Joshua 24:1-24 & Mark 8:31-9:1

Choose Life

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish brats you spawned to replace yourself.

Choose your future.

Choose life.”

Twenty something years ago, when I was a student, the Christian Union organised a mission to the university called, “Choose Life”. This theme was chosen because it connected with something in the culture at the time of the poverty of many of the choices that were facing young adults as we looked forward. This was expressed in this rant, slightly edited for language, delivered by Renton, the lead character in the film Trainspotting.

Over against this poverty of choice, our desire was to share the possibility that there was a richer choice available to people, that it really was possible to choose life, a life that was one of real blessings, and not one of despair. The Bible verses that were at the core of this were two verses from Deuteronomy 30, spoken by Moses when he gathered the people together to give his farewell sermon. At the climax of this, he says,

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

At the end of his time on earth, Moses gathered the people together, reminded them of what God had done for them, and called on them to make a choice. In this we hear echoes of previous conversations between God and human beings, when they had to make a choice. Adam and Eve in the garden with the tree. Noah and the Ark. Abraham and leaving his home. Abraham and sacrificing Isaac. Again and again, God calls or commands and the person has a choice. Are they going to choose obedience and life or disobedience and death?

This pattern is echoed again in this last chapter of the book of Joshua, that we’ve read tonight. There are, however some distinctive things about it that have led to it being described by one commentator as “one of the most important chapters in the OT for biblical theologians”

We’ve been travelling with Joshua over the last couple of months as he has led the people into the promised land, but the people have been travelling a lot longer than that. It’s generations since Jacob and his sons left the land of Canaan, to go to join Joseph in Egypt, driven out by famine. They’ve suffered persecution and slavery, they’ve been rescued by God, who had sent Moses to deliver them. They spent decades wandering in the wilderness, and now they are in the promised land, living and thriving. The days of wandering are over, God’s promise to Abraham has been kept, and now the next phase of the life of the people of God is to begin. At this hinge in history a decision has to be made the people have to choose.

The place that this choice is happening in is significant. They are at Shechem. This is a place that we’ve been before. Centuries earlier, when Abram first got to Canaan, having chosen to follow God’s command and set out from Harran, this is where God spoke to him for the first time in Canaan at Shechem. In Genesis 12:6-7 we read

“Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.”

Some years later, when Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, returned to Canaan, having previously having had to flee for stealing his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing, he comes to Shechem as well. And in Genesis 35 we read this,

“Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes … So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had … and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem.”

So here the people are, in the place that God spoke to one of their ancestors, promising them this land, and where another of their ancestors had insisted that his family put away their foreign gods. In this place, what is it that Joshua has to say to them? He is going to remind them of the way in which God has kept this promise, and command them, repeatedly to put away their foreign gods and invite them to choose life.

The first half of Joshua’s speech is a retelling, a reminder of what God has done in the past. There are similar passages elsewhere in Scripture, in some of Moses’ speeches and in Psalms, but there is something distinctive about the language in this one. It’s all to do with the verbs – the doing words. Let’s quickly go through and look at them, what does God say that he did, “I took”, “I gave”, “I assigned”, “I sent”, “I sent”, “I afflicted”, “I brought”, “he put”, “he brought”, “I brought”, “I gave”, “I destroyed”, “I delivered”, “I gave”, “I sent”, “I gave”.

These are all active, involved, purposeful actions. No-one listening to this could be in any doubt that God had been at work.

Let’s compare that for a moment to the verbs connected with the people – there aren’t very many, “his family went down”, “you came to the sea”, “they cried”, “you saw”, “you lived”, “you crossed”. These are the positive ones, and they’re not very dynamic, are they? They are mostly passive or in reaction to something God had already done. More than that, we then get the things that the people had not done, “You did not do it with your own sword or bow,”, “you did not toil”, “you did not build”, “you did not plant”.

In summary, then, the first half of Joshua’s speech is pretty much, “God has done everything, humans have done nothing – what you enjoy now you have been given, you did not earn it, it is entirely because of what God has done.”
Having laid that groundwork, Joshua goes on to deliver the choice to the people. At first glance, it might seem like three choices, but actually it’s one. He says, “fear the Lord and serve him with faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshipped.” Going back to counting verbs, there are three here – fear, serve, throw. But it’s like the triple jump. There’s three actions – hop, skip and jump – but it’s all one event, all aspects that have to be done if the entire jump is to count.

One element is that of fear. This word has different nuances in different parts of the Bible, and the modern English word meaning of the this concept is, it seems to me, drifting further and further away from the Biblical concept. It is now seen as an almost entirely negative, demeaning, oppressive word. To a certain extent we can see this in the New Testament, when John writes of perfect love casting out all fear. So what is meant here? Biblical fear is one that takes God’s holiness and might seriously, it’s a reverence that leads to devotion and obedience.

The second element is that of service. The word serve appears nine times in verses 14-18. It is, here the key response of humanity to God. It is an attitude of complete devotion, inspired by love, obedient to the command, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” In the New Testament we hear it in Paul’s insistence that he is a slave of Christ, and in fact that all Christians have been, as he puts it in Romans 6, “been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”

However, as Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters, and in the same way, Joshua insists that the third element that is required of the people is that they put away foreign gods. In some senses it strikes me as a bit odd that the people still had ancestral gods to get rid of. Had they really been trawling all through the wilderness, led by the pillars of cloud and fire, seeing the amazing things God had done, still carrying with them their ancestral gods, and worshipping them? But actually, when I reflect on my own half-heartedness and the difficulty of getting rid of the things that I value that get in the way of my relationship with God, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. But now, not only were the ancestral gods a problem so were the gods of the people of the land that they had come into. And they needed to make a choice, a choice that was deeply counter-cultural”.

As one commentator puts it, “The only choice for Israel’s neighbours was which god to serve at the moment, in the present crisis. Polytheism, the worship of many gods, was the natural presupposition in Israel’s environment. Ultimate choice was unnecessary, heretical, basically stupid.”

So Joshua, puts this choice before the people- will you serve God, whole heartedly and exclusively as the one and only true God, a choice that Joshua commits to. The people say that they will, but Joshua challenges them – he warns them that they cannot do it on their own, that God is holy and jealous. Yahweh is not like the other gods who will wait their turn, Yahweh insists on exclusivity. The people are insistent – they will serve the Lord. They have made their choice.

As it happens, and as very quickly becomes apparent through the time of the Judges and the Kings, Joshua was right. The people couldn’t serve God – they were continually led astray by the foreign gods into unfaithfulness. It was not until Jesus came, and formed a new covenant in his blood, that it became possible for people to serve God faithfully, and to be forgiven when we fail.

Peter didn’t understand why Jesus had to go to Jerusalem to die, he tried to stop him. Thank God he failed, because we are now free to truly choose life. The only way to do that is to follow Jesus, to throw away the false gods of the world, to take up our cross, and to serve him exclusively. As we do that, as we choose to do it each day, so we choose life in all its fulness.

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