Sunday, November 12, 2017

Phil Kniss: A whole-hearted life

Stewardship and a jealous God
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

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So what gives . . . with all this talk in the Bible,
about God being a jealous God? . . . 
Have you ever felt, even a twinge of discomfort
when you hear God referred to, as “jealous”?

Be honest. Doesn’t it sound a little . . . off?
like God is being a tad selfish? or petty?
that God would be portrayed in scripture
as having hurt feelings
if someone doesn’t pay him enough attention?

When we read a text like Joshua 24, or many of the psalms,
and get to the word “jealous,” 
we sometimes wish there was a good substitute word,
a euphemism maybe.

We know when humans are jealous,
it’s a sign of immaturity, more often than not,
it’s a clue that we’re not quite emotionally secure enough,
to allow a friend to share attention and admiration
with other people.

Not talking about protecting healthy boundaries in intimate relationships.
If a little jealousy helps us keep faith, that’s good.

I mean the sort of feelings we had in high school or junior high,
a sense of entitlement or exclusivity,
when we weren’t quite willing to share a friendship
that was meant to be shared.

But whatever the word “jealousy” conjures up for us,
this morning I want us to come to admire God’s jealousy,
to be grateful for it,
and to realize what a gift it is to our wellbeing,
and the wellbeing of the world.

So let’s first talk about Joshua, and what’s happening in chapter 24.
This is Joshua’s last lecture.
You probably heard of this at universities,
where professors give a public lecture,
as if they knew it was their last chance 
to impart any wisdom to the world.
It’s inspired by a professor at Carnegie Mellon 
who gave a public lecture
after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Some of you EMU profs have done this—
given your hypothetical “last lecture.”

But this is literally what Joshua is giving to the people of Israel,
his last lecture.
It says in v. 1 of Joshua 24,
“Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. 
He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, 
and they presented themselves before God.”

Joshua got straight to the point. And I quote,
“I am very old. I am about to go the way of all the earth.”
No denial going on there.

And then he proceeded to give a challenging last lecture
on priorities.
And it was timely, given their context.
By the time of Joshua’s death,
they had partly, but not completely,
been given their promised land.
They were no longer nomads, for sure.

They were becoming a powerful people in the Ancient Near East,
economically and militarily.
Other city-states in the region
had a healthy fear of what the Israelites could do to them,
because they had seen it happen to their neighbors.
Now, it’s way beyond the scope of this sermon,
to try to help us make sense of
all the violent stories earlier in Joshua,
describing Israel’s partial conquest of Canaan.
That’s not the focus this morning.

Suffice it to say
this was a people, once enslaved and poor and landless,
who were now a landed people,
with significant economic wealth and military might.

God . . . and Joshua . . . were worried.

That’s the context of Joshua’s last lecture.
He started out by reminding them where they came from.
They are the children of Abraham.
A nomad who went wherever God led him.
One step at a time.
All over Canaan.
This is the land in which their ancestor once roamed,
not always knowing where his daily bread would come from.

The fear that Joshua had, on behalf of their jealous God, Yahweh,
was that other gods were getting in the way
of them remembering their identity.
They were forgetting the kind of people they were destined to be.

Particularly, the gods of the Amorites, in whose land they lived,
had an appeal with the people of Israel.
Perhaps because the Amorites themselves
tended to be tall and strong and influential,
and were thought to speak a similar Semitic language.

It’s not a coincidence that they gathered at the city of Shechem.
This was a commercial center on vital trade routes.
It had political, economic, and religious significance.
It was one of the few cities the Israelites occupied,
where there is no mention of them destroying it first.
They may well have lived there in the city
with persons of other nationalities and religions.
So here at Shechem, the people of Israel stood 
at a theological and political crossroads.

Whatever the details were, this much is clear:
They were becoming a people with power,
having land,
having influence,
having commerce with other powerful people,
who were shaped by a very different value system,
and it was changing the people of Israel.

God had already set forth pretty clearly,
in the Exodus,
and the years in the wilderness,
what sort of God they were in relationship with,
and sort of people God wanted them to be.
And that was very different from who they were becoming.

So God’s jealousy is not merely about feeling slighted 
because his people are sneaking in some idol worship on the side.
God is jealous,
because as our Creator, God already determined and defined
the full and flourishing human life.
God gave humanity a precious gift—
the possibility of a full life reflecting the image of God.
God gave us the means to live lives of
self-giving freedom and joy,
and abundance for all,
celebrating the beauty in diversity,
showing compassion for the needy.
Idolatry undermines and trashes that gift.
The worship of idols,
stands for the very opposite of all that God designed.
It cultivates self-interest, 
fear of scarcity, 
fear of the other,
and all manner of other evil.

The God of Abraham has a heart for 
the poor,
the downtrodden,
the oppressed,
the dispossessed.
This is a God whose intention is deliverance,
full and abundant human flourishing.
That is what God is jealous for.
God is jealous for our well-being.
God is jealous for the shalom of all creation.

That kind of jealousy has nothing to do with insecurity.
It is a precious gift,
to preserve God’s good intentions for creation.

God’s intentions are all love.
And this love is mirrored in us, as bearers of God’s image.
It courses through our veins, and through all creation.
This love and longing is directed toward 
God’s saving and reconciling mission.
To worship God, alone, is to live the life we were made for.

We reject the many idols that would distract us from that worship,
not to satisfy God’s petty emotional needs,
but to help God fulfill God’s universal purposes for creation.

That is why Joshua was so pointed and passionate 
in his plea for the people to put away their idols,
and choose to worship Yahweh,
who was jealous for them to fulfill their created purpose.

Joshua saw how compromised they had already become,
so he put before them a challenging choice:
“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve—
Yahweh who delivered you from slavery 
and led you through the wilderness, or
the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.
As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

So the people got all excited and motivated by Joshua’s lecture,
and declared anew their loyalty to the one God Yahweh.
But Joshua didn’t buy it right away.
They were too compromised by their idolatry.
He said, you are not able to serve the Lord.
God is holy. God is jealous.
God won’t stand for your compromises.
You are in open rebellion, in sin.

But the people insisted they would put away all other gods,
and serve the Lord alone.
Thus, a new covenant was established there at Shechem.
They would make a new start.

It was a stark choice the people of Israel faced that day.
And it may seem hard for us to identify with this ancient story.
But I have to wonder whether this is not also our story.

We, too, are compromised by the gods of the people 
in whose land we have taken up residence.

The Israelites, a once-enslaved people,
a once-nomadic people who depended on God for daily bread,
were, tragically, seduced by 
the extravagant life and abundant land in Canaan.
They no longer saw themselves as servants of 
the God of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger.
They no longer even recognized the core spiritual values
of the God who delivered them from Egypt.

Could that be our temptation today?
Could that be the seduction of life in 21st-century North America?
Do we even recognize the God that calls for our allegiance?
the God who is jealous for our future well-being,
for the shalom of our cities, our nation, our world, our planet?

We have choices available to us.
Here, at our Shechem,
at the crossroads of everything that tempts us,
we have a choice to make.
Who will we serve?
Israel had to decide.
The church today needs to decide.
As families, we need to decide.
We, individually, need to decide.

We might even say, that in some way,
God calls civil society to decide.
What kind of people do we want to be?
That’s one of the questions our political systems are faced with,
in this tumultuous time we live in.

But those on the receiving end 
of this challenging question in Joshua 24,
are the people of God who have a particular identity and calling:
to reflect the purposes of God to a watching world.

Who will you serve?
The Lord? 
or your idols?
The only true God and Creator of all,
who made you, and names you, and loves you?
or the many things in this world that distract you 
from worshiping the true God of all?
When we answer that question right,
we are also in a much better position 
to live well, in a chaotic and wounded world.

Reminds me of the great Bob Dylan song,
“Gotta Serve Somebody.”

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

You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.

And it goes on for about 8 or 9 verses like that.

If you want to be inspired sometime on YouTube,
when you get tired of cat videos,
listen to the blues great Etta James,
sing her version of Dylan’s song,
“You gotta serve somebody.”
You could worship to that!
In fact, I’ll play a 1-minute clip of it now.

You gotta serve somebody.
And those words are just as challenging to us today,
as they were when Joshua spoke them to the people of Israel.
“Choose this day whom you will serve!”

Sisters and brothers,
we live in distracting times.
We are at great danger, at all times,
of misdirecting our worship.
We are constantly at grave risk of the sin of idolatry,
the sin that offends God most.

God is a demanding and jealous God,
and I’m so grateful.
I need a clarifying purpose and focus,
in this world of constant distraction,
that pulls me in a dozen different directions,
but mostly, pulls me into myself,
encourages me to focus on my desires and my fears.
We need this gracious gift of a God 
who is jealous for our undivided loyalty.
Who wants all of us. All the time.
Who wants worship that is whole-hearted,
and whole-bodied,
and whole-minded.
God wants worshipers who are all in.

God’s jealousy is a gift to us all.
It saves us from a destructive self-obsession,
and keeps us aligned with God’s priorities 
for the poor and oppressed.
It’s a gracious gift to us that God is jealous
for our whole-hearted lives.
God’s jealousy is an expression both 
of God’s commitment to God’s cause, and
of God’s unconditional love for those of us
partnering in God’s cause.
God would not be so offended by our worship of idols,
if God didn’t love us so deeply and so unconditionally
and so irreversibly.
God wants us all in with God’s project,
because God is all in with us, to the end.
And God has made known to us
what will give us the most joyful, and free, and whole,
and flourishing human life.
And that is, alignment with God, and with God’s purposes.

This is where we start—with whole-hearted devotion,
offering our whole lives to God alone, in worship.
This is where we need to start whenever we talk about stewardship.
I didn’t even mention the word stewardship 
until here at my conclusion.
I don’t want anyone to think that we at Park View
are mostly interested in getting people to give their 10-percent
into our offering plate.
What we advocate for here is whole-life stewardship.
That we give it all, every moment, of every day,
in every situation we find ourselves.
Anything less is idolatry.

We might want to hold back some for selfish purposes.
But that is not what God is asking.

Let’s sing a hymn that talks about that exactly.
HWB 512 - a wonderful hymn text by Tom Troeger.

If all you want, Lord, is my heart 
my heart is yours alone 
providing I may set apart 
my mind to be my own.

If all you want, Lord, is my mind, 
my mind belongs to you, 
but let my heart remain inclined 
to do what it would do.

If heart and mind would both suffice, 
while I kept strength and soul, 
at least I would not sacrifice 
completely my control.

But since, O God, you want them all 
to shape with your own hand, 
I pray for grace to heed your call
to live your first command.

—Phil Kniss, November 12, 2017

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