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Covenant Redux

A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., April 25, 2010.
 

Joshua 24:14-28

Meditation Text:

   O Thou whose infinite love, made manifest in Jesus Christ, alone has power to destroy the empire of evil in my soul, grant that with each day that passes I may more and more be delivered from my besetting sins.   Amen.

—John Baillie from A Diary of Private Prayer

 

 

If you grew up in another faith tradition or if you are under 40 and grew up Baptist, you may not have much memory of the old annual revival.  There was a time in Baptist churches when, typically, late summer a church would invite a guest preacher to come preach a revival.  Sometimes the guest preacher would be a friend of the pastor or a professional evangelist.  There would be a series of worship services.  Before my time, they would often last a week or two.  During my growing up time, people’s schedules had begun to change and the revivals usually went from Sunday through Wednesday night.  That was as long as we could go.  The preaching would be designed to preach for decisions.  We always talked about how many decisions were there at the revival.

 

If you are not familiar with the idea, there were typically three types of decisions.  The first, and still the most desirable, is profession of faith.  Someone who has perhaps been dealing with their relationship with Christ and in the course of the revival services would sense the leadership of the spirit, would come forward and say, “I want to be a Christian.  I want to follow Christ.”

 

The second decision was someone who had fallen away from another church or someone who had moved to town.  These services focused on their spiritual attention and they would make the decision to come and join the church where the revival was.

 

The third type was rededication.  Speaking as a preacher, a lot of times, most people usually judge their revivals by how many decisions there were.  If nobody made a profession of faith or joined the church, you at least hoped somebody rededicated their lives.  The guest preacher could usually work a way into challenging just about every aspect of faith or sin a person could have until somebody felt compelled to come forward and rededicate their life.

 

I remember I had a friend in the church I served in Memphis.  He said because of his desire to please people and because of his innate sense of guilt, he described himself as the King of Rededicators.  He said that if any preacher came to town and could not get a decision, if he would talk long enough and press hard enough, he would always be the one to come forward.  He was somebody who would always rededicate. 

 

Who knows why a person would rededicate.  Sometimes they sensed that their relationship with God had gotten to a place where they did not want it.  A lot of times people who rededicated were teenagers.  In the teenage years, the temptations are great and the desire to follow Christ  are very keenly felt.  So teenagers would often rededicate their lives.  In some way, people would sense that their lives were not what they were supposed to be in relationship with God and they would rededicate their lives.

 

I want to put you at ease right now.  This sermon is not going to end with 20 stanzas of  Just As I Am, which was typically how we got people to rededicate.  But it is a reminder that there was a time when our relationship to Christ seemed more important.  It seemed more pressing.  It seemed more central.  It seemed that the claims of God on our lives were felt more keenly.  Our faith was not on autopilot for a lifetime but there were, typically, times where we came to a moment where we were forced to look at our relationship to Christ and decide, “Is this where I want to be?  Is this what I intended it to be when I said on that day, ‘I will follow Jesus?’”

 

In contemporary American Christianity, faith in Christ has become much like a clothing accessory—those things like shoes, sunglasses, belts, or ties—the optional parts of what you wear that you can put together to get the perfect look.  You can wear the same clothes but just change the accessories.  Some people treat faith in Christ much like a clothing accessory.  It is part of the picture of a good life.  In a community such as ours, a question that people want to be able to answer positively is, “What church do you go to?”  Sometimes we wear faith as if it is a part of the way we give the appearance of our lives to people, much like we belong to the Rotary Club or the Junior Service League.  It is a part of completing the look of a wholesome individual or family.  But that is not the way faith is intended to be.  It is not that we can choose to leave something off or add it to our lives like worship, serving God, prayer or any of these things that are a key to our relationship with Christ.  We think about now, and there is not the same urgency about our relationship to God that there once was.  There is not the same sense that God has put a claim on our life and we are God’s and there is something due to God.

 

This is really kind of odd because rededication is a prominent theme in the Bible, particularly in the first half that we call the Old Testament.  The passage from Joshua 24:14-28 contains a verse that many of us have heard a lot.  “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Typically, when it is quoted, that is the only part of the passage that we hear but this is a relatively long story.  In the 24th chapter of the Book of Joshua, the people have come together to rededicate themselves in what was called a “covenant renewal ceremony.”  That sounds really formal to us. 

 

Some of us live in neighborhoods where there is a neighborhood covenant.  It is an agreement about the way you are going to live together, things that people can count on from one another.  In the Old Testament, it seems that God is often establishing a covenant.  There was the covenant with Noah with the rainbow in the sky.  “This will be the mark of my promise that I will not destroy the earth with water again.”  There is a covenant with Abraham that Abraham’s descendants will be the people of God.  There is a covenant with David that David’s house will be the proper kings of Israel.  And, of course, there is the big one and that is the covenant with Moses and the children of Israel at Sinai. 

 

Moses has now departed, Joshua has been the leader, and Joshua is getting ready to depart.  He gathers them at Shechem, a place that, before Jerusalem, was one of the holy places in the land.  They have a ceremony there where they rededicate themselves to the relationship with God. 

 

If you get a letter in the mail and the return address says, “Internal Revenue Service,” and says somewhat about Form 1040 on the outside, you know what that is about, don’t you?  You know that Form 1040 means something about the income taxes that you filed and you are not very pleased to have gotten the letter.

 

You have parked on a public street and you come back to your car and there is a piece of paper under the windshield wiper.  There is just enough wind and as you get closer, it flaps a little bit.  You can see that the top line says, “Tag number,” and your tag number has been filled in.  You know that is a ticket.  We recognize the forms of our culture. 

 

What we don’t recognize is that this whole 24th chapter of Joshua has the form of a covenant renewal.  All the things that were part of this are there.  Joshua recites what God has done, what the king has done.  It talks about the promises of the covenant.  It talks about the consequences of breaking the covenant and about who is a witness to the covenant.  Joshua offers the people this opportunity to rededicate themselves to following and serving God.  The people quickly say, “OK, we will do it.” 

 

Did you notice how stern Joshua is?  It is uncharacteristic of what we think it means to follow God.  He said, “Don’t be so quick.  I am not sure you can do it.  I am not sure you can follow God the way you are promising.  You are witnesses, the stone is the witness, and if you don’t keep the covenant, the dedication, and rededication as you have promised, all of these things stand as witness against you.”

 

Perhaps when we are quick to say, “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord,” we should listen to the stern warning that comes from the mouth of Joshua of how difficult it is.

 

We get lost in the part about foreign gods.  Who really serves a foreign god?  I don’t think there is anybody in this church today who serves a foreign god.  But let me ask you these questions.  Is your belief about sexual morality defined by the culture in which we live or by the will of God?  Is your relationship to your money dictated by what we read in scripture or do you say, “It is my money.  I will do with it as I please.”  When it comes to relationships, do we treat each other the way the Apostle Paul talks to us about love in 1 Corinthians 13 (love is kind, love keeps no record of  wrongs)?  Do we establish relationships according to what we understand as Jesus’ concept of love or do we treat people the way they do on sitcoms where everybody disrespects each other, is sarcastic to each other, and nobody takes anybody seriously? 

 

When it comes to forgiveness, do we begin to try to determine how, in the spirit of Christ, we might forgive or do we say, “I don’t get mad, I get even.”  Do we live according to the values of the world or do we live according to the will of God?  We begin to see that maybe like the children of Israel we are worshipping other gods.  Maybe we have not kept our commitment to Christ the way we once promised.

 

Joshua reminds us that there are regular and critical moments where we need to rethink the decision we once made and not be so quick to answer, but to really examine our lives and ask ourselves, “Have I lived up to what I promised?”  On that day when I made that decision and came to the front of the church, have I lived up to what I promised when I promised to follow Jesus?  Are my actions those of a person who loves God?  Does my heart reflect a person who believes in Christ?  Is the tone and flavor of my spirit that of somebody who is filled with the Holy Spirit?

 

Several years ago, I mentioned a book written by William Law who was a Quaker back in the 1600 or 1700’s.  The book has one of the most unappealing titles that I have ever heard.  It is called A Serious Call To A Devout and Holy Life.  In those days, if a man received a serious wound from a farm accident or an industrial accident, nothing could be done to save his life.  A person could have what was called a mortal wound, and they might linger for a while.  The man in the book had a mortal wound and he called all the neighbors in and was confessing what he had done.  As he was dying and as the life was ebbing from him, he said, “But the thing that now surprises me most is this: that I never intended to live up to the gospel.”[1]

 

Joshua is challenging us to look at our lives and say, “Do I intend to live up to the way of Christ that I promised to follow on the day when I accepted him?  If I do, where am I in that?  Do I need to reconsider, restate, and reaffirm?” 

 

There are many places in life where people have the opportunity to decide afresh.  Teachers, isn’t this the time of year when you often get your contract for next year and you get to think about whether or not you want to do this again? 

 

I have a daughter in the military and I know that every so often your time is up.  Will you re-up?  Will you keep your commitment to this career?

 

For some of you, I have done ceremonies where you have restated marriage vows because you come to a particular anniversary and you want to say to one another again, “Given the opportunity, I choose you once more.”

 

There are others.  And what about faith in God?  We don’t do revivals much any more but wasn’t it good to have a time when somebody forced us to look at our relationship to Jesus Christ, to look at our lives and the way we have been living them, and say, “Am I at the place I really wanted to be or do I need to rededicate myself?” 

 

“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether it will be the gods that your ancestors served in the land beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.  But as for me and my house . . .”

                [1] William Law, A Serious Call To A Devout and Holy Life (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955) 29.