Ai was not Jericho

Joshua’s defeat of Jericho was an amazing and unique event. Bringing down the walls of a city by walking around it thirteen times over the course of a week was quite a feat. It was a feat of obedience as the people did exactly what the Lord had told them to do: it’s hard to imagine the tactic being included in a military handbook. It was a miracle from the hand of God. According to Hebrews 11, it was by faith that the walls fell.

There is no evidence of Joshua trying the same strategy anywhere else. Certainly not at Ai, the next city to fall. In fact Ai turned out to be something of a disaster, with Achan’s sin bringing about the Lord’s displeasure and causing defeat (Joshua’s leaders had also been quite complacent about the task). The eventual strategy for Ai involved a more conventional strategy (see Joshua 8).

Two cities, two strategies. There was no one size fits all strategy, no formula which, if repeated, guaranteed identical results. God’s plan for dealing with Ai was different from his plan to deal with Jericho.

Years ago I read the following story, told against himself, by Jamie Buckingham. It’s a cautionary tale about trying to limit God to a formula.

Though I was not scheduled to preach at the early service, I was directing the worship time. Jimmy Smith, our soloist, was singing from the piano. It was powerful, moving. “I will pour water on him who is thirsty . . .”

As he finished, I whispered to the guest preacher seated beside me, “I’m going to minister a bit before you preach.” He nodded. I walked to the pulpit just as the music finished.

“Please bow your heads and close your eyes,” I said. Jimmy caught the mood of the moment and continued to play softly. I talked about the water of the Holy Spirit that softens the parched earth of our lives. I asked the people to let him come into their lives. Jimmy sang another stanza. Some people slipped to their knees. I closed by asking them to receive the seed of the Word the preacher was about to sow in their lives.

After the service, the guest preacher said, “That was great. Could you repeat it at the second service?” I swelled a little. It was a good word. Fresh. Spontaneous. I nodded. If a thing is good for one group, why not for the next?

In the second service, before a much larger crowd, Jimmy sang the same song. But something was different. The people were not as responsive. My course, however, was set. Again, with solemn drama, I called the people to prayer.

My own eyes were closed. My head bowed. I waited, piously. Instead of the expected silence, however, I heard laughter. It started on the side where my wife and grown children were sitting. It rippled across the congregation, like dry leaves before the wind. I stood there, puffed-up and dumb, wondering what was happening. People were laughing louder and louder.

I opened my eyes and immediately squeezed them shut. In that horrifying way, I knew they were laughing at me. Only then did my mind replay what I had just said: “Please bow your eyes and close your heads.”

Gradually I realized what had happened. What God had done in the early service, I had tried to replicate in my own strength. God, who enjoys a good laugh, too, figured since I was going to take the credit, he would let me do it my way. And my way is to stick my foot in my mouth.

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