Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
1 Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God.
2 Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. 3 But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants.
14 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! 17 It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”
19 Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”
21 But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the Lord.”
22 Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”
“Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied.
23 “Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
24 And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him.”
25 On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he reaffirmed for them decrees and laws.
Today at Staunton Mennonite Church we are receiving three new members to our roll. One is a young woman who will be baptized for the first time. The second is a father who was baptized as a child and is seeking to be re-baptized as an adult believer. And the third is a grandmother who has asked for a transfer of membership from her previous church, which is about 35 miles away from her current home.
I love the intergenerational aspect of this service. I love having a young woman, a father, and a grandmother stand up and give a statement of their faith in Jesus Christ and their desire to follow him. And even though they are not all from the same biological family, they are all indeed a part of the same family of God, and I’m glad to call each of them brother or sister.
Of course I wanted to preach from a powerful scripture that acknowledges what these three are doing here today. I thought about the baptism of Jesus, but that seems a little too obvious and it hasn’t been very long since I last preached that message. I wanted something that would speak about our commitment to following Jesus, so I thought of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus when he denied even knowing him three times before the rooster crowed. But I wanted to focus on the good and not present a negative object lesson. I thought about the story of Stephen, who was the first recorded martyr of the Christian faith. We Mennonites sure do love our martyr stories!
Then I thought of Joshua 24, “Choose for yourself whom you will serve. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” This is a beautiful challenge, and it is very Anabaptist! This passage was even our wedding scripture twelve years ago. But before I decided that I was going to preach on this passage, I wanted to look at today’s lectionary texts. Remember that the Revised Common Lectionary is a system that provides you with a Gospel Reading, an Epistle Reading, a Psalm, and an Old Testament Reading each week, working through the Bible every three years. I like using the Lectionary for a number of reasons; I find it especially helpful because the worship materials on the back of our bulletins draw from the Lectionary passages. So I checked the Lectionary, and guess what the Old Testament text is for today? Leviticus 25:12. No, Joshua 24!
As I figure it, there was a 1/156th chance of Joshua 24 being the assigned text for today, and it was. I’m not one that thinks that God has every last detail of our day planned out, but I think that we were supposed to look at this text today! So let’s do just that.
Our text for today begins with Joshua, who is now very old and expecting to soon pass away, gathering together leaders from the 12 tribes of Israel. It is difficult to say just how long it has been since the Israelites took possession of the Promised Land, but the first verse of chapter 23 tells us that a long time had passed. So Joshua brings these leaders together to give them one last lesson, one final teaching. And he starts by going backwards. He says, Remember what God has done for you, for us. Remember that God called our ancestor Abraham to go to a place that God would show him. Remember that God made Abraham’s descendants multiply (they had to learn math back then, too). Then, after many years, God led his people out of captivity in Egypt by using Moses and Aaron. And after 40 years of wandering in the dessert, God gave the Israelites the Promised Land.
Now, many years later, as Joshua is about to pass away, he is calling upon his fellow Israelites to make a choice. Choose to follow the gods of your ancestors, or feel free to follow the gods of other religious groups in this area. Please don’t think that Joshua doesn’t care who they follow and serve. Surely, Joshua wants them to follow the God of Israel. But Joshua also knows that he can’t force them to follow his God.
I’m sure that some here today who have adult children and grandchildren understand this. My children are still pretty young, so I don’t really think about them following another god or being a part of a different religion, or even no religion at all.
Perhaps you have heard it said that there is no such thing as a grandchild of God, only children of God. The idea behind this saying is that one cannot simply inherit faith from their parents or grandparents. It is something that each generation must choose for their self.
This isn’t to say that there is nothing that we as parents and grandparents or as church members can do to pass on the faith. Just the opposite is true! This is why we bring our children to church and why we drag them with us as we work in the homeless shelters and food pantries. This is why we teach our children Bible stories and pray with them. If you believe that your faith in God is real, then you should want to pass some of that down to the next generation.
This is why Joshua starts by going backwards. He goes back to Abraham and he tells the story of a people group coming into being. No, these people were not perfect. Abraham offered his wife to a powerful king to save his own skin. Isaac lied to his father to steal what rightfully belonged to his brother. Moses was a murderer and tried to run away from God’s calling upon his life.
For those who wish to pass on their faith to the next generation, I suggest following Joshua’s lead here and telling the next generation all that God has done for you. I suggest telling stories of the Anabaptist martyrs who stayed strong and firm in the faith, even when threatened with pain and death. Tell the stories of ancestors coming to this country to avoid persecution, and of the persecution they faced here. And tell them stories about their grand pappy and grandmother. Tell them stories of these pillars of faith so that they can connect with them. And in appropriate ways, tell of the failures of your people as well, even of your own failures.
When Joshua presented this re-telling of history to the 12 tribes of Israel, he also included some of their failures. He told of how their ancestors worshipped other gods and idols. In the part of this chapter that the lectionary leaves out, Joshua tells of the Hebrew people wandering in the desert. This was a failure on their part.
I believe that we all want what is best for the next generation, and I believe that to pass on our faith we need to be sharing our failures as well. My fear is that by simply presenting ourselves and our ancestors as victors and heroes of the faith that we will set the bar so high for our children that they will lose hope when they fail to achieve the goals that we set. Rather, I think we need to be clear that the only reason we are here today as a part of the church is because we have failed time and time again and we know that we need the grace of our Lord. And as followers of Jesus, empowered by his Holy Spirit, we can achieve things we never would have imagined just years ago.
But Joshua isn’t just talking to new believers or children in today’s passage. He is talking to Israelites. He is talking to people that have heard these stories of their ancestors their entire lives. These Israelites have participated in religious ceremonies and practiced religious rituals since the day they were born. So why is Joshua inviting them to choose to follow and serve the Lord on this occasion?
I think that we in the church can learn a lot from our friends in various forms of rehab and 12-step programs. One of the things that a person in rehab soon learns is that they need to make the choice to be clean for the first time. They need to make the decision to put the needle or the crack pipe down. This is one of the hardest decisions that they can make because so much of an addicts world revolves around that next hit, around that next high. So to make the decision to get clean means not only giving up an unhealthy habit, it also means giving up a community of people who are in a similar place in life. Even though that place in life is pretty terrible by many accounts, there is comfort in knowing that there are others there with you. So one of the most difficult decisions that an addict has to make is the decision to get clean.
But as every addict knows, that decision isn’t a one-time choice. Every day the addict has to make the decision to live clean. Today I won’t use.
One of the reasons 12-step programs are helpful is because they recognize that the decision to stop using and the decision every day to not use is so hard that we can’t do it on our own. One of the steps is simply admitting that you can’t do it on your own. You need a community of others who struggle with the same kinds of issues to guide you through it all. Often a person has a sponsor, who is just an addict that is further along the healing process than you.
Maybe those of us gathered here today don’t know what it is like to suffer from a chemical dependency, but we too know that we have choices that we need to make every day. I need to make choices to eat better and exercise more. I need to make decisions to spend more time with my family and be really present when I am with them. That means setting down my smart phone and picking up a doll baby or a hot wheels car or a Dr. Seuss book. And I need to make the decision to follow Jesus every day. I need to make the decision to love my enemies, to not return evil for evil. I need to make the decision to spend time in prayer and time in study. And like the 12-step programs show us, I know that I need the help of others along the way. I need a community of support and I need a sponsor. I need someone who is just a little bit further along the journey than I am to help me make the right decisions every day.
And like those 12-step programs, there is good news. Even though you have to make the choice every day to follow Jesus, that choice gets easier over time. It isn’t as if there is no possibility that you will fall away from the faith once you’ve been at it for 20 years or so. But the choice is easier because it becomes a part of your life. Loving your enemies, reading your Bible, praying, forgiving, this becomes a part of your very being after a period of time. And though you must make that decision each and every day to follow Jesus or to serve the Lord, it becomes easier when you are surrounded by a community of believers who will lift you up when you fall down, dust you off, and help you try again. And again. And again. And it starts to get easier. And life gets better for you