A moment of covenant

A moment of covenant

This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, November 8, 2020.


The Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles
Proper 27A 11/8/20
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

 You may be under the impression that you don’t know much about the book of Joshua, but my guess is that you are more familiar with its stories than you think. In this book we read about Rahaab the sex worker, who offers a rooftop hiding place for the Israelite spies[1]and then about the Israelites crossing the Jordan River[2] and the battle of Jericho in which the city’s walls come tumbling down.[3]

This book describes the journey of the Israelites as they pass from the wilderness and begin infiltrating the land of promise. This book confirms that the promises made to Abraham about an abundance of land and descendants have finally come true.[4]

At the end of Deuteronomy, God chooses Joshua as Moses’ successor and Joshua wastes no time transitioning into this role.

Here’s my very brief synopsis of this sixth book of the Old Testament. The first 12 chapters tell the story of Joshua guiding the Israelites across the Jordan River and into a multitude of battles with the Canaanites, who inhabit the Promised Land of Canaan. After several confrontations in the West, North and South, Joshua and his people claim the land that God promised them generations earlier. Chapters 13-22 detail how the land should be distributed among the tribes.

Chapter 23 is Joshua’s good-bye speech. He reiterates how critical it is that the Israelites refrain from both intermarrying with the Canaanites and worshipping their gods.[5] Joshua affirms God has given them all that was promised and warns that if they worship other gods consequences will follow.

Today’s lectionary reading from chapter 24  is a renewal of the covenant made between Joshua and the people on behalf of God. Four verses after our reading ends we learn that Joshua dies at the age of 110 years old, and the book comes to a close.

Back to our reading today. Joshua asks the Israelites big questions…big questions that demand big answers.

Now that their settlement is complete, the Israelites must embark on their new life in a new era. No longer will they live as nomads, now they are permanent residents of the cities and farmlands of Canaan. Finally they have arrived at this promised land – this land where they have directed every bit of their physical, emotional, and mental energy for the past 40 years. But Joshua knows that arriving here is not the end of their work – now they must live here.

Today we hear Joshua challenge them. The Israelites must decide where their divine allegiance lies and what their identity will be as God’s chosen people.

What will they do?

How will they live?

Will this new generation of Israelites act with justice?

Will they hold fast to their founding principles?

And of course, the most crucial question — will Israel be faithful to their God? — the God who called them out of Egypt and guided them the past 40 years?

This is a tremendous task for Joshua for several reasons. One is that he’s quite aware that not all the Israelites support him as their leader. Not everyone likes him and not everyone agrees with him. And he doesn’t possess the gift of having these dissenters swallowed up by the land like Moses did.

But Joshua isn’t just the leader for the Israelites who support him. He’s the leader for all of them. Joshua sees the confusion on their faces as they settle into their new land and begin their new life. He summons up tremendous courage and calls all the people together. He calls his supporters and his dissenters, and holds all of their feet to the fire, so to speak.

He begins by summarizing the Israelites’ history before God. He tells them about their ancestors who worshipped other gods before the LORD, the God of Israel took Abraham and led him through Canaan and multiplied his offspring. God then gave Abraham, Isaac, and to Isaac, Jacob and Esau. On and on it goes – Joshua continues recounting all that God for Moses and Aaron, the great liberation from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.[6]

The Israelites love this retelling. They are overwhelmed with gratitude and when Joshua asks if they will worship the God of Israel exclusively, they immediately proclaim, “far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods.”

But Joshua knows his people and is hesitant to believe their quick agreement to serve the Lord. Joshua replies harshly, You won’t be able to do it. You’re not good enough. Do you know how hard it’s going to be giving up all your idols once and for all?

But the Israelites are not discouraged. They stand up a little taller, brush the dust off their shirts, and reply, Yes, we can! We will serve the Lord!

I imagine Joshua smiling as he replies, Then you are witnesses of your own oath. Today begins a new day, a new covenant for a new generation. With new eras come new covenants, promises from all of us about a new way to live.

I retell this story because I believe it has much to offer us this week. It reminds us of something that we’re missing on the national scene.

In the midst of a new life in Canaan, Joshua demands that the Israelites think about their relationship with God rather than their relationship to the land. Together they make an intentional decision to reaffirm their covenant with God —  to renew their promise of faithfulness and sacrifice to God.

Our country’s election season is finally coming to a close. Whether you greet this new day with anticipation, resignation, frustration, or even ambivalence, it is time for a new covenant. It’s been an extremely long election season in an extremely long year, and right now we have the opportunity to examine our country and what is to come of our future as a nation. And as we do so, it’s imperative that we also examine our faith and our allegiance.

What will we do?

How will we live?

I am most certainly talking about renewing our covenant with our God, not with our government. As involved as we may have been with both local and national campaigns, no matter the number of postcards we wrote or phone calls we made – we are Christians first and Americans second. Our cross always comes before our flag.

Now is the time to discern and articulate our covenant with God. Joshua’s story reminds us that as we enter new phases in life, we should take time to renew our religious commitment and our relationship with the divine. We’ve lamented as a nation about getting through this horrible year…but surely we know that 2021 won’t magically end our past. Our slate isn’t wiped clean on January 1 — we will still wrestle with politics, white supremacy, climate change and COVID-19.

And yet, we have the opportunity to note that something is new. So we must ask the same hard questions Joshua asked the Israelites as they settled into their new land.  Starting with:

What do we do now?

Joshua offers suggestions as we consider renewing our relationship with God. He asks Israel to consider two things as the foundation of that covenant: sacrifice and faithfulness — sacrificing the old idols to embrace the faithful love of God.

So –

As we look at our relationship with God, we must ask ourselves:

What idols need to die?

What other gods prevent us from fully worshiping God?

How will we be faithful to our God?  How will we live our faith in this complicated time?

How will we live out our faithfulness in this new covenant?

Like the Israelites, the end of this election season and calendar year offers us the opportunity to intentionally shape our self-identity and to identify with God. In our reading today, Joshua makes clear what has been implicit all along – that this is a moment of covenant renewal for the people.

The result of this new covenant is a renewed understanding of Israel’s relationship to God. Israel is God’s chosen people. God has been involved in their history leading up to this new era. And on this day, when Joshua asks the Israelites what God they will serve, Israel proclaims proudly that not only are they God’s people, but that Yahweh is their God.

Like the Israelites, God has chosen us as well. We are God’s people and God has been with us all along throughout our tumultuous history. Now it is our time to make the bold statement and declare that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is our God. Now is the time to renew this covenant and decide for ourselves how we will live. 

[1] Chapter 2

[2] 3.14-17

[3] Chapter 6

[4] Genesis 12.1-3

[5] 23.6-8

[6] Joshua 24.2-13