A Witness Between Us

July 4, 2009

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The Israelites had taken possession of the Promised Land. Two-and-a-half tribes inherited land on the east side of the Jordan, and the remaining tribes inherited on the west side. By prior arrangement, the fighting men from the “trans-Jordan tribes” — those on the east — crossed over to the west side to help their brothers defeat the inhabitants of the land before returning to their families on the east.

After returning to their inheritance, the trans-Jordan tribes set up an altar as a reminder to future generations that living on the other side of the Jordan did not make them any less a part of God’s people. But the remaining tribes reacted angrily to the building of the altar:

Jos 22:11-12 And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar on the border of Canaan at Geliloth near the Jordan on the Israelite side, the whole assembly of Israel gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.

The Israelites presumed that the trans-Jordan tribes would offer sacrifices on the altar in violation of the Law. The Israelites were prepared to go to war, and surely to destroy the trans-Jordan brothers over this matter. Fortunately, before starting a war they sent a delegation to talk things over:

Jos 22:13-14 So the Israelites sent Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, to the land of Gilead–to Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh. With him they sent ten of the chief men, one for each of the tribes of Israel, each the head of a family division among the Israelite clans.

The trans-Jordan tribes indignantly denied that they had built an altar for sacrifices in violation of the Law, insisting that they built the altar as a memorial, not as a place to make burnt offerings:

Jos 22:26-27 “That is why we said, ‘Let us get ready and build an altar–but not for burnt offerings or sacrifices.’ On the contrary, it is to be a witness between us and you and the generations that follow, that we will worship the LORD at his sanctuary with our burnt offerings, sacrifices and fellowship offerings. Then in the future your descendants will not be able to say to ours, ‘You have no share in the LORD.’

After understanding better what their brothers had done, the Israelites were pleased:

Jos 22:30-31 When Phinehas the priest and the leaders of the community–the heads of the clans of the Israelites–heard what Reuben, Gad and Manasseh had to say, they were pleased. And Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, said to Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, “Today we know that the LORD is with us, because you have not acted unfaithfully toward the LORD in this matter. Now you have rescued the Israelites from the LORD’s hand.”

Had they failed to talk things over first, the Israelites would have incurred the wrath of God for destroying the trans-Jordan tribes. They were rescued from that fate by a few days of communication.

Maybe we could benefit in similar ways by communicating more.

I’m not aware of any congregations in our area who are prepared to go to war with each other. But the longer we go without communicating, the more distant we become; the more likely we become to mistrust one another; the more likely that rumors, gossip, and slander will create divisions in the church. Communication can stop those things. By communicating we can gain a better understanding of the challenges our brothers face and the motives for their decisions. We can put unfounded rumors to rest. We can learn how much we have in common. We can come to realize how much we could learn from each other. We can build trust.

So our congregation’s leadership is embarking on an experiment. We are planning a Saturday meeting between our elders, ministers, along with our wives. and those of another local congregation. We plan to have some structured discussion and some unstructured, just to share what each congregation is doing, how we are doing it, what is working well and what is not. We will share a meal or two together. We hope to give and to receive some practical advice, to build deeper relationships, and to grow in our trust and love for one another.

We did something similar with a congregation in NC about three years ago, but have never done this locally. The NC experience was a delightful time and one that has definitely helped us feel more connected with a church in another state. Now we want to do the same thing in our own area. If this first round goes well, we hope to schedule a similar event with other congregations, maybe one each quarter. And we hope to inspire these other congregations to do likewise.

This probably won’t bring world peace or cure cancer. But it’s not complicated. Anyone can do it. We hope it will have visible and lasting benefits to the church.

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