I love the people of RIC. Over the years I have been here I have met the most extraordinary people and have been privileged to hear the stories of many of their lives.
We read in the news about people who are sexually promiscuous, about children who are abused, about youth who prostitute themselves for drugs and alcohol, about burglars and thieves, about adulterers – and I have had the privilege of knowing people whom God rescued from these backgrounds and brought into his family. No one meeting them in church would ever suspect that they had this past. This is the story of the church. God takes broken people with shattered lives and makes them whole.
The story of Rahab in the book of Joshua is a great example of this. Rahab was a prostitute who lived and worked in a house built in the city wall. She operated at the lower end of society. Everyone knew who she was and what she did. She entertained the men of Jericho as well as the visitors who came to Jericho. In a line from a Paul Simon lyric, “She was a high school queen with nothing left to lose.”
When Joshua sent two spies to Jericho to see what they could discover before they attacked, where did they go? Where do you go in a town to get information? The best place to go is a bar where stories are told. Rahab had contact with many visitors and she heard the news of the region. She also heard what the officials of Jericho were thinking. So the spies came to her house and stayed there.
2 The king of Jericho was told, “Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” 3 So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”
Somehow the king discovered the spies were in his city. Maybe the guards at the gate heard them speak with a strange accent. Maybe the spies asked questions that made someone suspicious. However it was, the king sent soldiers to Rahab to bring the spies to him.
But then Rahab lied. She said they had come and left at dusk when it was time to close the city gate, but she had already hidden the two men under some flax on her roof. (Flax is a plant used to make linen and linseed oil.) The soldiers went off in pursuit of the two spies, she went about her business, and then when it was dark and time for sleep, she went up on the roof and said to the spies.
“I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you,
This was the information the spies were looking for. Taking this information back to Joshua and the other leaders would give them confidence when they attacked Jericho. But then something completely unexpected happened. Rahab made a confession of faith.
11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
Rahab abandoned whatever gods were served by the people of Jericho and aligned herself with Israel and their god. “For the Lord your God is God” “Your God,” the god of the spies, Rahab said, “is God.”
This is a confession of faith that makes us think of Ruth’s declaration to Naomi, (Ruth 1:16)
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.
Rahab, a Canaanite, made a confession of faith just as Ruth, a Moabite, made a confession of faith. And then Rahab asked for mercy.
12 “Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign 13 that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—and that you will save us from death.”
They responded with gratitude.
14 “Our lives for your lives!” the men assured her. “If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the Lord gives us the land.”
15 So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall. 16 She said to them, “Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.”
A short time later Joshua and his army came to Jericho, they marched around the city each morning for six days and then on the seventh day, they marched around seven times, gave a great shout, the walls collapsed, and the army rushed in. They kept the word of the two spies. (Joshua 6:24–25)
24 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the Lord’s house. 25 But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.
What happened to Rahab after this? The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel indicates that she married Salmon, from the tribe of Judah. (Matthew 1:5–6)
5Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
6and Jesse the father of King David.
Salmon is identified as one of the two spies who entered Jericho so this has the making of a wonderful love story. Rahab and her family are rescued. Salmon tells everyone how brave she was and how wonderful she was to them. He introduces her to his family and friends. Rahab is grateful to Salmon for having rescued her. Over time they realize they are attracted to each other and then comes her marriage to this highly respected man of Israel. Rahab and Salmon have a child who marries Ruth, the Moabite, and Rahab becomes the great-grandmother of King David.
Rahab became a highly revered woman in Israel’s history. The writer of Hebrews listed her as one of the heros of the faith. (Hebrews 11:31)
By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
In his discussion of why faith without works is dead, James used Rahab as an example. (James 2:25)
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?
Because she was held in such high esteem, both Jewish and Christian commentators have tried to change her image by depicting her as simply an innkeeper rather than a prostitute. After all, followers of God are respectable people, aren’t they? Years after the fall of Jericho, when people met Rahab, the wife of Salmon, they were impressed by her character. Until they heard her tell of her early years, they would not have been able to imagine that she had once lived that life.
This was true also of Mary Magdelene, one of the women who followed Jesus, who was at the cross when he died, went to the tomb on Easter morning, spoke with Jesus in the garden, and then rushed to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. (Luke 8:1–3)
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Mary Magdalene had been a woman possessed by demons, seven of them. There were other women who followed Jesus after having been possessed by demons. Demon possessed women were not and are not respectable women. They were mocked, abused, mistreated, avoided. Then they met Jesus and were delivered from their demons. They began a new life. No wonder they followed Jesus. They were transformed by Jesus and in the years of the early church they were highly regarded women, leaders in the church.
We have a much better picture of the behavior of a demon possessed person in Luke 8:26–29
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.
Naked, dangerous, isolated. This was this man’s life. People had tried to control him by chaining him and failed. People feared him and so he was pushed out to the edge of civilization where he lived in caves like an animal. When Jesus confronted the demons, cast them out, and the people from town arrived to see what had happened, he was already a changed man.
When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind;
Then, in what seems a very strange reaction to me, the people were afraid. They asked Jesus to leave and he left.
38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
We don’t know the rest of the story but this was a transformed man. He is not named in the gospels but I hope his name is written in the book of life because I would love to meet him.
Let me make five observations from these stories.
The first is that it is the work of Jesus to take broken people and rescue them. As they submit to Jesus the Holy Spirit begins the work of transformation, making these broken people whole. Sinners are transformed into saints.
People like going to Greece and Turkey to visit the sites of the early churches started by Paul. Imagine that you could take a tour in which Paul would be your guide, bringing you back in time to when he was working in these churches. As you walk into the church in Corinth you meet men and women, girls and boys who greet you with smiles. These are wonderful people and it is a thrill to meet them. As you look around you might wonder how these people came to put their faith in Jesus.
Paul tells us a little bit about the members of the church in Corinth. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
The church was filled with people who had been people you would not have wanted to meet in a dark alley and now you look around and see the beaming faces of transformed people.
This happened in the ministry of Jesus, in the ministry of Paul, and has continued to happen throughout the centuries of church history. In the 21st century the power of God continues to come to broken people living shattered lives and they are rescued, redeemed, healed, and made beautiful.
The second observation is that this process of transformation from brokenness to wholeness is inevitable.
God created the world from nothing. In Genesis we read (Genesis 1:1–2)
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
The unlimited creativity of God hovered and then exploded with the creation of all the majesty, beauty, and diversity of creation. God’s creativity did not get used up in creating this world. Sin spoiled God’s creation but God’s creativity continues to be at work and when another man or woman is rescued, that creativity begins to make new. We begin to be re-created, to become who God meant for us to be.
In John’s revelation he describes a glimpse he had into the future. (Revelation 21:1–5)
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
God will make everything new and he is making everything new. What will be true in heaven is becoming true on earth. Let me share a story about how wonderfully God is at work.
Jackie Pullinger worked among gangs and drug addicts in Hong Kong and tells a story about a seventy-two year old woman. This woman had been a prostitute for about sixty years, ever since she was a young girl. At the age of seventy-two she was too old to work as a prostitute so she sat outside the brothel in the Walled City, a place of utter degradation. Her job was to use a stick to keep the sewers running.
She was a heroin addict and injected herself all over her body, her legs, her arms. The only place left for her to inject herself was her back. She was desperate for help and Jackie Pullinger loved her, led her to Christ, and her life began to change. She came to live in one of Jackie’s first stage houses, for people who had not yet shown they genuinely wanted to change. Then she moved into the community.
To begin with, because she was so hurt, she was quite difficult, but as time went on her life began to change and she began to find healing.
Then she met a man named Little Wa who was 75 years old. They were engaged to be married. They got married. And Jackie described it as “the wedding of the century.”
This woman who had been used and abused all her life, who had sunk into the depths of degradation and abused herself, walked down the aisle dressed in white. She was cleansed, forgiven, made new by Jesus Christ. Like the members of the church in Corinth she was washed, she was sanctified, she was justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
A third observation is that there is no shame in telling our story.
Jewish and Christian commentators tried to cover up the shame of Rahab having been a prostitute because that is not a respectable occupation and we want to be respectable people. This is why Christians can so easily forget their past and project the image of being wonderful, morally proper people. This is why Christians can so easily judge people who exhibit non-Christian behavior.
The problem with this tendency is that it encourages the sin of pride. We want to share a testimony that tells how we, at an early age, gave our life to Jesus and made good choices all our lives so that now we stand on the Word of God and help widows and orphans. We don’t want to talk about how needy we were. We don’t want to talk about how desperate we were, how hopeless our lives were, how we found hope at the end of a rope.
We want to lift up ourselves, not Jesus. But when we tell our story of how we came to faith with honesty, insight, and integrity, the glory goes to God for all that he did for us. If we tell our story so that people walk away thinking about how wonderful we are, we have missed the mark.
We don’t glorify our sinful past, but we don’t hide it either. We are not proud of our past but we don’t need to be shamed by it. We share honestly and allow the glory to go to God for how magnificently he rescued us. Those who hear our stories are encouraged to see how powerful, loving, and creative Jesus is in his work.
This leads to a fourth observation: we are all broken.
I have heard people say that they wish they had a more dramatic testimony. A man stands up and talks about his drug addiction, being in a biker gang, and then finding Jesus. And then someone says, “I don’t have much of a story to tell. There is no such obvious sin in my past. I wish I had a better testimony.”
First of all, I have never talked with someone with a dramatic testimony who doesn’t wish they had not experienced the things they did. There is so much pain and suffering in those stories. Every one of them would trade their story for a story without dramatic sin in it.
Secondly, the focus on a dramatic testimony speaks of a surface, external sin. The root of sin goes far deeper than our surface behavior. We tend to have a superficial view of sin that allows us to reject the town drunk and respect the town mayor. But when we see ourselves in the light of heaven, in the light of the grandeur and majesty of God, then we see that what makes us sinners is not that different from what makes other people sinners.
Someone recovering from drug or sexual addiction may focus on no longer taking drugs, getting drunk, or engaging in inappropriate sexual practices. But when this battle is lost, they slip back into old behaviors. What is needed is to go deeper into the roots of our being, dealing with pride, selfishness, needs for approval and recognition. When we deal with sin at this deep level. We are less likely to step back into old, destructive behaviors.
From heaven’s perspective, it is the deep, internal level where we sin. We choose ourselves before others. We struggle with insecurity. We worry about how others perceive us. We struggle with feeling loved and being lovable. This affects our external behavior and some behaviors may be more destructive than others, but we are all affected by our internal sin.
Paul wrote in Romans 3:23
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Not all have committed adultery but all have sinned. Not all have abused their body with sex and drugs, but all have sinned. This is where the town drunk and the town mayor find common ground. The internal struggle to sacrifice pride at the altar is shared by all.
This leads to the fifth observation. When we see that we are all sinners and that God can make the worst sinner clean, then that changes how we view people. God is at work in the life of every person on earth. We need to know that. There is not a person alive who God does not want to bring into his kingdom. We see people behaving in ways that disgust us, but the creative and loving power of God is at work and when his love breaks into that person’s life, transformation will come.
When I see the outrageous exhibitionism in gay parades, I am appalled. I am full of judgment. When I am with people who seem intent on violating every one of the ten commandments in as short a time as possible, I make judgments about those people. When I see someone with power abusing others who don’t have power, I am filled with anger. When I observe hypocrisy in action, I am furious with those who are hypocritical.
I have to remember that while my heart is not filled with love for these people, Jesus loved them enough to die for them. Jesus loves them and is working in their lives to rescue them. There is no one who is beyond the saving arm of Jesus and Jesus can make the foulest heart clean.
Number one, I need to have a deeper understanding of my own sinfulness. I am a sinner saved by grace. Number two, I need to take on the heart of Jesus for the people in the world. My judgment is an obstacle Jesus has to work around as he loves people and works to bring them into his kingdom. I don’t want to be an obstacle to Jesus. I want to help him, not make his work more difficult.
I need to see people from an eternal perspective. C.S. Lewis reflected on this and wrote: (The Weight of Glory)
It is a serious thing, to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Because we view ourselves and each other with earthly eyes, we see huge differences between us. Some of us are viewed as being better than others. I went to a reception last week and met new admirals and generals in the US military. These are highly impressive people, intelligent and hard-working. They are high achievers. The day before the reception I sat and prayed with Ben and his three children who were returning to Liberia. Ben is not viewed by the world the same way these generals and admirals are, but I had the gift of being able to see them all in the same light. Ben is also a talented man but he has not had the same advantages these admirals and generals received. More importantly, Ben is on a journey, just as these admirals and generals are on a journey. It may be that Ben is actually farther ahead in this journey than some of these military leaders.
The people the world judges need to be loved by us, not judged. We need to love and not judge. And when the world judges us, we need to know we are loved and not allow the world’s judgment to affect us.
God picked up Rahab from the rubble of Jericho and the rubble of her life and transformed her into a woman who was given great respect. God picked up me from my insecure meandering and began the work of transforming me. You may have a past that carries with it some dramatic sin. You may have a past that carries with it respectable sin. Go deeper. Draw near to Jesus and see the intensity of his love and glory. In that light, see the interior sin that makes us all stand on common ground. Let healing take place at that deep level. And then let that transform your relationships with others you meet.
God is making all things new. He is transforming you to be as you will be seen in heaven. He is creating beauty in you. When you fall, he will pick you up. Out of the ashes of your life, beauty will rise. And what God is doing in you he can do in every person who turns to him.