Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"Serving God requires total commitment."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Yesterday two weeks ago many of us gathered with the Armadale congregation to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Free Reformed Church of Armadale. That event is memorable not only for the congregation of Armadale itself, but for us in Kelmscott too inasmuch as Armadale’s early history is also our history. I had intended to pay particular attention to the event in the preaching here last Sunday, but the circumstances in which the Lord led the congregation last week required a different sermon.
The commemoration evening as well as the commemoration booklet informed us of some of the struggles that the fathers endured when they set out half a century ago to establish the church of Jesus Christ in our community. We were reminded that the fathers were sinful men and women, persons who needed the saving blood of Jesus Christ so very, very much. We also learned that the Lord God held on to these brothers and sisters, despite all their shortcomings, so that they sought to live for Him and His glory.
At a commemoration we do well to look back to see where we’ve come from, to see particularly the Lord’s care over the years, and thank Him for His mercy; that made the commemoration evening so fitting. What I want to do today, though, is look forward. We stand on the threshold of the second half-century of the Lord’s church gathering work in our community. This second half-century has many challenges for us, older and younger alike. Today already we see need to expand the school facilities, there are churches to institute, expansion needed for Fairhaven, much tender care required for Eucalypt, opportunities for increased mission work, requests for help from overseas sister churches, and so very, very much more. We look into the second half century, we see the work that needs to be done, and we say, Yes, we’ll serve the Lord in the years ahead, we’ll put the shoulder to the wheel confident that the God who has helped us thus far will also help us in time to come. We want to keep serving the God who has blessed us so abundantly.
Given the honorable intent which God has worked in our hearts, I want this morning to ask your attention for a similar intent treasured by the people of Israel at a threshold in their history. As they stood on the threshold of an era without Joshua, they were determined to serve the Lord. Joshua was moved by the Holy Spirit to impress on the people what this service was really all about. That’s an instruction we need to have straight in our minds also.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
Serving God requires total commitment.
1. The reason for serving God
2. The extent of serving God
3. The ability to serve God
1. The reason for serving God
Joshua instructs Israel to "fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth." This instruction appears in a particular context. The people of Israel had spent 40 years wandering around in the desert, had thereafter crossed the River Jordan into the land of Canaan, and then fought with the Canaanites for possession of the land. After a number of years of struggle, the Promised Land was finally theirs; each Israelite now possessed his own parcel of land in Canaan. So it is that, at the end of the meeting described in our chapter, "Joshua let the people depart, each to his own inheritance" (vs 28). In a word, the promise which God had made to Abraham about giving the land of Canaan to his descendants has been fulfilled; Israel was securely settled in the Promised Land.
That in turn means that now Israel’s life as God’s covenant people may begin in earnest. Israel had come to a certain maturity; their period of youthful training in the desert was over. Now that they’re settled, it was God’s holy wish that each of His children act responsibly and independently as a child of God. So it was that God did not appoint a successor to the aged Joshua; from now on the Lord expected His people to live in agreement with their responsibilities as bearers of the office-of-all-believers. Then yes, the people of Israel still had elders and heads and judges and officers (vs 1), but the people, under their leadership, should now themselves work with God’s revelation as revealed to them over the years past; no longer would they have a central leadership to tell them how to live and act in the various situations in which they’d find themselves.
As the people stood of the threshold of this new era-of-greater-personal-responsibility, there was one matter which God wished Joshua yet to discuss with Israel before he died. And that is the matter of impressing upon the people the need for choosing whether or not they shall serve the Lord wholeheartedly, the need for commitment to the Lord. That’s the reason why Joshua summoned Israel together in Chap 24.
With all Israel gathered before him in Shechem, then, Joshua laid before the people the command of God to "fear the Lord, and serve Him...." The question that straightaway comes to mind is this: why should Israel bother to serve this God in time to come?
The reason is encapsulated in Joshua’s choice of name for God in our text. Joshua makes a point of telling Israel to "fear the Lord." We realize that the word Lord with capital letters is the translation of God’s covenant name Yahweh. That name in turn catches the notion of God’s faithfulness, the notion that God is-Who-He-says-He-is – and nothing will prevent God from doing as He’d said. Joshua spells that out in the first 13 verses of the chapter. Consider.
Joshua made mention of the fact that Israel’s fathers had once lived in Ur of the Chaldeans, and there served strange gods. Despite that heathendom, however, the Lord "took your father Abraham" (vs 3) and promised him the land of Canaan. It was not that Abraham deserved this promise from God; the fact that he served other gods made him as damnable before God as any other person. Yet God took him, promised him a bright future –why?- simply because God was pleased to do so. Here was God’s mercy: Yahweh.
Further, this God gave to Abraham (in his old age) a child, Isaac. To Isaac in turn were given the two boys Jacob and Esau. Of those two covenant children, God loved the one, but hated the other. He chose father Jacob, but rejected uncle Esau: election/reprobation. It wasn’t that father Jacob deserved this election more than uncle Esau. Yet God chose him –why?- simply because God was pleased to do so. Love for the unworthy: Yahweh.
Israel went to Egypt and spent some 400 years there. Yet God did not forget this people; He remembered His covenant and gave them deliverance in a wonderful way through the hand of Moses and Aaron. Was it deserved? Certainly not; Israel in Egypt was far from pious. Yet God granted deliverance: Yahweh.
For forty years Israel trudged through the wilderness, grumbling as they went. Yet when Balak sought Balaam’s assistance to curse Israel, God rose up in defense of this people and turned the intended curse into a blessing. Deserved? Again, no. Yet God delivered Israel from the curse, caused the blessing, because God was pleased to love this unworthy people: Yahweh.
The inhabitants of the Promised Land were, in military terms, a people far superior to the nomadic Israelites. Yet God gave the lands of these peoples to the Israelites; Canaan became their inheritance. And that too was categorically not because Israel was more worthy than any other nation. Yet God gave them this land of abundance –why?- simply because of His own good pleasure; He loved them, chose them, delivered them, blessed them, all because He had promised in the covenant to do so. You see, beloved, He is Yahweh, Lord.
And there, beloved, you have the reason why Israel should serve this God. That history over the years pointed up that Yahweh was so much more than the god that Abram used to serve in Ur, was so much more than the gods of Egypt, more than the god of Balak, more than the gods of the Canaanites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites. Both in terms of sheer strength, as well as it terms of mercy and love, Israel’s God was far superior to the gods of the nations. So it follows: this is the God whom Israel is to serve. As Joshua says in our text: "Now therefore, fear the Lord, and serve Him...; put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord!" And we say: Yes, of course this is the God Israel is to serve; in light of what He’s done, that’s only obvious.
But consider now ourselves, beloved. You know that those physical acts which God did for Israel are also pictures of what God has done for us today. God has ‘taken’ us too and made His covenant with us; baptism. He also ‘chose’ us, worked faith; election. He gave us ‘deliverance’, for He sent His Son; Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost – through these historical events He obtained our redemption. And no, we know that we are not yet fully in the Promised Land, for the New Jerusalem has not yet come down from heaven. But we have already the beginning; we are children of God, and His Holy Spirit dwells within us as a guarantee that the remainder of our inheritance is sure to come. God has also given us a place in this beautiful corner of His creation, has given us churches and schools, homes for our needy members, and so much more – to say nothing of the peace and prosperity we enjoy in Australia. Already we’ve received so much, and when Christ comes back we’re going to receive more still.
So we understand that the command of our text is true for us today even more than it was for Israel. Given all that God has given to us and done for us, we too are to "fear the Lord, and serve Him." We realize that, and so we for our part say Yes, we certainly want to serve the God who have given us so much; of course we do. We want to fear this God, and then we don’t mean that we want to be filled with fright or anxiety or dread of God; instead, we want to stand in awe of God, to be filled with reverence for a God who has done such deeds of power and mercy for unworthy sinners - us. We join Israel of old in shouting out our praise to God: "Who is like You, O Lord, a God incomparable in deeds of mercy and strength, incomparable in grace and love to unworthy sinners!" Yes, we’re thankful that God has given us so much, and in time to come so we want to serve Him with heart and soul…. We share Israel’s enthusiasm of vs 18: "We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God."
I am not wrong in putting it like this, am I, congregation? The Lord God has worked in each of us a desire to serve Him, is it not? Was that not what we said when we professed the faith last year, five years ago, ten years ago, thirty years ago? Is that not what we keep saying when we profess the faith of the church each Sunday afternoon? Are we not all collectively, and each personally, saying that we are bound and determined to serve the Lord, and to fear Him on account of His saving work in Jesus Christ – a work that reaches up till today?
I move on to our second point:
2. The extent of serving God
Yes, we want to serve this God who has done so much for us. But we shall now need to consider, brothers and sisters, what serving this God is all about. How does one serve Him?
Says Joshua to Israel: serve the Lord "in sincerity and in truth." Joshua uses here two words with specific flavors. The word translated "sincerity" is used repeatedly in the laws of Leviticus to describe the type of animal that God wanted to see on the altars. In that context the word comes back in our translation as "without blemish". God wanted a perfect animal, a whole animal, and not one with a limb missing or malformed or old or sick. The term, then, has to do with perfection. That’s Joshua’s point: God wants to be served with a perfect heart, "without blemish", sincerely. To say it differently: the heart has to be devoted perfectly to God; the heart may not be divided in its allegiance to God. To serve God "in sincerity" means that there may be no swaying between two gods, no wavering, no vacillating between serving God and another – whoever that other might be. It means that there must be a whole-hearted, 100% dedication to God. So it comes down, congregation, to single-minded devotion to God, no looking to the right or the left, no hesitation, no reservations; God is my everything.
The second term Joshua uses, translated for us as "truth", denotes the idea of being immovable, unshakable. Here is the concept of standing solid in the face of pressures. So it describes the person who can be counted on to remain resolute in his service to God despite temptations from the devil, the world and even one’s own flesh. This is the person who has the grit to serve God sincerely through thick and thin.
The two terms together, then, imply a service that cares not what others say; no matter the changing circumstances there remains that single-minded, whole-hearted devotion to God with all one’s heart. What Joshua commands here is what Jesus later said in response to the question as to which commandment was the greatest. Said Jesus:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt 22:37).
The point is that one cannot serve two masters at one time. God wants the whole heart, not just a part. That’s why Joshua adds in vs 14 that command to "put away the gods which your fathers served." God’s command to serve Him in sincerity and truth is radical; in the service of this God there is no room for doing what one would personally like. Here is room only for perfect allegiance, for absolute and undivided obedience to all of God’s commandments. No other god –be it the stars or sex, be it fortune or money, peer pressure or popularity, alcohol or sport, not even self- no other god may receive so much as a single nod from any of those whom God has redeemed from bondage to Satan. Always, always, the question has to be: Lord, what do you want of me? Never, ever, is there place for me to put myself before Him, or even to serve Him in self-chosen fashions. To "serve the Lord in sincerity and in truth" is radical service, is all-inclusive service, total.
Before us stands the second half-century of God’s church gathering work in our area. We see much work to be done in God’s kingdom. With gratitude we note that there is with us a willingness, even an eagerness to serve the Lord. But what, congregation, is this service all about? How shall we serve Him in time to come? The service God demands, says the Holy Spirit through Joshua, that there is no room for any split allegiance. You can’t serve God and Self at the same time. You can’t serve God in the years ahead, and at the same time build up your own kingdom – be it a kingdom of personal property or a kingdom of combined property, as in: how many schools we can build, how many churches we can institute. While growth in the churches and growth in the schools is wonderful to see, and there is work we must do to encourage it, these things must all be submissive to glory for God at expense of self. As soon as self comes in the picture - my rights, my children, my honor- at that point we’re no longer serving God "in sincerity and in truth", and we’ve taken on board aspects of the idolatry of which Israel was guilty before the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, then we’ve taken on board the mindset of our culture, a mindset where Self is more important than anything else, I mindset where I determine who I shall serve and how I shall do it. That is not "serving the Lord in sincerity and in truth."
Notice in this context, brothers and sisters, what Joshua’s says to Israel when that people insisted in vss 16ff that they would certainly "serve the Lord", would not forsake God. Joshua reminded the people that the Lord "is a holy God; He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins" (vs 19). With the word "transgressions" Joshua refers to failing to live up to the standard that God has set. Transgressions: that’s what you collect against yourself when you do your best and still don’t serve God perfectly. And with the term "sins" Joshua refers to doing something that God forbids. Sins: the commandment is this and this, and I know it, but I find reasons to do that and that anyway. For such conduct, says Joshua, the Israelites may ask for forgiveness, but God won’t give it. He won’t, because the Lord "is a holy God and jealous." He insists on that unblemished heart, that perfect, sincere dedication to God with all one’s heart and soul and mind, and where that radical service is missing, where it’s marred by sin, the sins get between God and His people, till God pours out His jealous anger upon His people-by-covenant…. See there, beloved, the extent of the service God demands of any who would serve Him!
We find it discouraging…. We want to serve the Lord, really. We’re thankful for what the Lord our God has given us in Jesus Christ, thankful for the outpouring of His Holy Spirit, thankful for His promises to us in the covenant, thankful for the innumerable blessings granted in the last 50 years; we do want to serve Him in the years ahead, show our gratitude. And the Holy Spirit would say through Joshua that we can’t serve Him?? That He’s content with nothing less than perfection?? It quite takes the wind out of our sails….
That brings us to our third point:
3. The ability to serve God
This very God of such holiness and jealousy, brothers and sisters, would not have us despair in the face of our brokenness. It is true: in the coming years we cannot serve this God as He requires. But –and here’s the marvel we embrace in faith- God has granted to us a man who could serve God with that needed sincerity and truth. In His infinite grace to the unworthy, the Lord has caused His only Son to become man, and this true man has served the Lord with perfect obedience, never transgressing a single one of God’s commands, never sinning in any way, shape or form. Yes, even when this holy and jealous God poured onto Him His terrible wrath against our sins, even when this God deserted His Son and handed Him over to the powers of hell, Jesus Christ did not sin; He rather continued to "fear the Lord, and serve Him in sincerity and in truth." The blessed result is that the Lord God in heaven accepted the sacrifice of His Son, yes, in Christ He sees us as righteous, innocent! See there Who your God is – Yahweh, faithful to His covenant, abundant in mercy!
Yes, beloved, God demands much from His own, so much that we can’t serve the Lord as He requires. But after He gave us a Man who "served the Lord in sincerity and in truth" on our behalf, this same covenant God in mercy has given us His Holy Spirit. That Spirit, say the Scriptures, dwells in the hearts of all God’s own, makes us new creatures, gives us a new heart, with as result that these renewed children of God are made able to do what God wants, are made willing to serve God in sincerity and in truth. When Paul says to the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit’s dwelling within a person includes "faithfulness"(Gal 5:22), it’s the concept of pure-hearted devotion as mentioned in our text that Paul has in mind. And when Paul writes to the Corinthians that he was himself enabled by the grace of God to behave in the world with "godly sincerity" (II Cor 1:12), he was echoing the sincerity commanded in our text. Wholehearted devotion to God, single-minded adherence to God’s commands: those remain the things that God continues to demand of His people, and those are the things that God in the Spirit enables us to do.
We look into the future, and we seek to serve our God in time to come. God’s standard is high, very high; it’s too high for us mortals. But that doesn’t dampen our resolve anymore, for we believe that the Holy Spirit has been poured out, He’s made His home in our hearts, and so He works in us a beginning of the obedience that God requires. Yes, we have our responsibility in the matter, and we realize we need to take that responsibility seriously. But we can do so in confidence; God in the Spirit promises His grace. "Thus far the Lord has helped us," and He is faithful in time to come.
Go ahead, then, brothers and sisters, older and younger, and serve your God and Savior in the days and months and years ahead. Serve Him in sincerity and in truth, in the realization that you, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, are able.
And your remaining infirmities, once confessed as sin, are washed away in the blood of Jesus your Savior, and your broken labors still used in God’s kingdom for God’s glory. Amen.