Saturday, October 22, 2022

“Choosing Every Day” - October 23, 2022

Text: Joshua 24:1-28

We live in a world filled with choices – all kinds of choices.  And choices can be just agonizing.  If you are with a group of friends or family, or maybe it’s just you and your significant other - deciding where to go out to eat, for some reason, can be an almost paralyzing choice.  I’m not sure why that is, but we want everybody to be happy, and our tastes don’t always align.  

Hard as some of our choices may be, we have to choose.  For some high school students, deciding where to go to college can be very difficult.  There may be very appealing things about several different schools, but at some point, you have to make a decision.

This fall we have been following the story line of the Old Testament, and this is recounted in our scripture reading this morning.  After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness it was Joshua, Moses’ assistant and successor, who led the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.  None of that generation that crossed the Red Sea, not even Moses, made it to the Promised Land.

Our scripture today is Joshua’s farewell speech.  He has seen a lot in his many years.  The first part of his speech recounts God’s dealings with Israel.  There had been a covenant with Abraham that God would give him progeny and a land.  There were plenty of descendants, but now, finally, the people had a land.  

Now Joshua was asking the people to reaffirm their devotion to God and to renew the covenant with the Lord, this covenant first made with Abraham and Sarah.

If you read through the book of Joshua, it can actually be disturbing.  It is a story of violent conquests.  I am not completely sure what to do with that.  But it is the story of the Israelites taking and settling the land that God had promised them.  Our scripture today includes the best-known verses from the book of Joshua:

“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River 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 called the people to put away other gods.  For the Israelites, the other gods were gods of the Egyptians and the gods of the Canaanites, in whose land they now lived.  There was a strong feeling that each land had its own gods, and there was an impulse to worship Cannanite gods –these were essentially the local gods.

This sounds completely foreign to our modern sensibilities.  I mean, an awful lot of people today are not interested in worshiping any god, let alone be tempted to worship multiple gods.  And we certainly don’t have a shelf filled with idols to choose from.  

But we know good and well that there are plenty of things that can demand our allegiance, our own version of other gods in the land, and they can be very appealing.

So Joshua gathers the people and asks them to recommit to the worship of God.  Choose this day whom you will serve,” he says.  “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

And the people respond.  “Sure, we will serve the Lord.”

But Joshua is not convinced.  Talk is cheap.  He thinks that the people are too glib in their response, that they are not taking this commitment to God seriously enough.  It is easy to say, “Yes, we will serve the God of Israel” and then go on living life exactly as they were before.

But God does not want casual, verbal pledges.  This is a commitment that affects every area of life, and Joshua reminds the people that this is not a casual matter, but a life-changing one.

The theology class has been viewing and discussing a video series that takes a topic or question each week with several scholars and pastors speaking about that particular question.  Last Sunday one of the speakers made a very interesting comment.  I don’t remember who it was, but this person said that in the first 400 years of the church’s existence, the big question was how we lived.  Loving your neighbor as yourself.  Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God.  Trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as a disciple of Jesus.

But after the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion, it was much more about belief.  Do you believe the right things about God and Jesus?  It is a lot easier to say that yes, I believe A,B, and C, and then go on living your life, than to really take seriously living each day as Jesus leads us.

I think this is something like the concern that Joshua had with the people.  And it is a massive issue for us.  It is a massive issue for the church in the year 2022.

In 1972, just 5 percent of Americans claimed ”no religion” on the General Social Survey.  In 2018, that number rose to 24 percent and it is no doubt higher today.  There are a multitude of reasons for this, but one of the reasons people are turned off to the church is because so many claim the mantle of Christian faith but do not live in ways that reflect the life of Jesus.  In other words, saying you are a Christian is easy but living a Christian life is a lot tougher.  And actions can definitely speak louder than words.

One of the reasons it is so tough to faithfully follow Jesus is because of all those other gods out there.  Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” We don’t use that word a lot anymore – well, basically we never use it except for quoting this Bible verse – but he is talking about wealth and acquiring things, homes and vehicles and all of the latest and greatest stuff.  He is talking about bank accounts and investments and retirements funds and “getting ahead,” as we say.  All of this can edge out God as our top priority.

There are plenty of other local gods we have today, and I’m not just talking about the Cyclones.  But the Cyclones would be a good example in that you can’t put ultimate trust in those local gods because you can’t always count on them, can you?

But I am thinking more of things like social standing, fitting in, keeping up appearances, being admired.  Such things can take precedence over all else.

I am thinking of all kinds of addictions and addictive behaviors that can control us and take first place in our lives.

I am thinking of political leanings and ideologies and bandwagons we can hop on that can become all-consuming and become more important than our commitment to Christ – which may have been what steered us toward those understandings in the first place.  It is so easy to baptize whatever is important to us as “Christian” – to kind of remake God in our own image.  

And I am thinking of so many good, healthy, positive activities that can kind of crowd out other things, even crowd out worship, even crowd out serving the Lord.  It turns out that those local gods still are a powerful draw.

What Joshua says to the people in just one sentence is really powerful.  He says choose this day whom you will serve.  Toward the end of his life, having seen a million things happen that he never would have dreamed, he knows that time is fleeting and opportunities may not come again.  Choose this day.  This is not a time to hem and haw about it, not a time to form a subcommittee and study it.  Choose this day.  It is either or.  Either choose to serve God, or don’t.

But here is the thing.  That question is in effect asked of us every day.  It is not a once and done kind of thing.  Because again, serving the Lord is not so much about believing the right stuff, it is about choosing day in and day out to live in a way that shows love for our neighbor.  To live in a way that sides with God’s justice and mercy and kindness and goodness and forgiveness, and not with the local gods that do not have those same concerns.

Choose this day, and choose every day.  

And then Joshua says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Here Joshua gets at two dimensions of faith.  It is deeply personal, but it also involves the community.  “As for me and my house.”

We cannot decide for any other person, not even our family.  But we can bear witness to others and influence others.   And surely that influence starts in our own homes.  Christian faith is deeply personal.  It is a gift of God.  But it’s not a gift to keep for ourselves, it’s a gift to share.  We would not come to believe without others and we do not worship and serve apart from others.

I was at a training event a number of years ago with a guy named Ed White.   He was a church consultant, happened to be a Presbyterian, and he told about a woman who worked in their Synod office.  She was warm, engaging, a hard worker, a committed Christian.  But she started missing work on Mondays.  A pattern developed.  She would call in sick on Monday.  Tuesday she would come in and be in a bad mood, irritable.  Wednesday she would be her happy self, and the same on Thursday and Friday.  But Monday, she wouldn’t show up for work again and the pattern would repeat.

People on the staff recognized that she had become a crack cocaine addict.  They gave her a choice.  She could go to Seaton House, a drug treatment center, or lose her job.

So she went for treatment.  The whole time she was in the treatment center, she could not see anyone from the outside.  She was in a demanding program with 30 other young adults.  When she was released, she cut off all relationships whatsoever with anyone who had been involved with drugs.  She basically had two groups of people in her life: her church and Narcotics Anonymous.

There is good news and bad news in this story.  This woman celebrated her 1 year anniversary of being drug-free.  She was successful, she was happy, she was serving the Lord.  She had a new life.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that of those 30 young adults who went through that extensive drug treatment program, she was the only one who celebrated a drug-free first anniversary.  

What was different about her?  The difference was the people she surrounded herself with.  The difference was her community.    

We need one another.  We need the household of faith.  As we make choices, we need the community Jesus said we must take up our cross daily and follow him.  We have to choose this day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next.  And it is a lot easier to do that when you are part of a family of faith.

The people said that yes, they would serve the Lord, but Joshua had his doubts about it.  He said, “No, you won’t.  You can’t do it.”  He warns them that a decision for God is not that easy.  God doesn’t want meaningless words but a genuine life commitment.  

You know, Joshua was actually right when he told the people, “You can’t do it.” We can’t – not perfectly, not completely, not without missteps and failings along the way.  But Joshua was also wrong – or maybe it was a little hyperbole to get people to actually listen.  His words were intended as a warning of how serious a choice this was, but when he said, “God is a jealous God and will not forgive your sins,” he was overstating it.  In fact, God had already repeatedly forgiven the people and would continue to do so.  The Good News of Jesus is that in Christ, we are indeed forgiven.  But it is not cheap grace.

Joshua’s words are words for us today.  “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  It is a choice for all of us to make, every day.  And praise God, it is a choice that comes with a measure of grace.  Amen.

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