Whom Do We Serve?
Back in 1999, my son AJ was confirmed at Southminster Presbyterian Church.
This was a momentous occasion.
AJ stood up in front of the church and committed to be a disciple of Jesus.
He answered all the PCUSA Constitutional Questions for church membership and recited the Apostles’ Creed.
In anticipation of this, I wondered what I could get him for a gift.
I ultimately decided to buy him a polished spherical rock about the size of a baseball.
Six years later my daughter Julz went through the same confirmation ceremony.
This, too, was a momentous day.
Julz became a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church.
Needless to say, she received a polished spherical rock of her own.
A couple of reasons.
First, the rocks were unique.
They were not the usual Christian paraphernalia that might be appreciated for a while and then get consigned to a drawer.
They were something that would look nice on an end table, a shelf, a bedside table or dresser.
A place where they would be seen, noticed and maybe stimulate a memory.
The memory of their conformations, the promises they made and the faith they proclaimed.
But there was Biblical significance as well.
Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God would stack rocks or build alters at places where something important happened.
This would be done to mark and commemorate the event.
As an example, in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites cross the Jordan River from the wilderness into Canaan.
A representative from each of the twelve tribes is sent back to the middle of the river to get a stone.
They stack the stones on the shores of Canaan to memorialize their passage into the Promised Land.
Joshua then tells the people that their children will see the stones and ask, “What do these stones mean?”
Then their parents can tell them the story of the Exodus.
Who they were and where they came from.
I thought that was a cool story.
I wanted my kids to have stones like that.
Stones memorializing the big event.
So, I got my kids stones for their confirmation so that when each of them would look at their stone, each would remember that their stone was more than a decoration.
They meant something.
Those stones had a story to tell.
And then I read today’s passage.
Another reference to a stone.
And I realized that the stones my kids still have might have more impact than I thought.
Joshua 24: 1-2a; 14-28
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people …
14 ‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15Now 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; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’
16 Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’
19 But Joshua said to the people, ‘You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.’ 21And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, we will serve the Lord!’ 22Then Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.’ And they said, ‘We are witnesses.’ 23He said, ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.’ 24The people said to Joshua, ‘The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.’ 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. 26Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, ‘See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.’
The first thing we need to do is put this passage in context.
Who was Joshua?
He was the successor to Moses as the leader of the people of Israel.
It was Joshua’s job to take the people into Canaan, the Promised Land, and settle the people there.
Joshua led the Israelites in a conquest of enough territory so that all the people had a place to live and flourish.
It took a long time.
Now Joshua was an old man.
His life was nearing its end.
So, he called all the people (actually their leaders) to the City of Shechem so that they could hear Joshua’s farewell address.
Our text is at the conclusion of that address.
What we don’t include in our reading is the beginning of Joshua’s speech when he recounts the history of Israel from the time of Abraham up through the Exodus led by Moses, to the conquering of Canaan.
He reminds the people that it was God – Yahweh – who made it all possible.
Yahweh had chosen Israel to be Yahweh’s people.
Now Joshua wants the people he has led for decades to choose Yahweh.
After Joshua reminds the people about what Yahweh has done for them, he tells them they must revere Yahweh and serve Yahweh in faithfulness for all Yahweh has done.
Why does Joshua say this?
Because there are other “gods” the people have been, and continue to be, exposed to.
There were the old gods of Abraham’s people, the gods of the Egyptians, and the gods of the Amorites who still surrounded the Israelites.
Joshua realized that there was a real risk that these competing gods would infiltrate the Israelite community and either replace Yahweh or make Yahweh “just another god”.
After pointing this out, Joshua utters his most famous words.
… [C]hoose 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; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
While these words are inspiring, in context they are actually so much more.
They are a challenge.
Let’s look closer.
Joshua tells the folks to be faithful to and serve Yahweh.
Then he says that if they can’t, or won’t, serve Yahweh, they need to choose who they will serve.
It’s not Joshua telling them to take their pick from the god buffet.
He is asking a rhetorical question.
If you’re not going to serve Yahweh, who did all these things for you, who are you going to serve?
One of those imaginary and fantastical gods?
Or the one true God who brought you out of Egypt?
“I know where I am going to put my faith,” Joshua tells them, “The real God. Yahweh!”
Now I want you to imagine the scene with me.
We are standing in the crowd listening to Joshua’s fire and brimstone.
Joshua has just challenged us.
What do we say?
“Far be it from us to serve other gods.”
“We, too will serve Yahweh, too!”
That seems a bit tame to me.
I have this image of us pumping our fists into the air and chanting, “Yahweh! Yahweh! Yahweh! “
And then Joshua quiets us down.
He tells us we don’t have what it takes.
“You can’t do it!” Joshua says.
“And if you say you will and don’t, it will not go well for you with God!”
But we are really pumped.
And we scream, “No! We can do it! Yahweh! Yahweh! Yahweh! Yahweh!”
“Alright,” Joshua says, “You have made the commitment and are your own witnesses.”
“You know what you have said and are bound by it.”
“So, all those old gods?”
“Get rid of them.”
“We will,” we say.
They take all the other God paraphernalia they have been carrying around and throw it on the ground.
“Yahweh! Yahweh! Yahweh!”
And then Joshua picks up a stone.
… [H]e took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, ‘See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.’
And every time we look at that stone, we remember what we said.
What we said to Yahweh.
Our words confirming our faith and service to Yahweh.
When I read this text, it reminded me of the stones I gave to my kids at their confirmation.
And then it occurred to me, maybe this gathering at Shechem was a sort of a confirmation.
The Israelites were confirming their fatih.
Just like my kids.
So, what do any of us remember about our confirmation?
There were witnesses to that, right?
The assembled congregation.
Not stones, but real people.
And Jesus, too.
And in front of all them, we made a choice.
To be faithful servants of God.
Disciples of Jesus.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit.
When we made that choice, what did we promise to be?
Hungry and thirsty for God’s righteousness.
Steadfast in the face of opposition.
What did we promise to do?
Feed the hungry.
Clothe the naked.
Give water to the thirsty.
Welcome the strangers.
Care for the sick.
Visit the imprisoned.
But, like the Israelites, we live in a world with competing gods.
Gods that infiltrate our discipleship and to which we turn our heads.
Their whispers are hard to ignore.
Our triune God is hip checked aside or has become just another “god” among many.
That’s when we might want to remember our confirmation.
Like Joshua’s people and take a look at that stone.
And ask ourselves who we chose.
How are we doing?
Shall we ask the witnesses?
Not too well, really.
We wander off too often.
We make bad choices.
We forget our promises.
We hate each other.
We turn our backs on God.
We have proved Joshua right.
We can’t be totally committed to Yahweh.
And like Joshua says, it’s killing us.
So, what do we do?
We confess that we can’t always do what we said we would.
We try to do better.
We make better choices.
And humbly know that even though we can’t always be and do what God wants and what we promised to be and do, we are forgiven.
I know that.
Because Jesus told us so.
For the last three weeks, I have been preaching on a theme of what do we do now that the election is over.
How do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is not the one we want?
And how do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is the one we want?
Interestingly enough, the answer is again the same to both questions.
We live the way we promised to live on the day we declared our discipleship to Jesus.
We live the words that we say we believe to be true.
Maybe the words we recited at our confirmation.
Maybe we can pick up a rock and put it in the JMPC rock garden and say words like these words from the PCUSA Brief Statement of Faith.
Words that proclaim who you choose to serve.
In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.