Think about one of those classic hard-choices of life. Between two careers – artist or accountant; between two people to marry – Trixie or Gina; between two places to live – California or Wisconsin. Those kinds of choices feel pretty hard. They’re the sort that call you to take your notepad and divide the page and start making your pro/con lists. Though, you often find, don’t you, that you’ve listed out the pros/cons but the choice is still hard – Wisconsin is the place of family, but California’s rolling wine-country hills and mediterranean climate would mean never pushing a snow-blower again; artistry might put you on the cutting edge of the visual arts and introduce you to all kinds of amazing people and allow for much more family freedom, but odds are accounting will provide well for those you love and be much more reliable; and Trixie and Gina – well, whatever the pros/cons there, you should probably burn that list later… Sometimes the choices in life are really hard.
Is it that kind of choice we have this morning? Where Joshua calls Israel to choose between “other gods” and the LORD? Is it a classic hard-choice moment? It is not. Friends, what we have before us today is not a hard choice but a precious opportunity, a god-send in the most real way. With confidence we can say, choose to serve the LORD. Here’s why…
There’s a special something about this moment with Joshua and Israel. It’s a special moment because Joshua – the guy who led them into the Promised Land, who urged them through conquering the territory, who divided it among their tribes and judged their disagreements – the man who had helped them realize everything God had promised, he was about to die. So, it’s a touching moment. It’s here that Joshua says that passage you may have hanging somewhere in your home, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Implication: “You should too, my spiritual sons and daughters…” A dear father on his death-bed, imparting important things to his children – it’s like that.
But it’s so much more than a touching moment. You can hear it in the way Israel talks about this choice – their service to “other gods” or the LORD. They say, “We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.” Which is the real story in Joshua. The people say it in vv.17-18 – God had brought their forefathers out of Egypt and walked them through the desert and did miracles and drove out Amorites and others – for them. You can even hear it in the place they all stood. Joshua had gathered them at Shechem: the place Abraham had first stopped in Canaan long, long before, the place where Father Abraham first built an altar (Gen 12) and God confirmed his promise to give this land; this is the place where Patriarch Jacob also built an altar to El-elohe-Israel, “God, the God of Israel”; it’s the place these very Israelites had stood – 6 tribes in one natural amphitheatre on Mt. Ebal and 6 tribes in the other, facing natural amphitheatre on Mt. Gerizim while this Joshua re-read God’s law to them in blessings and curses and their priests loudly repeated them for all to hear — here at Shechem this truth reverberated in the ears of the Israelites – God was “their God” and they were God’s people, by his promise, by his work, according to his Word. This was a moment for Israel to choose – and they would choose to serve the Lord because they recognized who they were.
There’s an interesting TED Talk you can watch online. Philosopher Ruth Chang talks about how to make hard choices. It’s interesting though because her conclusion is something like this – that in hard choices, we don’t have an opportunity to find all the right reasons to do this good thing or that good thing. Rather, we have an opportunity to put who we are behind a choice, to “put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am…I am for more chocolate donuts and less oat-bran.”
In a much greater way, this “to serve the Lord” or “other gods” is not a hard choice. You too choose to serve the LORD because youknow that the LORD is your God and that tells you who you are – what you have to throw behind his service. Listen to Joshua with your New Testament ears. Look back on Israel gathered at Shechem and put yourselves rightly there among the people of God. If you were to recall the mighty acts of God like they did, you might tell some of those Bible stories, but surely your New Testament mouths would tell of that one promise: the Savior who came. You would recall his miracles that witnessed to his disciples and worked wonders so ears like yours would just hear his Word. You would tell how he spoke things like our gospel today or from last week – the blessed, astounding, sometimes-confounding reality for his people. You would share how he died and how he rose and what it means you are. That you are exactly what Peter says: not random people, but chosen people, not nobodies, but royal and holy, not lay-men and women but priests who can talk to God and serve him. You are people called to praise – Psalm 111-style: “Praise the Lord…” because he is great, great, great – and it’s seen in your work and your words and your love. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” In the mercy of God, through Jesus Christ your Savior, you choose to serve the LORD because he is your God – and you are his people and you can serve him.
Though that isn’t how it always seems. When Joshua calls you and me to throw away those other gods, it can seem like a hard choice. Almost like it’s a real choice to go off and serve the gods of Netflix and our jobs or unanswered emotional needs instead of serving the Lord. Maybe it’s because we understand what “throwing away” other gods actually is – it’s not just an action but it’s a result. It’s just as if we threw away God – we’d be “out”, we’d be under judgment, not in fellowship with God’s people. The same is true with the gods of sex and money and pleasure and identity – when we throw them out, we stand out, we are no longer in fellowship with those things. We’ll be “out”, observably not serving them, and judged by those gods and those who follow them. Sometimes that seems like a bad situation to be in or makes it seem like serving the Lord is a bad situation to be in. It generates reasons to make the pro/con list – makes this seem like a hard choice.
There is a hard reality behind it. Jesus was testifying to it in the gospel when he said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees…you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is, you have to be perfectly righteous to be righteous enough for God, because God is holy and jealously guards service to him. And, as Joshua said, “You are not able to serve the LORD…” not if we choose to serve other gods (whatever they are). We can put ourselves into a place where there is not forgiveness, where we own our sinfulness and embrace it, and throw away the LORD to keep on serving something else.
When those temptations come, stop and recount what God has done. If you’re reminded by your sins that you have not been perfect-righteous, remember Jesus who did not come to abolish God’s law but to fulfill it faithfully. And remember that, when he did lift away your transgressions and sins at his cross, when he still does in the remembrance that you are his baptized brother or sister, when he comforts you with his body/blood presence in communion – remember that he did it to allow you to serve the LORD faithfully… to witness to this every day.
I think Joshua says it as warning to Israel, “You are witnesses against yourselves…” I’d like you to think about it positively though. In these moments that sometimes seem hard choices, you are witnesses for yourselves that you serve the LORD. Literally, Joshua says to Israel, “Incline your hearts to the LORD…” And he means that thing that happens between a husband and wife in their love – where if you saw a man spending most of his time with a woman other than his wife, you’d recognize that something wasn’t right there… No, their hearts ought to be inclined toward their spouse as toward no one else. Israel literally says this to reflect that, “The LORD our God we will serve and to his voice we will listen.” To paraphrase, “Since we’re God’s people (that’s who we are and it’s totally natural for us to serve God), we’re going to listen to his Word.” Witness to who you are each day – God’s people – incline your hearts toward him: give him your love and attention and devotion and thought; and (permit this horrible twist) when your lives are inclined toward God everything’s gonna tilt that way – you will listen to his Word and encourage one another to listen to his Word, and together we will love what he says, and we will do what he says and encourage each other when it seems hard. And as he fills us with his Spirit in faith on the basis of his forgiving love and peace, as we’re strengthened by hearing again and again what he’s done, it will be as our day’s theme says, you will be enjoying your resolve to serve and obey; not so much a hard choice, but exactly the thing to do because of who you are.
To paraphrase the TED-Talk philosopher… Our spiritual hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about our spiritual condition: God is our God and we’re his holy people, which means that by faith we have the power to be the distinctive people he has made us. We can witness to his love and work and power – his salvation – with one another and in the world each day. We can choose today and tomorrow to serve the Lord. And that is a precious opportunity, a godsend.