1. Life’s Journey
For many people life is a bit of a struggle. It might be work related. It might have something to do with family relationships or long held friendships. It might be financial circumstances. Or it might be related to health concerns. But perhaps, more importantly, it might be about the struggle of faith—maintaining an appropriate relationship with God. Because being true to God, and fulfilling our part in our covenant with God, is the one thing that people struggle with the most.
2. The Israelites’ Journey
Now of course, there’s nothing new about that. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and even after they had arrived in the Promised Land, many years later they were still floundering in their relationship with God.
And with that in mind, we are faced today with a story of an event in the history of God’s people, which in many ways may be similar to the spiritual wanderings of our own. So, if we can see how they dealt with the issues then, then maybe we can get some clues for our own situations today.
But first a reminder about Joshua. Or should I say Hoshea (‘he saves’). Because when he is first introduced in the bible, despite how he is often portrayed, he was not a mere youth. Indeed, at the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt he would have to have been in his thirties.
Before the people arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses had charged him to select and lead an armed group to fight the attacking Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16). He was Moses’s assistant on Mount Sinai. And after their twelve months stay by the mountain, he was one of the tribal leaders who was sent to spy out the land of Canaan (Numbers 14:22-24). All suggesting, that in the first couple of years of the Exodus, he was already a mature and respected leader amongst his tribe.
As a consequence, some thirty-eight years later, when he was being commissioned to take over the leadership of the Israelites—and it may well have been at this time that he was given the name, Joshua (‘YHWH saves’)—he would have been well into his seventies. And we know that he died at a hundred and ten years of age (Joshua 24:29).
Hoshea, or Joshua, as we should now call him, then, had been around for a long time. And he would have known very well what the people were like. He had witnessed it for himself. He had been there at all their grumblings, at all their desires to return to Egypt. He was there as they constantly rejected God and his ways, and turned to doing things their own way—with the various temptations they succumbed to on their journey.
Which is probably why, towards the end of his life he called them all together and challenged them to commit themselves once again to the covenant relationship with God.
C. THE COVENANT RENEWED AT SHECHEM
Today’s part of the story, then, comes at the end of a long journey for God’s people. The people had finished their wandering in the wilderness and reached the Jordan River. Moses had died, but not before appointing his servant, Joshua, to lead the people into their inheritance. They had then crossed the Jordan and settled in the Promised Land. Time had then passed. Indeed, twenty years or so, and yet the people were still struggling with their God given inheritance.
They needed direction, because they were still wandering in “spiritual” terms. And now Joshua, at the end of his life and ministry, gathered the people around him just one more time. Because as Joshua knew only too well, as soon as he was gone, there would be chaos.
And four significant things happened:
1. Reciting History (2b-13)
The first thing was that despite the trauma of the wilderness experience, Joshua reminded the people of all the positive things that had happened—all the positive aspects of their relationship with God. For Joshua, there was no need to dwell on the negative aspects of the past. Rather he wanted to remind the people of how God had led, and guided, and blessed the people every inch of the way. Even if they hadn’t always felt it at the time.
For example, he reminded them of how God had taken Abraham, and how he had blessed him into making him the father of a great nation (3). He reminded them of how he had taken Isaac and Jacob and blessed them too (4), making them both prosperous, and rescuing Jacob at a time of great drought. He reminded them of the fact that when things got difficult in Egypt, God provided Moses and Aaron (5-7) to be his instruments in rescuing the people from Egypt. And he reminded them of how God had dealt with their enemies on the long journey (8-10), and how he had brought them to the Promised Land (11-13).
2. Challenge and Acknowledgement (14-18)
And because of all the positive things God has done for his people, the second thing that happened was that Joshua challenged the people to put away whatever other gods or things they relied upon to give them strength, hope, and direction (14-15), and to follow only God. The people had not always been willing to follow God. They had looked to other things to give them strength. And so Joshua challenged the people to follow the one true God—the one who had met their needs every step of the way on their journey. The one true God who was responsible for them arriving and settling in the Promised Land.
To which, the people responded to the challenge. They acknowledged what God had done (16-18). Indeed, they joined Joshua in stating their willingness to serve God.
3. Declaration of Allegiance (19-24)
The third thing that happened, is that Joshua challenged them a second time. He knew very well what they were like. He knew their history. He knew that they would commit themselves one minute, but only to go off and do something else. They were fickle, and Joshua knew that they needed to be really challenged about how genuine they were in the faith.
And in response, the people not only followed Joshua’s example in publicly stating they would serve God, but they declared their allegiance to God, and God alone (21). Indeed, they stated that they would put away all the other gods they had accumulated, either in Egypt or along the way (23).
At which point, Joshua publicly recommitted himself to God and his mission. And the people responded likewise (24).
4. A Symbol of the Covenant (25-27)
And the fourth thing that happened, was that Joshua considered the events of that day so important, that he recorded them in writing. He wrote down everything they had agreed to—including how they were going to exercise their faith (25-26a). He then set up a memorial—a stone (26b-27) to remind all who had been there that day—and any who should come along later—of the commitment the people had made that day.
Now it must have been a very powerful meeting. Joshua, having gathered the people together reminded them of the faithfulness of God, and challenged them to return to the God of the covenant. And, as a consequence, he got them to refocus on what was important—a relationship with God.
Now you could say, ‘That’s all very well. But what has the experience of Joshua and the Israelites got to do with us?’ Well I’m going to suggest four things:
1. Reciting History
Firstly, at the end of the wilderness experience, after the people had had an opportunity to settle in the Promised Land, Joshua reminded the people of the positive aspects of their journey with God.
Similarly, for us in our wilderness experiences, we would do well to remind ourselves of God’s leadership and guidance over the years. To recall the positive aspects of our faith—how God has helped us and blessed us on our journeys.
Of course, things may not always have happened in the way that we wanted, or in the time frame we may have wished, nevertheless we too should take great comfort and encouragement in our God, particularly regarding the times when he has blessed us and come to our rescue.
2. Challenge and Acknowledgement
Secondly, Joshua’s challenge to his people to put away other gods, is a reminder that we may need to put away other gods too. After all, we are not immune to being distracted from putting God first.
Indeed, apart from the other major faiths of the world, we have horoscopes and all the traps of the new age movement. In addition, our society puts great emphasis in using our own strengths and abilities to work out our own problems, let alone the problems of the world. Furthermore, the church today has become so entwined with the government and society to which we belong, that even the faithful find it hard to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.
And whilst we are called upon to do our own part in the world to which we belong, we need to pay heed to the reminder from Joshua: We are not to so depend on other gods or things or even our own abilities, that we cease to rely on God. We are still called to serve God and depend upon God alone.
3. Declaration of Allegiance
Thirdly Joshua’s declaration of allegiance to God, and the people’s response to do likewise, challenges us to make a stand in regard to our own faith.
Now in a sense we do that each time we meet for services—confirming our faith by reciting one or other of the creeds. But Joshua’s example reminds us of the seriousness and the importance of making a public affirmation of faith—not just saying something by rote. And it is probably for that reason that Joshua challenged them a second time.
Because we do need to stand up and be counted as true followers of the one true God and followers of him alone.
4. A Symbol of the Covenant
And fourthly, the example of Joshua, was that he put down in writing the things that had occurred, and the things that the people had promised to do. And he marked the occasion in a symbolic way with a stone. And that suggests, that from time to time we might find it helpful to record events and mark such occasions in a special way.
Of course these days we don’t seem to mark things with stones so much. And even the use of plaques seems to be diminishing. But that shouldn’t stop us from finding ways that are appropriate to provide visual reminders of our commitments to God—for ourselves and for the benefit of those who come after.
E. SEVEN IMPERATIVES
The story of Joshua gathering the people around him one last time, then, is a good example of an Old Testament story being just as relevant for us today as it was for the people at the time. Joshua and God’s people had gathered around to mark the conclusion of their physical wanderings, and to deal with the problem of their continued spiritual wanderings. It was intended to be a new start.
And, importantly, the emphasis in this story is not so much focussed on the past, but in preparing the people for the future. Which is probably why, Joshua used a number of imperatives. Imperatives which are just as important for us today.
1. Fear YHWH (14)
“Fear YHWH,” Joshua said.
Now these days the idea of God needing to be feared seems to have got lost, as though he is an all loving, almost cuddly God. And yet God isn’t someone to be played with, but someone to be held in awe. Our God is all powerful and all knowing, and we need to treat him with respect.
2. Serve him faithfully (14)
“Serve him faithfully,” Joshua continued.
God isn’t there simply for our convenience—there, on tap, when we want him, and at other times willing to turn a blind eye to all that is going on. He is there all the time and is interested in what we are doing. Consequently, we need to be faithful to him at all times.
3. Put away the gods your fathers worshipped (14)
“Put away the gods your fathers worshipped,” Joshua said.
There are things, images, even beliefs today that we have inherited which are not Christian, and which are unhelpful to us in our Christian journey. And one of the things that we have inherited is a kind of blending of Christianity with secular beliefs.
Indeed, over the centuries, the church has increasingly found itself entwined with governments and expectations of communities. So that even today it affects many of the practices of the church, including weddings, funerals, and how various institutions of the church are run.
Yet we are not supposed to replace or supplement our faith with other beliefs—even the ones that have been handed down through the generations. Indeed, we should allow nothing to get in the way between us and God.
4. Serve only YHWH (14)
“Serve only YHWH,” Joshua repeated.
We need to serve our God one hundred percent. There is no room for a half-hearted response or having any other gods.
5. Choose for yourselves today whom you will Serve (15)
“Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve,” Joshua challenged.
We have a choice. We can follow God, or we can go in a different direction. But whatever we decide we have to live with the consequences. Our God, the God whose Son Jesus died for our sins, offers eternal life. But do we want it? And can we live with the consequences of saying “no” or saying nothing at all?
6. Discard the foreign gods in your midst (23)
“Discard the foreign gods that are in your midst,” Joshua ordered.
Not all gods are inherited. Some are adopted, and the practices associated with those faiths are simply traps waiting for us to fall in. For us, these too need to be discarded, if we are to have true faith in the living God. After all, it’s all very well paying lip service to serving God, but it’s what we do—how we live—that is important.
7. Turn your Hearts to YHWH (23)
And finally, “Turn your hearts to YHWH, the God of Israel” appealed Joshua.
So is our faith heartfelt? Is it one we are committed to hook, line and sinker? Or is it one where our heart really isn’t in it at all?
For many people, life is a bit of a struggle. And in many ways, life can be full of wilderness experiences. But just as that is true of life in general, so it is true of our spiritual experiences too. But today, challenged by Joshua, we have an opportunity to put the past behind and start anew.
For those who’ve been wandering around in the spiritual wilderness, the challenge is to get on with life in God’s Promised Land. And we can do that, by responding to the words of Joshua.
Joshua used the past to focus on the future, particularly the positive past where God had led and guided his people. He challenged people to remove all obstacles to faith. He encouraged the people to make a very public declaration of faith. And he recorded the events of the day, as a reminder to everyone present—and all to come—of the commitments that were made that day.
Now that sounds to me like some very sound advice. And I would suggest that we would find it very helpful to do the same.
Posted: 20th October 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis