You Gotta Serve Somebody

Joshua 24:1-18, 25

For several weeks we have explored the important biblical idea of covenant. It’s a sacred commitment to relationship, initiated by God for the sake of the other, and it shapes our identity and conduct. Belonging shapes behavior. In covenant, the relationship comes first. Who we understand ourselves to be and how we choose to act in our daily lives is based in our conviction that we are in a covenant with God. We’ve considered some of the covenants that God has made with people and how God lives into those covenants. God has committed to be with us, to be our God, and we have seen how God is faithful to that always, even when we can’t see it until it’s over, until we are looking at it in hindsight.

Last week we started to consider what it looks like for us to live in covenant with God. If our belonging shapes our behavior, what is the behavior of people who belong to God and one another? What do blessed blessing people do? We’re going to keep looking at that for a few more weeks, and eventually we are going to consider what happens when our behavior, our choices, are out of line with our belonging.

This morning we are going to pick up the story of the ancient Hebrew people a generation or so past where we were last week. We are reading Joshua chapter 24, the very end of Joshua, which is the sixth book in the Bible. It’s page 368 in your pew Bibles. Last week the people whom God rescued from slavery in Egypt and brought through the Red Sea, these people made a covenant with God at Sinai and received the 10 Commandments, a set of boundaries that guided them and us to live in freedom and safety within our covenant. These are sort of the basic picture of what blessed blessing people would do. 

Those people who received that covenant journeyed through the wilderness for 40 years before coming to the Promised Land. A land where they could be secure, the land where their ancestors had lived, this was one of the other promises God made to Abraham and Sarah. This land was to be the home base for their movement of blessing. The challenge is there are already people living in that land. And as you will see in this morning’s story, the solution is that challenge is troubling for us. In this story, Moses is dead. And his successor Joshua is also about to die. Before Joshua dies, he calls the people together and asks them whether they want to renew their covenant with God. Let’s start reading in Joshua 24, verse 1.

Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders of Israel, its leaders, judges, and officers. They presented themselves before God. Then Joshua said to the entire people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: <now he’s going to retell their story to them to remind them who they are> Long ago your ancestors lived on the other side of the Euphrates. They served other gods. Among them was Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor. I took Abraham your ancestor from the other side of the Euphrates. I led him around through the whole land of Canaan. I added to his descendants and gave him Isaac. To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Mount Seir to Esau to take over. But Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron. I plagued Egypt with what I did to them. After that I brought you out. I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. The Egyptians chased your ancestors with chariots and horses to the Reed Sea. Then they cried for help to the Lord. So he set darkness between you and the Egyptians. He brought the sea down on them, and it covered them. With your own eyes you saw what I did to the Egyptians. You lived in the desert for a long time. <understatement. An entire generation died in that desert.>

“Then I brought you into the land of the Amorites who lived on the other side of the Jordan. They attacked you, but I gave them into your power, and you took over their land. I wiped them out before you. Then Moab’s King Balak, Zippor’s son, set out to attack Israel. He summoned Balaam, Beor’s son, to curse you. But I wasn’t willing to listen to Balaam, so he actually blessed you. I rescued you from his power. Then you crossed over the Jordan. You came to Jericho, and the citizens of Jericho attacked you. They were Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites. But I gave them into your power. I sent the hornet before you. It drove them out before you and did the same to the two kings of the Amorites. It wasn’t your sword or bow that did this. I gave you land on which you hadn’t toiled and cities that you hadn’t built. You settled in them and are enjoying produce from vineyards and olive groves that you didn’t plant.

“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. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. The Lord has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

(verse 25) On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people and established just rule for them at Shechem.

From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.

This morning as we consider this story of renewing a covenant, there are three questions that stand out to me as being relevant for us. The first is “Do we know our stories?” As we said this summer, “Everyone has a story.” And our stories matter. The Bible is full of stories. God shows up in our stories. Stories are our testimonies. So it’s fair to ask, “Do we know our stories?” Not just do we know our own stories? Do we know the stories of our family? Do we know the stories of our cultural ancestors? Do we know the stories of our spiritual ancestors? Because those shape us, whether we realize it or not. Those are also our stories. We are not nearly as autonomous as we like to think we are. 

The people in this story actually had not lived in Egypt. None of them had. They personally weren’t rescued from slavery. They didn’t walk through the sea. Some of them weren’t even involved in the early battles of the Promised Land. And yet, God still calls them to remember these stories, to be accountable to these stories, to live in relationship to God and each other as if these stories had actually happened to them personally. 

It is hard for modern Americans to remain connected to the past because our culture is obsessed with what is new and what is next. This congregation has been in Delaware since 1837 and yet the vast majority of people in this room have been part of this congregation for less than 10 years. But this is one of the ways that Christianity is countercultural, one of the ways that we resist Western norms. We say that we are connected to those who came before. That knowing their stories helps us know ourselves. We all came from somewhere. We have all been shaped by people who were shaped by people. And whether we are repeating what they did or rejecting what they did, it still shapes us. Let’s know our stories so we can repeat what was healthy and life-giving and reject what was unhealthy. 

The second question is “What do we do with these stories of conquest?” The Old Testament is violent. Just this one passage of Joshua talks about how the ancient Hebrew people decimated the native population of the land they believed they were supposed to inherit. What do we do with these stories of conquest? I think we have three options.

The first is to repeat them. We can repeat these stories of conquest. We can choose to repeat what was unhealthy. We can use these biblical stories to justify our own actions whenever we want to take something from someone else because we feel we deserve it. We’re all tempted to do that, even if it’s in small ways. We also repeat these stories when we use them to justify the actions of our ancestors. Talk about knowing our stories, this story of conquest was the exact justification that our European ancestors used to wipe out the Indigenous American people. These is how we justified killing and displacing Native Americans. This story. We can and do repeat these stories of conquest.

The second thing we can do with these stories of conquest is to reject. Which might at first seem like the right choice to us. We can say that we don’t like them or they don’t sound like God to us (as if we know everything God would do), so we aren’t going to read them, we aren’t going to “believe” them, whatever that means. We aren’t going to remember them. We’re going to pull a Thomas Jefferson and cut them out of our Bibles. They have no value. We’re going to reject them.

But there is another option with these stories, besides repeating them and rejecting them. We can also reinterpret them. We can allow them to teach us. We can let them be a mirror that reminds us violence never works; it just makes more enemies. Because when we keep reading, we discover that this passage isn’t the only version of this story. Plenty of other stories in the book of Joshua and other books make it clear that the ancient Hebrews did not wipe out all the other people. Not by a long shot. It wasn’t a quick and easy conquest and it was far from complete. 

So perhaps we can reinterpret this story by asking, “Why is it here?” Is there any good in this story for us? I think there might be. What if the story of conquest reminded the people that they were God’s treasured possession, as we read last week? All the earth is God’s, but these people had been chosen for the purpose of blessing others. What if this story of conquest and God’s help gave them confidence to live into their covenant calling as people who belong to God? What if says these are the lengths God will go to in faithfulness to them? 

Now I fully admit that doesn’t all the way work for me. There can still  be problems with that interpretations. But this is a hard passage and as Phyllis Trible says, “Sometimes we have to wrestle a blessing from the text.” If we can let go for a minute of the people on the other side of the story (and maybe you can’t, that’s OK) but if we could, might this story give us confidence that God is for us? (And that God can be for us without being against other people – I know that’s where we are stretching the story. I know that.) But think about this: could a story of God being with us to conquer every spiritual obstacle, of God even clearing the way, could that story give us the confidence we need to boldly speak and live our progressive inclusive Christian faith? Could this story of God conquering giants in the land help us become followers of Jesus who are not intimidated by the giants of our culture? Could this story that says God keeps God’s covenant no matter what, could this story help us remember that we can do what God is calling us to do because we don’t do it alone? God does it with us, for us, through us. Perhaps we can reinterpret this story of conquest into something that gives us confidence to boldly declare and demonstrate our progressive, inclusive Christian faith. 

And the final question is, “Which gods are we choosing to serve?” At the end of the story, Joshua gives the people a choice: serve and worship the gods our ancestors served by the Euphrates River and in Egypt, or serve and worship the gods of this land, or serve and worship the Lord. You choose. Because Bob Dylan had it right when he said “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Everybody does. This is still the question for us? Are we going to serve the gods of this land? Are we going to worship sex and youthful looks? Are we going to serve our own cleverness and self-importance? Are we going to bow down to greed and violence and religious hypocrisy? The book of Romans reminds us that we are slaves to the one we obey. Or are we going to worship and serve the God who chooses people to bless so they will be blessings and is faithful in fat times and lean times and liberates the oppressed? What kind of a world do we want to live in? What kind of people do we want to be? What do we want to be true? Which gods will we choose to serve?

If we know our own stories, we have a firm foundation. We have a sense of God’s work in human life that is bigger than our own experience. We remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We can use the conquest stories to remind us that God goes before us and with us and so there’s no need for us to be intimidated when we share our progressive, inclusive Christian faith. And we can choose to serve the God who liberates all captives and makes the world a place where all people are at peace. Amen.

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