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Famous last words (Josh 23:1-16)

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Will you be faithful, or will you fall away? That’s a question that should be uppermost in the minds of every Christian. If we are believers in the Lord Jesus, will we keep following him for the rest of our lives, or will we fall away? Will we keep the faith, or abandon it before the end? In our Bible passage this morning, we encounter the famous last words of Joshua. Words spoken about twenty or thirty years after he first led Israel into the Promised Land. Words which address the issue of faithfulness head on.

The scene is set for us in verse 1 today - the conquest of the Promised land was largely complete, and Joshua was now an old man, “well advanced in years”. Before he died, we’re told that Joshua summoned the “elders, leaders, judges and officials” of Israel to give them his final instructions. Final instructions designed to make sure that God’s people remained faithful to the Lord, rather than fall away. Instructions that remain highly relevant to Christians - to God’s people today. If we personally hope to keep going with God, we would do well to listen to Joshua’s famous last words.

Karl Marx apparently said on his deathbed: “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” But that’s not always true is it? They can be powerful, poignant and terribly important. That’s certainly the case when it comes to Joshua’s famous last words in our passage today. Because after all the excitement of conquering Canaan, Joshua wants to prepare the Israelites for the future – he wants to prepare them for the ‘long haul’ of living as God’s people in a less-than-perfect world. Joshua is anxious to ensure that the people of Israel remain faithful to the Lord in the face of temptation and trial.

I hope you immediately see the relevance of this to us today. If you are a Christian here this morning, I trust you can look back fondly to the excitement of coming to faith in Jesus. Whether it was dramatic ‘road to Damascus-type’ moment or a more gradual awakening, I hope you can look back joyfully to the time when you first became conscious of God’s grace and received Christ’s forgiveness. But our challenge now is to keep going. The challenge we face today is to persevere as God’s people, to keep going until the glorious day when we shall see the Lord face to face.

So what are Joshua’s wise words to Israel and to us? Well, here are Joshua’s four top tips for remaining faithful rather than falling away! He tells us to trust the Lord, to obey the Lord, to love the Lord and, lastly, to fear the Lord. Let’s look at each in turn.

  1. Trust the Lord – because he keeps his promises to us (v.3-5, 14)

Firstly, in verses 3-5 today, Joshua tells the Israelites to trust the Lord for their future. Under Joshua, the people of Israel had won some famous victories. Over the last few weeks we’ve read about their great conquests at cities like Jericho and Ai - and over Canaanite tribes like the Amorites. The Israelites had successfully suppressed their enemies, but they had not yet fully supplanted them. They had conquered Canaan, but did not yet fully possess it.

So their task over the coming years was to establish themselves in the Promised Land. Each tribe of Israel had been allocated their share of Canaan, and their task now was to occupy it and cultivate it. Even though the most decisive victories had been won, minor battles and small skirmishes with their pagan rivals would still be necessary. As they face this future, Joshua wants the Israelites to trust that God will ‘push’ these enemies “out for your sake. He will drive them out before you, and you will take possession of their land, as the Lord your God promised you” (v.5).

Joshua wants the Israelites to trust this promise because God has kept every other promise he has made to them. He says this quite explicitly in verse 14. Listen again to what he says: “You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed”.

At the end of December each year, TV news channels normally broadcast a review of the years events, don’t they? Tune in to Sky News or ITV on New Year’s Eve, and you are bound to see a programme showing the most momentous and memorable events of the last 12 months. Had such programmes existed three thousand years ago in Palestine, they would have made captivating viewing. Because over the last few years Israel had experienced some momentous events. Events like the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. Events like the halting of the river Jordan, the collapse of Jericho’s walls, hail from heaven and even the sun standing still! Events that represented the fulfilment of God’s past promises to Israel - promises to liberate them from slavery and give them a land. Promises that had now become a spectacular reality.

Faced with such evidence, the Israelites had no need to doubt that God would continue to deliver for them in the future. They should remain faithful to God, because God had repeatedly proved himself faithful to them. The same principle applies to us as Christians today. As we look to the future, there is no doubt that we will face battles and challenges. Challenges like persecution, sin, sickness and death. Challenges that could make us doubt. Challenges that could tempt us to stop trusting God. Challenges that could make us question whether God truly cares for us, whether God could really forgive us, whether God genuinely has heaven in store for us.

Like the Israelites, we need to remind ourselves of the promises God has kept in the past. Above all, his promise to send a Messiah who would die and rise again for our salvation. That’s why things like the celebration of Christmas and Easter and, of course, the Lord’s Supper, are so important. They help to remind us of what Christ has accomplished for us. They are things that remind us that God has already ‘come good’ on his great promises in the past, so we can confidently trust him in the future.

  1. Obey the Lord – because he calls us to be holy (v.6-7)

If you are a parent or a pet-owner, you will know that obedience doesn’t come naturally. Whether you are dealing with children or animals, obedience is a quality that needs to be nurtured – its certainly not automatic! I assume I’m not the only parent here this morning who has (more than once) had to patiently explain to his children what obedience is, and why it’s necessary.

As Christians we have been adopted as God’s children. And our heavenly Father expects obedience from us. Because the second aspect of faithfulness that Joshua describes in our passage this morning is obedience to the Lord. Obedience to the Lord who calls us to be holy.

 We find this instruction in verses 6 and 7 today. Look with me at what they say: “Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left. Do not associate with these nations that remain among you; do not invoke the names of their gods or swear by them. You must not serve them or bow down to them.”

For those Israelites three thousand years ago, obedience to God meant obedience to the Laws of Moses – laws we can still read in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These included moral laws, like the Ten Commandments, but also more ceremonial and religious laws – laws which specified what they could wear, what they could eat, and what their worship should look like. These laws were designed to mark out the Israelites as God’s people. They were designed to make the people of Israel visibly different from their neighbours. God’s people were called to be ‘holy’, to be morally and spiritually distinct from the sinful nations that surrounded them.

Its no surprise, therefore, that in his famous last words to Israel’s leaders, Joshua reminds them to remain separate from their neighbours. In the years ahead, they are not to associate with Canaanites who could corrupt their faith and lead them away from the one true God.

As Christians we are also called to be holy. Jesus calls us to be morally and spiritually distinctive from our surrounding society. We are to be salt and light. We are to be like a city on a hill, or like stars shining in space. Christians are not bound by the ceremonial and ritual rules of the Old Testament, but we are expected to abide by the moral standards we see there. If anything, the standard we face is even higher. In his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus repeatedly quotes some of the moral laws given to Moses – laws relating to things like marriage, murder, honesty and adultery. And then he raises the bar even higher – he doesn’t just rule out adultery, he condemns lust. He doesn’t just rule out murder, he forbids anger - and so on. You see, faithful disciples of Christ should be committed to personal holiness ,and careful to avoid anything (or anyone) that tries to lead us away from the Lord.

But how do we become holy in practice? How can we faithfully follow God’s call to obedience?

  • For a start, we need to become familiar with Christ’s commands in the New Testament. We need to know the moral and spiritual standards he wants from us. Why not start by reading the ‘Sermon on the Mount, for example?
  • We also have the example of Christ to guide us. Jesus didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. In his life he showed us what obedience to God really looks like. He showed total obedience to his Father, even when it took him to the Cross.
  • Lastly, our heavenly Father has not left us alone, like orphans, as we try to be obedient. Not only do we have each other - our fellow Christians - to encourage us, we also have God’s Holy Spirit within us. And he will help us grow in holiness and obedience if only we will ask him.
  1. Love the Lord – because he first loved us (v.8-11)

Its Mother’s Day today, that day when children are expected to shower their mums with flowers and other lavish gifts as a sign of their love for them. Its right and proper, isn’t it, for children to love their parents? To love those who have raised and nurtured them, to those who have shielded them from harm and (hopefully) given them a good start in life.

In a similar way, Joshua says in verses 8 and 11 today that the Israelites should “hold fast” to the Lord, and “love him”. Like a good parent, God had brought the nation of Israel into being, he had protected them from harm, and he was now placing them in a Promised Land where they could flourish and thrive. In return, he was entitled to expect their ongoing loyalty and love.

Today too, there can no doubt that faithful Christians should love the Lord - in fact, Jesus called it the greatest commandment. But what does love for the Lord look like in practice, and how do we cultivate and sustain our love for him?

If you love someone, you enjoy their company. So one way we can express our love for the Lord is to spend time with him. Spend a few minutes each day speaking to God in prayer, and let him speak back to you by reading a few verses from the Bible. We should set aside quality time to enjoy the loving relationship with our Creator that Christ has made possible.

But what if we feel little desire to know God better? What if our love for the Lord is weak? Well surely we should learn from Israel’s experience. Joshua encouraged them to love the Lord because of the love that he had shown them. If you are a Christian here this morning, think of the love that God has shown you. God so loved the world that he sent his Son to die for us, so we could have our sins forgiven and receive an inheritance in Heaven. Regularly take a moment to recall what Christ went through for you on the Cross, and your heart must be moved.

We are to love the Lord, because he first loved us.

  1. Fear the Lord – because he can discipline his children (v.12-16)

As we draw to a close, Joshua’s fourth and final lesson in faithfulness is a healthy fear of the Lord. Because in our final verses this morning Joshua warns the leaders of Israel that there will be consequences if they turn their backs on God. As he says in verse 16: “If you violate the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.”

In short, Joshua is trying to create a healthy fear of the Lord in the hearts of the Israelites. He is warning them that if they turn their backs on God and persistently disobey him, he will throw them out of the land he has given them. If Israel falls away, rather than being faithful, God will discipline them. If they persistently disobey God, he will allow their enemies to attack them, and let their land be taken from them.

In fact, the fear of the Lord is a quality recommended throughout the Bible. Its even called the ‘beginning of wisdom’. Because a healthy fear of the Lord is a key ingredient of faithfulness, its something that helps to prevent his people falling away. A Christian who has a healthy fear of the Lord knows God takes sin seriously. Like any good parent, God can discipline his children as well as bless them. So if we are to avoid his discipline, repentance should be an ongoing, regular part of our relationship with God. In this world we will always struggle with sin, so we need to keep coming to our Heavenly Father for forgiveness. Forgiveness we will always receive for Jesus’ sake.

As Joshua’s life draws to a close, so does our sermon series in the book that bears his name. If you want to find out what happened next - if you want to find out whether the people of Israel were faithful or fell away - then take a look at the book of Judges. But more important today is the story of our own lives. As Christians, will our lives be characterised by faithfulness or falling away? Will our lives be marked by obedience and trust in the Lord? Will a love for the Lord be a defining feature of our character? And will a healthy fear of the Lord shape our beliefs and behaviour?

Joshua’s life story has been a story of faithfulness not falling away. May ours be too.