Last Words, Part 3: Choose You This Day
Topic: Topical Scripture: Joshua 1:1–1:9
Synopsis: Pastor Cam's last sermon
It’s not easy saying “good bye”!
Next to my family, the greatest source of joy and greatest privilege of my life has been serving as the pastor and shepherd of this wonderful congregation of God’s people from around the world. It has been much more than a job, a position, a role. It has been a calling from God. Ever since I arrived here, over 25 years ago, there has never been any doubt or question in my mind that this was God’s place for me.
Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t always been easy. Challenges have been many. There have certainly been days and weeks when I wished I could be somewhere else and doing something else. But those thoughts and feelings were always very fleeting. Deep down, I knew this was where I belonged.
That time has now come to an end. Long before my recent cancer diagnosis, God began to stir in my heart to begin plans for an orderly departure. I had seen too many examples of pastors who spoiled their ministry by staying too long. I didn’t want to make that same mistake. So a plan was put in place and the baton was passed in November. But part of that orderly departure included a plan to preach 3 “final” sermons to the congregation. I only made it through the first two before being interrupted by illness. So this, then, is that final final sermon.
The primary text I have chosen for this final sermon is found in Joshua 1:1-9.
After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' assistant,2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. 3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. 5 No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Why have I chosen this text of Scripture? Joshua 1 represented a time of significant transition for Joshua and the nation of Israel. God’s words of instruction to Joshua and the nation in their time of transition, I believe, have special relevance for ECC as the church faces its own time of transition. I have been the pastor here for a significant time period, and I am leaving. That means transition. For almost all of you, I am the only pastor any of you have known here in Abu Dhabi. For some of you who have come to faith and come into the church during your time in Abu Dhabi, I am the only pastor you have known, and ECC is the only church you have experienced. And I am leaving. Transition. And transition can be very scary. What will change? What will remain the same? Will I like the changes?
Transition is a constant in our lives. It is especially prevalent among those of us who have chosen to live outside our own countries. Expatriate living is all about transition and change and adjustment. So the message this morning is not just for ECC as a church (although that is my primary point of focus). The principles I want to share this morning are also applicable to the many personal transitions that we all are facing or will face. Esther Ruth and I are facing major transitions as we move back to the US. Many of you are in the middle of transition, just settling into Abu Dhabi. Or more transition as you also move on from here to either return home or take on assignments elsewhere in the world.
That is why I have chosen Joshua 1 for my text. Moses had passed from the scene. Think now of what was facing Joshua:
First, he had a new job and new role, with all the accompanying new responsibilities. “You will lead this people. Moses, my servant is dead. Now it is up to you.” That can be scary.
Secondly, he was going into new land. The first command of the book is given in verse 2. It reads literally, “Get up and cross this river into the land…” New country, new geography, new circumstances.
Thirdly, he would face new enemies. Verse 5 talks about people who would “stand up against him.” The idea is that of taking a defensive stand to hold one’s ground and oppose another’s advance. Joshua and the Israelites were not entering a peaceful land that would welcome them with open arms, but an inhabited country populated by armies and fierce warriors. They would contest every step Joshua and the people would take.
As we face our transitions, let’s see how God reassured Joshua in the face of his many new challenges.
I like to keep things simple, so I have condensed the essence of this passage into two commands and two promises.
Command # 1: Be Brave!
Three times God repeats these same words to Joshua: Be strong and courageous! In verse 6: Be strong and courageous. In verse 7: Be strong and very courageous. And again in verse 9: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Repetition is a primary way of highlighting and emphasizing in Hebrew literature. A three time repetition is a very strong signal. And all three are in the imperative form. This is a command. Be brave! Be strong. Be bold. Show courage.
This is also highlighted and backlit so to speak by the negative commands in verse 9: Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed. Fear and dismay are the antithesis of strength and courage. I don’t know about you, but when I am overwhelmed by problems and opposition and conflict one of my natural responses is the desire to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. I need God’s words to Joshua. “Straighten your spine! Face the enemy. Be brave!” Maybe you need his words as well. Be strong and very courageous!
There is a second, vital command in this section. Command # 2: Follow the Book!
..being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.
The book in this case was the written code of laws which God had revealed to Moses and which he had delivered to the people. Joshua especially should have had a special respect for God’s revelation and law. He was allowed to accompany Moses at least part way up onto the mountain where God delivered the law to him. He was there when Moses emerged from the cloud of God’s glory, carrying the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God.
Now God reiterates the importance of this book in Joshua’s own life as a leader. The goal is obedience. The goal is guidance. “Be careful to obey…do not turn to the right or to the left.” Follow the Book! And we can’t follow it if we don’t know what it says. This is what verse 8 is telling us. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night.” We must be deliberate students of God’s Word. We must be intensively involved in the intake of God’s truth. We must listen carefully and then follow it, deviating neither to the right or to the left, but carefully doing what God’s truth tells us to do.
When I arrived in August, 1990 to begin my time as pastor of ECC, in my very first message to the church, I made a simple promise. I don’t think there is anyone still here who heard that first message, but by digital magic it is available in the Sermons gift box. That promise grew out of my life verse, which is found in Ezra 7:10.
By my own translation, Ezra devoted himself to 3 vital priorities: to study, to do and to teach the Word of the Lord…
To study: we cannot follow the Book if we do not know what it says. That takes study – disciplined effort in meditating and properly interpreting the truths of God’s Word.
To do (or to observe): I cannot teach with integrity unless I am first willing to apply God’s truths to my own life and ministry. This, of course, is always a goal that has been imperfectly realized, with numerous failings. But I have always kept it in front of my eyes – when I study, I must study first for my own life and with a goal of living in conformity to what I discover in the study. I must practice what I preach.
To teach: Many of you have told me that I am more of a teacher than a preacher. While I hope I have been both, I take this as a compliment. I have set out each week to teach the key principles of Scripture before applying them to life. And I have set a goal of making the teaching fresh and relevant to life’s concerns.
That was the promise I made 25 years ago By God’s help and to the best of my ability, I have kept that promise.
As I preach this final sermon, this would be a good time to make application to the pastors and leaders who will follow me. And I am gratified that both Pastor Kevin and Pastor Jeramie who is coming, share this important commitment. But this is more than important instruction to leaders. Every Christian has the privilege and the responsibility to know and follow the truths of Scripture. This is always vital, but especially when we are facing times of transition; new responsibilities, new country, new enemies. The complexities of life are vastly increased. We are doubly in need of God’s instructions and guidance.
So we have two commands: Be brave! Follow the Book! Now let’s look at the two promises God gave Joshua.
Promise # 1: I will be with you.
Once again, he says it, not once, but three times, in three different ways. In verse 5: As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.
Can you imagine how reassuring this must have been for Joshua to hear? As a new leader, stepping out of Moses’ shadow and into Moses’ shoes, it was an important reminder. It wasn’t Moses who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. It wasn’t Moses who parted the sea. It wasn’t Moses who sent the manna from heaven or brought water out of the rock. It was God. And now God says: “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” Moses had died. But God hadn’t died. He was still as big and powerful and awesome and as present as ever. “I will be with you just like I was with Moses.”
I am amazed at how frequently this simple promise is made by God in Scripture. “I will be with you.” What does it mean? I heard a preacher once speak on the topic of prayer. He kind of made fun of Christians who often say in their prayers; “Lord, be with…” The point he was making is that God is omnipresent. He is already “with” everyone, so we don’t need to pray for him to “be with” the missionaries, etc.
I understand his point, but it is God himself who repeatedly told his people: “I will be with you.” And when he promises that, I believe he is promising more than his omnipresence. He is promising his active involvement and activity in our lives. He is promising to be by our side and on our side. He is promising his active participation and help in our time of need.
God expands on this promise in the same verse: I will never leave you nor forsake you. Isn’t that a wonderful expansion on the promise?
Finally God repeats the promise again in verse 9: “… for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
I believe this is a promise that ECC can take to heart in this time of transition. This is really a repetition of my first two “final words” messages back in November. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you...” These were Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12: “Don’t depend on me. Don’t wait for me to come back for a visit,” Paul is telling the Philippians. “Go forward in the work that God has given you, because he is the one who is at work in you.”
Then in 1 Corinthians Paul points out the foolishness of competition between different human leaders by pointing out that “only God can make it grow.” So it is with every confidence that I apply this promise to ECC as a congregation. God will be with you. Depend on him. Only he can bring true growth, true progress in the ministries of ECC. It is no accident that this is the very same promise that Jesus made to his followers when he gave us the Great Commission: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
I also believe that this is a promise with application to every one of us as his children. And it is one we need especially in times of transition and challenge as we face new jobs, new responsibilities, a new country, new enemies and threats. We will not face them alone. God will be with us. It is a promise from which I take great comfort as Esther Ruth and I face our own transition in the weeks and months ahead. We will not face this journey alone. Our God goes before us and he will be with us.
There is one final promise in this passage. Promise # 2: You will succeed. It is repeated twice in verse 5: No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. You will overcome your enemies and the challenges that stand in your way. And again in verse 8:
For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. That is a wonderful promise to rest on in the challenges of a major transition.
Now, you may be surprised by this final promise. You may be ready to flag me down and accuse me, in this final message, of peddling the prosperity Gospel. I mean, it sounds like it, doesn’t it? “Then you will be prosperous and successful.”
But we must keep the promise in its context. God does not promise that we will succeed at everything we try in life. This is not some kind of prosperity gospel being put forth here that promises us health, wealth and material prosperity. In the context, Joshua is taking on a task that has been specifically given to him by God. He didn’t choose it. God gave it to him. We can’t set our own goals and our own agendas and then ask God to bless them with success. We must first ask whether we are on task with God and fulfilling his purposes for you. As Jesus himself said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” True success and prosperity must be defined in terms of fulfilling God’s purposes and his assignments for us.
This promise is also conditional upon our obedience to. his commands and instructions. Look at how the two are closely linked together in verse 8: This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
If we are following God’s Word, we will succeed in what we are doing, because we will be doing what God wants us to do! And success must always be measured by God’s standards and by eternity’s measures.
Two commands; Be brave! Follow the Book! And two promises: God will be with you. You will succeed in fulfilling God’s purposes for you. And there can be no better definition of true success for a church and for each individual follower of the Lord.
And so we come to the conclusion of this final, final sermon. But before I close, I want to hit the fast forward button to the end of the Book of Joshua. Chapter 23 and 24 contain the account of two final exhortations Joshua gave to the nation. (It’s reassuring to me that Joshua also took more than one sermon and occasion to say his final words.)
Joshua is now the elder statesman. He is now the leader who is about to depart the scene, passing the baton to other leaders and to the nation.
As we might expect, he reviews the history of his time as leader of the nation. He repeats many of the same themes that we found in God’s instructions to him in Joshua 1. He reminds them of God’s faithfulness to all his promises. He repeats the importance of following the Book.
But I want to highlight one particular theme. It is found in Joshua 24:15 and the words: Choose this day whom you will serve.
This was Joshua’s final challenge to the people. “Choose.”
To follow the Lord, to serve him, takes a deliberate choice, a commitment of the heart. There is a choice to be made.
When I was a boy, about 8 years old, we spent a year in America, in the state of Washington. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ home that year. Grandpa was an apple farmer. All around their house and farm were irrigation ditches, which ran full of water during the summer time. My friend Steve and I used to roam the neighborhood, and one of our favorite activities was to have boat races in the irrigation ditches. We would find short sticks. We would drop them in the water at the same time and place, and then see whose stick/boat would pass a pre-ordained finish line first.
We spent many happy hours cheering our little boats on. But let me tell you something about our little boats. Every one of them went down stream! Not once in all that long summer did one of our boats turn and head upstream against the current. That is the nature of drifters. They always go down stream.
Are you a drifter? A drifter is a person who thinks he doesn’t have to choose. He or she just flows with the current, goes with the crowd, follows the path of least resistance. But what drifters need to know is that by not choosing, they are making a choice. And that choice is to go down stream, because all drifters end up downstream.
Times of transition are also times when we face choices. As they entered the Promised Land, the nation of Israel faced choices. Joshua spells them out in chapter 24. They could serve the gods of their forefathers. Or they could follow the gods of Egypt. Or they could follow the gods of the land into which they were about to enter. Or they could follow the Lord. But they could not do all of the above. They had to make a choice.
“To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” requires a choice. It requires a life-changing, life-direction choice. And then it will require a myriad of lesser and smaller choices that will direct our footsteps on a daily basis.
Life in Abu Dhabi faces us with many choices. Whom will you serve? The traditions from your background? The god of the majority religion in this part of the world? That is not a particularly attractive option at this period in history. But Abu Dhabi also offers a host of other competing loyalties and objects of worship; material success, status at work, pleasure and many more. I have seen it happen too often; people who make an initial connection with the church only to fall away, becoming less and less involved as other interests and priorities crowd their time. They become drifters and they end up far down stream.
And so I stand with Joshua today. In this my final, final sermon, my final, final word is this: Choose. It is an important choice. It is also an urgent one; “Choose you this day…” Every time you put the decision off, it becomes less likely that you will ever make it. “Choose you this day, whom you will serve.”