Joshua is old and well advanced in years. “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth.”
I’ve been reading farewell speeches this week. Presidents Washington, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Obama. I’ve re-read General MacArthur’s address to the cadets at West Point and, of course, it is the standard for any other speeches. For a few they are very personal and a last time to defend their legacy. For others, it is not about about them but an opportunity to reflect on both the past and the future of the country. Joshua’s farewell is not about his legacy…but about the relationship between God and Israel. He has done what God instructed and, like Moses, he has concerns about their future. Yet, he does not leave any centralized structure in place. He is not building a Kingdom that will last based on a social contract or a constitution. He is leaving them with a covenant of relationship. In much the same way as Jesus does not leave the early church with structure other than a new covenant to love one another. Joshua is not building a nation but a family of tribes each with their own inheritance. The only way they will last is obedience – not organization. If God was interested in them as a nation He would have given them a constitution. Instead, he gives them a covenant. It’s the riskiest arrangement possible. Just as it was with Adam and Eve. Nothing but their own choices stood between a perfect creation and the Fall. Here it is nothing but local leadership. No Moses or Joshua to lead them now. No successor. Only one thing could keep them together – obedience. Sadly, the tribes go the way of all the earth in that, over time, they desire a ruler because they cannot govern themselves by obedience. I suppose increasing complexity and the desire for simplicity always leads to our centralizing authority. I’ve quoted it several times but in “The Grand Inquisitor” we read: “In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious.”
There are two important cities in the early history of Israel. One is Shiloh – the center of worship and it is there the ark resides. The other is Shechem – the center of their shared history as a people. Even though Shiloh is the center of worship, Joshua assembles the people in Shechem. He wants to reinforce their sense of history and calling. This is the center of their identity as a people.
Shechem is where God first appeared to Abraham and made the first promise in Genesis 12. “To your offspring I will give this land.” It’s an aside but Shechem is the site of the story of the woman at the well in John 4. The Ephraimites – Joshua’s tribe – become the people we know in the New Testament as the Samaritans. It is at Shechem that Jesus first reveals himself as the Messiah to the woman at the well in John 4.
Shechem is where Jacob settled after leaving Laban and meeting Esau. It is where he dug the well we read about in John 4.
Shechem is where Jacob calls on his household to get rid of the foreign gods. “So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had…and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem.” I think this was on Joshua’s mind when he chose this place for his farewell. He wanted them to get rid of their own foreign gods and bury them here just as their forefathers had done.
Shechem is “hallowed ground” and the symbolic center of their story. It is the site of turning points in their lives where God was revealed, recommitments were made and legacies were established. Everything they believe about their relationship with God started here. This is the core of their identity. “Shiloh” is church and “Shechem” is the place we spend most of our lives. Most of our struggles with gods are in Shechem and not Shiloh. Shechem is where we wrestle with the power of the gods in our lives.
3. The Choice
Moses would not have given them a choice but Joshua wants them to choose. He gives them two options – serve God or serve other gods. The options are just as limited today but no one likes that.
“You are free to choose but not free from serving. You are not a free agent. You cannot be objective or agnostic or non-aligned. You are not capable of independence. You do not have unlimited choices and you cannot cobble together your own version of religion.” As Americans we celebrate Independence Day but we can never celebrate independence as Christians. We are completely dependent on God. We are freed from the bondage of sin but not independent.
They were willing to acknowledge God but reluctant to put aside their practical gods that served them – gods for protection, gods for prosperity, gods for the everyday challenges of life.
“I don’t have to choose one or the other. It’s not like Republican or Democrat are the only choices now. You cannot limit me that way. I’ll abstain. I’ll wait until I see something I like. I don’t like being pressured to make an irrevocable choice.”
There are different degrees of choices.
Picking one peach out of a hundred good ones is difficult but not life changing.
Choosing one of two careers is important but not fatal.
Choosing a spouse is life changing.
Choosing between obedience and fidelity to God and slavery to other gods is the most important decision in life. It defines us and determines everything else we do. It is life and death and it is continuous because the gods never give up. They begin again every day.
But they agree too quickly and he pushes back at them. “You are not able to serve the Lord.” Don’t take this lightly. Understand the consequences of what you are doing before making this covenant. Once you do this you are agreeing to live in a certain way with restrictions and limitations and responsibilities. You are not adding this to your life. This becomes your life. This is not a contract you can void. It is not a constitution you can amend.”
Oswald Chambers calls it the “white funeral” when we make that final commitment. “No one experiences complete sanctification without going through a “white funeral” — the burial of the old life. If there has never been this crucial moment of change through death, sanctification will never be more than an elusive dream. There must be a “white funeral,” a death with only one resurrection— a resurrection into the life of Jesus Christ. Nothing can defeat a life like this. It has oneness with God for only one purpose— to be a witness for Him.”
Driving past churches this week I was struck by how many of the signs were marketing messages. Finding a family, fellowship of excitement, entertainment, activities and interesting messages. We do not tell people what the consequences of their choice is. We leave out the unpleasant things that come with the Christian life and make people assume all the hardship is left behind. We don’t really explain the choice and the consequences as much as we explain the benefits. We don’t tell them they are signing over their rights to themselves. We don’t tell them this is binding and limiting. We don’t tell them they are giving up their independence in making this choice. We tell them it will improve their lives. We treat the church as a volunteer organization – but no commitment is needed or required. In a sense, we are saying to Jesus “follow me” and make my life better.
4. “As for me and my household…”
We have no record of Joshua’s family. There is never any mention of a wife or children. He is part of the tribe of Ephraim and the son of Nun but that is all we know. It’s ironic that this statement has become the most popular Christian door sign for the home because the word here “oikos” means so much more than just our family. Household was a word for all the relationships in our lives – inside and outside the home. Today, we would call it “circles of influence” and not just family. It means we will serve the Lord and live with integrity not just at home. It means we will think of ourselves as responsible to represent God not just to our children but especially with people we influence. That’s not the whole world. It’s limited but it is not just our family.
5. The next generation.
Judges 2:7 “After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to his own inheritance. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel…After that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.”
How could that be? How could they not know the Lord or what he had done for Israel? Of course, the word “know” does not mean they were not familiar with the Lord or had not heard stories about what he had done but it means they had no connection. In the same way it is said of the Egyptian Pharoah who knew not Joseph. He had heard stories but Joseph meant nothing to him. He was irrelevant. Times had changed. The names of the gods are different now but they never give up. They are always appealing to our practical natures – convenience, comfort, success, freedom – and our indifference to the very things that matter the most. We come to take them for granted.
It sounds like the elders made some assumptions about passing on beliefs that were wrong. They did not have a training program. They had worship, festivals, ordinances and activities but they did not pass on the relationship with God or the understanding of the covenant. They stopped remembering with their children. They were proud patriots but not believers.
Think about the Lord’s Supper. “Do this in remembrance of me.” If we announced the Lord’s Supper ahead of time or if we did it more often attendance would decline. What does that mean long term for what we remember about the roots of our beliefs? What is a church with no memory? In people, we call that dementia.
Like some of you, I remember the old Training Union when I was young. It was held the hour before the evening service in Baptist churches and we were taught doctrine, history, what we believed and Christian principles. Thousands of Baptist churches had Training Union every Sunday night and hundreds of thousands of kids suffered through it. It went away long before the evening service did. It took time and the whole family had to do it. Volunteers dried up and television was far more interesting than training union. But the assumption was right. Unless you are intentional about training people – especially the young – in what they believe, they will not believe it in the next generation. We’ve gone from two services and Training Union on Sunday and then Wednesday prayer service to not needing to attend at all. We have podcasts that make it easy and convenient. The gods have all the advantages.
In Ephesians 4 the Apostle Paul reminds fathers that they are to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It’s essential to have both – encouragement and guidance. A safe place with expectations.
6. The Juvenilization of American Christianity.
“The house lights go down. Spinning, multicolored lights sweep the auditorium. A rock band launches into a rousing opening song. “Ignore everyone else, this time is just about you and Jesus,” proclaims the lead singer. The music changes to a slow dance tune, and the people sing about falling in love with Jesus. A guitarist sporting skinny jeans and a soul patch closes the worship set with a prayer, beginning, “Hey God …” The spotlight then falls on the speaker, who tells entertaining stories, cracks a few jokes, and assures everyone that “God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally.”
After worship, some members of the church sign up for the next mission trip, while others decide to join a small group where they can receive support on their faith journey. If you ask the people here why they go to church or what they value about their faith, they’ll say something like, “Having faith helps me deal with my problems.”
Fifty or sixty years ago, these now-commonplace elements of American church life were regularly found in youth groups but rarely in worship services and adult activities. What happened? Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith. In any case, white evangelicals led the way.
Juvenilization happened when no one was looking. In the first stage, Christian youth leaders created youth-friendly versions of the faith in a desperate attempt to save the world. Some hoped to reform their churches by influencing the next generation. Others expected any questionable innovations to stay comfortably quarantined in youth rallies and church basements. Both groups were less concerned about long-term consequences than about immediate appeals to youth.
In the second stage, a new American adulthood emerged that looked a lot like the old adolescence. Fewer and fewer people outgrew the adolescent Christian spiritualities they had learned in youth groups; instead, churches began to cater to them.”
We are so focused on the future and innovation that we consider our traditions as limiting and uninteresting. We want to renegotiate our choices and kick the can down the road on our consequences. We want to do what is right in our own eyes and avoid the results of our own choices. I like what Scott Peck said, “The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behavior lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behavior. ”
I’m afraid that is what we want. We want to make choices with no consequences or we want someone who will protect us from the consequences of our choices. That is not the message of Joshua. It is we make intentional choices understanding the consequences and those consequences are life-changing for us and for generations to come. We cannot choose not to choose and in the end we make a choice about who we serve and about restraints we impose on ourselves – God or other gods. Fidelity or unfaithfulness. Life or death.