It comes at the end of the book of Joshua, which is a challenging book in all sorts of ways. But for our purposes right now, all you need to know is that Joshua is the great leader of God’s people in his generation, that the people follow Joshua faithfully throughout his lifetime, and that God rewards the people’s faithfulness by settling them in the Promised Land.
As Joshua comes to the end of his long and very successful life, we might expect him to call his people together for a celebration of all the great things they have accomplished, all the great things God has done for them. That is not what we get.
Instead, Joshua challenges his people. Joshua says, “choose this day whom you will serve,” which god you will serve.
That is surprising. Joshua knows there is only one true God. The people have been serving God for a generation.
But in a way it makes sense. Joshua wants his people to renew their commitment to God while he is still alive so that they will remain loyal to God after his death.
Joshua continues, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” The people respond as we would hope. “We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
This is where it gets strange. Joshua seemingly tries to dissuade them from committing to God. Joshua warns them, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God.”
Joshua tells the people not to commit casually. Joshua says, if you make this commitment, you are committed. If you promise to serve God, God will hold you accountable to a way of life that reflects your commitment, to a way of life that is truly faithful to your God.
I picture the people hesitating, but they are still in. “No,” they say, “we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua keeps pushing. “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” The people accept that.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the people had said, “Gosh, you’re right. That is a big commitment. I think we’ll stick with the gods of the Amorites after all. Those gods don’t ask quite so much of us.”
If that had happened, I imagine God coming to Joshua. I imagine God saying, “Joshua! What were you thinking? They were supposed to agree! You pushed them too hard!” Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
But we should ask ourselves the obvious question. Why does Joshua discourage the people from committing their lives to God?
I want my children and my friends and everybody to know and love God. I sometimes tell them how great God is, how wonderful a relationship with God can be.
Joshua is tougher than that. Joshua invites people to choose, but Joshua is clear that choices have consequences. Sometimes I worry that I am not being fully honest about what life with God means.
I think about weddings I used to attend when I worked at a college in Georgia. At the rehearsal dinner party the night before, friends of the young couple would toast them. And as often as not, they would say things like, “You are perfect for each other. Your life together is going to be fabulous!”
And all the couples who have been married for more than about two weeks look at each other and think these people have no clue. These young people know nothing about actual married life. This sweet young couple has no idea what they are getting into. The married people in attendance all think that because everyone who has been married for more than about two weeks knows that marriage is hard sometimes.
We promise to stay together “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” until we die. I said all those words at my wedding, but I didn’t mean them, at least not the worse, poorer, sick part.
Every wedding needs a Joshua, somebody to say, “What a minute! Think about what you are doing. You are making a BIG commitment. Marriage may be great a lot of the time, but the commitment you are making will not always be easy to keep. And once you are committed, you are committed to living it every day.”
That is what Joshua is saying to his people about their relationship with God. Committing to God is a big deal. When you choose God, you are choosing a way of life that will not always be easy.
Sometimes, our relationship with God is great. We feel God’s presence and God’s love and God’s support. We know that God is with us, forgiving us, empowering us, helping us to be the people God calls us to be. We call those high points in our life with God “mountaintop experiences.” During our mountaintop experiences, life with God is easy.
Other times, our relationship with God can seem impossibly hard. We wonder where God is. We wonder how God could let terrible things happen. The Christian saints calls those times “dark nights of the soul.” During our dark nights, the best we can hope for is to keep going, knowing that God is with us somehow, even if we can’t feel God’s love and support.
But in my life, most of the time, I am not on the mountaintop, and I am not stuck in a dark night. I think that is true for most of us.
One lesson from Joshua is that we should not forget God during the ordinary times. However we feel in any particular moment, we have made a commitment to serve God. We have made a commitment to walk in the way of Jesus Christ.
At this time of year, we call that commitment “stewardship.” As others have said before me, stewardship is everything that comes after we say, “I believe.” Stewardship is everything that comes after we say, “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” Stewardship means living the Christian life out of love and faithfulness to Jesus Christ every day.
One part of the life of stewardship is how we use our money. Over the course of the next week, you will receive a letter from me asking each of you to consider making a financial pledge to Saint David’s for 2018. I hope you will take that invitation seriously.
But stewardship means a lot more than money. Stewardship means serving God as best we can every day. Stewardship means listening for God’s call, doing God’s work, spending time with God in prayer, being faithful in our ordinary and extraordinary obligations every day as best we can.
What Joshua doesn’t say in our Old Testament reading but what we know from lots of passages in Scripture is that this is good news. Serving God is challenging at times. But when we give up our lives to God, when we enter into relationship with Jesus Christ, when we allow ourselves to be guided by God’s will, then and only then can we find true joy and true peace and true life. Only by serving God, every day, can we find our own truest identity as God’s beloved children in Jesus Christ.
And so I pray that we, too, can say, “we will serve the Lord, for he is our God,” knowing just how big a commitment that is. And I give thanks for the gift of serving the God we know in Jesus Christ. Amen.