Who will you serve?

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Who will you serve?, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday October 14, 2018. The Reading was Joshua 24:1-15, (16-28).

Quotable quotes

In the Bible Reading we’ve had today, there is a bit of a “quotable quote”. That is, a short, memorable verse that people like to remember, or get printed up on coffee cups, keyrings, or decorative wall plaques. “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Very nice. Short, punchy, memorable.

I wonder if there’s any others like that which you can remember.

Phil 4:13 Coffee Mug

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13.

Ps 23:5 Travel Mug

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Ps. 23:5. Good one for a coffee cup.

John 3:16 Tie

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16.

Ps 46:10 Coffee mug

“Be Still and Know that I am God” Psalm 46:10

“His father scolded him, and said “What kind of dream is this that you have had?” Genesis 37:10

No? Yea, I guess that one is a bit odd. But that is my point. You see, most of these verses have some good meaning, on their own. But when taken out of context, they lose a lot of meaning.

Now, I’m not fully opposed to these little “quotable quotes” as it were. There is some thought that when Jesus used the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” that he is referencing Psalm 22. And in a similar way, when we recall these short verses, it should be hoped that we recall the context. But so often, it happens that people take the short verse as gospel, and forget the context.

And so I want to remind ourselves of the context of this passage today.

Distractions and priorities

So what is the context? Where are we in the story? Whilst the Bible is a collection of separate books, that are read individually, there are a number of books that are connected and interrelated. The first five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – hold a similar narrative of a people removed from their home land on a search for a home land. But by the end of the Pentateuch, they have not entered that home land. That happens in Joshua. And Joshua is the story of these people finding their place in the land. And just prior to the passage we’ve heard today, Joshua calls the people to him as he is getting old and will soon die. And so Joshua exhorts Israel to uphold the law.

And with that, Joshua reminds them of their history. And this was really important for them, because they needed to be reminded of the faithfulness of the Lord.

In the warnings Joshua gives Israel in chapter 23, he includes lots of warnings about how important it is that Israel separate themselves from the nations surrounding them. Not to intermarry, not to water down their laws and incorporate traditions and practices from another culture. That was important for them, because as a new and young nation, they needed to be extremely focussed on learning what it meant to follow God. They needed to live by his laws, in order that their hearts would be shaped after his hearts. With so many nations, with so many different gods and practices surrounding them, it was so easy for them to get distracted.

Similarly today, we have so many distractions vying for our attention. So many things that want to eat up our time, that it is difficult to choose.

But instead of letting them weigh up the pros and cons of whether they follow the Lord or Not, Joshua chooses to tell them their history, and remind them of their history.

Choose, but choose wisely

Joshua was presenting the Israelites with a choice. But in order to make the choice, he wanted them to have all the information at the forefront of their memory. He wanted them to remember all that the Lord had done for them. The Lord has done all this stuff for you, so follow the Lord… but if that seems undesirable, then make that choice and follow someone else. But don’t go through life trying to cover all your bases – basically, You can’t follow Yahweh and eat your Ba’al too.

This is the same choice that we are presented with daily. Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to become his followers, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. If we make the choice to be a follower of Jesus, then we need to make that choice and be all in with it.

Our choices have consequences

Because, when we make these choices, we have to live with the consequences of that choice – whichever choice we make. We’ve heard what Joshua chose – “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” But what did Israel choose? Let’s read on.

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17 for 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; 18 and 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.”
19 But Joshua said to the people, “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. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!” 22 Then 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.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”

Joshua 24:16-23 (NRSV)

And I love this. Joshua has spent the last chapter and a half exhorting the Israelites to choose to follow the Lord. And after this speech, the Israelites say “After being reminded of all that God has done for us, what else can we do except follow God?” And to that, Joshua says “You can’t follow the Lord!”

I’m sorry, what?

You just spent all this time telling us to follow the Lord, and when we say that we will follow the Lord, you tell us that we can’t do it?

What Joshua is saying to the Israelites is that there are consequences for their choice. If they fail to live up to the standards that God sets, then harm will certainly come to them. Surely, it would be easier for them to follow those false gods where there would be no punishment?

But they are insistent – they will serve the Lord, and so Joshua tells them to put away their false gods, and incline their hearts to the Lord.

If you choose God, then follow God with everything you have.

In the same way, if we are to follow Christ, then we need to be aware of the consequences of our choice. In today’s society, Christianity seems to be under more scrutiny than it has been for a long time. The choices that we make as Christians reflects on the church as a whole. We need to be fully inclined to the Lord.

Just recently, I heard a fantastic description of sin as the “culpable disturbance of shalom” – that is, being aware of something that disturbs the wholeness, unity, and balance. So, for example, if we hear from the scientists that are tasked with learning more about God’s creation that we have been tasked with caring for, that the actions of humanity and our pollution is destroying the world that we are supposed to care for, but we don’t change anything about our own lives, then we are culpable in the disturbance of the shalom found in the environment.

Or if we are aware that the prolonged, indefinite detention of people seeking asylum has a profoundly detrimental effect on their mental health, but we do not keep pressure on our elected officials to bring those people to safety, then we are culpable in the disturbance of these people’s shalom.

There are so many other examples that I could go through, but the reality is that if we choose to follow Christ, then we need to be all in. We can’t just follow Christ for an hour a week, and then go our own way. We need to put aside the false gods of money, pride, lust, and all those other distractions, and allow the shalom – the wholeness, unity and balance that envisions a harmonious, all-inclusive community of loving people to permeate through our entire lives. We need to give our all to Jesus, to surrender our all, freely giving our all, not for the glory of ourselves, but for the glory of God.

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