Sunday, September 10, 2006

Joshua 24:1-3a,5,8a,11,14-18,19-22,26b-27 - “This Stone Will Be a Witness”

14th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B - Lutheran Worship Readings)
Saturday, September 9, and Sunday, September 10, 2006

(While holding baptized child and walking to introduce him/her to the congregation)

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” That’s what Joshua said back in the Old Testament days, and really, Aythan / Emily, (baptized child) your parents just made that same commitment: we will serve the Lord, we will bring you up to know about Jesus. Your sponsors made this same commitment; they will encourage you in your Christian faith. This congregation made that same commitment; they will serve the Lord, making sure that this church teaches the Word of God so that you can grow up hearing about Jesus.

So Joshua made that commitment, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” and that’s the same commitment your parents, your sponsors, and the congregation make. (walking up to the wall of the sanctuary) And these stones are witnesses. The stones of this church heard their commitments to serve the Lord.

Let me give you back to your parents and explain.

Look at the cover of your bulletin. The picture tells the whole story from the 24th chapter of Joshua. Joshua sets up a big rock and tells the people: “This stone will be a witness.” Joshua was using that stone as a visual reminder to the people that they had heard God’s Word and they had made a commitment to serve the Lord. What had that stone heard? The stone heard Joshua and the people say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

That’s the whole story. . .but let’s back up to the beginning. Let’s pull this story apart, because it’s not so easy to say that we’ll serve the Lord. It’s really not easy to make a commitment to the Lord as part of today’s baptism. While many of you came today to begin the Sunday Education Year in Sunday School and Bible studies, it’s not easy to make a commitment to study God’s Word. I don’t want to imply that it’s easy to stand up with Joshua and say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” so that’s why we’ve got to look at the whole story—realizing that it wasn’t easy for Joshua and the people to make that commitment either.

If you would, take out the bulletin insert. We start with those verses of Joshua chapter 24 that you heard Pastor Miller read, the selected verses for this day in the church year: “1Then 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. 2Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 14“Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

It’s a wonderful passage leading right up to that rather popular verse: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” As you can see on the bulletin insert, that verse is often engraved on plaques. But why isn’t the decorative plaque enough?

Because it’s a soundbite. Just like in the news where interviews are edited down to 5-second phrases, long speeches of politicians are whittled down to a catchphrase, and complicated issues are boiled down to something that can fit on a bumper sticker, just like how those kind of soundbites can never explain a whole story or issue, so this soundbite, this phrase from Joshua 24 doesn’t explain enough about what is going on for Joshua, the people, and their faith in the Lord.

The plaque is a strong statement of faith, but without context, without the rest of the chapter, without those verses we skipped—3 through 13—the phrase just might leave us wondering: Why will you and your house serve the Lord? What makes you serve the Lord? Why is the Lord worth serving?

Our faith can’t be edited into a soundbite, and this plaque isn’t enough. We’ve got to go back to chapter 24, to those skipped verses, and find out what Joshua said before he got to this statement of faith.

Look on your insert at the next section: History and Evidence of God’s Faithfulness. I selected verses to give you a sense of what Joshua was saying. Before Joshua declared that he would remain faithful to God, Joshua listed all of the ways that God had worked in history and the evidence of God’s faithfulness.

2Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods. 3But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants.

5“‘Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out. 8I 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. 11Then 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.’”

Before Joshua declared that he would serve the Lord—setting aside any other gods, idols, or beliefs—before he said that, he reminded the people of all that God had done.

The same is true today. Before I asked Aythan’s / Emily’s (child’s name) parents or sponsors to make their commitment in the baptism, before I asked this congregation to make their commitment, we remembered what God has done through baptism. We remembered how God sent Jesus to save us and how baptism connects us to God’s salvation. We looked back at the history of God working in the world, the evidence of God’s faithfulness to us, AND THEN we made a commitment.

That takes us to the next section on the insert: The People’s Response, [and] Our Response Makes Sense. Only after seeing what verses 3-13 say, only after realizing that Joshua’s statement of faith came at the end of a speech about God’s acts of faithfulness, only then does the people’s response make sense.

16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! 17It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our fathers 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. 18And 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.”

The people didn’t just hear Joshua say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” and then they all went home to whittle plaques for their walls. No, they heard Joshua remind them of all those ways that God had saved them, helped them, proved that He was faithful to them. It makes sense that the people said they would serve the Lord, too, because they knew more than a soundbite. They knew the whole story. . .and so do you.

Your response today to be committed to this child and family in baptism, to be committed to making sure that Word of God is taught in this place, your commitment to be in Sunday School and Bible study, your commitment to serve the Lord makes sense, because it is in response to what God has done in your lives. God has sent Jesus Christ to pay the price for your sins. Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the grave. Jesus has promised to give you life after death. Jesus has connected you to His salvation through the waters of baptism.

Your response to serve the Lord isn’t just a soundbite; it can’t be limited to plaque on the wall. When you say that you will serve the Lord, it is because you know the whole story, the whole story of your salvation through Jesus Christ.

We haven’t gotten to the part about the stone as a witness, though. On the back side of the insert you have the next section of the story where it seems like Joshua is second-guessing the people.

19Joshua 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. 20If 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.”

21But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the LORD.”

22Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD.”

“Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied.

Why is Joshua second-guessing the people? Is he trying to talk them out of making a commitment to the Lord?

No, not really. He’s not trying to talk them out of their commitment, but he is trying to help them to realize that this isn’t a small thing. In fact, when Joshua says, “You are not able to serve the Lord,” it’s a reminder that only through God’s Holy Spirit are we able to serve the Lord. God creates faith in our hearts through the Holy Spirit—that’s what happened for Aythan / Emily (child’s name) today in baptism. We’re not able to do this on our own; we’re not able to make this kind of commitment just by putting a plaque on the wall, and so Joshua is trying to make it very clear to the people—if you’re going to serve the Lord, it’s only through God’s help that you are able to do this and this isn’t something you should take lightly.

So then he says, “You are witnesses against yourselves.” In other words, you’ve heard each other say this; you know what you just said, so if you go against this commitment, you’re all going to know.

That’s partly the reason we have baptisms in a public worship service whenever possible—because we are all witnesses. We are witnesses to the fact that the child was baptized. We are witnesses to the commitment that the parents and sponsors made. And we are witnesses to the commitment the entire congregation made.

It’s the same with confirmations, adults who join the congregation, Sunday School staff or Executive Board members who are installed—in this public worship, we are witnesses to ourselves. And actually, every week when we say the Creed together—we are witnesses of the fact that we have publicly said that we believe in the Lord, that we will serve the Lord. If we find each other failing in that commitment, well, we were all here together making that commitment. We know what we said, and we can see how we sometimes go against that commitment to the Lord.

So Joshua does second-guess the people, but only in the sense of making sure they really understand what they are saying. But then he doesn’t just leave them as witnesses to themselves. He gives them that visual—a stone that will be a witness.

Then [Joshua] took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD.

27“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.”

Why does Joshua keep on pushing the people? Why does he keep asking them whether they are really committed to the Lord? Does Joshua know something about what is going to happen in the future?

Well, certainly, Joshua was led by the Lord in how he was teaching the people, and while we don’t have evidence that Joshua received a vision of the future from the Lord, Joshua was right in asking the people about whether they were really committed to the Lord, because within a generation or two, the people would wander far away from the Lord and His truth.

Generations would pass away, but for many generations that stone was probably marked and remembered for what Joshua and the people said there. The stone continued to be a witness even after all of the people who were there had died; the stone would continue to remind people that their ancestors had said they would serve the Lord.

It’s the same with the stones of this building. On the insert, you’ve got pictures of the three cornerstones from out front by the doors. There’s the original cornerstone from 1941, moved here from the first building on North 17th Street, a reminder of the commitment that founding members made.
There’s the 1960 stone when this building was constructed, a renewed, growing commitment to serve the Lord in this place.
Then there’s the 1992 stone from the expansion. All three of those stones witnessed the people of Redeemer Lutheran Church saying that they would serve the Lord. And whether those people are still here or they are with the Lord in eternity, these stones remain to remind us that this church was created to share the Good News of Jesus with the people of this community.

(walking to the wall of the sanctuary) So the cornerstones and the bricks of this building are witnesses of our commitment to the Lord, and yet, if we could all put our ears to the walls, I’m afraid you’d hear what I hear. These stones are witnesses to our commitment to the Lord—and yet, they’ve also witnessed our sins. They’ve witnessed our lies, meanness, hatred, laziness. They’ve witnesses our petty fights and the ways we haven’t used God’s blessings for God’s mission. With stones like these around, it makes you think that maybe we’d be better off tearing down the whole place and building new. Do we really want these stones talking about all of our sins?

However, just like how we’re all sinful and yet it’s not a solution to get rid of our bodies in some hope of getting rid of our sins, in that same way, the solution isn’t to get rid of the building, these stones that have witnessed our sins.

No, just as Christ comes to forgive our sins, the solution here is that God makes these stones forget. Yes, these stones, this building has witnessed many of our sins, but God forgives our sins, God makes these stones forget our sins. Because of Christ, what these stones know is that we are holy, committed to the Lord, serving the Lord with our lives. These very stones have seen many of your baptisms and confirmations. If not, these stones certainly have seen how you have declared your faith in Jesus in this place. These stones remember how you are faithful children of God. Because of Christ, these stones forget your sins, and rather, these stones are witnesses of what God has made you through His Holy Spirit—faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

So these stones will continue to witness our sins, but these stones were not built here to just remind us of how we fail to serve God. These stones were placed here so that this church could celebrate and serve Jesus Christ—the Savior who brings a message of forgiveness. While these stones may see our sins, they are witnesses of our commitment to Jesus, a commitment made through the help of the Holy Spirit. They are witnesses that have a limited memory—God will continue to make these stones forget our sins—so that when we gather here in this place we can hear the stones crying out: Jesus Christ is Lord! You will serve the Lord! You are holy, forgiven children of God. The Lord is in this place, and He is with you. We will serve the Lord, because the Lord has served us with His Spirit.