Complementary Text: Matthew 4:8-10
Preaching Text: Joshua 24:1-15
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Choose this day whom you will serve!
Joshua’s call rang out over the crowd of Israelites gathered to hear him give his last instructions during his last days. Since the death of Moses, Joshua had been the undisputed leader of the people of Israel, a man of conviction who had steered the people through the difficult process of carving out space for themselves among the tribes who inhabited the land of Canaan. Finally, they had found a place to call their own, in fulfillment of the promise that had been given to their ancestor Abraham. For Joshua, it was important to remind the people of that fact, and of everything that had led them to that moment, because he knew what might happen to them when they suddenly found themselves without a leader again. It had happened once before, and Joshua had watched it unfold before his eyes. Years earlier the people had been gathered at the foot of Sinai, that holy mountain where Moses had first encountered God. They were getting restless, because they had watched Moses climb up the mountain to receive God’s word for the people, and they were unsure that he was ever going to come back down to them. In their fear, the people persuaded Moses’ brother, Aaron, to help them craft an idol, a golden calf that they could worship in the absence of their leader. When Joshua thought of everything that had happened as a result of the people’s panic, it still pained him. That’s why he was so insistent on reminding the people of where they had been, of the great love and faithfulness that had been showered upon them by their gracious God. They had been called from obscurity to become a great nation. They had been rescued from slavery and oppression and promised a place to live in freedom and safety. They had finally arrived in that land… and the temptation to forget how they had gotten there would only grow stronger as the weeks and months and years wore on. The matter before the people was undeniably simple:
Choose this day whom you will serve.
Today, as we read how Joshua gave that ultimatum to the people of Israel, it’s not hard to imagine how it might be relevant to our own lives. People of every time and place have faced this challenge and been called to consider what it means to live in faith and obedience to God. For those first Israelites, the choice was between their God and the gods of the other nations that surrounded them. For much of its history, the church that was grafted onto Israel has struggled to sort out its own internal divisions and choose between God and the various theologies that sometimes took God’s place. In our own time, the choice has become more subtle but no less important. Writing about the first commandment and the call to worship God alone in 1529, Martin Luther put the problem this way:
A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.
For Luther, those other “gods” can include things that are often so mundane that they can escape our attention when we consider our relationship with God. For his part, Luther highlighted the allure of money and its ability to give us illusions of security and control over our lives that diminish our trust in our creator. He also listed other things – such as learning, wisdom, power, prestige, family, and honor – that can easily become idols. Today, these things can still distract us from God and become “gods” for us in significant ways; we might add other things like technology, medicine, the market, or ideology. Truthfully, we live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded by people and things that demand our time, our attention, and our allegiance. As the people of God in Christ Jesus, those alternative messages require us to take seriously the call of Joshua:
Choose this day whom you will serve.
What can Joshua teach us about answering that call? Today’s reading reveals the proper motivation for answering it, and that motivation flies in the face of the way this call is so often heard. In many cases, this passage comes off sounding like a threat, with the phrase “or else” left unspoken but lingering just below the surface. Later in this chapter, Joshua does highlight the potential consequences of choosing not to follow God, and those consequences are not to be dismissed lightly. Here, however, Joshua calls the people to choose obedience to God, not out of fear, but as a response to the grace they have already received. Before many of those standing before Joshua were even born, God had chosen their ancestors, spoken words of promise to them, and led them to the fulfillment of those promises. All who heard Joshua’s call were the recipients of divine love and grace too great to fathom. These seven words – choose this day whom you will serve – are not at the most basic level a threat, but an invitation to remember and celebrate who God is and to trust that God will continue to be faithful to the promises that God has made. To live rightly before God is to remember God’s faithful love and to respond to that love by extending it to others. To live rightly before God is to remember the source of our life and the author of our salvation, and to refuse to allow anyone or anything else to take God’s place in our lives. To live rightly before God is to live in Christ, to remember that in baptism we are joined to him and filled with God’s Holy Spirit, and to deny the natural inclination to put ourselves at the center of our own lives. To live rightly before God is to trust that God has already invited us to experience abundant life today.
Brothers and sisters, these words are a challenge, but they are grounded in unbelievable promise. We belong to God in Christ, and we have been chosen to receive God’s blessing so that it might go out to all the world. Let us take seriously the call to choose this day whom we will serve, confident that the one who calls us has also given us the grace, the strength, and the will to respond to God’s “Yes” with our own. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Kolb, Robert; Wengert, Timothy J.; and Arand, Charles P.: The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2000, S. 386.