Scripture Readings: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1–7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 | Matthew 25:1–13
“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.”
This week I was reminded of a film from my childhood: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Alongside the late Sean Connery, who died just last Saturday, the film stars Harrison Ford as an adventuring archeologist, racing to find the Holy Grail before the bad guys do. The Grail was a cup supposedly endowed with magical properties… giving perpetual life to all who drink from it. At the end of the film, both the hero and villain find out where the precious Grail is hidden, but instead of just one cup they find all sorts of them. In order to discover the true Holy Grail, they must choose one of them and drink from it. But of course, the stakes are high: they are warned: “You must choose, but choose wisely. For as the true grail will bring you life, a false grail will take it from you.” The villain chooses poorly, and suffers a horrible death. The hero chooses wisely. He makes the right choice, and then he acts… he does something in line with that choice, /and so brings life to his dying father.
Aside from being an entertaining and fun adventure story, this film can help to highlight the importance of the choices we make in life: asking us to reflect on where our devotion and loyalties truly lie. As we all know, choices can change us… and can even change the world.
This week, like many, I found myself eagerly waiting to hear about the results of the choice the American people had made about their next President. After days of dragged out vote counting, their choice became clear yesterday. But as many are quick to point out, now that they’ve finally made their choice there is much for the American people to do. For their choice to really matter, they have to actually live in line with that choice. To put into practice their communal commitment.
In our Old Testament reading this morning from the book of Joshua, we heard another nation making a choice about the one they would follow… about the one they would trust and serve, and devote themselves to. This passage takes place at the end of the book of Joshua, which tells of Israel’s story as they entered the Promised Land. Their years of wandering the wilderness were finally at an end, and after Moses’ death, the LORD chooses Joshua, Moses’ assistant, to lead His people onward. In Joshua Chapter 1, God says this to Joshua: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:5-7). God intended to lead His chosen people to their new home through Joshua… but to do that, Joshua would need courage, and complete devotion to God and His ways. They would be facing fierce opposition, and what looked like impossible odds a times, but the way forward was the way of faith: trusting that their Saviour was with them.
As the book of Joshua unfolds, Israel has it’s share of ups and downs: miraculous victories when they were careful to keep to the LORD’s instructions… and humiliating failures whenever they went their own way. Despite these ups and downs, the LORD was true to His people, and they end up in the land, relatively safe and secure. But near the end of the book, as an aged Joshua prepares to die, he does not seem convinced that Israel will stay true to the LORD. And so, we heard today, Joshua calls for their re-commitment: to reaffirm their devotion to the Living God.
At Mt. Sinai, Israel had vowed to belong to the LORD, entering a covenant relationship, much like a marriage. Here at Shechem, Joshua was challenging Israel renew their vows, or forsake them. To make a definitive choice to be God’s faithful people, or not. “Now therefore revere the Lord,” Joshua says to the people, “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. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15). He lays out for the people a choice with consequences: choose the LORD, and then live in line with that choice.
The people, for their part, seem to choose wisely. “Far be it from us” they said, “that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods.” And then they go on to recount all the LORD had done for them and their ancestors. “Therefore” they finally reply, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” Sounds like they made the right choice… but Joshua doesn’t buy it.
Why? Because he knows the LORD is holy, and he knows his people are not. Joshua has seen his people repeatedly turn their backs on God, from Egypt, to Mt. Sinai, and all the way to the Promised Land. He has seen them break their word to the LORD, again and again. Yes, they say the right words, they make this right choice, but for their choice to truly make a difference, they actually have to keep living in line with that choice. To put into practice their communal commitment… to be God’s faithful people. To be changed by their choice. The stakes are high for Israel. Everything is on the line.
But the people insist, and swear to serve the Living God alone. They double-down on their choice: “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” (Joshua 24:24). But sadly, we know story of Israel plays out as Joshua predicted. Despite all their promises, not long after their leader Joshua dies, the people abandon their covenant, and turn from the ways of God. Repeatedly choosing the cup of death, instead of the life the LORD offered them. Though there are moments and times of renewal, this pattern of betrayal continues throughout the centuries: through the time of the Judges, through the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, leading to God’s chosen people being carried away into exile, then after long years of hardship humbly returning to the Promised Land… no longer living in freedom, but under the rule of powerful, foreign empires.
The whole story of Israel in the Old Testament confronts all of us who would claim to love and serve the Living God, to reflect on our own choices: on where our devotion and loyalties truly lie. To not assume that words alone are what the LORD wants from us: He wants our hearts in line with Him… our lives to reflect His holy love. As Christ’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins reveals: It’s not enough to simply have a lamp, there must be fuel and fire too if there is to be any hope of shedding light. Jesus was confronting those people in His day who assumed they were being faithful to the LORD, but who were really turning away from Him, and were rejecting His Chosen One. Those who, despite outwardly seeming to make all the right choices, foolishly did not keep the flame of devotion to God alight in their hearts… and whose lives reflected religious practice empty of God’s holy love. And just as easily, we can fall into that very same trap: assuming that God is on our side, while choosing to walk away from Him. We can have a beautiful building, a perfectly practiced liturgy, and rich spiritual traditions, and still not know the LORD. We could have made the right choice to follow God some time ago, but if our life today is not backing up that choice, we too can expect to find some trouble ahead of our own choosing.
So where in this is the Good News for us today?
Well, I suppose warnings are a part of the good news as well. Being reminded that the stakes are high; that there is a true path for us to be following… a life-giving way ahead is not a bad thing at all. Christ’s warnings to “keep awake!” surely come from His heart of compassion, longing to stir up in us deep faith, and hope, and devotion.
All this is true, but the Good News is more than what we ourselves can do. It’s what the Living God has done for us in Jesus Christ! That is, God’s choice to be, not only our Leader, but our Saviour. God’s choice to shed His own blood once and for all at the cross, to reconcile His rebellious world, and bind us to Himself. Forgiving all our failures, as a gift of gracious love. Drinking the cup of death for us that we might taste eternal life.
Despite Israel’s pattern of unfaithfulness, Joshua had chosen with his household to serve the LORD. Like an even greater Joshua, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, chose to humbly take on our frail human life, and in our place He remained unerringly true to His Father, never once turning to the right or to the left from the will of the LORD. In His life and death, and resurrection, never to die again, Christ offers to all who trust in Him a place in God’s own household… joined to God’s own family in faith, as Christ shares His faithfulness with us, offering us His Holy Spirit to ignite our hearts with His holy love, empowering us to follow Him. To have our lives be shaped forever by His life-giving grace.
In Christ, the Living God has chosen graciously to come to the rescue of us, and of our world. He has chosen to pour out His saving, life-changing love on us. With the Holy Spirit’s aid, may we answer His call in faith, keeping alive the flame of devotion to the LORD, as we seek to follow Jesus in every choice we make: serving our faithful Saviour in all we say and do. Amen.