MORNING MESSAGE – John Cline
Joshua 23 and 24; Reader: Olu Olabimtan
Joshua 23 and 24
The hit movie from almost three decades ago, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, recounts how over the course of five social occasions – four weddings and one funeral – a committed bachelor (played by British actor Hugh Grant) must consider the notion that he may have discovered love with an American woman named Carrie (portrayed by actress Andie MacDowell). It is a cute story but one with a disappointing ending where – spoiler alert – the two main characters do fall in love but don’t actually get married in the end. Well, today’s sermon is not about four weddings and a funeral but about one farewell speech, 2 deaths, and 3 burials. Unlike the disappointing
way in which that movie ends, though, the story we will read today ends in a momentous way for it is the story of the end of an era.
The story of the nation of Israel began six hundred years earlier when Abraham – then named Abram – and his wife Sarah – then named Sarai – had been moved by God from Ur, the land of Abraham’s father Terah, beyond the Euphrates River in what would now be Iraq. Whereas Terah and his relatives had worshipped various small-g gods in Ur, that land beyond the Euphrates, YHWH God told Abraham and Sarah that they were not to worship such false gods or idols but Him alone. YHWH would move them to a new land, Canaan, today’s Israel, where they could worship and serve Him fully. So, Abraham and Sarah moved to Canaan. There they had a son named Isaac, who with his wife Rebecca, had a son named Jacob, a man to whom God later gave a new name, “Israel”. That man, Jacob/Israel, had 12 sons of his own but by the time he was elderly, his favourite son Joseph, had been kidnapped and sold into slavery by his other 11 jealous sons who then lied by telling their father that a wild animal had killed him. Those o11 sons of Israel remained their father in Canaan but their land, as well as all the other Ancient Near Eastern nations, came to be devastated by a deadly famine. Only one nation in the Middle East had food, and that was Egypt, which was quite willing to sell its stored food. So, Israel’s 11 remaining sons went off to Egypt to buy food but once they arrived there, they discovered to their horror that the 12th brother, Joseph, was not only alive but second-in-command – only to Pharaoh – in Egypt and that he was the one in charge of food distribution. Joseph, forgiving his brothers for their horrible treatment of him, convinced them to retrieve their father Jacob/Israel as well as their families and move them all to Egypt, where they would find food and land on which they could live off of. Over the course of time, Joseph died as did his father and 11 brothers. The families of the 12 sons of Israel stayed in the land, though, and became known as the 12 tribes of Israel. However, they had become so numerous that the ruling Egyptians feared they would take over so the Egyptians plotted and made the Israelites their slaves, instead. For 400 years, slavery engulfed the Israelites until finally YHWH responded to the cries of misery from His people in the land of Egypt by calling a man named Moses, an Israelite who had been adopted into the Egyptian royal family, to go to the Egyptian Pharaoh and demand, “let my people go”. After a series of miracles, including an escape through the stopped-up Red Sea, the Israelites left Egypt and journeyed east towards the land of Canaan. On the way there, YHWH told the Israelites that unlike Abraham’s father Terah who had worshipped false gods in the land of Ur beyond the Euphrates River, and the Egyptians who worshipped false gods and idols in their land, and a new people group, the Amorites, who had moved into the Promised Land of Canaan during the time of the absence of the Israelites and who also worshipped false gods and idols, that the Israelites, “must not worship other gods or idols, but me alone!” The first two of the Ten Commandments given by YHWH had to do with this topic of worshipping Him alone, not false gods or idols. Sadly, Moses ending up dying before reaching the Promised Land, as did his brother Aaron, the High Priest of Israel. Aaron was replaced by his son Eleazar in the role of High Priest while Moses was succeeded by his younger associate Joshua, who then led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Thus, after four hundred years of being away from Canaan while in Egypt, and then forty years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness, plus five more years of warring while recapturing Canaan, the task of repossessing the Promise Land was finally done. So, now, let’s turn to Joshua 23, we will finish this “end-of-an-era” story:
After a long time had passed and the Lord had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them, Joshua, by then a very old man, summoned all Israel — their elders, leaders, judges and officials — and said to them: “I am very old. You yourselves have seen everything the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake; it was the Lord your God who fought for you. Remember how I have allotted as an inheritance for your tribes all the land of the nations that remain — the nations I conquered — between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. The Lord your God himself will push them out for your sake. He will drive them out before you, and you will take possession of their land, as the Lord your God promised you. Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left. Do not associate with these nations that remain among you; do not invoke the names of their gods or swear by them. You must not serve them or bow down to them. But you are to hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now. The Lord has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. One of you routs a thousand, because the Lord your God fights for you, just as he promised. So be very careful to love the Lord your God. But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you. Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed. But just as all the good things the Lord your God has promised you have come to you, so he will bring on you all the evil things he has threatened, until the Lord your God has destroyed you from this good land he has given you. If you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.” (Joshua 23:1-16)
What we just heard read was the first half of Joshua’s farewell speech before he died, a speech made to the elders, leaders, judges, and officials of the 12 tribes of Israel. This first half contained the promise of YHWH’s blessings for the people as long as they worshipped only Him, plus a warning that, if they did not do as God commanded but instead worshipped false gods and idols, that things would go poorly for them with doing so costing them their land. Let’s now go to the second half of Joshua’s farewell speech. It starts in this way:
Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God. Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his family went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out. When I brought your people out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Red Sea. But they cried to the Lord for help, and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians; he brought the sea over them and covered them. You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians. Then you lived in the wilderness for a long time. I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land. When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you. But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand. Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you — also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So, I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:1-15)
I was really struck by Joshua’s command to “choose this day whom you will serve” and I thought about it a lot in light of this past Tuesday, when we had a day which excited people worldwide. That day was
2022-02-2022 (reverse movement)
Tuesday’s date was a palindrome – it can be read the same backwards and forwards.
And it was an ambigram – it can be read the same upside down.
2022-02-2022 (flipping movement)
This happened only once before, in the year 1011, but will never happen again.
But, as people were raving over the uniqueness of Tuesday and the once-in-a-lifetime event, it occurred to me that although Tuesday was indeed unique, biblically each day in and of itself is unique. No day is more special than any other so what matters is now we live each day.
Each day will never happen again, so live each day fully for the Lord.
And, so I ask you, in fact, I command you, as Joshua did with the gathered Israelites, to “choose this day whom you will serve”. Make sure that it is YHWH God, the one whose son Jesus came to give us life, life which is full and abundant, and life which includes forgiveness in this world and eternity in the next. Serve Him only, not some false god or idol in our world, whether it be money or fame or contentment or the applause of others, etc., etc. To Joshua’s command,
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.” Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.” But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the Lord.” Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.” “Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied. “Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” And the people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him.”
On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he reaffirmed for them decrees and laws. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord. “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.” Then Joshua dismissed the people, each to their own inheritance. After these things, Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Serah in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. (Jos 24:16-30)
After his farewell speech, Joshua did one last thing: he set up a stone of remembrance, a spot marking the covenant which the people made that day with God, a covenant agreement pledging obedience and worship of the one true God YHWH. Then, Joshua, the leader of Israel, died, his death marking the end of an era. He was buried in the town of Timnath Serah that had been awarded to him, but Joshua’s death and burial were not the only death and burial mentioned. You will remember that the title I gave to this sermon is, “One Farewell Speech, Two Deaths, and Three Burials”. The second death and the third burial we will see in just a moment, but first we come to the second burial. You may remember, that going back some 445 years, the man Joseph, before he died, had asked a favour of his relatives:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.” (Genesis 50:24,25,)
For 400 years, Joseph’s bones had lain in a crypt in Egypt, awaiting transfer to the Promised Land of Canaan until finally, on the night that God helped Moses and Aaron lead the Israelites out of Egypt,
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” (Exodus 13:19)
Those rotting old bones of Joseph had been stored in a crypt for some 400 years in Egypt, and then they were carried around by the Israelites from place to place throughout the Sinai wilderness for another 40 years, and finally around the Promised Land for another 5 years before finally being buried in Canaan. At last, Joseph had arrived back home!
Israel served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the Lord had done for Israel. And Joseph’s bones, which the
Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in
the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. This became the inheritance of Joseph’s descendants. (Joshua 24:31-32)
This end-of-an-era event saw the bones of Joseph buried in Shechem in the Promised Land, the very place from which he had been kidnapped all those centuries before. What a powerful statement of faithfulness! YHWH God had been faithful in His promise that Joseph would return to the land. And the relatives of Joseph had proven themselves faithful by carrying through on the promise made to him.
Now, for the second death and third burial from the sermon title, remember that Moses’ brother Aaron had been a faithful servant to YHWH as High Priest of Israel. When he died, his son, Eleazar, took over as High Priest, overseeing the sacrificial system of offerings which so controlled the lives of the Israelites. We saw, last week, that Eleazar’s son Phinehas wisely mediated peace between the 2 ½ tribes of Israel on the east side of the Jordan River and the 9 ½ tribes in the Promised Land of Canaan. So, that family of Aaron, Eleazar, and Phinehas played pivotal roles in the religious, military, and political lives of Israel. Their influence cannot be overstated! Eleazar faithfully served the Lord and His people as the High Priest of Israel right up to the very end of his life and in a fitting end-of-an-era moment for the life of Israel, we thus read in the very last verse of the Book of Joshua:
And Eleazar son of Aaron died and was buried at Gibeah, which had been allotted to his son Phinehas in the hill country of Ephraim. (Joshua 24:33)
Things would never be the same for the Israelites. The interconnected stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, as well as Moses and Joshua, Aaron and Eleazar, all found their fulfillment by the end of the Book of Joshau, once the Promised Land was finally theirs, again. Those characters would barely be mentioned in the rest of the Old Testament. But now that they had resettled into the Promised Land, peace now ruled. A new chapter with new characters in Israel’s history was set to begin. Next Sunday in the Book of Judges we will start reading that new chapter. In the meantime, “choose this day whom you will serve” and make sure that you make the right choice. You will be blessed for doing so.