Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 8, 2020
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 Commentary
When preaching on this text, there is a huge temptation to focus on verse 15c alone. “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” That bold declaration of commitment and intention has been posted on many a front door, mine included back in the days of my young parenthood. It’s a great text, but taken out of context it loses some of its power. So, let’s be sure to pay attention to the whole of Joshua 24.
When we do that, we see that this is not just a front door statement of faith. This is a once in a generation renewal of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. Or to put it in more Christian terms, this is a “come to Jesus moment.” As we come to the end of the liturgical year with Christ the King Sunday just two weeks away, the Lectionary calls us to a day of decision. That should resonate with many church folks, especially in the United States, as we have just had a great day of decision in our national elections.
The nation of Israel now occupies the Promised Land, though many of the natives are still very much in the land. The twelve tribes have been assigned their portions in the Land and have taken possession of representative places in those portions. But there is much warfare ahead. Even more seriously, these stubborn natives continue to worship their gods. In Joshua 23 Israel is warned to stay away from those gods, or else Yahweh will drive them back out of the Land!
That’s the setting of this great “come to Jesus” moment in Israel’s life. Not content with simply warning them against idolatry, God calls Israel to reconfirm their covenant loyalty to the God who has led them out of Egypt, through the wilderness, into the Land, up to this very moment. God wants to hear them say it, to boldly and firmly announce their loyalty to Yahweh alone, and to back up their words with strong deeds.
As with so many ancient covenantal ceremonies, this one begins with a recitation of the mighty deeds of the Sovereign for the vassal. Before they pledge their allegiance to Yahweh, Joshua reminds them of all Yahweh has done for them. He goes all the way back to God’s call of Abraham to leave his pagan family and country. And he gives a brief summary of Yahweh’s dealings with the other patriarchs. The Lectionary inexplicably omits the rest of redemptive history, in which Yahweh is again and again the One who has saved them. Note the drum beat of “I” in verses 2-13, concluding with “I gave you the Land on which you did not toil and the cities you did not build….” Israel is completely beholden to Yahweh.
Then comes the great moment of decision with a clear call to commit to Yahweh alone. Three verbs make the call unmistakable: “fear, serve, throw away.” In our age that emphasizes a piety of familiarity and friendship with God, some translations tone down “fear” to “reverence.” That is not wrong, but the sense here is stronger than that because Yahweh is not just our good friend. He is our Lord before whom we must bow. An old hymn (“My God, How Wonderful Thou Art”) may capture the sense here. “O how I fear Thee, living God, with deepest, tenderest fears….” So, while this is not a call to be terrified, it is a reminder that we owe our Lord not just warm feelings, but strong obedience.
That’s the idea in the words, “serve him with all faithfulness.” Allegiance to Yahweh is not measured in feelings, but in faithful service, in actions that demonstrate that he alone is Lord. It is one thing to feel close to God in this great dramatic covenant renewal service and to speak words of faith and commitment when you are moved by this event. It is quite another to be loyal in the way you live day in and day out. Being in covenant with Yahweh means that you serve him with all faithfulness, that is, in all areas of life.
And you must demonstrate your fear and loyalty right now by getting rid of other gods; “throw away the gods your fathers worshipped beyond the River and in Egypt (and, as verse 15 adds, the gods of the Amorites in whose lands you are living).” Clearly, this points to the fact that Israel was currently holding on to other gods, even as they were preparing to pledge allegiance to Yahweh alone.
There were the gods from over the Euphrates (the gods of Terah and Abraham), and the gods of the Egyptians, and the gods of the natives who were still around them. Israel was hedging their bets. Yes, we know and believe in and love Yahweh, but we also know about these other gods. So, we will hang on to them, too. Yahweh says, “No, it doesn’t work like that. Those gods are not partners with me and a little insurance for you. They are mortal enemies and they will ruin your lives.” So, don’t just talk a good line. Literally, “throw them away,” put them in the trash.
There’s your decision, Israel. Yahweh or other gods—not Yahweh and other gods, but Yahweh or other gods. If serving Yahweh alone seems “undesirable to you,” too hard, too narrow, even “evil” (as older translations have it), then pick your gods. There are many to choose from. Go ahead, go god shopping. Forget about Yahweh and “choose for yourselves whom you will serve….”
This is where the famous front door pledge of allegiance to the One True God comes in. Joshua stands against the slide toward idolatry and for loyalty to Yahweh alone. “But as for me and my household, we will serve Yahweh.” Many modern preachers may be tempted to note the patriarchalism in those words, but that would distract from the intent of Joshua’s words. They are a passionate plea to a people in grave danger.
And it worked! When confronted with the horror of what they were doing, Israel reacted with horror. “Far be it from us to forsake Yahweh to serve other gods.” When they stopped to think about it, it was a no brainer and they proceed to run off their own confession of faith in Yahweh. It is a shortened version of Joshua’s sermon about Yahweh’s role in their lives. We know what God has done for us, so “we too will serve Yahweh because he is our God.”
But rather than jumping up and down with joy at their words, Joshua roughly rebuffs them. “You are not able to serve Yahweh.” I know your history and I know your hearts. What you have done speaks louder than what you have said. No matter what you say now, you are not able to follow through. “Your spirit may be willing, but your flesh is weak.” And that bodes ill for you, because of who God is.
Here Joshua speaks words that seem anti-Gospel. Reminding them that God wants nothing to do with sin (“he is a holy God”) and that God will brook no rival lovers (“he is a jealous God’), Joshua announces the opposite of what so much of what the Bible says about God. “He will not forgive your rebellion and your sin.”
Now, given the subsequent history of Israel and the fulfilment of God’s work in Christ, this does not mean that God will never forgive Israel or others who go back on their pledge of singular loyalty. It means that God will not endlessly let Israel get away with their sin. And God will not continue to spare them the consequences of their sin. He forgave again and again and kept them from suffering the results of their repeated rebellion.
But eventually, Yahweh did exactly what verse 20 says he would do. “If you forsake Yahweh and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring destruction on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.” That’s exactly what happened in the Exile. But even then, God relented and returned a chastened people to the Land. God forgives 70 times 7, and renews his covenant in Christ (more about later).
Joshua’s point here is that God is deadly serious about being Lord of his people, not because he has an ego issue, but because he loves them to death and doesn’t want to see them ruin their lives. Which they will surely do if they forsake him and turn to other gods. So, he sternly warns them that Yahweh is not just another god, that Yahweh means business, that he demands complete loyalty. He is the Only God, whose love for them is as fierce as it is tender.
The people get the message and pledge with even greater earnestness that they will serve Yahweh. And Joshua pushes them even harder by saying, “You are witnesses against yourselves….” And they reply, “Yes, we are witnesses.” At the end of this chapter, Joshua sets up a giant stone to serve as a lasting witness of this great covenant renewal. Witnesses testify that the covenant has been made, as witnesses do at a wedding. This adds a legal and binding dimension to this ceremony, lending it even greater weight. This is not a little pinky shake exchange of promises; this is a solemn life altering ceremony. And the people say, “I do, we do! We’re all in!”
But once more, Joshua isn’t done. He straightens his shoulders, clears his throat, and says, ‘Now then, throw away the foreign gods that are among you….” If you mean your promises, then act now. Throw them away. Pull them out of your tents, your backpacks, your hidden places, and most of all your hearts. And “yield your hearts to Yahweh, the God of Israel.” With your hands, throw your idols away and offer your heart to Yahweh alone. (I can’t help but think here of the old logo of my alma mater, Calvin College. It’s a pair of hands holding a heart and offering it up to God. The Latin motto around it says, “My heart I offer to you, promptly and sincerely.”)
So, says verse 24, the people repeated their vows of unalloyed loyalty to God, promising to obey him. Verse 25 concludes, “On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people and there at Shechem drew up for them decrees and laws” detailing their covenant obligations.
How did that work? Well, it lasted through all the days of Joshua says verse 31. Israel meant what they said, but as our reading for next week will sadly show, it didn’t last. Instead of straight-line obedience, Israel fell into a circular pattern of disobedience, distress, repentance, deliverance, good intentions, and then back to disobedience. Joshua was right. They were not able. And God was true to his character and his word.
We can preach this text as exactly what it is—a come to Jesus moment. We can call our people and ourselves to recognize how we serve other gods in addition to the true God. We can call them to a renewed commitment to the Father of Jesus, a fresh confession of faith that “Jesus is Lord,” a stronger reliance on the Holy Spirit to overcome the weakness of our flesh. If you haven’t had a revival tent altar call for a while, this text gives you a perfect opportunity to call them to Jesus.
But ultimately, you must make sure that you land on the grace of God in Christ. As Joshua said to Israel over and over again, it is only God who can save us. The only reason Israel got to the Land and the only reason they got to return was the grace of God. The only reason habitual sinners can live peacefully in the Presence of the Holy and Jealous God is that Jesus has made a “new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:20).”
Until Joshua forcefully called Israel away from their other gods, they may not have even been aware that they were trusting those gods. They looked like faithful covenant keepers to the casual observers, even to themselves. They had a hidden virus in their lives, a virus that could sicken and even kill them. But so many of them were asymptomatic. It took a prophet to diagnose them. Today, you are called to be that prophet for your congregation. What hidden gods have infected the faith of your good people. It will help if you do a self-diagnosis first.
Joshua’s call to “the people of Israel” reminded me of “we the people” from America’s founding documents. And I wonder if “we the people” who are so accustomed to making our own laws as a matter of principle, if we independent individualistic people will be able to hear Joshua’s strong call to fear, serve, and obey the One True God. Many of our contemporaries will hear that as a call to patriarchal subservience that lessens us, rather than a loving call to a service that fulfills our true destiny.
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