Joshua asks the people, “Whom shall you serve? Whom do you choose? God or literally anything and everything else?” Our choices have consequences. What does it mean to choose God?
“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.
Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, 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.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
This morning, our Old Testament lectionary text takes us to the book of Joshua. Joshua is the first of the History books, moving us from the Torah- the books of law-which are the first five books of the Bible, into the history of the Israelites.
Preaching from Joshua is complicated. It includes stories of conquest and land-grabbing supposedly divinely sanctioned by God that are quite problematic. The original “manifest destiny,” if you will.
But most Biblical scholars and historians agree that the archeological data and actual findings of history don’t tell the story the way it is portrayed in Joshua. In fact, Richard D. Nelson, whose Hebrew Bible focus is on the book of Joshua says, “The stories and other materials taken up in Joshua cannot be used directly as historical evidence for violent conquest. The stories were told … to serve theological and nationalistic interests, not historical purposes.” So we read Joshua not for its facts but to get a sense of how the Israelites viewed themselves as a nation and how they understood their relationship with God.
The person, Joshua, for whom this book is named, took on the mantle of leadership from Moses. Moses, you’ll remember, led the people out of slavery from Egypt and through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
He himself did not get to enter the Promised Land, in fact, most from his generation did not, which should really tell us something about allowing the next generation to take leadership and take us into the next phase of church here at Calvary and in American Christianity as a whole.
Most of us, no matter how important we’ve been, even if we’d been the “Moses” of Calvary, will not get to see and experience much of what is to come. And if we want there to be a Calvary Presbyterian Church that is doing the faithful work of God 150 years from now, we would be wise to start listening and allowing our youth and young adults to lead us today, not sometime in the future, but today, so that we are ready and still relevant and, quite frankly, so that there still is a future.
Don’t get me wrong, the church of Jesus Christ will never die, but individual congregations close every day.
Calvary is lucky enough to have youth being confirmed and young adults joining, participating in leadership, and even serving on session. We need to listen and follow their lead, not just because they’re young, but because they bring fresh perspectives and understandings of God and the world that can help us become a more faithful church.
As it is, Moses saw the Promised Land from a mountaintop but would never actually enter it. They couldn’t have gotten there without him; it’s true. But he wouldn’t and couldn’t be able to lead them the rest of the way. That required new leadership.
Joshua is the one who would then take the people into the Promised Land, establishing a landed-ness and nation-state that had been missing for so long.
Here, in chapter 24, we actually witness the end of Joshua’s life and ministry. What he has set out to do has been accomplished. So before he dies, he re-establishes a covenant between God and God’s people, giving the Israelites a choice.
“Choose this day whom you will serve,” he says. Will it be this God, Yahweh, who set you free from bondage, who brought you through the wilderness, who has been faithful and present during each and every time of transition and change? Or will you choose other gods? Gods that woo with promises of instant prosperity or comfort; gods that might be more tangible because there are images and figures of them which you can see and hold?
Whom will you serve?
And the people don’t really hesitate. They say, “We’ll serve God, the one who’s been with us, the one who was with our ancestors and forebears. That’s whom we choose. We choose Yahweh.”
And when given a choice, I think most of us would follow suit.
Whom do we choose? Well, we choose God, right? Why else would we be here at church on a Sunday morning when we could be doing so much else. We choose God.
At some point in our lives, maybe not right now, but at some time in our history, perhaps we have felt the love and comfort and peace that God offers. We remember God, and the great possibility of the One who is life and light and love. So, like the Israelites, we choose God. Of course.
But Joshua asks the people again. Are you sure? Are you sure you choose God? Because choices have consequences.
And this isn’t a decision you can make half-heartedly. It is a commitment of your whole life; your whole way of being. It is a change in orientation and oftentimes a full reversal of what the world holds as important or as valuable.
To choose God is so hard sometimes that Joshua basically tells the people in verse 19 and 20: “Nope. I don’t think you can actually do this. Don’t commit. Because you’re just going to fall short on your end of the covenant and make God upset.”
I can’t know for sure if Joshua actually believed that God would not forgive them or turn away and cause harm to the Israelites for faltering on their promises. God had forgiven them over and over again through their flaky commitments in the wilderness, so I don’t know why Joshua would think that would stop.
But I do think he’s giving them a fair warning that their actions must accompany their words; that their choices must have consequences, to take seriously this decision before them. Because when we choose God, God expects us to live accordingly.
Yes, there is grace when we falter, and of course we are saved by grace alone and faith alone. But a healthy life of faith is known and shown through the way we live our lives.
It is demonstrated by our actions. As it says in Matthew 7, “You shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16-20).
To choose God, and for Christians that means to follow in the way of Jesus the Christ who is God incarnate, is not easy.
It requires humility and meekness in a time when pride and strength and “greatness” is valued. It requires love and grace, radical love and grace, that calls people to their best selves, not just accepts and welcomes them as they are, but loves them enough to challenge and bring about transformation in their lives.
Anne Lamott, author and absurdly honest Presbyterian says, “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” True love and grace meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us. It is honest with us, confronts us, and loves us into a new way of being.
To choose God, to follow Christ, means to stand with those who are the most vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized in our society. Consider those who are the most despised, those who are the scapegoated and most “expendable.” That’s with whom Jesus kept company- prostitutes, tax collectors, the sinners, not the saints. Another Christian author writes, “Be like Jesus. Spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people,” (Joshua Harris).
Liberation Theology teaches us that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns (with its roots in the Catholic church) frames it like this:
As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a preferential option for the poor, namely, to create conditions for marginalized voices to be heard, to defend the defenseless, and to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor. The option for the poor does not mean pitting one group against another, but rather, it calls us to strengthen the whole community by assisting those who are most vulnerable.
From the Scriptures we learn that the justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God’s covenant with Israel was dependent on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected— [what we read again and again in the Hebrew scriptures as] “the widow, the orphan and the stranger” [and that Hebrew word for “stranger” can also be translated as the immigrant] (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17).
Throughout Israel’s history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God’s transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).
Therefore, the preferential option for the poor is not optional. The Latin American bishops’ conferences at Medillín (1968) and Puebla (1979) aimed to emphasize the use of option as a verb rather than as a noun. As such, each Christian must make a choice to lift up the poor and disadvantaged in very real and concrete ways. Preferential option for the poor means that Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work in solidarity for justice.
To choose God means to choose that which does not serve our own needs or our own privilege. It means to courageously choose again and again and again and again: life, love, justice, peace, and mercy.
And we have to keep making that commitment, preferably in community as a church, because it’s much too easy to choose anything and everything else.
It’s quite natural to do what’s easiest for us. It’s quite normal and even lauded to act in our own self-interest, to make sure what we want and our legacy continues in perpetuity.
It’s human nature to want to be comfortable, to want security and what’s familiar, to want power and influence. It’s natural to falter to fear. But these are all other gods, lower case g.
When we choose God, the Creator of the universe, the one who came to live, die and rise again among us, we choose another way. A harder way. But the way that leads to truth, and life, and love, and ultimately even deep and profound joy.
It is hard, but it is possible. For all things are possible with God, and God does not leave us to do this work alone. But sets us with others in a community of faith and walks with us each step of this difficult yet life-transforming journey.
Last week, many of us came home from church and learned of the horrific shooting in a small Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX.
I don’t know if that church would let me preach in their pulpit. I’m pretty sure their pastor and I have many theological and political differences. We may not agree on a lot of things. But they’ve faced terror, death, and grief this week. Entire families, children dead.
And did you know, they’re worshipping today? The broken, devastated, traumatized remnant of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs gathered today to pray, worship, and ultimately to choose God.
In spite of what they’ve been through, or perhaps because of what they’ve been through, they came together to worship today.
That’s courage. That’s refusing to give in to fear and with this act, they pronounce boldly to the world that we are a resurrection people.
Death does have the last word when we choose God. Fear will not overcome when we choose God. This morning, we stand in solidarity with the good people of Sutherland Springs. We see and share their pain, and we stand with them, as we, together, choose God.
In honor of their Baptist tradition, we will sing together, an old Baptist hymn. Contrary to popular belief, this song does not capture the ease of making the decision to follow Jesus, but rather the staggering cost of picking up your cross and following after Christ.
And as we all sing, Victor and I will light candles for each life lost in this terrible tragedy, trusting in the hope of the resurrection, praying for those who weep and grieve, and professing through our singing, that we choose God this day and commit to action.
May God’s light and love shine in and through us into a broken and hurting world.