9. Gotta Serve Somebody
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A certain 20th century poet wrote “Gotta Serve Somebody”. It might be the devil, or the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. This is the choice that Joshua puts before the people of Israel in the last chapter of the book we’ve been looking at for nine weeks. It’s the end of the book, though not the end of the story. As I said when we began this series, we’re in a new chapter of our life at Blythwood. Our story is ongoing. It’s not a restart. It’s a continuation of what’s been going on before. It’s a continuation of what God has done and a reflection of what he’s doing and an anticipation of what God will do. In the middle of this story we have a choice to make. Let’s look at this story from Joshua 24 and see what God might have to say to our hearts today.
“Then 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.” I want us to think about time and place this morning. The time is today. Choose this day who you will serve. The place in our story is Shechem. I’ve spoken during this series about the importance of geography in the book of Joshua. Of the way the promised land itself was to be a reminder to the Israelites of their dependence on God. Of God’s care. What is so important about Shechem? Shechem was the place where God first spoke to Abraham when he arrived in Canaan. “Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” (Gen 12:7a) Shechem was the place where Jacob told his household and all who were with him to “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes.” We read that “… they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak that was near Shechem.” (Gen 35:2, 4). It was the place where the Israelites buried Joseph. Shechem was a place where God’s voice was heard. It was a place where decisions were made and foreign gods buried. It was a place that connected the people of Israel to their past.
The time is now. The place is church. Why are you here today? Why did you make the effort to get up and get dressed and walk or drive or take the TTC or WheelTrans and spend an hour and a bit in this place? Think about what Shechem represented to the Israelites. Think about what this place represents to you. It’s a place where God’s voice has been heard. Have you heard God speaking to you in church? I pray to God that you have and if you haven’t you will. It represents a place where decisions have been made, where decisions are made. It’s a place where rituals are enacted that signify a desire to serve God – prayers, baptisms, the Lord’s Table, weddings, covenants – loving agreements – we just witnessed one of those two weeks ago didn’t we? These things have changed us haven’t they? Just like Jacob’s household changed their clothes. Things have happened in this place that have given us new clothes haven’t they? That have caused people to look at us and say “What’s different about you?” This is kind of like our Shechem isn’t it? It’s a place that connects us to our past isn’t it? Faith is in large part an act of remembrance. Part of our memories are of those who have gone before us. That unseen cloud of witnesses that surround us. We’ve felt that in this place haven’t we? We’re reminded of them. There’s this great picture in the hallway where our offices are of Mrs. George Clark who started a Sunday School in 1887 that led to the foundation of this church. Our Shechem where God’s voice is heard, decisions are called for and made, and the connection to our shared past is palpable.
What is God saying to the Israelites? Joshua brings the word here. Joshua starts where we must always start – with who God is. With what God has done. He tells the story. “Long ago your ancestors, Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor – lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” He goes on to recount God’s acts – “I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan… I gave him Isaac, and Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau.” When Jacob and his children went down to Egypt, “Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out.” You lived in the wilderness for a long time, and I brought you to the land of the Amorites. I handed them over to you and I rescued you of out of Balaam’s hand and all these people fought against you and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet ahead of you and they ran (because what else can you do when you’re being attacked by hornets but run and look for shelter or maybe some water to jump into). I gave you land on which you had not laboured and towns that you had not built and you live in them and eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant and I did all of this because I love you.
This is the word of the Lord.
This is the word of the Lord not only to the Israelites but to us. I love this detail in the text. God starts off talking in the third person about Abraham and his children and then switches to second person – you. I brought you out of Egypt. That word is for us too you know. I brought you out Ruth/Bonnie/Josh/Bruce/Lise etc. This is what God has done. He’s saved us. Look at v 7 “When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians…” When we cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and enemy. Does this remind us of anything?
“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land, until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’” He put darkness between you and the enemy. That wasn’t the end of the story, you see, because Jesus had a song in mind and if he wasn’t physically able to sing or to say the whole thing he certainly had it in mind and it’s the 22nd Psalm which goes “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.” The greatest song ever sung! It ends like this – “… before him shall bow all who go down to the dust and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” He has done it. It is finished. Those were the words. In you our ancestors trusted and you delivered them. In you our fathers, our mothers, our grandparents trusted. In you they trusted and you delivered them. You deliver them. You deliver us.
This is what God has done friends. This is what God is doing. This is what God will do. The greatest song ever sung. The greatest story ever told. We need to tell it. Do you want to be part of the fulfillment of this promise? “Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.” Saying what? Saying this is what you need to do? Saying this is what you need to do to save yourself? No – saying “He has done it.” This is going to happen immaterial of where we stand on all this. I’m not trying to set up an argument here. I’m talking friends about what God has done and is doing and will do. I’m talking about deliverance.
There is something for us to do of course. We’re not called to be passive spectators. So how do we respond? We make a choice. Joshua lays out the choice to the people of Israel that day at Shechem. In light of all that God has done – “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.” This is the choice that must be made. If you’re a follower of Christ, your choice for Christ is what primarily defines you. For the Israelites this was a radical new way of being compared to what was going on around them. The practice of surrounding civilizations was to worship many gods, each one having their own area of expertise. None of them expecting complete devotion. God doesn’t demand complete devotion because God is needy. God demands and expects complete devotion because that is how God made us. It is in devotion or reverence and service to God that we are most completely human. It is in being a slave of Christ that we are most free. It means we have to give stuff up. It means we have to give up notions of human autonomy. It means we have to give up a belief that our salvation is to be found in science or technology or medicine or drugs or what we produce and consume or mindless entertainment. Not that there’s anything inherently bad with any of those things necessarily. Serving the Lord is inviting God to be the foundation of our lives. Inviting Christ to be our centre. Inviting the Holy Spirit to flow in and around and above and below and through us.
Because you gotta serve somebody. It’s going to boil down to the Lord or the devil, to blessings or curses, to life or death. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. I want to do this. I want to say this daily along with Joshua. My mother who will be listening to this has a plaque on her front door with this verse on it. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. Finding freedom in being a servant. What a paradox. This is one thing about the whole Christ following project – being able to live with paradox. We need to be able to do this. It means living with tensions like the Kingdom of God is here and it is to come. That Christ is both the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the lamb. That we find our lives by losing them. That we die in order to live. That we live, as Karl Barth put it, under the Yes of God’s justification and under the No of God’s judgement (again I’ll leave our small groups to wrestle with that one!). We live in these paradoxes and there are things we need to leave to mystery and no one said this Christ-following life is going to easy (well they say it but they’re wrong). What’s not wrong is that we believe saying “Yes” to how God has, in Christ, said “Yes” to us brings life abundant – life lived as God meant us to live it.
So who wants this with me? We’ll do this together. We’ll make a covenant here this morning together. I want to look at one last thing from our story first. It seems a bit of a strange reaction on Joshua’s part. He puts the question to the Israelites and they are all in too. They agree that it was the Lord that brought them out of Egypt, and did great signs, and protected them and gave them the land. “Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” You’d think Joshua might say at this point “Great!” Instead he tells them “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.” While this may come as a surprise, we know Joshua is right don’t we? How is loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength going for you? How is loving your neighbour as yourself going? In coming to know God we become ever more aware of God’s “otherness”, God’s holiness and our inability to live up to it. Why is Joshua saying God won’t forgive? One commentator calls is a rhetorical device to test the people’s will. I have to think Joshua knew God was a God of forgiveness. I believe that God looks on our efforts and our failings to serve him like a loving parent looks on the efforts of a child – with a lot of patience and a lot of love. It’s like when a baby covers her face with a blanket thinking it means she’s disappeared. Have you ever seen this? The age old fascination with peek-a-boo. The baby thinks she’s disappeared and the adults all say “Where did she go?!” Playing along with a lot of patience and love. God looking at our efforts. There’s a cautionary note here. As Barth said we live under the Yes of God’s justification and the No of God’s judgement. It’s no light matter to make this choice for God. It’s life or death, blessings or curses. We make the decision though, remembering God’s saving acts, remembering the grace that has been extended to us. We make it knowing that God loves us. We make it knowing and believing the promise that our hearts of stone will be removed and replaced by hearts of flesh – hearts made human. We make it remembering the last words of Psalm 22 – “he has done it.” It’s not a decision to be made lightly, and if it were all up to us, who could do it? Thanks be to God it’s not all up to us. Thanks be to God for what he has done through the people of Israel and in the person of his son Christ Jesus.
This is the choice that lies before us today friends. This is the choice that lies before us every day. Choose this day whom you will serve. There’s an immediacy there isn’t there? An urgency. Choose this day whom you will serve. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Hurry and come down, for ZI must stay at your house today. Choose this day whom you will serve. If you’re 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.” As for me and my household. Often we’re caught up in the bigger picture aren’t we? I think I am sometimes. We’re more aware of the bigger picture these days. It’s just the way the world is. Joshua reminds us not to forget the vital importance of the small picture. The picture of you where you live getting up in the morning. Making a decision daily. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. May this be true for us all.