Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Greetings everyone! This week marks the thirtieth year of my sojourn in New Jersey. That term “sojourn” is not really accurate anymore. For a very long time now I have considered New Jersey my home. As much as I enjoy visiting the State of Washington out on the west coast where I was born and raised, it is no longer home for me. The house in which I grew up has long since been sold. My parents are no longer living. Much of the area in which I spent my boyhood years has changed almost beyond my recognition.
Yet there was a time when Washington was home and New Jersey was a big question mark. I was twenty six-years old when I packed my few belongings into my Mercury Zephyr and left Bremerton for Teaneck, New Jersey to serve a congregation there. Referring to Teaneck as the Promised Land might sound a little hyperbolic, but in many respects, it was just that for me. Teaneck represented an opportunity for me to begin doing what I had spent years training, preparing and practicing for. It also presented me with the challenges of adulthood that are deferred for people like me who spend nearly the first decade of adulthood in school. I am talking about things that are pretty routine-like opening a bank account; finding a doctor/dentist; obtaining a New Jersey drivers license and getting my taxes done. Of course, these were all challenges I anticipated. I could never have anticipated meeting the girl of my dreams, having three beautiful children and the unexpected detour of my professional life into the practice of law. The Promised Land held more promises (and challenges) than I could possibly have anticipated.
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1338&cmpgn=5244
The Book of Joshua is the story of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Joshua, the successor to Moses, led the Israelites into Canaan where they conquered the Canaanites and redistributed the land among the twelve tribes of Israel. The book ends with a covenant ceremony in which the people of Israel vow in the presence of Joshua and their God to “serve only the Lord.” That is where our reading for this Sunday fits in. If you read one verse further, you will discover that Joshua is skeptical of his peoples’ ability to meet the challenge of living as God’s covenant people in the land which God has given them. He can see all too well how easily the lessons learned in the wilderness, where God fed Israel each day her daily bread, could be lost now that Israel had inherited a good land capable of sustaining her. Memory seems to be a key factor here. Fresh in Israel’s memory are the saving acts of God that liberated her from slavery in Egypt and God’s provision for all of her needs as she traveled through the wilderness. Perhaps that explains why “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua; and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work which the Lord did for Israel.” Josh. 24:31. The memory of God’s saving acts and the awareness of God’s continuing presence was fresh in Israel’s mind. When memory fades, so does faithfulness.
Statistics demonstrate that, of those persons who leave the church, a significant number are made of people who have moved from one community to another. Moving is a stressful and demanding process. So is the process of finding a new church home. Reasons given by people who have moved and neglected worship are many. Lack of time and energy is one factor. Getting settled into a new home is a chore in itself. Finding a good pediatrician for the kids and getting them registered for school takes time. Changing your driver’s license, auto registration, voting registration and opening bank accounts all take their toll on your time. Looking for a job in a new community also taxes your time, finances and psyche. For those who have made an effort to find a church, many are disappointed because the churches they visit seem less than friendly, or don’t have the programs they are looking for or “it just aren’t the same as our old church.” Whatever the reasons, often the first thing people shed when they settle into a new community is their faith. So Joshua was justified in his concern that, with all the demands of settling the land of Canaan, worship of the faithful God Israel had come to know in the wilderness would fall to the bottom of the priority list.
In some respects, each new day is another entry into the Promised Land. One never knows what any given day will bring, but we believe that “it is the day the Lord has made.” Psalm 118:24. There are always the routine and anticipated aspects of the day. Sometimes it seems as though that is all there is. Yet even in the most ordinary humdrum day there is some element of the unexpected: the card from that friend you have not heard from in years; the call from your child’s teacher suggesting a conference; the guy in the smelly sweatshirt that approaches you asking for money as you are coming out of the grocery store. These circumstances often present us with the same choice Joshua presented to the children of Israel as they prepared to settle into Canaan: will you serve the Lord your God or some other “god”? If we are attentive, we can hear Joshua’s voice throughout our day asking us, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
The psalm reading for Sunday is the third and last section of Psalm 34, the psalm we have been reading for the last two weeks. My comments on the content, style and form of this psalm are found in the posts for Pentecost 11 and Pentecost 12. I would only add as a point of interest that verse 20 is prominently cited in the Gospel of John.
“Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows* that he tells the truth.)36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ 37And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’”
John 19:31-37. For further perspective on this psalm, you might want to read the commentary of Henry Langknecht, Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. This can be found at Workingpreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=8/26/2012&tab=5&cmpgn=5244
In this remarkable passage we are encouraged to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” Then the author of Ephesians proceeds to turn everything we think we know about strength on its head. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood” says the writer. But there are many forces in our culture telling us that our struggle is against flesh and blood. It is against liberals and socialists; against conservatives and right wingers; it is against illegal immigrants; it is against terrorists and criminals. The devil is constantly trying to convince us through a huge array of ideologies that the world can neatly be divided into good people and evil people. As long as you are on the side of good, it is acceptable to employ violence to achieve justice and defend “our” way of life whoever “we” may be. The devil would have us believe that “God is on our side” and that he, the devil, is on the side of our enemies. Of course, the devil does not take sides in human conflict. He has no stake in who controls the world or which nation triumphs over all others. As long as people are hating and killing each other, it matters not who “wins.” As far as the devil is concerned, wherever there is war he is the winner.
The writer of Ephesians recognizes, however, that our real fight is “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In truth, the line between good and evil does not run along national, racial, religious or ethnic lines. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart and that is where we need to begin engaging evil. We are urged to put on “the whole armor of God.” The writer then uses a host of extremely militaristic images of armor and weaponry to describe the spiritual resources given to the church for its struggle against evil. This remarkable contrast is designed to emphasize the gentle means by which God overcomes the powers of wickedness that know only violence and coercion. The only body armor the disciple of Jesus has is truth, righteousness and peace. The only shield a disciple has to withstand the violent forces of evil is faith in God’s promises. The only protection from a mortal head wound is the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ. This is the armor with which disciples of Jesus were called upon to meet the brutality of a hostile empire with armies, weapons and torture implements at its disposal. The only offensive weapons disciples of Jesus have are prayer and the Holy Spirit.
So where are the principalities and powers, the hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places today? I suggest that many of them are found in the same places they were dwelling in the days of the New Testament church. They are found in the machinery of empire, the jealous sovereignty of nation states insisting that their own national interests trump global concerns for the wellbeing of all. When the “world rulers of this present age” insist that we must kill our neighbors in direct contradiction to Jesus’ call to love even our enemies and to resist not one who is evil, then we should be hearing the voice of Joshua from our Old Testament lesson crying out, “Choose this day who you will serve.” For too long, I believe, the church has sided with the principalities and powers in exchange for public support and respectability. For too long churches have confused the interests of the Kingdom of God with the interests of whichever nation they happen to reside in. The cry of “God and country” has too often muffled Joshua’s cry of either or.
I also believe that the principalities and powers often worm their way into the life of the church. A church that values doing worship “right” over worshiping Jesus well has succumbed to the powers. A church that values maintaining its traditions over welcoming its community and allowing the Spirit to transform it has come under the influence of the principalities. A church that values survival over mission is a church that is run by the rulers of this present age. A church that values its reputation over faithful witness to the scandalous and controversial good news about Jesus Christ is a church that has lost its armor and has become fearful of taking a stand for its Lord.
Thanks be to God that in Jesus Christ we are well armed. The power of truthful speech unmasks the powers of evil urging us toward violence and hate. The good news of God’s reconciliation in Christ gives us all the ammunition we need to wage peace. Righteousness and integrity guard us from temptation, threats and intimidation. Faith, the conviction that God has already accomplished all things needful for the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ, gives us courage to endure the seeming failure of our own faithful efforts. We know that Christ promises to complete what we can only begin. Finally, through prayer and the work of God’s Spirit within us we exercise the very power that raised Jesus from death. No more potent weapon exists or is needed for the advance of God’s Kingdom.
Last week it was the crowd and Jesus’ critics who mumbled and complained because Jesus said in very graphic terms that he was the bread of life and that having life meant eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This week it is Jesus’ own disciples who are doing the complaining. Many of them, after hearing these words from Jesus, no longer followed him. But I have to ask, were they ever really following him to begin with? These disciples may have cheered as Jesus cleansed the Temple and rid it of corruption and commercialism. They were thrilled to receive their fill of bread in the wilderness. If this is what Jesus is doing, what’s not to like? Now, however, Jesus offers them more. He offers them his very self. But these disciples do not want anything more. They do not want Jesus. They want all the good things they think Jesus can give them. They want to be disciples of Jesus, but on their own terms. To internalize Jesus, to be sustained by him alone and to be transformed by Jesus is more than what they bargained for. They wanted Jesus to transform their unhappy circumstances, but they had no intention of letting him change them. These disciples were prepared to be admirers of Jesus, supporters of Jesus and even followers of Jesus-up to a point. But when Jesus makes it clear to them that salvation lies precisely in going beyond that point, they want nothing further to do with him.
Let’s be clear. It is not that Jesus is demanding a higher morality, a higher level of devotion or a higher level of spiritual awareness from his disciples. Jesus has already said that the only work God requires is that we trust in him. Trusting Jesus means believing Jesus when he tells us that what he has to give us is what we truly need. Jesus offers to abide in us. Abiding in Jesus means being absorbed into Jesus, transformed into the likeness of Jesus and drawn into the mission of Jesus. We don’t accomplish that on our own. Jesus offers it to us as a gift. But therein is the rub: too often we just don’t want this gift. We don’t want to internalize Jesus. We want Jesus at a distance. We want him to be there as a shoulder to cry on, a gentle presence to give us peace, a savior who is there in times of trouble, but decent enough to stay out of our way when times are good. We want a Jesus who will defend our homes and protect our soldiers, but not the Jesus who prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and then calls upon us to invite those enemies to the feast. We want a Jesus who will change our unpleasant circumstances, but not a Jesus who wants to change our hearts and minds. As the Gospel of John has already indicated: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19.
Jesus lost some disciples that day and he seems not to have been too worried about that. There are some kinds of followers Jesus does not need. Among them are those who are tagging along only for what they can get out of discipleship. There is a great deal of concern expressed these days about the decline in church membership among protestant denominations such the ELCA. Some folks are blaming the national church for its stances on controversial subjects. Others blame the synods for their lack of leadership. Many blame pastors for failing to speak effectively to the younger generations. We pastors, for our part, point the finger at our congregations for their lack of commitment and support. That is all counterproductive. Fixing blame for the sinking of the Titanic would not have kept it from going down and certainly will not bring it back up from the bottom of the sea. Moreover, I am beginning to wonder whether anyone is to blame or whether anything blameworthy is being done. Maybe the membership of the church is shrinking because its capacity for true discipleship is growing. Maybe we are driving people out of the church precisely because more of us are internalizing Jesus. When a church takes seriously its duty to show hospitality to the stranger regardless of the stranger’s legal status; when the church opens its doors to people who dirty its carpets, disrupt the flow of its worship and tarnish its reputation, very often long time members respond as did many of Jesus disciples in our Gospel lesson: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
These days I am hearing an ever more urgent call for some strategy, some new change of direction, some marketing ploy that will “turn the church around.” If by that we mean turning away from sin and turning toward Jesus and the new life he offers, then I am all for it. But if “turning the church around,” means only that we grow our membership by whatever means available and increase our income so that we can preserve our denominational institutions, I am not sure I want in on that. Maybe Jesus does not need a church that owns real estate in every town. Maybe Jesus does not need a guild of professional clergy represented in every congregation. Maybe Jesus does not need bishops who travel the world to address heads of state and numerous programs addressing every conceivable human need. Maybe all Jesus needs is a little band of sheep that hear his call and follow him. Perhaps a poor, small, broken church living faithfully at the margins with no social influence or political power is a more faithful witness to the resurrected Christ than a large, thriving corporate church. It may be that we are not dying, but only getting pruned. (See John 15:1-2). I don’t pretend to know God’s grand plan for the church in the twenty-first century. I do not even know what God’s plans are for the ELCA. I am convinced, however, that we need to be open to the possibility that our view of what our church needs might be vastly different from what God is doing with us. We may fear that we are getting too small, but from God’s perspective we may still be too big.
In sum, following Jesus is no sure way to success, institutional or otherwise. But then again, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That alone is why we follow Jesus. Jesus knows what matters eternally and tells us in no uncertain terms that we matter eternally to him. Jesus loves us too much to let us waste our lives pursuing bread that cannot feed us, chasing success in projects that don’t matter and satisfaction in pleasures that do not last.