What do you think about this book in my hand here? If someone asked you to describe it in a word or phrase what would you say? I'm hoping that you'd say it's the word of God! But, when I just read from it, from our reading this morning in Joshua, did you hear God speak to you, reaching out to you by His Spirit and through his word? This is indeed the living word of God! So, every time we open it, every time we read it, every time we discuss it or have someone up here like me try to explain it, we should have that kind of expectation.
But, it's not often the case that we think of the Bible like this, and I wonder if that's more so the case when we open up the Old Testament. I know that it's easy for me to slip into just thinking of the 'classic' narratives and to be, well for want of a better word, bit blasé.
We can see our passage in two ways. It's either a distant story from an ancient history that we've been co-opted into and a bit dusty and dry. Or we can look at men like Joshua not as historians but in the way that the Hebrew Bible frames him; a prophet. It's amazing what this shift in perspective does.
Because if we're able to make the shift we're able to look at the text and not just read about an event, but to read the words of a man sent by God to teach and to preach to his people then and there, and to us today. And when we look at Joshua, and this text in Joshua this morning, in this way, I would argue that we find a message that is massively relevant.
What today's text presents us with is the paradox of the Christian life. What do I mean by this? Well, on the one hand, we, as believers, are committed to love and serve God. And yet, as our failures and rejection of God's authority in areas of our life remind us, we don't, or as Joshua puts it to the people of Israel in today's passage, we can't. Yet this paradox isn't an unsolvable riddle. It's just that we can't solve it. And, as Joshua showed God's people then, and us today, it's only resolved by the power of God. And for us, with the benefit of the New Testament, it's the power of God, through the Holy Spirit that equips us to effectively serve God.
But, before we jump in, a quick summary of what's happened up to this point in the book of Joshua so we don't feel completely disoriented.
God's people have entered into the Promised Land and, while it hasn't been plain sailing, have come to a point where they are ready to inherit the land itself. And Chapter 24 sees Joshua presenting the people with a clear choice that has to be made. And the same choice that Joshua presents God's people then – will you serve the Lord? – is presented to us too.
1. Who Will You Choose? (vv.14-15)
Our passage opens this morning with Joshua issuing a series of warnings and demands to the people of Israel. And this series is all framed around the idea that the people had to choose, Verse 14 says,
"…fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
Joshua has just spent a significant amount of time demonstrating to the people that the God who lifted their ancestors out of slavery, and has delivered them to the land must be the object of their worship. And he has a warning for the people – if they're going to set out to follow this God, they have to be sincere in their service and in their faithfulness. When we consider the journey that the people of Israel had been on to get this place where the Promised Land was theirs it's an unbelievable statement!
How can it be that there's still doubt in the Israelite camp? But what becomes apparent in verse 15 is that there is more than doubt. In fact, some of the people are clinging to the gods they'd started to worship in Egypt. Others were picking gods up as they went, and were finding the gods of the Amorites attractive. But, this is the same people who had entered the land and taken possession of it! The same people whose parents and grandparents who had experienced the incredible saving power of God as it lifted them out of slavery and through the wilderness. And they're worshipping false gods?!
But, at this point, we've got to take a step down of our high horse and look at our own lives.
What false gods do we cling to? Perhaps there are those things that were of the most importance to you before you became a Christians and you just can't quite let go of them? Or, do you find yourself vulnerable to making an idol of new things in your life, whether that's a shiny new piece of Christmas kit, a career opportunity or something else? I know I'm vulnerable to all of those things and more, of letting recurring sins or new distractions get in the way of my worship and service of God. Joshua knew that. God knows that. So Joshua gives us this warning this morning to put away these things and to prepare to serve. How can we do this in practice? I'd argue that the first step is acknowledging the issue. In Joshua, he did it for the people.
Can you imagine being in that crowd? When the revered, old and wise Joshua stood and spoke, and his words pierced your heart, as if he was speaking to you and not to a gathering of the elders of the whole nation? How did he know about that! That pang of hurt, the pain of acknowledged sin is the first step. But if we don't share it with God and with a mature Christian we trust it's unlikely we'll translate that pang into meaningful change.
So, if you don't already have a person or small group of people to be accountable to, can I commend it to you? For all of us that might look a bit different. If you're new to faith then I'd point you in the direction of the Belonging Course as a first step, and for those a bit further along in their journey I'd encourage you to catch up with one of the staff team here, and – if you're not already, get stuck into a midweek group.
I'm sure you have in mind the things in the areas of your life that stop your wholehearted service of God. It might be a difficult work relationship that you really struggle to see a window for grace to enter into. It might be an area of your life that you know you haven't surrendered fully to God; be it relationships, what you put before your eyes or allow into your ears.
Having acknowledged the area of conflict with God we've got to go about reclaiming it. I am in no way a model example of this but after November's 9:30 service I've made a conscious effort to reclaim my commute. Instead of listening to the daily Brexit angst of the Today programme I've been listening to sermon podcasts from the likes of John Piper. And the impact this has on my view of the day ahead of me is profound; it's a step I'd certainly recommend. But, I'm still easily distracted by the challenges of the day ahead. I still find myself drifting back into checking my work emails first thing in the morning, rather than focussing on quiet time. Why? Well, Joshua unpacks this for God's people in no uncertain terms in the next section of our reading.
2. Joshua's Paradox (vv.16-20)
Let's go back to our passage. How do God's people respond to Joshua's challenge to them, how do they answer his question of, "who will you serve"? In verses 16 to 18 they say,
"Then the people answered, 'Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 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.'"
Doesn't that look like a model answer! They commit to serve God over all other gods. They recognise all that God had done for them in giving the land. They commit anew to God for he is their God! What do you expect to come next? If you had been one of the people in the crowd calling out this response what do you think you'd hear back from Joshua? Well done team! You've nailed it! Now go, take the land, live long and prosper with him! I don't think anyone would have seen what Joshua says coming, and it must have been like a dagger to the heart. Joshua says,
"You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 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."
You are not able to serve the Lord! What?! Not able?
Joshua knocks back their seemingly perfect response because he sees it as an overly confident emotional commitment. The people had consistently demonstrated from the beginning of God's covenant relationship with them that they couldn't follow him. Instead of acknowledging their failure, repenting of their wrongdoing and pleading for God's ongoing mercy the people speak out. Instead of counting the cost of their words they spurt them out. And this presents us with the paradox of the Christian life. We are committed to God. We want to serve him wholeheartedly. We want to love him unconditionally. We want our lives to bring glory to him. But sometimes our commitment wavers. Our service is half-hearted. We love other things, whether it's things we know to worldly or sinful, or the over-emphasis of good things like work or family at the expense of God. So how do we keep going? Why don't we just chuck it all in there?
As we stand in Joshua's paradox – the call to serve God even though we can't – we have a decision to make. Are we going to give in, or are we going to do what Joshua is calling us to, and to have our helplessness in the face of God's holiness and righteous jealousy drive us to him?
In Joshua 24 the people of God don't walk away, back to the gods their ancestors worshipped or to the two-bit, pretend gods of their new neighbours. They commit again to worship and serve God. We know, with the benefit of hindsight that this commitment was flawed but that's not what Joshua is teaching God's people here.
Here he is challenging them, and us, to renew our commitment to God despite our flawed nature. To keep on resolving to worship and serve him better. Why? Because he is an amazing God. And we have both the privilege and responsibility of worshipping the awesome God who sends his Son on our behalf. Doesn't this passage just make you want to cry out in thankfulness for the grace of God? Despite our weakness, he is strong. Despite our ineptitude he is for us. We can't serve God on our own, but with God's own help we can! Paul explores this beautifully in Romans 8. In verse 26 Paul reminds us that the Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes on our behalf. In verse 27 Paul again uses that word intercede to describe the Spirit's work for us; God the Spirit goes to God the Father for us! Then in verse 31 Paul starts to move towards his glorious conclusion. If God is for us, who can be against us? Because of God we are able to stand in the midst of our brokenness and say with confidence that, 'we will serve the Lord'.
In your mind take a step back to those things we thought of earlier this morning that get in the way of serving God. Having acknowledged these barriers to serving him we've got the opportunity together this morning to recommit to our service of Him. And can I just encourage you to consider those ideas again before we finish? I've been challenged to consider how I can change my own routines to better equip me to serve God; not just to think or to talk about it but to do it. And can I urge you to do the same, and to commit to sharing this with someone you trust who will hold you to account?
In getting ready for today I asked a few folks who I trust to answer a couple of questions; what gets in the way of your wholehearted service, and what can help you serve God more fully? The responses were varied, with some identifying difficult relationships with others, other folk highlighting the busy-ness of life and the challenge of finding a balanced approach to life and others their own selfishness. But, the second question came back to two key themes; the grace of God that allows us to keep on in our aspiration to serve God and the need for those around us to hold us steady and accountable. So, let's challenge ourselves again to serve God in all areas of our lives; whether that's how we relate to those we're closest to, to our work and our colleagues or to our church family.
If we're thinking about how we relate to each other, there's a challenge for husbands to strive to love our wives as Christ loves the church, and for all of us extend ourselves to love and welcome those around us. For those of us in work, let's do everything for the glory of God and nothing else. And amongst our church family, let's be ready to step out in service.
And yet, as I look out at you this morning, I know many of you are serving already, maybe in more than one area. Maybe you're thinking something like, "My problem isn't that I'm not stepping up to serve, but that I'm too busy serving in lots of ways! Church, home, spinning plates just to survive!"
But that plate spinning can become more important than actually serving the Lord... in his strength, guided by his wisdom, helped by his Spirit.
So, for those exhausted by service, hear again the message of Joshua 24: God commits to us even when we struggle and fail in our commitment to him. So, at the start of this New Year step back and reconnect with the living God.
And let's help each other. Let's remind one another as brothers and sisters in Christ that we are more than conquerors because of the love of Jesus.
Don't let these incredible gospel truths lead us to complacency, or to allow our failings to lead us to despondency. Joshua has challenged us by reminding us of the paradox at the heart of Christian living; our commitment to serve God and our flaws in our efforts.
So, as we finish, let me ask you a couple of questions – which God-given gift are you going to dedicate to his service this morning? Are you going to use it here to serve your church family, or outside of these walls to serve family, friends, colleagues and more? Are we ready to stand with Joshua, and all the saints who've gone before us and show by the way we live that, we will and we do serve the Lord?