This week Sue and I traveled to New Albany, Indiana to attend the funeral of a dear friend. A 42-year-young man named Jerry Walker, who was a teenager in the youth group of my seminary church 27 years ago, had a massive heart attack and died, leaving a wife and three children behind. Jerry was very special to me. He was much more than just a youth; he was my friend and co-laborer. Other ministers who have served that church in the past 3 decades made similar comments at his funeral. In fact, he was referred to as a “minister to ministers.”
In my years at Culbertson Avenue Baptist Church, Jerry was a real leader in his youth group. His wedding was the first I ever performed. His parents and siblings were dear to me, too. So when we got the call that Jerry had died, Sue and I quickly moved our schedules around to make it possible for us to get to his funeral.
One of the topics of discussion in the days after Jerry died were his last words. For example, his 16 year old son, Nathan, worried because he and his dad had quarreled the day before he died-nothing serious-just a typical parent/teen disagreement. But he grieved because those were the last words they exchanged. I’m sure in the days to come other family members and friends will try to recall their last verbal exchange with Jerry, sifting through the memories of their conversations with him like miners panning for gold. And we all do this. When someone dies we cling to his or her final words. Those words are very special, very precious to us. I mean, we may forget much of what our loved ones say in life but as death approaches we cling to our final verbal exchanges.
We do this for two reasons. First, we know that even as Christians it may be a long time before we hear our loved one speak again. But we also cherish those words because an individual’s final words are often filled with a special depth of wisdom, especially if the individual knows that death is near. I mean, most people don’t engage in idle prattle when they know they are about to breathe their last. Think about it. What would you tell your spouse or children if you knew you only had ten minutes to live on this side of eternity? Would you make small talk? Would you discuss the weather? No, of course not! You’d make sure you said what needed to be said. You’d choose your final words very carefully in order to express the depth of your love or give needed guidance.
Well, the Bible is full of some great examples of words like these; final charges given to family and friends and even entire nations. For example, in the last verses of Genesis, Joseph, the central figure of the last third of that first book of the Bible, is dying and he gathers his brothers about him. He reminds them of God’s past blessing and of His promised future intervention on their behalf. In Genesis 50:24-25 He says,
“I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land He promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God will surely come to your aid and then you must carry my bones up from this place.”
And then there is Moses’ farewell, recorded in chapters 32 and 33 of Deuteronomy. But Moses didn’t just “talk” his final words. He put them to music in what is called the “Song of Moses,” singing his guidance and blessing to the Hebrew people he had led for so many decades.
I also remember some of Paul’s final words in his 2nd letter to young Timothy when he said,
“I have fought the good fight .I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge will award to me on that day and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.”
Well, as we come to the end of our study of the book of Joshua we find another example of “final words” but before we read them let me give you the setting. It’s been about 20-23 years since Caleb marched off to conquer the fortified cities of Hebron, and by now the conquest of the promised land is pretty much over. Joshua is 110 years young. And knowing that he will soon to pass from the scene, he gathers the leaders and the people together to give them his final charge.
He’s about to finish a long life of service to God’s people; forty years as Moses’ assistant, 25 years as his successor leading the people to conquer and settle in the promised land. So his final words are precious, indeed, because they come from the perspective of someone who has hung in there for the long haul, someone who has decades of accumulated wisdom gleaned from faithfully, humbly following God. It’s kind of like Billy Graham gathering everyone to hear one last sermon.
I’m sure everyone came and everyone listened. I would have! His message is in chapters 23 and 24. We don’t have time to read all of it but let’s look at an excerpt. Follow along as I read Joshua 23:1-3, 6 and 24:2-15, and listen, because these are indeed very special words, the final words of a very great man.
Joshua 23:1 – After a long time had passed and the LORD had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them, Joshua, by then old and well advanced in years,
2 – summoned all Israel their elders, leaders, judges and officials and said to them: “I am old and well advanced in years.
3 – You yourselves have seen everything the LORD your God has done to all these nations for your sake; it was the LORD your God Who fought for you.
6 – Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left.
Joshua 24:2 – This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods.
3 – But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac,
4 – and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt.
5 – ‘Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out.
6 – When I brought your fathers out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Red Sea.
7 – But they cried to the LORD for help, and He put darkness between you and the Egyptians; He brought the sea over them and covered them. You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians. Then you lived in the desert for a long time.
8 – “‘I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land.
9 – When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you.
10 – But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand.
11 – ‘Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands.
12 – I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you-also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow.
13 – So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’
14 – “Now fear the LORD and serve Him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the 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 forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
This is the WORD of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Now, if we were to condense Joshua’s final words we would see that his message boils down to one main statement. He was telling the Hebrew people, “You have a choice to make. You can continue to serve God after I’m gone or not. It’s up to you. But you have to choose.” As for himself, Joshua had made this choice long ago. He had decided that He would serve the Lord, and had lived his long life according to that decision. But now he was about to leave. He would no longer be the leader of this nation, telling them what to do. From now on they would have to choose for themselves. In my mind, he’s much like a parent dropping his child off at college saying, “Look, you’re on your own now and you face a choice. Serve God with your life. Live according to His Word or not, but choose.”
And you know, in a very real sense Joshua was like a parent to these people. He had been with them all their lives. Decade after decade He’d watched them grow up and then fight to conquer the land God had promised them. So perhaps better than anyone else Joshua knew that as the old hymn puts it, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, they had already come.” And Joshua had been with them in all that, guiding them every step of the way. All this “parental” experience had led him to know these people, to know them better in fact than they did themselves and so he knew that they were wrestling with this choice. He knew that at this moment in the history of this nation there was in fact a wavering as to their faith in God. They were wondering, if they still needed God now that this long war was over. And so with his final words, Joshua confronted them with this choice–to follow God or not.
With that in mind, I think our study of this text gives us a good chance to re-examine the depth of our own commitment to the Lord. I say this because Joshua’s farewell speech reminds us of three things that are involved in our choosing to follow God. Let’s review them this morning.
(1) First, as Joshua says, deciding to follow God is a historical decision.
In other words it is a commitment to serve Him that is based on what God has done in the past. Remember? In his final address Joshua reminded the people of God’s actions in their history. And please note he didn’t do this by using the third person to refer to God’s activity on their behalf. No. He quoted God directly. In verses 3 and following, Joshua shared word for word what God had said. As we read it a moment ago did you notice all the “I’s?”
Listen again as I summarize this part of his final speech and please note God’s first person emphasis on all His actions in the history of this young nation. He says, “I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan, and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out. I parted the Red Sea. I made it cover the pursuing Egyptian army. I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land. When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you. But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand. Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet [of fear] ahead of you, which drove them out before you. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”
Then Joshua interjects and says, “Now folks, because of all this history, based on all God has done, choose! Decide if in years to come you will fear the LORD and serve Him.”
So understand, he was using some of his precious final words to remind them that they had a decision to make, but that it was really a no-brainer because it was the only reasonable option to take when they considered all that God had done for them in the past. Joshua was saying that surely anyone who took the time to look back and see all that God had done would choose to serve God!
And when it comes to our following God, this principle of choice that Joshua referred to is still applicable in our day and age. I mean, if anyone today has even a partial understanding of all the ways God has blessed us, if he or she knew of God’s actions in his or her personal history, and if they had any sense, they would indeed choose to follow God. Let me put it this way. Anyone who understood God’s past actions on their behalf would decide to trust God with their future.
You know we often say that deciding to follow God involves a “leap of faith,” but the Bible doesn’t teach this. Don’t get me wrong. God’s Word does tell us that faith is necessary for salvation. But there is not much of a “leap” involved because it is a reasonable faith. I mean, in essence the Bible says, “Look at what God has done for you in history. It’s all written down here for you. Read it. See all that God has done. Reason about these things and make your decision.”
Do you remember the words of John 20:31 where it says about Scripture, “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
I mean the Bible does not abandon evidence. It doesn’t leave us with nothing on which to base our decision as to whether or not to give God our life. No. It builds faith on reason. As Josh McDowell put it years ago, the gospel story contains clear evidence that demands a verdict-an obvious one.
Massey H. Shepherd writes,
“The Gospel is not presented to mankind as an argument about religious principles. Nor is it offered as a philosophy of life. Christianity is a witness to certain facts, to events that have happened, to hopes that have been fulfilled, to realities that have been experienced, to a Person Who has lived and died and been raised from the dead to reign forever.”
Do you remember in Acts 25 when Paul is standing before the Roman governor, Festus? He shared His testimony as a believer in the Christ. He shared the rationale that led him to give God His life with this high-ranking Roman official. Verse 24 says, “At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense and said, ‘You are out of your mind, Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane.'” And Paul said, “I am not insane, most excellent Festus, What I am saying is true and reasonable.” Then he turned to the Jewish King Agrippa and says, “Agrippa, you know the prophets! You’ve read all that God has done and said. Surely my decision makes sense to you!” Agrippa apparently didn’t have much sense because his reply was to basically say, “Well, almost it almost makes sense to me.” In Romans 12:1 Paul hits this point again. He says, “In view of God’s mercy, in view of all God has done, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. make the choice to follow God. This is your reasonable act of worship. It’s a decision that makes sense!”
Christian, as you evaluate the level of your commitment to follow God in life, I challenge you to review your own personal history so that you can see all that God has done for you! And if you’re having trouble, I would give you a hint. James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father Who does not change.” So, if there is anything good or perfect in your life you would be foolish to take credit for it, because the Bible reminds us that God gave all that to you! I mean we could paraphrase the message of this portion of Joshua and have God could say, “I gave you that food you ate for breakfast this morning! I gave you the warm bed you slept in last night! I gave you that home with central air and heat! I gave you that closet full of clothes and that refrigerator full of food! I gave you that job with medical benefits and a retirement plan! I gave you those cars you drive! I made it possible for you to fill their tanks with gasoline! And do you remember that problem you wrestled with a few months ago-that nightmare-that is now only an unpleasant memory? I resolved that for you! I helped you through that tough time and all the tough times that came before it! I gave you that wife! I gave you that husband! I gave you those precious children! And lest you forget My perfect gift to you, I gave you My only Son. I sent Him to die for Your sins so that I could remove the sin barrier that exists between us and give you eternal life!” Do you get my drift? Every good thing in life is from God — every good gift. And, if that weren’t enough to base your decision on, of course the perfect gift of Jesus is from God as well.
You know, the young man whose funeral we attended this weekend, Jerry Walker? Jerry was a Christian. Long ago he responded to God’s action in history by accepting His Perfect Gift. And this choice to follow God affected the way Jerry lived his life. At the funeral there were several testimonials given by people who confirmed this fact about Jerry, but one that stands out to me was given by one of the members of Jerry’s rock ‘n’ roll band. You see, Jerry loved music and as a teen he played the bass guitar in a rock band. We often went to hear his band play during our years of service in his church. Well, this guy stood up in the sharing part of the funeral service and said that Jerry would often defuse tension among band members with his sense of humor. He also commented that Jerry always resisted the temptation to get involved in the kind of behavior rock ‘n’ roll band members often get involved in. He said he was impressed that a teen like Jerry could resist these temptations. He also said that this non-verbal witness was part of what led him to decide to profess his faith in Jesus as well, .and eventually surrender to God’s call to become a pastor. In other words, Jerry responded to God’s great action in History, the sending of His perfect gift, and he lived his life as a reflection of this response. His was a historical decision. He chose to follow God because he saw what God had done for him. And this decision impacted the way he lived. It was obvious to his fellow band members that Jerry followed God, and it made at least one of them want to make that choice as well.
(2) A second thing that Joshua’s farewell tells us is that the decision to serve God is an exclusive one.
In verses 6-8 of chapter 23 he says in the years to come the Hebrew people must, “…be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left….” In other words they were to live every moment according to the teachings in God’s written Word. It was to have no competition. It was to be their sole guide in the decisions of life. Joshua went on to emphasize this principle by saying that they were to, “…cleave to the LORD our God.” And, the word, “cleave” means to hang on tight-to stick like permanent glue. The same word is used in Genesis 1 to refer to the exclusive relationship between a husband and wife. So Joshua is saying this decision is a call to serve God, and God alone. Joshua used some of his last words to emphasize this because he knew that idolatry was prevalent in the land and that it was beginning to have an influence on the Hebrew people.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of the Jews were strong in their faith. Like Joshua, they had decided to spend their lives in service to God. They had given Him their full allegiance. And they were sticking to this decision. But, there were others who had begun to embrace the pagan culture around them. Some were already dabbling in the worship of foreign gods, beginning to live their lives according to the immoral practices of their new peers.
And between these two smaller groups there was another group, a large group of Jews, who had made no clear decision as to where they stood in relation to God. This was the group that Joshua addressed his comments to. He used his precious final words to charge them with the responsibility to move beyond indecision and restlessness to a clear-cut, exclusive commitment to God.
In fact, Joshua went so far as to remind them of the four options they had to select from. First, he said they could serve the gods of Terah and Abram, their forefathers, the gods they had served when they lived in Ur of the Chaldeans. This is what the phrase “beyond the river” refers to because the river is the Euphrates and the gods served beyond that river were the same gods the Babylonians would worship. A second option would be for them to choose to serve the gods of Egypt…the gods of the Nile, the land, and the sky, like Ra-the sun god for example, gods who seemed attractive in their memories because when they left Egypt, it was at the height of it’s power culturally and militarily. It looked like those were good gods to follow. And then, a third choice would be to serve the local gods, fertility gods who were worshiped by cultic prostitution. The temples in which these gods were worshiped were sensual, emotionally fulfilling, and attractive. In contrast, the worship of Yahweh seemed word-oriented and austere, which leads to their final choice. Joshua said, they could choose to serve the true god, the God Who had made Israel into a people, the God Who had given them His Word, the God Who had brought them out of Egypt and established them in their own land.
These were the choices that faced the Hebrew people in this hour of decision, and Joshua was saying, “It’s time to quit straddling the fence. You have to choose. But remember, this is an exclusive choice. God will tolerate no rivals. A choice to follow Him, to serve Him, is an exclusive choice.”
Well, let me ask you, what idols compete with the One True God in your life? Before you answer let me remind you that idolatry is moving God out of His rightful place in our day-to-day lives-and replacing Him with something or someone else. And these days there are so many ways that we replace God with other things. I mean, in the 21st century, we so often sacrifice our best time, energy, and attention not to God, but to the idols of entertainment, wealth, relationships, fashion, sexual indulgence, stock portfolios, cars, and personal power. We especially bow down to our careers, and through His servant Joshua God says we can’t do that and choose to follow God. Our God is a jealous God. He is jealous, or as some have translated the word, God is zealous for our complete devotion. In other words, as Joshua says, when it comes to choosing to serve Him it’s all or nothing! So, let me ask you, what about it? Have you given your exclusive allegiance to God?
Here’s some questions to help you in your answer: What preoccupies or rules your heart? Your thoughts? Your time? What compels you? Controls you? Drives you? Motivates you? To what does your heart cling-cleave? What takes first place when it comes to your schedule? What gives you a sense of worth? What defines your identity? What do family or close friends think may be idols in your life? This last one is a good question to ask because you see the object of your worship shows. People will notice what it is that is first in your life.
After the funeral this week a man came up to me and said that Jerry had been his friend for many years. He told me that he used to ask Jerry to go with him here or there and Jerry would almost always say he couldn’t because there was something going on at his church that he wanted to attend. This man told me he had other friends who went to church, but only because their parents made them and that Jerry was the only teen he knew who seemed to love to go to church. I mean it was obvious to this guy that God was first in Jerry’s life. He went on to tell me that it was Jerry’s passion for God, his exclusive commitment to Christ, that made him decide to become a Christian and get active in a local church. Well, let me ask you, would the way you live your life, the way you practice your faith make someone want to serve God? Remember this is an exclusive decision. It’s a decision that shows. Does yours show?
(3) Finally, Joshua says that following God is a personal decision.
I mean, it’s a choice that you must make for yourself. This is what Joshua was getting at when he said in verse 15, “As for me, I am choosing to serve The LORD. What about you?” Joshua was reminding the people that when it comes to our decision to follow God in life we are talking about something that is an intensely personal matter.
My dad once said, “The Christian religion knows nothing about a proxy faith.” And he was right. When it comes to the choice to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and then spend your life serving Him as Lord, no one can decide this for you. Your pastor can’t decide this for you. Your deacon can’t. Your parents can’t. It is your decision. you decide. You respond to God. No one does this on your behalf.
Remember? The third chapter of John records that Jesus said to Nicodemus, “you must be born again!” Later Jesus said, “God so loved the world that whosoever believes, (singular-individual-personal) whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Following God is a personal choice. You have to respond to God personally!
But Joshua also reminds us here that Christian parents have another choice to make. This Mother’s Day is a good time for us to realize that all parents have to decide whether or not they will follow God’s instruction and teach their children about His love. Remember God’s Words in Deuteronomy 6:6-7?
“These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
Well, in his final words Joshua says, “I have obeyed this instruction from God. I don’t know about you but as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” If we read on we would see that the people replied saying that “Yes, We will serve the Lord!” but Joshua asked them again and again and repeatedly they said yes. Finally, he accepted their answer and put up a stone memorial to remind them of their commitment to teach their children about God. I’m sure there were a lot of amens as he did so. But unfortunately they did not follow through with this commitment. They didn’t teach their children about God’s loving actions.
In the very next book of the Bible, in Judges chapter 2:1-2 it says, “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what He had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, Who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them.” So the parents didn’t make this choice. How sad.
You know the fact is we are only one generation away from a culture that turns it’s back on our faith because all it takes is the failure of one generation of parents to tell their children about God. Moms and Dads, this is our God-given responsibility and don’t misunderstand me! I’m not saying that children decide to serve God simply by parental decree or that children inherit their faith from their parents like they do their physical characteristics. No, of course not. But I am saying that if the next generation is to remain faithful to God parents must teach them all about God. They must tell them what God has done and what He means to them. You know, the fact is much of the problems in our culture stem from the fact that many parents have not made this choice correctly. There are many parents these days who say, “My choice is no. I don’t want to influence my child when it comes to religion. When they are old enough they will choose for themselves.” I find it strange though that they don’t follow that philosophy in other important matters. They don’t let their young children decide when to go to bed or what to eat or wear. They don’t let them decide if they want to go to school or not. They don’t say, “Hey play in the street if you want to! That’s your choice.” Well, why this inconsistency? Why give your child some guidance in life but refuse to give them the most important guidance, guidance that not only equips them to deal with the heartbreaks that are around every corner in this fallen world of ours, but also prepares them to make their own personal choice when it comes to their allegiance to God, that choice that will affect where they spend eternity!? Again, please don’t misunderstand me. The final choice of faith is up to the child but a child needs guidance and encouragement that will help them make the right choice. Think of it this way. If children are allowed to grow up like weeds in a spiritual wilderness, chances are good that they will remain weeds. Another thing. You can be sure that your child does not grow up in a spiritual vacuum. If you don’t teach him, someone else will. The only sure hope that a child has when it comes to making the right choice when it comes to faith in God is the home.
Listen to these words,
“The facts show that it is the family which is the main center of maintaining the religious spirit. We cannot and we shall not remain indifferent to the fate of children on whom their parents, fanatical believers, commit an act of spiritual violence. We are not indifferent to the fact that, in the Soviet society, a family is a cell of communist education or a refuge of backward conceptions.”
These words were spoken in 1964 by one of Nikita Khrushchev’s top deputies. Back then the Russians feared Christianity so much that they forcibly took children from believing parents. Even they were wise enough to know something that many Christian parents apparently ignore. The family is the key to passing on faith in Jesus.
Well let me ask you moms and dads. What about you and your house? Like Joshua have you made the commitment to tell your kids all about the Lord you love and serve so that they can make a well-informed decision?
I was so impressed this week at Jerry’s funeral to see how his kids were responding to his passing. His eldest son read their dad’s favorite Scripture in the service: Philippians 4:13. His daughter sang “Amazing Grace” while his youngest son played the guitar. I mean it was obvious that both Jerry and “his house” had chosen to serve the Lord. What a wonderful gift to leave his children! They grieved, miss their dad, and always will. But because their dad loved them enough to tell them about Jesus, because He allowed them to examine the evidence and make their own personal decision, they grieve with hope–a sure and steadfast hope that they will be together again some day!
We come to our time of decision. And as we do I ask you again, what about you? Have you made the choice to follow God? I don’t want to appear to be an alarmist but I must point out that Jerry made that choice long before he died and it was good that he did because his death came suddenly. He was only 42, rolling up the garden hose when his heart stopped. And the next instant he was in Heaven because of his prior choice to accept God’s perfect gift. I share that to remind you that we never know when we’ll leave this world, so it’s not a choice you should put off. If you haven’t decided to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior, decide today!
And if you have already made this choice, how are you doing? How deeply are you following God? Does your decision show? If God is leading you to serve Him in this church come. We’d love to welcome you into our fellowship. But come now as we sing and share any public decision with me.