Sights and Insights
Devotion for Aug. 31, 2021
14 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” 16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! … 19 Joshua 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. (Joshua 24:14-16, 19)
Travelling in small towns the past few weeks, I have ended up being at a variety of shops and restaurants that only accepted cash. Unfortunately, on the rush to get out the door I forgot to stop by the bank to get any cash before the trip. Not to worry, there were plenty of banks around with ATM machines to get the cash we needed. We could just stop by and withdraw the money we needed. We had put enough into our bank account that it was no problem to simply stop by the machine and withdraw what we needed.
How often do we treat God like a bank account? We put money into the account so that when we need money we can go to the ATM and withdraw it. We have a transactional relationship with a bank. We make sure to put in enough effort with God so that we have enough equity to be able to call on God when we are in need.
This is hardly a new thing. It is precisely what is being addressed by Joshua. In chapter 24, Joshua has gathered the people to remind them of what God has done for them in leading them out of Egypt. Joshua then asks if they are willing to serve the Lord or follow other religions. When they proclaim that they choose to serve the Lord, he chides them that no person can do it. Why did he not accept their pledge? From their wording of the pledge, it seems that they thought that Yahweh was like the other gods that other peoples worshiped. These gods did not make the same kind of exclusive claim that Yahweh does. In return for performing signs and wonders of protection, the religions of these other gods asked people to serve them through building images, houses, and performing sacrifices. It was a trade: do these rituals and in return the god would protect you in time of need through miraculous action. While perhaps in theory these religions required exclusive devotion, in practice it was not hard for common worshippers to fulfill these requirements for several different religions. While banks may want our exclusive business, there is nothing to prevent us from opening bank accounts with several different banks.
Joshua is telling the people that the Lord requires more than this. Service to God is based on God’s very nature, not on what God does through miraculous action. God’s nature is one of profound love for the people of Israel. This love means that God is totally devoted to the people of Israel. God’s protection is not about signs and wonders in response to the people’s minor acts of service. Rather, God is fully committed to the people and so protects them out of love for them. In return for this gracious love, God calls for a response of love from the people. Service to God, then, is not just about performing rituals, but is about whole-hearted commitment to living in the holy and loving way that God desires. This is a considerably higher standard of service and devotion. It is so demanding to fully love God that Joshua insists that the people cannot achieve it. True service to God is beyond human capacity. Too easily humanity is tempted to take the easier path of performing a few basic rituals of devotion and then continuing to do what they want to do.
Like the people in the text, we are prone to be swayed to take the easy way out in our religious life. We think: “I have gone to worship, I have said my prayers, now I am free to do what I want to do.” We turn a relationship with God into a set of tasks or responsibilities that need to be done. We treat God like a bank. Thus we can hear Joshua’s admonition as being spoken to us today as well. He is challenging us to seek a deeper, more loving relationship. We should see all that we do as a continuing conversation with God. God has chosen us and continually speaks in our lives. In return we are called to listen and follow in love. Yet we fail at this seemingly simple task. We try to find easy ways out from this relationship, or we try to use God for our own advantage rather than serving God. Even so, God continues in relationship with us, calling us to follow. That is a message of grace.