Note: Each Thursday, I'll be looking at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. Today, we're looking at Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. The lectionary skipped over 3b-13 because it's basically a recap of everything that happened from the patriarchs up to this point. If this were a TV show, it would be one of those "Previously on Sons & Daughters of Abraham..." things.
"Choose this day whom you will serve" is one of those epic Old Testament moments. I have always kind of imagined Joshua shouting this while riding back and forth on a horse like William Wallace in Braveheart. It is an unflinching moment. Don't drag your feet. Decide now. And if you are not going to serve God with your whole heart, then don't bother pretending.
I have sat in many a service where this challenge was thrown down and everyone is like, "Yeah! We will serve the Lord! FREEDOM!" (Except the polite Baptist version of that). How could you not respond that way? It's a stirring speech. The people of Israel are totally into it too. Far be it from us to ditch God for these foreign gods! Like you said, God has brought us through slavery and has done so much awesome stuff that we can't deny.
So everybody is on the same page. We're good to go. Right? Wrong! Joshua pushes back in verse 19: No. You can't do this. You can't serve God. God is holy. God is jealous. If you turn your back and rebel, God is going to absolutely annihilate you guys. After all the good that God has done for you, you are just going to ruin by running after all of these idols.
(Some parenthetical background: the Babylonian exile is very much in view during this conversation. Scholars think the Book of Joshua was not put to parchment until around this time. Thus Joshua is having this conversation with the people of Israel in that time. Do you want to serve the Lord? Really? Because you have seen what happens when the people started following other gods.)
The pushback is fascinating to me because we live in an era where we try to make following Jesus sound like the absolutely easiest thing possible. In some circles, it is literally an ABC matter. Say a prayer. Check a box. Walk down an aisle. Raise a hand. Seriously, how many times have you heard someone talk about becoming a Christian and say, "All you have to do is..." (which it is interesting to me that the other vocation that shares that phrase is television salesperson: "All you have to do is make five easy payments of $19.95!"). We are so easy to get people in the door that we don't normally convey how difficult following God actually is.
Joshua does not try to sugarcoat. He is honest. Sure, you might think that he is using reverse psychology, but the subtext of this conversation (Babylonian exile) indicates that, no, the people are not going to be able to follow through. They will not be able to on down the road. Following God is difficult. It is far easier to not to do so.
There is something refreshing about Joshua asking the people if they are sure they want to choose this way. I am not saying that we should employ the terror that Joshua does. We shouldn't tell people if they stumble and fall in their walk with Jesus that they will never be forgiven and God is gonna cut them down. I think God is more gracious than Joshua asserts here (though again, Babylonian exile; keeping that in view makes that language more understandable).
We should be more honest about what it means to follow God. Even though grace is what saves us, there is much sacrifice required of the Christian. It is not simply a matter of "All you have to do is...". It means being different from other people. It means having the bravery to stand up to culture and to the faithful. It is a way that leaves you vulnerable. And it is way in which you will stumble and fall. You will sometimes feel close to God and sometimes God will feel a million miles away.
Perhaps we should make being a Christian more difficult. I do not mean more difficult in the way of making people jump through all of these hoops. But perhaps we should acknowledge the difficulty of following Jesus and how even us Christians are often a mess. Then, after showing that the way is hard, we can say: "Choose this day whom you will serve."