A Choice We Have to Keep Making

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Joshua 24:1-24

Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders of Israel, its leaders, judges, and officers. They presented themselves before God. Then Joshua said to the entire people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors lived on the other side of the Euphrates. They served other gods. Among them was Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor. I took Abraham your ancestor from the other side of the Euphrates. I led him around through the whole land of Canaan. I added to his descendants and gave him Isaac. To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Mount Seir to Esau to take over. But Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron. I plagued Egypt with what I did to them. After that I brought you out. I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. The Egyptians chased your ancestors with chariots and horses to the Reed Sea. Then they cried for help to the Lord. So he set darkness between you and the Egyptians. He brought the sea down on them, and it covered them. With your own eyes you saw what I did to the Egyptians. You lived in the desert for a long time.

“Then I brought you into the land of the Amorites who lived on the other side of the Jordan. They attacked you, but I gave them into your power, and you took over their land. I wiped them out before you. Then Moab’s King Balak, Zippor’s son, set out to attack Israel. He summoned Balaam, Beor’s son, to curse you. But I wasn’t willing to listen to Balaam, so he actually blessed you. I rescued you from his power. Then you crossed over the Jordan. You came to Jericho, and the citizens of Jericho attacked you. They were Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites. But I gave them into your power. I sent the hornet before you. It drove them out before you and did the same to the two kings of the Amorites. It wasn’t your sword or bow that did this. I gave you land on which you hadn’t toiled and cities that you hadn’t built. You settled in them and are enjoying produce from vineyards and olive groves that you didn’t plant.

“So now, revere the Lord. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.”

Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. The Lord has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

Then Joshua said to the people, “You can’t serve the Lord, because he is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won’t forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you leave the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn around and do you harm and finish you off, in spite of having done you good in the past.”

Then the people said to Joshua, “No! The Lord is the one we will serve.”

So Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”

They said, “We are witnesses!”

“So now put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the Lord, the God of Israel.”

The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.”

***

Choose this day whom you will serve.  

There’s a reason this is one of the Bible’s famous one-liners. It’s a gut punch of a demand. There’s no weaseling out, no half-commitments, no playing both sides. Choose today, right now, who you will serve.

Joshua, Moses’ successor, is nearing his own death. He’s seen the Israelite people go from slaves in Egypt to refugees in the desert to conquerors in Canaan. He’s seen them settle down in farms and vineyards, beginning to get comfortable for the first time in decades. 

And that comfort worries him. 

Every culture the Israelites will ever know worships many gods. Even their own ancestors had altars full of idols, until God plucked out Abraham and set a chain of extraordinary events into motion. And Joshua is worried that now that the Israelites have their own land, their own food, their own business interests, now that they’re no longer utterly reliant on God’s manna and angel armies, that they might decide to diversify their divine portfolio. 

After all, why rely on one God when there’s a whole buffet out there to sample from?

“Choose today whom you will serve,” Joshua thunders. “Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live.” It can’t be both. You have to choose. 

As I read Joshua’s final sermon this week, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of a conversation I once had with a friend.

For the first several years I knew him, he was sober. Being someone in recovery, someone who could talk about his addiction in the past tense, was a huge part of his identity, even a cornerstone in his faith journey. But then his life hit a rough patch. And he relapsed. 

“I know it was a bad choice,” he told me later, after he’d gone through yet another sobriety program. “But it didn’t feel like a choice at the time. It felt inevitable and right. And that’s the problem. I got comfortable, and I stopped choosing sobriety. I thought I’d made that choice a long time ago, and I stopped choosing it everyday. But when I didn’t actively choose not to drink, the other choice just happened.”

“I knew better,” he added later, “but I still sort of thought it was all behind me. That I was a sober person now. But it’s never something that will just happen without me choosing it.”

I’m immensely proud of my friend, who said I could share his story as long as I was vague with the details. Last time we talked, his sobriety was holding. But he didn’t take it for granted any more. It’s a daily choice. 

Choose this day whom you will serve. 

I have been fortunate not to know substance abuse or addiction as part of my story—mostly because I’ve chosen to be preempatively sober, out of fear that addiction might be too easy to slip into. Because I know myself, and I know my flirtation with idols. I know how eager I am for quick fixes, for praise and adoration, for a house that’s just a little nicer or a car that’s just a little newer. I know how easily I could worship at the altar of a charismatic politician or a rockstar preacher. I know the idol I have even made of myself, offering prayers to my own pride and competence and self-determinism. 

Idols are everywhere we look. And if we don’t actively choose to serve the Lord, we will commit ourselves to our culture’s idols without even noticing. It will feel right and inevitable. 

Choose this day whom you will serve. 

I spent this week, like many of you, fighting the urge to stay superglued to my screen, watching the news of our latest election. Despite the boring premise—we basically spent a week waiting for people to conclude some data entry—it was difficult to tear myself away. 

The tension and division in this country is very high. The fear and anger and grief are real. We all know that. I saw people accuse both Biden and Trump of being one step above the anti-Christ—and one step below Christ himself. I saw people act like our very salvation would be decided at the ballot box. And while the government of this country does have very real power over our lives, I promise you this today: our Savior sits on a much, much higher throne than the desk of the oval office. 

I was pastor here for a couple months while Obama was president. During those months, we fed two dozen children at River Ridge each week, because we are called to care for the least of these. I’ve been here for four years while Trump was president. During those years, we fed two dozen children at River Ridge each week, because we are called to care for the least of these. And in the next four years, and the four after that, and the four after that, I expect we will continue to feed the hungry children of our community, because we are called to care for the least of these. 

Choose this day whom you will serve. 

As a church, our call is unchanged by elections and regimes and all the accidents of history. We are called to love and serve the Lord. Together. Whether we think the same or vote the same or not, we are called to love and serve the same Lord. 

It seems like an obvious choice. You all put the effort into being part of this morning’s worship service, despite the challenges of fully engaging in online worship. Of course you are going to choose to serve the Lord. 

That’s what Joshua’s people say, too. We choose the Lord! they shout back. We know what God has done for us. We choose the Lord!

But Joshua warns them that it’s not as simple as it sounds. It’s not a one and done deal. They will be tempted, again and again and again, by easier paths to power and influence. They will have to keep making the choice to serve God, each time some other idol turns their head. 

Most of us worshipping this morning made the choice to serve the Lord at some point, whether we felt moved by the irresistible power of God’s claim on us or whether we were pushed into it by a parent or spouse who just wanted to see us at church. But serving the Lord is not a choice that we make once and never have to make again. Serving God is a daily choice. 

I generally do not wake up in the mood to serve the Lord. I am not enough of a morning person for that. Sometimes I’m not sure I’m really any good to God until after breakfast. But still, at some point, I get over worshipping the idol of my own comfort, my devotion to my own warm bed, and I choose for one more day to serve the Lord.

I don’t always manage it. There are days when my service is slapdash at best, and I carry with me a litany of the times I have failed. Sometimes I think I am serving the Lord when all I’m really serving is my own desire for routine, or reassurance, or to be thought well of. But eventually God calls me on my fraud, and reluctantly I push my idols away again, and turn my heart and my focus to God. 

Another pastor made a comment this week that blew my mind. “We are all recovering idol worshippers,” she said. 

And that’s the truth of it. Each of us has had to wrestle with an addiction to some kind of power, some kind of comfort, some kind of identity, that is not God’s. Which makes serving God, and not those idols that beckon so subtly to us, a daily choice. 

God’s choice is sure, and does not waver. We belong to God, now and always. But we are not God, and so if we want to be the witnesses to the world of the God we love, we’ll have to keep choosing, one word, one act, one day at a time.

Choose this day whom you will serve. 

Then prepare yourself to choose tomorrow who you will serve.

Then the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. 

It’s not easy. But the Lord God is the only one worth worshipping. Because only in God does our service mean our freedom. 

Amen. 

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