard about a church that said it this way:
God is good,
All the time,
In every situation,
No matter what.
So I put it together this way:
God is good,
All the time,
In every situation,
No matter what,
I am a witness!
That’s the deeper meaning of the promise God made to Joshua in verse 5.
It’s not a promise of an easy road.
It’s not a promise of unlimited victory.
It’s not a promise of no tears.
After all, Joshua is a book of battles. Read the early chapters, and you will discover they are filled with the sound of fighting.
God is saying, “You’ve got to fight for the land I am giving you. But I will go with you as you go.”
Step # 4: Choose the Hard Road of Obedience
Now we come to some very familiar words. After promising to be with Joshua, the Lord now tells him what he must do in order to succeed.
“Be strong and courageous,
because you will lead these people to inherit the land
I swore to their ancestors to give them.
“Be strong and very courageous
Be careful to obey all the law
my servant Moses gave you;
do not turn from it to the right or to the left,
that you may be successful wherever you go.
Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips;
meditate on it day and night,
so that you may be careful to do
everything written in it.
Then you will be prosperous and successful.
Have I not commanded you?
Be strong and courageous.
Do not be afraid;
do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be
with you wherever you go” (vv. 6-9).
Three times God tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.” No doubt Joshua felt overwhelmed at the prospect of taking Moses’ place as the leader of God’s people. Knowing his doubts, the Lord tells him, “Don’t be afraid because I will be with you wherever you go.
God’s promise has a condition
But there’s a catch here. God’s promise comes with a condition. Joshua and the people must be careful to obey all the law Moses had given them. For that generation, it primarily meant the Book of Deuteronomy. For us today, it means the whole Word of God. The commands are simple:
Know God’s Word (v. 7).
Talk about God’s Word (v. 8a).
Meditate on God’s Word (v. 8b).
Obey God’s Word (v. 8c).
Note the phrase “Be careful to obey” the law (v. 7). I suppose you could flip that around and say, “Unless we are careful to obey, we will find reasons not to obey.” No one drifts into holiness by accident. No one becomes godly without personal effort. It’s like saying, “Be careful to stay on your diet,” because if you aren’t careful, you’ll ditch your diet the day you start it. That’s just human nature, isn’t it?
No one drifts into holiness by accident
But this is not drudgery or a heavy burden. God promises success if the people will be careful to obey.
Why God Used Joshua
Let’s stand back from this story and ask ourselves why God used Joshua in such a big way. Let me suggest three answers:
- When Moses died, Joshua was ready because he had been preparing himself for years.
- When God called him, Joshua had no master plan, only a determination to obey.
- When he ordered the people to move out, he had no advance knowledge of the future, but he set out anyway.
Joshua was a prepared man, a called man, and an obedient man. Mark Bailey, the president of Dallas Seminary, said, “God often confirms his will after we obey, not before.” Did Joshua know how the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down? No, but he moved out anyway. What Joshua did, any of us can do if we are willing to trust God and step out in faith.
Let’s wrap up this message up with three statements of 21st-century application:
1. When we let go of the past, we are free to pursue God’s vision for our future.
2. When we lead with courage, others will follow our example.
3. When we dare to trust and obey, miracles begin to happen.
When we dare to trust and obey, miracles happen
There is much more to Joshua’s story, but this is a good place to stop for the moment. John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” Billy Graham said, “Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”
Moses is dead, but God is alive.
Next Man Up.
God’s workers die, but God’s work goes on.
Lord, we thank you for Joshua’s story. Grant us that same kind of gritty faith to obey you no matter what. Help us to be faithful until the day you call us home. In Jesus’ name, Amen.