We Have Come to Shechem
Joshua 24; Hebrews 13
December 10, 1989
A few miles north of Jerusalem the remains of an ancient city nestle between two mountains. To get there you take a bus ride out of Jerusalem up into the hill country of Samaria. The road is built over an ancient trade route called the Way of the Diviners’ Oak. After you have traveled about thirty miles two mountains appear on the left, Mount Ebal on the north and Mount Gerizim on the south. Between the two mountains a road branches off to the west. If you followed it, you would eventually come to the Mediterranean Sea.
Thousands of years ago a city was built between those two mountains. The reason was obvious. The two mountains afforded a degree of protection and the confluence of two trade routes made it an ideal location for a settlement. That ancient city was called Shechem.
It had a long and important history during the days of the Old Testament. It appears as early as Genesis 12, for Shechem was the place where God spoke to Abraham and promised to give the land of Canaan to his offspring. Abraham built an altar in Shechem as a reminder of God’s promise to him. (12:6-7) A few years later Abraham’s grandson Jacob stopped on his way back from Padan Aram and buried the household idols his wife had stolen. He was on his way back to Bethel to rededicate his life to God. Part of that rededication meant getting rid of the idols, which he buried “under the oak at Shechem.” (Genesis 35:1-4)
Several hundred years later, Moses gathered the people of Israel on the eastern bank of the Jordan River to deliver his final message to them. The words he spoke—recorded in the book of Deuteronomy—were meant to guide the nation as it entered the Promised Land. As he reached the end of his message, Moses gave the people some very specific advice. He warned them to keep the covenant they had made with God, promising blessings if they kept it and curses if they didn’t. He specifically told them to build an altar on Mount Ebal. They were to worship God there and to write the law of God on stones covered with plaster. (Deuteronomy 27:4-8)
Soon after that Moses died and Joshua became the leader of the nation. He led them across the Jordan and into battle at Jericho and Ai. Then he led the people north to the plain between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. There he did as Moses had commanded. He built an altar on Mount Ebal and copied the law of God onto stones covered with plaster. Half of the people stood before Mount Ebal and the other half before Mount Gerizim. Joshua read “the words of the law—the blessings and the curses—just as it is written in the Book of the Law.” (Joshua 8:30-35)
As For Me And My House
There is a certain pattern at work in all these things that took place at Shechem. The pattern is this: Shechem is a place where the words of God were affirmed by the people of God. Abraham affirmed the promise that his offspring would inherit the land; Jacob affirmed the truth that God honors those who worship him in purity; Joshua affirmed the principle that the people of Israel must keep the Law of God. In short, Shechem was a place where—over the centuries—great spiritual decisions were made.
But we haven’t yet mentioned the most famous example of all. That took place at the very end of Joshua’s life. He—like Moses before him—gave a farewell message. Joshua 24:1 tells us that he “assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem.” The message that he gave had two parts. The first part (24:2-13) was a recital of the many blessings of God. Joshua reminded the people how God had given the land to Abraham and his offspring (2-4), how He had miraculously delivered the nation at the Red Sea (5-7), how God delivered them from the Amorites and the Moabites (8-10), and finally, how God had given them the Promised Land in a series of amazing military victories (11-12). His conclusion is very clear: “So 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.” (13) It was a reminder that what they had was given them by the grace of God. They did not earn it or deserve it.
The second part (24:14-24) is a reminder of their obligations before God. They must put away foreign gods once and for all and choose to serve the Lord. That is the background for the well-known words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (15)
The people responded with enthusiasm that they were ready to do what Joshua was asking of them. (16-18, 21, 22, 24) So Joshua made a covenant for them. That meant he actually wrote down the decrees and laws of God which they were promising to keep. He recorded them in the book of the Law and then he “took a large rock and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord.” (25-26) Then he said, “This stone will be a witness against us.”
The stone was a public symbol of the commitment they were making. Every time the people saw it, they would be reminded of the promise they had made. But God would see the stone as well. It was a reminder to them and to Him of the serious commitment made by the nation.
The Hinge Of History
Someone may wonder what relevance all this has to our situation. This answer goes something like this. Throughout history the people of God have come to crucial moments in which they have reaffirmed their basic commitments. In those moments, the foundational commitments have been reasserted and the congregation has publicly agreed to keep them. That is what happened at Shechem for Joshua and the nation of Israel. It wasn’t anything new. It was the reaffirmation of what they had already agreed to do.
Such moments almost always come at the “hinge” of history when one era is ending and another one beginning. It might be that a beloved leader is retiring and another one is arising to take his place. It might be that a major redirection of ministry is taking place. It might be that a historic anniversary calls for a public recommitment. The purpose of reaffirming your direction is so that, as you go forward, you don’t lose your way altogether.
75 Years Young
And so we have come to Shechem today. We have come to the place of public recommitment. The task before us is as real and as crucial as the one that was before Joshua. We too are the recipients of the grace of God. For 75 years this church has enjoyed God’s blessings. From a tiny beginning this church has flourished and prospered until today Calvary Memorial Church is the largest Protestant church in Oak Park. We have grown from a frame building on Madison Street to this magnificent sanctuary on Lake Street. And, like the Israelites of old, we own a building which we did not build. What we have, we have by the grace of God.
But that is not the whole story. We are poised today on the brink of a new year. That new year will usher in our 75th Anniversary. That year will also begin a new decade, the last of this century and of this millennium. As we enter 1990 we will be looking back to our heritage; as we exit 1990 we will be looking forward to the year 2000. These are truly exciting times to be alive.
Our Mutual Covenant
For the past few weeks we have been looking together at our church covenant. This is the last message in the series. Each week we have examined a different section to see what its message might be for us as we enter a new era in the life of our church.
You will remember that the covenant as it is written breaks down very nicely into eight parts:
The Preamble — Tells us who we are
Six Specific Promises — Tell us what we will do
# 1 Christian care and watchfulness
# 2 Raising our children for the Lord
# 3 Mutual Encouragement
# 4 Salt and Light in the world
# 5 Giving of our means
# 6 Living to the glory of God
The Benediction — Tells us how we will do it
It is good at this point to remind ourselves what this covenant is all about. A covenant is a holy promise. That means it is an agreement we make with each other in the sight of God. When we enter into a covenant, we are saying, “We will do these things and we ask God to be our witness.”
Therefore, a church covenant is far more than words on a piece of paper. It is as serious as our Statement of Faith and, I think, far more significant than our Constitution. Unfortunately, those things are usually reversed in a congregation’s thinking. People will wrangle for hours on how the Nominating Committee should be set up but they will quite literally never give a thought to the church covenant. In point of fact, it usually doesn’t matter how the Nominating Committee is chosen. There are at least a half-dozen good ways to do it. And no matter which way you choose, the work generally gets done.
Now the Statement of Faith is obviously important. It details what the church believes. And in times of controversy, it serves as a useful guide for the congregation. But most of the time, it doesn’t figure into the day-to-day life of the church.
But the covenant does. Properly understood, the Church Covenant delineates what the day-to-day life of the congregation will be. It lays down the basic spiritual principles the congregation has agreed to live by.
Let us say it this way. The Statement of Faith tell us what we believe. The Constitution tells us how we will function as a body. The Church Covenant tells us what kind of people we will be. All three are crucial, but the covenant by its nature has (or should have) the greatest impact on our daily lives.
A Promise And A Prayer
So we come today to the final section of the church covenant—The Benediction. Now, for most of us the benediction is something we would quickly skip over. After all, a benediction is generally the prayer at the end of the service. It’s a sign that things are winding up and you can go ahead and gather your Bible and your purse and get ready to leave.
And that’s no doubt our tendency when we see a printed benediction. It’s a sign that we’ve dealt with the “real stuff” and this is just a nice touch at the end.
But that’s not really the case. It is very interesting to see what the writers of the covenant have done. Instead of making up a benediction (which would have been perfectly acceptable), they chose to use the benediction from Hebrews 13:20-21. This is notable, not only because it is widely seen as one of the greatest benedictions in the Bible, but also because the words are uniquely suited to a church covenant.
“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (From the New International Version. The covenant actually uses the King James Version, but the differences are inconsequential.)
Three Abiding Principles
I find in this benediction three great principles relevant to our church covenant.
First, God has already done the hard part. That’s what verse 20 is all about. It describes the promise upon which the prayer of verse 21 rests. The key is in the phrase “the blood of the eternal covenant.” The blood, of course, is the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The covenant is the promise God made to give his people new hearts and the forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 10:15-18) It is eternal because the fulfillment of the promise rests upon God alone. That is, the eternal covenant means that God is under obligation to fulfill his promises. He has said what he will do. The covenant means he will do it! The fact that it is eternal means that its benefits last forever.
Let me put it this way. When Jesus died on the cross, his blood established the eternal covenant. That is, his blood made it possible for me to have a new heart and the forgiveness of sins. That’s the promise God made. It is guaranteed by the blood, extended by the blood, purchased by the blood. And now the blessings of the covenant are available to all who trust in him.
And therefore—by virtue of His bloody death and victorious resurrection from the dead—God is now a God of peace and Jesus Christ has become the great Shepherd of the sheep.
That is what is meant by “God has already done the hard part.” He sent his Son. His Son shed his blood. God raised him from the dead. He is now exalted in heaven. Now we have peace with God. And he is our shepherd and we are his sheep.
Whatever else he asks us to do cannot be as hard as what he has done for us. If you think it’s hard to raise your children for the Lord, try rising from the dead. It would be a terrible mistake to view the church covenant as something we have to do all by ourselves. No, everything we have to do rests on what the Lord Jesus has already done.
Second, God is willing to equip us from the inside out to do his will. This is verse 21. The word “equip” means to restore to proper working condition. It means getting an army ready for battle or sewing up a hole in a fishing net or setting an arm that is broken. You “equip” something when you prepare it to be used for its proper purpose.
And here’s the great part. God is willing to “equip” us to do everything he wants us to do. Let me flip that over. God will never call us to do something without also and at the same time equipping us to do it. Never. He simply will not do it.
Some of you face difficult situations this morning. Here it is two weeks before Christmas and you’re out of money. Some of you are out of a job. Some of you are facing surgery very soon. Others face debilitating illness. Some of you have very hard decisions you need to make this week and you don’t know what to do.
Take this word of cheer. Whatever you have to do this week, God will equip you to do it. No matter how hard the road ahead, God has already started mending your nets and arming you for battle. You don’t even have to ask him; he just does it because that’s the kind of God he is. He never, never, never, never calls you to any hard task without giving you what you need to get the job done.
Notice how he does it. He works in us from the inside out. The text says, “May he work in us what is pleasing to him.” If we need courage, he works that in us. If we need compassion, he gives it to us. If we need integrity, he builds it in. If we need wisdom, he imparts the wisdom we need. If we need common sense, he finds a way to give it to us.
So many of us look at a difficult situation and pray, “Lord, change my situation.” That’s not usually God’s will. Much more often the difficult situation has come as a means of making us grow spiritually. God often brings difficulty into our lives to deepen our total dependence upon him. When that happens, we ought to pray, “Lord, change me so that I can face this situation.” That’s a prayer God is pleased to answer.
Third, God’s only requirement is that he get the glory. Notice how the benediction ends. “Through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” The commentators discuss whether the “to whom” refers back to “the God of peace” at the beginning of verse 20 or to “Jesus Christ” at the end of verse 21. It could be either and it could be both.
Either way the point is crystal-clear. In all things God must get the glory. He gets the glory in the death of his Son, Jesus Christ. He gets the glory in the blood which established the eternal covenant. He gets the glory in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And he must get the glory in the equipping of his people to do his will. He has done the hard part. He has given us new hearts and forgiven us. He works in us to give us whatever we need to do his will. He equips us to go into battle for him. It all comes from him.
Therefore, no matter how successful we are, it all comes from him.
When we walk together in brotherly love … . To God be the glory.
When we exercise Christian care … . To God be the glory.
When we raise our children for Jesus Christ… . To God be the glory.
When we encourage one another … . To God be the glory.
When we are salt and light in the world … . To God be the glory.
When we cheerfully give of our means … . To God be the glory.
When we are faithful even until death … . To God be the glory.
Let us not be ashamed to say that it all comes from him. Without God’s help, and his mighty hand undergirding our efforts, everything else would come to nothing.
Between Yesterday And Tomorrow
Seventy-five years ago a few families banded together to establish a witness for God in Oak Park. Little did they dream what this church would become. They wanted a church which would preach the evangelical gospel and promote the work of world missions. God has answered their prayers abundantly.
What will the next seventy-five years bring? I am sure that we would be just as surprised as our forefathers if we knew the answer to that question. But certain things are sure: The gospel that was handed down to us will still meet the needs of the future. The Bible that we believe will still have the answers for the next generation. And the victories that are yet to be won will be accomplished in the strength of the Lord.
We stand this morning poised between yesterday and tomorrow. Egypt is far behind us; the kingdom is yet to come. Meanwhile we have come to Shechem, the land between the mountains, where God watches as his people say “Yes” all over again to the promises they have already made.
(This sermon was followed by a service of covenant recommitment by the whole congregation.)
Lord, you have not brought us this far to leave us alone now. We have come this way by faith; we go forward by your faithfulness. We have promised to do these things. Equip us now to do your will. Let our words be witness against us if we fail to do as we have said. We pray this not in fear, but in faith that you will work in us what is well-pleasing in your sight. In the strong name of Jesus we pray these things. Amen.