A Sermon for Proper 27; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
Loyalty can be a fickle and funny thing. I have a friend who is a dedicated Razorback fan; there is no such thing as too much Razorback red. However, he has been very disappointed with the performance of the football team over the last few years, so … he has put his Razorback red slacks in the closet until there are some leadership changes. At the moment, my favorite loyalty image is a commercial. A couple is leaving to go to her parents’ house and she tells him he cannot wear that Raiders’ shirt. So, he takes it off, revealing the Raiders’ sweater that is underneath. The next scene is around her family dinner table. He in his Raiders sweater, with those little l-e-d blinking lights that go all around like that; and she and all her family, including the dog, are in Kansas City Chiefs’ apparel. It ends with her asking him “Can you at least turn the lights off?”
This morning we hear the story of Joshua challenging Israel to choose who they will be loyal to. For some background information; ‘Joshua’ means Yahweh delivers. He was born in Egypt and became Moses’ high minister. He was one of the twelve spies that Moses sent to explore Canaan, and along with Caleb gives the only positive report. The other ten are focused on the numerous people, and their fearsome warriors. As we head a couple of weeks ago, just before his death Moses anoints Joshua to be his divinely appointed successor.
Now Joshua was given 2 missions. He is to lead Israel as they conquer the people who occupy Canaan. He is also to allocate the land among the tribes (Olson). Israel crosses the Jordan River to begin their mission, Joshua circumcises all the people and observes the Passover. Then he leads Israel to victory over six nations and 31 kings; though he does not completely conquer all Canaan’s previous occupants. Joshua dies at the age of 110, and is buried in Timnath-serah (Easton). Much like our reading a couple of weeks ago, this is a transition story. As Israel prepares to take possession the promised land, he asks them to recommit to following God. It is a cleaver challenge. He reviews Israel’s history:
- all the way from Abraham,
(and in verses we do not read)
- through Egypt,
- through the wilderness wanderings,
- the blessing curse of Balaam,
- the fall of Jericho, and
- the victories over the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,
and then he tells them choose this day the god you will serve; and immediately he pledges himself and his family (which may include his tribe) to serve the LORD.
Israel replies We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. This is not the choice we think we hear. There is no individual aspect to it. ‘Loyalty’ is probably not a strong enough word. There is an element of unease because this pledge is grounded in reverence to and dependence on their relationship with their lord and master (Coote). ‘Lord meaning king not necessarily god; but it is that dependent relationship.
After 25 years Israel is victorious, so why is there a need for the challenge to choose who Israel will serve? Well it turns out there is real risk. Doug Bratt notes Israel is in a
strange land whose ways prove to be attractive to her. Canaan’s women are beautiful, and her gods seem powerful (Bratt).
If Israel is distracted and forgets the Lord, they will lose the gift of the Land. Israel’s history is full of apostacy and idolatry. They apparently assume that they can serve Yahweh and other gods at the same time. They have worshipped gods from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Shechem, of the Amorites and the Baals (Coote). Joshua’s challenge forces Israel to answer serious questions:
- Who are these foreign gods?
- What old gods do we need to leave behind?
- What are the consequences of leaving one or many gods to follow a different vision of the divine? And Yahweh is a different vision of the divine.
- Do they have a reality apart from the one true God?
Joshua challenges the easy relativism of being loyal to God and (quietly) honoring other gods, that come up at any of the moment, or happen to be of the land, or perhaps an idea, or some convenient product (Epperly). The challenge reminds Israel their victories were never the results of their superiority, their sincerity, their faithfulness, or their obedience; their victories were solely dependent upon God. Likewise, their future is solely dependent on God’s faithfulness, mercy, powerful word, and the transformation of their hearts (Olson).
In the exuberance of going into the promised land the people choose.
Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord
…. who did those great signs in our sight,
protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed,
who drove out before us all the peoples who lived in the land.
Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.
Now, if it were me, I’d say “Great, well done!” But that is why Joshua is the leader. He declares You cannot serve the Lord! He knows it is important for them to realize the danger that they are in if they make the pledge to serve God and then fail to do it (Gaventa and Petersen). And the people hear him, and they proclaim No, we will serve the Lord!
Their pledge to serve God is sealed with the declaration that they are witnesses against themselves. This is not witnesses as in a court room, this is witnessing a legal document. That sealing also includes a large stone as the second witness against them. Israel’s agreeing to serve the Lord has a familiar sound to it. We have heard it before. It echoes a similar pledge at Sinai, a pledge that they rather quickly forgot (Olson). It is also similar to the local Hittite or ruler – subject/slave treaty, in terms of form and how it is put together, so they are already drawing from customs of the surrounding area. (Keener and Walton).
The idea of renewing a pledge to serve or to follow is a part of many Christian worship services, including ours. Every we recite the Nicene or some similar Creed, which is a statement of our faith. But to make a declaration of faith in God/Jesus/Spirit is also to make a declaration to serve or follow (Bratt).
Pledging to serve or follow God may resonate with a political pledge, but there are differences, especially in the US. ‘The people’ in this story is not same as ‘We the People’ of our Constitution. We are culturally and politically different than the people of Israel (Coote). As the ancient peoples did we also understand our faith in the context of our social and political order. As a nation we value individualism, and that is a part of our western culture. The way in which we pledge allegiance to the flag is a part of the cultural context in which we reaffirm our beliefs set forth in the Nicene Creed, and it influences how we understand it. And here we see how Joshua’s challenge is important to us today, just as it was then.
We can simplify Joshua’s challenge to asking ourselves “What other gods are in our world?” The list includes several political, social, economic, cosmic, or other ideologies that shape how we are in relationship with each other individually, locally, nationally, and internationally, and how we behave in those relationships. I can see how some people follow one or more of these other gods, because those gods these ideologies are the source, the primary values behind all of their decisions, that drive how they behave and their relationships with other people, and thus, thus these ideologies become the object of worship. Joshua’s warning does not eliminate wisdom from other sources nor other cultures. It does require an adaption, it requires that such wisdom or knowledge be seen and understood through the lens of God/Jesus/Spirit. The notion of purity in this morning collect is not freedom from moral defect. It is about the relationship that comes first in our lives. In the end it does not matter if you wear your Razorback Red slacks or your flashing Raiders sweater. What matters
- is does your relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit come first?
- is your relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit the determining factor in how you treat other people and all of creation?
How it does is a part of the wisdom by which we are able to recognize our hope and our inheritance as children of God and heirs of eternal life.
Bratt, Doug. Proper 27 A Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. 12 11 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Coote, Robert B. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Joshua. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Deuteronomy 34. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.
Easton, Matthew George. “Joshua.” Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp. n.d.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 11 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Kent, Dan Gentry. “Joshua.” Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent C. Butler. Prod. Holman Bible Publishers. n.d.
Olson, Dennis. Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. 12 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.