Yogi Berra, the great philosopher of baseball, once said:  “It’s déjà vu all over again.” But after reading our Old Testament lesson today, I think it was probably God who said it first. It’s déjà vu all over again for God with the Hebrews.

Once again, like so many times in the Hebrew Scriptures, the leaders of the Hebrews are getting ready for a crucial event in Israel’s relationship with God. Once again it is at Shechem, where God first showed the Promised Land to Abraham, where Jacob’s household put away the idols of foreign gods they were worshiping, where Joshua read the entire Law to the assembled people of Israel.[i]

Once again the people are gathering to hear the covenantal history, the story of God’s saving grace towards the people of Israel, faithful in bringing them out of Egypt to finally claim the Promised Land, their inheritance from Abraham. And once again they swear a oath of faithfulness to God; to trust in God alone, to serve and obey God alone, just as they did with Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai.[ii] It’s déjà vu all over again; God has seen this before, and heard it before.

And if history is any guide, that’s not especially encouraging. Joshua, more than anyone, seems to understand that: “Fear the Lord and serve with sincere faithfulness,”[iii] is what he literally says in the Hebrew. That sounds a little redundant, doesn’t it? Sincere faithfulness? Is there such a thing as insincere faithfulness?   Well, yes, actually: an insincere faithfulness is a faithfulness that is professed, even intended, but not enacted.

It is claiming to worship God alone and yet building or buying or turning to the idols of other gods any time we feel ourselves in doubt or in need. The Hebrews know something about that; it happened almost as soon as they accepted the covenant with God at Mount Sinai.[iv] While Moses is still up with God, receiving the Law, they grow tired of the delay. They begin to pester Aaron for new gods, since both this one and his emissary, Moses, are taking too long up on the mountain.

Aaron, of course, agrees and forges the Golden Calf for them to worship, and to which, almost bizarrely, they attribute their deliverance from Egypt. Within mere days of pledging their exclusive devotion to God, they are throwing themselves at other gods, idols of their own making, seeking safety, security, and fulfillment in more tangible, more manageable forms.

And we, of course, know about that too. We, like the Hebrews, have a tendency to dig out our own idols when things get tough, to seek our safety and security and fulfillment in those things: relationships, social status, politics, careers, possessions, history.  In fact,you may be having a déjà vu experience here yourself: you’ve heard this before, right?

One of the books I consulted about this passage from Joshua noted that it is a classic favorite of preachers. And no wonder! After taking them through a long recounting of all the things God has done for them (which our reading skipped over), Joshua challenges them with a sweeping finale and a rhetorical flourish worthy of the most charismatic preacher: “If you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

Yeah, preachers love that stuff. It is something of a preacher’s cliché to identify the idols that we worship from the culture we live in or the family we come from: money, power, career, social standing, political affiliation, intellectual achievement, even family traditions or expectations. And, of course, it’s true; all those things can and do become idols that we worship, turn to, and serve in times of doubt or need. It’s not that we don’t trust God, it’s that we don’t trust God alone. Our faithfulness turns out to be insincere because we just can’t quite believe that faithfulness to God alone will be enough, will give us what we know we want, will give us what we think we need.

So it’s interesting to realize, then, that Joshua’s kind of a lousy preacher in terms of bringing people into a covenantal relationship with God. Did you notice? He actually tries to talk the people out of choosing to serve God right when they’re all set to come forward for the altar call. Look, he says: you can choose to serve other gods that are more open-minded, and don’t demand exclusive faithfulness; gods that don’t get jealous if you spend time with other gods. No way, we don’t want other gods, we want the Lord, the people respond; the Lord’s the one who’s done all these amazing things for us.

So Joshua ups the ante even further: “You cannot serve the Lord,” Joshua warns flatly. You can’t do it; you won’t do it; you’ll mess it up. And they go back and forth, the people insisting that they want to serve God and Joshua warning them not to make promises that they won’t deliver on, until finally Joshua gives in, warning them that they are witnesses against themselves, that they have made this promise and can be called to testify against themselves if they break it. There is no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination here! They have made their choice. They have taken the vow, made the promise, signed the covenant; they have committed themselves to serve the Lord.

Taking a vow does help us keep a promise; it makes our intentions visible, our commitments clear, and holds us accountable for our responsibilities. It’s been observed more than once that if anybody truly understood what they were promising, what they were getting themselves into, when they said their marriage vows, very few people would ever get married. For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, from this day forward, as long as we both shall live; those are astounding, even outrageous promises to make—when you think about them.

It’s easy for them to get lost in wedding hubbub, buried under the layers of flowers and dresses and music and menus and limos and so on. But, in the end, it is only the vows that matter: it is only in sincerely making those vows that a true marriage is forged, and it is only in faithfully keeping them that a true marriage is maintained. Our circumstances may change and fluctuate, our feelings may wax and wane and wax again, but the mandate of our vows remains constant.

I believe that pretty much everyone who gets married, stands up before God and witnesses, honestly makes those vows with every intention of keeping them. But nobody really understands what they mean until they start living into them. No matter how many conversations you have, or how many premarital counseling sessions you’re forced to take, it isn’t until you find yourself for worse, for poorer, in sickness, or just dealing with the day in, day out business of to have and to hold, that you begin to understand what it means to have made them, that you truly comprehend both the blessing and the obligation of them.

They are a blessing because they propel us forward, calling us to faithfulness and supporting us in that faithfulness when we might not make it just on our own. And, of course, they are a burden for the exact same reason: they make us accountable for our actions, making it impossible to follow our own desires uncritically, to be exclusively self-centered, self-directed, or self-indulgent without suffering real consequences.

And that is the real spiritual issue that is at stake here. Faithfulness is about more than resisting temptation or fulfilling obligation; faithfulness in any relationship, whether in marriage, friendship, family, or religion, is about finding our identity more in loving than in being loved, more in serving than in being served.  Now, that doesn’t mean that faithfulness should be freely given or maintained even in abusive or exploitive relationships. In fact, just the opposite: choosing whom you will serve is a decision of paramount importance in which you will have to consider most carefully the character of the one you are binding yourself to, which is why Joshua goes to such lengths to remind the Hebrews of God’s character, God’s saving grace, God’s intentions, God’s keeping God’s promises.

Not all of us are married, but everyone who is a member of the church has taken solemn vows to love and serve God. And so when we hear this passage from Joshua, it can be hard to find the good news. This passage ends with what feels like an impossible situation, with the people stuck between the profound danger of breaking their vows and their naïve assumption that they’ll be able to keep them. Vows are powerful motivators, but they obviously don’t guarantee our faithfulness.

So it’s helpful to realize that this is déjà vu for God. God has seen it before—and has heard it before. This scene is a scene of covenantal renewal, of new life, of reconciliation nd new purpose. You see, faithfulness is not a one-time decision; sincere servant faithfulness is something that must be practiced. That’s what we do when we come here every Sunday. That’s why we call this a worship service. We are serving God through what we do here in our prayers and praise in worship.

We are serving God in the ministries of this church, in our studying God’s of Word, in our giving of our resources to fulfill God’s mission for us, in our inviting others to join the work of living into the future to which God is calling us as a congregation, in our believing that God is even now accomplishing far more in us and among us and for us and through us than we could ask for or even imagine; those are all ways of practicing our faith, and our faithfulness. It is a constant decision every day to keep and act upon the vows that we have made, to live into our ordination vows. This church has three pastors, which is wonderful, but what really matters is that this church is filled with ordained ministers: each and everyone one of you who is baptized has been ordained to minister in God’s name through loving service. 

Those baptismal vows, as well as ordination vows, are radical, even outrageous in their expectations. But that’s the whole point of them: to remind us what we were created for and how we have promised to serve God; they drive us and inspire us to greater faithfulness in and through our lives and relationships; and they remind us that there is no circumstance we can find ourselves in that God has not seen before. And God will not simply remember the promises we have made in which, from our human frailties and shortcomings, we so often trip and stumble. No, God will remember the promises that God has made: to remember us, to love us, and to be faithful to us—from the moment of our baptism, throughout all the practice of our lives, until we are called home to be at God’s table. And there is no better news than that.


[i] Genesis 12:6; Genesis 35:4; Joshua 8:30-35

[ii] Exodus 24:3-8

[iii] My translation based on the Hebrew, though this translation is supported by a similar version in the NIV. See also Robert Coote, Joshua, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998) p. 715, for a similar conclusion.

[iv] Exodus 32:1-6