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Covenant renewal

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Joshua 24:1-33

Thesis: We find peace only in the gracious covenant of our Lord.

Goal: Respond to God’s grace with obedience.

Years ago, an artistic competition was announced on the theme of “peace.” Beautiful paintings were entered—a pastoral landscape, with sheep grazing contentedly; a warm fire blazing in a rich wooden study; a tranquil sunset over a calm ocean.

But the award-winning submission was different from all the others. The artist pictured Niagara Falls in all its roaring, cacophonous power. The viewer could nearly feel the mist in his face, the wind in his hair, as the water rushed over the rocks in a thunderous torrent. At the edge of the painting, the artist rendered a slender tree branch, and on that branch a tiny bird nest. A bird sat in that nest, perched over the falls, gazing into the sky with contentment. The picture’s caption was simple: “peace.”

The bumper sticker has it right: Know God, know peace; no God, no peace.

In all the recorded years of humanity, historians can find only four years where there was no conflict raging somewhere on the globe. We cannot produce peace. But we can receive it at the hands of the Prince of Peace.

Respond to the graceful initiative of God (vs. 1-13)

One last time, Joshua assembled the elders and leaders of the nation into a kind of national congress (v. 1). His purpose was a covenant renewal ceremony, his last gift to this nation he had led so capably across so many years.

Such ancient ceremonies typically began with a recitation of the history of the people. And so Joshua recounted their experience from Abraham to the present. But with a theological theme: every provision they had experienced had come from the hand of their gracious God, by his initiative and mercy.

So it was with Abraham, himself part of a pagan family. By his grace God took Abraham from that place of idolatry and gave this childless, elderly man “many descendants” (v. 3). Abraham did nothing to earn such favor from the hand of his God.

Next the Lord sent Moses and Aaron to lead his people from Egyptian slavery to their freedom. The plagues which freed them and the miracle of the Red Sea which preserved them were again his gifts, in no sense the result of their work or merit.

When the nation came to the Amorites east of the Jordan, God conquered them. He refused the curse of Balaam, and blessed his people instead. He led them across the flooded Jordan River, gave them the conquered city of Jericho, and brought them into military victory they did not earn.

In summary, “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (v. 13). Nothing they could see was theirs except from the hand of their gracious Lord.

Were Joshua to stand before our congregation this weekend, he could make exactly the same speech. Every breath we draw comes from our Creator; every birth is his gift; every salvation is by his grace. Our church was birthed in his heart before it was dreamed in ours. Our buildings and ministries are led by his Spirit and prospered by his mercy. He receives our worship only because he is a God of love. He guides our Bible study and obedience by his grace.

The peace we seek can come only from God’s hand and his heart. We can do nothing to earn his favor.

Let us resolve to refuse the subtle temptation to believe we have earned the peace and prosperity we know today. R. A. Torrey once told of receiving a note from a Presbyterian elder. The man complained that God was not answering his prayers, even though he had been a faithful elder for many years, a Sunday school superintendent, and a recognized church leader. Torrey came to the heart of the problem: the man was praying in his merit. He thought that his religious works had earned an audience with God. He was wrong.

Is the same subtle temptation present in your life and ministry? Is it possible that some of us teach or preach so that God will bless us in return? That we expect him to answer our prayers and meet our needs because we do this work in his Kingdom? The covenant to which God calls us in renewal this day is one based on his grace, not our goodness. And on no other foundation.

Everything you do should be motivated by the grace of God, as we will discover next.

Choose the obedience which comes from gratitude (vs. 14-18)

Now Joshua called his people to “fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness” (v. 14). No partial obedience, this. “All” faithfulness requires that we give God Monday as well as Sunday, our private thoughts as well as our public actions. If he is our King, and we are in covenant with him, then every moment of every day is his. Every dollar belongs to him. Every relationship is to be governed by his word and will.

For the Israelis, such a commitment meant that they must abandon every false idol (v. 14). This was to be a conscious, intentional decision, made carefully and definitively (v. 15a). Joshua offered them his model: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (v. 15b), perhaps the most famous statement in the book bearing his name. Would to God that you and I provide such an example for those whose spiritual lives we influence.

When I first met Janet’s parents in Houston, I was immediately impressed by a plaque hanging on their dining room door. It contained the words of Joshua 24:15. I soon discovered that her parents lived by these truths. They were not just a motto for their house, but a commitment for their lives. Can others say the same of us?

The people admitted their absolute dependence on their God (vs. 16-17). And they renewed their pledge to the covenant which had brought them this far (v. 18). Theirs would be a life of obedience. But that obedience would be their response to grace.

For much of my Christian life, I wrestled with the relationship between faith and works. I knew that I was saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). What, then, is the role of works in my salvation? Eventually I came to understand that the work I do for the Kingdom is to be my response to the goodness of God, not my effort to earn such blessing. I serve because God loves me, not so that he will. I work because I am accepted by him, not so I will be. You and I minister the word of God because God has ministered it to us. Our obedience is to be motivated only by gratitude for such grace.

This motivation is the only means to peace in ministry. If you are working to become someone of merit and significance, you can never do enough. There is always another class member who needs your attention, love, and concern. There is always another lesson to prepare, another event to arrange, another visitor to call. If we are driven by performance to become people who matter, we will be driven to unrest and distress.

On the other hand, if we do our ministries out of love for the One who loves us, we can rest in his grace and guidance. We will do that which he asks of us, in the power he provides. He will get the glory, and we will be blessed by his grace. Gratitude leads to peace. All other motives rob it from us.

Live in covenant by the power of God (vs. 19-27)

Joshua next responded to the enthusiasm of the people with a realistic warning: “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God” (v. 19). He was exactly right. Their history was filled with failures to follow this covenant. The ten northern tribes would eventually lose their identity to Assyria; the southern would lose their land for 70 years to Babylon. And in AD 70 the entire nation would be taken by the Romans. All because they could not keep this covenant of obedience.

Neither can we keep ours. You and I cannot stand against the enemy in our strength. We fight a spiritual war, and must have spiritual armor and weapons (Ephesians 6:10-18). Civil war soldiers would stand no chance against modern weaponry. Only when we fight in the power of the Lord can we have his victory.

The people renewed their commitment to obedience (v. 22), and Joshua marked their covenant with decrees and recorded laws (vs. 25-26). A written witness to a covenant was typical in the ancient world, something like a legal contract in our culture. He set a large stone as a marker to remind the generations to come of the decision transacted on this soil and day (v. 26). But it would take more than this stone to keep them faithful to their God.

What step is the Father asking you to make today? Where is there sin to confess, obedience to render, ministry to give? Do so in his strength. Ask for his power. Admit to him that you cannot follow him unless he sustains your steps and guides your heart. Ask him for his provision and purpose, in humility. Walk on your knees. And you will walk into the Land he promises his faithful children.

Conclusion (vs. 28-33)

Joshua came to his end, as all mankind must. Eleazar, his faithful partner and priest, died and was buried as well. Joseph’s “bones” (actually his mummified corpse; cf. Genesis 50:26) were brought to their final resting place. And the nation would step into uncharted waters, a future found only in the providence of their God.

It is said that after Alexander the Great died, his generals consulted their maps to determine their next steps, only to discover to their dismay that they had marched off of them. Their general knew where he was going, but they did not.

Our General knows the way to the Promised Land, for now and for eternity. Choose to live in covenant with the second Joshua, and you will find in his grace the peace of mind and heart which is his gift to us. This gift comes only from his hand. He is waiting to give it to you.