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WHOM SHALL WE SERVE? – Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

WHOM SHALL WE SERVE? Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

The Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost [Proper 16], August 25/26, 2012

Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist

Walter Wangerin, a contemporary Christian writer, captures our Old Testament lesson in his wonderful paraphrase of Scripture, The Book of God: 

When Joshua the son of Nun was very old, he summoned to himself the leaders and heads and officers of Israel.  When he began to speak, he scarcely lifted his head.  It seemed too large for his thin neck. … (His) voice was but a hollow whisper.  …  None remembered (slavery in) Egypt but him. …

“Behold, we have divided the land as best we can among the tribes of Israel.  Every tribe has a territory.  … The Lord has kept his promise to Abraham and Sarah.  … My children look about you.  We are home.” …

As he spoke more and more people gathered.  The small group grew.  Mothers holding babies came, and the young men and young women together, farmers and shepherds, priests and weavers and potters. …

“I am about to go the way of all the earth,” said Joshua.  “Before I go, I must hear your faithfulness. … Now therefore, fear the Lord.  Serve him in sincerity.  Keep his statutes now as he has kept his promises to you.  Be his people, for he has chosen you, and he is your God.  Love him.”  …

“But if you are not willing to serve him, then choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the river, or the gods of the Canaanites in whose land you dwell.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”  …

Almost as one, then, the children of Israel said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods!  It is the Lord our God who did great signs in our sight!  He preserved us all through the wilderness.  Therefore, we will serve him.  Yes!  He is our God! [The Book of God, pages 180-182]

This is a great moment in the story of God’s people.  As we know, Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, but Joshua kept them together during the forty years in the wilderness and brought them into the Promised Land.  Joshua was a brilliant military leader, who not only secured their future through a series of strategic victories, but also formed them into a confederation of tribes, essential to their success.

Our First Lesson is Joshua’s valedictory address, delivered as his life and leadership were ebbing to a close.  Joshua reminds the people that all they have and all they are has come to them from God.  Now, as they enter the Promised Land, they face a huge assortment of choices, options, and challenges.  They are no longer slaves, but the choices and the commitments they make will shape them in the future.  Joshua wants them to remember God and remain loyal.  If you forsake God, he insists, God will forsake you!

More than three thousand years have passed, but we face the same issues of freedom, choice, and commitment.  Like the children of Israel, we are blessed with freedom, something we can easily take for granted.  As the bumper-sticker states:  Freedom is not free – it has been purchased by the sacrifice of many.  But we are blessed to live in a land where we can say what we want, do what we like, live where we wish, and believe what we choose.  We have freedom from ~ bondage, hunger, and repression.  But we must all decide what we will have freedom for.

Like the children of Israel, we also have a great number of choices.  We exercise our options every day.  We decide how we will spend our disposable money, what candidates will get our vote, where we will invest our free time.  We regularly decide whether we will see ourselves as blessed to be a blessing to others or will live like a human Dead Sea, where everything flows in and nothing flows out until eventually we stink!

And our lives are shaped by the commitments we make.  Make no mistake about that.  We stand very much where the tribes of Israel stood when Joshua addressed them.  We have been blessed beyond our understanding or our deserving.  Like them, we are in something of a Promised Land; at least the last time I checked this is the country where most immigrants and refugees would like to come.

And now we must respond.  Our choices shape who we are and our lives acquire dignity and integrity from our commitments.  For that reason I can think of nothing more appropriate for a pastor or priest to say to his or her people in a sermon than the very words of Joshua to the people of Israel:

… 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.”   [Joshua 24: 15]

Joshua clearly believed in leadership by example.  He had no difficulty in putting on the line what he personally believed, declaring the faith alignment of his family.  I feel the same way.  Christianity is not my occupation … it is the central truth and commitment around which Shannon and I order our lives.

I hope you can say the same thing.  I hope you understand that there is a battle going on for your hearts and minds, your loyalties and allegiances.

Will it be God or the world that comes first … Christianity or secularism?

Will your ultimate concern be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … or will it be wealth, pleasure, beauty, physical perfection, sensationalism?

What will define you?

In our lesson the people of Israel rose to the occasion and replied most appropriately:

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 ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, … He protected us along all the way that we went, … and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, …who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.

Nice thought … I am sure they meant it.  But we know that they quickly fell away.

How are you doing?  Are you winning the fight to keep the right God on the altar of your life?

What about that … as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!  Is that a defining statement for you?  Are you ordering your life and your priorities so that this is not just a pleasant thought?

Where will you take your stand ~ will you choose … to serve the idols of this world or to serve our Living, Powerful and Gracious Lord.

Sadly, many people determine the future for their children when they cannot find the way to bring them regularly to church and Sunday School.  At the time of baptism I ask the ritualistic question of parents in a polite manner:  Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?   [Baptism Service, BCP]

If I was more like Joshua, I suppose I would ask:  Will you promise to get this child out of bed, dressed, and here every Sunday morning for the next eighteen years, even when you’ve had a long week or you’d rather sleep in or there’s a soccer match or when this darling infant has grown into a surly, tattooed teenager who thinks church is dumb?  Will you promise this?

So I close by simply repeating with emphasis the powerful words and cadence of Joshua’s challenge to us all:  Choose … this day … whom you will serve.  God grant us the strength to say with Joshua:  As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.  AMEN.