Message: At All Costs, At All Times, In All Things (Pt. 1) | Scripture: Joshua 24:1-13 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
There was this family that I knew back at my old church in Toronto with two twin boys who, as young children, were extremely rambunctious and terribly disobedient with any form of authority. I remember they would come to our VBS not for the camp but to terrorize the counsellors, and when we told their parents, their parents would just laugh and say that they were being boys and to let them have their fun. It got so bad some days that we would have to call these parents in the middle of the day and ask them to pick up their sons because we did not know how to handle them, and it seemed, the parents found their behaviour, at least with those of us at church, unimportant to them as well.
Fast forward a few years later, when these boys were in high school, their rambunctious years behind them, we noticed that they were coming to church less and less—not just youth group, but Sunday mornings, Sunday School, etc. So, when we saw their parents one morning after service, we asked them, “hey, where are your boys? We miss seeing them.”
And their mother looked at us sternly, as if we couldn’t understand, and informed us that they were too busy for church because of their school commitments, their need to keep up their grades, their involvement with extracurriculars, and so-on. In essence, she was telling us that they were only allowed or permitted to come to church if, and only if, they had given their all to everything outside of church first—if their homework was perfect, if their grades were in order, if their clubs permitted it, if their sports didn’t interfere. You see, their spiritual well-being meant nothing compared to their future here in this life.
Fast forward another few years, both of these boys are, in a worldly sense, now fine young men—the kind of people we celebrate in the world. One of them got into the Boston/Harvard joint program for pre-med that eventually led him into Harvard Medical School and one of the most prestigious fellowships in the world. And the other ended up at another school called the University of Pennsylvania, also for pre-med, after which he attended Columbia University for medical school.
But one summer, when they were visiting, and surprisingly attending our church one Sunday morning, I talked to them for a few minutes, and I asked them how they were doing spiritually? And both of them thought of my question for a moment, and like twins do, they looked at me at the same time and said, “You know, Stephen, we’re not sure that what we read in the Bible is true. We’re not sure if its claims are believable—I mean how can you know that these words you’re reading are believable?”
So, I asked them in response, “when was the last time they had dedicated time to reading their Bibles?” It had been years. “When was the last time they prayed?” It had been years. “When was the last time they attended church regularly and willingly?” It had been years. For them, God, Christianity, and religion, in general, only had a place in their life if, and only if, all the other things in their life were in order. So, I responded to them that the problem isn’t that they didn’t believe in the truth of the Bible—the problem was that in their minds they didn’t need that truth or the God that wrote it. In their minds, they wanted a reason not to believe it so that they could go on living however it was that they pleased.
TCCBC, we stand at the hilltop of Joshua looking down, this morning, at the different paths to tread, and with it comes a need to make a decision. It’s one that this book has commanded the original readers and us to make time and again. In fact, if I were to summarize the entire book into one proposition—one imperative—it would be the proposition we’re given this morning, which is that, in this life, we are to choose whom we will serve.
But we are not to make that decision lightly. There are choices before you, and you’re to count the cost of each one carefully and intentionally, weighing what is of true value to you and not simply saying what you think is right to say—as if you can hide the true intentions and desires of your heart. Thus, before we make our decision, let’s unpack the various considerations that ought to colour our process. We’ll start with two considerations today from Joshua 24:1-13—two to help us choose both rightly and transformatively—and the first is to choose whom you will serve:
1) In the Evaluation of God’s Irresistible Grace
Read along with me in Joshua 24:1-3. TWoL: 1 Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. 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.
We enter now into the third, and final, speech of Joshua, here in chapter 24, exhorting Israel on how they might retain the land, and it ends where all of it began for Israel—physically and spiritually speaking. The geographical context for our passage is in a place called Shechem, and if you remember, we’ve been here before back in Joshua 8:30. There, Joshua reinstitutes the covenant of God with his people after the treason of Achan and their defeat over Ai. I made the argument there that the Joshua 8 ceremony was really taken from the events that are happening here in chapter 24, and that the reason why the author brought it up there was to remind his readers of the primary importance of having a right relationship with God over and above their anticipation and possession of his gifts and of his land.
That covenant ceremony is brought into larger focus now, and it makes particular sense as to why it’s taking place now not only in terms of time—why the actual ceremony is taking place chronologically here in Joshua 24—but it also makes particular sense in terms of place because of everything that’s happened up until this point. See, back in Joshua 8, Shechem was just a place. It was a random area 25 miles north of where they were previously in chapter 7 in Gilgal, but now all the events that have transpired have led Israel to this point—to this time where Joshua is about to die, and both he and God are putting the proper plans in place so that Israel does not go and squander their inheritance. And the reason why it’s in Shechem is twofold.
On the one hand, we know that Shechem is chosen as the place for all the tribes of Israel—east and west of the Jordan—to meet because it acts like a neutral area. They aren’t meeting at the main temple in Shiloh because, you’ll remember, in chapter 22—a number of years ago, now, the east and the west had some tension over that area when the eastern tribes built an altar to mimic the one built in Shiloh.
So, they choose Shechem—a Levitical town that has been designated as a city of refuge—a land that comes without any particular baggage to any one of the individual tribes. A place where they can gather together without the threat of ego or rivalry getting in the way. This is one reason why choosing Shechem as their gathering place is important. The focus isn’t on Israel, it’s on Joshua, and more significantly, it’s on God speaking through Joshua.
But the other, and more important, reason for the choice of Shechem is because this place had particular gravitas for Israel, namely, it represented the promises of God coming full circle. Remember since chapter 21 and all the way until the end of this chapter, we’re told multiple times that God had fulfilled his promises to Israel, but what were the promises to Israel? Were they not the same promises given to their forefather Abraham in Genesis 12—for land, for a relationship with God as his people, and for a descendancy as numerous as the stars? Had not all of these things now come true?
And where, in Genesis 12 (v. 6, specifically) were those promises given? In the land of Canaan—in a place called Shechem. See, this city isn’t just a neutral place that lacks particular baggage for the individual tribes—it is a unifying place—a place that is equally significant to all of them. A place that none of these Israelites would dare profane with their respective egos or trivial rivalries.
So, what’s taking place here in chapter 24 isn’t just a covenant renewal ceremony, it is a covenant remembrance ceremony—a remembrance of God’s faithfulness to bring all of this about, just as he said he would. That is what’s happening in our passage this morning—it’s about acknowledging and remembering the covenant. And part of what comprises the contents of old Ancient Near East Covenants are the two elements that we find in these thirteen verses.
Firstly, that the sovereign and vassal with whom the covenant is being made are named. We see that in verse 1. Then, secondly, in vv. 2-13, there is an historical recounting of all the things that the sovereign has done on behalf of the vassal—all the reasons why the vassal can and should make a covenant with the sovereign. And we know that these reasons are extensive—we’re given six books from Genesis to the end of Joshua telling us about them, and yet, somehow, the author through the divine inspiration of God has condensed all of those events into twelve verses (not counting v. 1).
You can imagine, then, that the weight of each of these events named has a deep significance for Israel, and if I had seven Sundays to talk about each one, I would. But unfortunately, I don’t. So, for time’s sake, allow me to bring to your attention those that I think set the tone for all the rest of our verses. And the first one I want to discuss is the first one mentioned in our passage in verses 2 and 3, which reads, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the river and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.”
No statement of facts in all the verses that come after is as important as what these verses say because here the entirety of God’s grace over Israel is summarized. No fact for this nation is more dynamic or defining to the Old Testament than this assertion—that God plucked Abraham out of obscurity for almost no apparent reason other than his own pleasure and plan. The word used is “I took”—I pulled—Abraham out of his environment of sin and made him my own. And not only was Abraham taken out of obscurity but, we’re told, out of idolatry.
To us, this may not seem like anything to write home about, but to the Jews, it is a fact that they do not like to remember because, to them, Abraham is the highest, most stalwart figure of their religion. He is the model and example that is revered as the nearest son to God himself. A man who, according to the Jews, not only never worshipped idols, but who, according to an extended (and fabricated) Jewish book called the Jubilees, we’re told, (Abraham) rejected his father’s idolatry on his own, burned his father’s house and idols down, and presented himself to God as one blameless and worthy of his call. To the Jews, Abraham earned and deserved his calling, and through Abraham, so did Israel.
But our passage makes it abundantly clear to us—Abraham was the son of his father, which means, just like every son in the Ancient Near East, he did what his father did. He worshipped idols and followed God-hating ways just like anyone else did—that is, until God providentially plucked—or should I say yanked—him out of sin and into saving grace.
We so desperately want to make heroes out of men—to turn sinners into saints—people worthy for us to follow, and who give us grounds to make the arrogant claim that, as we follow in their footsteps, as we inherit their example, we might be able to say, “we did this.” We deserve this. We are worthy. But dear sinner, Abraham is no superhero—he’s not even the hero in this story. Israel is not the hero in this story. We are not the heroes in this story.
No, in this universe—in this reality—there is only one “I AM.” And the only claim that any one of us will ever be able to make is that, at best, “I am not,” or more accurately, “I cannot.” And what that is supposed to force us to do—what these verses from 1-3 are meant to do to us is to give us pause and consider the ramifications that the I AM might condescend himself to come into relationship with us, the “am nots.” That he might deign to acknowledge us who are nothing and give us, in exchange for our nothingness, everything. Such a thing is unfathomable, even for the Jews—even to those who it is supposed to mean the most to.
And yet, this is where the author of Joshua begins as he recounts Israel’s history—not with their merit, but with the scandalous grace of God. It is the point that he’s been trying to drive home since the very start of this book. This book is a book about God’s redeeming, scandalous, extravagant grace to sinners.
In twelve verses, he outlines for all of Israel 600 years’ worth of experiential providence—600 years’ worth of grace, and we’re not meant to treat this flippantly, which I am bound to say as your pastor, we do every day. Every one of us forgets this grace. Every one of us forgets that we stand on the shoulders of thousands-upon-thousands of generations before who have waited to experience the grace that we now possess in even greater measure because of the cross. And yet there are days where we grumble. There are days where we act like our time belongs to ourselves. There are moments where we are audacious enough to praise ourselves and think, “this is my life. I will live as I please.” HOW STUPID WE ARE! YET, HOW GRACIOUS IS OUR GOD to spare me not only my humiliation, but to take it upon himself instead.
This is what our author does not want us to miss. That God’s taken all the risk upon himself to call us friend—to adopt us in our misery as sons and daughters, not to be handmaids in his house, but to be those clothed with the cloak of his glory. Such a thing is staggering and humbling. Such a thing ought to put us in our place as we ponder whom it is we ought to serve, just as it was meant to do for Israel.
It is the grace of God that makes the choice not only obvious and easy but irresistible and immediate. That God loved us when we were unloveable. That he saved us when our sin made us unsavable. When that kind of grace comes into our life, there is nothing we can do but concede ourselves as Abraham did. Not because we’ve been pulled in kicking and screaming but because it is altogether too good for us and too pleasing for us to reject. In choosing whom it is that you will serve, TCCBC, make sure to remember the irresistible, undeserved grace of God given to save someone like you.
2) In the Evaluation of God’s Transforming Grace
Read along with me in Joshua 24:4-13. TWoL: 4 And to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. And I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5 And I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in the midst of it, and afterward I brought you out.
6 “‘Then I brought your fathers out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. And the Egyptians pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7 And when they cried to the LORD, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did in Egypt. And you lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan. They fought with you, and I gave them into your hand, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. 9 Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel. And he sent and invited Balaam the son of Beor to curse you, 10 abut I would not listen to Balaam. Indeed, he blessed you. So, I delivered you out of his hand. 11 And you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, and the leaders of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And I gave them into your hand. 12 And I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you, the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 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.’
Before I make the choice too straightforward—too easy—for you, the author wants to make sure you have the full picture of what the grace of God is—for, while we like to emphasize the undeserved gifts of his pleasure, peace, and relationship that come with it, we must also acknowledge that there is a dark side to God’s grace. And it’s not only in that it took 600 years for Israel to receive it in the measure and stature of which they now stand within the Promised Land—it’s not only that generations-upon-generations have passed in order that these specific Israelites might experience what their forefathers never did.
It’s also in that sometimes possessing the grace of God means tarrying in darkness awaiting the promise while the world seems to leave you behind or, perhaps even, as it tramples over you. This is what the author intends to tell us from verses 4 to 13. Let me explain it with reference to verse 4, which reads, “And to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. And I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.”
You see, the chosen son was Jacob, and yet, it was Jacob who both did not receive his inheritance AND whose children became slaves to the worst dictator of that age in Egypt. To add insult to injury, Esau—the non-chosen brother—the one who squandered his inheritance for a bowl of soup—he gets a possession. In fact, Genesis 36 tells us that Esau, by God’s hand, becomes one of the wealthiest men on the planet—his descendants, flocks, and deeds of land are numerous. He inherits an entire country, which he names after himself—Edom, also known in this text as Seir. It is God who gives him this: “I gave Esau the hill country of Seir.” And yet, it is also God who says, “Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated,” which begs the question, why has Esau, the hated one of God, benefited this way, while Jacob, the chosen of God, tarried?
The answer is simple, yet perhaps difficult to hear, grace may mean receiving the spiritual blessing of God’s promise while being physically, emotionally, economically, and/or socially outcast in our awaiting its fulfillment (Hebrews 11:32-35a vs. 35b-38). The dark side of God’s grace is that in our reception of it, it may not always feel like grace, especially when we forget what we, sinners, truly deserve—when we forget who we are. And yet, the author of Joshua wants to make it very clear—even this hardship—some may call it God-given suffering—even this is a gift.
Brothers and sisters, when we evaluate the grace of God, we have to evaluate it honestly because the Bible does not hide the facts from us. The Christian life is hard, but part of the reason why grace is so beautiful and irresistible to us isn’t because of the comfort it promises, but because it bridges and brings us into the presence of the comforter who makes the promises.
It teaches us not to avoid hardship but to lean in, in greater measure, upon him who, in seeing his face and knowing his pleasure over us, makes our burden light, even in affliction, and who is using that difficulty to transform us into the image of his Son from one degree of glory to the next. Because God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
Grace is meant to humble us. Grace is meant to save us. But, even more so, grace is meant to transform us and make us holy as he is.
And if you don’t believe me—that this is what the effect of grace ought to be in our lives—that it not only saves, but that it is meant to transform us through God-given trials, we need not look farther than to God himself as our example. Because so often I hear the argument from non-Christians that the Christian God is simply a master-puppeteer sitting atop his perch, playing with his creatures. Yet, what they forget, is that the crux of the gospel is that God himself physically, emotionally, economically, socially, and yes, even spiritually, outcasts the Son who is perfect in his obedience and fully expectant to trust his promise so that his people might inherit and walk in the fullness of that promise.
God takes our chaotic mess and places it upon the shoulders of Jesus so that he might be transformed into our sin upon a cross and so that we—those who confess our sin and believe upon our Christ as Lord and Saviour over death—[we] might become his righteousness. God leads Jesus into the darkness, so that he might bring us into everlasting light.
Is this not what the Bible—what our text—implies for those who faithfully cling to his grace—for those who belong to him—for those who weather the trials of God, as his own Son did? If I might summarize the pattern that we see in all of these verses from 4-13, it’s this: in God’s grace “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
After bringing Jacob into Egypt, it is God who brings his people out of Egypt. After trapping his people between Egypt and the Red Sea, it is God who brings them through that Sea. After forcing them into the wilderness, it is God who delivers them out of it. After infuriating the Amorites, it is God who saves them from their hand. After God brings Israel against Balak, it is God who brings them the blessing of Balaam. After God forced Israel against Jericho, it is God who collapsed its walls. After God brought his people into a land full of his enemies, it is God who destroyed those enemies so that his people might feast on their fruit. After God sets his own Son upon a cross to hang for the punishment of our sins, he raises him up—three days later—as the firstborn among many brethren for whom, one day, he shall do the same thing.
And why does God operate this way? It is precisely for the reason that he gives us in verse 12: to show you that it was not by your sword or by your bow, but that I gave you a land on which you had not laboured and cities that you had not built. In other words, God does it this way to show us that he, alone, is God—that he alone brings us into darkness so that he might open our eyes to a greater light.
This is grace that transforms us—that conforms our lives to depend upon his will, knowing that he brings us low to raise us to greater heights. This is the wisdom and power of our covenant-making God, and this is the measure of his kindness—that he might crucify the Son, placing upon him the fullness our testing and suffering so that we might taste and see the greater grace of his saving power. So, then, TCCBC, choose whom you will serve according to the measure of grace that you’ve received. Let that grace save you. Let that grace transform you. Choose to serve God whose grace, alone, in Jesus Christ is sufficient to do both these things for you.