August 20, 2012 @ 1:03 pm
The World is fresh off its addiction to the 2012 Summer Olympics. Only last Sunday the games concluded with the closing ceremony held in London. And America all of a sudden has new heroes to cheer for. Of course there was Michael Phelps and his continued dominance in the sport of swimming, new comer Missy Franklin, Gabby Douglas, the gymnast, virtually all of the women’s sprinters, and men’s platform diver David Boudia, just to name a few. We had much to cheer about and it was exciting to watch our American athletes achieve such great success.
There is something quite stirring about watching athletes in action. Usian Bolt ran the 100 meter dash. His race was over in under 10 seconds, but we know that he didn’t just show up and run. He spent countless hours. He trained his body to be prepared for competition. He disciplined his diet and routine to make him ready to participate in a competition that lasted but a moment. But that moment was a moment of greatness.
“Find Your Greatness” was the slogan for the Nike advertising campaign run during the Olympics. Regular athletes, the everyday type more like you or me were shown training for their event, whatever that event might be. We see the success of Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin and we are inspired. They are great athletes. We would like to be great too. Nike says you can be.
Today Joshua, the leader of the Israelites, preaches to us from our Old Testament lesson from the book bearing his name. “Choose this day whom you shall serve. Be it the false gods your fathers served when Abraham still lived in Babylon, the god’s you served while you were still slaves in Egypt, or be it the gods of the your neighbors the Amorites. But, says Joshua, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Stirring, isn’t it? We are not heroes from the Bible. But this makes us want to be. We are not great heroes of the faith, but doesn’t this make us feel like we can be? Doesn’t this make you want to find your greatness?
Choose this day Chuckery whom you shall serve. The Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Amorites served false gods; your neighbors serve themselves. The world around you worships money, power, achievement, fame and glory, entertainment and leisure, sex; and they sacrifice their time, their families, themselves so that they can spend a moment with their god. But we won’t make that choice. I won’t make that choice. No. Me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
We might take a look at Joshua and the Israelites. After all, they were a group who had achieved greatness. Look at all the grand and great things they accomplished. They were slaves in Egypt. What other people in the history of the world has managed successfully to throw off the shackles of slavery, to set themselves free from a more powerful and prominent captor? After leaving Egypt behind, they marched through the desert – scorching heat, burning sand, a million people and little water or food to keep them alive along the way, but they did it. When they reached the other side they found a land flowing with milk and honey, but occupied by large and strong people living in fortified cities. But still they took the land and drove out their enemies. Even the great and grand city of Jericho with its mighty walls was no match for them. The Israelites were a great nation.
And so, when we come to Joshua’s ultimatum, Joshua’s invitation to put up or shut up, is it any surprise that they said what they did.
“Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods, for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
But we would be foolish to attribute the success of the Israelites to the Israelites. Wouldn’t we? We know the reason why they were successful. Leaving Egypt was not something that they accomplished. They did not achieve that by their own power or inner greatness. It was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt. The Lord prepared the hearts of the Egyptians to let them go by inflicting the Egyptians with great suffering on account of the Israelites. The Egyptians wanted them to leave and in fact gave them gifts when they finally did go.
Surviving the wilderness, that wasn’t the result of the hardiness or resourcefulness of the Israelites, it was the provision of the Lord who caused water to flow out of rocks and food to fall from heaven.
Overcoming the Amorites who lived in the Promised Land and destroying the fortified and walled cities, those victories were not the result of the strength of the Israelites. It was not their fierce competitive edge or their military prowess that earned for them a great victory. It was the Lord. The Lord fought for them. The Lord raised them up and gave them victory. In fact, when the Israelites tried to go it alone without the God’s help, which they did try on several occasions, they were routed and fled before their enemies.
No, it was not the power or the strength or the ingenuity or some inner personal quality of the Israelites that gave them their success. It was all, totally and completely the work and the provision of the Lord.
The same exact thing is true for us, both materially but also and especially spiritually. Every success that we enjoy is a gift from the Lord. Everything that we accomplish, every goal that we achieve, we achieve it because of the goodness of the Lord. We go out and work our hardest and do our best. We make the best preparation and provision that we can and we hope for success, but whether or not we make the grade is up to the Lord. He causes the sun to shine, the rain to fall, the crops to grow. He gives the talents and abilities but also the opportunity to use them. He provides the health and well being, the clarity of thought and mind, the influence of the right people at the right time. Every success that we enjoy is God’s gift.
The Epistle of St James addresses this topic. He warns us not to say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”. He says, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13-16 ESV)
Our success, our achievement, “finding our greatness”; it is all a gift from the Lord that he gives according to his good pleasure.
If that is how it is with things below us, that is to say, if you have success in the things that you can decide to do – business, academics, athletics, relationships; and the success in those things comes only from the Lord. If we can’t take credit for those things, then how can it be that we could ever take credit from those things that are above us? How could we ever take any credit for our faith? For salvation? Good works? Our knowledge of God and His Will? Our battles with sin and temptation? Can we ever take any credit for those things?
Joshua said to the Israelites, “Choose you this day whom you will serve. Whether the false gods of your neighbors or the true God who led you out of slavery. But as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” The people spoke in faith. They were completely correct in what they said. “The Lord has performed great signs and wonders. We have seen it with our own eyes, we have experienced it and been witness to it. We will serve the Lord.” You and I would probably say exactly the same thing. You and I would probably make the same exact commitment and promise. Indeed we have. We make personal commitments to ourselves. In our private prayers we make promises to the Lord about things we will do for him, things we will no longer do that we know to be violations of his will for us, we take public vows even here in church before God and his people about things that we promise the Lord we will do. Confirmation vows, wedding vows, our teachers have taken vows of service and faithfulness, I have made vows to the Lord at my ordination and then again when I was installed here as your pastor. We all take vows. We have chosen our greatness. Have we achieved it?
Turn the page from Joshua 24 and you will find yourself in the book of Judges. You will see there that these same Israelites who made a vow to be faithful to the Lord broke that vow.
There is an old clergy joke about pastors discussing the best way to get rid of mice that have infested the church building. There were various extermination methods that didn’t work that each one had tried. The punch line come from the last preacher who says, “We baptized ‘em, confirmed ‘em and haven’t seen those little varmints since.”
Maybe they come back for Christmas or Easter.
We break our vows. We make promises before the Lord, promises to the Lord, whether in public or private and we break them all. And it destroys our conscience. It weighs us down with guilt and fear and full knowledge of our own weakness. We feel impotent and incapable. We go back and forth between feelings of guilt and fear and we try to convince ourselves of our own innocence – that wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t help it, someone else pushed me to do that, to say that, to think that. Sometimes we are even able to convince ourselves that everything is okay but then we are right back at it again. Our consciences become a punching bag – a speed bag that the Devil is working back and forth and back and forth and we just stand there and take it. What are we going to do.
Fortunately… Fortunately for the Jews the story doesn’t end for them with the end of the book of Joshua. Fortunately it doesn’t end with the book of Judges. With them abandoning the Lord. Read through the Old Testament and you will find that you can relate to the stories it tells. The Israelites forget the Lord. He sends the Philistines to terrorize them. They cry out to the Lord for help. He saves them. Then they forget again. The Lord send the Assyrians to terrorize them. They cry out to the Lord for help. He saves them. But then they forget him. The Lord sends prophets to warn them, to preach to them, they reject the prophets, they run them off and try to shut them up. The whole thing gets worse before it gets better. In fact, it gets so bad, the people fall so far away from the Lord that he decides there is nothing left to do but to humble them utterly and completely. The Lord decides to wipe them out so that he can purge the land from all the filth and putrescence that they vomited out all over the Lord’s Promised Land. The Assyrians come in 720 BC and carry away the Northern Kingdom, the Babylonians come in 586 BC and carry off the Southern Kingdom.
But the Lord is faithful. The Lord made promises, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Lord made promises to David. The Lord made promises to the entire nation of Israel. And so he kept that promise. A King to sit on the throne of his father David, a great nation of every people tribe and race, all nations blessed because of their offspring.
A baby was born and came into the world – he grew up to be a man. His name was Jesus. He was born in a poor child in the city of David, Bethlehem, spent some time Egypt, entered Israel and ministry through the Jordan River, 40 days in the wilderness – not unlike those 40 years. Entered into the Promised Land, rode to Jerusalem on a donkey – all of Israel reduced to one. One man who represented an entire nation, no an entire race. And he was tried and convicted for no sin of his own, he was condemned to die, and suffered punishment for sins that were not his own. HE suffered as you and me. We take vows and make promises that we break. He did not. HE does not. And he makes promises to you.
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:54 ESV)
As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:57-58 ESV)
We give our word. Make our promise, our words as well intentioned as they are, are never enough. It is only the Word of Jesus that matter.
Jesus asked the disciples if they believe. Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69 ESV)
You conscience is clean and clear in Jesus.