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October 21st, 2018

If you didn’t get a Jesus deal, you didn’t get a deal at all!

Joshua 8:30-35

 

Deals are everywhere

My sermon title is a play on the title of a game show called “Let’s Make a Deal” that first aired more than a half-century ago. I associate the show with Monty Hall, but younger viewers connect the show with host Wayne Brady. Would-be contestants dress in crazy outfits in hopes they’ll be chosen as a “trader” to make a better and better deal.

Deals are everywhere in modern life. You’ve probably seen Corinth member Dave Everett on TV saying, “If you didn’t get an Everett deal, you didn’t get a deal at all!” We make deals when we buy cars or houses. The word “deal” has become synonymous with a discount or at least a fair price, but its basic meaning is an agreement between two or more parties, especially in business or politics. 

A deal is a contract, a pact, a treaty. In that sense, marriage is a deal because two parties make promises to each other. A course syllabus is a deal between the professor and the student. A job contract is a deal. I still have the contract I signed when I came to Corinth a quarter century ago. You made a deal when you joined Corinth Reformed Church.

The biblical word for “deal” is “covenant,” sometimes translated “testament.” The word is all over the Bible. Christians divide our Bible into two sections – the Old Testament and the New Testament. We could say “the Old Deal” and “the New Deal.” The most common idea in the Bible is the covenant between God and his people. The most significant covenants in the Old Testament are made between God and Abraham (and his descendants), God and the children of Israel (represented by Moses), God and David (and his direct descendants, leading to Jesus). Jesus ushered in the New Deal.

With any covenant there’s always the risk of the deal being forgotten or broken. Married people sometimes break covenant by adultery or desertion. People default on loans for a house or a car. A student fails to do the course work as prescribed in the syllabus. When one partner in the covenant breaks the deal, the contract is off.

For that reason, in some situations it’s helpful to wake the deal. Married people renew their vows. A homeowner renegotiates the mortgage. I’ve been wondering what it might look like for us to “wake the deal” as a congregation on our 150th anniversary.

In the Bible, this is called “renewing the covenant,” and it happens several times in the Old Testament. One of them is in Joshua 8. The simplest way to understand this short passage is with the Five W’s.

When

The placement of this story at the end of Joshua 8 is important. In chapter 6 Joshua and the Israelites witnessed a miracle as the walls of Jericho fell down on cue as the people followed very detailed instructions from God. In Joshua 7 they experienced an equally surprising defeat when they tried to take a smaller, weaker city named Ai. The Israelites had not obeyed God and had not asked God for direction. In the first part of Joshua 8 they looked to God who directed them to another victory at Ai.

On the heels of two victories sandwiched around a defeat, the people need to wake their deal with God. God’s keeping his end of the deal. They need to renew their commitment to keep theirs. Let’s not repeat the grievous error of Ai.

Where

From Ai the people move about 20 miles north to the pass that lies between two mountains about as high above sea level as Blowing Rock. Mount Ebal is to the north, and Mount Gerizim to the south. In between the two is an east-west pass where a city called Shechem has been built and destroyed multiple times.

Shechem (“shoulder”) is very significant in the Bible. It’s the first place Abraham met the Lord when he first arrived in Canaan (Genesis 12:6). Jacob bought land here and dug a well. His daughter was raped in this area, leading to a brutal act of revenge by his sons. Later this became a place of worship for both Canaanites and Israelites, and when the ten northern tribes decided to secede, they met here. A few hundred years before the time of Christ, the Samaritans built their temple on Gerizim.

The covenant is renewed twice in this valley – here in chapter 8 and again in chapter 24, when Joshua makes his famous “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” speech. One of the reasons for this location is that Shechem provides a rather natural amphitheater, with “seating” on both sides of the valley. What’s puzzling about this story is that there’s no account anywhere in Joshua, before or after our text, where the Israelites captured or fought or destroyed Shechem. It seems odd that they just move 20 miles north from Jericho and Ai and plan a big ceremony. The two best explanations seem to be that the local people heard about what happened at Jericho and Ai and fled as Israel approached, or that the small group of people followed Rahab’s lead and acknowledged the God of Israel.

Who

Not everyone present at Shechem was a born and bred Israelite. In every society, including our own, people tend to mark and even exclude those “not from ‘round here.” It takes a while before Hickory people include the rest of us. Some southerners still don’t trust Yankees. There’s an ongoing debate not only here in America but all over the world about what to do with about immigrants and refugees.

We may wrestle with the political question, but spiritually speaking there can’t be any debate. God doesn’t favor someone because of ethnicity or citizenship. We don’t know how the “foreigners living among them” (33) got there. Were they Egyptians who had come along? Had some of the Israelites intermarried? Were there others who joined them during the wilderness wanderings? Were these Canaanites, including Rahab and her family? What we know is that they were in the group, and they were to be included and treated as equals along with the “native-born” (33).

“Women and children” were included also. This was not just a men’s club. Everyone was to join in. Don’t get too lost in how hundreds of thousands or even a couple of million people could participate, or in what they did with the fidgety children. Just note that the “who” is inclusive. There are times when the spiritual commitment that is to be made needs to embrace every single individual.

The people are led in this ceremony by “elders, officials, and judges” (33), as well as the “priests” who carried the ark.  The comparable in our society would be the President’s State of the Union address, where the leadership of every branch of government – the President and his cabinet, the Senators and Congressmen and women, and the Supreme Court – are all present.

Most importantly, God was there, with his presence symbolized in the ark of the covenant.  Inside the golden box were the tablets of stone on which Moses had written the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod.  These were constant reminders of God’s part of the covenant – provision and direction – and the people’s agreement – to follow God’s laws.

What

My Bible’s caption for this passage reads, “The Covenant Renewed at Mount Ebal,” although the word “covenant” only appears in connection with the “ark of the covenant.” Let’s look at what Joshua 8 actually says about what happened.

First, Joshua built an altar to the LORD on Mount Ebal (30). That seems to be a summary statement. But it’s important to add, “…as Moses had commanded the Israelites.” This takes us to Deuteronomy 27, where Moses had ordered this ceremony. There’s actually more detail in Deuteronomy 27, and, from all we can tell, Joshua followed Moses’ commands precisely.

It was “an altar of uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used” (31). Moses called them “fieldstones” (Deut 27:6). The passage doesn’t say why, but our best guess is that the Canaanites used tools to turn stones into idols. It’s harder to worship a rock if it looks like a rock instead of a statue. Use the rock the way God made it. Otherwise, it’s about what you did and not what God does for you.

Second, on the altar “they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings.” These were the same offerings made at Mt. Sinai when God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:24), so it’s a reminder of the covenant made there. Burnt offerings were for sin. Fellowship offerings, sometimes called peace offerings, were offered when you made a vow. After burning the blood and organs, the meat of the fellowship offering was eaten by the priest and the one making the sacrifice. Deuteronomy 27:7 also tells us the sacrifices that day included “eating and rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God.” So this was a gigantic picnic, a party.

Third, “Joshua wrote on stones a copy of the law of Moses” (32). I don’t think he wrote the entire Pentateuch or even all the book of Deuteronomy. He probably wrote either the Ten Commandments or maybe the list of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 27. According to Moses’ instructions, he first covered the stones with plaster so that he could write on them. He created a chalkboard.

Finally, Joshua split the people into two parts, with one part on Mount Gerizim and one on Mount Ebal as he “read all the words of the law – the blessings and the curses” – to all the people. This was both for acoustic effect, but also for visual effect. Once again, though, don’t think that it was everything Moses ever said. The text specifically says he read the blessings and curses. There’s a whole list of them in Deuteronomy 27 and 28. And we can assume they did what Deuteronomy says to do, which is to shout “Amen!” as each one is read, especially the curses. The curses are pronounced to anyone who breaks the Ten Commandments, although they are worded slightly differently and sometimes more specifically.

The bottom line is that God values complete loyalty and trust (no idols), honor for authority (especially mother and father), justice (for neighbor, the disabled, the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow), sexual purity and monogamy, life and transparency, and obedience to all his laws (Deuteronomy 27:15-26). Many specific blessings are pronounced on those who obey and specific curses on those who don’t.

By their “Amen!” the people reaffirm the covenant. They’re in.

Why

Why did the people do this? Because Joshua told them to. Why did Joshua tell them to? Because Moses told him to. Why did Moses command this ceremony when they arrived in Canaan? Because he knew that people need reminders of the covenants they make. Sometimes you have to wake the deal. Employees, especially those who become discouraged about their salary or disgruntled about their work, need to be reminded that they agreed to that work for that pay. Students who miss a deadline on a paper need to be reminded that they had the syllabus at the beginning of the course. Married couples need to renew their vows because life changes and people change.

We too need to remember what it means to make and wake our covenant with the Lord. When I was growing up in the Baptist church, the altar call was not only for a first-time commitment to Christ but for “rededicating your life.” Although there are aspects of the altar call that still trouble me, it’s not all bad. There are times when we need to say, “Lord, I made promises to you that I have not kept. I gave my life fully to you and other things have gotten in the way.” The “why” of covenant renewal is that we’re not home yet and we need to regain our first love for him.

I’m wondering what a renewal of covenant ceremony might look like next May when we celebrate our 150th anniversary. If you have any ideas, let me know!

Covenant renewal under the New Deal looks different than it does under the Old Deal. The writer of Hebrews is the one who, among all New Testament writers, most specifically connects and contrasts the Old Covenant with the New. The New Deal, he says, is based on better promises, a better sacrifice, and above all a better mediator. In chapter 10, he says that “the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming.” It’s his way of saying, “If you didn’t get a Jesus deal, you didn’t get a deal at all!”

To be sure, the writer of Hebrews warns against judgment. He’s not one who would say, “The Old Testament God is cruel and terrifying, while the New Testament God is a gentle grandfatherly type.” He warns of “fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (27) and warns believers not to “keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth” (26). He says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

But he also tells us what it looks like to “wake the deal” you have with God – to renew the covenant. First of all, you have to understand the New Deal. If you’re thinking this sermon is going to be about a list of do’s and don’ts because you’re a Christian, you don’t yet understand the Gospel. Here’s how Hebrews expresses it.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God… (Hebrews 10:19-21)

The covenant on God’s side is different. Rather than laws and sacrifices, he has opened a “new and living way” for us into his presence through the body and blood of Jesus, and we have “confidence” because of the “great priest over the house of God.” Whatever the covenant looks like in your mind, make sure it looks like grace. It looks like grace applied to you and grace extended through you to others who struggle with life and faith and obedience.

Then Hebrews 10 tells us what to do about it. Notably, he doesn’t give a list of laws to keep in order to stay in the covenant.

let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:22-25, emphasis added).

What’s the state of your deal with God? Don’t answer that question with a checklist:  I have my Quiet Time, I go to church, I give my tithe, I serve the poor, I don’t sleep around, I’m honest. It’s not that any of those things are unimportant, but a list like that makes you proud of what you’re doing and makes you condescending toward those who aren’t at your level on the list. A list like that is an Old Deal list. You didn’t make your covenant at Sinai or renew it at Shechem. You made it at the cross.

The New Deal exhortations are these:

First , draw near to God. I don’t want to know about how much time or how often you pray and read your Bible, even though those are important spiritual disciplines. I want to know if you’re close to him, if you’re progressing in the assurance that you can draw near to him with a guilt-free conscience because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Are you tight with God?

Second, hold on to hope. Do you have an ever-increasing awareness of God’s faithfulness? Do you trust him no matter what? Are you growing in your peace and joy – not because your circumstances are better or worse, but because God is good?

Third, move toward each other. Again, it’s not so much about the checklist – I go to church, meet with a small group, serve on a ministry team. Any or all of those things is important, and I talk about them a lot. But they are means to an end. The end, in this case, is that you are invested with other believers to “spur them on” to love and serve better, that you are asking how you can encourage someone else in this walk of faith.

Today is a great day to wake the deal. Amen.

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