For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 12 – Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
We still mean it …
If I had been brought up as a Methodist rather than as a Baptist, I would have attended an annual Covenant Renewal service, probably on the first Sunday of each New Year, at which I would have pledged myself to God’s service and worship for the year ahead, and I would have joined in the famous prayer, now adopted into the Anglican Common Worship corpus, the prayer that begins ‘I am no longer my own, but yours …’ (you can find the words here). Anglicans do a similar thing at Easter each year, when we are invited to renew our baptism promises. In today’s OT reading the Israelite community, having settled in the land and about to lose the leader who helped to get them there, are invited in a similar way to renew the covenant they have made with God.
History demonstrates, of course, how fickle the were as a nation, and in the verses beyond our reading Joshua himself recognised this, but at the time they no doubt really meant it. While covenant renewal repeated too often can become an annual ritual with little meaning behind it, there are of course important liminal occasions, like conquering a new land and moving from a nomadic to a settled existence, when it seems highly appropriate. I wonder if the emergence from a pandemic, which means that we have been unable to meet together as usual, might be an occasion for renewing our relationship with God, and with one another, and reminding ourselves on what it is based.
What is interesting here, though, is the set of alternatives offered. Joshua clearly wants the people to remain faithful to the God who has brought them this far, out of slavery and into a land of their own, but he recognises the possibility that serving the Lord might seem undesirable to them (v.15). So he offers them some alternatives.
It is worth noting first that one alternative which he doesn’t offer is to worship nothing or no-one. He takes it for granted that they will worship something, because, well … we all do. It might not seem like a god in the conventional sense of the word, but anything which, in the famous definition of an idol,
rivets my attention,
centres my activity,
preoccupies my mind, and
motivates my action
is in fact a god which we worship. We just can’t help it, because we were created to worship, and if we don’t worship the true God, we’ll worship something else.
So what are the alternatives which Joshua offers them? First of all, they might like to worship the gods of their ancestors. This is about the hankering for the past, a kind of nostalgic, rosy-spectacled view of how things were (or at least how we romantically remember them to be). This might be a desire for Church as it used to be, when we used the proper Prayer Book and the right hymns, or even for Church as it used to be a few months ago when we had that nice vicar. In my experience this desire to worship the gods of the past is perhaps the single greatest issue facing the C of E today, and leaders trying to drag their churches kicking and screaming into the 20th century (or even the 18th) know what fierce opposition and personal vindictiveness this can engender. The Israelites would soon face the temptation to cease being pilgrim people, on the way to somewhere and dependent on God for all they needed for that journey, and become settled and self-sufficient people who liked things exactly as they are (or were). The church I attended for six years had suddenly, a few days before Christmas, to leave its building as it was declared unsafe, and this began a three year pilgrimage towards a meeting place of our own, which they settled in just after we had moved to another city. We were led brilliantly through that process by an excellent vicar, which engendered in the church a sense of journey, pilgrimage and purpose which few churches have managed to achieve. Beware of settling down: beware of the gods of the past.
But the other option is to serve the gods of the people around, in this case the Amorites or Canaanites, those who were living alongside Israel. This too has become a great temptation among Christians, some of whom have become infected by the consumerism and pluralism of our culture, and have compromised their faith in the living God with various distortions of the gospel, such as the Prosperity Gospel or the Therapy Gospel. I have just been reading a fascinating book which charts the rise of ‘MTD’, or moralistic therapeutic deism as the main religion of young people. In other words young people worship a God who will stop them from being too stupid, will satisfy all their needs, but will never intervene in any meaningful way in their lives, for example by challenging their sin or subverting their ambitions. Each generation will have similar distortions of the biblical gospel to which they are particularly prone.
In v.16 the people proudly (but somewhat short-sightedly) declare their complete devotion to Yahweh, but even if they are going to prove incapable of keeping their promises, they nevertheless have a sound basis from which to start: they remember what God has done. Verses 17-18 sound like a mini-creed, as the people remind themselves of their past relationship with God, and that is a really good thing to do regularly. The problem is that we soon forget.
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