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July 22, 2015, 8:25 AM

Choose This Day...

Joshua 24:14-15 (and the entire Book of Joshua)
14 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
“Choose This Day…”
Every year clergy and elected lay representatives for all the churches in an annual conference, a geographical region overseen by a bishop, gather in one place for a three to four day session called, confusingly, an annual conference. During that time together, the people called United Methodist worship, study scripture, learn, vote on business, and come together in fellowship. One of the highlights, at least for me, is the ordaining of new clergy. It is a time when I not only celebrate this huge step in the life and ministry of my colleagues, but it is a chance to remember that moment in my life; what I vowed, what I am called to do. Even this year, when I couldn’t physically attend due to medical leave, I was there for those ordination moments via live streaming on the conference website.
At some moment during the conference gathering, prior to the ordination service, those being ordained are called forward before the entire gathered conference body to answer our founder, John Wesley’s historic questions: Have you faith in Christ? Are you going on to perfection? Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and God’s work? There are 19 questions in all. These are the vows of ordination. It is a holy and important moment. Each answer contains God. “Are you going on to perfection? Yes, by God’s grace. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and God’s work? With God’s help, I am. In that moment each soon-to-be ordained individual confesses as they answer that it is only by the power and presence of God that these sacred vows may be upheld in any way.
John Wesley and Joshua have a bit in common. Both of them are adamant that the people of God make a serious and life-altering commitment, and are willing to drive this point home. This is the portion of the Book of Joshua we can handle. Joshua’s overseeing of this promise-making is a little rough, but he wants the people to understand the seriousness of this moment. “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” It is probably the only passage we know reasonably well from this often neglected book. This, and the battle of Jericho…and the walls came atumblin’ down. But Jericho takes us into the first half of the book which we would rather not dwell on—conquest and warfare, the wiping out of a people to take their land. Those portions of Joshua seem so far removed from the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Can’t we just forget about Joshua and take up the call to commitment from other portions of the Hebrew Scriptures—like the ones Jesus quotes in today’s gospel reading about loving God and neighbor?
No, we can’t.
It is the Book of Joshua that narrates the creation of the nation of Israel and brings the promise to Abraham closer to fulfillment. It is in Joshua that the rag-tag wanderers settle into the 12 tribes of Israel, establish their relationship with God, land, and one another. It is the people established in this book that lead to King David and down, through the generations, to Jesus. Instead of trying to dodge Joshua, or skim over it, or ignore it, we need to grab it with both hands and really try to see it and wrestle with it.
The core message of the Book of Joshua is—it has always been God! Everything from the call to Abraham, to the naming of Israel, to the deliverance from Egypt, to the journey through the wilderness…all God, always! Everything the people have is because of God, not because of anything they did, and so they must make God their everything. All God! It is easy to fall into the trap of reading Joshua as a history of the settlement in Canaan, however the book is being written as theology, a proclamation about God and God’s people, and a call to commitment. Read historically, we soon see all the contradictions. The book is not chronological, nor it doesn’t desire to be. It is not trying to be factual, it is trying to be proclamation.
The Book of Joshua is being put into a written form hundreds of years after the people of God settle in Canaan. The tribes of Israel are a small people surrounded by much bigger nations, with loud and vibrant cultures. These cultures have larger-than-life stories, legends and myths—fantastic tales about warriors and kings, gods and goddesses. The neighboring nations’ royalty encourage elaborate narratives of their battle prowess and power, stories of magic and might to ensure their rule. These stories are part of the nations’ identities, part of what forms them into a country and unites them. The people of Israel constantly struggle with temptation to believe these stories, to make them part of their identity, and to drift away from the covenant established with God.
And so, wise teachers take these foreign stories that are so appealing and use that style and metaphor to show the difference between the neighbor’s culture and Israel’s culture. In these fantastic narratives of battle—Jericho’s walls tumbling, the sun standing still, the fall of the city of Ai—it isn’t some king who saves the day. No supernatural warrior rides to the rescue. It is God, present with them, bigger than any king or ruler. God is at the center of their identity, and is the author of their lives. This doesn’t mean we, in the 21st century, are any more comfortable with war and violence. We are fortunate to live in a culture that isn’t ruled by violence, warfare and conquest on a day-to-day basis. However, we see the headlines where, even today, that is not the case. And for ancient Israel, warfare and violence were a real presence in their lives. The battle stories of Joshua are told to a people leaning away from God, drawn by fantastic tales, as a way of refocusing them on God, even as they serve as a reminder of the struggle their ancestors went through to be the nation Israel. These are stories on which to build the identity of a people—Yes, our neighbors have cool stories…but we have an awesome God!
The second half of the Book of Joshua moves away from the battle scenes and war stories, and begins to talk about land allotment. It is not exciting reading, with all those names and places. However, something amazing is happening. The beloved community is taking on shape and form. Every tribe is gifted with land, a precious commodity. Every family receives land as an inheritance, to be kept in the family for generation after generation. It is not reserved for the few and powerful, this is not Pharaoh’s Egypt. The land is for everyone. We know that in generations to come, Israel will often lose sight of this vision of all having enough, but here, in this moment, buried in the second half of Joshua, God plants the seeds of equality as a touchstone against which Israel’s future actions can be measured.
The book ends with the capstone moment in the last chapter of Joshua, “choose this day whom you will serve…” All of the Book of Joshua leads us to this moment, has proclaimed a way of life where God is always at the center. Israel does not rely on some king, does not worship a pantheon of bickering deities. Israel’s God is the one, true God, the steadfast God, the One who yearns for a strong and vibrant relationship with the people. Now, people! Choose this day whom you will serve! Choose God and live in relationship with the One who gifted us with everything we have. Yet Joshua cautions…this is not to be entered into lightly. This is a serious commitment, a whole life commitment. It is a marriage—there are expectations of committing your whole self, every moment of life, to this relationship. Here is the thesis of Joshua as covenant-- Everything we have is because of God, not because of us, are you willing to make God your everything, forever?
If we skip Joshua, we miss this radical call to whole-life commitment. Today we stand gathered in Shechem, by the oaks of Mamre where Abraham and  Sarah hosted God for a meal, where Jacob called his household to bury their foreign gods and give themselves to the almighty God—El Shaddai, Elohim, Jehovah…Yahweh. Joshua demands of us…choose this day whom you will serve. Everything we have is because of God, not because of us, are you willing to make God your everything?
Have you faith in Christ?
Are you going on to perfection?
Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?
Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?
Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
Choose this day whom you will serve…Thanks be to God! Amen.

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