Sunday, March, 1, 2020
Photo: Tim Mossholder (Unsplash.com).
‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, 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.’
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 ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along 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.’
But Joshua said to the people, ‘You cannot 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.’ And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, we will serve the Lord!’ Then Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.’ And they said, ‘We are witnesses.’ He said, ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.’ The people said to Joshua, ‘The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.’ So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to all the people, ‘See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.’ So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.
Joshua 24:14-28 (NRSVA).
Our passage comes at the end of the account of Joshua’s leading of the newly freed Israel into the promised land. Miracles have occurred. Victories have been won. They have seen the acts of God and become eye witnesses.
Yet, after all these events, Joshua calls the people together and asks – essentially – for their response to it all. But surely, Joshua, it is obvious who they would follow? Why go after carved gods from beyond the God-divided Jordan? Why would the free revert to practices learned in captivity?
Joshua, however, seems to spell out a choice that these people still need to make. Will these witnesses to the collapse of the Jericho wall face the future with YHWH leading or revert to the practices of their imprisoned ancestors?
It is worth noting here that Joshua has already considered this choice for himself. It is memorably summed up at the end of his opening paragraph: ‘…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’
The great leader is not dispassionate about the outcome of his invitation. Perhaps he recognises that he cannot control the decision of the people – yet he still seeks to persuade. In Joshua’s mind there is a wise and a foolish option.
Joshua’s gathering of the people to deliver this message is surely and indication that he is convinced that the people could go either way.
So he is specific in his request. His opening words include ‘revere’, ‘sincerity’, ‘faithfulness’. The repeated word, however, is telling: ‘serve’.
Intriguingly, Joshua offers this newly freed people no option but to serve. The only choice is between masters. There are the gods of the captors who so reluctantly released the Israelites and there is the God who proved so determined to see them set free.
So I guess it just makes sense that the people would speak as one in enthusiastic agreement with their leader. In their answer they remember the escape from Egypt, the signs they have seen, the protection they have known. Their conclusion: ‘…we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’
Joshua knows, however, the heart of these people. Their quick vow may not be as thoroughly thought through we might expect after all this time. Joshua believes God to be ‘holy’, ‘jealous’, reluctant to ‘forgive’, and still able to ‘consume’.
And yet still they insist: ‘We will serve the Lord’.
Curiously, Joshua then makes a call to action: ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.’ It is an extraordinary request. Foreign gods are still hidden among their belongings. Their actions reveal that their hearts are still inclined elsewhere.
Even as they promise as one that YHWH is their choice, they are holding onto remnants of another option.
I do not doubt that these people believe, and even trust, in the God who has led them this far. They are however – even after all they have witnessed – reluctant to let go of the past. Their trust has not yet been integrated into their lives. They are not living consistently with the God who has been revealed to them.
Perhaps this makes Joshua’s presentation of the ‘statutes’, ‘ordinances’, and symbolic boulder set before the ‘oak in the sanctuary’ all the more potent. Hopefully it will remind these forgetful people of all YHWH has done among them.
Yet, this is not the primary reason for repositioning this rock. It is here, before anything else, as a reminder of their choice, their pledge that grows out of all that has unfolded: ‘‘The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.’
It is only after all this that Joshua sends the people into their God-won inheritance. It will prove to be a test. Theirs is a vow of integration. A promise to live with integrity as they move into their everyday.
What are the actions you believe you have ‘witnessed’ of God? What have you seen YHWH do? What have you heard from others about this God?
How do these experiences change your allegiances? What do you ‘put away’? What do you cling to?
It has been said that as people we always find something to worship. In Joshua’s words, we always find something to ‘serve’. How do you respond to this? Do you think this is a fair assessment of our human condition?
Where do you think you have integrated your faith and your action well? Where do you think your faith could be more consistent or integrated into your everyday life?