The following was preached as a sermon on Joshua at the Congregational Church in Exeter, Sunday, August 23, 2015.
Everyone has heard of Moses. He was the guy who talked to the Burning Bush. He told Pharaoh “let my people go”. He helped his people cross the Red Sea and went up on the top of the mountain and came down again with the Ten Commandments. As Biblical figures go, he’s a rock star.
But the guy you probably don’t know as much about, is the one who had the unenviable task of following him in the job. The one who had to assume command after Moses died just shy of the Promised Land. The one who had to lead the people as they figured out what it was to no longer be lost in the wilderness, but to be putting down roots.
His name was Joshua. And his job was to be the new Moses for a new time.
It’s not a job I would have wanted, but it’s one Joshua did well. He helped the people to secure their land and start a new community. And at the end of his life, he called the elders to him and said to them all the things you just heard in the Scripture reading. Including this:
24:14 “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.
24:15 Now 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.”
In other words, figure out what you are worshipping. Choose who or what you are going to serve. And if it is some thing other than God, then serve that. But if it is God, then serve God. No more divided loyalties. Make a choice. Commit.
When I was in seminary, my theology professor had us read centuries worth of church history and theologians. And he had one topic that he hammered home probably more than any others. He wanted us to read these heavy texts looking for what he called the “polemic against idolatry”.
I’ve talked before about how theologians sometimes use big words for relatively easy concepts. This is another example. Because all he was really talking about was how important it has been for Christians throughout the centuries to turn away from idols.
And even that word, idols, can be broken down. Because, what do you think of when you think of idols? You may well think of the statues of false gods that people worship in the Bible. Like the people who built the golden calf in the wilderness while Moses was up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments. They thought he wasn’t coming back, they lost faith, and in the void they melted all of their golden jewelry and created a god of their own. A gold cow. And they worshipped it!
It sounds ridiculous to us. None of us, I don’t think anyway, are dancing around golden calfs in our living rooms or backyards. We can look at those people in the wilderness and feel superior. Who would build a big gold cow and make it their substitute for God?
Except, as it turns out, the lesson of the golden calf didn’t take so long to be forgotten. Because by the next generation, by the time of Joshua’s leadership, the idols were back. They weren’t big golden calfs, but they were there. Some had even been brought from Egypt, where the people had lived for so long that they had begun to worship the gods of the Egyptians. And the people had begun to have divided loyalties between the God who had brought them to the promised land, and the gods they had gathered around them.
Those gods, often actual statues or physical objects, became the places where the people could put their faith. And their fears. Places where they could make meaning and work through their anxieties. And places where they would put energy and faith that was meant only for the one true God.
Another word for “idols” is very simple. It’s “distractions”. Because that’s what idols are; they are distractions from the God who loves us and who asks for us in body and soul.
When Joshua was dying he looked around at his people and he saw all the false gods they had brought with them from Egypt. All the idols and distractions that they were worshipping and serving, and he called his elders to him and he said: “Make a choice. Decide this day who you will serve. And if it’s the idols, then serve the idols. But if it’s God, then put away those distractions. Decide. But as for me, I will serve the Lord”
What Joshua is saying is to stop worshipping distractions. Stop worshipping what cannot and will not save you. Stop worshipping what is not God.
We hear that word “worship” and we might think about what we are doing right now, and what we do every Sunday morning for an hour of our week. But worship, it doesn’t have to be formal. In fact, in a real way we are worshiping during every hour of our lives. And what we worship can give us great life. But if we choose unwisely, it can also destroy us.
I don’t think Joshua called the people to him and told them to stop worshiping distractions because they were somehow just backing the wrong team. I think he warned them to make a choice because he knew an important truth. He knew that worshipping, and serving, false idols is not just pointless. It can actually hurt you.
I’ve talked before about being an English major. I think being an English major is more than just being someone who set out on a particular academic course. I think it’s choosing a way of life that involves trying to find the lessons of great literature. And so, I spend more than I should down at Water Street books. That’s okay. I consider it part of a continuing education, especially for a theologian.
Because in so many books I have found theology. And in so many I’ve found the lesson to be this: our false idols have the power to destroy us.
In Moby Dick Captain Ahab lives for finding and killing the giant whale that had injured him. And his obsession destroys not just him but others. In The Picture of Dorian Gray the protagonist so worships his own beauty, that it becomes his downfall. And in Harry Potter, Voldemort so fears death, that he kills multitudes to try to avoid it.
The false gods we worship, the distractions, the things we put our faith in other than God, they will not save us. They will more often than not aid us in our own destruction.
And yet, more often than not, we do it anyway. We find idols all around us. And we put our faith in them instead of in God, even when we don’t realize we are doing it.
I said a few moments ago that we worship not just one hour a week on Sunday mornings, but every hour of our lives. I believe that is true. No, we don’t sit in pews and offer up formal prayers to our distractions, but they are there none the less, and we do worship them.
We worship them by giving them our attention. Our time. Our money. Our hope. We let them shape our identity and define us. We let them give us meaning. And far too often, they leave us disappointed.
I tell parents especially that their children are keen observers of what their parents worship. They know what they give their attention to, and they are sharply aware of what is given priority in their parents lives. They know what their parents will drop everything for, and what gets done when there is time.
And I tell them this, that the greatest predictor of a child’s future faith, is their parents’ current faith. I don’t just mean church attendance there. I mean lived faith, in the home and in the pews. And if your children see worship as something you only do when you have the time, it will send them a powerful message about what gods you are asking them to serve.
That’s true for all of us. Each day, each hour, each minutes, we make the decision about what we will serve. Each minute we decide where we will put our faith, and our trust. Each minute we choose distractions, or we choose what really matters.
Rest assured, we will always do this imperfectly. But also know that with a little practice, the choices we make will become more automatic, more joyful, and more life-giving. And we just may find that in a real, every day way, they will save us.
And so, as you prepare this day to choose who you will serve, I will leave you once again with this caution: do not serve, do not love, what cannot love you back. And then make your choice. May we all be so bold to say, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. Amen.