Not long after the American Civil War ended my great grandfather, Harke Boersma, left Pella, Iowa with a group of other recent Dutch immigrants to homestead in the Northwest Iowa territory. In the first few years of trying to settle and cultivate the land, locusts came and devoured the crops. Many pioneer families left to find better prospects elsewhere. Those who remained, who tried again in spite of the setbacks (like Harke) lived on to see bright and productive futures in that corner of the Great Plains.
I should have remembered the stuff my ancestors were made of as I worked through the second year of my pastoral studies many years ago. Following the path of most seminarians, my first ministry experience was as a youth pastor. All went well for a while, until the locusts showed up. Disagreement about vision for the ministry, expectations from the parents, the senior pastor and myself, and the too-late realization that I was not spiritually mature enough to handle the onslaught all this ate away at my soul. Six months was all I could handle, so I resigned.
Depression ensued. "Why am I at Talbot anyway?," I asked myself. "Why should I continue studying to be a minister if this is what I get? I’m wasting my time and money here. Maybe I can still get into the music business and use my BA from Long Beach State!" Yes, there was little reason to try again. Just give it up. Move on.
My dear friend Sam, who was ahead of me in the M.Div. program, asked me to consider being his part time associate to youth. I’m pretty sure I told him to forget about it. I was done – might not even finish Talbot. But he asked me to pray about it. Well, even in my state of woe-is-me, I couldn’t ignore that exhortation. Two weeks later I agreed to join him in his ministry, and during the next two and a half years fell in love with the pastorate. There was a bright and productive future after all.
Some of you have wondered from time to time whether it’s worth trying again. That may involve a relationship, a ministry initiative, or even the prospect of re-entering the ministry lineup after a hurtful season in service to Christ. Personally, I’ve found comfort and wisdom in the history of Israel in such times, and for that I’d invite you to discover with me afresh why Joshua and the armies of God tried again after being defeated by an inferior force at the city of Ai.
Recall with me the event. The vastly more imposing Jericho had gone down decisively. Ai was a wayside village in comparison. The army of Israel charged up the Wadi Qilt, figuring this place would be easy. They suffered a humiliating and painful defeat. Families grieved, and the people were discouraged. The sin that brought about the calamity was revealed and dealt with, clearing the way for a second try. But why risk another defeat? Why put themselves in the way of danger again? Three reasons speak to us from the text.
Because God’s Promises are Sure
In chapter 1 God told Joshua “Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you, just as I spoke to Moses” (v. 3). Nothing had changed. Yes, there had been a setback, but God affirms again in chapter 8, “I have given into your hand the king of Ai, his people, his city, and his land.” (v. 1).
The armies of God are to "give it another go" because God has not reneged on his word. His power, promise, and purpose are all still in effect. The entire history of the conquest is summed up by a wonderful assertion in the last verse of chapter 21; “Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass.”
Years later the Psalmist would reflect concerning the dawning days of the nation of Israel, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples . . . Remember His wonders which He has done . . . He has remembered His covenant forever, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations,” (105: 1 ff). In over 45 years of life and ministry together, Rolane and I can say with deep joy and gratitude that God’s promises are sure. And the testimony we hear from our students and alumni after 33 years of service here at Talbot echo that same sentiment.
Because God is With Us
It must not be overlooked that the defeat at Ai was due to sin within the camp of Israel. About thirty-six men died and the hearts of the people “melted and became as water” (7:5) due to Achan’s covetousness. They were not routed because God was not there. He was. He is always there. But in this situation His word had not been honored and disheartening consequences followed.
The demise of my six-month youth pastorate was as much about me as about the youth’s parents and the senior pastor’s vision and methods. When it happened I thought it was everyone else’s fault, but time and God’s grace has shown me that I could have been Achan. My motives were mixed, it was mostly about "me," and the depth of my commitment to suffer for Jesus was pretty shallow. Yet God was still there. In the midst of my discouragement he comforted me through his Spirit and special people like my pastor friend Sam – and Rolane. Ask her about our first date sometime. She caught me squarely in the middle of my depression. Thank you, sweetheart, for being there and loving me!
And lest you think it’s unusual for the servants of Jesus to worry about him "leaving the building," remember how it all started back in Matthew 28. After all the drama and surprises of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection, Jesus gives the disciples what we call the "great commission." Their calling will change their lives and those of countless others (including us). They needed to hear those last words of Jesus that stand most precious in the hearts of all who follow him, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v. 20). We try again because he is with us.
Because God Still Has a Plan for Us
While the sin of Achan was the primary cause of the defeat at Ai, it didn’t help that Joshua and the army went up against the city with a half-baked plan, if they had one at all. The text implies that the leadership did not seek the face of God, and may have been a bit overconfident in light of the recent victory over Jericho. The spies reported to Joshua that only a few thousand need go up, “for they are few” (7:3). I’m sure Joshua would have liked a "do-over" that day!
Yet, even though Israel was confused and in disarray, God had a plan for successfully conquering the city. And it was not at all like the plan he had for Jericho. Instead of marching around the city, blowing horns, shouting and so forth, Ai was going to be taken by stealth. Who knew? God’s plans were certainly not Joshua’s, and once he and the others listened to the Commander’s instructions, victory ensued.
Proverbs 12:15 asserts “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel.” The Creator knew the landscape around Ai, and how it could be used to advantage in the battle. His plan was based on intimate knowledge of the land and its people. The hearts of the Israelites may have been dissolving in fear and loathing, but God was not surprised or without a plan. His people just needed to listen and follow him in faith and obedience.
God still had a plan for me after that disastrous youth pastorate. It’s still unfolding, and the subsequent 45 years’ worth of blueprints he’s shown us have taken Rolane and me places we didn’t even know existed.
Like ancient Israel, I think we are about the task of possessing our own "promised land." Whether it is nurturing a relationship, pastoring a church, living Christ in front of our business or professional colleagues, revealing Jesus to an unfamiliar culture and people or relating to our neighbor next door, hard days will come. Failures will happen. The locusts will devour. But praise be to God that his promises are sure, he is always with us, and his plans are always for our good (Jeremiah 29:11).