Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
In a 1936 speech to the British Parliament, Winston Churchill said, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”
Personally, institutionally, we are all faced with choices. Sometimes even not to make a choice is, in fact, to choose to enter a period of consequences. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, church leaders were required to make consequential choices based on erratic and sometimes rapidly changing information. While we were still spraying our mail with Lysol, we had to decide, “Do we close the church?” Later, it was, “What about masks? Do we ask, or do we mandate?” And of course, “What do we do about _____ who wears his mask under his nose?” I remember, half-joking, that I craved the day when we could have a good old-fashioned church argument about nothing more consequential than the color of the sanctuary’s carpet. Whatever choices we made, the potential for great consequences chastened us.
Joshua takes pains to present the Israelites with a clear choice, a consequential choice.
In his farewell sermon, Joshua tells the people that they must choose this day whom they will serve. He reminds his friends, his family, his people what God’s choice of Israel means: Israel’s common life is to be a life of covenantal faithfulness. Israel is to be God’s living witness in the world.
Or, they can choose not to live in relation to the God who has chosen them, with a very different string of consequences to follow.
If we expand the text, we see how Joshua warns the Israelites that they are entering into a period of consequences either way. While they need no reminding, given the last 40 years in the wilderness, he nevertheless does remind them — and quickly adds that continuing to serve an idol comes with perilous consequences.
This is a moment when not to choose is to choose.
Joshua knows this is a daunting choice, so as he preaches to the people standing on the precipice of an uncertain future, he invites them to live their lives trusting the God who has brought them thus far. The Hebrew Scriptures often admonish God’s people to remember who God has been. Here, Joshua’s final exhortation begins: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel … I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.”
The lectionary unfortunately interrupts the recitation of God’s faithfulness to Israel and cuts straight to Joshua’s exhortation to choose, but those missing verses are crucial. Along with the rest of Joshua’s sermon, these words ground the Israelites’ choice in the narrative of what God has done. Facing an uncertain future, as one era ends and another begins, the people are reminded of who God has been. They are invited to face their future with that memory, trusting that, because God is who God is, that memory is the future.
In particular, they remember that as they are accompanied by this jealous God, who has no patience for idols, this God has nonetheless demonstrated abundant patience with them. And even though Joshua believes they will fail to put away their idols and live faithfully as God’s people, he also believes that remembering what God has done to save God’s people is to be a people who have been given a future: not because they know what lies ahead, but because they know who goes with them. That, I suppose, is a comfort for all of us who fail to surrender our idols.
Perhaps in these times filled with perilous choices followed by periods of consequences, we would do well to remember the narrative of the God who has brought us thus far, the God who has saved God’s people to be a witness in a world in love with idols.
This leads me to a caution: So often choice is positioned in the church in a way that can be manipulative: Choose salvation or choose the consequences! For those of us of the Reformed persuasion, the semi-Pelagian danger of such a presentation of the gospel is evident: When God’s grace is determined by something we do, we skate on thin ice theologically, careening toward works righteousness.
To remember who God is, and who God has been for us, means remembering that God’s grace comes upon us unbidden. We have not gained it by our choices, rather more likely we have needed it because of our choices.
So, if we are to offer a choice to our people, let it be a choice to remember who God is, and live in grateful response to God’s mercy unearned and God’s love unmerited.