I grew up with this text, or rather, a portion of it. Both my parents and my Grandparents have a plaque prominently displayed in their respective houses that read “The Taber House, Choose this day whom you will serve...But as for me and my house, we shall serve the LORD.” My presence with you today is a testament to how my family has adopted this almost defiant challenge as a motto. So when I read those lines in this text, I immediately connected it to my rich family history, and all the things that have happened with my ancestors to bring me to the point in my life when I am actively pursuing God as a vocation.
This text starts with the same reminder for the people of Israel, and Joshua makes sure everybody is there to hear it. One could imagine the scene, everybody gathers together, closes up their shops, ties up their animals, puts down whatever they’re doing, and goes to listen to Joshua deliver the word of God. Then Joshua calls up all the community leaders, for us it would be the teachers, the lawyers, the doctors, and they get to sit in the hot seat, or as our passage puts it, “They presented themselves before God.”
In my Theology class, we all sit in a circle to discuss the readings for that week, and everybody races to get to class early, so that we don’t have to sit next to the professor, and when somebody does have to sit next to Dr. Stroup, we all glance knowingly back and forth as if we know that they’re going to get the brunt of his questions. We avoid it because we’re worried we won’t measure up to his judgement. He’s an imposing presence, but being at his side is nothing near presenting yourself before God. The elders of Israel are about hear the word of the LORD, and they get to sit right under God’s nose while it is spoken.
This word could have been a new code of laws to replace the ones they received in the desert. But it wasn’t. It could have been a declaration of who would replace Joshua, who dies after these events, just as Joshua replaced Moses. But it wasn’t. It could have been an announcement about where the people would go to expand their new promised land next. But it wasn’t.
Instead they got a History Lesson from author of all creation. “In olden times, your forefathers...lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods.” But God intervened, and brought Abraham out of Ur and into Canaan. Abraham was childless, but God intervened. “I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau.” Jacob, the same man who would wrestle with God, father the beginnings of the twelve tribes of Israel, and in chapter 35 of Genesis tells his household to put away their foreign gods in the same city where all of Israel is now gathered. The same man who would lead his family to Egypt, where they survived a great famine, and eventually became slaves.
But God intervened, and brought the people out of their slavery in Egypt, into the wilderness where they became a nation, instead of a slave population. And many battles later, God reminds the people standing in the land given to their ancestor Abraham hundreds of Godly interventions before that “I have given you a land for which you did not labor and towns which you did not build, and you have settled in them; you are enjoying vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.”
God has given the people these things, they did not earn them. It is not a matter of deserving, it is a matter of God giving freely as God so chooses. Joshua tells the people, as Jacob had long ago, to put away the gods of their forefathers beyond the Euphrates, and the gods of Egypt, and to serve the LORD.
Interestingly though, this is an option, not a command. Joshua says “If you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose whom you will serve,” the gods of your forefathers or of the people in whose land you are settled. If God has not intervened in our lives and in our history enough for you, go ahead and worship the gods of other nations, and remember that this was their land first, and that the LORD gave it to us. There’s no downside offered here, only an account of what God has done and a charge to choose to whom we will devote ourselves.
The people speak in one voice: “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD and serve other gods!...We too will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” There is no mention of what God will do in the future for the Israelites. As far as this passage is concerned, the promise has been fulfilled. God has intervened in their history and freed them from slavery, and the people are now committed to serving the LORD despite Joshua’s warnings that they will fall and be punished because they cannot live up to the gifts God has given them.
So why bother? Joshua gives them the out, they won’t be expelled if they choose not to serve the LORD. They aren’t promised eternal life for serving God, or even extra “stars in their crown.” So far as I can see, there’s no advantage in choosing to serve God, the only threat I see is when one falls off the wagon after claiming to serve God and making a new golden calf out of their new valuables. “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness” is an invitation to enter into relationship with God, an ordination of service in gratitude to God who has already done so much for the people of Israel.
I remember when I was in high school, I was sitting on the front lawn of the school waiting for my parents to come pick me up at the end of the day, and one of my classmates, a very intelligent young woman taking upper-level classes, asked me why I was a Christian. She saw me as an equal who believed in something that did not make sense to her, and wanted to know how I got there. The same question was later posed as the subject of a Bible Study when I was in college. The professor leading the discussion answered his own question with a claim that there is no advantage in being a Christian. It doesn’t make life’s hardships go away, or even less hard. There’s no magic prayer that will fix any of us. Those of us in the Calvinist tradition say that our salvation is not at stake based on anything we do or believe. Why bother then?
This passage provides the answer for me. The people speak with one voice saying “It was the LORD who brought us and our fathers and mothers up from...the house of bondage, and who wrought those wondrous signs before our very eyes.” We are Christians not because it gives us a special connection with God. We are Christians because serving our Christ how we show our gratitude for all God has already done for us.
Our slavery was to sin and death, and had been since the fall of Adam and Eve. But as Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us “The free gift of Christ isn’t like Adam’s failure. If many people died through what one person did wrong, God’s grace is multiplied even more for many people with the gift - of the one person Jesus Christ - that comes through grace.” We were slaves to sin, but now we have been brought out of the house of that bondage, and Christ is our liberator. And we remember that our salvation is not earned, our salvation is created by the same one who created all that is, and is given to us by a God of love.
That is why we choose to serve Christ. We were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. We are freed from sin’s power because we belong to God, and in gratitude to God for all God has done for us, “We will serve none but the LORD our God, and we will obey none but him.”
The people of Israel are gathered at Shechem, and are waiting to hear the word of the LORD. We do not know what is ahead, but we know what God has already done for us, God brought our forefathers to the promised land, turned an old man into the father of a tribe, protected our tribe from a famine, brought our people out of Egypt and made us a nation. God gave the nation of Israel a home, and they chose to serve the LORD.
It is a scene of devotion. The people of Israel don’t know what is coming, but we do know what happened next. Although they are free from their Egyptian slavery, they are still under the power of sin and death. So God intervenes, and Christ breaks the power of sin and death over all of us. We’ve seen more than these Israelites could have dreamed of, and the question is still put to us, Whom will you serve? As a response in faith to all God has done for us, me and my house shall serve the Lord.