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November 19th, 2018

Don’t forget. You’re going to die.

Joshua 23:1-16

 

What have we got?

It was September 17, 1787, the final day of the four-month grueling process that created the constitution of the United States of America, which has stood the test of time. Dr. James McHenry of Maryland, one of the youngest delegates, overheard an exchange between Benjamin Franklin and a woman named Mrs. Powell, which McHenry then recorded in his personal notes of the day.

At 81, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate to the convention, and had lived in Philadelphia since he was 17. The otherwise unknown Mrs. Powell addressed Franklin as he emerged from convention hall, and rather aggressively posed a question to him. “Well, doctor,” she said, “what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replied, “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.” Eric Metaxas has written a book titled If You Can Keep It that begins with this conversation. He adds this comment:  “What (Benjamin Franklin) meant was… that whatever document they ended up with, and whatever government it described and created, could be only a beginning. The people themselves would have to do a lot to make it work.”[1]

That is the essence of the twenty-third chapter of the book of Joshua. It’s been perhaps a couple of decades since the people of Israel had settled into their new homeland. Farms were producing crops, couples were bearing children, and local communities were organizing. The unasked question is, “What kind of nation will we be?” Joshua’s answer is, “A theocracy – a nation created and ruled by God – if you can keep it.”

Because this chapter includes a bit of repetition, and because it’s sixteen verses, I decided to look at themes in the chapter rather than walk through it verse by verse.

Look with your mind

The human brain is amazing. When you see something, that’s not just a single piece of data stored in your brain. It is a collection of millions of pixels with color, depth, movement, emotion, and more. Thus for those of us with the privilege of sight, to “see” and to “remember” are virtually synonymous. That’s how Joshua speaks to this gathered group of elders, leaders, judges, and officials.

Joshua uses phrases like this:  “You yourselves have seen everything the LORD your God has done to these nations for your sake” (3) and “Remember how I have allotted as an inheritance for your tribes all the land of the nations that remain” (4, emphasis added).

When he says, “One of you routs a thousand” (10) he knows they can still see those battles played out in HDTV in their minds. They can recall fighting – and winning – hand-to-hand combat they fought against impossible odds. Those veterans can recall the fierce determination in their enemy, the wall of opposing forces, the clanging of swords, the smell of sweat and blood.

If you’re going to be one nation under God, you’re going to have to “look with your mind.” You will need to purposely repeat those images in your memory so you never forget who you are and what God did.

You and they

Notice the pronouns in this chapter. For example, verse 5 says, “The LORD your God himself will push them out for your sake.  He will drive them out before you, and you will take possession of their land, as the LORD your God promised you” (emphasis added).

This is the basis of further commands not to “associate with these nations” (7) or “serve their gods or bow down to them” (7) or “ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations” (12) or “intermarry with them” (12). You are not they; they are not you.

We do have to be careful how we apply these commands in the new covenant. The essence of Jewish identity is a national identity. The Christian’s identity is not a nation; the New Covenant reaches beyond ethnic and national boundaries. We have to know who we are in Christ and while we do associate and reach out to and love our “them,” we nevertheless cannot let their gods become our gods.

Already and not yet

“Already and not yet” is a persistent theme in the Bible from cover to cover, and one of the more puzzling aspects of the Bible to casual readers. The introduction to the speech says that “the LORD had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them” (1), but Joshua himself mentions “the survivors of these nations that remain among you” (12). Apparently the Israelites had taken enough of the land that they were settled into their homes and lands, but then, for reasons that are somewhat of a mystery to me, they took their foot off the gas and let some of the Canaanites remain. Perhaps these were non-resistant indigenous peoples, or maybe rural and small town folks who remained after Israel had taken the larger cities. At any rate, it certainly alters the perception that Israel had mercilessly hunted down and killed every person everywhere. Now they’re at rest and they have peace, but there’s a sense that the job isn’t finished yet.

This is the essence of faith – that it’s done, but still in process. Faith, the writer of Hebrews says, is “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). By God’s promise we claim as true that which we haven’t fully experienced. The devil has been defeated, but he’s still at work. The kingdom of God has come, but we still pray, “Thy kingdom come.” We have been saved, but we’re still being saved. God has laid his claim to justice and peace in the world, but there’s more to be done. We pray with the confidence that God has heard and worked, but we live with the reality that our prayers have not yet been answered.

If you can keep it

We return to Benjamin Franklin’s phrase:  “…if you can keep it.” They are established in the land, but their status will always be uncertain. God has done his part, but now they must do theirs.

“Not one of all the good promises the LORD your God has given you has failed,” Joshua says in verse 14. “Every promise has been fulfilled” (15). This is the way the Bible most often uses the word “promise” – of God’s great plan of redemption. God promised Abraham this land. He promised Moses to lead the people out of Egypt and give them a new home. He promised Joshua success. God did what he said he’d do.

But a covenant is an exchange of promises, and God’s people have to keep their end of the deal. They have to obey all God’s laws (6). They must hold fast to Yahweh alone (8). They are to be “very careful to love the LORD” (11). Joshua repeats the most basic command of the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:4-6, the Shema. “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

Personal and powerful

I’ve noted almost weekly that the book of Joshua is not about Joshua, and it isn’t about you. It’s about God. What does this chapter teach us about God?

Did you notice how often God is referred to in this passage as “the LORD your God”? It’s literally, “Yahweh, the Elohim of y’all.” These two ways of referring to God are introduced in Genesis, and some scholars see this as evidence that two or more writers authored the Pentateuch – one who preferred the name “Yahweh” (or “Jehovah”) and one who liked to call God “Elohim.” It’s quite possible that different writers or editors contributed to the books of Moses, but something else is at play here.

From the beginning of the Bible, God wants us to know that he is both powerful and personal. Elohim speaks of majesty, power, sovereignty. He is the all-comprehensive God who can do anything he wants to do. Yahweh is his personal name, his intimate name, his relational name. Theologians speak of the transcendence and immanence of God. He’s great and far beyond us, but he’s close and knows us.

In the Wizard of Oz, the wizard is first “the great and powerful Oz,” but then Dorothy and the others find out he is just a regular guy. When he becomes personal, he’s no longer powerful. God is not either/or. He is both.

For Joshua, God is “Yahweh, the Elohim of y’all.” He’s the sovereign, all-powerful, ever-present One who’s your personal guide, protector, and provider. That phrase occurs 27 times in Joshua, about half of them in this chapter. The idea is most prominent in Deuteronomy, a collection of Moses’ last speeches, where we find it 238 times.

Here in Joshua 23, the LORD your God made promises to you (5, 14, 15, 16), and has and will defeat your enemies (3,5). This God is the one to be obeyed, held onto, and loved (6, 8, 11).

WeCroak

Joshua is about God, but what the book teaches about God will change you.

As Joshua makes this speech, you need to imagine Joshua as he was. The beginning of the chapter says he was “a very old man.” As he concludes his farewell message, he himself says, “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth.” The way of all the earth. Statistically speaking, the death rate for human beings is rather close to 100%. As I thought about that this week, I remembered that the issue of Christian Century magazine that arrived at the office earlier this week had a cover story titled, “Don’t forget; you’re going to die.”

I hadn’t read the article, so I went home and found it. The cover story is based on an app called “WeCroak.” So, I paid my 99 cents and downloaded it on my phone. Five times a day at random times during the day the app gives that message, “Don’t forget; you’re going to die.” Cheery, huh? On my phone, the death reminder appears with my grandson’s eyes peering over it, which seems very appropriate.

I was a little disappointed to learn that the app was inspired by a Buddhist philosopher. A quote comes with each death reminder, and so far, the ones I’ve read don’t always fit a Christian world view.

It’s not that I think Buddhists don’t need to think about death. It’s just that I wish Christians had come up with this idea. It’s the Bible that says, “It is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, KJV). The Bible is full of promises, warnings, and reminders that life is short. I know I’m biased, but I think Christians have a fairly tight corner on a healthy view of death.

What would it look like to have a “We Croak” app with a Gospel perspective?

Anticipation, not fear. The focus of Hebrews 9:27 is on hope – for the believer. “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Notice the focus is not on terror of judgment, but on hope for salvation.

  1. S. Lewis likened this anticipation to a father trying to explain marital intimacy to his pre-pubescent son. He wants his son to know this is something to look forward to. Then the boy asks, “Will I be able to eat chocolate at the same time?” The dad’s then trying to figure out how to explain to him that he won’t want this when he’s enjoying that.

I would want a Christian WeCroak app to remind believers that there is not only no fear in death, but there are indescribable joys awaiting us. When I see on my phone, “Don’t forget – you’re going to die,” the Gospel response is, “I can’t wait!”

Legacy, not a bucket. I’m not sure I get the whole bucket list idea. Whatever God has planned is so much better. Why would I want to make sure I see this continent or do that thing when heaven is waiting for me. Instead, I want to leave a legacy of faith and purpose.

I want to focus on what my children and grandchildren will “remember” when they read what I wrote or what I did. I’ve been rummaging through the legacy of those who preceded me/us at Corinth. They left behind hints of what mattered to them and how they invested their lives. My children and grandchildren and those who follow behind me at Corinth will in the same way be looking for what mattered to me. I want what they find to point them to Christ. An old Steve Green song said it this way:

Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey

My God, not my death. Finally, I would want a WeCroak app from a Christian perspective to remind me that my God is powerful and personal. I want the app to remind me not so much of my death as of my God. If and when I doubt him, I want to be reminded that his personal care and his powerful nature most clearly emerge in the cross and resurrection. I must never doubt that he is for me and with me because of his death, or that he is able to bring me safely home because of the resurrection.

We use a funeral pall here at Corinth if the family requests it. The large cloth with a cross embroidered into it is an equalizer at the time of death, because it covers every casket or urn whether elaborate or plain. More importantly, though, it is a symbol of being clothed with the righteousness of Christ. The Lord my God declares me righteous and worthy because of all Christ has done for me.

Don’t forget. You’re going to die. That’s a good thing. Amen.

[1] If You Can Keep It, Eric Metaxas, 8.

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