I am the Captain (Sermon)
I spent one summer traveling across the United States leading week-long youth evangelistic rallies. I was part of a team of 4 college guys who somehow convinced our college to fund our adventures. One week near the end of the summer was spent in Colorado. All summer we looked forward to this week because we were going to go whitewater rafting when the week ended. Whitewater rafting in Colorado, that’s serious adventure.
Our excitement increased as the day drew near. On D-Day we woke up early and made the trek up the mountain. All the way up, we were grunting like cavemen from the Stone Age. Testosterone was hanging thick in the air. Each one of us played sports, fancied ourselves manly men, and was confident that we were in for a day of macho fun.
Once we checked in and paid, we were given the necessary equipment and assigned to a raft. We picked up our equipment and headed down to our raft. There we met our guide—a woman. She couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than we were. Here we were—four self-proclaimed macho men, brimming with testosterone, now paired with a female guide.
As she began giving us instructions, we smiled, smirked and barely listened. “What is she going to teach us?” was the unspoken question tossed back and forth when we caught each other’s eye. After a few minutes of instructions, she had us get inside the raft, while it was still sitting on dry ground, and practice rowing. She would yell out instructions, and we were supposed to respond immediately. By this point, my skepticism had reached a tipping point. I couldn’t believe we were fake rowing on the shore. While we’re doing this, I see other groups heading down the river.
Finally, we push off from the shore and head down the river. While the water was still calm, she forced us to keep practicing. She’d yell a command, and we would grudgingly obey. Finally, we hit some whitewater, and everything began to change. As our inflatable raft bounced from whitecap to whitecap, we stopped evaluating her commands and simply started obeying. After an hour or two, the skepticism had faded, replaced with grudging respect.
Around that time, she warned us about a particularly violent stretch of water coming up, and we prepared ourselves for battle. We gripped our paddles a little more tightly, and wedged our legs inside the raft with more urgency. If you’ve never rafted, you may not realize that you don’t actually sit inside the raft. You sit on the edge of the raft. The only parts of your body inside the raft are you feet and lower legs.
We hit this stretch of whitewater, and it was fierce. She’s barking orders, we’re responding as she yelled—by this point, we’re a smooth-oiled machine. Until we hit an especially nasty wave. My side of the raft goes up in the air, hits the peak and starts to fall. Because of how you sit in the raft, I hit the peak a millisecond later and am pulled back down as the raft descends. That millisecond allowed a tiny bit of space to open up between the raft and my seat. As the raft falls, another rapid strikes, propelling my side of the raft back up into the air. Now I’m being pulled down as the raft is coming back up. We meet and I, like a daring young man on a flying trapeze, go hurtling through the air.
There are a few moments in life when everything moves in slow motion. The raft violently bucking me, my feet flying out of the inside of the raft, and me, while I’m in the air, reaching out and grabbing my friend’s paddle. Thankfully, he didn’t let go.
I hit the water, holding onto his paddle, bouncing through the rapids, when all of the sudden I feel the guide’s hands on my vest. Before we had even started, back when we were sitting in our raft on dry ground being forced to practice, she had told us what would happen if we went in the water. She said that she would push us under the water before pulling us into the raft. Pushing us under would cause our life vests to shoot back to the surface, helping us get out of the water. She pushed me under (and held me there for awhile) and then proceeded to lift me up and hurl me into the bottom of the raft. I swear, she ripped me out of the water and tossed me into the boat.
As I grabbed my paddle, jumped back into my spot and began to row, my perspective on our guide changed. She had become more than a guide. She was now our captain. We didn’t snicker at her commands or greet her warnings with skepticism; we simply obeyed. She had become our leader. We would do what she said. She was more than a guide, dispensing advice. She was a captain, giving orders.
Too many who attend church every weekend look at Jesus Christ like I looked at that woman before she rescued me. They treat him like a guide, someone who loves to offer assistance when needed. Jesus Christ is not much different than the kindly, older gentleman at the entrance to Wal-Mart. He’s there to help you accomplish what you want to do. If you can use His help, that’s great. If not, maybe the next person can.
There’s a tendency to whittle Jesus Christ down to something far less than what He is. We want to cut away the parts of Him that demand our obedience, until all we’re left with is a sweet, little man who gives awesome advice.
I read about a young man, who took the name Morninghawk Apollo when he left Christianity for Wicca. He said, "Ultimately why I left is that the Christian God demands that you submit to his will. In Wicca, it's just the other way around. Your will is paramount. We believe in gods and goddesses, but the deities we choose to serve are based on our wills." [i]
This self-described pagan is more intellectually honest than many professing Christians. He acknowledges that the God of the Bible doesn’t allow Himself to be sliced and diced into little pieces. He can’t be handcrafted to fit our own inclinations. We must either follow Jesus Christ as Lord, or not follow Him at all. There is no third option.
Here in the book of Joshua we discover a small but powerful story that reminds us that Jesus is in charge, that Jesus is far more than a wise guide. He is both commander and chief.
(Joshua 5:10–6:5 ESV) While the people of Israel were encamped at Gilgal, they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening on the plains of Jericho. And the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. And the manna ceased the day after they ate of the produce of the land. And there was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year. When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. Now Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in. And the LORD said to Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor. You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.”
Verses 10-12 set the context for this encounter. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the nation of Israel had just entered the Promised Land. This was the land they had been anticipating. This was the land where they would enjoy the abundant blessings of Almighty God.
The book of Joshua centers on Israel’s occupation of this land. It details their battles against the inhabitants, and their quest to settle in the land. Much of the book describes the division of the land—which tribe received which portion.
Near the end of the book (chapter 21), we find this conclusion:
(Joshua 21:43–45 ESV) Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
Finding rest in the land of promise is what the book of Joshua is all about. You could describe the book as battles and blessings or warfare and rest.
Before the very first battle, Joshua, the leader of Israel, learned a vital lesson. It happened while he was preparing to lead the nation against the walled city and mighty army of Jericho.
Meeting the Messiah
It’s easy to picture Joshua out for a walk late one night as they camped near Jericho. After a long discussion about strategy and tactics with his officers, Joshua decided to get some fresh air and clear his head. He stepped past the sentries and made his way within sight of Jericho. All of the sudden, he noticed a man standing in front of him, sword drawn. Who is this man? Before we go any further, we need to understand his identity.
We know that the armed man standing before Joshua is divine because He makes the same statement that God made in the burning bush. He declared that the ground was holy, and He received Joshua’s worship.
Theologically, it would be easy for us to look back at this situation, recognize that this was God appearing in human form and understand that this must have been Jesus. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we find the Father or the Holy Spirit appearing as a man. So, theologically, we can identify this as the Son, Jesus.
We can also reach this conclusion by remembering a couple of Messianic descriptions earlier in the Bible. Twice the Messiah is described as a military leader, as one who will defeat all of God’s enemies. Moses wrote that the hand of the Messiah “would be on the neck of His enemies” (Gen. 49:8), and that he would “eat up the nations, his adversaries,” and would “break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows” (Numbers 24:8).”
These earlier descriptions of the Messiah help us identify this One standing before Joshua. Who is the captain of God’s army? Who is the One who will defeat Israel’s enemies? Who is the One who would give them rest in the land of promise? It’s the Messiah. Following the Messiah would bring them rest in the Promised Land.
The Captain of the Army
Joshua saw the Messiah standing before him, and he asked, “Are you friend or foe? Ally or enemy?” The Lord’s response, “No.” That’s like answering, “yes” on a true and false question. When you’re a teenager and you ask you your parents, “Do you want me home at 11:30 or midnight?” and your dad replies, “No.” At that moment, you’re reminded of a simple fact. You’re not in charge.
Joshua, the leader of Israel, was not in charge. He may have been the highest-ranking Israelite official, but his rank was meaningless in the presence of Jesus Christ. “I am not on your team or your enemy’s team. I am not assisting you. I am in charge. I am the chief. I am the commander." As commander, Jesus Christ has the privilege and right to command. He gives the orders. The beginning of chapter 6 reminds us that the battle plans are issued by the commander.
What Joshua thought about the commands really did not matter. Notice that Joshua’s opinion is not consulted. Jesus didn’t arrive on the scene and ask for Joshua’s input. He wasn’t there to assist the army. He was there to lead the army. He gave orders. He told Joshua in great detail what He wanted done.
Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker, “Jesus is my co-pilot.” Does Jesus look like a co-pilot here? Did he ask Joshua for a seat at the table? Did He request permission to join the discussion? No, He came as commander.
By this point in his life, Joshua was an accomplished military leader. As Israel journeyed from Egypt to Canaan, they encountered a number of enemies. For much of 40 years, Joshua served as a military general under Moses. Up to this point, he had been a very successful military leader.
His greatest challenge sat directly in front of him. The city of Jericho had walls like Fort Knox. The Israelite army stacked up to Jericho’s army like a squad of pee-wee football players against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His brain had to have been working overtime, analyzing every potential military tactic. “Can we dig under the wall? Can we somehow go over the wall? Or through the wall? What will we do if they circle around behind us?” On and on, his mind must have raced.
Now look at the strategy Joshua received from his captain. They were to silently march around the city once a day for six days. On the seventh day they were to march around seven times. On the seventh lap, the trumpets were to be blown and the people were to scream, and the walls would crumble, killing the city’s inhabitants. How’s that for military strategy?
The commands of our captain may not always make sense to us, but He doesn’t submit His plans for our approval. Faith recognizes the limitations of our perspective. It acknowledges that we cannot comprehend all that our captain is doing. Our role is not to evaluate His commands, but to obey. My problem is that I want see the entire interstate before getting on the ramp. That’s not my call. If Jesus says, “Turn here,” I don’t get a vote.
For some reason, many believers act as if our Lord’s commands are negotiable. “Okay God, I’ll do this one and this one, part of this one but not that one over there.” “God, these three make sense, but those two seem a little suspect. I think I’ll pass.” Imagine a new recruit telling his drill sergeant “No” because he couldn’t imagine how it would help in battle.
We have somehow convinced ourselves that Jesus is merely a wise sage who wants to give us advice. We’ve turned Him into a best buddy or kind grandfather that gives pretty good advice, but advice that is ultimately non-binding. Sadly, we have turned the commands of Jesus into fortune cookies—quaint sayings that may or may not have any bearing on my life.
Brothers and sisters, your spiritual life doesn’t need an elaborate organizational chart. All it says is “Jesus” in big, block type at the top and everything and everyone else well below. The commands of Jesus do not need our approval or our understanding. They demand our obedience.
One of the reasons Jesus gives us commands that we struggle to understand is because of His purpose to remove all source of boasting from men. He could have told Joshua to line up and attack the city. If He had, they would have still defeated Jericho. But His commands revealed His purpose to give victory in such a way that the only explanation was that He did it. No man could claim the glory for Israel’s victory. They could only boast in what the Lord did for them. Since His purpose is to direct all boasting to Himself, it means He will often work in ways we don’t understand. He will often work in ways that seem foolish to us, ways that seem silly to our understanding.
Our commitment needs to be obedience regardless of our level of understanding. God can do what He wants to do in the way He wants to do it. I am not God. I am not God’s counselor. I am not God’s mentor. I am not God’s peer. I am God’s servant. He makes the plans. He issues the orders. I obey. That’s my role. That’s my commitment. A foot soldier is responsible to listen and obey…listen and obey.
A Successful Captain
I need you to use your imagination for just a minute. Imagine that I built a successful time machine. However, because I’m not very brave, I call you to my laboratory and convince you to take the first journey. You, unlike me, are courageous and gladly step into my machine. I spin a few dials, push a button or two, the machine starts spinning and then everything goes black.
You regain consciousness on the back of a horse. You’re sitting in the saddle, feet in the stirrups, traveling down a dusty path. Looking down, you realize you’re in the army. You’ve got a blue uniform with some gold buttons and a pair of shiny leather boots. This uniform isn’t current, but looks like some photos you saw in a history book one time. In front of you and behind you, stretching in both directions, are more soldiers dressed like you.
All of the sudden, the soldier next to you turns in his saddle and asks you a question. “Are you ready?” “Ready for what?” you ask. “Ready to fight this battle, of course.” “I’m not quite sure,” you respond. “Remind me of the plan.” He looks at you quizzically and then begins to tell you about General Custer’s plan to ambush the Indian troops led by Crazy Horse. “We’ve just got to ride through Little Big Horn, and then we’ll attack.”
What would you do at that moment? What goes through your mind? What decision do you make? Whatever you did, it would probably involve galloping the opposite direction. You know how this ends. General Custer led his troops into a mass slaughter. Following the general meant riding into a death trap.
Is that why you’re afraid to follow Jesus Christ? Is that why you won’t give up your autonomy? Why you won’t cede your authority? Are you afraid He’s going to make a mistake?
Look at what happened to Israel when they obeyed the Lord’s commands. Jericho was defeated without a single Israelite lifting their weapon. Every time they listened to His instructions, they were successful in the battle. Their only loss came against the city of Ai when Joshua failed to consult the Captain before the attack. What could Israel have done against Jericho that would’ve been more effective than what happened? Nothing.
(Psalms 18:30 ESV) This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.
Maybe you’re not afraid that He’ll make a mistake, but you’re afraid He’s going to make you miserable. Maybe your hesitation to obey His commands, to submit your will to Him is because you feel that God is anti-joy. The God who created art, music, sex and sport is anti-joy. The One responsible for belly laughter, joyful tears, family reunions, shooting stars and newborn babies is actually a cosmic killjoy, working to make your life miserable.
Listen…don’t believe the lie that you can discover joy on your own apart from Jesus Christ. Don’t believe the lie that following Him is a journey down the streets of Misery City.
Following their Captain led Israel from camping in the wilderness and eating manna to settling down in cities and feasting on milk and honey. This Captain gives orders, and His orders are always perfect.
How are we to respond to our Captain? What does it look like to follow Jesus Christ? Let me suggest 3 basic but vital responses to the leadership…to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Response #1: Humility
Joshua fell on his face to worship. If Jesus is in charge, then we are not. Most of us like to be in charge. We like to be in control. Some of us even like to be in charge of the remote control!
Following Jesus Christ means giving up control. It requires humility about your plans and your powers. It’s acknowledging that you don’t know everything, and you can’t do everything. When we see spiritual arrogance in other people—they think they’ve got it all together…they act like they can handle anything that comes their way—when we see it in them, we’re dumbfounded. But we’re so blind about our own struggle for control. We’re blind to the species of pride that infests our own heart.
Joshua fell on His face and called himself a servant. He understood the role he was to play. In the presence of Jesus, it was clear that Joshua, military genius and national leader, was nothing more than a servant.
When Jesus called the disciples to Himself, He said, “Follow me.” He didn’t say, “Lead me,” or even “walk with me.” He said, “Follow me.” As a servant follows his master and as a soldier follows his captain, we are to humbly follow Jesus Christ.
The reason we need to follow is because we don’t know where we’re going. To get to the banquet table that Jesus spreads means we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and into the presence of our enemies. Which one of us would choose that path if we were leading? Our failure to follow Jesus Christ is so often born out of arrogance, assuming we know better than our resurrected and reigning Lord.
Response #2: Trust
Joshua trusted the commands of his Captain because he trusted the character of his Captain. He knew that this One standing before him was worthy of his faith.
The object of our faith is the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s how we became a Christian. We didn’t become a Christian because we were born into the right family. We didn’t become a Christian because we were baptized in the right church. We didn’t become a Christian because we were doing the right things. If you’re a Christian, it’s only because you placed your faith in the right person—Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, died on the cross for sin, was buried in a cold, dark tomb and rose again three days later. He alone is able to save mankind from sin’s penalty. When you turn from your sin and trust in Him, He saves you. Friend, I urge you to trust Him today for salvation.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ must continue to be the object of our trust. Too often we place our trust in our own reason. Does it make sense to me? Can I figure it out? Sometimes we place our trust in a past experience. What did I do last time? Did it work? Maybe we even place our trust in common sense. What do other people do in this situation? In each instance, we are withholding our trust in Jesus Christ; by action we are implying that He is unworthy of our confidence. In those moments, we are atheistic humanists, denying the existence of God by trusting in the wisdom of man.
Every day needs an injection of faith in Jesus Christ. Warren Weirsbe wrote:
"The people who jest about faith don't realize how big a part it plays in everyday affairs. It takes faith to get married because marriage vows are basically promises. It takes faith to send children off to school. It takes faith to get a prescription filled. It takes faith to eat in a restaurant, deposit money in a bank, sign a contract, drive on the highway, or get on an airplane or an elevator. Faith isn't some kind of religious experience for the elite; it's the glue that helps hold people's lives together. But remember, faith is only as good as its object. If we trust people, we get what people can do; if we trust money, we get what money can do; if we trust ourselves, we get what we can do; if we trust God, we get what God can do." [ii]
Will you trust God for only what He can do today? In the day to day circumstances of your life, will you trust Jesus Christ as your Captain?
Response #3: Obedience
Joshua humbled himself before the Lord, ceding control of his plans and designs. Joshua trusted the Lord’s power and control. And Joshua obeyed. The following chapters detail how Joshua’s belief was displayed in Israel’s actions.
It’s not enough to claim belief. It’s not enough declare faith. Genuine faith is seen in obedient action. A couple of months ago, a famous comedian said:
I have a lot of beliefs .… And I live by none of them. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs. I just like believing them—I like that part….They make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I [just do what I want to do]. [iii]
We can refer to Jesus Christ as Lord when we pray. We can slap bumper stickers that say, “My Boss is a Carpenter” on the back of our car. We can speak fluent Christianese when we talk about Jesus. But the proof is in our actions. Does your life reflect the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Do your actions reveal that you are governed by the commands of Jesus Christ? Does you conduct match your confession? If you were accused of being a Christian, is their enough evidence in your actions to convict you?
If there isn’t, you’re simply playing a game of spiritual politics—saying one thing but doing another. Let me be frank: listening to Jesus as a wise guide never saved a soul from hell. Only submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, pledging your life and allegiance to Him as captain will save you from the wrath of God.
Following the Captain brought Israel victory over Jericho, and ultimately, it brought rest in the land of promise. Jesus invites all those who long for rest to come to Him. Come to Him, follow Him and find rest in His care. Jesus won’t be your guide, only your Captain. But what a Captain He is! You must follow Him as Captain, or not follow Him at all. It’s your choice. What choice have you made?
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2012.
[I] Drew Dyck, "The Leavers," Christianity Today (November, 2010), p. 43; excerpted from Generation Ex-Christian (Moody, 2010)
[ii] Warren Wiersbe, Men of Integrity, Vol. 1, no. 2.
[iii] Quoted from David Zahl, "So Nice of Louis C.K. to Think of That (But Never Do It)," Mockbird.com blog (12-14-11)