What a strange daily reading today from the Old Testament book of Joshua. It’s a fairly well-known passage because of the verse, “As for me and my house, we will serve The Lord.” Joshua is about to lead the Israelites into Canaan after wandering in the dessert for 40 years, and he’s telling them they must choose. Of course, the people all swear they will serve God – haven’t we all made such vows when put on the spot? To which Joshua responds:
“You may not be able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God; he is a jealous God who will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If, after the good he has done for you, you forsake the LORD and serve strange gods, he will do evil to you and destroy you.”
I was taught that God is loving and forgiving and merciful. It’s in the Bible, too. How can such diametrically opposed ideas be put forth as “the truth?” No wonder people doubt it’s credibility.
When I took that sentiment to my God in prayer, the answer I got was context. Everything said in piece of scripture must be understood in relation to the back story. In this case, the back story is the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, from slavery to freedom.
The journey was not just about the miracles performed by God – the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna and the quail, the water flowing from the rock, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire guiding Moses. It was not just about the revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. It was also about the people’s lack of faith in spite of God’s visible presence and action in their lives.
You see, it didn’t take the 40 years to reach Canaan. It probably only took them a matter of weeks. But when God commanded them to go in and seize their homeland for the taking, they balked. After doing some reconnaissance, their spies said the land was filled with giants and that they wouldn’t stand a chance militarily. In fear, they held back, and God, in His frustration, condemned them to a forty year exile from their homeland to ensure that every one of that generation, including Moses, would have passed away before attempting to settle them in the promised land of milk and honey.
Only Joshua was spared this fate – he was the sole survivor of the original flight from Egypt. He was speaking to the children and grandchildren of those who escaped from slavery. They had no memory if what it was like under harsh Egyptian rule. They had not labored under the hot sun making bricks for Pharaoh’s monuments. They had no memory of first born Hebrew males being slaughtered by royal decree. They were literally born free.
The choice was not really about whether or not they would serve God. It was really a choice about freedom. Freedom and faith go hand in hand, because without faith that a higher power is in control and cares about us, we become vulnerable to all sorts of fears. Economic and emotional insecurity take root and we act defensively against those imagined fears, which ironically makes them real.
Joshua could have said it this way – you may not be able to handle freedom. It requires spiritual discipline to trust God, and when you forsake that discipline, the fear that results and takes root is powerful, punishing and relentless.
The same Bible that serves up the image of an unforgiving God offers us the image of faith the size of a mustard seed. The tiniest bit of faith is all God needs. But it is we who choose faith or fear. God doesn’t actively punish us for forsaking faith for fear – fear itself is the punishment. It is the slavery that follows us even as we live in apparent freedom.
This story reminds me of a tale from our American history, as recorded by Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention if 1787. Ben Franklin, on leaving Independence Hall, was asked,
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
To which he responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Like the Israelites, we are in danger of taking our freedom for granted – not just our political freedom, but our spiritual and emotional freedom as well. I’ve discovered that the journey to maturity (a roughly 40 year desert walkabout) is very much a journey from slavery to freedom. From slavery to the fears and insecurities of adolescence. From slavery to the natural and heathy authority of our parents that we must outgrow. From the bad habits that we pick up along the way, and from the legacies of our parents’ and grandparents’ mistakes. From the guilt and shame we carry around because our imperfect choices, and from the resentment and self-pity we hold onto when we’ve been hurt.
I’ve walked a good portion of that journey up to now, and I sit on the border of my own Canaan. Will I serve faith or fear? For me, it is a daily choice. Sometimes an hourly choice. And when I slip, the punishment can be brutal. But there is hope. Maybe not in Joshua’s words, but in Jesus’ words in the corresponding Gospel today.
“Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
We are all God’s children, no matter how many times we’ve turned from faith to fear. God will always welcome you, no matter what. No matter what. Joshua spoke of a punishing God in the context of a world without Jesus, without the crucifixion and the resurrection. In that world, there was no hope of forgiveness. But we don’t live in that world. We live in the context of freedom readily available to us at any time.
As for me and my house, we will serve freedom.