“Choose this day whom you will serve.” This challenge was put forward by Joshua about 3400 years ago. It was not a new one then, but it was perhaps the most important one of all time. And guess what? It still is. What was Israel’s choice? Either to serve and obey the God Who led them out of Egypt and, with His cloud and pillar of fire, led them through 40 nomadic years during which He gave them His commandments; or, on the other hand, to assimilate into the contemporary Canaanite culture and serve their gods. Essentially this also was God’s challenge to the first couple in the Garden of Eden: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” They were given an obedience test. They failed it when they yielded to temptation and engaged in a blatant act of disobedience. They chose trying to be like God over serving and obeying Him.
Then they were left with other mandates. There was the creation mandate itself, issued by a God Who said that when He created us male and female, He was creating us in His own image. We tend to forget that part of it, even though it was “square one” in how we’re to relate both to God and to each other. It was all about how God made us in the first place, in His very likeness, male and female.
Once the fall had occurred and nature fell right along with us, there were the mandates to be fruitful and multiply as well as to subdue the earth that was created to be subservient to us. We were left with the pain of childbirth and the sweat of the brow. Now there were more tests of obedience. But when it comes to obedience, humans of every generation have been reductionists. We even think that God, Jesus and Paul were all reductionists. That’s mostly because we love to pick and choose our Scripture verses in order to make as few demands on ourselves as possible. Humankind has done that since the beginning, and it should be no surprise that doing it is rampant today.
Humans became so evil, so disobedient in the eyes of God, that God was left with only one man and his family who found chēn, grace, in God’s holy eyes: Noah. But there’s nothing like a fresh start. Or is there? According to the Biblical record it was only about 430 years from the Great Flood to the destruction of Sodom when, again, disobedience had so trumped obedience that humans were immersed in unbridled sin against the very Image of God in which they were created. Once again, only one man and his family find chēn, grace, in the eyes of the Lord: Abraham’s nephew Lot. And even then, after all of Lot’s special pleading for God’s mercy, God has to send two angels in the form of men literally to pull Lot and his family out of their home and get them down the path toward safety. You may remember that story: the men of Sodom saw these male-looking angels as newcomers ripe for initiation into their sinful practices; but Lot, having some measure of cleverness, offers his daughters, knowing that the men of Sodom had no interest in females and that his offer would be ignored.
I mentioned last Sunday that in a single week we had the celebration of the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, along with the festival day for the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, who died in 1600. Last week I found a fascinating connection among 3 things: the writings of Hooker, something that happened in England on the anniversary of Luther’s Theses, and some inscrutable words of the current Archbishop of Canterbury. They all have direct bearing on the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and the perpetually dangerous inclination for humans to re-interpret Scripture according to our sense of tradition and reason, with the inevitable risk that we may distort the Word of God beyond recognition and, perhaps even unwittingly, substitute what we call “human wisdom” for the clearly revealed wisdom of the Almighty. Any time we do that, we’re taking a dangerous walk on spiritual quicksand.
We know that Luther’s Theses addressed abuses in the Church of his day, beginning with the important statement that the entire life of the Christian is to be one of repentance. On October 31, 2017, conservative clergymen in the Church of England posted theses of their own on the doors of several prominent English cathedrals, including Canterbury, representatively the “mother church” of the worldwide Anglican Communion. They called their theses the “Southwark Declaration.” It’s a succinct document that strongly affirms marriage as “the union of one man and one woman,” but begins with this sentence: “We affirm the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and their supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” The explanatory preface of the document includes another important statement, with clear echoes of Luther: “When the church redefines sin and eliminates repentance, it can no longer offer the good news of eternal salvation from sin in Jesus; the church no longer remains distinctively Christian; it is no longer salt and light in the world” (see Matthew 5:13, 14).
Why did these clergymen from the Diocese of Southwark feel compelled to issue such a declaration on the day that Luther’s Theses were being remembered? Simply because of the abhorrent undermining of Biblical truth not only in selected parishes within the Church of England, but also from the mouth of the titular leader of that church, Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby openly admits to playing politics by choosing to speak with ambiguity on the subject of human sexuality. But when confronted directly, Welby acknowledged the "real and profound disagreement" on "marriage and same-sex relationships today," and suggested that the answer to that disagreement is "a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church." He added,
“This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and being sexual. I am having to struggle to be faithful to the tradition, faithful to the scripture, to understand what the call and will of God is in the 21st century and to respond appropriately with an answer for all people — not condemning them, whether I agree with them or not — that covers both sides of the argument. I know I haven't got a good answer to the question. Inherently, within myself, the things that seem to me to be absolutely central are around faithfulness, stability of relationships and loving relationships." (emphases mine)
What does any of this have to do with Richard Hooker? The answer is in the fact that Hooker ardently defended the supreme authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and conduct and clearly subordinated tradition and reason to the written Word of God. That teaching of Hooker has been distorted and misrepresented in our day by the invention of the so-called “three-legged stool,” Scripture, tradition and reason, to which Archbishop Welby himself is referring when he speaks of "a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church...founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology,” basing this on his notion that “the call and will of God in the 21st century” is something different from the call and will of God in any other century, and his conclusion that “a proper 21st century understanding of being human and being sexual” somehow precludes whatever Scripture has to say on the matter. In other words, the test of fidelity to Scripture is no longer supreme, but is placed on equal or even lesser footing with tradition and reason, with Welby tossing in “theology,” as though a Christian’s theology would be anything other than Biblical.
“Choose this day whom you will serve.” Apparently Archbishop Welby has chosen to assimilate to the culture of our day, whereas serving the one true God is always countercultural. If our choice is not to serve the God of Scripture, Who made us in His own image, male and female, and commanded us to be fruitful and multiply, and pronounced judgment by the annihilation of an entire city that perverted His laws, then we’ll find ourselves under a condemnation similar to that of Sodom. And, as the author of Hebrews wrote, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).
Another 500 years packed with history goes by after the destruction of Sodom before God gives Moses the Law, THE Law, papyrus leaf after papyrus leaf of instructions on how to serve God in a way that would please Him. Read Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus in your spare time. There are many, many laws: according to Jewish tradition, either 611 or 613! Reductionists that we are, we pare God’s laws down to 10, not realizing that those 10 commandments embody in principle much of the rest.
But we found even 10 to be too many, too specific, too limiting, and so we often hear people suggesting that God requires obedience not to the 10 Commandments but just to 3 general principles found in Micah or to the 2 commandments of Jesus. Micah’s three principles aren’t even all that specifically Judeo-Christian: they’re just good life principles by which anyone in any society should live. And that was Micah’s point (6:8): “What does the Lord require of you (or of anyone) but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” But once again we can read these 3 presumably “simple” guidelines in a rather more comprehensive way that includes every commandment God ever dropped on us. “Acting justly” and “loving mercy” means being like God, trying to live in His image. Toss in walking humbly with our God, and we all stand condemned.
Well, wasn’t Jesus the greatest reductionist of all when He gave His summary of the Law with which we begin every Sunday service? He cut down 613 to only 2: 1) “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength; and 2) love your neighbor as yourself.” We’d welcome this reduction even more if Jesus hadn’t used “all” four times in the first commandment, though we’re very good at sliding over those 4 “all’s:” all our heart, soul, mind and strength. But what did Jesus add? He added that in fulfilling these 2 commandments as they’re intended to be fulfilled, we will have fulfilled “all” the Law and the Prophets. There’s a 5th “all” we definitely could do without! (see Mark 12:29-31; Matthew 22:40)
Maybe there’s one more safety net for us: Paul, in Romans and Galatians, seems to be saying that the Law is completely passé. Now it’s all about faith, just as Paul says it was for Abraham 450 years before there was any Law at all. People have used this very fundamental Pauline concept for nearly 2,000 years to get around all sorts of rules and regulations that God gave us to direct our lives both spiritually and socially. If you think this is what Paul intended, you need to start over reading the Pauline epistles.
For Paul, here’s the bottom line: there’s essentially no distinction between faith and obedience. Accepting God’s provision for our salvation by faith includes embracing His provisions for living out our faith in obedience to His commandments. Some of the content changes, but the principles remain valid. That’s what Jesus Himself meant when He said that He did not come to set the Law aside, but to fill it up with new meaning, practical meaning, and that new meaning is even more comprehensive by its spiritual nature than the old one was with its more legalistic nature. We’re not getting off any hooks here! (see Matthew 5:17)
What’s my point? My point is that Joshua is still standing in front of us this morning throwing out his very same challenge: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” When we read these words, we’re not just reading Jewish history: we’re reading something entirely contemporary because it’s something eternal. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And when you do that, you’re embracing what God means by faith coupled with obedience. Israel of old failed the test again and again. The Biblical record is replete with stories of how and how often the Israelites did exactly what Joshua told them not to do: they “served the gods that their fathers served that were beyond the River, and the gods of the Amorites in whose land they would be living.” They assimilated themselves into the culture of their day rather than following the ever-countercultural faith of their fathers. But Joshua said, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” and the people glibly responded, “We will do the same.”
Where is Jesus in all this? Front and center. What did Paul say? He said that “what the Law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did. Sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteousness of God might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3, 4). There again is the plain coupling of faith and obedience without which, writes James, faith itself is dead (James 2:17). And our walk of obedience in the Spirit is to fulfill the righteousness of God as revealed in His Holy Word, something that stands outside of tradition or reason or any 21st century re-interpretation of God’s call, God’s will, or God’s having made us in His own image. There is absolutely no room for cultural adaptation or assimilation.
“Choose this day whom you will serve.” The apostle John wrote “To as many as received Jesus, God gave the right to become His children, to all those who believe in His Name” (1:12). Now it’s our responsibility as God’s children to imitate Jesus by our own faith and obedience. Is that too hard? Jesus said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9). And Paul wrote to Timothy, ”God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and discipline” (II Tim. 1:7). As we access that power in the Holy Spirit, may we respond anew with Joshua this morning: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.