David A. Davis
August 5, 2018
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This morning I am finishing up our summertime encounter with the Book of Joshua. We started with that story of Rahab and the spies. Then it was the procession of the people of Israel across the Jordan River into the Promised Land after forty years in the wilderness. Last week, it was how just inside the Promised Land that manna from heaven stopped and the people of Israel ate the crops of the land of Canaan. Today we fast-forward to the end of Joshua. Joshua’s last word. His last sermon. When I say last, I mean last. The Bible says that after Joshua gathered all the people of Israel for this sermon, after he spoke these words, after these things, Joshua died. It doesn’t necessarily mean he finished the sermon, said “amen,” and dropped right then and there. But it is, these words, this gathering, it is Joshua’s last act as the leader of the people of Israel.
It was quite a scene. Joshua gathers all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summons the elders, the judges, the officers. It was everyone. All of Israel together and as it is recorded, “they presented themselves before God and Joshua said to all the people, ‘thus says the Lord…’” Joshua speaks the word of the Lord and begins with the history of all that God has done. Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. Esau. Moses Aaron. The flight from Egypt. The long time in the wilderness. The crossing over into the Promised Land. He preaches with the first person pronouns referring to God. “I brought you… I rescued you… I gave you… I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns you had not built, and you live in them. You eat the fruit of the vineyards…that you did not plant.” What comes next, the next word of the Lord from Joshua to the people, what comes next is the “now therefore.”
Now therefore revere the Lord. Now therefore serve the Lord. Now therefore put away the gods your ancestors served beyond the River. Now therefore, choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. That last part is what gets remembered most. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. That’s the part that gets memorized and poster-ized and cross-stitch-ized. That’s the part that gets put on the decorative plate that hangs in your grandparent’s house. As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.
With their response the people make it all sound like such a slam dunk, such a no brainer. “Far be it for us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other Gods.” It is as if they are offended by Joshua’s exhortation, his insinuation. “Oh, how dare you!” We know all what God has done for us. “Of course we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.” Joshua doesn’t back away. He knows better. You can’t serve the Lord. The Lord is a jealous God. It’s just not that easy. Like Moses before him who said, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.” Like Elijah after him who said, “How long will you go limping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” Moses. Joshua. Elijah. They knew it wasn’t a slam dunk. As Jesus put it, “No one can two masters; you will either hate the one or love the other, be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
But the people insisted. By now they might have been shouting back. “No! We will serve the Lord!” Then you are witnesses” Joshua said, “you have chosen the Lord. You have chosen to serve the Lord.” “We are witnesses. We got this. We’re good!” “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel,” Joshua pleaded with them. “The Lord our God we will serve and the Lord we will obey.” Joshua made a covenant. Wrote it up in the book of the law of God and set a stone as sign, as a witness, as a reminder of the promises they made that day, a reminder of the promise God had made to them. He gave them a sign of the promise.
Because Joshua, and Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus… and you and I, we all know it’s never that easy. Never that cut and dried. Serving the Lord. That whole thing, that whole encounter, that whole scene at Shechem seems pretty intense to me. It seems a whole lot more intense than a kitschy plaque hanging on the wall. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. It’s a whole lot more intense, a whole lot more compelling, a whole lot more relevant. Especially when you live here beyond the river, like we do. Beyond the river. Not one side of the tracks or another. Not this side or that side of the Jordan River. Beyond the river. Not a GPS location at all, for that matter. But here, everywhere, in a world so full of other gods.
A world so full of mammon and yet so full of need. A world where idols are legion. Idols that the gospel of Christ demands we smash. Here beyond the river where the temptation to slip into greed, and selfishness, and hatred never stops. Where the thirst of other gods crying for your devotion and demanding your attention is never quenched. Where the altars of worship are shaped by self-interest and it is far more common to serve one’s own desire rather than serve the common good. The world here beyond the river. Where we haven’t figured out how to make sure everyone has a place to live but we’ve discovered how to make a gun with a 3D printer. Where we adore young athletes who make unfathomable amounts of money who together with team owners bicker over a million here or a million there while politicians bicker over what is a living, hourly wage for those who work two and three jobs just to squeeze out a living. Where the oldest of conflicts between nations never seem to wane and humanity’s worst ugliness still rises in each new generation.
Choose this day whom you will serve. Yes, it’s never that easy. It has to be a day-to-day discipline. A never-ending challenge here beyond the river. You can’t frame your faith and hang it on the wall. You can’t reduce your faith to some kind of rallying cry; “We will serve. We will serve”. You can’t offer shallow affirmations and nod your head pretending this life of faith is so easy. No, you have to live it, choose it, work at it, every day. All that back and forth at Shechem, the lesson in salvation history, the exhortation with such rhetorical passion, the pushback on the people’s quick affirmation, the covenant, the sign, it was Joshua’s one last effort to let the people know that yes, they had to choose, and yes, they had to choose every day, and that long before their choice, God chose. And God chose them.
So today when you find yourself once again standing waist deep in the muck here beyond the river, know that God has chosen you. Tomorrow, when you feel like you’re being bombarded on all sides by the forces and voices of the gods who will never give up, remember that God is with you. Tuesday, when the very real stress and anxiety from your work, or from the news, or from getting ready to go to school, or just from everything, when it all threatens to overwhelm you, claim once again the promise of God’s peace and let it wash over you. Wednesday, when the temptation to give up, or to not care, or to throw in the towel on this faith journey, on this being a servant of the kingdom, when you are about to succumb to the notion that when doubts are on the rise or discouragement comes, you might as well quit, tell yourself that God’s grace is endless and God’s love never stops. On Thursday, when the crazy pace of life is out of hand and being on the run doesn’t begin to describe it, take a breath, be still, and know that God is God. Come Friday, when this harsh, cold world has a way of reminding you that death never seems to stop, dig deep and draw upon the psalmist’s painting of God’s presence in the darkest valley and Christ’s promise of life in the midst of death. And Saturday, when the weariness or the loneliness or the hopelessness screams back at you from the mirror, hear that voice again, the voice of Joshua, Moses, Elijah, Jesus. And say to yourself, “yeah, they told me I was going to have to choose.” It has to be an everyday thing here beyond the river.
Have you ever driven past Hoagie Haven further down Nassau Street on a Princeton University reunion weekend? It’s quite the line of all those alums wanting a taste of being back to campus. It’s not just Princeton alums either. One day holiday weekend we picked up our young adult kids at the train. In the parking lot we ran into a church family doing the same thing. Ten minutes later both families were parked outside Hoagie Haven because the kids coming home wanted to stop there even before heading home. When I would go home to Pittsburgh, it was Danny’s hoagies and chipped ham from Isley’s. When my wife Cathy went home it was pot roast with noodles and potatoes. All a sign that you were home. Not just a taste. But a smell too. I can still remember the smell of the apartment my parents moved into after they sold the house we grew up in. When I was young they both smoked so that house probably still smells like cigarettes. But the apartment was different. And to be honest, it wasn’t a great smell. It was a mix of mother’s perfume that seemed to get stronger as she got older and the stale air of an apartment on the 6th floor of a high-rise apartment. I never lived there but that smell, it meant I was home. I was with them. They were with me.
Some memories, some reminders, some signs you can smell, you can taste, you can see. Here at this table, taste and see, and smell that the Lord is good. And know that Christ Jesus is with you and will never forsake you. And remember, “this is my body broken for you, my blood poured out… for you.” A sign of God’s promise. Because when you live here beyond the river, you need all the help you can get.
So come, taste and see, and know that you are home. Choose this day whom you will serve. And then choose again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
Joshua said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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