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. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites.  I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.  Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.  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.  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 .” …Joshua 1:1-9
When I was eight years old I started at a new school. I don’t remember that auspicious day very well, but I do remember visiting the school for the first time. When we pulled up we met someone who I thought was the school gardener, but who actually turned out to be the headmaster! He was always known as Mr Peter, and he really was quite a character. On my tour of the school grounds with him we found an egg shell which he asked me to hold on to, very carefully. I remember clutching that shell for ages and ages. I think he must have forgotten about it! It wasn’t until the end of the tour that the shy, timid seven year old me had the courage to speak up and remind him of what I had been holding. He then explained to me all about the shell-the type of bird that had laid it, how long it would have sat on it, and why we had found a bit of it where we had.
There have been many times in my life that I’ve felt like a broken piece of eggshell, which without care would just crumble apart, or be broken into pieces.
Yet I’ve also felt that I’ve been able to draw comfort from being in the hand of God, a God who will protect me and look after me all the days of my life. A God who cherishes me and cares for me.
I only spent two years at this particular school, but I have incredibly strong and, for the most part, happy memories of my time there. One of the many things that I have been unable to forget is the school motto – Be Strong and of Good Courage – partly because it is so different from the motto of my senior school, which was “we ne’er wonne nor ne’er shall!” Be Strong and of Good Courage has almost become a life verse for me.
It is taken of course from the beginning of the book of Joshua, when Joshua is commissioned by God to succeed Moses as the leader of his people as they head for the promised land. We have just heard this text read to us.
I think one of the reasons that these verses have resonated with me down through the years is precisely because I am neither particularly strong nor courageous! There have certainly been many occasions when I have been frightened and dismayed, and perhaps not drawn on the courage that I should have had because the LORD my God is with me wherever I go.
One of the times when I felt most frightened and dismayed came in late September of 1997. Having gained good A Level results I found myself moving into a room in a Hall of Residence at Newcastle University, where I was to begin studying for a degree in Ancient History with Greek and Latin. As my parents drove me up to Newcastle, I got a strong sense of forboding. As we unloaded my possessions, something did not feel right. As I queued up to register in the main university building, I felt that I was making a wrong decision. When we returned to my room, I knew that I didn’t belong at Newcastle University. I explained this to my parents who suggested that I should sleep on it. I didn’t want to stay in my room, so stayed with them in a hotel near the university. That night I knew something was wrong. I knew that part of it was simply nerves at starting the next chapter in my life, but at the same time it felt much more than that. I prayed and prayed, I wept and wept. It felt like I was walking into a wall, a wall without a door, a wall that was impossible to pass through. I’m sure that God was telling me not to stay. I couldn’t explain why, and I can’t really explain how I got that sense that I was taking a wrong turning, but it ultimately felt that I was not supposed to be staying in Newcastle. Thankfully my parents were very understanding and we drove back home together the next day! They did explain that since I was not going to go to university, I needed to find a job, which I promptly did, and a few weeks later I found myself working at Marks and Spencer in Crawley.
It’s funny how when you look back on your life it is much easier to see the path that God has marked out for you than when you’re actually in the moment, trying to live your life. Not going to university seemed like such a strange thing to be doing. My friends and family had all expected me to go. My school expected me to go. I expected to go. But with hindsight I can look back on that decision as one of the most inspired I have ever taken. I spent two years in the real world, gaining valuable life experience. I was then made redundant and found myself wondering what to do with my life. At that point I opted to study History and Politics at the University of Essex, which was one of the most profoundly formative experiences both of my life and faith. It was there that I felt I came closer to God than at any previous time. It was there that I learnt what it really means to be a Christian. It was there that I learnt to more fully place my confidence in God’s Word. It was there that I decided I wanted to be a teacher. And it was there that I met the person who would introduce me to my wife. Had I stayed at Newcastle, my life would be very, very different to the life I now lead – very happily.
Of course, it would be easy to say – but Si, all this may well have happened if you had stayed at Newcastle, but I really do not think that that is true. I was a profoundly different man when I started at Essex in 1999 compared to the nervous and naïve boy I had been in 1997.
I wonder how different our lives would be if we all lived by Joshua 1:9, “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.” How different would life be if we defeated any sense of discouragement in our lives by trusting that God is with us?
Be strong and courageous, for whichever direction our lives take, whether it is the one that we anticipated, the one that others expected we would take, or a completely different path, the LORD will be with us always.
Perhaps if we trusted in that verse more, sought to eradicate discouragement from our lives, and trusted that God will be with us wherever we go, we might all live a little more adventurously, and not merely follow the obvious pathway.
Of course, God makes it clear to Joshua here that he must have God’s Word always on his lips. God’s Word here is referred to as the Book of the Law, but we might take this to mean the whole Bible. God stresses to Joshua the importance of knowing God’s word “so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.” Knowing God’s word, trusting God’s word, and striving to live by God’s word is part of being strong and courageous. Living by God’s word means turning our backs on earthly wisdom, and striving to live by Godly wisdom. This can often be difficult because it means standing out from the crowd, not following the crowd, but being willing to be different, and being seen to be different.
I’d love to tell you that I have always succeeded in this respect. I have tried, and continue to live my life according to God’s wisdom, but he knows that too often I have failed in this respect.
I remember vividly a conversation I had with a very close friend and colleague in the pub whilst I was in my first teaching role. We were talking about relationships of all things, and my colleague was urging me to pursue a lady we had previously discussed. I explained that I could not do this because she wasn’t a Christian and therefore it wouldn’t be appropriate for me. My colleague asked what on earth I was talking about, since surely I couldn’t be a Christian, because I was an intelligent person. I remember that conversation so vividly because I was concerned that my Christian witness was failing, and that I wasn’t being salt and light in the world. The way I was living my life seemed, to those close to me, to be no different to the way that anyone else following worldly wisdom lived their lives. I also remember it vividly because my colleague evidently did not think that any intelligent person could be a Christian!
What I have found time and time again is that I am happiest, I feel more focused, and I feel less directionless at those times in my life when I have immersed myself in God’s word on a daily basis, striving to listen to him speaking to me through the pages of the Bible. Conversely, at those times in my life when I’ve felt myself lacking direction, when I’ve felt unhappy and most stressed, it is surely no coincidence that I haven’t been reading the Bible as much as I should have been.
I wonder how different my life would be if I truly lived by the standards of Joshua 1:8, meditating on God’s word “day and night”! If I feel happiest, most focused, and least directionless when I have studied God’s word every day, how much happier, how much more focused, how much more direction would I know if actually God’s word was always on my lips, in my head and in my heart?
This passage from Joshua speaks a great deal to me. I wonder if it does to you too?
We can all be greatly comforted by God’s statement to Joshua, “be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”
At the same time, we must remember the other instructions in this passage. “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you, do not turn from it to the right or the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.” And also, “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. They you will be prosperous and successful.”
Be strong and courageous because God is with us.
Be careful to obey God’s law.
Meditate on God’s word day and night.
A challenge to us all, but one which will enable us to live Godly lives, to know God, and ultimately to enjoy eternal life with him through Jesus Christ.