I like to run. Correction: I like to have run. Past tense—if you know what I mean. I don’t enjoy running while I’m actually doing it. But with the end of Daylight Saving Time last week, it gets dark… early. And for safety reasons, I don’t prefer doing it when it’s dark. So I did something this past week I haven’t done in a while. I went to the gym.
And you know how you have to scan a bar code when you go to the gym? I did that, and naturally the attendant working at the front desk noticed and said, “Welcome back, Brent! I see it’s been a while!” And I’m like, “How embarrassing!” I feel judged! And I thought this was a “Judgment Free Zone”! Well, I guess I should be thankful: at least she didn’t say, “Welcome back, Brent! You look like someone who really needs to come back to the gym!”
But when I got through working out, I had the same thought I always have when I return to the gym after some time away: I thought, “I’m going to really get in shape this time! I’m going to do it! I’m going to get swole! I’m going to get to the point where I can do more than one pull-up at a time! I’m going to do it this time!”
This time time it’s going to be different!
And when we read today’s scripture, we ought to wonder if the Israelites are feeling the way I feel when I go back to the gym: “This time it’s going to be different! This time we’re really going to stick with it! This time we’re really going to be faithful servants of God!”
Because make no mistake: the Israelites have made similar commitments before.
Most of the people to whom Joshua is addressing these words were alive back when Moses preached his farewell sermon, in Deuteronomy chapter 30. They undoubtedly nodded their heads in agreement when Moses said words that are very similar to the words that Joshua says in today’s scripture. Moses said,
Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him…
That was many years before today’s scripture. Did the Israelites live up to their commitment back then?
No they did not. How do I know?
Look at verse 14 of Joshua 24: “Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” Or verse 23: “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord.”
Wait… Put away foreign gods…?
What the heck is Israel doing messing around with these idols in the first place?Where did they come from? How long have they had them in their possession?”
And the answer is, “They’ve had them for a long, long time!” Their parents had them. Their grandparents had them. Their great-grandparents had them. In fact, notice Joshua refers to gods that their forefathers served 40-something years earlier, when Israel was in slavery in Egypt. And their descendants are still worshipingthem today!
And consider this: April preached a few weeks ago from Exodus 32, about how when Moses was up on Mount Sinai for 40 days, his brother Aaron and the rest of the Israelites created a golden calf to worship. Before Moses interceded in prayer, God threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, to hit the reset button, to start again by creating a new covenant people, this time with Moses as the father of the nation.
My point is, even at the same time that God was threatening to destroy the Israelites for worshiping the golden calf, many of these same Israelites had in their possession other idols from Egypt and Mesopotamia. And they were worshiping those idols too!
Think about unbelievable that is!
How many miracles had Israel witnessed during that time? They witnessed the ten plagues against Egypt. They crossed the Red Sea on dry land. They watched Pharaoh and his army drown. They ate the miracle bread from heaven. They heard God speak to them at Sinai. They satisfied their thirst with miraculous water from a rock.
By the time of today’s scripture, the generations that saw those miracles had died off… but even this generation, the one to whom Joshua is speaking, remembers eating the manna from heaven. They remember crossing over the Jordan on dry land. They remember God bringing down the walls of Jericho with nothing more than a trumpet blast. They witnessed God giving them one miraculous victory after another over their military enemies.
They knew who God was… They knew he was real… They knew he was all-powerful… They experienced that power first-hand… Yet at the same time, they also worshiped puny, worthless idols. And they believed in those idols enough to hand them them down to their children… and to their children’s children.
My point is… if all these miraculous and powerful events weren’t enough to convince the Israelites to forsake their idols, how much confidence do we have that they’ll be successful this time? Are they like me at the gym? “This time time it’s going to be different! This time I’m really going to stick with the Lord! Never mind my dozens of previous resolutions to be a faithful to God. This time I’m really going to do it!”
Well… the good news is, this generation of Israelites ended up doing okay this time: If you read ahead in this chapter, in verse 31, we’re told that Israel “served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.”
So what was the difference this time? How did the Israelites manage to stick to their commitment this time?
I think it’s because Joshua convinced them that if they were going “put away their idols” and keep them put away, if they were going to serve God and not, at the same time, also serve their worthless idols, it wasn’t going to happen simply because they tried harder this time. It wasn’t going to happen because they had more will power this time. It wasn’t going to happen because they finally convinced themselves, intellectually, of the truth of the doctrines that Moses and Joshua taught them. It wasn’t even going to be because Joshua forced them to make a choice for God—“Choose this day whom you will serve”; or that when they made that choice they were more sincere than they were last time.
No… Inasmuch as Israel successfully put away their idols and served God, they did so because they took to heart the message of Joshua’s sermon in this chapter. We didn’t read most of that sermon, but let’s at least skim it now… So… if you have your Bibles—and you should—look at Joshua 24, verses 2 to 13. Joshua is speaking God’s Word to the people, and God is recounting to them a brief history of how Israel got to this point—how they made it to the Promised Land.
Just look at one verse, verse 3: “Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac.” And it goes on…
If you look at the rest of what God tells Israel, you’ll notice a theme: Joshua’s sermon is all about what God has done: “I did this thing for you… Then I did that… Then I did this other thing.” In fact, the little word “I” appears eighteen times in just ten verses!
Because God is reminding them, “This is not about you. It’s not about what you or your ancestors did. This is all about Me! I did all of this for you!” Now look at verse 13: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.”
I think we read about these heroes in the Bible, and we often think of them as spiritual superheroes of the faith. We think, “I can never be as faithful and strong and committed as they were! I can’t do what they did!”
In a way you’re right: You can’t. But God can.
One of the greatest heroes in the Bible, after all, is Abraham. He was chosen to be the father of the nation of Israel, the father of the people through whom God would save the world through his Son Jesus. You think, “I can never be like him.” Not so fast: look what Joshua says about Abraham in verse 2. When God called Abraham, God didn’t go looking for one faithful man among the millions who was already serving God, one man who was already loving God, one man who was already being faithful to God, one man who was already well-suited to the mission God was calling him to fulfill! No! God wouldn’t be able to find that man even if he tried: Paul describes who each one of us is apart from God’s grace in Romans 3:
None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.
So when God called Abraham, Abraham was no different: look at what he was doing in verse 2: Abraham was “serving other gods.” He was a pagan… an idolator. God did not choose Abraham, in other words, because Abraham was worthy of being chosen.
No… God chose him first… and then made him worthy.
God chose him first… and then made him worthy.
That is the way God always does things. That is the order of grace…
And even when we work hard for God, when we serve God, when we do good works for God—as many of us did yesterday at the Rise Against Hunger event, as some of us did last week at the Halloween event—it wasn’t really us doing it; we don’t deserve the credit. The apostle Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 15: When he’s talking about all the hard work he’s done as an apostle, he almost has to correct himself in mid-sentence—or at least make sure his readers don’t misunderstand him. He writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them [the other apostles] though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Did you catch that? Paul did all this work. But it wasn’t Paul, it was God’s grace within Paul that was doing all the good work through him. God deserved the credit.
I believe that Toccoa, Georgia, has hardly begun to see what God’s grace can do when that grace works powerfully through normal, average, everyday sinners like you and me at Toccoa First United Methodist! They’ve hardly seen it yet! Don’t you want them to? Don’t you want to see what powerful, miraculous things God can do even through us. I believe they can and they will!
And when they do, they’re not going to say, for example, “Boy, that Josh Villars is really something special! Look what he did.” No… They’re going to say, “That can’t be Josh! Josh can’t do that! That must be Jesus!”
That’s how grace works!
Speaking of grace, Pastor Steve Brown is a Presbyterian pastor down in Florida who’s famous for saying outrageous things about God’s grace and God’s unconditional love—outrageous things that also happen to be true! He said one time, “When I was growing up, I just knew that my mother loved me so much that if she found out I was serial killer, she would say, ‘Well, they probably deserved it.’”
Isn’t that terrible? But I’m sure it was true! That’s the way our mothers love us—or at least that’s how they’re supposed to! There’s nothing we can do to make our mothers stop loving us… That’s unconditional love, and that’s a good thing.
Pastor Steve went on to say that he knew his dad’s love was no different: his dad loved him unconditionally too.
But psychologists tell us that, unfortunately, most of us children don’t experience our father’s love like that. Most children grow up believing that our dads love us only as much as live up to their expectations. We don’t want to risk disappointing our fathers because if we do… well… we’re afraid they won’t love us anymore… or they won’t love us as much. It’s sad that children often feel that way!
Now let me ask you: How do you think your heavenly Father loves you?
Because I think that the hardest doctrine to believe in all of Christianity is that God loves and accepts us by grace alone, and not based on our own merit.
No, I take that back: It’s not hard for me to believe that God loves and accepts you by grace. I mean, in comparison to me, you’re wonderful… But what’s very hard for me to believe is that God loves and accepts me—even me—by grace, and not based on how wonderful I prove myself to be.
Well… that’s why someone like me needs to hear the same sermon that the Israelites needed to hear in today’s scripture!
God is telling Israel something like this: “You didn’t make it to the Promised Land because of anything you did! See, I’ve known all this time… I’ve known for the decades that have passed since I sent Moses to liberate you from slavery, that you were carrying around those idols. Worshipping those idols. You didn’t know I knew, but I did. You can’t keep your sins a secret from me. Which means I must really love you to have brought you into a ‘land on which you have not labored’ and given you ‘cities that you have not built’ and allowed you to ‘eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.’
“I did this all the while knowing that you were cheating on me with other gods—serving them, loving them, trying to please them…
“So now you know that I love you based on grace alone, right?”
“Which means that I love you in spite of what you do, or in spite of what you’ve done. And now that you know that, how about giving up those idols? Obviously, I’ve proven to you that I love you even with your idols. But it’s time to give them up. It’s time to start loving me with your whole heart. It’s time to throw those things away.”
Again, getting back to Pastor Steve Brown: He was talking about the doctrine of sanctification—that long, slow process of the Holy Spirit changing us from within. He said, “I’m better than I was”—by which he meant, “I guess I’m a little holier than I used to be… a little more Christlike than I used to be.” “But,” he said, “it’s only because I realized I don’t have to be better than I was.”
“I’m better than I was. But it’s only because I realized I don’t have to be better than I was.”
Isn’t that good news! That’s the radical grace of God right there!
And I think that’s what the Israelites finally grasped when Joshua preached this sermon: Look at how much God loves us. Look at how much grace he’s given us!
I think that message just melted their hearts. And I hope it melts yours.
I worry that in emphasizing God’s grace so much that I’ve made it sound like we don’t do anything. And that’s not true.
We have to do what Joshua tells the Israelites to do in verse 15:“Choose this day whom you will serve.”
Let me briefly share three ways that this is good news:
First, it’s good news because some of you, as far as you know, have always believed in Jesus. You don’t remember a time in your life before Christ… You don’t remember having a dramatic conversion experience… You don’t remember being born again. And you might think, “Maybe I’m not saved.”
Well, here’s a test: Are you choosing Christ today… and every day? Are you repenting of your sins as you become aware of them today… and every day? Are you seeking to follow Christ today… and every day. The evidence of saving faith isn’t whether you remember a time before you were a Christian, or you remember being converted, or you remember being born again… Look, we all know so-called Christians who went through confirmation or at one time prayed a “sinner’s prayer,” and that’s the only evidence of their Christian faith. God is not impressed with that!
What he’s impressed with is, Are you choosing him this day?
A second way this is good news: Some of you are feeling guilty right now because you haven’t prayed in a while, you haven’t gone to church in a while, you haven’t read your Bible in a while, you haven’t even thought about witnessing to your neighbor… You feel like you’re just sort of going through the motions of being a Christian. You know you’re not as faithful to God as you ought to be. And you feel awful about it.
If so, please hear God’s Word: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” God is giving you a second chance—or maybe even a 5,872nd chance.” It’s not too late for you to choose him again. For you to repent of your sins, put away your idols, and choose him this day… not last week, last year, or 50 years ago, but today—forget about the past—God wants to be in a relationship with you today. Choose him today!
Finally, there are others of you who never really made a choice in the first place. Maybe your parents made it for you when you were young, they made you go through confirmation and get baptized like it was some kind of rite of passage, but you know you don’t have a personal relationship with Christ. You might even believe it up here, intellectually, but you’ve never surrendered to Christ.
If so, God is telling you, “Choose this day!”
God wants you to choose, and then his Word promises to give you the power to change.
Choose… and let God change you!