A few weeks ago I heard a story on the radio about a young woman who has to be about the most committed environmentalist imaginable. She had visited her boyfriend’s family for a few days, where she was shocked to discover that his family did not compost their leftovers. She could not bring herself to put her food in the trash can, so she hid it for days. She was powerfully committed to making life better for the planet—but she refused to identify herself as an environmentalist. The journalist who interviewed this woman made a big deal about her age and the so-called millennial generation, but the situation was clearer and simpler than all that. This woman wanted to be an environmentalist on her own terms, and the name “environmentalist” was beyond her control. If she couldn’t control it, she didn’t want it.
This woman is no different than so many other people in this country right now. Americans love to believe that everything is in our control. We like to believe we have the upper hand in every situation. Libertarian politicians and their followers tell us we would be so much better off if we just had a little more control over our lives. Voters go to polls to try to control a system of government and then immediately react angrily whenever that government does anything they don’t like—or pretend to be innocent bystanders when the government does something everyone knows is wrong. We
lay down the terms and conditions of our participation. We pretend we are each a little king or queen, a little god or goddess.
It’s not surprising that we carry this attitude into our churches, too. We hear the gospel preached, the release from bondage to slavery and idols made possible in Jesus Christ, and we respond, “Okay, God, I can give you an hour Sunday mornings—most of the time. And maybe an occasional committee meeting, as long it’s not more than once a month.” We hear the call of discipleship, and we say, “I’ll follow Jesus, but there’s going to be some boundaries here. No leaving the safety of my friends or my beliefs. No ‘ends of the earth’ nonsense; it has to be local. And forget about the poor, the prisoner, and the stranger; you can’t trust those folks. Take it or leave it Jesus, but those are my terms.”
I really don’t know what’s more audacious: that we dare to lay down terms with God in the first place, or that our conditions are so—pathetic. One hour a week, three or four times a month, for the God who has crossed every boundary for our sake? Half-hearted commitments for the God who promises a new creation, free of sin and tears? Conditional love for the God who loved us while we were his enemies? We want to be Christians without the church, disciples without the cost, worshipers without the sacrifice, followers without the leader. We are lukewarm, and we still believe we have God under our thumb.
Joshua knew about people like us. Israel has settled into the Promised Land; the people have, by the grace and power of God, overcome many obstacles and defeated much stronger nations. Joshua’s own earthly task and his life are coming to an end, so he sets before them a choice: in this new land will the Israelites serve the Lord, who delivered them from Egypt and carried them to the Promised Land, or will they worship the various so-called gods of the people they have defeated? Joshua offers them a choice: the Lord God, or some idol. And Joshua commits his own family to the Lord: “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Just like us, the Israelites recognize a good deal when they see one. Follow the God who gave them such sweet new digs? No problem! Who’d want to chase after those other gods, the ones who were just defeated, anyway? “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…; we will also serve the Lord, for his is our God.” Our God? Our God, the God of our ancestors, of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam? Or our God, the one who belongs to us, the one we can control?
Immediately Joshua realizes he has made a mistake. He has allowed the people to think Israel can follow God on her own terms. It’s now their
decide whether or not to serve the Lord. Today they can decide yes; tomorrow they may change their minds. The Israelites—they’re just like us. Who would refuse that deal? I’ll show up at church this week, but next week my schedule is looking really busy! I’ll offer alms for the poor next month, but this month I have a ball game to attend! A God who gives us stuff
? Who protects us? A safe God? That’s what we’ve wanted all along! Those are our terms; take it or leave it, God.
Because insisting on our own terms has worked out so well for us, right? Relationships on our terms with friends and family have always worked out, right? We’ve never caused pain for ourselves or others by doing things our way
, have we? Our way never
turns out to be the wrong way, does it? No. Of course not. A god on our terms? What could go wrong?
Do we really think that a god on our terms could deliver the captives out of Egypt? Do we actually believe that a god who would submit to our conditions would bother to send prophets and teachers, let alone a son, for our benefit? Would a god under our control have the power to raise the dead?
Joshua knew better, and when he sees the enthusiasm of the people of Israel, he knows he must act dramatically. From his mouth come some of the most chilling words in all of Scripture: “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn to you and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” Yikes, Joshua! “He will not forgive your transgressions or sins!” The words shock—and they are meant to shock. Joshua has been around for a long time. He has witnessed the Lord’s forgiveness over and over. But Joshua also knows better than to give God terms for his service. Israel now has a new choice to make: serve God completely or not at all. Serve God even when it seems like it might be against your best interests, or don’t bother starting down the path in the first place. The Lord is a holy God; you cannot serve him on your own terms.
We have all faced this choice at some point in our lives. You may be facing this choice today. I beg you this morning: release God from your terms. Lower the boundaries you have built up to keep God at arm’s length. Follow the God who delivers the captives out of Egypt. The God who sends prophets and teachers, even his own Son, for us and for our salvation. The God who cannot be contained by our terms. The God of Jesus Christ, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.