Sermon for Sunday, January 15th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Jos 23:1-16 ESV] 1 A long time afterward, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, 2 Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years. 3 And you have seen all that the LORD your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the LORD your God who has fought for you. 4 Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. 5 The LORD your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the LORD your God promised you. 6 Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, 7 that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, 8 but you shall cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day. 9 For the LORD has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. 10 One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the LORD your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God. 12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you. 14 “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. 15 But just as all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the LORD will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the LORD your God has given you, 16 if you transgress the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you.”
New Testament reading:
[Eph 6:10-20 ESV] 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
[Mat 28:16-20 ESV] 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Sometimes you have a very brief encounter with a person but it leaves a lasting effect. Some years ago I was hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail and got to a town called Idyllwild. And there, there were some public restrooms and showers. Quite a nice facility. And I saw a lady working there, working energetically to keep everything clean. And you would hear people say things to her like “Ma’am, this bathroom is all out of toilet paper.” And she would listen and address the issue, working hard to ever make the place better than she found it.
Well, I noticed that these shower-bathrooms were astonishingly clean. And I said to her “Ma’am” — and she looked at me attentively but perhaps with a hint of exhaustion in her face expecting me to ask something of her — and I said “Ma’am, these bathrooms are amazingly clean, thank you.” And I could see much relief come over her that she greatly appreciated this encouragement. And I hope that such an encouragement made that place (and that person) better than I found it (her).
This then is the title and the focus of this morning’s sermon: Leave it better than you found it.
First, there is another phrase I want to note. There is a phrase here in our chapter in Joshua that appears rather harsh, or rather strong, though the author did not intend it to be. With our modern sensibilities we don’t even ask a woman her age, but in Old Testament times a person could be described as “old and well advanced in years.”
Back in chapter 13, Joshua was described as “old AND advanced in years.” Now he is “old and WELL-advanced in years.” And he admits it himself. That is why he is gathering the elders of Israel together to give them a charge before his time on earth is ended.
It is this charge that we’ll be looking at this morning. And there are two parts to Joshua’s charge to elders of Israel. (1) Keep the Law. And (2) Love the Lord. And, in doing so, the Israelites were called to leave things better than they found them.
I. Joshua’s Charge
A. Keep the Law
First, Joshua says: “Be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left” … “but you shall cling to Lord your God just as you have done to this day.”
They are to not turn aside from the Law neither to the right hand not to the left hand.
This phrase is also found in the Proverbs. “Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil.”
Matthew Henry explains that this means “Take heed of running either into a profane NEGLECT of any of God’s institutions or into a superstitious ADDITION of any of your own inventions.”
So neither add to God’s word nor take away from it.
Another commentator says that this means we are to avoid “legalism and licentiousness.”
Well, whatever “the right” and “the left” are, we know that the middle (the path of the Lord) is His law. We are to stay on that narrow path.
B. Love the Lord
And a second charge, or continuing the first, Joshua says “Be very careful to love the Lord your God.”
How is this done? By obeying the commandments, and by not mixing with the nations surrounding them and worshipping their gods, but CLINGING to the True Lord God.
C. And the Lord will bring victory.
The Lord has brought victory and He WILL bring victory.
The Lord has brought them out of Egypt.
He has brought them through the desert.
The Lord has brought His people into the promised land.
He has won the victory in battle after battle.
He has given them the land.
And He has given them rest.
The Lord has brought victory.
And he promises more victory. Regarding those nations that still remain in the land, Joshua says “The Lord your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight.”
Given that the Lord has fulfilled his past promises, they can trust that He will fulfill this promise as well. The Lord will bring victory.
II. Leave It Better Than You Found It
Just as Joshua gives this parting command to the elders, so did Jesus Christ give a parting command to his Apostles.
[Mat 28:19-20 ESV] 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In both Joshua and in Matthew the charge includes the idea to “Leave It Better Than You Found It.”
Joshua wants the next generation to continue to improve the nation.
Jesus wants the next generation to continue to improve the church.
Joshua wants victory over foreign enemies.
Jesus wants victory over spiritual enemies.
In all we should take notice and “leave it better than we found it.”
For one, we are to CONTINUE in the Law of the Lord. CONTINUING to obey, and CONTINUING to Love the Lord. But the call is not only to “hold our ground” but to expand the kingdom.
Let’s look at some ways then in which we can expand the kingdom and “leave it better than we found it.” They are “improve yourself,” “improve your children,” and “improve the church.” And then, finally, in summary “improve all places.”
A. Improve yourself.
When we speak of “expanding the kingdom” this is not just in evangelism and the sheer number of believers, but we are urged to expand the kingdom’s influence over our own lives.
The spiritual battles are not just beyond us out in the world, they are within us against temptation and sin. We have commandments to follow that are not only external (do not steal, do not kill, do not commit adultery) but we have commandments that are internal (do not covet your neighbors wife, nor his possessions)
We should seek each day to progress in sanctification and leave ourselves better at the end of the day than we found ourselves at the beginning of the day.
B. Improve your children.
In the last chapter of Joshua we saw the Eastern tribes keen to ensure that their children would remember the Lord. Children are not going to raise themselves, but need to be taught in the Scriptures. They need to remember the Lord and cling to him. But how are they going to do that if their parents don’t? So it starts there. If you want your children to follow the Lord, you need to the follow the Lord yourself.
This must be on Joshua’s mind; the coming generations. His own generation, more or less, has followed the Lord. But what will happen in the future? Certainly it will be bad if the people forget the Lord. But the Lord promises great blessings to Israel should they continuing to Love and Obey him.
So “teach your children well” as the song once said. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Teach them well. Teach them the Word of God. And teach them to OBEY the Word of God. And teach them (and encourage them) to Love the Lord their God.
C. Improve the church.
The Christian life is not passive. You’re not just “on the ride,” you hold the reigns. That is, you must put in effort. You must read the Bible and pray. You must love others. And you must seek the betterment of the church; through evangelism, through physical work at the church, through financial donations, through attendance, and through prayer.
The church is to be an active place where all of its members — so long as they are able — contribute to the life and vitality of the place. Church ideally should be bustling with activity, improving all who connect with it.
D. Improve all places.
Joshua left Israel better than he found it. And now he charges the next generation to take the next step.
This should be your attitude even in business, in work. When you leave a company, don’t do so in a way that is harmful to them.
I’ve found that many companies use that phrase – leave it better than you found it. And they are primarily referring to cleanliness and organization. There are a number of videos I found online of people organizing their tools on the assembly line or of picking up a stray water bottle that someone else must have dropped.
That is good, and simple things go a long way. Of course, if you have some greater skill then the improvement can be even greater. I would often automate processes at work, which basically got me in trouble. But I don’t regret it. I had a job where I designed refrigerators and ovens and microwave ovens for private business jets. And I spent a lot of time creating a spreadsheet of all of our products and their features. And when the customer spoke with a salesman and then in turn the salesman spoke to me, I was able to quickly find the right fit of existing for them. I think this spreadsheet made things better; certainly it made the process faster. Where I got in trouble, unfortunately, is that this work used to take a guy an hour or two and now it took me a minute or two, so I had to (sometimes) find something else to do to “look busy.”
Well, we return to our theme: Leave things better than you found it. And leave people better than you found them.
How can you leave a person better than you found them?
On a daily basis, I wonder, how many people do you talk to? Maybe 5 or 10. Well I think there are many people in this world who speak to just 2 or 1 or even 0 people in a day. And how much cheer can you bring someone if you actually TALK to them. Not just the pleasantries of small talk, but truly listening and asking questions in a way that establishes friendship. Such actions may help pull someone out of depression or keep them from entering it in the first place. Such actions may even lead them to the Lord.
Imagine the improvements in our world if we obeyed this charge.
If you’ve worked in a large company you’ll know that some people don’t leave the place better. If you’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail you’ll know that while some people pick up trash, other people litter.
I want to challenge you to consider yourself and your actions for improvement in each of these places:
Within your family.
Within your workplace.
And within the church.
Are you seeking to make these places better than where you found them? It can be as simple as your attitude. What is your attitude with your family? Or at work, or at church.
What are you tangibly doing to improve these places? If you’re not able to presently point out anything, don’t be discouraged but take this as a call of remembrance to indeed “leave things better than you found it.”
And know that victory is in the Lord. It is so with the big things (our salvation) but also in the little things (The time we spend, the conversations we have, the goals we seek to accomplish). Victory is indeed in the Lord. Let us seek His kingdom as seek the betterment of all that He has given us to steward. Let us pray.