Choose Whom You Will Serve  by Michael Whitnah, Seminarian
November 12, 2017, 23 Pentecost 
Joshua 24. 1-3a, 14-25
 
Joanna and I did a portion of our pre-marriage counseling with the chaplain from our
alma mater. One of the things that I remember from those conversations was talking about the
sense of loss that the commitment of marriage requires. In short, saying “Yes” to one person
means saying “No” to everyone else. “Forsaking all others” is the phrase our BCP uses. It’s a
choice set before us, that we have to make, once and (ideally, of course) forever. And yet, that
one choice is as much a commitment to keep choosing the same person every day as it is a standalone
decision
.
“Chose this day whom you will serve.” This sense of choosing one and forsaking all
others is at the heart of Joshua’s charge to the Israelites from our reading this morning. At the
end of his life, having led them into the Promised Land, with the conquest well under way,
Joshua gathers the people together to ask them, “What god, or gods, are you going to serve?” He
knows he’s about to die, and it’s time for the people to make the decision for themselves, having
encountered a bunch of new gods as they settled the land. Reading through the history of the
Hebrew people, it often seems like the only thing keeping them on track is the sheer will of their
leaders. Of Moses, and then Joshua saying, “Come on y’all. A golden calf. Really?” As the
people settle into their tribal territories, spread out over the land, they’re not going to have a
single, strong, national leader who can pull them back out of idolatry. Thus, there’s a sense of
urgency in Joshua’s address—choose this day, in public, as a whole people, who you will serve.
 
And, then, I love their response. Oh yeah, we’re totally going to worship God. No
problem. “Far be it from us that we would forsake the Lord.” Seems like a little amnesia’s set in.
This is the same people who were ready to turn back to slavery in Egypt because they were tired
of eating manna, the daily miraculous manifestation of God’s provision and love for them.
Joshua seems a little incredulous that they so readily promised to serve God. “You can’t serve
God…If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and
consume you, after having done you good.” Don’t choose lightly. Don’t promise if you don’t
mean it; it’d be better not to promise at all. But the people double down. “No, we will serve the
Lord…we are witnesses against ourselves if we turn away.” And Joshua responds, “Then put
away any foreign gods you have among you, and turn toward the Lord.” Saying yes to the Lord
God Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, means saying no to all other gods.
 
Although this Scripture details events from a couple thousand years ago, I think Joshua’s
charge to the Israelites is as convicting for us today as it was back then. “Choose this day whom
you will serve.” And yet, surely, we’ve evolved as a society. We’ve moved past that ancient idol
worship stuff, right? The gaps in time and culture can make this story seem distant or abstract—
can we really relate to it? I think we can, and one of the ways to help us do this is to take a brief
look at three of the Canaanite gods that Israel could have chosen to serve, their non-Yahweh
options, and I think we’ll see that the contemporary parallels are pretty strong.
 
The first Canaanite god to talk about is Ba’al. This guy shows up everywhere in
Canaanite history, and he was a storm god, god of the thunderstorms and rain. Because Ba’al
brought the rain, he was associated with fertility and productivity—his rain made the crops grow.
In ancient Palestine, healthy crops and fertile land translated directly to wealth, wealth that
wasn’t really measured in currency, but in owning land that could produce crops. Accumulate
arable land and you accumulate wealth. Ba’al then, was the god you served if you wanted to
boost your productivity, if accumulating riches and prestige was what you wanted your life to be
about. Good thing chasing after exorbitant wealth and prestige isn’t an idol in today’s culture!
 
The second Canaanite god, or goddess in this case, for us to think about was Asherah.
Asherah was the mother goddess, the mother of lots of other little gods. She was associated with
fertility, but she was also the goddess of sexuality, human sexuality. Archeologists have found
many carved statues of Asherah, which I would show you, except that they’re probably not
appropriate for projecting in a church, given their significant emphasis on body parts associated
by that culture with sexuality and fertility. As I said with Ba’al, good thing that sexuality isn’t an
idol in today’s culture!
 
Finally, and in my mind, I’ve saved the worst for last, was Molech. There’s not really a
consensus about what kind of god Molech was, as the Bible and other ancient sources don’t shed
too much light. However, there is one thing that we do know for certain was required if you were
going to worship Molech—sacrificing infants, burning them alive. Research also suggests that
the cult of Molech grew during times of social upheaval, when anxiety about the future was
heightened. But, even this knowledge only speaks to what happened; we don’t really know why
people participated in this horrific practice. Good thing that in our day and time, 54 million of
our most powerless and voiceless members of society, those most deserving of protection,
haven’t been sacrificed for…something.
 
“Chose this day whom you will serve.” Our society may not name what it worships
Ba’al, Asherah, or Molech, but it’s not hard to see that the things associated with them are still
worshipped in our day and time. Thus, our challenge, the charge Joshua put before the Israelites
a couple thousand years ago is put before us today. Forsaking all others, will we serve and
worship the Lord alone?
 
Like the Israelites gathered together at Shechem, we too have an opportunity today to
both declare and live into our decision, our choice of whom we will worship. Friends,
stewardship is fundamentally an act of worship. Worship literally means worth to something—
saying, this, this is worth my devotion, my loyalty, and my resources. We give, not out of
obligation, but rather as a demonstration of where our priorities truly are, as a way of answering
Joshua’s charge to us. As Jesus says in our gospel reading, “For where your treasure is, there
your heart will be also.” (Parenthetically, you only need to look in my coat closet to know that
my heart is closely tied to the mountains, as my collection of Patagonia gear testifies against
me!) Stewardship is fundamentally an orientation of the heart, a heart that hears and remembers
God’s faithfulness to his people and responds in gratitude. This is the reason that every week, our
offerings are brought up to the altar at the Doxology, as we sing “Praise God from Whom all
blessings flow.”
 
What are we going to worship? The gods of the culture: wealth, sexuality, ideology
where human beings are expendable. Or, shall we worship the One True God of Israel, forsaking
all the others? We have the unique privilege and blessing to stand up today and make a concrete,
specific promise of how we are going to worship God in the year to come. May God give us all
the grace and strength to answer, in word and deed, like Joshua. “As for me and my house, we
will serve the Lord.”

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