Be Strong and Courageous
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but strength in the face of fear.”
Last week we left the Israelites wandering in the wilderness because their fear overwhelmed their faith. Now, 40 years later, they stand once again on the threshold of the Promised Land. Moses in his dying moments had been led by God up Mt Nebo to look over the Promised Land for the last time. I’ve stood on that mountain, awed by the view that seems to go forever. Before Moses died he entrusted the leadership of God’s people to Joshua, one of two spies who was captured by the grapes rather the giants, who along with Caleb believed God’s promises could triumph over obstacles.
Joshua now takes centre stage (Joshua chapter 1) as Israel prepares to enter the Promised Land. His different spirit is defined by strength and courage that will transform the Hebrew slaves from wilderness wanderers to conquerors. We also as churches, families and individuals face the challenge to moving from anticipation to action, from people prepared to people in conquest. And that demands of us both strength and courage.
Biblical courage is fervent and resolute strength in the face of overwhelming challenge and obstacle. Courage comes from our heart, from the seat of our emotions and passions. Courage is not the absence of fear, but strength in the face of fear. No one is courageous without first having faced and overcome their fear.
I well remember a day when as a teenager I tried to overcome my fear of the ocean. I knew I had to overcome this fear since I could never escape the ocean while living in Hong Kong. I screwed up my courage and decided to do an introductory scuba dive. Outwardly I may have appeared brave, but inwardly I was quaking with fear. I forced myself to jump off the boat and into the ocean. I had barely gone down five meters before I saw a dark shadow to my left. A shark! Filled with panic, I thrashed my way back to the boat. As I clambered on board the dive master exclaimed, “Wow! Did you see the dolphin?”
I think if we are honest with ourselves, we all have a tendency to turn dolphins into sharks. Some 40 years before, the ten spies had turned the ‘dolphin’ of the Promised Land into a fearsome and devouring ‘shark’. And now, as Joshua stood once again on the banks of the Jordan River, he may have been concerned for history repeating itself. Even though God promised to give to the people “every place where you set your foot” (Joshua 1:3), Joshua knew they would face many fierce battles. With this in mind, three times God repeats the stirring admonition: “Be strong and courageous.” God knows exactly what Joshua needs. Leading these people into the Promised Land will be a daunting and difficult task. Dolphins will become sharks. Grapes will be forgotten in the face of giants.
I sense God leaning over the church in Hong Kong and giving this same three-times repeated command: “Be strong and courageous.” God is saying “Hear me, my people. In all that you are facing, in the ongoing pandemic around you, in the shift taking place politically, in the divisions deeply entrenched in your communities, in the challenges of secularism and political extremism—in all this “be strong and courageous!” Can we receive these words of challenge and encouragement?
A word of caution. We cannot call anything we want our Promised Land and expect God to give it. Rather, just as we see from God’s challenge to Joshua in the first chapter of the book that bears his name (and the name of Jesus), we are offered strength and courage to achieve God’s purposes in three specific ways:
First, God calls Joshua to be strong and courageous in his leadership (v 6). Joshua will lead God’s people into the land God has promised, and this leadership will require courage every step of the way.
In the face of growing global nationalism and extremism, we Christians must model a different spirit and different qualities of leadership. We begin by acknowledging the plank in our own eye before pointing to the speck in the other’s eye. We have been shamed by the failures of well-known leaders in churches and Christian organisations, who were seduced by power, lust, and money. More than ever each of us must model godly leadership that is authentic, humble, self-sacrificing, encouraging and committed to the good of the entire community. We need courage to lead in our own spheres of influence—in our homes, schools, offices and public spaces.
It is through the spirit of Jesus that we will help our city to find healing and unity. In Jesus we will discover the strong and courageous leadership that builds integrity and hope. In him we can be strong and courageous!
Second, God calls Joshua to be strong and courageous in his obedience (vs 7-8). Godly leadership comes from obedience to Gods’ word. We must keep his word on our lips and “meditate on it day and night.” This is neither simple nor easy in a world that offers tempting alternatives. It takes courage to hear God’s voice when we face condemnation from those we love the most. It takes courage to obey God’s word and break with wrong desires and habits. It takes courage to stand against the majority when God’s word is dismissed as outdated, old-fashioned, or socially unacceptable. Will we have the courage to stand firm for Jesus in the face of persecution?
We need constantly to read, savour and speak God’s word. Then we will have the strength and courage to obey. “Then we will be prosperous and successful.”
Third, God calls Joshua to be strong and courageous in his fears and discouragement (v 9). God singles out fear and discouragement as two powerful elements that stop the progress and success of God’s mission in and through your life. Two weeks ago we reflected on the giant of fear. But discouragement may be the number one thing that drains us of hope, expectation, faith and passion in life. Joshua had faced discouragement before. Now in this defining moment of his career, God understands how the brokenness of his past has the potential to stop him from seizing God’s promised future.
Discouragement often arises out of our failures, mistakes and regrets. Discouragement lays over us like a heavy blanket, weighing us down, breaking our spirit. It takes great courage to overcome the heaviness of our mistakes. We need courage to get up again and again after we fall, to not allow a mistake from our past ruin the positive reality of our present and the hopeful potential of our future.
Some of us are carrying regrets from our past and it is sapping the confidence and hope we have for the future. We need to understand that the first step in getting what God wants is having the courage to let go of what God doesn’t want. He doesn’t want you to be shaped by discouragement and regret. He wants you to let go of the things that weigh down your soul. “His yoke is easy and his burden is light” (Matt 11:30).
“The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (v 9). God has not forsaken you. Your courage comes from the reality that he is with you wherever you go—even in depths of despair. Even in the pain of regret and failure. Even in the heaviness of shame. He is there. So be strong and courageous!
The followers of Jesus faced a very similar situation to Joshua. They are overwhelmed with the reality that their friend Jesus has been executed on a Roman cross. They are struggling to face life in an empire that is crushing everything they hope for. They are unsure what is ahead, or how they are can continue on. Not long before his ascension to heaven, Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain overlooking the Galilee tells them to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” He concludes with this ringing promise: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20).
Jesus empowers us for our mission, just as God empowered Joshua for his. We are to live confidently in Hong Kong in her hour of need, immersing people in the character of the Father, Son and Spirit, making disciples of those in our community, teaching them obedience to the ways of God. And Jesus promises us the very same thing that Joshua was promised: he will be with us all the way!
What started with one man and a mission to expand God’s Kingdom into the Promised Land with the power and presence of God, led to all of us receiving the mission to move into the Promised Land of our own locations, cities, and cultures, with the promise of the power and presence of God.
So for Hong Kong, for this hour and for the gospel—be strong and courageous! Rise up in your leadership, deepen your dependency on God’s word, and in the power of God’s Spirit overcome your discouragement.
May I humbly suggest that for Hong Kong this may be our finest hour. God’s power at work in us can do far more than we dare ask or imagine.