So, during my freshman year of college, I had to take a chemistry lab. And it was awful. But, that being said, I came to be friends with this girl named Jamie.
Now, Jamie was another student-athlete, so I knew her in passing through mutual friends, but I really got to know her in this class. And as I got to know her, I started to have feelings for her. Now, I can feel my wife’s eyes burning in the side of my head right now as I stand here, talking about another woman. But the fact remains that I owe a lot to Jamie. You see, I was a big, fat chicken and wanted to ask Jamie out on a date, but didn't want to be crushed under the massive weight of rejection. You know how in Back to the Future, George McFly is afraid to ask out Lorraine because he doesn’t think he can take that kind of rejection? Okay, that was me as a freshman in college. I was George McFly.
But one day I was talking to Jamie and she said, “Hey, you should come to my church sometime.” And, to be honest, I wasn’t interested in going to her church. I just thought “What am I supposed say? ‘No?' At this one I can’t say no. I got asked to go to church with a cute girl.” So, I said “Sure…that sounds great…” So, the next week I started going to this church solely because I was interested in this girl from my chem class. And as time went on it became more and more clear that our friendship should remain a friendship. And I was bummed for a while. But little did I know that that night I walked through the doors of the church where I would meet my wife and discern a call to ministry and be mentored by a now-fellow pastor who I remain friends with to this day. I owe my beautiful life to that one time six years ago when I naively followed the wrong girl to the right place and ended up exactly where God wanted me to be.
Every time I think about this, it never ceases to amaze me that I spent so much time following this girl only to look back and realize that it wasn’t about me or her or some church at all, right? That my life, which is filled with love and laughter and a beautiful spouse and beautiful kids and a wonderful job, is all because of a process that I didn’t control. Our text this morning is about realizing this fact; this fact that everything we have, everything in our lives, isn’t really ours at all.
Now, this text comes at the end of the book which chronicles Joshua’s leadership of the people of Israel. You might remember toward the end of Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy 27, that before Moses dies, the Lord directs him to commission Joshua as the leader over the people of Israel. So, Joshua succeeds Moses and leads the Israelites into the promised land. One thing I’ve noticed in my study of the Old Testament and the Hebrew scriptures is that memory plays a big role for the Israelite people. The Israelites are forgetting stuff all the time. A lot of time has passed in the history of the Israelite people; a lot of stuff has happened since God first called Abraham, and the Israelites need to constantly be reminded of who they are and who their God is. That’s what this text is about. It’s a charge to remember; to reach back in their memory and remember what this God has done for them that they could never have done for themselves.
And so, he starts at the beginning. He talks about how their ancestors served other gods until the Lord called Abraham and made his offspring many. And then he goes on to talk about Isaac and Jacob and Moses and all the things that have happened under his leadership. And, though the nation of Israel was not a ‘congregation’ in the modern sense of the words, it feels like Joshua is kind of preaching a sermon here, right? I mean, he’s kind of doing what I try to do on a weekly basis – he’s speaking a word to the people, a word which is both connected to the memory of what has been done for them already and with an eye toward what is still to be done. He’s speaking a word which calls to repentance for our wandering, for our idol worship. And then the Lord hits them with this (and I remember the first time I read this, it completely stopped me in my tracks): “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” This echoes a very similar premonition in Deuteronomy 6: “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you – a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant – and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord.”
In other words, in these two passages, the speakers are telling the Israelites, “nothing you have is yours. You’ve taken possession of something and made it your own with complete disregard to the fact that someone else gave these things to you.” And this is an important lesson for us to learn, too. We often teach stuff like this to our kids, but it’s usually more of a “do as I say, not as I do” situation. I have two small kids – you all know this. And I love them so much. I just want that to be said aloud in order to qualify the thing I actually want to say. I love them so much, but they’re in that stage where they’re both little scroungers, right? And it’s all about them. And when one of them has a toy or a book or something that the other one wants, it’s a HUGE ordeal.
And it’s in those moments when I have to step in and try to explain this same principle to my kids that Joshua and Moses are trying to explain here. So, I get down on one knee and I point to that toy or that book or whatever, and I tell my kids, “Listen: I know you want this thing, but it’s not yours. It doesn’t belong to you; it doesn’t belong to your sibling; it doesn’t belong to mom and dad. Everything we have is God’s. Everything in this house belongs to God.” And it’s easy to say that to our kids, right? It’s easy to say that to the young people in our lives, but we often don’t like it when we’rethe ones who have to stare down the barrel of that gun. Because we like control, or we like the illusion of control, depending on how your theology works.
But, think about your own life for a minute. Think about your relationships, your work, your faith…Some of you enjoy marriages to people which are dependent upon a chance-meeting in the past that you didn’t orchestrate. You probably work in your certain position or field because of an interest or passion that you didn’t choose, but which chose you. And, for many of you, myself included, you probably have this faith in Jesus by accident of your birth into a Christian family or your being raised in a predominantly Christian community. You enjoy lives which have been dictated by circumstances and decisions which you, in-large-part, did not make. Now, take all those things, all those most important and intimate details of your life, and let them go. One of the biggest hurdles in my own faith has been knowing – not fearing – but knowing, that my wife, my kids, my money, my job, my calling, my gifts and graces; none of it is really mine at all. And the real kicker is that, no matter how badly we want it to be this way, our families and our relationships and our stuff can never be God for us. All of these things are God’s good gift and loan to us, and the second we confuse the gift with the giver, we’ve made the same mistake the ancient Israelites did.
Now, after telling the Israelites all of this, Joshua confronts them with two options: serve YHWH or serve someone else. This is an opportunity for a clean break with no hard feelings. Joshua just wants them to be honest about it. This is all he asks of the Israelites – he just wants them to be one person. I had a football coach in college who constantly said this: “be one person.” Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. And so, Joshua tells them to either choose YHWH or choose the gods they used to serve. And this is important for us because we often let our past dictate our present; we often let the gods we used to serve dictate our lives after we swore off worshipping them. Maybe it’s something physical like drugs or alcohol. Maybe you used to worship your job or your bank account. Or maybe you used to worship yourself until one day God spoke and you realized it’s just not all about you.
Whatever it is, do what Joshua is telling the Israelites to do, and put those gods away and serve the God who brought our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt and continues to bring us out of slavery even now. So many times in our lives, it’s like we’re sitting in a haunted house, allowing ourselves to be plagued by the ghosts of our pasts. Get up! You’re free. The shackles are gone. You don’t have to worry. The ghosts of your past won’t bother you anymore if only you have the strength to get up and walk out.
Life is a series of choices. Whether you know it or not, whether you’re conscious of it or not, the choices you make every day dictate who you are and who you can be. Sometimes we’ll make the wrong choice and serve the wrong gods. Sometimes we’ll make the right choice. But regardless of where we wander, we can have faith that God will use the decisions we make to take us where we need to go, and that’s called grace. And our God is in the business of giving grace. So, turn around. Abandon the gods of your past and serve YHWH alone, because everything you have and everything you are is because of his love and grace.