Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
1Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3aThen I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
14“Now therefore revere the LORD, and 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. 15Now 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.”
16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; 17for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
19But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” 21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!” 22Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.
15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The early church thought Christ would come back very soon. Jesus told his followers that some of them would still be alive when he came back. Paul was urgent about telling people about Jesus because he felt like he might not finish the job before Jesus returned.
That sense that the end was coming was important to the early Christian church. So it came as an upsetting surprise when people in the community started dying. They expected to be waiting for Jesus when he returned, so they didn’t know how to handle it when their friends and family died.
Paul writes the passage we just read to help them handle their grief and move forward. He reminds them that Jesus died too, but his death was not the end. Because Jesus rose from the dead, those of us who die before Christ’s return will also rise to be with Christ when he comes back. Then we will be together again with Christ when he makes all things right.
Paul doesn’t say anything about when this is going to happen. He doesn’t give details about what Christ’s coming will look like either. There is a lot about Christ’s return that we don’t know. There’s a lot about the afterlife that we don’t know. The future, especially the future beyond our earthly lives is a mystery. It’s a mystery and sometimes that makes us anxious.
Paul’s is wise to avoid the specifics. The details don’t matter; what matters is that God is in charge and God loves us. Christ’s life and death show us that above every thing else, no matter what the cost, God wants to be with us. Christ’s resurrection shows us that God’s love is stronger than death. We don’t know what it will look like, but when all is said and done we will be with Jesus in glory.
The more I’ve gotten to know God, the more I appreciate Paul’s wisdom. I don’t care what heaven looks like. I’m not worried about how the resurrection will happen. I know that God loves us and that’s all that matters. The more I trust God’s love the more I’m able to let go of my anxiety about the future and focus on God’s calling for life. If you’re anxious about judgment or life after death I invite you to read the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection again and let go of your anxiety. Nothing is going to separate us from God’s love in Jesus. You have nothing to worry about.
Interestingly enough, a lot of Israel’s problems had to do with the future as well. When Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai, the people worried he was gone and told Aaron to make gods to lead them. Often along the way the people worried about where they were going and feared that God and Moses had led them into a place with no future. Throughout the journey the people are anxious about where they are going and whether their leader can get them to safety.
Moses spent his life leading the people through the desert, trying to get them to trust God. Deuteronomy is a whole book of sermons from Moses about God’s faithfulness calling the people to trust and follow God. As Moses came to the end of his life he told Israel about the future and encouraged them to cling to God in their new home.
Two weeks ago we read about Moses’ death and how Joshua followed him as Israel’s leader. Now we skip ahead in the story. Joshua led the people into Canaan and took over the land. After years of warfare Israel is more or less at peace and Joshua prepares them for life without his leadership, just like Moses did before he died.
Joshua’s main goal isn’t setting up a government or choosing a leader to guide Israel after he is gone. Instead he focuses on getting Israel to choose to follow God. That seems like a strange decision, since Israel has been following God all this time, but Joshua is exactly right to wrap up his ministry this way.
In theory Israel is already following God; in practice they have really been following Joshua. Joshua worries that when he’s gone the people will loose their direction. In this farewell speech Joshua reminds the people that the point isn’t following him, but following God. Joshua’s goal is getting the people to choose to follow God for themselves.
Joshua asks the question clearly: “Choose this day whom you will serve…” Will they choose to serve the gods Abraham’s ancestors served in Mesopotamia? Will they choose to serve the gods of the people who lived in Canaan before them? Or will they choose to serve the Lord who brought them out of slavery and through the desert?
Joshua asks the question as a one-time choice because this one question, whom we will serve, is the center of our whole life. He doesn’t raise the possibility of serving no one. For people in that time the idea of life without a god wouldn’t make sense.
For us the choice looks a bit different because our temptations are different. We aren’t tempted by Mesopotamian or Amorite gods. Instead we’re tempted by the false god of independence and selfish success. We are not tempted to serve foreign gods, but to serve ourselves.
The gods of our culture are freedom, selfishness and wealth. We worship at the temple of consumer culture and endless choices. We worship at the altar of me first partisan politics and blaming other people. We want freedom without responsibility. Joshua’s voice rings out calling us to choose whom we will serve. Our culture responds, “We will serve ourselves.”
God calls us to choose differently. God calls us to choose community and faithfulness over selfish independence. God calls us to choose following the real, living God over the daily grind. God calls us to choose a true life of service to love and justice over the charade of meaningless materialism. Choose this day whom you will serve.
It’s not a choice we make just once, when we baptize our children or commit ourselves at confirmation. It’s a choice we make every day as we buy groceries and go to work. It’s a choice we make as we choose how to treat others and how to spend our money. It’s a choice we make at school and in sports. It’s a choice we make as build our life. Choose this day whom you will serve.
As we come together at Christ’s table we choose to serve God. We choose to serve each other. We choose to serve justice. At Christ’s table we recognize that we are hungry for community and hungry for justice. We recognize that some of our brothers and sisters are hungry for bread and security.
We can only choose to serve God when we trust God. At Christ’s table we remember that the God of the universe chose to live and die for us. This meal shared with our Lord reminds us that we can trust him. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Choose this day whom you will serve; God has already chosen to serve us.
Thanks be to God.