Monday 26 October 2015

How do you make important choices? (Joshua 24)

Marty and Jennifer are about to kiss when suddenly they hear a sonic boom. A silver DeLorean crashes into the rubbish bins and Doc Brown jumps out dressed in a yellow labcoat and plastic tie.

“Marty!” Doc says. “You’ve got to come with me… back to the future!”

“What do you mean?” Marty says.

“It’s your kids! Something’s got to be done about your kids!”

Marty and Jennifer get into the time travelling automobile as Doc Brown reverses onto the street.

“Doc!” Marty says, “There’s not enough road to get up to eighty-eight.”

“Roads?” says Doc Brown. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”

In the 1985 hit movie “Back to the Future”, Marty McFly travels thirty years into the past (to meet his parents) and then thirty years into the future (to meet his kids). Marty learns that small actions have big consequences. His mother falls in love with him and he is almost never born. His enemy steals the time machine creating an alternate future ruled by Donald Trump (I mean, Biff Tannen). Small actions can have big consequences.

That’s the lesson we see today as Joshua 24 neatly divides into past, present and future.

Verse 2: “Long ago your ancestors...”
(That’s the past)
Verse 14: “Now fear the LORD…”  
(That’s the present.)
Verse 29: “After these things…”
(That’s the future)

The question today is: How do you make important choices? Three things to look out for today: (a) Our past choices (verses 1 to 13), (b) our present commitments (verses 14 to 27) and (c) our future consequences (verses 28 to 33).

Past choices, present commitments and future consequences.

1. Our past choices

We begin with verse 2.

Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says, ‘Long ago your forefathers, (or ancestors) including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshipped other gods.’”
Joshua 24:1-2

Joshua begins - not thirty years - but four hundred years into the past. Verses 2 to 13 summarise the first six books of the bible - the history of the nation of Israel. What does Joshua want them to see as they look back at four hundred years of history? He wants them to see the choices their fathers have made. More importantly, he wants them to see the choices that God has made.

Verse 3, God says:
“But I took your father…
I led him throughout Canaan…
and I gave him many descendants.”
The same way that your browsing history reveals the choices you have made online so the bible is God’s history revealing God’s choices in calling, blessing and saving his people. God says, “I did this… I did this,” in verses 2 to 13.

At the same time we see God’s choices working through different people; different generations. Abraham’s generation (verses 3 to 4) lived beyond the River; they worshipped other gods but God chose to call Abraham. Moses’ generation (verses 5 to 7) were slaves in Egypt but God chose to save them. Finally, Joshua’s generation (verses 8 to 13) were homeless in the desert but God chose to protect them and to give them a home in the Promised Land.

Three generations called by God, saved by God and blessed by God. Interestingly, we also see three rivers - the “River” (Euphrates in verse 2), the Red Sea (in verse 6) and the Jordan (in verse 8)  - representing three hurdles - three borders - that each generation had to cross in order to follow God.

Why is this important? Because we think that we are different; that our choices are unique. We have the Internet. We have Obama. And yet a sign which hangs in a World War II concentration camp reads, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Joshua looks back at four hundred years of history and he sees the same mistakes, the same regrets.

Like my mum who sometimes says to me, “You are your father’s son” (Both of us are stubborn!), God says the same thing in verses 6 and 7.

Verse 6:
“When I brought your fathers out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Red Sea.”
Verse 7:
“But they cried out to the LORD for help, and he put darkness between you and Egyptians.”

Meaning: Their history is your history. Their situation then is your situation now. The big question running throughout the book of Joshua is: Will this generation be any different?

That’s a key theme running through the book of Joshua: Will Israel make the same choices as the past. Moses’ generation disobeyed God and perished in the desert. Would Joshua’s generation do the same? You see, the past reveals the lessons we need to learn. The past reveals the choices that we need to make.

But what if you are ashamed of your past? Or what if you are constrained by your past?

A friend of mine works with girls who have been abused. These are girls who want to forget their past. One day, a twelve year-old girl asked her, “What is love?” My friend replied, “God is love.” She wondered if her answer made any sense. But the little girl walked away singing “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so.” You see, God’s love makes most sense to the unloved. Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” (Luke 5:31, Matthew 9:12)

Conversely, the healthy are those who try to impress God with their CV. If that’s you, listen to what God says in verse 13:

So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities which you did not build.

The point is: You did not do this. You did not earn this. Your degree, your witty charm, your privileged education are all gifts that God gave you. You did not do this.

And yet, the tragedy is, those who have been blessed most by God are those most likely to take God’s blessing for granted. We read this week at Rock, these words from Romans Chapter 1, verse 21: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” That’s the bible’s definition of sin. Not doing bad things but ignoring a good God. Looking back at all the good things in your past and saying, “I did this.”

Whether you are a Christian or not, the past ought to humble us. It teaches us that the biggest decisions in our lives were not made by us. If you know that, then looking back to the past always gives us two choices - Will we live God’s way or will we live our way?

That’s the first thing we see.
2. Our present commitments

But next, we see our present commitments.

Verse 14 again:
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.

And in verse 24...
All the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the LORD our God and obey him.”

End of story. They all became Christians and lived happily ever after. Well, not quite. As soon as Joshua gives them a command (“Worship God!”) he gives them a choice! He says to them, “How many of you would like to be Muslim?” and “Why don’t you try Buddhism?” Don’t believe me? Look at verse 15.

But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, the 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

Now, of course - of course - Joshua wants them to worship the only God who called them, blessed them, saved them...  but why does he give them a choice to worship other gods? Because making an important choice always means a commitment. Making an important choice means sticking to that choice.

The problem is: Most of us hear the word choices and we think “options”. Like McDonalds: “Would you like fries with that?” No one subscribes to Netflix and watches the same show over and over again. We want options. Many Cambridge students do that with church - “I like the worship in that church but ooh, that church has food.”

But friends, the biggest decisions in life are not about choices but commitments. The person you marry. The God whom you worship. These are exclusive choices in life. Following God means forsaking all other gods. Some of us hear that and go, “Whoa, that’s a big decision!” and that’s the right response. The bible wants us to consider carefully what it means to follow Jesus. It gives us evidence that he really died on the cross. He really rose from the dead. A good response is to say, “I need to think about this.”

A bad response is to say, “Mo man tai” (No problem!) Which is what they say in verse 16:

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods!

Verse 19:
Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a 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.”

Verse 21:
But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the LORD.”

What Joshua is calling Israel to do is what the bible calls repentance. Repentance is not about feeling really, really sorry about your sin or feeling really, really passionate about God. To repent is simply to turn. 1 Thessalonians 1:9 describes Christians as those who “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” That is exactly what Joshua is calling Israel to do. To turn away from foreign gods, to turn their back on idols, literally, to “throw away the foreign gods” (verses 14 and 23) and to worship God and God alone.

And yet, Joshua has to remind them - twice - to throw away their idols. Why? Because even as they are jumping up and down in church declaring, “Only you, Jesus!” you can see a Pat Kua sticking out of their back pocket.

My parents aren’t Christian. Every year at Chinese New Year, my mum sets up an altar to “pai tee kong” - to pray to the Hokkien God of Heaven. And she says, “Even Christians come. It’s OK.” Joshua is saying to us, “It’s not OK to pai tee kong.” It’s not OK to worship God passionately on Sundays but then to live like your career is your god every other day.

The most important choices in life are commitments: Will you do what you say you are going to do. The reasons why Christians get married in church is because husband and wife are making commitments to one another - “for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health” - and as they make these commitments they are saying to God and to the church, “Be our witness.”

We see this in verse 22:
Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD.”

“Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied.

Again in verse 27:
“See,” he said to all the people, “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the LORD has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.”

I had a very irritating friend back when I was a non-Christian. My friend would keep asking me, “Do you want to be a Christian? Are you a Christian yet?” Every time I saw my friend - “Do you want to be a Christian?” Then one day, I became a Christian. And my friend said to me, “Are you sure you are Christian? Are you still following Christ?” What do you call that? An irritating friend!

No, I call that a faithful witness. Joshua says, “You are witnesses!” meaning, “You are supposed to remind each other: ‘Are you still following God?’”

Hebrews 10:25 says
Let us not give up meeting together, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The important choices in life are about making commitments not having options. When we commit to following God it means forsaking all other gods.

3. Our future consequences

Finally, our future consequences. What see in this last section is Joshua… dying.

Verse 29:
After these things, Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred and ten.

It’s like the Sixth Sense (“I see dead people.”) Joshua dies. Joseph’s dead. Eleazar dies in verse 33. Everyone dies. But that’s not the sad bit because Joseph was buried at a hundred and ten (symbolising a full life), he was buried in the land of his inheritance, meaning, he received God’s promises. Same with Joseph; same with Eleazar the son of Aaron. They saw all of God’s promises fulfilled within their lifetime.

No, the sad bit happens after they die. Turn over the page and the first words of the next chapter are: “After the death of Joshua.” It’s the book of Judges where the entire nation abandons god. That’s really sad because Joshua tried his best. Joshua was a fantastic leader of God’s people.

But the point is: That’s not enough. It is not enough to have a leader like Joshua. It is not enough to be sincere and serious in our decision making. Because the truth is, it doesn’t take very much to turn the best decisions in life into the biggest regrets in life. Think of the best decisions you’ve made - moving to Cambridge, coming to the Chinese Church (!) - it doesn’t take very much to turn a dream into a nightmare. An argument will do that. Or just time - you get bored. It doesn’t take much to turn our best decisions into our biggest regrets.

I think that’s one of the reasons why so many people put off being a Christian. They put off getting baptised. Oh, you come to church every week. You know that Jesus died for your sins. You believe that he rose from the dead. But you want to wait till the very last minute, that very last moment, before you have to say, “Yes, he is my God.” Why? Because most of us make the hardest choices only when we have no other choice. (In Hokkien: Bo pian)

Friends, if you don’t feel like choosing Jesus today, what makes you think you will want to choose Jesus tomorrow? If you are not faithful with the small things today, what makes you think you will be faithful with the big things tomorrow?

The book of Hebrews reflects on the book of Joshua by saying this:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

Let me say that again. Hebrews 4, verse 7:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains then a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
Hebrew 4:7-11

If you hear God’s voice today, respond to God’s Son today. Because in Jesus we have Joshua who died but rose again. In Jesus we have a Joshua who said, “Come to me all, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

But most importantly, in Jesus we have a Joshua who was forsaken. Joshua lived a full life and he died a good death. But Jesus hung on a cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christians understand that the reason he was forsaken was because he was taking the full judgement of our sin upon himself. Jesus is the better Joshua who was forsaken so that you and I could be forgiven.


We have seen three things: the past, present and future.

The past reveals the lessons we need to learn. To recognise God’s grace. To repent of our own ungratefulness.

The present calls us to commitment. To worship God and forsake all other gods. To keep each other accountable in our promises to live for God alone.

The future points us to Jesus. He is the better Joshua who died but rose again, who was forsaken so we could be forgiven.

One of the most misquoted verses regarding Jesus is from Hebrew 13:7 - you see it in posters and bookmarks - “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Many take that to mean how Jesus is so lovable, never changing and always the same. But look just a couple of verses earlier:

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Hebrews 13:7-8

It looks to the past, present and future. Look at your leaders who preached the gospel to you. Consider what it meant for them to speak for Jesus, to live for Jesus, and - in the context of the book of Hebrews - to suffer for Jesus. It is no different for you today and it will be the same for those who come after you tomorrow. Keep preaching the gospel!

That’s what it means for Jesus to be same yesterday, today and forever. It means trusting in God’s word and responding to God’s word every single day of your life.

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains then a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
Hebrew 4:7-11

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