Who or what we choose to serve has serious consequences:
When Bob Dylan was in his Christian phase (I am not quite sure where he is at now), he released a few hardcore and full-on Christian albums. The opening track on his 1979 album Slow Train Coming was “Gotta Serve Somebody”. It won a Grammy Award and is a terrific song encapsulating vital biblical truth.
Just in case you have never heard it yet, you can have a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wC10VWDTzmU
In the song Dylan may have been referring to a famous biblical passage. In the last chapter of Joshua, as God’s people are being admonished after entering into Canaan, we read these words of Joshua (Josh. 24:14-15):
“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua made clear the choice that was before the people. They could do things God’s way, or refuse to do them God’s way. They could stay true to the Lord or they could run with the world. And those options are always with us. Even today we are being asked to make the same choice.
To help make this text relevant for us, I might paraphrase verse 15 this way: ‘But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of popular culture, or the gods of secular humanism, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’
Our choices matter. That is true of Christians as well as non-Christians. We are not pre-programmed robots, but we are morally responsible agents who are able to make choices that will have wide-ranging consequences. The non-believer makes choices that have real consequences.
But so too the believer. And the most important choice in life has to do with who we are going to serve. Dylan laid it out quite clearly. Here is part of what he said in his song:
You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody (serve somebody)
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody (serve somebody)
Who is the god you serve? Is it the one true living God, or is it some false god, such as yourself? The god you serve will have very real consequences. Who we choose to make Lord in our lives will have results – for good or ill. While we all make bad choices and all want to serve false gods, we can get things right – we can turn things around.
Coming to God through Christ in faith and repentance is the first and necessary step to starting to make right choices, and putting the real God back in his rightful place. All the mistakes and bad consequences of our past can then start to be dealt with.
And God is even able to make something good of our past bad choices, if we let him. The famous passages in Joel comes to mind here. In chapter 2, verse 25, we find these words:
I will restore to you the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent among you.
Even though we may have lost so much due to our bad choices, God is able to restore things, and turn bad into good, if we allow him. See more on this great promise here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/30/restoring-wasted-years/
And to help you get some hope in all this, let me share a passage I again read in my morning reading. It is a very familiar story, but it tells us that even the bad choices of humans can be used by God to bring about very good outcomes.
We know about Joseph and all that happened to him from the book of Genesis. The last 13 chapters of the book are all about the remarkable man. You know how he was betrayed by his own brothers: they wanted to kill him but ended up selling him as a slave. Yet God was at work, and he soon became a big cheese in Egypt, and helped to save the people of Israel.
That included saving his own evil brothers. And notice what we find recorded in Genesis 45:1-9. It says this:
Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry.
Wow. Three times he says it was God who was behind all this. Even their evil intent to get rid of Joseph was something God was using for his own purposes. And it was not just the preservation of Israel that happened as a result of all this, but the continuation of a godly line that eventually led to the Messiah.
Yes our choices really do matter, and our bad choices are something we are morally accountable for. And yet by God’s grace, he is able to bring good out of our wrong choices. As Joseph also told his brothers in Gen. 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Again, the evil the brothers were involved in was real evil, and they were responsible for the choices they had made. Yet God is able to weave the events of life into good outcomes. We may not always be aware of what good is coming out of the things happening to us, including the bad choices others make about us.
Yet God is still on the throne, and he is still working out his purposes. As Romans 8:28 so beautifully puts it, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
This was certainly true of Joseph. He loved God, yet suffered all sorts of hardships and difficulties, including spending some years in prison in Egypt (see chapters 39-41). And the betrayals by his own brothers would have especially been hard to endure. But God was still able to redeem the various situations and transform them into something very good indeed.
The moral of the story is this: our choices are significant, and there will be consequences for our choices. But we are not left stuck in that situation. If God is put first in our life, we can see him doing amazing things, even using the suffering and tribulations we are going through to have a good result.
Yes, we all have to serve someone. But it makes a really big difference who we choose to serve.