A Place of Refuge
Joshua 20:1- 9
When I was a kid we lived on a military base in California, with a bunch of other military kids. Now this was before XBox, or Playstation, or Sega, or even Atari, so most of our days were spent outside riding bikes or using cardboard to slide down the grassy hills outside our home. Or there were the times when someone would shout, Not it! Then everyone else shouted Not it as well, and the last one to deny being it, was well…it. Then we would identify base, it could have been a tree, a car in the driveway, or the front porch of the house. The object of the game was to elude being tagged by "It." So you ran as fast as you could to reach base. And if you reached base before "It" tagged you, you were safe. Base was the place where you could catch your breath. You could stop running. You could relax, because as long as you were touching base, "It" couldn't get you.
That was a lot of fun when I was a little boy, but now that I am an adult I have noticed there's a new "It" out there. And we're all running. We're all looking for base, a place of safety, rest, and security. One of the terrors of adulthood is that you realize that base isn't to be found in buildings, they can fall. It isn't found in technology, it’s too glitchy. We won't find base in the advances of modern medical science. Now, tiny microbes we can't even see pose as much threat as nuclear missiles. Base isn't found in the world of finance either, even when the market is good we are always on the brink of another great depression.
So many of us continue to live our lives running from whatever we consider “It” looking for a place to rest, looking for a refuge. When we see things like Harvey or Irma, then all of a sudden, God seems pretty important. In those moments we begin to look for a place of safety, a base where we can catch our breath. We go looking for a place where we can find, to use a Bible world, refuge.
Look with me in Joshua 20. Before Israel ever entered the promised land, God told Moses how to proportion the land so that each tribe had plenty of room to settle. Each tribe received a specific amount of land and certain number of cities. Each tribe except the Levites, they were the priests. They weren't given any specific territory, but rather a certain number of towns from each tribe. That way the influence of the priesthood could be felt all through Israel. Then God told Moses one other thing. He ordered Moses to dedicate six of the cities he'd given to the priests to be cities of refuge; places where someone could go to find safety from their pursuers.
Don't miss this early point; the cities of refuge were cities that belonged to the priests. Refuge in ancient Israel had something to do with God. Now, there were some important things about these cities of refuge that we need to know. So listen as I read Joshua 20.
The first thing you need to know about these cities is that they were accessible. There were six of them, three on each side of the Jordan. In fact, you were never more than a day's journey from any one of the cities no matter where you were in Israel.
The roads to the cities were never clogged. The Scripture reading before the sermon this morning are the instructions to the priests to keep the roads to the cities of refuge clear of debris and in good repair. After the spring rains each year the roads were to be repaired. Bridges were built over ravines so that travelers didn't have to waste time climbing up and down.
The gates of the cities were never closed. Imagine running for your life from the angry relatives of someone you accidentally killed. It's getting dark, but there's a full moon. You look up ahead and you see the city of refuge in the distance. Lights are shining in the windows. The moon is reflected on the white, limestone walls. Three hundred yards behind you, you see a dozen torches dancing in the darkness, coming right for you! You sprint the last few feet to the city, grab the handle on the gate, pull, and it doesn't move! It's locked. You call out for a sentry but he can’t hear you because he’s in line for a pumpkin spice latte at the new Starbucks. You are one foot away from safety, but a single locked gate stands between you and mercy. That's why God ordered that the gates of the cities of refuge never be locked.
Finally, the directions to the cities were never confused. At every crossroads, a sign was posted. The Hebrew word for REFUGE was printed in large letters on the sign. Those running for a place of safety and security never had to guess about which way to go.
Second, the cities of refuge were inclusive. Look at Joshua 20:9. "Any of the Israelites .... " Rich, poor, young, old, male, female. Didn't matter. Any Israelite was welcome in a city of refuge. But look at the next phrase.
"and foreigners among them ... may flee there and not die at the hand of the avenger of blood." The city of refuge wasn't just for our kind of people. It was for anyone. Philistines were welcome. So were Hittites. Amorites. Egyptians. No matter your language, accent, eye-shape, skin-color, religion or country of origin, you were welcome in a city of refuge.
The third thing you need to know about these cities is that they were symbolic.
Their names held meanings: Kadesh = Righteousness
Shechem = Strength or shoulder
Hebron= Fellowship or communion
Bezer = Fortress
Ramoth = Heights
Beyond the significance of the city names, though, there is a deeper symbolism. God knows how people are. People resort to violence when they are angry. They resort to vengeance when they are wronged. They resort to hatred when they are threatened. So God established a place to retreat from the violence, a place to take refuge from the hatred. These cities stood for mercy, which was God's idea. Mercy; refuge, safety, security -- that's who God is. God is the city of refuge, even these names are used by the Psalmists to describe God.
Kadesh - Psalm 89:14 says, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne."
Shechem - Psalm 46:1 "God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.”
Hebron - Psalm 133:1 & 3 How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! … And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing, even life everlasting.
Bezer - Psalm 91:2 "The Lord is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."
Ramoth - Psalm 121:1 "I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord."
Golan - Psalm 43:4 "I will go to the alter of God, to God, my joy and my delight.”
God wanted the people to know that these cities were not just His idea, but they carried His characteristics. Which brings us to … well … us. If these cities carried God’s character, then shouldn’t the church do the same? We were created to be a community of refuge for people who are looking for a place of safety, for a place of peace, for people who are scared to death of being tagged out by “It.”
This morning, we need to figure out how Greenbrier can be a city of refuge? And not just figure it out, but what are we being called to provide to our community that is scared to death of being tagged by “It.”
Being a city of refuge means Being a home for the guilty. The only people who ever ran to a city of refuge were people who were already guilty. They had killed someone. Maybe they didn't mean to do it, maybe they didn't do it with malice or forethought, but they had done it.
Those are the only kind of people who ever come to church, too. And that includes the people who are already here. Don't for one minute, ever entertain the idea that you are welcome at Greenbrier because of how well you've lived your life or how much you have to contribute or because of how admirably you've overcome your temptations. Every person here is guilty. There are some innocents scattered among us, but we have already dismissed them to Children’s Church. And in time, they, too, will experience the thrill and guilt of sin. Romans 3 is pretty clear: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
So if you are visiting with us today, or trying us out by watching us online, wondering if this church can be your place of refuge, wondering if someone as guilty as you can fit in a place like this, let me assure you, you are safe because you are among the guilty. A few of us forget that from time to time, but deep inside we all know that we are here by the mercy of God and nothing more or less.
People come to this place with messed up lives, broken families and shattered dreams. They come guilty. Just as we came. Just as we are. That means that no matter what people have done, no matter who they've become, we welcome them with open arms. Which means, if we are truly trying to figure out and live out being a place of refuge for our community them we are going to have to learn how to be uncomfortable for the sake of the cross.
We'll have to set aside theological comfort. People will come to us with all kinds of notions about God and church and worship. And let’s be honest, if you grew up going to Sunday School there are just some things that you know, like who the Philistines were, or that Jesus had 12 apostles, (14 if you count Matthias and Paul), why we sing a cappella, or what the bread and juice represent. But not everyone know those things. Not everyone here today knows why we do what we do, besides the fact that is the way we have always done them.
We have to get into the Bible so that we can take people to the scripture, help guide them. Telling someone the answers they want are in the Bible is a pretty coldhearted thing to say. If they have no experience with the Bible, they will never find the answers they are searching for. They don’t even know where to start. You need to help guide them. We don’t expect folks to have the same ideas, or moral compass that we have. Of course we want to teach people who God is and what He expects from His church. But we have to welcome them first, tend to their wounds and love them. The teaching will come.
We'll have to set aside some moral comfort. Randy Mayeaux told a story about a man who was in a Bible study with him. They were studying the life of Jesus. After one of the sessions, the guy stepped out on Randy's patio, lit a cigarette and said thoughtfully, You know, that Jesus was one heck of a guy. But he didn’t say heck.
Honestly, I can't really argue with the guy, on many different levels that's a true statement. But I fully understand that there are those of us in the room already thinking, I don't want my kids hearing or saying things like that. Please understand me, I don't want your kids hearing or saying things like that either. But let’s be honest, Trista taught Kindergarten long enough for me to know your kids have already heard worse. And if we are serious about becoming a city of refuge then we'd better get used to it. We're going to draw all kinds of people who don’t talk like us, who don't dress like us, or live like we live. We will attract folks who don’t have the same moral code we have and probably spend their Friday nights doing different things than we do. You know the kind of folks Jesus attracted.
But I need you to hear this: The more like Jesus this church becomes, the less like a church we're going to look. Just read through the Gospels, and you will pick up on the fact that the religious leaders of Jesus' day were terribly uncomfortable with the people He attracted. The religious folks of our day are pretty uncomfortable as well. But Jesus never called you to be religious, He called you to be like Him. And Jesus attracted and welcomed some pretty seedy folks, and if we live and love like Jesus we will welcome the seedy riff-raff as well, because, from a theological point of view, we're all riff-raff.
We'll have to set aside our physical and emotional comfort, as well. We have been blessed with a beautiful facility here. And we want to take care of the building, and be a good steward of what we have been blessed with. But at the end of the day it’s just a building and a colossal waste of space if we refuse to allow folks to come here and find refuge.
I don't know how it's all going to shake out yet, but I can guarantee you that growth is difficult, and scary. And I can guarantee you that there will be good christian people who will find it easier to complain than to throw open the doors, park a little farther from the building, give up their pew, and be a little uncomfortable. But I can also guarantee that if we don't make adjustments people will be turned away at the doors because we don't have any room. In the Old Testament, the cities of refuge always made room. Their gates were never locked. If we're going to be such a city, we've got to make room.
Being a city of refuge means being a home for the guilty and it means offering honest answers for difficult questions. When people come to a church, they've already tried everything else out there. They've tried money. They've tried pleasure. They've tried power. They've tried position. They've tried it all and were still empty. When they come here, they are looking for something different.
So let's not give them physical solutions to spiritual problems. Let's not give them simple answers for complex questions. Let's tell them the truth, our community doesn’t need a weathervane on our steeple. They need the cross. It's not going to do our culture any good for us to figure out what our culture wants to see, dress it up in religious costume and invite them to the parade. It's not going to do anyone any good to take surveys to figure out what they want to hear, then sing them a sweet contemporary Christian song aimed at their hurt. They need the truth.
Here's the truth: People’s lives are in ruins, their families are broken, their dreams lie shattered in the dust at their feet because of sin. That's not judgment on my part. That's experience. I know. I've been there. I’ll be there again. There is only one answer I have to give you. You need to give your life completely to Jesus Christ. You need to let Him set your priorities, let Him make your decisions, let Him control your life.
Yes, you heard me right. You need to give up control of your life to Jesus. I mean really you’re not doing that good of a job trying to control your life anyway, nothing else you've tried is working. I know that because nothing else I tried worked either. I could soft-sell this thing called Gospel, I could frame it up in nice, user-friendly language, but the bottom line is, you are a sinner, just like the rest of us. You are guilty, just like us. And that guilt is killing your soul and ruining your life. The only answer is Jesus.
Now that's not easy to say. It's harder to hear. But when people are looking for a refuge, when they've tried everything else, they're ready for something different. And thankfully the Church is different. I'm all for speaking the language of the culture. I'm not for trying to reach a 21st century culture with 19th century methods. That kind of irresponsibility borders on sin. But people running for a refuge need to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So, I beg that God will help us to tell the truth. Help us to tell the truth in love. Help us to be a place where justice and mercy meet. Help us to be a home for the guilty and a place of honest answers.
Finally, being a city of refuge means that we hold out the hope of innocence. When the guilty fled to the city of refuge, they had to stay there until the high priest died.
Let me read you an interesting passage that has nothing to do with cities of refuge, but everything to do with our guilt and innocence. Hebrews 7:23-27; 8:26-28: Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need, one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
Jesus is our high priest. He didn't just die on a cross. He died on a cross to take away our sin, our guilt. And He didn't just die on a cross to take away our sin. He was also raised from the dead by the power of God. Our high priest lives forever and intercedes for us every day. And through His intercession, God declares us not guilty.
You see, "It," that thing out there that's after you, the thing you are running from, it isn't North Korea. It isn't the democratic party or the republican party, it’s not White Supremacist, or Black Lives Matter, it’s not hurricanes, or tornadoes, or nuclear death or any other weapon. It is sin. And just when it reached out it's icy cold hand to tag you out, Jesus stepped in and said, Take me instead. Let him go. Let her go. Tag me out.