A cloud of witnesses, part 6: Rahab
This talk was given by Paul Horton on .
The total length of the recording is .
This talk is on Hebrews 11 verse 31.
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I’m going to start off by reading from Hebrews. Obviously, the series that we’re talking about at the moment is on Hebrews and the cloud of witnesses that Paul wrote about. The verse that’s relevant is Hebrews 11:31. Paul writes ‘by faith the prostitute Rahab because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who are disobedient.’ Which leads us on to, who’s Rahab? I’m going to read a bit from Joshua 2:8--14. Rahab is talked about a lot through Joshua 2 but I didn’t want to take up the whole afternoon reading the entire chapter. I’ve extracted this part.
Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, ‘I know that the Lord has given this land to you 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. 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. 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 earth below.’
‘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 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.’
‘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.’
Rahab lived in Jericho on the fringes of society, both metaphorically and literally. She worked as a prostitute, which has never been considered the most prized of occupations. She was considered an outsider, someone on the edge of society. She also literally lived on the edge of society. Her house was built into the walls of Jericho. Now, this was convenient for her work because travellers into and out of the city could stop in without being noticed too much. But it’s also a physical sign to her society only really tolerated her as long as she kept to the edges and being at the edge, any attack on Jericho would immediately put her on the front line. Meanwhile, Joshua was planning how to conquer Jericho. He sent two spies to scout the land. The spies came across Rahab’s house and, probably because it was easy for them to get into unnoticed, they hid there right on the edge of town. Plenty of visitors coming and going from there, and as stranger, they wouldn’t have caused comment among the other people going past. Now, Rahab did something odd here. Generally, if strangers appear in your home or your place of work, you might challenge them. You might raise the alarm, but Rahab didn’t, she hide them. Not only did she hide them, she lied to the king of Jericho about where they were and then she gave the king’s men false information to keep the spies safe. Why did she do that? Rahab knew that these spies were Israelites and she knew that the Israelites were planning to invade and kill every living thing in Jericho. These spies were parts of a plan to destroy her, everyone in her city, and everyone in her nation. If the king found out that she was harbouring them, she would probably have been killed.
What on earth made her take such a massive risk? Faith, but not pure faith nurtured by the spirit and a congregation full of believers, not a faith germinated and carefully tended to over the years while it grew like a mighty oak. No, her faith stemmed from her fear. I know that the Lord has given you this land and that’s a great fear of you has fallen on us so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. Well, I hope no one here has been in a similar seemingly impossible situation where on the one hand you have fear based on what you know definitely will happen and , on the other hand, fear of goodness knows what. On the one hand, Rahab had certain death at the hands of the king if her lies were discovered. On the other hand, also death, but this time at the hands of the Israelites. Nevertheless, the fear gave her faith that God would protect her and her family. When we meet Rahab, her face was perhaps more a shiver of terror than an exultant shout of certainty. She only knew of God through the destruction of kings and the stopping of the River Jordan. She had a fearful faith, but she did have faith. She had faith in those spies as well. Anyone else think that’s a bit odd? It’s hard enough to trust people from a nation which wants to destroy you and your civilization. But to trust spies from that nation, she had faith in a god she didn’t really know and in the people that she had no reason to trust and, miraculously, her faith was rewarded. She and her family were spared when every other living thing in Jericho was slaughtered.
Let’s sum that up. Someone on the margins of society, someone in a job which was stigmatized, someone from the wrong people, and God chose her to help build his kingdom. She was a woman. Immediately a second class citizen. She was a prostitute, probably third class or lower. She was a Canaanite, which in the eyes of the Israelites, she was only fit to die. Her faith was based only on fear of the Israelites and their God. Yet, she was saved and her faith was rewarded. God chose her in that time, in that place. She and her family were the only ones out of the city of thousands who were spared.
What does this tell us? It tells us that anyone of whatever social standing, whatever background, no matter where they come from, if we have faith, God will use us and will build his kingdom even if we don’t see that in our lifetimes. Rahab didn’t know that she was part of a much bigger plan. She just wanted to save herself and her family. The message is clear. Be faithful. God will use you to build his plans, no matter whether our faith is a shining beacon to all believers everywhere, or whether our faith is a small , battered thing we cling to. God will use us if we have faith, even if that faith is not perfect, especially if that faith is not perfect. That’s what Joshua 2 talks about. It describes how Rahab hide the spies, lied for them, saved herself and her family by having faith in God.
But this series is not looking at Joshua 2, is it? We’re looking at Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Now, in the previous series, Paul, how Paul Wintle -- there are too many Pauls in this, this gets confusing. Pastor Paul has talked to us through Abraham and Sarah who are mentioned in Saint Paul’s letter. He’s talked us through Isaac and Jacob, and Moses, and Andrew’s talked us through Joseph as well. But there are others that Saint Paul mentions in Hebrews, in the same passage that he writes about Rahab and the others that we’ve already heard about, he also writes about Abel, the second child born into the world but the first one to obey God. Abel was a shepherd. He presented pleasing sacrifices to God, and his short life was ended at the hands of his jealous brother, Cain. Throughout history, Abel is remembered for his obedience and his faith. He’s called righteous by Matthew in chapter 23:25. Paul also writes about Noah, who was the last of God’s people in a world flooded with evil. God’s response to that severe situation was to give a 120-year long last chance during which he had Noah build the Ark in the desert. Nothing like a huge boat on dry land to make a point. For Noah, his faith meant a long-term commitment to a project which seemed to lack any sort of sense. But faithfully Noah built that Ark. Paul talks about Joseph as well the overconfident child, his natural self-assurance increased by being Jacob’s favourite son and by knowing of God’s designs on his life. This was unbearable to his older brothers who eventually conspired against him, as we heard from Andrew a few weeks ago. This self-assurance, moulded by pain and combined with a personal knowledge of God allowed him to survive and prosper, where most would have failed.
He added a quiet wisdom to his confidence and he won the hearts of everyone he met. Joseph had faith in buckets, but God needed to knock a few corners off his overconfidence before his faith could be used. That confidence though, along with this faith in God transformed each setback into a step forward. He didn’t spend much time asking why? His approach was more, what should we do now? Those who met Joseph were aware that wherever he went and whatever he did, God was with him. Paul also writes of Moses, in this passage, Dear Moses, who couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. He always reacted, he seemed drawn to what needed to be righted.
I don’t at all identify with Moses at this point. Throughout his life, he was at his finest and his worse responding to the conflicts around him. Even the burning bush experience was an illustration of his character: having spotted the fire and seeing the bush wasn’t burning, he had to investigate. Whether jumping into a fight to defend the Hebrew slave or trying to referee a struggle between two kinsmen, w hen Moses saw conflict, he reacted. Over the years, he learned how to react correctly. The kaleidoscopic action of each day of leading two million people in the desert was more than enough challenge for Moses reacting ability.
Much of the time he served as a buffer between God and the people. At one moment he had to respond to God’s anger, or the people’s stubbornness and forgetfulness. At another moment, he had to react to people’s bickering and complaining. He’s possibly the most famous middle manager and most successful middle manager ever. At still another moment he had to react to unjustified attacks on his own character. Moses remained faithful to God, even when he had the easy opportunity to simply be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and have an easy life ahead of him.
Instead, he was faithful, and look what God used him for. Paul writes about others too in Hebrews. Our Paul, pastor Paul, will talk more about the people that Saint Paul wrote about later. All the people that Saint Paul wrote about had faith. Saint Paul wanted to bring to the reader’s attention, he wanted to highlight it. They also had definite challenges too. None of them were perfect. Saint Paul felt that Rahab’s faith, her actions , were so important to his message of faith that he wrote about her alongside Moses, alongside Abraham and Sarah, alongside Noah, Abel. These are big names. These are some of the A list of the Old Testament.
Paul’s putting Rahab in the same passage as these people. The only women that Paul writes about in this passage are Rahab and Sarah. Sarah was a miraculous mother, who made it possible for Abraham’s descendants to be as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. That’s more about Sarah and Abraham together and what they created through faith. Paul writes about Rahab on her own terms, about her own deeds, about her own actions and decisions in that one time and that one place. Rahab, the woman, the sex worker, the Canaanite, the one whose faith was born from fear.
As I wrote this sermon, I’ve come to feel like rehab is one of the most real people mentioned in the Bible for me. For me, she seems like someone who I saw when I worked at Citizens Advice, people who were on the edge. Sometimes through their own choices, but sometimes through no fault of their own. People who were looked down on by society, but people who had intrinsic value even if that value seemed deeply buried. Rahab was on the margins, she was just trying to eke out a living doing work which was unsavoury. She was from the wrong nation, being a Canaanite and then God came and turned all that on its head.
It’s really easy for us as Christians to think that someone who isn’t a Christian must be either a target for conversion or that they’re somehow inferior . Or someone who’s a different nationality, can’t really understand our culture or our values. O r someone of a different gender or sexual orientation doesn’t know, not really. I know, I’ve had these thoughts. It’s very easy to do. Even though we know that Jesus instructs us to love your neighbour as yourself, it’s still really easy to use all sorts of excuses to put others down. I don’t mean in a mean-spirited or a bullying way. Although goodness now there’s plenty of that to go around.
Even allowing ourselves to feel faintly superior when talking to someone we think is beneath us. That’s not on. I think Paul is calling out Rahab here because she is so unlikely. She is so imperfect and yet so faithful, that she can be an example to all of us. She’s showing us two really important things. We don’t need to be perfect. We don’t need to know every part of Scripture, we don’t need to be the right sort of person. We just need faith and the rest will follow from that. Which is also showing us that the right sort of person for God could be anyone, even someone who seems lower than us, worse than us, different to us.
We might feel superior, because of our job, our nationality, our gender, our sexual orientation, but God sees value in everyone and can and has blessed anyone in any circumstances. Paul’s highlighting a range of faithful people in Hebrews, all who showed faith in different ways but are equally important. He highlights Rahab to show us that by faith, anybody can be part of God’s plan. The other thing that Paul is showing us, is that Rahab who protected those spies, has a legacy thousands of years long. After Jericho fell, Rahab went on to live in Israel with God’s chosen people and she married an Israelite, his name was Salmon and together they had a son called Boaz.
According to Matthew 1, Boaz was the great grandfather of David. Which means that Jesus is a direct descendant of Rahab. Paul’s reminding the reader here of Rehab’s actions when he’s admitted others who might see more faithful or more worthy. Not even David gets as much of a mention as Rahab does. Now, Paul is no fool. He’s intelligent. He knows his scripture very well, indeed. That’s both Pauls, just be clear. If he’s chosen to include Rahab here, then he has a clear message that he wants to tell us. He’s writing to the Hebrews to talk about the superiority of faith and how we might not see the real effects of it in our lifetimes.
By citing Rahab and her faith, he’s telling them and us that anyone of any background, no matter how unsavoury we might think they are or we might think ourselves are, anyone with faith can be an essential part of God’s plan for eternity. Amen.
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