Sermon for August 26th, 2018
The first five books in our Bible, as many of you know, are known as the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (they are also known as the Torah or the Pentateuch). Although Leviticus and Numbers can be something of a tough read, I’m willing to bet that most of you have some familiarity with the stories in Genesis and Exodus. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, and of course Moses leading the Children of Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land; these stories are a familiar part of our faith and even our Western culture. Movies, musicals and countless works of priceless art have been crafted around these stories.
The Book of Joshua, which we read today, is a continuation of the story after the death of Moses. It details the events that happened to the Children of Israel once they arrived in the Promised Land. It is the “now what?” book, if you will. In other words: now that you have witnessed God’s salvation, now that you have been delivered from slavery and death, now that you have reached the promised land…now what? How are you going to live from this point forward? That is really the question that Joshua wants to ask the assembly in the part that we just heard this morning that comes from the very end of the Book of Joshua.
And just before Joshua asks this all-important question (in the part of the story that we didn’t read today), Joshua retells almost the entire story of the Children of Israel’s deliverance. Beginning the Abraham, Joshua reminds them how every step of the way God was with them. Joshua reminds them of how God sent Moses and Aaron and the plagues, and how he had delivered them from the Egyptians, through the Red Sea, fed them in the desert, led them through the Jordan, and allowed them to take possession of the Promised Land. Joshua reminds them of what God had done for them, and then he asks them: whom are you going to serve?
Well of course the people say: we will serve the Lord! How could we not?! They were just reminded of what God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had done for them; how could they possibly even consider serving any other gods? Well this sounds great; They made a good good decision; now on to living a blessed life in the Promised Land, right? Public affirmation of faith made, now on with their lives.
Well Joshua was smart, because after the whole community promised that they would follow the God of Israel and no other, after they promised that they would serve the Lord, he not only wrote it down, he also set up a large stone in that place as an ongoing reminder, or memorial, of the promise they had made. Joshua was justifiably a bit skeptical of how capable these people were going to be of keeping and remembering this promise. No doubt, because Joshua remembered just how easy it was for the Children of Israel to forget what God had done for them. Think back to the Exodus story for a moment. How many wonders had the Hebrews seen by the time they reached the Red Sea? And still the Children of Israel complained against Moses and wanted to turn back. Then after they had been led safely to the other shore, been miraculously fed in the desert, and made it to the foot of Mount Sinai, how long did it take them to grow impatient, forget the miracles they had just witnessed and turn to worshipping other Gods? Not very long. Joshua knew that these people would need to be reminded, and reminded frequently, of what God had done for them, because he knew that the temptation to turn to other gods is always present. And we are always liable to succumb to it. At some point we are bound to, and we will always be in need of something to draw us back to the worship of the true God.
I don’t think human nature has really changed one bit since Joshua’s time. We are still always being tempted to serve other gods. We still forget what our God has done for us; we grow impatient and before we know it we start looking to other gods for answers; we start serving other gods. It’s easy for us to do too, because we don’t call our gods by proper names anymore, we don’t even think of them as gods, so we don’t realize that we are worshipping or serving an idol; we don’t think that we have turned away from our God, we might even convince ourselves that we are serving the true God when we serve one of these idols, but I wonder sometimes, I really do.
Think of all the –isms in our world that people are attached to (or have been attached to): nationalism, socialism, communism, fascism, liberalism, conservatism, capitalism…some of these start out as great ideas or good things, but once they move from being an idea to an ideology; once they become something we are devoted to; when they are no longer a means to an end but the end itself…that is when they become a false idol. They become another god that we are serving. We gradually forget the true God. We forget what he has done for us. We forget the promises that were made. We all do it. All the time. These other gods have a very sneaky way of distracting us, dividing us, and drawing us further and further away from the God that actually has the power to save us.
We humans are weak. Our God is a jealous God; he wants us to love and serve him only; but he knows that we are weak. He knows that we are constantly being tempted to forget his mercies and strength; we are constantly being tempted to serve other gods. So time and time again, God establishes rituals and prayers and he sends leaders and prophets like Joshua to remind the community and to build physical reminders of God’s presence in our midst. There is a reason why Jesus in his Last Supper commanded his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” It is because God knows how easy it is for us to forget. He knows that we need constant, daily reminders of what he has done. That is why the creed is so important, and the scriptures are so important; That is why many of our prayers, including the prayers we say at the altar, don’t just ask God to do things, but also retell the story of what he has already done; We need these reminders. We need them because each and every day we are faced with the same question that Joshua put to the Children of Israel; each day, each moment we have to decide whom we shall serve.