Joshua 24:14-18 B The Choice
By Charles B. Bugg
Harvey Cox tells the story of his being drafted into the paratroopers during World War Two. "I had never been in an airplane before," Cox says. "Suddenly I was confronted with jumping out of an airplane and floating to earth." During the instruction period, Cox relates, nobody had to poke him in the ribs to say pay attention. "My life was at stake, and I hung on every word the instructor spoke," Cox tells.
When we stand in front of these words in the final chapter of Joshua, you and I get that same sense of urgency. Nobody has to poke us and say listen. We feel the compelling power of the words. "Choose this day whom you will serve, . . . " Joshua says, and we can almost hear his tone of voice. This is important to Joshua; this is vital; this is urgent; this is spoken in the imperative mood. A choice has to be made, and not just any choice at that. On this choice depends the future of the nation.
The Context: A Problem and a Place
But before we stand any more in front of the text and feel its rhetorical impact, let's step behind the words to see its historical context. Israel has invaded the land of Canaan. Joshua, the successor to Moses, has led the armies of a united Israel in their conquest.
Much of the book of Joshua describes this militaristic venture. For those with twentieth century sensitivities, some of this book seems harsh and cruel. Who does Israel think it is to invade someone else's land and conquer it for itself? It sounds a lot like what happened to the natives and to other groups in America. We called it the doctrine of "manifest destiny." God had given us a land, and if it required the conquest of Mexicans and American Indians, so be it. God had ordained the plan, and this was our "manifest destiny."
Few people in America today would endorse such an approach. In fact, we are seeking to make "reparations" to those who have been harmed by the conquests of the days when God and the interests of white Americans seemed to be synonymous. Such present day sensitivities may make us wish that at least part of Joshua, this "book of conquest," had not been included in the canon.
However, to understand Joshua in its own context, we have to remember how important "land" was to the people who had been liberated from Egypt. For much of their existence, the tribes of Israel had been slaves. They had almost nothing; they owned nothing; they had no place to call their own. Land was a place to be free. Their own land guaranteed them the opportunity to be the people they had been called by God to be.i
Thus, much of the book of Joshua is the story of the conquest and the settling of the land of Canaan. On one level, it is an earthly, militaristic story. On another level, Joshua is the story of a God who leads God's people to be free. For those of us who make our way to the pulpit each Sunday, the question is, "How do we preach this?"
Obviously, we do not want to call people in the pews back to some new form of "manifest destiny." Contemporary preachers have to face the fact that Joshua sometimes interprets the providence of God in ways different from us. We do not need a new theology of conquest.
But what about finding a place to be free to serve and to follow God? Is it too much to take the idea of place and do with it what the Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier did with it? Can we talk about place in ways other than geographical space?
A woman told me one time that she was looking for a "place to be." Materially, this woman had everything. She had a beautiful house in the best neighborhood. She had a husband who was successful in his job, attractive children, nice clothes, and a membership in the country club. The family were nominal members of the church. I will never forget what this woman said to me, "I have a big house, but I have never felt at home."
Frederick Buechner speaks about the two "battles" in which each of us engages. One is the battle to do well, to have the big house and all the accessories. According to Buechner, we want "to find our place in the sun," and into that battle we pour much of our energy. We work hard to do well, to achieve, to get ahead, to be recognized. We battle to be a success believing that if we win that war, we will find the peace and happiness we seek.
The other battle, however, is the battle "inside our skins." Buechner says this is the more significant battle. We get the house, but do we feel at home with ourselves? We purchase the stuff to fill every corner of our place, but we never seem to find a place of peace.
Granted, it's a long way from Canaan to Corbin, Columbia or Columbus. Joshua lived many years ago. Jack and Jill go up and down the hill today, and legitimately wonder what this ancient document called Joshua, embedded in the early part of the Hebrew Bible, has to say to them. Jill and Jack may wonder even more when they read the language of warfare and strange talk about possessing the land. Yet, these two make-believe moderns may share more with the Hebrew children than they realize.
Can we say we are all looking for some placeCgeographical, spiritualCsomething we call a place in which we can feel secure and loved and in which we can strive to be whatever we are intended to be? Can we say we are all searching for the freedom to be and to blossom and to feel at home? Can we even say with Joshua we are looking for a place in which we can choose to serve God and come to know more fully this God who has a place for us?
The Text: A Call to Choose
This brings us to the particular text, Joshua 24:14-18. Under the leadership of Joshua, the people of Israel have invaded and inhabited the land of Canaan. Joshua is in the twilight of his leadership. He gathers the tribes of Israel to Shechem. In the first part of chapter twenty-four, Joshua gives the people the word from God. God reminds the people of God's provisions. God calls them to remember God's leadership in the specific events of Israel's history. While God retells the story, God is calling Israel not just to remember the details of her history but more importantly to remember the Holy One who has been guiding and shaping that history.
One of my earliest memories in church was the communion table that set on the floor underneath the pulpit. On the table were inscribed the words, "This Do in Remembrance of Me." At our quarterly celebrations of the Lord's Supper, the minister would remind us of the significance of the words. We were a gathered people who had a present and a future, but also a past. That history stretched back beyond the life of any of us who were holding the cup and the bread. The minister would talk about that history in his sermons. Sometimes he would speak about the God who had fashioned life. The minister would remind us of events like the exile, the captivity in Babylon, the birth in Bethlehem, the death in Golgotha, and the Resurrection which for Christians was the pivotal event.
The minister spoke about figures in history: Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Amos, Mary, Peter, Paul, and of course, Jesus. These Biblical figures took on new life for us as our pastor told us about what they had done and how God had used them. What was our minister trying to do? Was this a history lesson? In one sense it was. We were called to remember events. But in another sense, what the preacher was doing was far more. He was calling us to recall the God who had been at work through all kinds of folks, and he was challenging us to see this same God wanted to work in us.
That is what God was doing in the final chapter of the book of Joshua. "I have guided you in the past," God says. "I have been with you to bring you to this land of promise." What does that mean? To the tribes of Israel gathered to hear God speak, it would have meant that the God who had shaped the yesterdays would continue to shape the todays and the tomorrow.
This brings us, then, to the urgent words of Joshua. Joshua has led the people into a new land. The tribes of Israel have been unified in their war of conquest. These are good times for the people of God. But Joshua wants to leave them with one final reminder. The people have a covenant with Yahweh. Yahweh has kept God's side of that covenant. Yahweh has brought the children of Israel into Canaan. The question now is: will the people remember God? Will they remember to worship the God who has blessed them? Will they serve Yahweh who has empowered them and given them a place?
"Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness," is the way the New Revised Standard Version translates Joshua's challenge:
Put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the river and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served 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.
The Text: Some Implications
These words of Joshua assume several things. First, we have a choice to worship or not to worship, what we will worship or what we will not worship. The call of God is not the call to a forced march of obedience. In fact, Joshua says our worship and service are to "be true and faithful." The most important decisions in life cannot be constrained. Try forcing someone to love you. Try making someone respect you. You may force obedience and external allegiance, but we are talking about matters of the mind and affairs of the heart. Joshua puts the call to worship and service in the most urgent way. "Choose" and "get rid"--those are imperatives! They are the words of someone who believes deeply in Yahweh and who speaks with passion. This is no preacher who comes to the invitation in a "ho hum" manner. Yet, Joshua does not coerce. As forceful as he is, Joshua knows he cannot choose for everybody.
Second, Joshua's words seem to imply that people will worship and serve something or someone. Joshua calls them to serve Yahweh. However, the Israelites may worship the gods of the land into which they have come or the gods their forebearers served in Mesopotamia. Joshua suggests that nobody lives in a spiritual vacuum. Everybody worships something. Everybody has some center to his or her life that brings meaning. Joshua challenges us to revere Yahweh, but if we do not, then Joshua wants us to recognize what it is that we do serve.
During the days when the debate over the subject of evolution was so heated, a young man desperately needed a teaching job. His area was science. Interviewed by the local school board, the young teacher was asked, "Do you teach evolution or creationism?" "Oh, I can go either way," he replied.
With Joshua, we get the strong feeling that when it comes to Yahweh, a person has to choose. We can't go either way or no way or every way. "Make up your minds," Joshua is saying. As for him and his household, they will serve the Holy God of Israel. Of course, this raises an interesting issue. How can Joshua speak for his household? The word household probably includes not only Joshua's immediate family but also his servants as well.
Obviously, this statement reflects the times in which it was spoken. We are talking about a highly paternalistic society in which the husband and father was the decision maker. In our time, we would need to talk about the influence of parent's values on their children and the need for modeling a Christian example. Still, this does not guarantee that children will emulate their parent's commitment. We all know stories of children who have said no to the things to which their caregivers have said yes. Even Jesus told a parable about a prodigal son who had to go through the far country before he came to his senses. Therefore, it is critical in our proclamation of this text that we point out the difference in Joshua's time and our time. Household then is different from household now. If we do not point out the difference, we will only compound the guilt of mothers and fathers who have done their best but who have watched children drift from their spiritual moorings.
The third thing which Joshua's challenge assumes is that there needs to be some response. These are not words that can be passed by on the other side. We are not called to go home and think about what has been said. This is not a take home test when we mail in our answers on our schedule. "Choose this day whom you will serve, . . ." Annie may sing, "Tomorrow, tomorrow, the sun will come up tomorrow," but Joshua is taking about today, before the sun goes down.
At Caesarea Phillippi Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Give Simon Peter some credit. He did not ask Jesus if he could think about it for a while. Simon did not say, "It would be easier if this were an essay test," or "Jesus, can you give us some multiple choice options?" Simon answered. Granted, Peter soon showed that he did not understand the implications of his response, but who of us fully counts the cost? The big fisherman was scolded by Jesus, but I certainly could have been in Peter's place. I have often tried to travel the road less costly.
Give Peter some credit. He gave an answer, and nobody else in the disciple group seemed ready to speak. Peter understood the urgency of the question. What we worship becomes the center of our lives. What we serve shapes us. What we revere reveals the essence of our being. We do not put off making up our lives. Joshua said, "Choose this day . . . ."
The Response: The Call to Continuing Commitment
The people did. They answered Joshua. They remembered the God who had brought them out of Egypt. They remembered the God who had helped them to conquer the land of Canaan. They responded to Joshua, "Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is God." What a happy ending! Joshua preaches. He extends the invitation. And all the people say, "Amen!" What a happy ending!
Except we know the rest of the story of Hebrew Scriptures. Joshua passes off the scene. The folks gathered at Shechem that day would also be gone. But the problem and the preaching, the idolatry and the pursuant invitation to follow Yahweh, continued. The people of God chased after other gods, and the preachers much like Joshua called people back to their covenant commitment.
This is why many believe that the covenant celebrated at Shechem in Joshua's day was only the first of many times in which the covenant between God and the Israelites was renewed. That makes sense. The deepest commitments we make usually need to be renewed.
A young couple stands in front of the sanctuary one Saturday afternoon to say their wedding vows. They are nervous. They stumble over the words. He starts to put her ring on the wrong finger. They smile at each other. Their minister guides them through the order of the service because the minister knows it is an exciting and anxious time.
The minister also knows something else. The wedding is only the beginning of that marriage. That wife and husband will move through the seasons of life. Changes will come. Maybe children will be a part of their lives. They will be changing diapers, teaching a child to ride a bike, and perhaps one day standing with their own child in a sanctuary where they are the parents of the bride.
How easy it is to say, "I do." What a challenge it is to live the implications of that covenant in the changing currents of our lives. All important commitments seem to have a day to day aspect to them. One day we say "yes" to the God seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We spend the rest of our days learning and trying to follow the implications of that covenant.
That is probably the reason Joshua kept on preaching even after the people had said yes to his sermon. Joshua would not take "yes" for an answer. He kept insisting his listeners understand Yahweh was a holy and jealous God who demanded absolute allegiance. Joshua understood a simple "I do" one time to this kind of God was never enough. A covenant with Yahweh was life changing, and it meant every day was to be different and the people were to be different for every day.
Unlike Harvey Cox, I have never jumped out of an airplane. In fact, I have no desire to jump out of an airplane. If I did, however, you can believe I would be listening to every word of the instructions. When I was twelve years old, I did take a leap of faith. "I believe in Jesus," I told my pastor. Some days I don't think much about it. I take God for granted. However, when I read again the words of Joshua, I am astounded. Whether I understand it or not, I took a big leap, and life will never be the same again.
i. For background material I have relied heavily on Trent C. Butler, Joshua, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 7 (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1983), and Richard D. Nelson, Joshua, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).