“You Gotta Serve Somebody”

Sabbath Day Thoughts – Joshua 24:1-2a:14-18

“You may be an ambassador to England or France

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

Those are the words of Nobel Poet Laureate Bob Dylan, written in 1979.  Just the year before, the thirty-eight-year-old Dylan had played 114 concerts on a ten-month world tour.  As the tour neared its end, Dylan was exhausted and struggling.  Remembering that time, Dylan says, “Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd… knew I wasn’t feeling too well.  I think they could see that.  And they threw a silver cross on the stage.  Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage … But I looked down at that cross.  I said, ‘I gotta pick that up.’  So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket… And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona… I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego.  I said, ‘Well, I need something tonight. I didn’t know what it was.  I was used to all kinds of things.  I said, ‘I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.’  And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.”

That silver cross would change Dylan’s life.  He began to study the Bible and have spiritual conversations with his bandmates.  Later that year, Dylan underwent what he saw as a turning point in his life.  His girlfriend at the time Mary Alice Artres, a born-again Christian, said Dylan experienced a “visit from Jesus himself.”  Dylan would admit, “Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”

That “physical thing” had a profound effect on Dylan’s poetry and songwriting.  The album he released the following year, “Slow Train Coming,” reflects themes of personal faith and Christian discipleship.  In fact, the seventy-nine-city tour to promote the album was called Dylan’s Gospel Tour.  Dylan’s single “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” the words of which are woven through this message, was his first hit record in years, earning him a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.

“You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk

You may be the head of some big TV network

You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame

You may be living in another country under another name

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

Dylan sounds a lot like Joshua in today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible.  God had long ago claimed Joshua with the promise, “As I was with Moses, so shall I be with you.  I will not fail or forsake you.  Be strong and courageous.”  Joshua’s first task as Israel’s leader had been to shepherd the Israelites through the waters of the Jordan and into the Promised Land.  Once there, Joshua found that, although the land was flowing with milk and honey, it was also filled with people who were reluctant to surrender their bounty to Hebrew invaders.

Through long years of conflict, Joshua had led the Israelites against one enemy after another.  One by one the Canaanite cities had fallen, not because the Israelites were more powerful or because Joshua was a better military strategist.  Rather, victory had come because God had fought side-by-side with Israel.  At Jericho, in keeping with God’s instruction, the Israelites had circled the city for seven days, shouting and blowing their horns, and the walls had come tumbling down.  At Gibeon, Joshua had cried out and God had held the sun and moon still while the Israelites routed their foes.  At Azekah, God had rained huge hailstones from the heavens, killing the armies of their Canaanite enemies.  As Joshua neared the end of his long life of service, the Israelites were finally at peace.  Thirty-one Canaanite kings had been defeated.

With all that God had done for Israel, we might anticipate that they had a born-again faith in God, every bit as ardent as Bob Dylan’s love for Jesus.  But when we read between the lines of Joshua’s testimony, we hear that Israel was worshiping other gods.  Some bowed down to the gods that their ancestor had worshiped beyond the Euphrates.  Some worshiped the gods of Egypt, where the Israelites had been enslaved by Pharaoh.  Others were captivated by the Canaanite god Baal.  They had to serve somebody, but as Joshua pondered his people, he saw that they were making some bad choices.

You may be a construction worker working on a home

You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome

You might own guns and you might even own tanks

You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

With thousands of years of hindsight, it’s easy for us to recognize the Israelites lack of judgment.  Why turn your back on God Almighty when God had delivered thirty-one Canaanite kings and every fortified city in the land into your hands?  But if Joshua or Bob Dylan were here today, they might call us to consider the false gods that we worship.  Stephen Johnson, Professor of Preaching at Abilene Christian University, points out that the Israelites aren’t the only ones with competing allegiances.  We can place our ultimate allegiance in partisan politics, refusing to mask or maintain social distance or be vaccinated, refusing to protect vulnerable neighbors and spurring a lethal fourth wave of COVID-19.  We may serve only our personal interests, ignoring our neighbors in needs, disconnecting from relationships that feel like work, or consuming irreplaceable natural resources at a rate that destroys the planet.  We can even be enslaved by good things when we devote to them all our time, energy, and attention to the detriment of our physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being—or the well-being of others.  Work, family, or community can become idols.  When we fail to build our lives around the holy center of God Almighty, we worship false gods, just as surely as the Israelites did.

“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 indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

In a last faithful act of leadership, Joshua gathered all twelve tribes of Israel to Shechem, to affirm the covenant that their ancestors Abraham and Sarah had made with God.  The people came, young and old, men and women, aging warriors and young farmers, mothers with children and babies.  They listened as Joshua reminded them of all that the Lord had done for them: delivery from slavery, bread from heaven, water from the rock, walls tumbling down, foes vanquished, and the blessing of that abundant land.  Then, Joshua asked the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  Confronted by the simple truth of an old man’s eloquence, the people chose God, saying, “We will serve the Lord.”

After Bob Dylan made his choice for the Lord in 1979, he came to believe that God had given him a unique platform and voice.  He could use both to serve the Lord.  In a December 1979 interview with KMEX Tucson radio, Dylan said, “I follow God, so if my followers are following me, indirectly they’re gonna be following God, too, because I don’t sing any song which hasn’t been given to me by the Lord to sing.”  Dylan’s choice for Jesus alienated some of his traditional fans, but it earned him new fans and a different following.  “Slow Train Coming” is universally considered one of the greatest Christian records of all time.  The single “You Gotta Serve Somebody” has been recorded by Pop Staples, Etta James, Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, LeeAnne Womack, and more.  I’ve been quoting it for you as poetry this morning.

“Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk

Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk

You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread

You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

If we are waffling on that choice of whom to serve, I could follow the example of Joshua and remind us of all the Lord has done for us.  God has freed us from the burden of sin and promised us the life eternal; blessed us with folks who love us; given us a church home; gathered us for camp outs and picnics and evening Vespers; surrounded us with the beauty of the Adirondacks; walked with us through every trouble.  I could go on.  We’re gonna have to serve somebody. 

Let us choose this day to serve the Lord.

Resources:

–. “Bob Dylan Gets Religion in the Gospel Years” in Goldmine: the music collector’s magazine. Feb. 23, 2009.  Accessed online at https://www.goldminemag.com/articles/bob-dylan-gets-religion-in-the-gospel-years-part-2

Dylan, Bob. “You’re Gonna Serve Somebody” in Slow Train Coming, Columbia Records, 1979.

Johnson, Stephen. “Homiletical Perspective on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Koenig, Sarah. “Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 23, 2009.  Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-21-2/commentary-on-joshua-241-2-14-18-2

O’Brien, Julia M. “Exegetical Perspective on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Wenner, Jann S. “Slow Train Coming,” a record review in Rolling Stone Magazine, September 20, 1979. Accessed online at https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/slow-train-coming-251127/

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