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Choose This Day

Sermon 11/06/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Joshua 24:14-18

Our text this morning is a great one for an election season.  We are in election time -- Sarah and I were just discussing that right before the service, how was I voting on the measure before Eugene voters.  I'm not going to get into that today, but it is an election season even if there is only 1 issue on the ballot for folks in Eugene.  So we don't have a whole lot to reflect on this election time.  Serious campaigning for various offices of the land won't really kick in until next year, so it gives us an opportunity to think about the bigger issues, the bigger choices.  

The choices we make that are much more important on whether or not we select a Republican or Democrat, or how our schools are funded, or whether we drill for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, or who will be on the Supreme Court, or whether or not the BCS will pick the Ducks to play in a major bowl game on January 1st -- you know, the big issues!  After that great win for the Ducks yesterday, we can dream big, but I realize that the Fiesta Bowl is played on New Years Day.  New Years Day is a Sunday!  We'll have to have a short service J.

Some of these issues are more important than other issues, of course.  Not every year you make it to a BCS bowl game J.  So we're thinking big.  And the text this morning that invites us to think big comes from the conclusion of the story of Joshua.  I introduced the story last Sunday and now we come to the conclusion of the story, so we skipped a lot in-between.  For those that weren't here, as well as for the rest of us who haven't read the entire book, let me just catch you up on the rest of the story before we get to the conclusion:

Joshua, you may recall, was selected to lead the people of God into the promised land.  After the death of Moses, he leads them across the Jordan River, and that was our text last Sunday.  And then there's a series of conquests, beginning with Jericho, in that very famous story.  And throughout the conquests of the promised land, there is one theme that runs throughout the story.  That is that God is with them.  God is leading them.  God is fighting for them, on their behalf.  And therefore they are guaranteed victory.

Now there are two stories in particular which really drive that point home.  One in the negative, one in the positive.  The one in the negative, is that according to the terms of the holy war under which they are fighting, they are to keep no booty and leave no survivors.  It's a hard story.  And Achan, one of the members of the tribe of Judah, decides 'well, it's all all going to go to waste anyway, why not just keep a little bit for myself?'  And he takes a little out of Jericho and he hides it underneath this tent.  Well, the very next battle, they lose badly.  Joshua goes to God and complains "What's up, Lord?  You said you would go with us, that you would fight for us.  Why did you abandon us?"  God says:  "You disobeyed me.  You didn't keep the agreement we had".  God says, basically, if you purge this evil from your midst I will restore my favor with you and go with you once again.  And so through a process of elimination, Joshua discovers that Achan is the one who has betrayed them, and he confesses to his crime, and so Joshua orders him to bring out all of the booty that he took out of Jericho to the center of the camp.  Along with all of his belongings.  Along with all of his livestock.  Along with all of his family.  And all is gathered there, and they are stoned to death.  And the entire pile, everything, is just burned.

It is a repulsive story, morally.  It goes against our modern sensibilities of basic fairness and punishment proportional to the crime.  This isn't even an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, it's an eye for a pinch, and a tooth for a pin-prick.  It's just not right.  But, it's there, it's there in the story.

And in the larger context of Israel's relationship to God, it drives home that point that failure to follow God's instructions can lead to disastrous results and the suffering of the innocent.

The second story makes the same point more positively, in the battle with the Amorites, when God strikes down the enemies of God's people with hailstones, and Joshua commands the sun to stand still to provide more daylight for the completion of the battle.  Now, we know today, of course the sun can't still, if anything the earth would have had to stopped rotating.  But they didn't have any modern sensibilities of those kinds of physics, and even today we question whether or not anything like that could really happen, but we don't need to get hung up on that kind of detail.  Instead, just let the story unfold and see what we gain from it.

When the conquest is finished, we come to the conclusion of the story, Joshua gives his farewell address.  He's become an old man, and he's about to die.  And then he invites them to consider carefully this choice, so we read in the last chapter:  

"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.

15 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." 16Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17for 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; 18and 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.".

And then Joshua does an interesting thing.  He tries to talk the people out of it.  He says (in effect):  'Have you read the fine print of the contract?  Are you sure?'  Joshua says (Joshua 24:19-25):  

"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. 20If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." 21And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the LORD!" 22Then 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." 23He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel." 24The people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey." 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.  

Now on an historical level, this scene is really absurd.  I mean, it's almost comical if you stop to think about it.  After everything that they have been through -- the escape from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan River both by miraculous feats, the giving of the manna in the wilderness for 40 years that sustains them, the miraculous defeat of Jericho, the near disaster because of 1 man's greed, the hailstones, the stationary sun.  After all of that, which by the way is recited by Joshua before this point in the text (he reminds them of everything that God has done for them), after all of that, who in their right mind would say 'Oh, well thank you very much Josh, it was real nice knowing ya, I'm going on my own way now, forget the Lord'.  It's a no-brainer, of course they will choose to serve the Lord.

But you see the story is really not about Israel's history, the story really is about our future.  It's not about the choices they made 3,000 years ago, it's about choices we make today.  And it's not that I'm saying that the author of the book of Joshua had us in mind when this story was written, but rather (most scholars think Joshua was written about 500 years after the events described, in it's final form that we have today), that at that time the author is thinking about the choices they face in the nation at that time among the various Gods and things going on.  The choices that are before them.  And even though the times are vastly different today, we still face the same choices.  

Whom will we serve?  That is, what is the purpose of our lives?  What gives us meaning?  What are we about?  Who's will will we follow?

These are the big choices, the ultimate choices.  And the author uses the story of Joshua, the one who led the people into the promised land, who helped them to form their identity, to establish their purpose, uses that story to get his readers to reflect on those big questions.  And hopefully to make the right choice in their lives and in their time.

There's an interesting parallel in the New Testament that Dennis Lindsay pointed out to me last Sunday, after we began this look at Joshua.  It occurs in the 4th chapter of John's gospel in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  Marlene read just a portion of that story for us.  If you remember, in that story Jesus goes to the woman to seek some water and that begins a long conversation about water and living water that Jesus says he has to offer and the nature of God and worship.  A very unusual conversation to engage with this woman who is a Samaritan on the one hand, and to be with a woman alone there at the well.  It's a very unusual story.  And the interesting parallels are first of all, the location.  It occurs in Samaria, whereas the story here in Joshua 24--the renewal of the covenant--occurs at Shechem.  Shechem was destroyed in the 8th century (BCE), the city that emerges on that mountainside where this renewal covenant occurred, is guess what?  Samaria.  In the same region.  Both of the stories involve a long dialogue -- between Joshua and the people, between Jesus and the woman.  And if you remember from last week, Joshua in Greek is 'Jesus', Jesus in Hebrew is 'Joshua'.  And in both stories they are referred to as a prophet.  And then lastly, we are given this dual command:  in Joshua 'serve the Lord with sincerity and faithfulness', and in John's gospel 'worship the Lord in spirit and truth'.

Now it could be that it's just a coincidence, that these stories are so similar in their style and location and content.  It could be a coincidence.  Or it could be that it's very intentional.  That it is a way for John (or the author of John's gospel) to emphasize the choice before his readers.  Will you drink of this living water?  Whom will we serve?  What is our purpose?  What gives us meaning?  Will we follow the messiah?

To choose to serve the Lord in sincerity and faithfulness, to worship God in spirit and truth, is to make that ultimate choice.  It says that in God we find our meaning.  In Christ we find our purpose.  

And I want to be clear about what that choice means.  Because it's not about voting for Jesus as President.  As if we had to choose amongst various candidates.  Some people seem to think that we don't have much of a choice anyway.  As Ralph Nadar liked to say, it was a choice between Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.  I don't know if that's true, it's a little cynical for me, but you get the point.  Choosing Christ is not that kind of choice.  And it's not like choosing what clothes you're going to buy, or car, or home.  Comparing values and features -- oh, you know I would have chosen Jesus but I just thought I could get more for my money if I went. . . . . . . . .it's not that kind of choice either.

I'm talking about choosing what is ultimately important.  What expresses our highest values.  What matters more above all else.  So it's no wonder in this story Joshua tries to talk the people out of it.  Because this choice has serious implications for everything else in your life.  

Financial?  You bet.  Some of us on Thursday evening heard the Reverend Dr. Sharon Watkins, the new CEO, General Minister and President of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ.  And she shared with us that in this time of year, as a Pastor, she normally would have been preaching on stewardship themes.  And she'd like to tell her folk in her congregation during this time of year that she was going to give them a break.  We're going to talk about tithing, about giving 10%.  Why is that a break?  Because, she said, all the rest of the time when we're talking about Jesus, he wants it all!  So we're going to give you a break, we're only going to ask for 10%.  So yeah, it's financial.

Political?  You bet.  When you show me where God says to us 'well, in this part of your life, you come to church, we'll talk about religion, and then in that other part of your life you can talk about how government works and who you choose to run it'.  I mean, have you ever read your Bible?  Sure, it is essential for government to stay clear of establishment of religion, of that I am convinced.  But it is just as essential for religion to be engaged in government for the sake of the common good.  To be the voice of conscience, the voice of the voiceless.  To hold up that vision of the realm of God, of what God aspires of us.  And to be engaged in the public square as we all seek to achieve that vision.  So yeah, it's political.

Sexual?  Now there's a topic we avoid like the plague in the Church while it permeates like a plague in the media.  But again, I say read your Bible.  David and Beth-Sheba -- most of you know that story, it's an "R" rated story (maybe more).  Prophet Hosea goes out and marries a harlot.  Song of Solomon -- not a bedtime story you read to your kids.  You might read it to your spouse or significant other, but it's not a bedtime story for children.  John 4, when Jesus encounters that woman, says 'go and get your husband', and she says 'I have no husband', yeah, that's right -- you've had 5 husbands, the man you're living with now is not your husband?  And here in Joshua, shockingly, one of the heroines of the story is a prostitute.  I mean it's throughout our scriptures.  We are created in the image of God as sexual beings so it is time to act in our sexual being in the image of God.  I mean, there's a topic for our youth to consider seriously.  Important topic.

Vocational?  What path we choose for our lives, how we make our living.

Educational?  What we study, what we view, what we read.

Environmental?  What would Jesus drive?  The energy we consume, the waste we produce.

Social, nutritional, physical, spiritual, recreational, I mean every aspect of our lives should be impacted by this one choice.  And if it isn't, can we really say that we have given ourselves to Christ?  That we serve the Lord with sincerity and faithfulness?  

The question is, always has been, and always will be:  who will you serve?

Here the voice of Joshua speak to us over the ages, challenging us to think carefully, to consider prayerfully, to decide mindfully.  Choose this day who you will serve.  As for me and my household, says Joshua, we will serve the Lord.  How about you?


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