Sunday’s sermon: An Old Promise Renewed

Text used – Joshua 24:1-2; 14-26

  • There’s a sign hanging up in our house. I’d be willing to guess that some of you have a similar sign hanging up in your house, too.
    • Top: “House Rules: In this house, we …”
      • General “rules”
        • Play fair
        • Say “please” and “thank you”
        • Help each other
        • Forgive each other
      • More playful encouragements
        • Are unique
        • Laugh often
        • Dream big
        • Try new things
    • Lots of themed variations on this sign, too
      • Disney theme
        • “We whistle while we work and we just keep swimming”
        • “We know all it takes is faith, trust and a little pixie dust”
      • Geek theme (have to read it all because every reference is just too good): In this house, we believe in faeries and we ain’t afraid of no ghosts. We have epic adventures once upon a time and in galaxies far far away. We do wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff while going where no man has gone before. We know the answer to everything is 42 or “I am Groot.” We know never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, the odds are ever in our favor, and we aim to misbehave. We solemnly swear that we are up to no good, and we never say die. And we don’t care what others think because in this house, we do Geek.
      • Powerful neurodivergent themes
        • ADHD: We do meltdowns and avoidance. … We also hope. We persevere. And we pray
        • Autism:
          • We do routine
          • We celebrate the small things
          • We learn social cues
          • We love hard, accept, and respect
    • And what I love about these types of signs – other than the pure fun and whimsy of them – is how declarative they are. They immediately tell you something about the people living in the house. They shed a light on their lives and personalities, their hobbies and their passions. They proudly and playfully declare, “This is who we are. This is how we live. This is how we go about being in this world.”
      • Maybe don’t always follow all the “rules” perfectly → But the other great thing about signs like these is they’re a visual reminder to the people that live in the house. “This is how we want to treat each other. These are the things – the actions, the values, the characteristics – that are important to us. This is how we want to go about being in this world.”
    • This morning’s Scripture reading is that sort of declarative moment in the history of the people of Israel – a snapshot of who they are, how they want to live, and how they want to go about being in this world.
  • Catching up with the narrative
    • Last week = 10 commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai → God also gives Moses instructions re: just about every other thing under the sun (worship, animals and property, human violence, sabbath and festivals, etc.)
      • While Moses was up on the mountain, Israelites grew restless and afraid (Moses = obscured by clouds and taking a long time to come down) → people convince Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship → Moses comes down from the mountain with the stone tablets containing the 10 commandments and sees the people worshiping the golden calf → Moses throws down the tablets in rage and disgust → Moses goes back up Mount Sinai to intercede for the people with God → receives 2nd set of tablets with commandments on them → Moses once again heads back down the mountain to lead the people[1]
    • Moses continues to lead the people of Israel to the promised land of Canaan → sends 12 men (one from each tribe) to scout out the new land and the people living in it → report back: land is beautiful BUT the people that live there are powerful → one of the men expresses confidence that they can take possession of the land with God’s help BUT the other 11 are too afraid → Israel complains against God → God gets upset and punishes the people: “Your dead bodies will fall in this desert. None of you who were enlisted and were registered from 20 years old and above, who complained against me, will enter the land in which I promised to settle you, with the exception of Caleb, Jephunneh’s son, and Joshua, Nun’s son. But your children, whom you said would be taken by force, I’ll bring them in and they will know the land that you rejected.”[2] → so the people wander the wilderness for 40 more years until all those who rejected the land God had designated for them had died[3]
      • Also included Moses, who died on the wilderness side of the Jordan River – able to see the promised land on the opposite bank without ever cross over to it → after Moses’ death, Joshua took over leadership of the people of Israel[4]
    • Joshua leads people of Israel across the Jordan River and into the land of Canaan → much of the beginning of the book of Joshua = battle after battle that the people of Israel had to fight to take the promised land
      • Point I have to make here: This is definitely a problematic portion of Scripture. Yes, God is caring for the people of Israel – a people who have been enslaved and oppressed in a land not their own for generations, a people who essentially have no homeland of their own at this point. But as part of that care for the people of Israel, God leads them into the land of Canaan … a land already occupied by people whose tribes and families have made their own homes there for generations. And as the people of Israel make their way further and further into the interior of this new land, they leave a path of battle and blood and conquest in their wake. Alongside that, in our minds, we hold a history of European colonialism and the slave trade and the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny and all the horrific and immeasurable harm that was done to so many peoples and cultures around the world – harm that was done in the name of God, harm that was done by claiming divine right as God’s chosen and “civilized” people over those whose languages and skin colors and cultures and customs were different, harm that continues to echo down through generations … with this vast and violent history that undergirds all that we are as a society today, I don’t think we can faithfully read this part of Scripture without also naming this challenging paradigm – this pattern of behavior that is both a part of our Scripture and a dark and shameful part of our own history. Because unless we’re willing to name it and both lay bare and own the sins of the past, nothing will change.
  • Today’s Scripture reading = from the very last ch. in the book of Joshua
    • The people have finally taken full possession of the land of Canaan → various tribes are settling into their chosen lands → Joshua, knowing that his own death is also near (being 110 yrs. old[5]) gives the people some last instruction and encouragement in their faith (sermon/testimony of sorts)
      • Interesting instruction – text: So now, revere the Lord. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live.[6] → Joshua is certainly encouraging the Israelites to choose to worship God … but more to the point, he’s encouraging them to choose period. Up to this point, the people already have a long history of turning to God … and then away from God … and then back to God … and then away from God again and again and again. Joshua is trying to get the people to put a stop to this pattern of waffling and choose. Choose God. Choose other gods. Just choose.
        • Not a new covenant that Joshua is proposing to the people but a return to the covenant that they’ve already known → Joshua isn’t presenting some new deal that he’s struck with God on the side. He’s not giving the people of Israel some new addendums and amendments to the promise God has already made to them. Joshua is just asking them to return to the promises that have already led them, already protected them, already saved them, already covered them again and again and again.
        • Scholar speaks to Joshua’s purpose/intent: Because there had been breaches of the covenant, Joshua perceived a need to renew it. … Joshua orders Israel to make a choice holding them accountable and ensuring they actively participate in the covenantal agreement. … The main point of the covenantal renewal is to remind Israel to remember that who they are [becoming] is rooted in a contractual relationship with [God] and contingent upon their fidelity to [God’s] commandments.[7]
      • Joshua makes his own choice clear: “My family and I will serve the Lord.”[8] → other translations: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”[9] → Joshua is making his own declaration as clear and affirming as possible: “We choose God – the God of our ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who brought us out of Egypt. This is who we are. This is how we live. This is how we go about being in this world.”
    • Words must have been truly inspiring to the people of Israel because our text tells us they make their own declarations following Joshua’s example – text: Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! The Lord is our God. … We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”[10]
      • Some back-and-forth btwn Joshua and the people
        • Joshua reminds the people what the covenant means
        • People reiterate their intent to follow
        • Joshua reminds the people that their commitment to the covenant should be forever
        • People again reiterate their intent to follow
        • Final back-and-forth: Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.” They said, “We are witnesses!” “So now put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.”[11]
          • Heb. “focus” (Joshua: “Focus your hearts on the Lord”) = word with implied action and intention – incline, stretch or spread out, extend to or bend to → It’s a word that implies continuous striving for a goal.
            • Sort of reminds me of the “sit and reach” portion of the Presidential fitness test that they used to do in gym class → “sit and reach” tested flexibility → yardstick taped to the bottom bleacher → sit with legs together straight out in front of you, feet flat against the side of the bleacher, arms stretched out in front of you, one hand on top of the other, palms down → procedure: lean forward and stretch three times, then reach as far as you could on the yardstick and hold it there for a few seconds → Those first few leans were practice. They were intended to get your muscles a little bit warmed up before the final stretch – the one that counted. This Hebrew word that Joshua uses when he encourages the people to “focus their hearts on God” is that sort of reaching and stretching and striving. It takes a concerted effort. It takes the people’s whole hearts and minds and inner selves. It doesn’t necessarily imply perfection … but it does imply trying. Every stretch. Every day. Every breath. Every prayer.
    • Friends, God doesn’t ask us to be perfect. But in the ways that we strive to live our own promises to God – promises to be faithful, to seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God, to follow the life and teaching and example and love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ … in the ways that we strive to live into that identity, may we both renew and be renewed by the hope and steadfastness of God’s promises – promises of grace and love and salvation that God has made to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit day by day. Every stretch. Every day. Every breath. Every prayer. Amen.

[1] Ex 32:1-34:35.

[2] Num 14:29-31.

[3] Num 13:1-45.

[4] Deut 34.

[5] Josh 24:29.

[6] Josh 24:14-15a.

[7] Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar. “Commentary on Joshua 24:1-15 [16-26]” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/joshua-renews-the-covenant/commentary-on-joshua-241-15-16-26-2.

[8] Josh 24:15b.

[9] Josh 24:15b (NRSV).

[10] Josh 24:16-17a, 18b.

[11] Josh 24:22-24.