A sermon on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
November 8, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The date was September 19, 1796. In a Philadelphia newspaper called the American Daily Advertiser, there appeared an open letter from George Washington titled “The Address of General Washington to the People of the United States.” Washington was coming to the close of the second of his two terms as President of the United States. He had grown physically and emotionally tired and had decided to decline being nominated for a third term. His desire was to retire from public service and to live out the rest of his days as a private citizen at his home, Mount Vernon. After the article appeared, it was almost immediately reprinted in newspapers all over the country. It was later published in pamphlet form as well and was widely distributed. The article has since become known to historians as “George Washington’s Farewell Address.”1
In the letter, Washington reflected on his time as president, offering several insights to his presidency during the previous eight years. He also had some advice for the nation and for whoever would succeed him as president. Overall, I think it would be fair to say that, in the letter, Washington was cautiously optimistic about the future prospects for “The American Experiment.”
And yet, he shared several concerns for the nation going forward. First, he warned about what he perceived to be a growing factionalism in the country. He identified this factionalism as dividing North and South, and East Coast and frontier. He spent a couple of pages of the address highlighting the need for union first and foremost if the new nation was to survive. Next he cautioned against becoming involved in the affairs of foreign countries, as those entanglements often lead to interference in another country’s internal affairs. He also suggested that public debt be kept to a minimum and be used sparingly only when it is needed. Then he affirmed the Constitution’s efforts to keep the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government separate. His reasoning was that it kept too much power from being concentrated in any one branch or in any one person.
He also pointed up the need for public education. He wrote, “Promote as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.”
1 www.thefederalistpapers.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Washingtons-Farewell-Address (Accessed October 30, 2020)
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One of the more fascinating things that Washington lamented was the rise and the growing influence of political parties. I find it interesting that, even at that early date in the nation’s history, he felt the need to sound the alarm. To this end he wrote:
[Allegiance to a political party] serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.
Wow…Washington’s description of the consequences of political parties certainly has a contemporary ring to it, doesn’t it?…And remember, he wrote those words 224 years ago…
Concerning the conduct of government, he wrote, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports….Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle…It is a necessary spring of popular government.”
In the conclusion to his address, Washington wrote, “After forty five years of my life dedicated to [the] service of [the nation] with an upright zeal,[ I hope that] the faults of [my] incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as I myself must soon be to the mansions of rest…[In my retirement], I anticipate the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors and dangers.”
And so with those words, George Washington said goodbye to a nation grateful for his service. In today’s text from the Old Testament, we hear the final address of another military and political leader before he too passes off the scene. This time the speaker is Joshua—the one appointed by God to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land—who addresses the nation one final time…
So Joshua gathered all the people together. He begins his final address to the people with these words, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel…” These are words that carry special significance because they are words that the prophets used before delivering the messages that the Lord had given them. Joshua was serving notice to the people that these were not his thoughts or merely his words that he was speaking. Instead he was delivering a message straight from the Lord.
In the next eleven verses, Joshua gives a brief summary of God’s dealing with the people of Israel. He begins with the call of Abraham, recounts his dealings with Abraham’s sons Isaac and Jacob, and speaks to them of the slavery in Egypt that their ancestors endured. He reminded them of how he had used Moses as his instrument to guide them out of Pharaoh’s hand. He told them of how God had guided them through the experience of wandering in the wilderness for forty years and how his hand had gently guided them. He brought to their minds how God had led them to cross the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. He recounted how God had given them the victory over their adversaries and how
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he had given them “a land on which you did not toil and cities that you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.” (Verse 13)
Then, after having given all that history as background, he gets to the point of his message. This is where today’s passage picks up in verse 14. Joshua tells them, “Now revere the Lord and serve him with sincerity.” He then goes on to say some of the most famous words from the book of Joshua. He challenges the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve…but for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Verse 15)
In light of all that Joshua has said, the people responded, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” Then something remarkable—and unexpected—happens…
Notice that Joshua does not immediately congratulate them on their choice. Joshua does not gladly affirm what they have said. NO. NOT AT ALL… Instead, he calls them out on their promise. He does that because, frankly, he does not believe a word of it. After leading them for a number of years, he knows them better than that. He tells them that they are not going to serve the Lord as they are promising to do. Joshua reminds them that God is a holy God and will not put up with their faithlessness. He tells them that, should they fail to hold up their end of the promise and begin to chase after other gods, then they will be bringing disaster and heartache on themselves. Why does he say that? For what reason does he bring up God’s holiness and his insistence on his people serving him alone? It’s because Joshua knows that making that kind of promise to God is serious business. God takes our promises and the attitudes of our hearts very seriously…
The people respond to Joshua’s warnings by repeating their intention to serve the Lord. They reply as with one voice, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” (Verse 24) So Joshua acknowledges the people’s response and renews their covenant with God…
The sad part of the story is that Joshua was ultimately right. The people would not honor the promises that they had made with God. The rest of the history of the Old Testament is the sorry and miserable story of how the people of Israel would tragically fulfill Joshua’s prophecy. Time and time again, the Old Testament tells the story of how the people would forget their God and prove faithless in their covenant with him. Consequently they would pay the price for their actions. Ultimately they forgot about the promises that they had made, and because of that, the end result was that the people of Israel would once again become slaves—they would once more be strangers in a strange land—as first one empire, and then another empire ravaged the people, conquered their land, and reduced them to once more being slaves. The pattern would continue until the final destruction of the nation of Israel by the Romans in 70 AD.
I want to spend the remaining part of our time together considering what I think is a remarkable aspect of this passage. Twice in this passage, Joshua instructs the people to put away from themselves the foreign gods that they had been worshiping. In verse 14, he tells them to “Put away the gods that
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your ancestors served from beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” And then in verse 23, he reiterates his command by telling them, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you…”
Even at this late date, there were at least some of the people of Israel who were clinging to their false idols and worshiping these pagan gods. It seems almost unbelievable that they would still do that in light of how the power of God had been displayed to them throughout their history.
None of the people who were gathered with Joshua that day had been part of the people who had suffered as slaves in Egypt. Neither had any of them been a part of the Exodus. That generation had long since passed away in the desert. But surely the people would have heard the stories from their parents and grandparents of how God had delivered them from Egypt and kept them safe in the Wilderness….
They would have heard the stories of how, in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to let them go, God had brought upon the nation of Egypt ten plagues—ten plagues that the gods of the Egyptians were powerless to stop. They had heard how God had parted the Red Sea and let their people travel across the seabed on dry land, while drowning Pharaoh’s army in the tide when they tried to pursue. They had heard how God had fed the people in their wilderness journey with manna –bread from heaven—and more than enough quail in the midst of the barren dry wilderness—how God had provided water for them when there was no water to be found—how God led the people with a pillar of cloud by day and a column of fire at night. They had heard all of those stories over and over and again. No doubt their ancestors continued to describe how God had led his people safely until they reached the banks of the Jordan River.
The stories remained, even after that generation had gone. And yet, the people gathered with Joshua in today’s passage had also seen the mighty acts of God in their midst, even as they faced their enemies in the Promised Land. There were some still around who remembered how God gave the victory to Israel when “Joshua fit de battle of Jericho and the walls came a-tumbling down.” They witnessed how God had defeated the Amorites by hurling large hailstones from the sky. They were amazed by the way that the Lord had led the Israeli army to defeat enemy after enemy until the land was secured in spite of long odds and in the face of superior numbers
And yet, in spite of all these supernatural displays of God’s power and might, there were still some in the nation of Israel who clung to their foreign idols and worship other gods than the God of Israel. Were they hedging their bets in case God should suddenly prove to not be reliable? Were they just stuck in their old religious ruts and unable to break away from them? Did they find comfort in these pagan deities that they could not experience with Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth?
We really don’t know. Perhaps there were as many reasons for the people to hang on to their false idols as there were people who continued to worship them. Or perhaps they vacillated back and forth between serving the God of Israel and the gods of their ancestors—or even serving the gods of their oppressors in Egypt…We just do not know…
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In my decades of being a minister in a local church, I’ve heard lots of reasons for why people choose not to serve the Lord. One fellow that I worked with told me that he had been a believer as a child and as a teenager, but once he grew into adulthood, he just sort of “outgrew the faith.” It no longer satisfied his adult questions and yearnings as it did back when he was a child…I have known others who let the demands of career and family crowd out the place of God in their lives. They determined that they no longer had the time—or really, the inclination—to serve the Lord as they once did. Their “busyness” has become their God…There are those who have not chosen faith in Christ in order to pursue the false gods of money…or power…or pleasure…or security…or comfort. And I have also known those who just did not want to be bothered with God, saying something like “What I do with my life is none of God’s business…” In one sense, it seems to me that those people are putting themselves in the place of God in their life. In reality, they are making of themselves a false idol.
Some are disappointed at what they have observed in the church and what they have seen from those who supposedly profess faith in Jesus. I get that. The church—and many Christians—have a checkered history when it comes to following the teachings and spirit of Jesus. People are sometimes hurt by what Christians do. No one is more aware of the failings of those who call themselves Christians than I am. But to hang on to those feelings and continue to nurture them is to enshrine them as a false God. It is a false god that is just as powerless as one made of wood or stone.
In our congregation this morning, I imagine that most everyone could tell of times in their lives when the presence of God was very real to them. They could tell of instances of how they observed God acting in marvelous ways. And yet, we too can still be tempted to pursue false gods—to let other things and other concerns take the place that rightfully belongs to God.
What are the false gods that tempt you? What are those things that would try to take God’s rightful place in your life and in your affections? This is an area where those of us who have been Christians for a long time need to be on our guard.
The false gods that clamor for our attention are many and often very subtle. They are no doubt as varied as we are in our personalities. The New Testament warns us about them. One example—in Matthew 6:24, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You cannot serve two masters…You cannot serve God and Money.” In 1 Corinthians 16:13, the Apostle Paul warns us, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith…be strong.” And in 1 Thessalonians 5:6, Paul again cautions us, “Let us not be like others who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.”
Joshua tells the people of day—and us in our day—“Revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness…Choose this day whom you will serve…”
And to God alone be the glory! Amen.