Narrative Lectionary Year 1
Today we jump from the story of God parting the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through on dry ground to this speech by Joshua. And thanks go to Joshua, because in this speech he summarizes what has happened in between the Red Sea crossing and the present moment, so I don’t have to. But I do want to fill in some of the background information that Joshua leaves out, so that we’re all clear on what’s happening in this speech.
Moses, the man who God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, died before entering the Promised Land. Joshua, son of Nun, was Moses’ apprentice, and he was the man who took over leading the Israelites after Moses died. At the beginning of the book of Joshua, we see God giving Joshua encouragement as he takes on this awesome responsibility of leading the Israelites by saying, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” And, reading through the book of Joshua, we see that Joshua did live up to this, and led the Israelites through battle after battle as they entered the land that God had promised them. Today’s speech by Joshua comes as he reaches the end of his life, and he wants to do what he can to make sure that his people, the Israelites, remain true to the covenant that the LORD has made with them.
So, what do you do when you’re trying to get people to agree to remain faithful to someone, whether it’s God or another human being? Well, one tried and true method is to list all the things that that person, or in this case, God, has done for you. And this is what Joshua does. He lists all of the great and awesome wonders that God has done for the Israelites, not just from the time they were in Egypt, but from the time of their ancestor Abraham. God chose Abraham and brought him from the area of Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, and took him from idol worship to worshiping God alone. God gave Abraham descendants. When Abraham’s descendants, Jacob and his family, went down to Egypt, God sent Moses to rescue them from slavery, and God sent plagues to harass Pharaoh and his people until they let the Israelites go. When Egypt pursued the Israelites, God protected the Israelites from the Egyptians and saw them safely through, destroying their enemies so that they would not come after them again. God was with the Israelites through the wilderness, protecting them and feeding them. God turned the curses of Balaam into blessings over the Israelites. God gave the Israelites victory over Jericho. God gave them the land. After everything that God has done for you, why wouldn’t you, Israelites, want to be faithful and keep the covenant with God?
And, the Israelites do recognize all that God has done for them. And when Joshua tells them to choose this day who they will serve, they answer, “[W]e also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” And then, after this rousing speech and wonderful answer, Joshua surprises them by saying, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.” He tells them what will happen to them if they fail. But they insist and respond, “No, we will serve the LORD!” And Joshua says, “Ok, then, you know what you’re getting into. So put away any foreign gods that are among you, and serve the LORD wholeheartedly.” And so the Israelites, with Joshua at their head, renew their commitment to serve the Lord their God.
So, I will admit to you that I struggled with this text this week, and the reason is because of the command that Joshua gives, and that we have probably seen on plaques and in embroidery in Christian homes: “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” And the reason that I struggle with this text is because of the word “choose”. Martin Luther says in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” In other words, I do not choose to follow Jesus by my own will. After all, in this day and age, with the church in the condition that it’s in across the country, who in her right mind would actually choose to be a pastor? Who in her right mind would choose to follow Jesus? Because this is what choosing to follow Jesus looks like:
Choosing to serve God means turning my back on my own selfish nature and my own wants and putting other people over myself. Choosing to serve God means doing the hard work of learning how people different from myself experience the world, and trying to put myself in their shoes. Choosing to serve God means being in a right relationship both with God and with all of God’s creation. Choosing to serve God means being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, which means recognizing things like, for example, God doesn’t care so much about the church building and the way we’ve always done church. Rather, God cares more about how we serve other people, how we tell other people the good news of Jesus Christ, and how we are going about in the world, recognizing Jesus in the hungry, the poor, the stranger, the sick person, and the prisoner. That’s some scary stuff, people. Who in their right mind would actually choose to serve God? On my own, I would never choose this way of life.
And so, I identify a lot more with Joshua when he says to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.” On my own, I could never do it. Most days as I go through life, I feel my sinfulness. I feel it when I miss the mark, when I miss an opportunity to do good. The guilt of my sin can be overwhelming when I realize that I’ve made a mistake and that I am unable to fix it. There are days when I, like the prophet Elijah, stand before God and say, “I have done the best I can to do what you have asked me to do, and it’s not making any difference. I’m done, and I don’t know what to do next.” I recognize that, without the help and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, I could never go on following God.
But the good news is this: With apologies to Joshua and the inspiration of Holy Scripture, Joshua was wrong when he said that God would not forgive the people’s transgressions or sins. He seems to have forgotten the times when, after the people had gone astray in the wilderness and God would become angry with them, Moses would plead with God, and God would relent and forgive. Joshua seems to be unaware of the time when God showed Godself to Moses and said, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” To give Joshua the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was simply trying to impress upon the Israelites the seriousness of the covenant with God that they were agreeing to follow. But even after this, throughout the rest of the story of the Israelites, we see many instances of God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness. And after many generations, someone who bore the name Yeshua, which is the Aramaic form of Joshua and whose name would be translated into Greek as Jesus, would give himself to death on a cross for us, to show us how much God loves us and to show God’s forgiveness of us.
So, back to this whole idea of choosing. I think that Martin Luther would say that perhaps we do choose to follow God, but on those days when we succeed, it’s not really us that’s doing the choosing, but the Holy Spirit within us who does the choosing. And I think that, moving forward, we need to reflect on all of the wonderful things that God, through Jesus Christ, has done for us, starting with dying on the cross for us, rising from the dead for us, and forgiving us our sins. Such wonderful gifts God gives us to show God’s love for us! Who wouldn’t want to serve this loving God? But serving this God is not going to be easy. It will mean listening for the Holy Spirit and following where we do not want to go. It will mean having to change the way we always do things and stepping out in faith to become a new model of church in the world. It will mean recognizing the face of Jesus in people that we would never think to find Jesus in. It will mean putting ourselves in those people’s shoes and learning to see the world the way they do, and then finding ways to share God’s love with them.
So choose this day who you will serve, the God of mercy and love who will ask you to follow where you don’t want to go, or some other god. If you choose God, know that it is the Holy Spirit within you that is choosing, and know that the Holy Spirit will be with you when you fail. But as for me and as for this congregation, we will serve the Lord. Amen.