November 8, 2020
For our Old Testament reading this morning we turn to the end of Joshua and a rousing speech. Joshua has led the people through a violent taking of the Promised Land that has had its fair share of genocidal moments. Now at the end of the conquest, Joshua gathers the people before him, asking them whom they are going to serve… and what will be the consequences of their choice. Keep listening for the Word of God speaking to you.
READ Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25
I always feel the need to tell people up front how much I dislike the book of Joshua. That is to say… I understand its place in the Old Testament. I understand its purpose in the overarching telling the story of the history of the Jews. If I were giving an academic lecture on Joshua, I could appreciatively tell you how it illustrates the theological themes of the Deuteronomistic history. But… standing here in the pulpit… looking at the book through the cross of Christ… I can only be critical of the book. I can only see dangerous and violent fanaticism. I can only criticize the stories that celebrate the wiping out of all the men, women, children… even animals of conquered towns as the only faithful response to God’s command to take the Promised Land. In my understanding, there is no overlap between the theology of conquest and the theology of the cross… and in history… throughout history… when we have sought to combine the two… conquest and cross… it is always the theology of the cross that gets short shrift.
So when I come to this speech of Joshua’s in the lectionary… this speech that has been lifted out of its bloody context and used in Christian marketing and commerce… slapped on throw pillows and blankets… put on inspirational coffee mugs and posters… reduced to t-shirt and bumper sticker slogans… “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”… when I come to those words, I have to remember their original context and Joshua’s original intent. Because it’s one thing to make a commitment like Joshua is asking… but you better be sure exactly what is behind that commitment. That’s what’s so self-deluding about the soft pillow and t-shirt slogan brand of theology. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”… can mean anything you want it to mean. And it often does. I think people buy those items because it gives the consumerist illusion that that commitment is what you are really all about… even if you’re not sure what that commitment actually is. It’s the same consumer psychology as any other type of branding. I drive a Jeep because I want to feel like I’m a rugged individual… even though I’ve never actually done any four wheeling in my Jeep… it’s never seen any real mud or done any rock crawling… but when I look at it and when I drive it I get to feel that feeling… and that’s real enough for me. To feel like I want to feel. To believe about myself what I want to believe.
Well… General Joshua isn’t interested in your feelings. And that’s a big component of this big, important speech of his. He wants you to understand clearly and upfront that this isn’t something you need to fool around with. God isn’t the type of God where you can maybe dip in your big toe to see what it’s like… or commit to your comfort level. Let me tell you about our God… says Joshua… our God is a holy God… our God is a jealous God… our God is an “all or nothing” God and… and… how you treat God through your choices are going to have consequences. As Joshua puts it to the people… this God of conquest is a God without mercy. There is little to no mercy to be found in the book of Joshua. For this God of conquest… says Joshua… the consequences of not going all in with this God of conquest is that this God of conquest will turn on you and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good. This God of conquest has fought on your behalf and has driven out all these people who made their lives here in this land before you… this God of conquest made sure it was your sword that ran red with the blood of your enemies… but turn from him and all this will come back down upon you. There is threat behind the commitment in Joshua’s grand speech.
I mean… if you buy a pillow cross-stitched with “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”… it won’t explode and take you out if you don’t live into that commitment fully. If you got that pillow from General Joshua… you might want to keep an eye on it.
The problem between the theology of conquest and the theology of the cross isn’t commitment… it isn’t the demand for fidelity… it is whether that demand is based on threat… or if that demand is being made on the basis of the goodness of God’s grace. In describing the threat of the God of conquest, Jacob is clear… God will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. Mess up and you’re toast. In the verses we’ve skipped over, Joshua lists out all the good that God has done… but there’s a nuance between Joshua’s describing God’s good done for the people and the goodness of God’s grace that comes with the theology of the cross. When Joshua lists out the good God’s done… there is underneath it all a quid pro quo understanding. Look at all the good… look at what God has given to you… and for that you owe fidelity to God. Remember… there’s the threat here. God can give and God can take away. If you want God to give, then you need to give to God what God demands. The jealousy of the God of conquest is conditionality. As long as you meet that certain level of right devotion and commitment, then God will be there and do for you as God has promised. But God isn’t your God for nothing… and if you stray… if you fall short of total devotion… if there is sin… then you are on your own.
And for many with their throw pillows and t-shirts… that’s alright by them. That’s their theology. They have no problem with that because sin is not an issue they have… or so they believe. Sin is a problem of others. Their obedience to the rules laid out before them is their assurance. And when people fall from this assurance… they fall hard because there will be no forgiveness for transgressions or sins. Joshua makes that perfectly clear.
So… in scripture… how does the theology of conquest work out? Turn the page in the Bible to the book of Judges and the first thing we see is that everything that Joshua warns against is exactly what happens. Turning away from God, the people have lost possession of the land. The Philistines keep taking the land and subjecting the Israelites. The people cry out to the Lord and God raises up a hero who then violently drives back the Philistines. But as the hero… or judge… ages and is forgotten, the people again turn away from the Lord and the cycle of loss begins afresh. As God’s people, the people are not becoming anything. They are cycling through the same patterns over and over and over again. The Promised Land of the Old Testament is won and lost again and again. The Promised Land will later be split into two kingdoms. Each of those kingdoms are then violently destroyed in time by larger and more powerful empires. The people are dispossessed of the Promised Land in the same manner that they conquered the land as described in the book of Joshua. Later on… the people… now only a remnant… return to the land again except this time as tenants and they start to rebuild the past in a land now owned by yet another larger and more powerful empire… and the story of the people and the land in the Old Testament comes to an end… with all that blood spilled in battle after battle and the people… at the end… do not possess the land in which they live. In between the Old and New Testaments the land changes possession between two more empires.
The God of conquest cannot redeem the world. When there is only those who win and those who lose… there is no redemption… only a constant battle as each side tries to determine what is the most right… most pure… most loyal combination of ingredients that they can incorporate in order to get the God of conquest to do good and right by them. Maybe if… if they can commit hard enough to whatever that may be at the moment… then God will go with them… then God will bring them victory over their enemies and put their enemies under their heel… to grind down and show no mercy… no forgiveness for transgressions or for their enemy’s sins.
Now… blink twice if any of this sounds familiar to you.
So what if… you can still have your throw pillows and t-shirts if you want… but what if serving the Lord meant serving through the theology of the cross? What if the theology of the cross defined our fidelity and the consequences of our choices? What if this is what we meant by loving in truth and in action instead of in consumerism and retail? We need to understand and remember that the cross is not just another good thing done by God. The cross isn’t just another item on the long list of all those good things God has done that put you now into a debt that cannot be repaid… that demands a return of quid pro quo loyalty. There is no threat that God will take away the cross. God can’t take away the cross because the cross reveals the very heart… the very being of God. That’s one of our core reformed theologies. The God of the cross is a jealous God… but that jealousy is defined as steadfast… that jealousy is expressed in that God will never stop in God’s pursuit of love… like a shepherd going after that one lost sheep until it is found… or the woman who will completely upend her home until that one lost coin is found.
The big change we would need to make to Joshua’s speech is there in verse 19… God is a jealous God; he will forgive your transgressions and your sins. The theology of the cross begins with mercy and forgiveness and the response we make… the choices we make… are choices made in the light of being set free… not out of a quid pro quo obligation. The theology of the cross is in realizing our sin… owning our sin and not letting our sin own us. The theology of the cross is teaches us humility… kindness… service. The theology of the cross makes us equal and tasked with looking out for one another especially those who are weaker.
So in this speech… Joshua is right… Joshua is right in that you must choose whom you are going to serve. Because our choice has consequences. The God of conquest takes us down one path. The God of the cross down another. Amen.