Sermons from San Diego

Yes I Can. No, You Can't: From the Comfort of the Promised Land in Joshua 24

November 12, 2023 Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ Season 1 Episode 13
Yes I Can. No, You Can't: From the Comfort of the Promised Land in Joshua 24
Sermons from San Diego
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Sermons from San Diego
Yes I Can. No, You Can't: From the Comfort of the Promised Land in Joshua 24
Nov 12, 2023 Season 1 Episode 13
Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ

This is the final sermon is our great sweep of history from Abraham to the Promised Land.   Now that we've arrived, what next?  The text for today is from Joshua 24

If this sermon was meaningful to you, learn more about the rest of our church at You are invited to support the ministry of Mission Hills United Church of Christ with a one time or recurring contribution -

Show Notes Transcript

This is the final sermon is our great sweep of history from Abraham to the Promised Land.   Now that we've arrived, what next?  The text for today is from Joshua 24

If this sermon was meaningful to you, learn more about the rest of our church at You are invited to support the ministry of Mission Hills United Church of Christ with a one time or recurring contribution -

Sermons from Mission Hills UCC

San Diego, California


Rev. Dr. David Bahr


November 12, 2023


“Yes I Can. No, You Can’t”


 Joshua 24: 1-6, 14-23Common English Bible

Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders of Israel, its leaders, judges, and officers. They presented themselves before God. 2 Then Joshua said to the entire people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors lived on the other side of the Euphrates. They served other gods. Among them was Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor. 3 I took Abraham your ancestor from the other side of the Euphrates. I led him around through the whole land of Canaan. I added to his descendants and gave him Isaac. 4 To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Mount Seir to Esau to take over. But Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. 5 Then I sent Moses and Aaron. I plagued Egypt with what I did to them. After that I brought you out. 6 I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. The Egyptians chased your ancestors with chariots and horses to the Reed Sea. 


14 “So now, revere the Lord. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the Lord. 15 But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.”

16 Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! 17 The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. 18 The Lord has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

19 Then Joshua said to the people, “You can’t serve the Lord, because he is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won’t forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you leave the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn around and do you harm and finish you off, in spite of having done you good in the past.”

21 Then the people said to Joshua, “No! The Lord is the one we will serve.”

22 So Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”

They said, “We are witnesses!”

23 “So now put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the Lord, the God of Israel.”


This is finally the end of our great sweep of history.  Today’s text has neatly summarized our readings since the beginning of the summer – from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, through slavery and the Exodus.  The people are now firmly established in the Promised Land and it’s already nearly the end of Joshua’s life.  


Who was Joshua, again?  We mentioned him only briefly before.  Soon after leaving Egypt, Joshua led the wandering Israelites to victory when they were attacked by the Amalekites, a detail I wouldn’t blame you for not remembering, but you might remember how Joshua led them to victory.  Was it his brilliant strategy?  Not really.  When Moses held up his arms, the Israelites began winning the battle.  When he put them down, they began losing.  So, when Moses was too tired to hold them up anymore, two men stood alongside him and held his hands up in the air and that’s how Joshua was victorious.  That is this same Joshua.


Post-Ten Commandments and golden calf debacle, 40 years later, Moses stood on top of a mountain and finally saw the land they had been traveling toward stretched out as far as he could see and then he died on that very spot.  It was now up to Joshua and Caleb to lead the people into the land.  Why those two men?  


According to scripture, they were the only two who never once doubted.  All those complaints about food and water and the lack of watermelons and weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that we could die in comfort – Joshua and Caleb were selected to lead the people into the Promised Land because they were the only two who didn’t complain on the way and believed that one day they would indeed reach the Promised Land.  They believed God would provide.


Joshua and Caleb were also the only two people alive who had once been slaves in Egypt.  To be clear, along the way, every single other person that escaped Egypt died.  Which, along with Moses not entering, seems quite unfair, but as I’ve said before, our call is faithfulness to the journey, not the destination.  


But first, wait a minute.  All the people died along the way?  How many would that be?  I’ve never really given this any thought because storytelling deals with the search for meaning, not a recitation of “facts.”  So first, how many people escaped from Egypt?  As I try to imagine a group of people crammed up against the edge of the Reed Sea before it opened up so they could walk through on dry ground… What seems reasonable?  A few hundred, a thousand or two?  Or as I imagine how many people were camping at night under the stars or how many voices were demanding water or complaining they are hungry…  5,000?  And then I think, how many quail descended at suppertime every night… Are we talking about maybe more than ten thousand dead birds – every night?  Night after night for 40 years.


Well, according to Exodus 12: 27, the number who escaped was 600,000 men, plus women and children.  The Book of Numbers reports 603,550, which one scholar estimated at 2.5-3 million total men, women, and children.  So, let’s use a conservative number.  Imagine moving the entire population of San Diego, 1.4 million people, to Sacramento, not up the freeway, but first by going to Las Vegas, through the Salton Sea, then San Francisco, back down to Yuma and over Los Angeles before getting to Sacramento.  Enough water in Barstow for 1.4 million people and everywhere else in the desert.  But along that zig zagged way, all but 2 of 1.4 million San Diegans lay dead, bodies littered all along the way, although they would have been buried.  Paints a different picture, doesn’t it!  While in the meantime, tens of thousands of babies were born who grew up and had tens of thousands of more babies.  


I have to say, I can’t quite get past a million dead quail every night for 14,600 nights or the logistics of just leftover quail bones.  And the sewage…  But, OK, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole.  The logic of a story isn’t as important as its lesson.  


And so, back to today’s story.  Of all the people who now stood in front of Joshua, none had the personal experience of freedom from slavery, though they would have heard the stories of their parents and grandparents.  They wouldn’t have known how hard it is to maintain and sustain a covenant relationship with God through hunger and thirst and never having a place to rest that night that we can finally call home.  Joshua was concerned they didn’t really understand what was expected of them as the people of God now that things were “easier.”


Talitha Arnold, the pastor of the United Church in Santa Fe, said that if she was were to be as blunt as Joshua when presenting parents with the choice to baptize their child, she would get rid of the wimpy declaration from our Book of Worship:  Do you promise to grow with this child in the Christian faith and offer them the nurture of the Christian church.”  Instead, “I’d ask them, in front of God and the whole congregation, “Do you promise to get them out of bed, dressed, and here every Sunday morning for the next 18 years, even when you’ve had a long week or you’d rather sleep in or there’s a soccer match or when this darling infant has grown into a surly, tattooed teenager who thinks church is dumb?”[1]


Or how about a membership vow like this:  Instead of the theological niceties like fellowship and supporting one another on a shared discovery of our spiritual gifts, how about “Can you stick with this church when it doesn’t feel as interesting anymore; and can you promise not to complain when a request for money to help fix the roof comes right after a special offering for hurricane relief during a pledge campaign for the next year that comes just as someone asks you to help move tables for the upcoming rummage sale – for which you are supposed to both provide items and buy someone else’s discarded items; and can you commit to forgiving the minister for a few bad sermons in a row, or worse, an accidental unkind word; can you stick with people who sometimes get on your last nerve; and can you remain faithful through nearly two years of services on Zoom instead of in person?  That’s a real one, isn’t it?


Imagine someone who wishes to join the church, fully considers the depth of their commitment, and stands up for the membership ceremony and answers the questions, “Yes, I can,” imagine the minister saying, “No, you can’t.  You will fail.”  And she walks away and you’re left standing in front of the congregation unsure what to do other than sit back down…  But will you stand back up and exclaim, “Yes, I can.”  And now, you are ready.  Faithfulness to God is easy when things are going our way, when we like how things are going, but not so much when things keep getting harder, our losses are piling up, and God feels very distant.  Faithfulness to God is not easy when things are not going our way.


And so, the people are finally living firmly in this place that once was just a promise.  These are much easier times.  So, I’m curious about the urgency to Joshua’s question.  Once and for all, he urges, choose this day whom you will serve.  Perhaps he could have said, “Choose every day” because no decision is ever done and over at the moment it’s made.  We grow and change.  The people around us grow and change – sometimes into even more difficult people.  Us too.  But perhaps choosing this day is knowing we must yet choose a thousand more times in our lives.  But choose what?  Events in the world that are both good and horrible can instantly change our trajectory.  Make your lifetime choice to go deeper each day instead of going on to the next thing.  When we say, “this is too hard” or “this is no fun anymore,” make your lifetime choice to choose this day not go somewhere else but to go deeper into the communities to which we belong and into God’s very self.  


The faith journey is not so much forward to something – like a promised land or heaven.  The faith journey is a call deeper within someone – deeper into our God, to deepen our love for neighbor without giving up self, to deepen our love of self without becoming self-centered.  But without going deeper, we risk the instability of shallow faith.  And how will we handle it when things keep getting harder, our losses keep piling up, and God feels very distant?


Choosing to go deeper may be very difficult to embrace for people who are goal oriented, success-driven, motivated by results.  How do you measure, how do you win a trophy for depth of spirit and kindness and love?  It may be difficult for those who think self-sufficiency means I can do this all by myself.  It may be difficult for people always seeking an ever-elusive happiness that it seems like everyone else is enjoying.  These are examples of “gods” we must give up.  These are the gods that compete with our God.  


And so, choose this day whom you will serve.  Joshua says, as for me and my house, we will choose the Lord, the God of Israel.  And if we choose God, what then?  For the last several months I have been hearing God calling us to three things:  a deeper faith, deeper relationships, and a greater impact.  


Deeper faith through means we have yet to fully explore, but one has been this deep dive into the great sweep of history we have explored since this summer.  I hope we understand these stories better than we have before.


Deeper relationships with others in the church, with our neighbors around the church and around our homes, with God, a deeper relationship with Jesus and the Spirit.  Our All Generations events and weekend at Pilgrim Pines were examples.


And I hear God calling us not to more things but to the things we do with greater depth, which is how we have greater impact, all of which is dependent on deeper faith and deeper relationships.  You don’t seek greater impact first.


It’s too soon for me to ask, can you commit to a deeper faith?  Or can you commit to pursuing deeper relationships?  And can you commit to having a greater impact?  It’s too soon to ask because you might too quickly answer Yes, I can and I would have to say, No, you can’t.  Not until we fully grasp what God is calling forth from us.  But I’m excited to find out with you.


[1] Talitha Arnold, “True Grit,” The Christian Century, October 23-November 5, 2008