Friday 16 October 2015

Are you a Christian? (Joshua 24)

Are you a Christian?

It is a simple question I ask frequently in church, actually. When I meet someone new, I’ll ask them their name; I’d be interested to know what brought them to church; but I always make it a point to ask: Are you a Christian?

You might think it strange. After all, you don’t want to embarrass anyone, especially if they’re not a Christian. I doubt that’s true, though. On numerous occasions, my non-Christian friends have been eager to say that they weren’t believers.

Conversely, it’s the regulars who tend to get nervous with the question. Some have said to me, “Of course! My parents have been coming to church for years.” But others have said, “I’m not sure.”

Now I would love nothing more than to affirm your relationship with God in Christ. But it is important for us to ask this question today because that is what’s happening in Joshua Chapter 24. Look with me to verse 14:

Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshipped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.
Joshua 24:14

The book of Joshua ends with a megachurch meeting: All the tribes assembled in one place at Shechem. That’s over half a million people. They are gathered not to offer sacrifices nor to sing praises but so that Joshua can ask them one question: Will you worship God?

This happens three times in Chapters 22, 23 and 24. Joshua gathers everyone in one place (initially the three tribes beyond the River Jordan in Chapter 22, but everyone else in Chapters 23 and 24) and asks, “Will you commit yourselves to God?”

If a pastor did that at a meeting in church, some would assume that he was talking to someone else - the youth group, perhaps - but not to them. Or some might walk out offended that their faith was being questioned.

But that is what Joshua does here in Chapter 24.

Specifically, Joshua does three things. Firstly, he challenges them to serve God (verses 14 to 18). Secondly, he questions their commitment (verses 19 to 27). And finally, he dies (verse 28 to the end).

1. Choose for yourselves

The first thing Joshua does is say to them, “Make up your mind.”

He begins in verse 14. “Fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness.” It is a command - “Worship God!” But then he gives them a choice in verse 15:

But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served 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.
Joshua 24:15

It is important to see that the choice is not between serving God and some other god. Those are not the options. The people think that they have already chosen God; that they are true worshippers of God.

No, the choice Joshua gives them is between serving the pagan gods of their fathers or the foreign gods of their neighbours. Look again at verse 15: “If serving God is undesirable (literally, ‘evil’) to you, then choose for yourselves whom you will serve: Either the gods of your ancestors or the gods of the Amorites.” That’s a risky move. It’s like your pastor saying, “If you’re not going to be a Christian, then be a Buddhist or be an atheist.”

What is he doing? Joshua is challenging their assumptions, specifically, their assumptions about God’s blessing. God had blessed Israel again and again - with land, prosperity and success; and the danger was they might equate God’s abundant blessing with God’s automatic approval. They might think, “I am worth it.”

So much so, that in verses 1 to 13, Joshua spends one-third of the chapter recounting all of God’s blessings: Beginning with the promises made to Abraham (in verses 3 and 4), then the rescue from Egypt (in verses 5 to 7), then the defeat of their enemies (the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites in verses 8 to 12), and finally, the Promised Land, in verse 13, where God says:

So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.
Joshua 24:13

Conclusion? You did not deserve any of this.

The more that you’ve experienced God’s blessing, the more that you need to say to yourself, “I did not earn this.” You might come from a Christian family; you might have an inspiring testimony; you might belong to a good church, but you might still be taking God’s grace for granted. Because the more you’ve experienced God’s blessing, the more you’ll be tempted to take Him for granted.

It is a new academic term. Cambridge students will spend the coming weeks “shopping” for a new church. Maybe that’s you. Instead of looking for a church where you will “fit in”, where you can serve - important things to mature as a Christian - why not look out for a church where God’s word is heard and God’s people are held accountable. Look out for a church where the leaders call you to repentance every single Sunday.

That is the purpose they meet as the church in Joshua 24. To hear God’s word and to respond to God’s grace. Joshua confronts Israel with God’s word (verse 2, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel says,”) and challenges Israel to respond to God’s grace (verse 14, “Now fear the LORD and worship him.”)

Notice how worship is a response. God calls Israel to himself, saves them from slavery and blesses them with the Promised Land; and in response, Israel is to serve God. That is, you do not serve God in order to be saved. God saves you so that you might worship him.

Paul says the same thing to Christians in Romans Chapter 12:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1

Meaning: Worship is the proper response of the redeemed; Those have been saved by God are called to serve the living God. And yet, this does not happen automatically. Paul has to urge us to respond - to consider all that God has done - and to consciously offer up our lives as a sacrifice in worship.

Joshua does the exact same thing in Chapter 24 with one big exception: He challenges them to make up their mind right there and then. If they will not serve God, then they should choose for themselves that day whom they will serve. There will be no delays; no excuses.

That’s the first thing we see: Joshua pressing Israel for a decision; Joshua challenging Israel to worship God.

2. You are not able to serve the LORD

Look at Israel’s response in verse 16:

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we travelled. And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”
Joshua 24:16-18

Just before (verse 15), Joshua proclaims, “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD,” to which they answer, verse 18, “We too will serve the LORD.” In other words, “You’re not the only one on God’s side, Joshua. He is our God, too.”

Before that, Joshua reminds them of God’s abundant blessings (Abraham, the Exodus, the battles) and in verse 17, they repeat the same stories back to Joshua, effectively saying, “Duh! We went to Sunday School.” So on the surface at least the people seem to be saying, “We agree with you.” What a positive response from God’s people!

But look again at their first, initial response in verse 16. They actually begin by disagreeing with Joshua. Verse 16: “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD!” What they are saying is, “No way! This will never happen!”

Bearing this in mind, look at Joshua’s critique in verse 19.

Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”
Joshua 24:19-20

“You cannot serve God!” Joshua says; to which they reply “No!” Again, in the negative, they say, “No! We will serve the LORD.” (verse 21)

Now don’t get me wrong. Of course it is encouraging to hear of Israel’s commitment. Imagine how disastrous it would be if they turned around and said, “I’m off to worship the pagan god Molech. So long, Joshua!” Obviously, Joshua did not want them to abandon God. But if so, why challenge them to worship other gods?

Because some of them were, in fact, worshipping other gods.

Remember how he began in verse 14, “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods (of) your ancestors… and serve the LORD.” Joshua says again in verse 23, “Now then, throw away the foreign gods that are among you.” Why does he keep coming back to the subject of foreign gods?

My parents aren’t Christians. Every year at Chinese New Year, my mum lays out an altar to ‘Pai Tee Kong’ - to pray to the Chinese god of heaven - and she tells me that it’s OK for anyone to come and worship this god, saying, “Even Christians do it.” Now, I’m not sure if these guests actually burn joss sticks at the altar but suppose that they are genuine believers who trust in Jesus and confess him as Lord? Is it OK for them to ‘Pai Tee Kong’ just once a year out of respect and tradition?

Israel have committed themselves to worshipping God alone. Yet Joshua reminds them - twice - to get rid of idols. Why? Because it is not OK to bow to idols. Because Joshua knows that some of them have idols hidden away at home. “Throw away the foreign gods that are among you.” (verse 23)

In doing so, Joshua is questioning their commitment to God. That’s not a nice thing to do, Joshua! Can’t you see how enthusiastic they are? And yet, he says in verse 19, “You are not able to serve the LORD.” Isn’t that too harsh; too much for a young Christian? Well, remember that Jesus said the same thing to the crowds in Luke 14:

Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters - yes, even their own life - such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Luke 14:25-27

This is much more radical than forsaking idols. “Unless you forsake your father and mother... unless you forsake your own life, you cannot follow me.” The crowds followed Jesus because he was popular, because he did miracles but Jesus says, “Unless you follow me to the cross, you cannot be my disciple.”

A friend from twenty years ago got in touch on Facebook last week. I wrote, “Good to hear that you are still following Jesus.” The response I got was, “To whom shall I go? He has the words of life.” (a quote from John Chapter 6) Friends, the longer you walk with Christ, the more you realise how dependent you are on Christ. The longer you are a Christian, the more you depend on Christ to remain in Christ.

That is what Joshua is getting at when he says, “You are not able to serve the LORD.” They were blind to their sin (keeping idols at homes). But more seriously, they were blind to their pride. “We can do it!” They seem to be saying, “We will prove ourselves to God.” (Or as my friends back home would say, “Malaysia Boleh!”)

In a climactic scene from the Dreamworks animation movie, Kung Fu Panda, the bad guy, a Snow Leopard named Tai Long confronts Master Shifu, a tiny Red Panda (voiced by Dustin Hoffman). As Tai Long strikes blow after blow in rage against his frail Shifu, he says, “All I ever did, I did to make you proud! Tell me how proud you are… tell me!” Tired and solemn, Shifu replies, “I have always been proud of you. And it was my pride that blinded me.”

Joshua is wise enough and loving enough not to make that mistake. A mother whose wayward son left home to pursue a sinful life prayed this prayer to God, “Lord, do everything and anything that needs to be done to bring him to his knees.” Parents would you dare pray that for your children? “Do everything and anything to bring my son, my daughter to their knees and confess you as Lord.”

Joshua does not mince his words. Verse 20: “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make and end of you, after he has been good to you.”

...Which is why he makes a big deal about witnesses. Towards the end of the section, Joshua make them witnesses against themselves (verse 22), he writes everything they say down in the Book of the Law (verse 26) and even sets up a stone (in verse 27) as a “witness against us”. A friend from my church group sets up reminders on his iPhone to read the bible; his wife sets up reminders to pray for her friends. Why? Because they are a forgetful couple? No, because they want to be faithful Christians.  Joshua does the same thing: He makes them witnesses (against themselves!); he writes everything down as a legal contract; and he sets up the stones as visual reminders (ala iPhones) of their promises to God. Why? To keep them accountable to God and to keep them accountable one another.

A friend told me this week why he and his wife decided to join a bible study group. “To be accountable,” he said. (I replied, “Only a Christian would say that!” - not because it was Christian but because it was cliche. Still, it was a good answer!) Being accountable means you are living your life before God and before God’s people. Not unlike Christian weddings: The husband and wife make promises before God and their church, saying, “Help us to keep our promises to one another.”

So the second thing we see in this passage is Joshua questioning their commitment - partly because he knows how prone his people are to idolatry - but mainly because he knows how prone we all are to pride. We cannot do this by ourselves. We need God’s help to walk in faithfulness and holiness before him. Graciously, God gives us that help though his Spirit that he places in us and through his people he gathers around us.

3. After these things

But finally, we see that Joshua dies.

After these things, Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnah Serah in the hill country of Ephraim north of Mount Gaash.
Joshua 24:29-30

In this last section, Joshua dies. A whole bunch of other people die as well (his elders; Joseph, who is really just a bag of bones; and Eleazar the son of Aaron, also long dead). The good news is: They each receive their inheritance - the piece of land that God promised them - an indication of the fullness of God’s blessing. We see this in Joshua’s age - a hundred and ten - symbolic of a full life. All this is saying is that this generation died having lived well. They died having seen all of God’s promises fulfilled.

But what about the next generation?

The sad thing is, Joshua’s faithfulness died with him. Turn to next page and the first words you read are, “After the death of Joshua...” Read the book of Judges and you find the entire nation descending into moral decay. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)

Joshua did not appoint a successor (he wasn’t supposed to). While his elders were still around, things were stable (verse 31) but as soon as they were gone, the nation abandoned God. What a sad end to his legacy.

The main point of all this is to say: It is not enough. You can have a great leader like Joshua, but it is not enough. You can force everyone to come to church, go to Sunday School, do quiet time, but there are no guarantees they will not go astray. I think Joshua realised that, hence the big meeting he called in Shechem. He was concerned: “Are they truly following God or just faking it?”

What we need is faithfulness that transcends death. What we need is a Joshua whose death results in more faithfulness, not less. And that is precisely what we have in Jesus. If there’s one thing you need to know about Jesus it’s this: He died. He really, really died - a horrible death - condemned as a criminal and hung naked on a cross.

But here’s the thing: When Jesus talked about the cross, he called it his glory.

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me.”
John 12:23-27

“Unless a grain of wheat… dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” With Joshua, they continued to worship God while he was still alive. Not so with Jesus. His death is the reason we worship God. His death is the reason we worship Jesus as God. “My Father will honour the one who serves me,” Jesus says.

I don’t know if anyone has ever asked you this before, but: Will you follow - will you serve - this Jesus? This Jesus who lived the life you should have lived; and this Jesus who died the death you absolutely deserved to die? Will you give your life to him and serve him all the days of your life as your Lord and Saviour and God?

If your answer is Yes, then know this, my friend:

You are a Christian.

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