In keeping with the idea of “All Saints”, we look today at the “famous last words” from our ancestor Joshua. Though not technically one of the three patriarchs, Joshua’s role is every bit as significant as theirs, and frankly, I think his last words are much better. Both Abraham and Isaac’s last words were about who their sons should marry. And Jacob’s last words were about the importance of being buried in the homeland.
Now, four hundred years after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have died, the people have left Egypt and head toward that Promised Land under the leadership of Moses.
But, then there is that whole golden calf episode, plus Moses hits the rock too many times, and, as a consequence, neither Moses nor any of that generation would be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Rather, it would be the young soldier Joshua who would lead the people into the land, be at the head of their many battles to secure the land, and emerge finally in this passage as the elder statesman.
Knowing that his death is near, he has called an assembly of all the heads of the twelve tribes in order to deliver his “last words.” At the heart of his final speech the patriarchs’ emphasis on marriage and homeland come together under the most important decision of all, much more important than who to marry or where to live; that is, which God to serve? Will it be the God of Israel, who brought them out of the land of Egypt and settled them into the land of promise? Or will it be the gods of their ancestors or the gods of their neighbors?
Joshua presses them to understand that this is an all-or-nothing choice. None of this nonsense about keeping little family idols tucked away in their closets for old times’ sake. His warning could not be clearer: If you make a choice for God, you had better leave aside all this other foolishness.
The underlying message to the people was that simply residing in the Promised Land did not make them part of the covenant, any more than sitting in a pew makes us Christians or dressing up like bridesmaids gets us into a wedding. He was a leader who knew the influence he had over his people and the compelling urgency to use it wisely. For how could he face God after his own death if he failed as a leader to use his influence to make it clear that the covenant is an invitation that each generation must either accept or reject. God has no grandchildren, only children.
For his part, Joshua leads by example, making it clear that, after all God has done for them, if choosing to serve God makes sense to them then choose. But as for him and those in his household, the choice is clear.
Last Sunday we witnessed—and promised to support—three sets of parents who were making a kind of Joshua-choice for their households by electing to raise their children in the Christian faith. One day, God willing, these three infants will stand as young adults and confirm on their own behalf the same vows that their parents and godparents have taken for them, that is, they will choose God.
Whether we are making a choice about how we will raise our children or whether we are making an individual decision for Christ, it’s important to know what is at stake.
First, what IS behind Joshua’s charge? It seems that it is based on a review of God’s presence in their lives, even at times when they imagined they were all alone in the fight. This review doesn’t rest only on our experience but can come from stories of God at work in the lives of others whose testimony we know is trustworthy. Choosing God means that our hesitation about which way to go is gone. This is NOT the same thing as having every question answered.
Rather, it means that we are making a choice to follow a guide whose patterns are known to us, allowing us to trust that where God guides, God provides.
It is clear that Joshua’s choice comes out of a deep, calm, well-grounded determination to align his ambitions with God’s call to matter in the world, not just now, but to those who will come after him. Joshua speaks as a father to those in his care out of his immovable resolve: His soul is anchored and defies all storms: “Despite crowds and customs, we will, despite temptations and trials, we will, despite idols or devils, we will serve the one God.”(C. S. Spurgeon)
Second, what is GOOD about the decision Joshua asks them to make? Deciding for God opens us up to the possibility of understanding many of life’s mysteries, like why we love our pets, while still enjoying the unexplainable, like why our pets love us back. Deciding for God eliminates a whole lot of bad karma and cleaning up after our own messes. “As a giant walks along unconscious of the cobwebs across his path, so does a thoroughly consecrated person break through a thousand temptations, which indeed are no longer temptations at all.” It doesn’t mean there won’t be any temptations or that from time to time we won’t fail.
But it does mean that we have a moral compass with a “true north” pulling our hearts, minds, and energies into the creator and sustainer of the world rather than into empty idols that tease us without ever satisfying us.
Many of us have the gift of growing up, as the three babies from last week will grow up, never knowing a day when they did not know God. Affirming their parents’ choices on their own one day may be the most natural choice they will ever make. But some of us may have come to all this late in life and now find ourselves wondering whether we’re just dressing like a bridesmaid but haven’t got any oil in our lamps.
If this is your case, then Joshua’s invitation is to you: Make a choice today. It isn’t a matter of being good enough or wearing the right clothes or coming from the right family. It isn’t even a matter of whether you “understand” the Creed or what “happens” in Holy Communion.
It isn’t about answering questions on a test at all, but a matter of saying yes to the offer to be adopted by God, and grafted into the true vine. It is saying yes to a God whose love for you has nothing to do with anything you’ve done or not done; who believes that you matter; and, who will never give up on you until you also see yourself as a beloved child of God and an heir to the kingdom! It’s about saying yes to love that never ends, even in the face of death. Never means never.
If you have questions about making that choice, please come see Stuart or me and let’s talk. It’s the most important conversation we will ever have, and we will always make time for it. Hopefully, saying ‘yes’ to God won’t be your last word, but it will be your most important.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
November 9, 2014