Heavenly Father, as we open up your word this morning, help me to explain things clearly and for each one of us to hear your voice. Help us in Jesus' name. Amen.
From the moment your alarm goes off in the morning life throws at you a non-stop sandstorm of choices.
- To snooze or not to snooze? That is the question!
- To hop in the shower… or simply to spray on some deodorant? That's another!
- And then there's what to wear? And how to do your hair? And what to have for breakfast?
And if like me you have small people living in your house then one of the big choices you have to make first thing in the morning is how to handle the daughter who can't find her shoes even though they are exactly where she dumped them the night before and the son who is lying on the floor with his pants half-way up his legs whining: 'I can't do it. I'm too tired.' Will you be patient and nurturing… or will you lose it and start World War 3 over your children's glacial attempts to get ready?
Choices, choices, choices. Folks, researchers have estimated that we make 35,000 different decisions every day. And of course they can range from the trivial like your choice of breakfast cereal, to the more serious like what we do with our time, our money and our talents. But ultimately all of those choices boil down to a choice between two things: Following Jesus or… Not following Jesus. Letting Jesus be Lord of your life... or letting something or someone or something else be our Master.
That is the big issue in this final chapter of the book of Joshua that we're looking at on our Anniversary Sunday. Joshua is coming to the end of his life and these are his final words to the people he has lead for a generation. He is passionately concerned that they will make the right choices once he has gone. And he says that amidst the bewildering array of choices that we make day by day, week by week, year by year through our lives there is one major choice that will underline and underpin every single choice that you make – it's there in verses 14-15 – and it's this: Are you going to serve the Lord God or are you going to serve other gods, the false gods that are around you? Well Joshua has made up his mind – as he tells us at the end of verse 15:
"...as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."
But what about us? What choices are we going to be making – as individuals? But also as a church, as we reflect two years in on where we're up to and where God is leading us for the future? Will we be able to echo what Joshua says here
"...as for me and my house, [no matter what happens,] we will serve the LORD."
That's the challenge of this passage. And in order to follow in his footsteps, Joshua encourages us to do three things. Here's the first one:
1. Remember what the Lord Has Done (v.1-13)
The first 13 verses of this chapter are a potted history of God's saving actions on behalf of his people. Take a look at verse 1 with me:
"Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God."
This is a momentous occasion. In a momentous location. Joshua gathers God's people at Shechem, which may not seem like that big a deal to you, but this is the very same spot where 500 years earlier their great, great, great, great grandfather Abraham had stood and heard God promise (Genesis 12.7):
"To your offspring I will give this land."
And it was an amazing promise as at that time Abraham was 75 years old and he and his wife Sarai were childless. It seemed more likely that Newcastle United would win the Premier league than God's promise would ever come true. Indeed, left to Abraham and Sarai it would never come true. Yet now here they all were, the descendants of Abraham – thousands of them in the land having been through all kinds of impossible situations – gathered together at Shechem on the very spot where the promise had been given. God's promises had come true. He had done what no-one else could do. And that's the point of the verses that follow.
Let's quickly whizz through the first 13 verses of Joshua chapter 24 – This is the Lord speaking:
- Verse 3: "I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him... I gave him Isaac."
- Verse 4: "I gave Jacob and Esau... I gave Esau the hill country..."
- Verse 5: "I sent Moses and Aaron... I plagued Egypt... I brought you out."
- Verse 7: "...your eyes saw what I did..."
- Verse 8: "I brought you to the land... I gave... I destroyed..."
- Verse 10: "I delivered..."
- Verse 11: "I gave..."
- Verse 12: "I sent..."
- And verse 13: "I gave you a land on which you had not laboured and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant."
Do you see? No less than 18 times God says: 'I did that.' God was behind all these great moments that had made them a people and gave them a land. And the point of this GCSE Bitesize History of Israel? PRIDE!
Because it would be all too easy for the Israelites to look back on this long, successful campaign and say: 'Look at what we've done! Look at how great we are.' This gathering of the people could easily break out into one of those big backslapping awards ceremonies – Like the Brit Awards or The Oscars: 'And the award for best leader in a middle eastern military campaign goes to... Joshua son of Nun!' And in his acceptance speech Joshua could do a bit of: 'Hey guys do you remember when... we escaped Egypt because of our awesome negotiating skills or when we brought Jericho's walls tumbling down by the sheer ferocity of our trumpet playing. Altogether now everyone: 'We Are the Champions My Friends.''
That's so often what success does, doesn't it? Whether it's the personal achievements of career or relationship success… Or the shared 'success' of the encouraging start our church has experienced over the last few years – any kind of success we have can tempt us to be smug… and to take pride in ourselves… rather than thank God for what He has done for us. And folks… pride is deadly. Because it keeps us occupied with ourselves, rather than looking to the God who gives us all good things and calls us to do good things. Give in to pride and we become self-obsessed.
- What stops us serving others – putting their needs before ours? Pride – because we think our needs are more important!
- What is the biggest hindrance to prayer? Pride – because we think we've got things together enough so that we don't need to pray.
- What keeps us from reading our Bibles and listening to God every day? It's Pride – because we think we know it all already or that missing a few days won't make any difference.
Pride is deadly because it makes us think that we can cope in life… without God. And that's just the attitude Joshua was seeking to challenge in the hearts of the Israelites by encouraging them to not only remember what the Lord had done for them, but also to...
2. Remember that God is Not an Optional Extra (v.14-18)
Dive back into Joshua 24.14:
"Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness."
That seems like a no brainer when we remember everything that God has done for us... but our hearts are all too easily distracted. So Joshua goes on (vv.14-15):
"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."
Did you notice what the choice is here? It's not a choice to serve the Lord… or not to serve him. It's serve the Lord or you will end up serving some other god. To which you might say: 'But you don't understand Ken, it's not that I want to serve other gods, it's just that I don't want to serve the Lord God… or at least not at the moment… or not yet. I just want to be neutral.' But folks, Joshua is telling us here that there is no such thing as spiritual neutral! We are made by God to worship Him. We are in fact all worshippers by nature. So if we will not serve the Lord, we will inevitably find other things to worship. And if you won't believe Joshua, then listen to Jesus in Matthew 6.24 – he says there:
"No one can serve two masters..." - No one! - "... either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other."
You see God is not some optional extra that we can just add in and subtract out of our lives when it suits us. No! We are not just to believe in him, not just to trust him to take us to heaven when we die... But to serve him now - as the undisputed number 1 in our lives!
But if we won't live for God's glory, this is what happens: Our hearts are kidnapped and we will prioritise other things above Him. And we will expect God not to be God – but simply a divine waiter who we assume will just give us whatever we want. As if we are the master and he is our servant. And if he doesn't go along with that, we'll ditch him. Or if he's inconvenient… then we'll hide him in a cupboard at the back of our lives. Now we may not even notice we're doing that at first, but remember – life is a series of choices. And every single day we make decisions which will either strengthen our relationship with Jesus or see us drifting away from Him.
It's like the tracks diverging on a railway line – you come to a point where you have to choose the left track or the right – to worship the Lord or pursue something or someone else for your security and satisfaction. And that day your decision doesn't seem like that big a deal – your life is still practically-speaking running parallel with God's will, but then a month or so later you're moving further away, till a year later you're on a different course altogether. I guess that's why Joshua calls the people in verse 15 to:
"...choose this day whom you will serve..."
Choose now! Don't beat around the bush. Don't delay. Choose today! So maybe you've got some decisions at work? It may be a choice between furthering your career... or standing firm for Christ. I hope you can do both! I really do. But we all know that there are moments when it's got to be either one or the other. So choose today to serve Christ! Don't say 'maybe next time'.
Or what about relationship decisions? Will you go out with someone who has no concern for the things of Jesus Christ, or will you be willing to give that person up in order to be free to wholeheartedly follow Jesus. Don't let that decision linger. Say 'yes' to Christ today. Folks, there are all sorts of things in this world crying out for your attention, grabbing for control of your life, and quite frankly making a play for your soul! Which is why Joshua calls us to:
"…fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness."
Because if we don't serve him, we will serve something else… something less worthy, less wonderful, less beautiful, less good for us than the Lord Jesus. And so the people of Israel answer in verses 16 & 18:
"Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods... we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."
Which brings us to Joshua's third and final encouragement. And what a strange gift of encouragement he has, as he says:
3. Remember that You Can't Do This! (v.19-27)
Do you see that in verse 19?
"But Joshua said to the people, "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."
The people have pledged allegiance to the Lord! And if I had been Joshua I would have been punching the air like a tennis player and posting on Facebook: 'What a Result Today at St Joseph's Church! #Revival.' Yet Joshua says: 'Serve the Lord? Nah. I don't think you can!' What is going on here? Is this Joshua being an argumentative old codger? He is after all over 100 years old! Well rest assured these are not the words of a grumpy old man – this is the advice of a wise old saint.
Joshua had heard it all before… and then seen the Israelites turn away from God time and time again. He knows that they are mistaking brave words in the heat of the moment with the long walk of faithful obedience. The point is that Joshua is right – they and we also cannot serve the Lord as we should. By our own strength we can't do it! Of course we should pledge our allegiance to Him, but as we do, we must realise that we are too weak to keep the promises we make. This is the starting point of genuine faith. And it's the way we go on in faith – knowing that we can't keep our promises, but that God can.
Joshua knows that we must somehow stand between the "You are not able to serve the Lord" of verse 19 and the 'Remembering what the Lord can do' of verses 1-13. And intriguingly he says the key to doing that is to fear him. Did you notice that back in verse 14? Joshua invited the people to:
"...fear the Lord and serve him with faithfulness..."
To which you might say: 'Ha! There's no way I would serve anyone I was afraid of!' But fear of the Lord is not fear of an unknown, unnamed threat to our wellbeing and happiness. It is respectful admiration for a God who when we really get to know him we will find is the source of all wellbeing and happiness.
I understood this better than I have ever done before when I played 'Monsters' with my children when they were very little. Have you ever played Monsters? For those of you who don't know, it's very simple. The children would go into another room in our house and I would run in shouting: 'Rarrrr. I'm coming to get you!' And they would scream and laugh and then they say: 'Again daddy.' And so I would go out and come back in again through a different door and go 'Rarrr!' And they would scream and laugh and say: 'Again daddy, but louder.' And so it would go on. But there was this one time when we got to the third 'Raaaarrrr!' and I ran back into the room for a fourth, and by this time massive 'Raaaaaarrrr!' But this was way too loud for my then 2-year-old daughter, Kate who burst into tears and ran!
But do you know what was really interesting? It was that she ran to me – and grabbed my legs. And I lifted her up into my arms and hugged her. If you're scared of someone you run from them, not to them, don't you? But in her fear Kate ran to me, not from me. And she did exactly the right thing. Because while I was scary – and I am very scary as a monster – while I was scary, I am also her daddy. And folks, that's what it means to fear the Lord. When we fear him, we run to him if… we know him as our daddy.
In some ways he is scary – he is way bigger and stronger and purer than us. We know from verse 19 that he's – a perfect God, a protective God, who can't be flippant about our sin. And we know from verse 20 that if we stand against him he could snuff us out in an instant! But we also know that he is our perfect Heavenly Father... who loves us so much that he rescues us from our sin and our folly, and provides for all of our needs.
So yes… we should, like the Israelites promise to serve the Lord. Just like Mark and Bryn have this morning, that's what I most want for all of those who would call this church their church as we mark our anniversary. But we must not make our decision casually, lightly or flippantly as if it were a small thing… but fearfully, respectfully, wholeheartedly. Because God alone is worthy of our worship.
There are choices to be made folks. Choices to be made. So do not trust yourself! Trust in God… in whom all our hope can be placed. Run to him and grab hold of him and shelter under his loving care.
Father God, help us to be totally realistic about ourselves before you this morning. Help us, we pray, not to stand on our decision for you, but on your decision for us. Help us to stand not on our words of promise to you, but on your great promises to us. Help us to stand not on our words to you, but on the perfect work of Jesus Christ for us. In his name we pray. Amen.