Ye Cannot Serve the Lord (this way) – Joshua 24:19-21

The other day, one of the members came to me, asking why Joshua said in v.19, “Ye cannot serve the Lord.” I hope that you’ll always feel free to bring me your questions. I promise never to make fun of you – or ridicule you for something I think that you should already know. And I cannot guarantee that I’ll have an answer. I may have to study the question first. And sometimes, even then, I’ll have to admit I don’t have the answer. I hope it doesn’t discourage you to hear that I’m not the fountain of knowledge that you deserve as your pastor. Keep asking your questions, if for no other reason but that it helps ME to grow. Sometimes your queries lead to other queries and even to other subjects and answers. And that is the case with that question from last week.

Why did Joshua say, “Ye cannot serve the Lord”? The fact is – Joshua was trying to encourage those people to do just that – to serve the Lord. Was this reverse psychology or some human mental trick? Of course not. Service toward the glory of God was Joshua’s purpose in this chapter. The glory of God was the purpose of his life of sacrifice and leadership. By this time he was nearing the time of his departure, and he wanted those people to keep on keeping on. But when the people said, “We will serve Jehovah” and “God forbid that we should forsake the Lord to serve other Gods,” Joshua replied, “Ye cannot serve the Lord, for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God.”

This man of God knew the people he was addressing; he had been leading them for years. He also knew how spiritually weak all men are by nature, because he knew himself to be weak. He knew, by personal experience, what it is to attempt to serve God in the flesh – and thus to fail. Joshua was testing and challenging Israel – You cannot serve God, unless you are willing to make the right sacrifices. You cannot serve the Lord in the strength of your flesh and in the light of the pressure of the world. If you forsake the Lord and fail to serve Him properly, “then he will turn and do you hurt and consume you” – even after having done you good earlier – verse 20. “And the people said unto Joshua, Nay, but we WILL serve the Lord.” “And Joshua said unto the people, Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the LORD, to serve him. And they said, We are witnesses.” Then Joshua memorialized their promise with “a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.”

As you may know, Israel DID successfully serve God, according to the principles of the Word, for a few years. Verse 31 – “and Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua (all 110 years of them) and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the Lord, that he had done for Israel” throughout their forty years in the wilderness. But then came the days of the Judges, which were often characterized by the words “and every man did that which was right in his own eyes” and not in the eyes of the Lord. Just as Joshua had told them, they failed to serve the Lord properly, and God brought in their enemies to hurt and consume them.

Okay, what has that got to do with us so many thousands of years later and so many thousands of miles away? Let me begin to answer that by paraphrasing this chapter. Joshua gathered all the Governors, Senators and Representatives of the united tribes, and they presented themselves before God – for a State of the Union address. And Joshua said, Thus said the Lord God, “Your fathers which dwelt on the other side of the Atlantic came to this country, crying to me for freedom and prosperity – deliverance from Egypt.” I brought you to the land of Cherokees, Sioux and Shoshone, and they fought against you, but I gave them into your hand that ye might possess their land. I sent the hornet, which drave out the British, the French and the Spanish from before you. And I have given you a land for which you did not labor. Vineyards and olive yards, which ye planted not, do ye eat. And I challenged you – “choose you this day whom you will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the ocean, or the gods of natives in whose land ye dwell.” And you said, “God forbid that we should forsake Jehovah to serve other Gods.” You said that you would fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in truth, putting away the strange gods which your fathers served. But the fact is – you have returned to those gods – you have forsaken the Lord, and you worship countless idols – the constitution, the bill of rights, money, sports, beauty, sex, fleshly addictions and so on. “Ye cannot serve the Lord in this way, for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.”

I hope that you can see a parallel between Israel in the days of the Judges and the United States in days of Obama, Trump and Biden. I look back and see, very dimly, in the early days of this country, a semblance of Bible Christianity. I see the moving of God in the “Great Awakening,” and the spectacular growth of scriptural churches in the 17th and 18th centuries. I look into history, and I can see thousands of people truly born again and serving God in this country. But I also see by the middle of the 19th century a growing corruption of Christianity. And it’s that corruption that I’d like to address this morning.

Instead of BIBLICAL Christianity, today we live in a country full of CULTURAL Christianity.

I have not traveled very much, but I read a lot, and I have learned that the atmosphere of many countries express widely different cultures. The cultures of India and Japan are not the same as that of the United States, and some Americans visit those countries to experience those differences. Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran are places very different from what we are used to here. The dress is different; the religion is different; some foods are considered sinful; some words must never be spoken. They have different loves and different things to hate. There are countries infused with Catholicism, and this is seen almost immediately in getting off the plane. There are secular cultures, even atheistic cultures, Hindu cultures, Muslim cultures, animist cultures and Catholic cultures.

America stands apart from those places, because we are, at our roots, a multi-dimensional Christian society. Despite a spattering of mosques, synagogues, taverns, pot-shops and strip-joints, we are surrounded with the trappings of Christianity. Basically, this country was founded by Christian-professing people, and that beginning took root. So at the store we see crucifix dangling from the neck of the woman in the tight-fitting jeans and low cut shirt. And quite often we see a sleeve of tattoos with a cross predominantly in the middle of all that ink – or maybe there is a picture of some fictitious, imaginary “Christ.” But rarely do either of those people have life in Christ or worship Jehovah with all their hearts and souls. They live in the culture of Christianity, without possessing the substance of Bible Christianity. Easter, Thanksgiving, Marti Gras and Christmas are on our calendars – but not so much Ramadan, Purim and World Humanist Day – because we live – or have been living until now – in a Christian culture. We see professional baseball players make the sign of the cross before they bat, but we don’t see them get on their knees and bow toward Mecca at 3:15 in the afternoon. The Pew Research organization recently determined that 78.4% of American adults belong to the various denominations of Christendom. And despite all the press they get, only 5% of Americans belong to other religious faiths – Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and so on. And because this is outwardly a culturally Christian nation, but not truly Christian at its heart, our culture is being transformed before our eyes. There is very little to stop secularism, or Islam, or atheism from taking over our society.

But still – today – this is a “Christian” country in its culture and mind-set. Unfortunately, wearing a cross on the neck, does not a true Christian make. Having one’s name on some church’s membership role, electronically transferring one’s tithe, and attending church twice a year does not make someone a child of God. We live in the culture of Christianity, the way that Israel lived in the culture of Jehovah during the days of the Judges, but they didn’t and couldn’t serve God to the saving of their lives – and neither can we.

Another corruption of Christianity is seen in the CLANNISH variety.

So you were born in the United States. That makes you a citizen of this country. And even if you were accidentally born in the great country of Canada, but your parents were “Americans,” you are automatically an American citizen after just a little paper work. Filial – family – relations creates certain things, and earthly citizenship may be one of them.

But that you call your grandmother a “saint” and your grandfather was a Baptist preacher does not make you a Biblical Christian. That your parents are members and servants in one of the churches of Christ, does not automatically make you of the children of God. Adam had two sons – Cain and Abel – it appears that only one is with Christ today. Abraham had two sons – one was a saint and the other was not – their earthly father had no direct role to play in their eternal destinations or spiritual conditions. Israel once had a priest whose name was Eli. He was a relatively good man. He had an important role in the upbringing of God’s great servant Samuel. But I Samuel 2:12 says, ”Now the SONS of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the LORD” – they were intimate with Him. To be a child of a FRIEND of God, or of a priest of God, does not make YOU a friend or a priest of God. To be a born into a Christian clan – to be the son of a servant of God – does not automatically confer on you any of the privileges of Heaven.

We all must fear the corruption of Christianity into the CONVENIENT and COMFORTABLE kind.

I have in my notes some ideas about preaching a message on “cheap religion” – Christianity of the convenient kind. I guess I can scratch out those notes now that I’m sharing some of that the outline with you. Cheap religion has cheap BIBLES. I don’t mean the kind that you might be able to find at the dollar store. I mean the versions of the Bible which have been dumbed down, removing words, and more importantly, the ideas which require a little thought or the leadership of the Holy Spirit to understand. A lot of Bibles say nothing of human depravity, divine sovereignty and justification by grace.

With the cheap Bibles come the cheap SERMONS. I have been listening to messages delivered at the recent Bible Conference at Indian Mission Baptist Church in Smithville, Oklahoma, where the Fultons were two weeks ago. Thus far they have been rich, deep and spiritually nutritious. But I can think back to other conferences, one in particular, where the messages were shallow, anemic, and while highly emotional, they left my legs twitching but my heart hungry. You and I need spiritual instruction with a little meat and potatoes to go along with the milk and pablum. Paul, looking back to the history of his nation, and forward with the eyes of a prophet said to Timothy – “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”

When corrupted Christianity gives to people corrupt Bibles and corrupt preaching, very quickly develop cheap concepts of God and of salvation. Oh, how easy it is in some churches for sinners to be saved, because there is no call for repentance or conversion. All they need to do is utter a little prayer – which they read from a card like the policeman’s Miranda statement. In today’s convenient Christianity there is no reason to fear and flee from sin, because people’s image of God is shallow, mundane and humanized. To these cultural Christians God is NOT holy, not austere, not spiritually unapproachable; he is common like themselves.

There is a reason why the Bible depicts the Christian life in such masculine terms as “warfare,” “wrestling,” “climbing” and “running.” It is to help do away with the idea that there is no sacrifice or heartache in serving the Christ whose heart was broken and who sacrificed so much to save us. Oh, how helpful this pandemic has been to the convenience-loving, professing Christian. Gone is the need to honor God with our presence, our Sunday best clothes, our Christian smile and our songs of praise. All we need to do is tune into, Youtube or Facebook, and if the message isn’t what we want to hear that day, we can turn it off. We can avoid having to look the preacher in the eye and lie, saying, “That sermon was a blessing today.” Today’s convenient Christianity can fit on our i-pads and even into our phones. It requires no commitment; no surrender; no sacrifice; no service. Yes, our church has a Sermonaudio account and our Facebook broadcasts, but I hope that these are means of evangelism and not substitutes for church attendance, except for our shut-ins and locked downs.

The God of the convenient Christianity must be omnipotent, because He must squeeze Himself into our busy or lazy lives. And when it is more convenient to sin rather than flee temptation, the more easy, down-hill road is usually taken. If a doctrine is being presented which runs contrary to our agenda or our pre-determined theology, rather than fight with our own heart over its presence in the Bible – we just throw it over. If someone doesn’t immediately delight us, it is not necessary to love him and give the gospel to him. As Israel found, it is far easier to make a living than to make a life. It is easier to attend the mosque on the corner than the Baptist church on the other side of the city.

Another corruption of Bible Christianity is the COMFORTABLE, CHEERFUL variety.

Why have some churches, like Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, turned to pyrotechnics to bolster their worship services? Why did the Berachah Church of Middletown, Ohio, use a professional skydiving team to entice people to their 3rd of July service last year? Why did Pastor Ben Dailey spend three days living in a 6-foot plexiglass cube atop his church in Texas? Why did Lawrence Bishop, of Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio, recently ride a raging bull for three seconds in the middle of the church auditorium, before being bucked to the ground and getting up to preach his morning message? It’s because corrupted Christianity is often more about entertainment than about Biblical evangelism. It’s because the Holy Spirit has left the building and corrupted Christianity must turn to theatrics to compete. Modern Christians need modern music with driving drums and gaudy guitars to worship their new gods.

Joshua said to Israel, “Ye cannot serve God”? That is not the message of the modern mega-church. Their message is the complete reverse – you can serve God any way you choose – whatever is most convenient for you. Here, let’s cancel our Lord’s Day services and make our primary service on Friday night, so that you can worship God from the deck of your boat on Sunday morning. No it’s not necessary to bring your Bible to church, we’ll make it easy for you by putting appropriate verses on the big screen behind the preacher’s head. You don’t have to read it or study the Bible yourself – we’ll do it for you and even dumb it down for you.

Some time ago, just for fun I googled the words “Church slogans” on my computer, and up popped these slogans and tag lines. Visit our church – “Get satisfaction and happiness for your souls.” Come to our church and “Reward yourselves with contentment and joy.” “Mesmerize your soul.” And how about “we provide intense pleasure for your soul.” That church sounds like some sort of spiritual whore house.

“And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If ye forsake the LORD, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good. And the people said unto Joshua, Nay; but we will serve the LORD. And Joshua said unto the people, Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the LORD, to serve him. And they said, We are witnesses. Now therefore put away, said he, the strange gods which are among you, and incline your heart unto the LORD God of Israel. And the people said unto Joshua, The LORD our God will we serve, and his voice will we obey.”

While also telling US, Joshua told the people of Israel, that Jehovah is a holy and jealous God. If we forsake the LORD, by turning to other gods and by serving in unauthorized ways, then He will turn and consume us – despite all the blessings He has showered upon us in the past. “Incline your heart unto Jehovah God.” What does that mean? It means to submit yourself to Him. It means, lay aside all your personal plans and opinions and take up those which God has laid down for us. If you want to be delivered from the penalty of your sins, repent and trust the provision which He has made through the Lord Jesus Christ. And if you hope to enjoy His blessings tomorrow and next week, then enter the strait gate and walk the narrow way which has been deserted by modern, corrupt Christianity.

The history of Israel reveals a pattern. Ye cannot serve the Lord, if you live your Christianity according the whims of Satan’s world. If you sin against God and turn to the idols of the world, you will feel the wrath of the Almighty. But if you submit and surrender to Him, you’ll be blessed with His love and bounty. “Now therefore put away the strange gods which are among you, and incline your heart unto the LORD God of Israel.” “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the LORD Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”