SERVING THE LORD
A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Preached in Westville, Natal, South Africa, August 10, 1986
“But as for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14).
Joshua, whose name is the Hebrew form of the Greek word which we translate into English as “Jesus,” is perhaps the most steadfast and dependable character in the whole of the Old Testament. We first meet Joshua when he goes with Caleb and ten others to spy out Canaan just after fleeing from their slavery in Egypt. Only Caleb and Joshua reported that it would be easy for the Children of Israel to enter Canaan and drive out the Canaanites with the help of the Lord. The other ten spies were afraid: they had seen giants in the land, and, in spite of the miracles they had just seen as Jehovah brought the ten plagues upon the Egyptians, their fears overcame their trust in the Lord. Their fears infected the rest of the people and they were able to convince them that they would die if they tried to enter Canaan.
Because of their fearfulness and because they did not trust in the Lord, the Children of Israel were to wander in the wilderness for forty years, until all those who had been slaves in Egypt died in the wilderness. A new, tougher generation was born in the desert that was willing to follow Jehovah into the promised land. Of all the multitudes that followed Moses out of Egypt, only Joshua and Caleb actually entered the promised land.
Not much is directly said about Joshua during those years of wandering, but we do know that he served Moses by training the young men to be soldiers. Joshua spent forty years in the wilderness doing the Lord’s work by teaching the children born of the slaves that had fled Egypt, and creating from them a powerful, disciplined army.
When it was time for the Children of Israel to enter the land of Canaan, and for Moses to die, Joshua was given the responsibility of leading this disobedient and difficult people. Miraculously, the Jordan River parted for the ark as it entered its waters, proving to the people that Joshua was a leader like Moses, chosen for them by the Lord Himself. He led them according to God’s plan against Jericho, and their easy victory against that powerful, heavily fortified city struck terror in the hearts of the remaining Canaanites. When some of Joshua’s men, encouraged by their easy victory at Jericho, decided to try to conquer the nearby city of Ai on their own and failed, Joshua led the tribes of Israel through the process of self-examination that eventually revealed Achan as the thief who had stolen forbidden things from Jericho. Joshua courageously led them as they conquered the Canaanites in the south, and then again in the campaign in the north. He administered the division of the land among the tribes with justice. He established the cities of refuge. He saw to it that the priesthood received its fair share of the land. He ruled with absolute power throughout the conquest and settlement of Canaan, and he did so without a single mention of disorder, selfishness, or dishonesty. Joshua, more than any other individual we know from the Word, served the Lord with integrity and strength all his days.
After doing everything the Lord has asked him to do, Joshua reached his old age. He called together the elders of the Children of Israel and gave them his final charge. He reviewed all that they had done, and especially emphasized all the things that Jehovah had done for them, making it quite clear that everything they had was a gift from God, and that they had done nothing of themselves. Finally, the historical review complete, he challenged his people to look to the future, to make some important decisions about how they would go on without his firm leadership. He reminded them that there were still Canaanites in the land who worshiped idols, and that there were some of the Children of Israel who were tempted to join in their profane worship, but he put it to the people this way: “Now, therefore, fear the Lord; serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the river and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14, 15).
Joshua might have done many things with this opportunity. He might have threatened. He might have warned. He might have scolded. But he did not. An absolute ruler for many years, loved by his people because he was a good leader in both war and peace, he turned it back to them. He said in essence, “There’s nothing more I can do. It’s up to you to make something of yourselves. I can’t stop you from chasing after the idols of the Amorites if that’s what you really want. You will be what you choose to be.”
“The Amorites” is a general term for many of the peoples who lived in the land of Canaan, and they represent evils in general. This tells us that Joshua’s words are directed not just at the Children of Israel, but in fact are equally valuable advice to all people in all times. All of us are tempted from time to time to do things that are selfish, cruel, or dishonest. We are then faced with a choice of whether we should do what we want to do, or what the Lord wants us to do. Of course, as soon as it is put that way, it becomes obvious to all of us that we should do what the Lord wants, but with the help of the hells we usually manage to avoid phrasing it in just that way, and we can then more easily think of good reasons why we should keep doing exactly what we have always done, pushing the Lord and the Word out of our mind until some later time when we think it will be easier to change.
The Children of Israel were constantly tempted to worship idols, just as we are constantly tempted to turn away from the Lord and toward things that favor our loves of self and the world. This is a problem for us now as it was for them then, and Joshua’s words, in the spiritual sense, speak to our hearts as we face these very problems today.
Joshua named the problem — the temptation to worship idols — and while leaving everyone in freedom to do what he believed to be right, still showed the way, for he said that as for himself and his house, he would serve the Lord. In the outermost sense, it is clear that he was referring to more than his own immediate family in this, but rather included all those who wished to be like him, those who admired him. In this sense, those who listened carefully to his advice were his “house.” in other words, Joshua was telling his people that if they wished to be like him, to be counted as one of his friends, they should serve the Lord. At the same time, he was telling them that he was not sure how strong was their resolve to follow the commandments and serve the Lord. He said to them that he did not believe that they could stay in the way of the Lord. He repeated his advice about following other gods. The people seemed to insist that they wanted to follow the Lord, so he made them witnesses to themselves, and ended with the direct command that they were to put the foreign gods away immediately.
Joshua called for them to join him in serving the Lord. The Hebrew word for “servant” can also mean “to serve.” However, when that word is used in conjunction with one of the Hebrew words for God, the meaning changes from “to serve” to “to worship.” This is exactly parallel with the internal sense, for we are told that “to serve” represents “obedience and also worship” (AC 9318, 9322). From this it is clear that the Hebrew concept of the worship of Jehovah revolved around the idea of service to Him through obedience to His commands, performance of ritual acts in strict obedience to revelation, without regard to the meaning of the acts themselves.
This seems to us to be merely external, like the blind obedience of children or the simple, but yet we can find within it the true concept of heavenly worship, of service to the Lord: “Divine worship itself in the heavens does not, however, consist in going to church and listening to sermons, but in a life of love, charity and faith in accordance with doctrines. Preachings in churches serve solely as means of instruction in matters of life … The angels said that these are outward acts that ought to be done, but are of no avail unless there is an internal from which they proceed, which is a life in accordance with the precepts that doctrine teaches” (HH 222).
It’s exactly the same message whether it is Joshua asking the Children of Israel to choose between the Lord and idols, or the Lord telling us through Swedenborg in the Writings that the most important human faculty is freedom of choice in spiritual things. The Lord gives each of us spiritual freedom, which is like a muscle: unless it is used, it becomes stiff and weak to the point of uselessness. We must exercise our spiritual freedom by making choices, and the choices we must make are whether or not we are going to,worship the idols of our fathers and/or the Amorites, or whether we are going to serve the Lord.
Just as there are many kinds of idols we might wish to worship, there are also many ways that we can serve the Lord. Generally, whenever we do something for the sake of another, we serve the Lord. We also feel delight when we do, for serving the neighbor for the sake of his happiness is heaven itself (see HH 408e). We serve the Lord by obeying His commandments, and by teaching our children to obey His commandments. We serve others for the sake of the Lord when we come to church and add to the sphere of worship by joining in with the singing, by saying the prayers with the rest of the congregation, by taking part in all the ritual, and even just by our presence. We serve the Lord by helping the needy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. We serve the Lord when we share our love for the Word with others who are seeking for answers when we answer a question, when we listen to a friend with sympathy and understanding. We serve the Lord when we take a few moments every day to sit quietly with the Word, reflect on its meaning in our life, and try to add a little bit to our understanding of doctrine. In this way particularly, the Lord’s presence with us through His Word is enhanced, and the church will grow in power and meaning in our lives.
Every day, every hour, every moment, we are faced with the choice of worshiping the Lord or worshiping the idols of the Amorites. When we face this challenge we must remember the message given by the Lord through Joshua: we are going to be whatever we ourselves choose to be. We are free to choose to worship idols or the Lord. It’s entirely up to us.
Joshua first entered Canaan as a young spy, and knew that with the Lord’s help, his people could conquer its dangers and possess its beauty. Denied an early entrance into the land of Canaan by his people’s fears, he served under Moses to build a powerful army for the Lord while in the wilderness, and with that army and the Lord’s help, conquered that land for the Children of Israel. Courageous in war, he was a just and able leader in peace. Joshua shows us the way to heaven by his example, and we would do well to listen to his final challenge to his people with our minds and our hearts. “Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” Amen.
Lessons: Joshua 24:14-28, John 13:3-20, TCR 412-416 (parts)
True Christian Religion
412. Love toward the neighbor is a fuller love when it is directed toward a society than when directed toward a single individual.
414. One’s country is the neighbor more than a society, because it consists of many societies; and consequently love toward it is of a more extensive and higher kind; moreover, to love one’s country is to love the public welfare. A man’s country is the neighbor because it resembles a parent, for in it he was born, it has nourished and still nourishes him, and it continues to protect him as it has always done. Men are bound from love to do good to their country according to its needs, some of which are natural and some spiritual. Natural needs regard civil life and order, and spiritual needs regard spiritual life and order. That every man is bound to love his country, not as he loves himself but with a greater love, is a law inscribed on the human heart; hence the universal maxim, to which every upright man subscribes, that if ruin threatens one’s country from an enemy or any other source, it is noble to die for it, and glorious for a soldier to shed his blood in its defense. This maxim has been so expressed to emphasize how greatly one’s country should be loved. Those who love their country and render it good service from goodwill, after death love the Lord’s kingdom, for this is now their country; and those who love His kingdom love the Lord, because the Lord is the all in all of His kingdom.
415. As man is born for eternal life and is introduced into it by the church, he ought therefore to love the church as the neighbor in a higher degree, for it teaches the means that lead to eternal life, and introduces him into it, leading him to it by the truths of doctrine, and introducing him into the goods of life. We do not mean that the priesthood is to be loved in a higher degree, and from it the church, but that the good and truth of the church are to be loved and the priesthood on account of these. For the only function of the priesthood is to serve the church, and it should be honored in proportion to its service.
The church is the neighbor that is to be loved in a higher degree, thus even above one’s country, because a man is initiated by his country into civil life, and by the church into spiritual life.
416. The Lord’s kingdom is the neighbor that ought to be loved in the highest degree because by the Lord’s kingdom is meant both the church throughout the whole earth, known as the communion of saints, and also heaven. He, then, who loves the Lord’s kingdom loves all those throughout the whole world who acknowledge the Lord and have faith in Him and charity toward the neighbor; and he loves also all who are in heaven. Those who love the Lord’s kingdom love the Lord above all things, and are thus in love to God more than others; for the church in heaven and on earth is the Lord’s body, the members of the church being in the Lord, and the Lord in them. Love, therefore, toward the Lord’s kingdom is love toward the neighbor in its fullness; for those who love His kingdom not only love the Lord above all things, but also love the neighbor as themselves.