2.9.20 Joshua 24:14-24
14 “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served 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.”
The Service Challenge
Do you like a challenge? Remember the ice bucket challenge years ago? My aunt challenges herself to do something new every ten years. I think one time she set a goal of getting another degree in college. I think that’s kind of a neat thing to do, to set a goal and challenge yourself. Some people do tough mudders: probably not for me.
It was a challenge, to say the least, for God to get two million of Moses’ descendants into the Promised Land. He used Joshua to cross the Jordan and get them settled. Now Joshua was about ready to die, but he would have had a sense of great satisfaction looking back on life. No more struggling in the wilderness. No more dependence on manna every day. They would be able to build houses, plant vineyards, and get settled. However, it would be easy for them to backslide in their faith and forget how they got there. So Joshua challenged them in their faith. He offered them a choice. Recommit yourselves to the LORD and serve Him, or serve some other gods. Joshua led the way. He felt confident in how he had led his house and he said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
There are major crossroads in life when it is good for you to do a spiritual gut check and make sure you are spiritually ready for the challenge. Before a surgery, after someone near to you dies, when contemplating marriage, moving to a new job, having children, entering a nursing home, getting a promotion: sometimes difficult and sometimes exciting: these are times to make sure you have a firm grip on Jesus. Sometimes you might be afraid of it, and you might need to be challenged, especially when you are tempted to give up.
Joshua called on them to FEAR the LORD and SERVE Him. We don’t think of our faith in this way very often. Wouldn’t it seem that we treat God more like our servant? We get angry at Him when He doesn’t do what WE want. People threaten to leave church and never come back. In reality, we are the slaves, (willing slaves albeit,) and HE is the Master. Here Joshua flips the script. Remember to FEAR the LORD and SERVE Him. Remember who YOU are and remember who HE is.
The Israelites respond quickly. “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! 17 It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. 18 And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”
This was good! The Israelites remembered all of the good things God had done for them to rescue them from slavery. They were glad to talk about it. It was obvious to everyone that they didn’t get to the Promised Land by their own work. God had clearly rescued them with the plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. God had clearly fed them with manna and led them with a pillar of cloud and fire over them. God had been good to them. Even a blind man could see that. So they were ready to commit themselves to the LORD because of His goodness to them.
Isn’t that a good thing to remember to do: to think about the goodness of God and talk about it often? That’s why we always go back to the death of Jesus, which rescued us from sin and God’s wrath. That’s why we start our services going back to our FORGIVENESS in Jesus. We couldn’t stand before God as holy on Judgment Day were it not for Jesus’ death on the cross for us. We couldn’t have a hope of rising from the dead if Jesus hadn’t conquered death through His resurrection. God is also the One who gives us food and drink and clothing. It is good for us to remember the LORD’s goodness to us, especially when we are living blessed lives. Ecclesiastes 12:1 says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.” The more you remember the source of your blessings and talk about them, the more you will find yourself right here in worship. He doesn’t owe us ANYTHING. In reality, we owe HIM!
The Israelites then committed themselves to the LORD. Yay! Let’s all go home now. Not quite.
Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”
Isn’t this a stark reminder? You can’t! We don’t like to hear this, but it’s true. Serving God isn’t so easy! He’s still a holy God who demands holiness. He still hates sin. He has never been a God who has been satisfied with the way our world is or who is ok with mediocrity.
He’s still a jealous God too. What does that mean? It comes from the Hebrew word “qay-nah.” It expresses deep emotion and feelings for someone, that can result in a strong reaction. It usually relates to jealousy in marriage. You think about a husband and wife who dedicate themselves and work hard and sacrifice for each other. When one of them commits adultery, a profound sense of anger and betrayal comes with it. But when someone is in danger, then you will also have a strong urge for action to be done in order to protect or rescue someone. So sometimes this word is translated as “zeal” too. It can mean jealous and zealous. So God actually names Himself “Jealous” in Exodus 34.
Joshua reminded the Israelites that there is great privilege in having the LORD as your God, but there also could be a great danger if you decided to reject Him. So don’t enter into this relationship lightly. It can’t be just words. This is meant to be an emotional thing and a dedicated thing: a deep thing. Recognize how God loves you, with much more than words, but also with actions. He was willing to send plagues on Egypt in order to save them. But He was also willing to send Babylonians in and make them slaves when they rejected Him. He loved them too much to let them go without a fight. When you’re dealing with God, you're dealing with PASSION and ZEAL. He’s definitely not boring, bland or indifferent. He’s HOLY. He wanted to be their ONE and ONLY, not only their god on Thursday or Saturday.
We lose track of this God, don’t we? Maybe we treat it more like a dry contract, like working for an employer. Put your hour in each week. Throw an offering in the plate. Say a prayer here and there and we’re good. How does that work in a relationship? You get the statutory birthday card or Mother’s Day card. Maybe you’ll get taken out to dinner on an anniversary, but that’s about it? How does that work for you, ladies? And in the meantime you see your spouse get excited about going out for cards or going out for some wine with friends . . . how do you feel about that? When you join church or when you’re confirmed, you make a vow to be faithful. We expect you to be willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING even to the point of death for Jesus. This is no light thing.
How could it be a light thing, when God went through so much sacrifice just to make you His bride? He took on flesh for you: He became you. He went through hell for you on the cross. He who is eternal decided to DIE for you on the cross. He pleads for you in heaven still today! His Holy Spirit still works in you to bring you to repentance and cling to Jesus every day! He is invested in you. He is passionate about you. He has every RIGHT to be angry when you ignore Him and reject Him. But in the same sense, He has a reason to be patient and kind and forgiving to you too, because He died to forgive you. All of that is part of the deal when God adopts you into His family.
Joshua realized that LETTING GO of the other gods wouldn’t be easy. These were gods that their forefathers worshiped. They were well known and popular gods of the area. Maybe some of them were made of gold or silver. Maybe they were worth a lot of money. But God could not and would not bear for them to worship these other gods, any more than any husband could or should bear to see his wife sleep with another man. Any loving husband would get angry and should get angry with his wife if he ever caught her flirting with another man. What kind of love would it be if he said, “Have at it,” without at least trying to get her back. But He’s not so desperate for your love that He will let you try and have BOTH. He has standards. Repent and believe in Jesus.
What gods are you holding onto? What gods have your parents held onto? Is it the god of the church roster? Have you been taught by example that you are a good and dedicated Christian because your name is on our roster here at church? Have you been taught by your parents that God’s Word and sacrament really aren’t that attractive? Is it the god of sports? Do you see your parents get more excited about you scoring a basket or hitting a home run than they do about you coming to worship and praising Jesus? Has your god been a mattress? Has your god been finances? Have you given up on your principles of marriage and relationships just because you are attracted to someone? Or have you held to the Sixth Commandment through the process?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who left Germany for a time to come to America during World War II. His life was in danger due to the way he was standing up against the Nazi regime. He felt guilty for leaving. He realized that he was needed in Germany to speak the truth, even though it put his life in danger. This was his vocation. It was his calling, difficult as it may have been. So he went back and risked his life while speaking against the state type religion that had permeated the Lutherans. He ended up dying in a concentration camp when he took seemingly went too far and took part in an assassination plot against Hitler. Nonetheless, nobody could accuse him of taking his calling lightly. He spoke against the Lutherans and Christians who made God’s grace “cheap.” He said,
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. ... It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.
Joshua wanted the Israelites to know that following the LORD was serious business. They would have to repent in the process, because God was holy. They would have to cling to His mercy, to cherish the sacrifices, to hold to the prophecies, because they needed forgiveness. God was serious about their salvation, and He wanted them to be too.
So we think about this on this Sunday in Epiphany. God wants us to take this relationship with Him seriously. When Jesus says to let your light shine, He wants it to shine. He doesn’t want it to be dull. He doesn’t want you to be the same as everyone else. He wants you to make sacrifices for people in your life, to put yourself under them, to enslave yourself to them, out of love and reverence for Christ. He wants you to take your sins seriously. Repent of them. Take your forgiveness seriously too! Cherish the absolution. Crave the Lord’s Supper. Thank God for your baptism. Hold onto Jesus and His mercy tenaciously.
Sometimes I think we give the wrong impression to people when we are trying to attract them to Jesus. We try to make ourselves look “normal” in their eyes, so we speak like our generation, dress like our generation, cuss like our generation. We try to be attractive by joking with them and meeting them where they are. We have good intentions and we want to reach out. But Christianity is different, and it’s meant to be. We get on our knees before a holy God, because our holy God bent His knees FOR US! (And it’s an amazing thing that He chose to have knees in the first place when He took on flesh!) Here on the cross, He had to bend and straighten His knees just to catch a breath. He was asphyxiating from the cross! He allowed the Romans and the Jewish leaders to beat Him down to his knees. He allowed the Father to lead Him to death. He submitted to it all - for us! All so that we could be free from sin and free from death: free from slavery to worrying about the world thinks of us. All so that we would be different from the world. And the beauty of it is that God says we ARE!
Do you like a challenge? Or do you dig in your heels and get angry - say, “I’m not going to do it!” Joshua challenged the Israelites to serve the LORD. This challenge from Joshua is different in a sense. You aren’t being challenged to be someone different as a Christian. You’re challenged to be who you ARE. In God’s eyes, you are a holy people. You are a royal nation. You are a people belonging to God. That’s what Peter said. I’m holy! I’m God’s chosen child. Why? Because of Jesus! Because of the Holy Spirit working faith in my heart! Because of Grace. There’s no reason to be ashamed of WHO YOU ARE. Yes, you will fall short in your life and dedication, but you will still be forgiven and loved. You have the most powerful and most passionate God who has chosen you and loves you! It’s a challenge to live up to such a privilege. Don’t be afraid of it. Enjoy it. Respect it. Live it. Amen.