Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25
We Will Serve the Lord
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” A very popular saying. You can’t walk into a Christian bookstore without finding at least one, if not several different things, with that verse on it that you can place around your houses. In very many Christian entryways, you open the door and there’s that sign: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” When I was younger we sung a song that gets stuck in my head every time I read that verse on anything.
But do we really know what it means to serve the Lord? Because Joshua’s point in this passage seems to be that he doesn’t believe the Israelites know what they’re saying. He doesn’t think they quite know what they’re getting into. Joshua began the passage by reminding the people of what God did for their ancestors. That their ancestor Abraham and his father were living in a land called Ur, over in modern day Iraq, over near Bagdad was where they were and they were living there as one of the families, and that group of people were serving other gods. And now God told Abraham to get out of there and go to a different land, a land that I will show you, a land that I’m giving to you so that you can worship me.
And so Abraham and his father and his brother go up. Of course you can’t go from Bagdad to Jerusalem straight because there’s a desert and you would die of dehydration, so they had to go around, where there was water, and they wind up in modern-day southeast Turkey, modern day Syria, and at that point Abraham’s father becomes sick. And so Abraham’s father passes away there, and Abraham takes care of his father in that land. And his brother stays there, and that’s where Jacob will go to get his wives later. But Abraham and Lot keep going and they continue down and they wind up in Canaan, where God provided for them.
And then Joshua continues on that God continued to build up a family for Abraham and that God had promised this land for that family, and built that family up, and built it up in Egypt and eventually that family became enslaved and God delivered them. And God had led them through the wilderness and across the Jordan River and then God had helped them to conquer the land of Canaan, and that’s where they were right then. And Joshua, many in years, ready to pass on and be with God. And he’s giving his farewell address to the people and he’s charging them with “what are you going to do when I’m gone?” What are you going to do when you don’t have a leader anymore?”
Joshua tells them that they have to choose for themselves now. They have to choose that day which god they’re going to serve. Are they going to serve the god of Abraham’s father, the god of the Ur people? Are they going to serve the gods of the land that they had conquered, because they were still around a bit? The gods of Canaan. Are they going to serve, maybe, Egypt’s god? It had only been three generations since they were enslaved in Egypt and usually the slaves wound up worshiping the master’s gods; were they going to worship their grandparents gods? Or would they worship the God of Abraham? Choose, Joshua says.
And of course the people recognize this for the trick question that it is. It has only one answer right? If Joshua just got through saying “you were built as a people to serve God,” then the answer to that is clearly “Well, we will serve Abraham’s God.” But I found it interesting that Joshua replies to them that they had chosen incorrectly. That they could not follow God.
And the reason Joshua gives, I think, highlights and reveals his point. The whole reason he is doing this is because he believes his people cannot stay true to the course. He believes that the people will turn away and that when they turn away God will consume them.
And honestly he’s got pretty good reason to assume that. Joshua is the only person left alive at this point, I believe Calem had passed on, but Caleb and Joshua are the only ones who had survived the entire wilderness from the Red Sea through crossing the Jordan River; and so Joshua’s the only one left with memories of what they did. Memories of everything that had happened and how this people who had seen miracles in Egypt, had a sea opened up in front of them so that they could walk across on dry land and had the sea come back to defeat their enemies; those very people just a few days later were complaining to God saying I’m hungry and if you were just going to bring me here to die you should have left me in slavery. And so God rains down bread from heaven, it was called manna because they didn’t quite know what it was, but it was edible and it was good, and it sustained them, and it came every day. And two weeks later these people are complaining “God, this food that is free, that comes down literally raining from Heaven is so bland and boring and we need something with meat on it.” And so God gives them quail, but when they eat it they become sick. And Joshua maybe can begin to see that punishment is beginning to happen.
He remembers that this is the people that complained they didn’t have enough water, that God had to make a new spring for them in the desert. This is the people that at one point they had a Levite complain that “what’s so special about Aaron? Why did God choose Aaron to be priest? I could be priest.” And set up this big huge thing to challenge Aaron for the priesthood. And after God chooses Aaron again, that person was swallowed up by the earth. Joshua maybe remembers a time when God was so disgusted by the Israelites and how they were acting in the desert that he sent snakes among them to where Moses had to talk God down a little bit, and God said “Okay, well make a bronze snake that you can lift up that when the people look at it they won’t die.”
Or maybe Joshua remembers the biggest failure of the people. The time when 40 days without a leader was too much. When Moses had gone up on Mt. Sinai to meet with God to get the Law, to get the tablets with the 10 Commandments, to get the instructions for how to build the Tabernacle of God; to get guidance for everything that was about to come. And he spent 40 days up there. And somewhere within those 40 days the people come to Aaron and say “we don’t know what’s happened to Moses, we’re afraid of this thing that’s descended upon Mt. Sinai, make us a God.” So he takes their gold and he fastens an idol, a Golden Calf. The Scripture tells us at this point as well that God was so angry at the Israelites for doing that that he wanted to consume all of them and begin again with Moses, and Moses had to talk God out of that. Maybe Joshua remembers that. And expects that the people again, without a leader, are going to turn again away from God. And without a Moses there to stop it, what will God do?
But the people repeat that “No Joshua, we can serve God. We will serve God. It’s what we’ve been made for.” And so Joshua says “Ok. This is what you have to do.”
And I think for most of us, remembering that his is in the Old Testament, we might be expecting that Joshua is now going to list off a list of rules. Right? The Old Testament is where they had the Law, and the list of rules and stipulations you had to follow in order to appease God. But that is merely the distortion that the Jewish leadership at the time of Jesus had gotten them to. Maybe not all the Jews at the time of Jesus, certainly not now. Now if you talk to most Jews they’ve gotten out of that and back where they should be; back where Joshua was here, where Isaiah was, and Amos was, and Elijah was. Because Joshua does not list a set of rules. He says “in order to serve God, put away your foreign gods. Get rid of those idols you have; the wooden statues, the golden calves; get rid of them and incline your hearts to the Lord. Joshua’s saying if you want to serve God then be in relationship with God, put nothing before Him.
That sounds pretty familiar to most Christian audiences. I know that for most of us we don’t have golden calves sitting on our fireplace mantles at home, and so sometimes we like to think that we don’t serve idols, we aren’t in that situation; but I do think they do exist. One of the reasons that I think that is that I noticed here that Joshua does not provide an option for the people of not serving any god. Joshua says “choose this day whom you’re going to serve,” but he doesn’t really afford the option of not serving anyone. Are you going to serve this god, or this god, or this god, or this god, or this god, or this god; but choose this day whom you’re going to serve. Joshua is saying it’s not possible to not worship anything, and I think I agree with him. We are a people who are made to worship, and we will worship.
Now some people in this world believe that they don’t worship a god, but they’re still worshiping something. They’re worshiping themselves. You can do that in more than one way: you can be narcissistic and worship yourself or there are religions that seek to find the divine within the self, which is still a form of worshiping yourself. Maybe people will worship the human race. Maybe they’re not worshiping themselves individually, but they’re still worshiping something and they’re worshiping maybe science or the idea that we will save ourselves.
Hopefully we in the church don’t necessarily have to deal with that. But you’re not off the hook either. We have idols in this society. We still serve our golden calves, they just haven’t been molded into calves, they’re literally gold. Sometimes they’re numbers on bank receipts. We put that before everything else. Sometimes I would claim that we begin to worship power. Why do certain offices and positions within our society demand respect? Whether CEOs or managers, or government officials, or even pastors? Why does the office have respect? Because at some point we begin to place importance upon the position, place importance upon power. Now, that is how society functions when its healthy, that’s not the issue. But do we then take that and place it as an idol, where we place power before everything else; place pleasing our CEO, or becoming the CEO, ahead of family and friends and God. At which point it becomes an idol.
Sometimes I wonder if things within our own religion have become idols. An example of that there’s a background on my computer that happens and it rotates in and some of those pictures are of camp and are nice and calming and whatnot, but within the rotation is a picture of a mural on the side of a building. It’s a four story building or so, and I think it’s in Texas, but I found this in seminary. And this mural has a painting of Jesus and Jesus is holding out in front of him a Bible. Holding it out so that the Bible itself is a story and a half tall or so. He’s holding it out. And I have it there to remind me. I always wonder when I see that mural, what is the person who made that mural worshiping? Because the Bible is in the forefront, Jesus has become a background character that exists only to give us the Bible.
I don’t know if that was the mural’s intent, but that’s what I see when I see that mural is someone who’s maybe begun to worship the Bible more than the Lord. And I keep it there reminding me of what’s important. Do we serve the Lord?
How can we tell if we have an idol in our lives? Well if you’ve been to the Bible Studies maybe you know where I’m going because I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in there, but it’s something I call the Luke test, because in the Gospel of Luke there is a young man who comes to Jesus and says “Jesus I want to follow you.” And Jesus turns around and says, “Ok. You must do one thing before you can follow me, you need to go home, sell everything that you have, give away everything that you get, and then you can come follow me.” And he can’t. He can’t do it. There was something in his life that he could not give up in order to follow Jesus.
I think it is pretty clear that Jesus does not ask all his followers to sell all their possessions and give it all to the poor in order to follow him because his own disciples still have their fishing business after Easter. They go back to their fishing. They still have all that stuff. But maybe they would have given it up if Jesus had asked. Maybe they do after the Resurrection when they become apostles. But this boy would not and so Jesus knew he had to challenge that boy to set aside in order to follow God.
What are some of the idols in your life? Those things that if God were to ask you to set it aside, you’d be squirmish, at least, if not refuse. Maybe it is a quest for money. Maybe it is a quest for power. Maybe it’s merely your independence. If God said I need you to serve me for the next 15 years in this nursing home, would you? Maybe it’s something smaller. Maybe it’s a phone, or a car, or a certain place, or maybe a television program you must get to ahead of anything else, or maybe a PlayStation. Maybe I’m preaching to myself, I don’t know. What is it for you? If Jesus were to challenge you to give something up, where would he go? What causes you to squirm when you think about it?
Because I think Joshua is getting to this idea; he knew that the people had something that they would not give up and that eventually those things would grab hold of them again, and they would turn aside from God and go to those things. And unfortunately he was right. If you read the Book of Judges that’s all it is: the people turning away from God again and again, spiraling further and further into that kind of life.
I want to leave you with some help. There’s an old prayer in the Wesleyan tradition called the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. I would encourage you to seek it out online or by contacting me, but this is a prayer that is intentionally set up to do this same thing; to tell God that there is nothing that is above you. And I think if you pray that prayer every morning that eventually there will be nothing that is above God. That it will bring you closer and closer to God, as is the point of all Spiritual Disciplines. But this is the Covenant prayer. I would encourage you to pray it daily. Would you pray it with me:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering
Let me be employed by thee, or laid aside for thee
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee
Let me be full, let me be empty,
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O Glorious and blessed God
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine and I am thine, so be it.
And the covenant that I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.