From Beyond the River

Joshua 24:1-28

God comes to Abram with no apparent reason, makes a promise that God will bring forth from Abram a great nation which will be blessed so that they can be a blessing to all the world. So without any recorded hesitation, Abram goes, as God told him, to the land which God will show to him. When he enters into the land of Canaan, he stops at Shechem, It is at this point that God promised to give all of this land to Abram’s descendants. Abram then builds an altar to God, a monument, marking this as a holy place, a place of worship, a sanctuary.

We find ourselves many generations later and at the same place, at the edge of the promised land, at the time known as the land of Canaan. This is a generation after the people had been liberated from Egypt.

When they were enslaved in Egypt, they were mistreated and they cried out and God listened and saw and called Moses to the task of serving as God’s envoy. Many signs were performed and Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew people, but shortly thereafter Pharaoh regretted this decision and he and his army pursued the ancient Israelites, who found themselves trapped between an advancing army and a sea. God reached out God’s hands and held back the waters so that God’s rag-tag group of people could cross to freedom.

Almost immediately, the people began grumbling, after all, they needed food, certainly a legitimate need and complaint. So each morning, God gave them food, enough for each day, but not only this, but God gave meat to them to eat in the evening. But not long after this, the people needed water, which is also a legitimate complaint. God told Moses to strike his staff upon a rock, and then water came forth.

God dwelt amongst them in the tabernacle so that wherever the people went, God journeyed with them.

The people get to the brink of the promised land, and they send a few spies to see the condition of the land, the people who lived there, the conditions of their cities, and anything else they could find. After forty days, the spies return and speak to the beauty and fertility of the land. They also said that the people were strong and the cities were well fortified. The people again began to complain and long for slavery in Egypt, continuing to suffer from the disease of nostalgia.

Throughout their time, thus far, they would often speak of how they wished they were in Egypt, forgetting that the good ol’ days were not all that great. But this time was different. They actually began to make work of returning to Egypt, and the selected captains and organized themselves into companies to go back. While they were packing up, God became angry, after all, God had freed God’s people, led them through the wilderness, fed them, gave them water, brought them to the edge of the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham, and after all this they begin to make work of returning to slavery in Egypt. God determines that not a single person that walked out of Egypt, not a single one, except Caleb, would see the promised land. God would not kill them, after all, God is merciful, but God would continue to teach them trust and faith in the classroom of the wilderness.

***

So here we stand, Moses has finally died, and the people have crossed the Jordan River and have taken hold of the land.

After the ancients entered the land, after the tribes have been given their portions of the land, after God had given rest to both the Israelites and the Canaanites, “a long time after” as scripture reads, Joshua is old and near death, and he gathers everyone, all the Israelites at Shechem. The place where Abram was promised the land, the place where Abram built an altar, the sanctuary that Abram built.

The significance of this place would not have been lost on all the ancient people. they did not, as of yet, have a book, but they did have stories, and these stories about God and God’s people were told over and over again. The assembly would have recognized this place, where the aged Joshua called them to gather for his farewell address.

So Joshua speaks to them and begins at the beginning. “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.”

Gods of a place, gods of prosperity, gods of fertility, gods of good health and fortune. These other gods were bound up with their identity and it was understood that to be a good citizen meant serving these other gods. Here the people are reminded that Abram was no different than all the others. Abram wasn’t particularly special in his faith and practice, Abram did not come to faith in this one God on his own, no, Abram lived far off beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. But God took him “from beyond the river.”

The people are reminded again, they are told, again, this “old, old story” of what happened. The people are reminded them of God’s great deeds to them throughout the journey throughout the wilderness. God speaks to them, “I took, I gave, I sent, I plagued, I did, i brought, I brought, I handed, I destroyed, I rescued, I handed, I send, I gave…” Here the people are reminded of the things that God had done for them. In light of all this, the people are called to fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The people could not be confused here, because Joshua does not speak of god in general, but rather, the specific God. Anytime you see the word “LORD” in caps or small caps, this is the divine name. God’s specific name. My name is Matthew, God’s name is often referred to as the tetragrammaton, the four letters, four letters which we translate into English as YHWH. It is not printed because of the long tradition that the average person is not fit to pronounce God’s name, we are not on a first name basis with God. So here, it is very clear that when Joshua tells them to serve the LORD, it is not to be confused exactly which god of which he was speaking, it was this particular one.

And so here, at Shechem, we have come full circle, the promise to Abram so long ago has been fulfilled. And so all the people stand, with the Euphrates behind them, the Promised Land ahead of them, standing at Shechem. The people stand, their past behind them, their future ahead of them, standing in the present, at the place, symbolically showing the promise to be fulfilled. Where once a man stood in a foreign land, now a nation stands in a land which is now theirs.

And Joshua says to the people, in the words of Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It is important that Joshua invites them to look over their shoulder at their past, look ahead to the future, and to remain in the present. Joshua is calling them to account, right now, they will have to determine whom they will serve, because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

But, Joshua tells them, if you will not serve the LORD, choose whom you will serve, because you have to serve somebody.

If you will not serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then serve the gods of your ancestors behind you, before the LORD took your ancestor from beyond the river. Or, serve the ancestral gods of their new home.

You have you choose who to serve, Joshua told them, the gods whence you came, or the gods here. Because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I, I am committed to the LORD.

But yet this is not even the climax of the story, the high point comes when the people proclaimed that they, too, will serve the LORD.

***

This is a riveting story, a story which is in our past, but is also a story in which we find ourselves. The Bible is not just a story, but it is the story in which we find ourselves.

So Joshua not only called the ancients to gather at Shechem, but also calls to us.

We gather and we, too, are told, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We don’t have named gods from across the river or from a place, in the same way. But we have things that serve that function. We, too, have various gods which we sometimes serve. Maybe it will be the nation, or maybe it will be money or ourselves. We have to serve somebody, and we, too, are called to make a commitment to whom we will serve, will we go back across the river? Will we adopt the gods of the place? Will we serve the gods that promise health, wealth, prosperity, safety, security?

We can adopt the gods where we find ourselves, gods which we can see, gods which are supposed to bring us good things, or we can serve the God who called us, chose us, and journeyed with us through the good times and the difficult times.

***

As we stand in the present between the future and the past, Joshua calls to us to choose whom we will serve. This isn’t about in whom to believe, this is not about whom to accept into one’s heart, this is not about some kind of personal savior. Joshua asks them whom they will serve. To whom or what will you dedicate your effort and energy? To whom or what will you make sacrifices? On what hill will you die?

So Joshua comes to us and asks us not to accept Jesus into our heart as our personal savior. This is not a biblical way to understand it. Instead Joshua asks us whom we will serve. Will it be the gods from across the river, or the gods from this place, or the God who has fulfilled God’s promise, the God who has nurtured us and journeyed with us.

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody”, so let us serve the God who brought us from across the river, from our former life. Let us serve the God who brought us from beyond the river.  Let us serve this God not just with our hearts, but with our minds and our actions, and our lives.

You can only serve one master, as Jesus reminded us. and “you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” so we must ask ourselves, whom will we serve? This is not just a question that comes once, but many times. Many situations come to us and we are given this opportunity. We cannot give lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then serve these other gods with our actions. We cannot simply get carried off in emotion and make inconsiderate promises. Will we choose the nation, or money, or our house or possessions, ourselves or the Packers?

Or will we serve the God who guides us and tabernacles among us?

We may not see the fulfillment of these promises in our incredibly short individual memory, or even with our lifetimes, but this is why, again and again, we tell this story of what God has done in the past, because it is only through the telling of this story we can remember that God had brought us from beyond the river.

 

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