Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People
“Saying Yes Again”
Joshua 24:1-26; Matthew 4:8-10
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If there is a soundtrack for our scriptures today, I suggest the song Gotta Serve Somebody by the poet and prophet Bob Dylan. His voice is in tune with Joshua’s pep talk to the people of Israel and Jesus’ response to the devil in the wilderness.
If you listen to the whole song, Dylan lets no one off the hook, including the preacher when he sings, “You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride but you gonna have to serve somebody." Right on!
Dylan drives home the point that for everyone, who or what we will serve is a question that cannot go unanswered.
I confess that I was not inspired when I saw the texts for this Sunday after agreeing to preach. For one, the Joshua narrative of the conquest of Canaan is filled with troublesome language for our modern ears, suggesting near annihilation of a people and forced land displacement. We have to wrestle with difficult questions of interpretation, particularly in light of how this has been used throughout history to justify, by divine right, forced displacement of other peoples. With the recent marking of Columbus Day, we have to acknowledge that we are beneficiaries of displacement ourselves.
But this question will have to wait for another study or a longer sermon! I have appreciated our series with the narrative lectionary, so far, in asking some of the deeper questions about the why and the context of these stories in the Hebrew Bible, some of which are hard to interpret. In our journey through the Hebrew Bible, we’ve learned that we serve a loving God who is deeply committed to our liberation, who is biased toward the poor and their well-being, and a patient God who is in faithful covenant with us even when we fail.
Another reason I’m not drawn to this story is because it feels like the phrase “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” has been cheapened by its appearance on too many tacky wall hangings above a couch in a cozy living room. Do we really know what this declaration means, and do our lives give evidence of it? Joshua’s clarion call to the people of Israel to make a decision of whom they will serve sounds very much like an evangelical preacher making an altar call. If only it were that easy to walk the sawdust trail to the altar in response.
As a child, I used to read these stories of the Israelites like it was a tragic novel. For a time the people would be faithful in worshiping Yahweh, then a period of falling away and worshiping idols, then a period of defeat at the hand of some enemies, and then a period of repentance and restoration. And repeat. I was perplexed as to why it was so hard for the people of Israel to do the right thing and stay focused.
One of the things that strikes me in this passage is that Joshua essentially dismisses the people's promise to serve the Lord by saying that they are going to go right back to doing whatever they want. He knows their wandering ways. Which begs the question: Are we being honest both institutionally and individually about the many ways we fail to live up to some of our stated ideals and values as followers of Jesus?
One thing that was helpful for me in researching this text is that this narrative of Joshua was most likely compiled much later on when the Israelites were in exile. It is written from the perspective of a people who had seemingly failed in their commitment to follow Yahweh and had lost everything.
So maybe this story is asking the question: Do we only get one opportunity to do it right? The whole biblical narrative, in addition to the book of Joshua, is one of God’s constant steadfast love and persistent patience with God’s people. Yes, they do not get it right all the time; in fact, quite often they do not, but that does not keep God from pursuing them. This grand story shows God to be a relentless and creative pursuer of people who does not give up on seeking to liberate us to choose life and to flourish in all the abundance that God has given us. And that is good news indeed!
Whatever Joshua was trying to do to prepare the people for entering the land of Canaan, the editors of the scroll of Joshua are preparing its readers for the rest of the story. And now we add our own stories in the mix.
Can we see that the challenges of idolatry are as present today as they were in Joshua’s time? In whom or what do we place our security and hope?
When we see that there are more guns in this country than there are people and that our nation invests more in the military than the next 9 top countries of the world combined. Is this what we believe makes us safe? Is this not idolatry?
Many of us look for financial security in bulking up our retirement accounts, life insurance policies and investment portfolios. What does this indicate about what we trust for the future?
Today our political party of choice may indicate more about what we believe and value than our particular faith tradition. What does this tell us about our loyalties?
In the US the average amount of living space per person in a new house has doubled in my lifetime. What does that reveal about our deepest values?
In the US we continue to use fossil fuels at a much higher rate than our neighbors around the world yet it is the poorest in our world who are suffering the most from climate change. What does this say about our capacity to serve a God who cares the most for the vulnerable among us?
Are we any less distracted by idols or any more capable of following God than were Joshua’s listeners?
Who will we serve? We have choices at the intersection of everything that distracts us from that which is truly life giving for ourselves and our neighbor.
As a church, as families and as individuals, we have decisions to make everyday big and small. Can we with our choices reflect the purposes of God to our children and the watching world around us?
There is much in our world that would try to convince us that we don’t have a choice in living closer to our stated values saying “This is just the way things are.”
A recent revelation to Paula and me was our decision to replace one of our vehicles with an e-bike. For so long we simply assumed that with two drivers and kids we needed two cars. But after one of our cars stopped working we discovered that in our current situation we don’t need two cars. Granted we still drive a gas sucking minivan and this choice is an incredibly privileged and irrelevant one in comparison to the living standards of most of our neighbors in the world but I count it as one small step. And it makes me question what other assumptions about my choices in lifestyle need examination and liberation. I am inspired by the way I see many of you live out your values in generous and sacrificial ways.
We need good questions to help clarify our purpose and focus in this world of constant distraction that pulls us in so many different directions. We live in a smorgasbord of choices that often create more anxiety and stress than freedom. We need this liberating gift of God to choose life; to choose those things that are in tune to the character of a God who came close to us in the person and life of Jesus.
So, while I was not initially inspired by this story from Joshua, after sitting with a scripture text for a longer period of time, reading how others have interacted with this story (and listening to a bit of Bob Dylan), new insights and relevancy emerges. I'm drawn to this story in that it might help us to ask clarifying questions about the choices we make, big and small. What are the deeper values that guide us? How do our ongoing choices and decisions reflect the God we claim to serve?
I’m curious how you would respond to some of these questions. I’m very grateful that Christopher and Obie are going to offer some of their own reflections in wrestling with these questions.
What choices do you face in your household in saying "yes" to the values that reflect your commitment to following in the way of Christ and saying "no" to some of the temptations and distractions of the culture around us? Do you have a story to share about what these choices look like in your household?
All of our choices and decisions reveal that we are a complicated mix of values and ideals. We need to hold our complicated stories reverently but lightly, to let them exist in creative tension with who we are seeking to become. We are not the sum of all our failures and weaknesses but the sum of a loving God who is liberating us to become a more just and merciful people in the image of Christ. I think this is part of what we are called to choose as Christ's followers. "Choose this day whom you will serve." May we choose a God who is unimaginably bigger than the stories we tell. A God whose every story begins and ends in love.
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