The morning starts at 8:30 a.m., our custodian placing two sidewalk signs, bright blue on white, ‘Central Presbyterian Church – 10:30 a.m. Worship, 10:45 a.m. Children’s Worship. Sharing Hope Since 1841’ on the sidewalks on Charlton and Caroline. The Grade 7-12 youth begins arriving at 8:45 a.m. for the youth breakfast, where an adult in the congregation meets with them over fresh fruit, home baked biscuits and a conversation through Genesis 6-9. By 9 a.m., the coffee in the kitchen is ready, and people from different areas of the church pop by to fill up on caffeine. A post-service lunch team arrives, and begins prepping tables. By 9:30 a.m., ushers are on site, arranging the entrance, opening the main doors, preparing bulletins, offering plates, getting ready to host and greet. Toddlers trickle into the Nursery by 9:45 a.m., some parents off to different tasks. Members of the choir begin coming in through the ramp door on Charlton, hustling downstairs to gown. At 10 a.m., the sounds of the old basement piano resonate through the hallways upstairs, cold voices warming up.
A the live stream camera goes into place, and three people ask about the live stream and how it works. A soloist practices in the chancel. The custodian prepares the front of the sanctuary. By 10:15 a.m., two Scripture readers report to the Vestry, checking-in ready to read, and a small group gathers for prayer, asking God’s blessing on the morning. Just before 10:30 a.m., there are prayers in the Hall with the choir, and the opening hymn begins.
‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the king of creation. O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation.’ A violin raises high notes during the hymn, accompanying the organ. The choir sings a descant to this hymn, and hearing it the congregation sings noticeably louder. I share during the announcements how it is my privilege to serve as Minister at Central, where last year in HOOTC, Spring BBQ and North End Mother’s event, we served over 4000 meals in this city. I share that I love how seriously this congregation it takes the resurrection of Jesus, living out his power in serving around us. The second hymn is from the Taize community of France, a movement of a re-inspired generation of Jesus followers in that country – ‘Praise, I will praise you Lord.’ The piano opens up, and it accompanies the congregation’s singing, along with a ‘cello played standing up. The three instrumentalists almost dance in place as they play. The last verse is singing, ‘Love, I will love you Lord.’ And it is loud.
A child takes the shepherd’s staff during that verse and walks up the side aisle, and down the centre, children from Faith Finders following. Our Director of Discipleship for Families, leads the children to present their Bible Verse for the month, with actions. ‘For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble; you surround me with songs of victory. Psalm 32:7’ On the word ‘songs’, all the children put their hands to their mouth like a vuvuzela and shout out ‘songs’ in falsetto voice, as if they are all opera singers. It is joyous. The congregation is delighted by their delight.* Maddie, in grade 1, stands to lead the Prayer for Illumination, and reads Psalm 126. ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.’ The way she says ‘dream’, in a grade 1’s pure voice, leads us somewhere beyond the page. A man, just married at Central a month prior, reads the rest of Scripture; the choir sings a moving piece. I preach a sermon on renewal (re-printed below).
Lunch afterwards is standing room only. A dozen people stand by the food table, no tables left. I greet a family visiting Hamilton from China. I say, ‘Nee-how’. All I know in Mandarin. We pause at lunch to thank the organizers. We pause also to recognize a couple, members of Central, David and Kimberly, married off-site a month before. I look around and see Willie, whose husband died this summer. I see Reuben, who lost his dear wife. I speak to a 5 first time attenders from out of town. I speak to two couples at a table, who although both attend Central, had never met each other. I see a woman back from a long trip. I speak to a boy who is 4. I greet a father pushing a stroller. I pause a minute in the middle of the din, and thank God from this congregation. A place to belong. A place of hope.
As I leave, and most are gone home, I see one man left standing. He came to Central through the Spring BBQ last year, has joined the Alpha Course; said he hadn’t been to church since 1969. Lives in the neighbourhood. And there he was ’till the end this Sunday. He had found a mop, and was sweeping up the floors; he looked happy.
And it struck me again, the joy I find, in serving Christ and in serving this church.
*I am told later 40 children/youth 0-17 are at Central this morning.
Sermon Preached on October 14th, 2018 by The Rev. Dr. Gregory Davidson, 12th Minister of Central. Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18, 25. <unedited>
Karl Marx, the philosopher and political theorist, reportedly said to his housekeeper, who asked Marx when was dying if he had any last words, “get out, get out, last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”
Put that way, Joshua, in chapter 24, is a fool. He is about to die, and he does have some last words for Israel. And I believe they are words for us today.
Remember Joshua, that young, nervous, some what timid young person to whom Moses spoke: I hereby command you: be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. And Joshua has gone a lot of places in his life. He has seen God’s faithfulness and guiding. And here Israel stands at the verge of a new era. And Joshua, a man about to die, calls Israel together, the ones with whom he has crossed over the Jordan River, and seen God’s help; and he then gathers around and says these words:
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him; put away the gods from beyond the River; choose this day whom you will serve – the gods beyond the River or the gods of Amorites, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
Joshua’s final words to God’s people in this moment, are an invitation to renewal. They are invitation to renew the covenants God has made with them thus far.
Now we can take a few things from this passage that can help us as Christians today.
One of them is that there are times when renewal is needed. Joshua doesn’t waste his last words. He speaks them for a reason. In some ways, it is like the buzz, the generational buzz of leaving Egypt, and settling in a new place, seeing God’s hand at work, a real time of divine energy shall we say, is on pause. And things for Israel are a little flat. The hymn singing is, you know, a little quiet. People are, you know, around, but not all that passionate. Things are kind of just going along. And I think that’s the case, in a lot ways, for the mainline protestant churches in Canada. My, how we have enjoyed generational buzz, after generational buzz – and energy. But today we are in need of renewal. And that’s OK to admit. In fact, it’s good to admit. Because with Israel in this passage, we can hear Joshua’s invitation.
There are times when renewal is needed – now is one – and we can learn a few things about renewal in the Lord. First, renewal comes from remembering God’s faithfulness in the past. What a list Joshua recites, here. We didn’t read the whole thing. But it’s the first half of the chapter. The list of God’s faithfulness presence in the past. From Abraham and Sara, to Issac and Rebekah, to Jacob, to Moses, to the read see, to the cross ing, to the land of promise in which to live. Generation, after generation, God is faithful to God’s people, says Joshua.
When new members join central, they are offered a tour of the church, from the basement to the bell tower. (We need a bell.) One of the stops is the vault. And if you look in our vault – yes we have one – you have a tour of God’s faithfulness in this place. You can see the first minutes of this congregation. Planted in Hamilton by Christ in 1841. You can see the blessing of God in its children’s ministry and the latest 1950s technology of coloured glass Bible story projections. You can read about Central’s old Sunday evening service. Hymns sung out to God at night in this city, week by week, for years. You can find lists of thousands of children and adults baptized and teenagers saying publicly they believe in Christ. You can track budgets, of a place where God’s faithfulness and blessing in each generation was given by to God. If you look, you can see God’s hand guiding this church, from decade to decade, place to place, event to event, to today. Up to today, where I, as the 12th minister of this congregation in 177 years, I can say to you, from this place, Remember the Lord God this day, God is faithful in all generations. // Remember the past says Joshua, remember God’s hand guiding you there. We all come from different places and different churches. Just pause a moment and remember with me times when you can remember God’s faithfulness to you in the past. Was it a valley so deep you saw no way through. Was it a mountain so high you saw no way over. Was it a bottom, where you were able to say, your rod and your staff they comfort me. This is the first step to renewal.
Second, we can learn from this passage that is that renewal includes an invitation to make a decisive commitment to the Lord. Or a decisive recommitment. Joshua says, choose this day, whom you will serve. It’s the Hebrew word bachar. A simple word for choosing this or that. Lot, when his brother Abraham gives him the choice of which land to settle on, the plains or the valleys, Lots chooses the plains. Bachar. Choose this day, whom you will serve. Now, the reason in Joshua’s time that this decisive commitment is welcomed; is that in the ANE, it was common belief in a multiplicity of gods. Regional gods. Gods for certain causes or needs. And common practice was that people would worship, would serve, would call out to a given god for a given need. You would want to cover all the bases. Joshua recognizes these options available — the gods beyond the River or the Lord. And so with Israel, when it comes to renewal, we are left with a choice.
Third step to renewal, we can learn here, is to acknowledge that renewal is needed in every generation. A similar situation happened with Moses. A generation earlier. God’s people had made a golden calf – do you remember that story. And there was a strong moment of re – newel to God. The generation before Moses were the ones who had cried out to the Lord and the Lord heard them. And this generation, at the end of Joshua’s life, is faced with the need for renewal again. It is the end of one era – of Joshua’s time and leading – the beginning of another era. A new generation is rising up. And the question of serving the Lord or not remains unanswered. Select ancestry is not enough. We can’t be followers of Jesus because our parents were followers of Jesus. God has no grand children. If you understand what I am saying. This is something quite direct that every generation is faced with. I continue to make my baptism calls on behalf of this congregation. Most Tuesdays. Sometimes I call people baptized here as far back as 1951. And I wish them a happy baptism anniversary and offer them the best from Central. And I enjoy the conversations, and I often realize, that there are no guarantees from generation to generation. Each era, each time, is needs to find renewal – where serving the Lord is strong and wanted and beautiful.
Fourth, renewal in the Lord, affects everyone around you. Joshua declares, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. This is something that sinks in deeply to your life and affects those who see you most – with whom you live. Daily. Hudson Taylor the missionary to China, once said something like, if everyone in your house, including your dog and your cat do not know you are a Christian, then I doubt you are one. Tertullian in the 2c, writes about those who follow Christ – from the nature of their conduct may be estimated the quality of their faith. in their discipline we have an index o their doctrine. Renewal affects, if truly, those around us, as for me and my household we will serve the Lord.
Renewal comes by remembering God’s faithfulness. It includes a decisive commitment to the Lord. It acknowledges that such a choice is needed in every generation. Renewal in the Lord affects all those around you. And finally, renewal includes a covenant.
You see the people in verse 18, say, therefore we also will serve the Lord. But Joshua responds, You cannot serve the Lord – he is a holy God. Jealous (God wants all our life to be a shalom, not just part). And they say, yes will. And Joshua says, fine. Then put away the foreign gods that are among you and incline your hearts to the Lord. And they make a covenant. They need a covenant because serving the Lord can be hard. There are lots of other foreign gods. Have you ever served or are you serving a foreign god, today? God’s people will tell you that they are not all they’re cracked up to be. And I can tell what they promise they do not deliver. I have seen families break apart because of will control the money. There’s a god. I have seen people fall into depression after finally getting that big break in life, that big job, that big promotion – because they still feel unfulfilled. Achievements can be a god. Make that God yourself, your own intellect, your body – and you will be disappointed. Whatever our hearts cling to, more than the Lord, is a god to us. And the covenant Joshua makes is meant to remind God’s people of something. That the Lord they choose is good; is holy; is able. Is the Lord God. Better is one day in his courts than a thousand elsewhere. (Central hosted a big lunch this Wednesday, and some people came for it, then stayed on for the Alpha Course and I thought of this verse for them.) But it is true. O taste and see the Lord is good. He has made us and we are his. We are his people the sheep of his pasture. Jesus speaks of the character of his Father, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?”
The covenant Joshua makes here between the Lord and God’s people is a covenant made new and final in the person of Jesus.
And I believe that renewal in the mainline protestant churches will focus on him. On rediscovering the sweetness of life in Christ. The goodness of it. Of being drawn to him. From our hymnbook, that German anonymous hymn, “Fairest Lord Jesus…Thou my soul’s delight and crown.” Will we pray for renewal today. Whom shall we serve. With whom shall we trust the years we have been given. When we die, like Joshua dies, what will our last words be? As people, as humans on this earth.
I had a lot of fun? Hm. I saw the world? Mhm. I enjoyed gin at the end of the dock? Mhm. Is that it. Think hard about this. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Consider the apostle Paul’s last words “I fought the good fight, I have kept the faith and now there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.” …..Or maybe consider Jesus; maybe our last words won’t matter as much as his do. When on his last night, he says to those serving him – This is my body, broken for you. Maybe our lives, when they are done, will actually be most whole, and worthy and redeemed and beautiful – spent in days serving him.
Choose this day, whom you will serve.
Choose X, who in love and great mercy chose to give himself for us.