Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 12, 2017
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 Commentary
What’s the Church’s most important task? Some people might answer, “Sharing the gospel’s good news with the whole world,” or “Teaching children to follow Jesus.” Others answer, “Being God’s hands of justice and mercy in the world” or “Being a welcoming place.”
Each of those is certainly among the church’s important tasks. But were you to ask classical Reformed theologians what the Church’s most important task is, most of them would answer, “worshiping the Lord.” In fact, the first Westminster Confession’s question and answer is essentially, “Why did God create us? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In other words, God created you and me to first of all worship the Lord.
Yet while worship is central to the life of the church, few places in the Bible give detailed instructions on how to worship. The Old Testament talks a lot about worship. But most Christians believe large numbers of those teachings, such as those related to sacrifices, no longer apply.
What’s more, the New Testament doesn’t present us with a manual for worship either. It describes some worship services. The New Testament offers some guidelines for worship, such as the expectations that it build up the Church and be offered in spirit and in truth.
Perhaps partly as a result, Christians use an almost endless variety of worship orders. Our profession that worship is not an end in itself complicates this. We don’t worship, after all, just in order to pray, praise, and hear God’s Word and respond. No, you and I worship because it both expresses and deepens our relationship with God in Christ.
In that way a corporate worship service is a bit like a wedding. We don’t have weddings merely in order to get dressed up and watch people who are even more dressed up. Weddings exist in order to seal a relationship between a man and a woman.
One of the Bible’s central images of the relationship between God and God’s people is that of a covenant. But we don’t talk much about covenants anymore. So it’s good to remember that a covenant is basically a set of promises. For example, you establish a kind of covenant with a grocery store when you promise to pay it $20 and it promises to give you some food.
One of God’s central covenants with us begins with God’s promise to be our God. In fact, there would be no covenant between God and us had God not first graciously made that promise. God’s people then respond to God’s covenantal promises by promising to be God’s people. We promise to love and obey the Lord exclusively.
Covenants are often established by some kind of ritual, gathering or event. So, for example, our church established our covenant with a building contractor when we signed a contract with him. A bride and groom covenant to love and serve each other in some kind of wedding ceremony.
But sometimes spouses also want to confirm the covenant that is their marriage. So they reaffirm their promises to each other by renewing their vows. They don’t necessarily repeat their original promises to each other. But husbands and wives promise to keep their original promises in what’s basically a covenant renewal ceremony.
Or might we think about covenants this way? Sometimes long-time friends develop issues with each other. One may, for example, feel the other just isn’t paying enough attention to him. So friends may sit down together just to clear the air.
Or working relationships may go stale. So a good boss may periodically call her workers together to discuss mutual concerns and review their expectations of each other.
In Joshua 24, God and Israel do something like that. God had first gathered God’s Israelite people for a covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai. There Moses told God’s Israelite people “all the Lord’s words and laws.” The Israelites responded by promising to do everything God told them to do.
Now, as the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday opens, God has finally given Israel “rest” from the enemies that surround her in the land of promise. Israel, however, remains in great danger. She’s in a strange land whose ways prove to be attractive to her. Canaan’s women are beautiful and her gods seem powerful.
Joshua knows God keeps all of God’s promises. One of those promises is that if Israel doesn’t keep her promises to serve the Lord alone, God will throw her out of the land of promise. Israel seems to have kept most of her promises to God while she tried to clear the land of promise.
Yet that’s perhaps hardly surprising. When, after all, do God’s adopted sons and daughter generally most clearly recognize we need God? When we, like the Israelites, are in some kind of danger, when we have a serious illness or relationship problems, or age slows us down. And when do we easily begin to assume that we least need God? Isn’t it often when things are going well?
Joshua understands that now that Israel possesses the land of promise, she’ll be tempted to assume she no longer needs God. So what does he do in our text? Israel’s leader basically invites Israel to renew her covenant with the Lord. He begins by reviewing God’s amazing grace to Israel. Starting with God’s call to Abraham and Sarah, Joshua recounts much of what God has done to bring Israel to her new home.
Yet in verse 14 Joshua starts speaking for himself. “Fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness,” he begins there. However, Joshua speaks his perhaps most famous words in verse 15 where he tells Israel, “If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves whom you will serve … But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Essentially Joshua challenges his fellow Israelites to throw away the gods her ancestors worshipped in Egypt and that they still sometimes worship. He calls them, instead, to serve the Lord by worshiping the Lord only.
Israel responds by promising not to abandon the God who’s already done so much for her. Israel promises to join Joshua and his household in exclusively and wholeheartedly serving the Lord. Even when Joshua insists Israel can’t do that, she vehemently insists she will serve the Lord alone.
My colleague John Witvliet and other scholars suggest that Christian worship is like a covenant renewal ceremony such as the one our text describes. When we gather for worship, we essentially renew the covenant God has made with us in Jesus Christ. In fact, you might say worship is a bit like reaffirming the marriage vows Christians have exchanged with God in Christ.
While that may sound like a strange idea, the Bible often uses marriage as a metaphor for God’s peoples’ relationship with the Lord. In Isaiah 62:5, for example, the prophet says, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will God rejoice over you.” And in Revelation 19:7 John speaks of that day when “the wedding of the Lamb will come,” when Christ’s “bride,” his Church, has made herself ready.
In worship services God also reminds God’s people of the promises God has both made and kept in Jesus Christ. The Church also renews the promises God’s people have made to God. God’s children need that because we’re often so busy making various promises to each other that we forget the promises God has made to us. You and I are so busy trying to keep our different promises to people that we easily fail to keep the promises we’ve made to God.
People who have healthy relationships, whether in our homes, workplaces or neighborhoods, spend time with each other. We talk and listen to each other. If that’s so important in our interactions with other people, think of how even more important it is in our relationship with the Lord.
In fact, some relationships are so important that we periodically go away to renew them. Friends get away for a weekend together. Spouses go to marriage conferences. Co-workers go off-site for a while. Worship can be a bit like that. In it we remember the promises God has made to us and renew our promises to God. The goal of all this covenant renewal, the renewal of our promises to God? To both express our love for God and that the Holy Spirit deepen that love in us.
Of course, a covenant can be renewed only if it was made in the first place. Israel can renew her covenant with God because God first made that covenant with her at Sinai.
Husbands and wives can renew their marriage vows because they made vows to each other in the first place. Christians can renew our covenant with God in worship because God first made God’s promises to us that we received with our faith.
But some worshipers have never received those promises with their faith. In fact, if they’ve not yet received God’s promises with their own promises to serve God, this whole worship thing may not make much sense. Yet it can begin to make sense as worshipers receive God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. It can become a weekly way of re-committing ourselves to God.
This pattern of covenant renewal, however, isn’t just for corporate worship. It’s also for our daily lives. Those who proclaim Joshua 24 this Sunday might reflect with those who hear us on how we might do that. One good habit is the practice of regular daily devotions. Whether as individuals, friends or families, we hear God’s promises by reading and contemplating some part of God’s word. We often conclude by prayerfully asking God to help us keep our promises to God. We, quite simply, renew our covenant with God.
When a local Christian school wanted to publicize its mission, some people wanted to refer to its commitment to help parents and churches carry out their covenant responsibilities. However, other members of the community rejected that idea because “covenant,” to them, referred to a despicable part of America’s racial history.
According to the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston’s website, racially restrictive covenants were imposed in a deed on a property’s buyer. They prohibited the purchase, lease or even occupation of a piece of land by a specific group of people, usually African-Americans. Such covenants were enforced with the cooperation of real estate boards and neighborhood associations.
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