Old Testament Lectionary 23rd August Trinity 12 Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

One of the ideas which has become a lot less fashionable nowadays is that of the in-or-out nature of faith. Yet the NT is full of that kind of language which suggests that there is a very clear dividing line between those who are actually God’s and those who are not. For a recent conference I listed over 50 occurrences of such language from the Epistles and Gospels: darkness to light, no people to God’s people, enemies to friends of God, children of the Devil to God’s children, wise and foolish … the list goes on. This provides a major stumbling block for universalists and for rural Christians, both of whom tend either to blur the boundaries or to remove them altogether.

Today’s gospel differentiates clearly between those who are in and out, and even demonstrates the possibility of moving from in to out. And the background to that kind of choice is to be found in the stark choice with which Joshua faced his people in this famous passage, much beloved by evangelists. The chapter in my Bible is headed ‘The covenant renewed’, and the occasion is the completion of the conquest of the Promised Land and the start of a more settled period in Israel’s history. It never hurts, when entering into new phases, to stop and recommit ourselves to God.

File:Fork in Road - geograph.org.uk - 760119.jpg

Joshua’s words, though, provide an interesting commentary on faith in God and its alternatives. First of all, it is a deliberate choice, which we can and must make, one way or the other. Making the choice to turn to Christ (as the Anglican liturgy puts it) involves also the choice to turn our backs on other things. There is very little which we can bring into the kingdom with us, and Jesus warned about the impossibility of trying to serve two masters.

However, for those a bit hesitant about taking this step, Joshua sets out some possible alternatives. If you don’t want to serve the living God, he tells the people, then you might like to try one of two alternatives. The first is about the past: you can chose to remain in the unenlightened state in which you lived formerly. This is a constant danger for God’s people. Nostalgia, it has been said, isn’t what it used to be, but it is still very powerful, and the draw of ways of living which seemed to work in past generations is strong, whether it is about liturgical texts and forms of worship, buildings, or the pleasures of youth. These are the gods, Joshua tells them, that they ought really to throw away.

If the past is not attractive, though, the second option is the surrounding culture and its gods. Merely to go along with what everyone else is doing and thinking, and how they are living, can often be the path of least resistance, and can seem very attractive as opposed to the radical and unpopular path of following Christ.

The people’s enthusiastic response in v 18 is a good example to us all of giving the right answer, and fortunately our lectionary compliers, wanting as ever to keep things nice, stop us reading before Joshua’s somewhat cynical but nevertheless realistic comment in v 19-20. Choosing the right path is always a struggle, always a battle, and it is only through faith and gritted teeth that we can stick to it at every crossroads.

Image: Ian Paterson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Joshua

The narrative of the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land continues for the first 12 chapters of this book, but after that it gets less interesting, although it does raise some very interesting questions. The book ends with the people, now apparently settled, getting another pep-talk from Joshua, along similar lines to that from Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, and publicly renewing their covenant relationship with God. Joshua dies peacefully, and we reach the end of an era, with a brand new chapter starting in the next book, Judges.

 

The main problem with the land promised to the people of Israel by God is the fact that it is already populated by several nations who quite understandably are not too happy about this new nation coming in believing that their God has promised it to them. Put that together with the previous instructions to remain separate from the nations around them, and the Israelites seem to have little option but to embark on a bit of serious ethnic cleansing. That is exactly what they do, much to the consternation of today’s readers of the book who find it difficult to cope with a God who commands such inhumanity.

 

It is a standard principle of biblical interpretation that we use the Bible to interpret itself wherever we can, so on one level the question ‘Why did God command the slaughter of all those people?’ is easily answered, from Deuteronomy 9, where the take is that the nations deserved all they got because of their sin and idolatry, and that God was using Israel to bring upon them the punishment they so richly deserved. We might not like that, but it is clearly what the Bible teaches, and we can begin to realise the depth of God’s patience and mercy that he hasn’t (yet) done the same to Britain. It was Billy Graham’s wife who said that if God didn’t judge America, he would have to go back and apologise to Sodom and Gomorrah. And in fact subsequent history suggests that this policy was the right one: most of the trouble in which Israel later found herself came because of compromise, intermarriage and worship infected with idolatry. Even in this book the instructions to destroy the other nations completely are not fully carried out. The suffering of generations was the result of this kind of compromise: later we’ll see this truth worked out in the book of Amos. As one who has undergone extensive surgery for cancer I fully understand that some things need rooting out completely, lest they reinfect the whole body and lead to its death.

 

But on the plus side, though, we have here the story of a God of miracles, who acts powerfully for the salvation of his people. Walls collapse, water parts in a scaled-down version of Moses’ earlier miracle, thus validating Joshua’s leadership in the eyes of the people. Victories are won in battle against overwhelming odds, sin is revealed and rooted out, and even the sun stands still. So this book highlights in a very clear and powerful way the choice which is made explicit in the final chapter: ‘Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve’. To serve God means the powerful protection and salvation of a loving saviour, but to choose something else means that one makes an enemy of God and must face the consequences. This was the same challenge set before the people by Moses, and the same one which faces us today.