Scripture: Joshua 24:1-15
Last week we joined Israel at the base of Mt. Sinai following the great Exodus from Egypt. There they were invited to enter into a special covenant with God which was really the culmination of the covenant God had made with Abraham and Sarah long before. God had promised Abraham and Sarah that they would become the ancestors of a great nation through whom God would bless the world. Now, their descendants had become that nation, and God was inviting Israel into a special relationship. If they followed God’s commands (particularly ten of them), then God would make them a special, priestly people, consecrated to God in a way that would allow God to bless the world through them.
This week we join Israel once again at the base of a mountain, only the mountain is not Sinai, but Mt. Shechem in Palestine. Many years have passed. Their leader, Joshua, who was a young buck in the days of Mt. Sinai is now an aged leader – 110 years old according to the Bible. A new generation has arisen and an old one is passing. Joshua takes this opportunity to invite the new generation either to affirm the old covenant and its God, or to leave behind what has come before and choose new gods.
It seems that it is in God’s nature to ask us regularly whether or not we want to continue in our relationship. Is this because we keep acting like the relationship no longer matters and God wants to give us an “out”? Or is it because God wants to make sure that we are only ever in this relationship because we want to be, not simply because God wants us to be in it – thus preserving our free will? My guess is the answer to both questions is “yes.”
This is the God …
So at Mt. Shechem Joshua states, “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.”
Joshua doesn’t wait to hear the response of the people before stating, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Who is this God whom Joshua chose to serve, whether or not anyone else went with him? Our series thus far has given a number of clues as to the nature and character of this God. To recap:
In the story of Noah and the flood, we found that God is one who allows great suffering and evil to exist in our world. Suffering and evil are not normally considered a plus! Yet as repugnant as these things are, Noah’s story reminds us that these things are part of our life experience because God has chosen to work in and through highly imperfect people in a messy world. In other words, God has chosen to work in and through us. The fact that the world exists at all is because God looks beyond our imperfections and sees something of surpassing beauty. In God’s promise never to flood the earth again, sealed with a rainbow, God essentially proves that God believes in us more than we believe in us.
This is the Lord that Joshua and his household chose to serve.
In the story of Abraham and Sarah, we found God to be one who not only chooses to work with imperfect people, but even chooses to bless the world through them. We found Abraham and Sarah constantly making poor choices, putting God’s whole blessing at risk every time. They offered us no hope that God’s strategy would ever work out like God hoped. Yet God believed in us more than we believed in us. God believed in Abraham and Sarah not because of their perfections but because God believed in their love. Abraham and Sarah are head-over-heels in love with God – or more specifically, they are in love with God’s love for them. In their story, God’s nature and character is revealed as One who is able to work through imperfect people because God’s love rocks us to the core. No matter how many times we mess up, we continually try to do better next time. Since God is not only loving but forgiving, we’re given those chances, which allows God to continue to make a “way where there was no way” for us.
This is the Lord that Joshua and his household chose to serve.
In the story of Joseph and his many experiences of betrayal and hardship (thrown into a pit and into slavery by his own brothers, falsely accused of rape by Potiphar’s wife, forgotten about in prison for two years by one who could have had him set free), we learned not only something about who God is but who God is not. God is not the god of the prosperity gospel preachers, promising that everything will go our way if we just go God’s way. Joseph’s story shows that sometimes going God’s way gets us into more trouble, not less. Yet Joseph’s experience also shows that God is One who enables us to live with dignity, grace, joy, and hope in the heart of our struggles, not merely in their absence. Being close to God means living freely, even if the world has put us in prison.
This is the Lord that Joshua and his household chose to serve.
When we met up with Israel at the shore of the Red Sea in the fourth week, we encountered the most dramatic statement of God making a “way out of no way” in our entire series. Yet as we noted, the story was told, and re-told, and re-re-told throughout Israel’s history and referenced again and again throughout the Old and New Testaments, not because God did something long ago, but because the God to which the Old and New Testaments point is a God whose Spirit continues to work miracles. Have you ever experienced what it is like to perceive yourself threatened on all sides, facing a problem you have absolutely no ability to extricate yourself from under your own power, only to be freed of that threat? Have you ever wondered if perhaps your life was over – physically or at very least emotionally and spiritually over – only to discover that what you thought was the end was really a new beginning? Then you have lived the story of the Exodus. You know the liberating power of God.
So did Joshua. It is This God that he and his household chose to serve.
Finally last week we met a God who gave Israel the Ten Commandments. We found that if the world were to take any one of them – like “do not steal,” for instance – and practice that Commandment perfectly, without breaking it, life on this planet would literally be transformed in ways we can scarcely imagine. At the same time, we met a God who did not make following the Ten Commandments a condition for receiving God’s love. They are not a condition God places on relationship, but an invitation God makes to help keep us free from bondage once we’ve been liberated, and to create a world like God intended it to be.
This is the God that Joshua and his household chose to serve.
“You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody”
Which God will you serve? This isn’t a rhetorical question. It’s a daily question.
In Israel’s case, following Yahweh as Lord meant putting away the other gods they had brought with them from Egypt, and the new gods they’d discovered in the land of Canaan. Apparently, many Israelites figured they could worship Yahweh and these others, as one of the mix.
Essentially, many Israelites are saying, “I’ve got Baal to help my fields produce abundantly. I’ve got Horus to help me with my financial security. I’ve got Anat to help me in battle and Ashtarte to help my family produce children. I don’t turn to Yahweh until I’m really in trouble and need a ‘way out of no way.’” I don’t like to go to Yahweh too soon because Yahweh is never content to just do something for you. Yahweh wants a relationship, and with all these other gods I’ve got to keep happy, who has the time for a relationship?”
In the modern world, it seems almost like an oddity to find a person who believes in and honestly seeks to serve one God, let alone many. But does this mean the temptations no longer exist as they did for the ancients?
Rev. Bruce Van Blair once made the following observation about Christianity in our day, and I’ve never forgotten it:
The church in our time gives very mixed messages about allegiance. The church is very important, but not as important as soccer, or Monday Night Football, or a thousand other things. In former times people sacrificed jobs, sacrificed mates, sacrificed homes, friends, health, life itself – when it became necessary – in order to keep their allegiance to Jesus Christ. What are we to make of it if the people of the Church in our time believe that it is too much to ask if God inconveniences us?
The gods of yesteryear may not have been real gods, but they were real energies. While we may no longer worship them, the temptation to serve them is no less today than yesterday. In fact, it could be argued that the temptation is far harder to deflect than it was back then since most people today aren’t generally aware of the fact that they’re serving the same energies that others used to call “gods.”
For many, their savings account and 401k plan receives just as much devotion as Egyptian Horus – and just as much sacrifice. Do you think Dionysus doesn’t receive offerings and libations at Huskers games? (Seriously!) And who has been the god of the Baby Boom generation? The God of Joshua and Jesus? I’m putting my money on Baal, the god that many a young, professional Israelite was tempted to serve in their thirst for career advancement.
I’m not picking on Baby Boomers by singling them out. Each generation alive today has succumbed to the temptation to serve not just one god, but a whole pantheon of gods rather than Yahweh. If you think I’m being cynical, then name one generation that most people would commonly acknowledge loved and served the Joshua and Jesus’ God more than the gods of wealth, war, career advancement, earthly pleasure, cynicism, or the like. If you can do it, I’ll gladly stand corrected.
Truth is, following Yahweh is a whole different experience than following these other gods. Yahweh wants to enter into not just a business agreement, or a war pact, but a relationship in which you will love Yahweh with all your heart. All your mind. All your soul. All your strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself. None of these other gods requires half as much. They’re happy for you to sleep around with any number of gods so long as they get a piece of you, too.
Yahweh wants you to fall as deeply in love with Him (or Her – I really doubt Yahweh cares which gender you use) as He (She) is with you. Committing to just one God may seem overly exclusive and repressive to human instinct. Yet just as with human relationships, maintaining just one love is far easier and more fulfilling than the alternatives.
Recently I was talking with a man who lived for several years in a polyamorous relationship. That is, he was in a committed relationship between three people: himself and two women. They lived together as a family unit. Yet the man ended up leaving both women and eventually entered into a monogamous marriage that he has maintained for over ten years. When I asked why he had eventually chosen monogamy over polyamory, he said, “I just couldn’t handle dealing with ‘feelings’ all the time! Dealing with just one woman is a lot less complicated.”
So is dealing with one God.
How do we serve this God?
There’s a reason why following other gods in addition to Yahweh is likened over and over again in the Old Testament to adultery. To cheating. It’s not just cheating on God. It’s cheating on yourself. It’s cheating yourself out of living life to its very fullest extent.
If you are to serve the God of Joshua and Jesus (Jesus’ name in Hebrew, incidentally, is Yeshua‘ – Joshua!), you cannot set any relationship on the same level or higher. You cannot invest more of your energy in your career, or your retirement savings, or even your relationship with your life partner than you do in your relationship with God. That’s like trying to live in a polyamorous relationship with God!
For most people, the suggestion that they devote more of their time and energy to God than to their marriage, their children, their career, or their recreational interests seems hopelessly unrealistic, even weird. They think it means we should be spending more time praying and reading the Bible than at work, or spending more time at church than at home. Really?
If you are in an airplane landing at Eppley Airport, would you find it more comforting to learn that the Air Traffic Controller is praying or that she is watching the radar? Would you advocate that she spend more time studying the Bible or reading FAA regulations and procedures? Devoting your life to God doesn’t mean spending more time with God than anything else. It means devoting your life to serving God above all else – which may mean serving God as an Air Traffic Controller.
If you had to choose between two different Air Traffic Controllers guiding your flight down on a high-traffic evening and knew nothing else about them than that one considered what he does to be “just a job,” and the other considers Air Traffic Control to be a sacred profession and high calling which carries the responsibility of keeping people who are loved beyond their wildest imagination safe and secure, which person would you choose to guide your plane down? Which one is more likely to have taken their craft to a high degree of excellence? And in a chaotic situation in which the risk of crashing is high, which one do you believe is more likely to find a “way out of no way”? The choice isn’t certain, of course. But who would you choose: the one who serves God through her career or the one who believes her career is merely meant to serve her?
Throughout Jewish and Christian history, the basic rule of thumb is that serving God in any way that really makes a difference in your life is through giving God 100% of your devotion and 10% of your time. That is, 10% of your waking hours (roughly 90 minutes) should be devoted to prayer, meditation and the study of sacred texts, as well as to reflection and conversation in which the focus is on trying to discern God’s will as you face your daily decisions.
This may sound like a lot, but it’s really considered the minimum. Imagine how much time Jesus must have spent in prayer, study, reflection, and conversation about God. He was a lot more “tuned in” than we are. (How do you suppose he got that way?) Do we need less time than Jesus?
It’s not as hard as it seems. If you pray between 30 and 60 minutes a day, you’re much of the way there already. If you ask yourself when making a business decision, a relationship decision, or a family decision, “Which route honors my love for God, neighbor and self all at once,” then you’re well on your way. If you swap a few minutes of reading People Magazine for a few minutes in Scripture, and perhaps add some other reading that helps you better discern God’s will in your profession, or your relationships, or other outreach to the world … well, if you make all these things part of your daily routine, you will have no trouble at all with that 10%.
If devoting 10% of your time to God each day still sounds too hard or intimidating, you can go another route. Instead of tithing your time, tithe your unencumbered income. Tithing income is another hard-and-fast spiritual principle. It’s not that God thinks you can swap money for time. Rather, God knows that if you start tithing, it will only lead to other things. It’s like the woman at my former church in Scottsdale who urgently approached me after worship one day, asking for an appointment to seek spiritual direction and advice. “I just increased my pledge by $1,500,” she said. “Now I’m $1,500 more committed to this relationship I’m developing with God.”
I have yet to meet a tither who did not end up feeling a lot like that Scottsdale parishioner, and feeling far more connected to God as a result. A financial tithe led to a tithe of her time, which eventually led to her devoting more and more of her life to God. I found this wondrous, considering that the first time we met a couple years earlier she’d confided that she was bitterly angry at God and wasn’t sure if she wanted anything to do with faith or religion again!
Do you need a new God?
You may think that this note about tithing financially is self-serving, as your tithes support my income. If so, take it up with Abraham, who is not only known as the first person to worship Yahweh as the only God but is also known as the first tither. Or take it up with Jacob, the father of the twelve sons (Joseph being one of them) who became the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He was a tither, too. Or take it up with Jesus, who criticizes the Pharisees for tithing while acting unjustly. Jesus doesn’t assume that they’ll stop tithing as a result of his accusations. He assumes they’ll stop acting unjustly – and continue to tithe. What we do with our time and our money is supposed to go hand in hand.
If tithing your unencumbered income or your time seems too intimidating for you, there is yet one more alternative. As Joshua himself says, choose a different god. There are plenty to choose from, and they don’t demand nearly as much. If your new god will see beyond your imperfections and believe in you more than you believe in you, as Yahweh did with Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, then you’ve got a good thing going. And if your new god will show you how and where to find heaven in the heart of your struggles, not merely in their absence, as Yahweh did with Joseph, then you’ve found a God who will help you with life in the real world, not some fantasy one. And if your new cut-rate god can make a “way where there is no way” for you with even a fraction of the regularity that Yahweh kept doing for Israel, then you’ve found the deal of a lifetime.
“Choose this day whom you will serve,” says Joshua. “As for me and my house, we will serve the only one we’ve ever found worth serving.” Who will you serve?