Text: Joshua 24:1-26
You know, making a decision can sometimes be hard. Choices can be agonizing. If you have a group of people together – co-workers or friends or family, or maybe just you and your significant other - deciding where to go out to eat, for some reason, can be a paralyzing choice. I don’t know what it is about that, but we want everybody to be happy, and tastes don’t always align.
Hard as some of our choices may be, we have to choose. For some high school students, deciding where to go to college can be very difficult. There may be very appealing aspects to several different schools, but at some point, you have to make a decision.
Our scripture this morning asks that we make a choice. As we have followed the story in recent weeks, Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and God gave the people the Law. After a 40 year sojourn in the wilderness it was Joshua, Moses’ assistant and successor, who led the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.
Our text today is Joshua’s farewell speech. He has seen a lot in his many years. The first part of his speech recounts God’s dealings with Israel. It is a kind of highlight reel of God’s Greatest Hits - beginning with calling Abraham and Sarah and moving on through generations to the children of Israel crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. Now Joshua was asking the people to reaffirm their devotion to God and to renew the covenant with the Lord.
The book of Joshua is the story of the Israelites taking and settling in the land of Canaan. It is a story of violent conquests and may actually be disturbing to our ears. It is not what we identify as the heart of the gospel, but it is the story of the Israelites settling in the land that God had promised them. Our scripture today includes the best-known verses from Joshua, which speak to every age and to us:
“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’”
Joshua called the people to put away other gods. For the Israelites, these were the gods of the Egyptians and gods of the Canaanites who lived in the land God had given them.
You might think that this temptation to worship other gods was only a problem for ancient people. I mean, we’re really not tempted by a smorgasbord of gods, and we don’t have a shelf filled with idols to choose from. But we do know good and well that there are plenty of things that can demand our allegiance, and just like the Israelites, we can be find those other gods in the land, those other things that can claim our devotion, very appealing.
There was a very wise martial arts teacher. There was a young student who was very full of himself who one day asked this teacher what he thought about God.
The teacher asked the student to sit down at a table. He began to pour the student a cup of tea. And he just kept pouring it. It filled the cup and ran over. The student jumped out of his chair to keep from being burned. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“You are like that teacup,” said the teacher. “You are so full of yourself that there is no room for God.”
There can be a temptation to place ourselves at the center of the universe. We may not even be conscious of it, but we can be so focused on self that we have very little empathy or compassion for others. If faith is a matter of ultimate concern, our ultimate concern can be for ourselves. We essentially become our own god.
And then there is the god of consumerism and materialism. Philip Parham tells the story of a rich industrialist who was disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat. “Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he asked.
“Because I’ve caught enough fish for today.” “Why don’t you catch more fish than you need?” the rich man asked.
”What would I do with them?”
“You could earn more money.” The rich man was impatient. “You could buy a bigger boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could buy nylon nets and catch even more fish and make even more money. Soon you’d have a fleet of boats and be rich like me.”
“The fisherman asked, “Then what would I do?” “You could sit down and enjoy life.” The fisherman said, “What do you think I’m doing now?”
It is easy to want to strive for more and bigger and better, but the problem is, it’s never enough. I am not saying that ambition is bad or that hard work is to be avoided. I’m saying that the impulse to acquire and to constantly have more can become a kind of god.
The other gods that may be appealing to us have names like impressing others, idolizing other people, sports, technology, popularity, getting ahead, political commitments, ideology, even family. All fine in and of themselves, but there is the possibility of allowing them to rise to the level of god – to hold a place in our lives above everything else. Joshua told the people to put away other gods.
Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Years before, he had been one of the spies Moses had sent into Canaan to check out the land. Upon Moses’ death, he had become the leader of the nation. Now he was near the end of his life and he understood that time was precious.
He did not simply say, “Make a choice.” He said choose this day. Not soon, not when you have had a chance to form a committee and study the issue, but choose this day. Joshua communicates something of the urgency of the choice we have to make.
Now, we all have a lot of choices to make, lots of decisions. Sometimes the choices that don’t really matter can divert us from the choices that do matter. And if it is a big decision, we sometimes just want to postpone it. The really important things can get put on hold.
We know we should go to someone from whom we are estranged and try to mend fences, but we put it off. We know we should visit an ailing friend or relative, but we put it off. We want to go back to school and pursue that dream we’ve always had, but we put it off.
We intend to get more involved at church, we want to get involved in service in the community, but it will have to wait -- till we have more time, till the kids get older, till we retire. We want to step out in faith and we intend to make our spiritual life a priority, but there will be time for that later. We have good intentions, but not today.
Joshua, having seen a million things happen that he never would have dreamed, knows that time is fleeting and opportunities may not come again. He says to the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
And then he says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Here Joshua gets at two dimensions of faith. It is deeply personal, but it also involves the community. “As for me and my house.”
We cannot decide for any other person, not even our family. But we can bear witness to others and influence others. And surely that influence starts in our own homes. Again, as we mentioned in previous weeks, at that time there might be 3 or 4 generations living together in one household.
Christian faith is deeply personal. It is a gift of God. But it’s not a gift to keep for ourselves, it’s a gift to share with others. We would not come to believe without others and we do not worship and serve apart from others.
I was at a training event with a guy named Ed White. Ed had served on a Presbytery staff--kind of like our regional staff. He told about a woman who worked in their office. She was warm, engaging, a hard worker, a committed Christian. But she started missing work on Mondays. A pattern developed. She would call in sick on Monday. Tuesday she would come in and be in a bad mood, irritable. Wednesday she would be her happy self, and the same on Thursday and Friday. But Monday, she wouldn’t show up for work again and the pattern would repeat.
People on the staff recognized that she had become a crack cocaine addict. They gave her a choice. She could go to Seaton House, a drug treatment center, or lose her job.
So she went for treatment. The whole time she was in the treatment center, she could not see anyone from the outside. She was in a demanding program with 30 other young adults. When she was released, she cut off all relationships whatsoever with anyone who had been involved with drugs. She basically had two groups of people in her life: her church and Narcotics Anonymous.
There is good news and bad news in this story. This woman celebrated her 1 year anniversary of being drug-free. She was successful, she was happy, she was serving the Lord. She had a new life. That’s the good news. The bad news is that of those 30 young adults who went through the extensive drug treatment program at the Seaton House, she is the only one who celebrated a drug-free first anniversary.
What was different about her? The difference was the people she surrounded herself with.
We need one another. As we make choices, we need the household of faith, the community of faith. And the choice we make is not just a one-time choice. It’s a choice we make every day. Jesus said we must take up our cross daily and follow him. We have to choose this day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next.
Joshua said “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Not believe in the Lord, not believe that there is a God, but serve the Lord. He is talking about living it. How do we live our faith? How do we serve God?
Last week we looked at the Ten Commandments. Basically what God asks of us is that we love God and love our neighbor. We serve God as we love our neighbor.
So we are really talking about stewardship. Serving God with all we have. With who we are, with our relationships, our hopes, our dreams. Our abilities and talents and resources. Stewardship in a nutshell is serving the Lord.
The people respond by saying, “We will serve the Lord.” And Joshua says, “No, you won’t. You can’t do it.” Joshua suspects that they are being glib in their pledge to God. He warns them that a decision for God is not that easy. God doesn’t want meaningless words but a genuine life commitment.
I read a while back about Chad Greene of Hardy, Arkansas. He drove 550 miles from his home in Northeast Arkansas to compete in a bowling league in Countryside, a Chicago suburb. 550 miles to be in a bowling league!
His wife had died and he moved from Arkansas to the Chicago area to be near his son. He and his son joined a bowling league together, but his son died about a year later. So Greene moved back to Arkansas but continued to bowl in the league. 75 years old, and he was making the trip to Chicago and back every other week. He was named “America’s Most Devoted Bowler” by the American Bowling Congress.
It is amazing that someone could find that much time, have that much passion, that much commitment to bowling. How many of us have that kind of commitment and passion for the things of God?
If it took us 11 hours to drive to church to worship with other Christians, how many of us would make that trip? If it took us 11 hours to get there, how many of us would volunteer to serve meals or read with children or visit in the nursing home or walk in a CROP Walk? Joshua is asking the people for a serious commitment.
Israel – and we as the church – have to decide again and again about who we are, about defining passions and loyalties. The same is true of the civic community – we don’t decide who we are as a society by slogans or mere words but by things like public policies and budgets and infrastructure, by the way that those who are most vulnerable are cared for.
Joshua suspected that the people wanted to have it both ways. They wanted to claim allegiance to God and go on living however they wanted to. It is like Jesus saying, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” We do not choose to serve the Lord with mere words; we choose to serve the Lord by actually serving the Lord, day by day.
Joshua was right when he told the people, “You can’t do it.” We can’t – not perfectly, not completely, not without missteps and failings along the way. But Joshua was also wrong. His words were intended as a warning of how serious a choice this was, but when he said, “God is a jealous God and will not forgive your sins,” he was overstating it – or maybe it was a little hyberbole to underscore how important this choice was. The fact was, God had repeatedly forgiven the people and would continue to do so. The Good News of Jesus is that in Christ, we are indeed forgiven.
“Choose this day whom you will serve.” It is a choice for all of us to make, every day. And while it isn’t easy, it is a choice that comes with a measure of grace. Amen.