The Gathering: 1 God
Read: Joshua 24.14-24
I can remember at least three times in my life when I said I would follow God then ended up doing the opposite. I’m not talking about sinning and asking for forgiveness here; I’m talking about flat-out giving my life to God then doing anything but living like I just did that. Maybe some of you can relate to this. We know the Gospel writers recount Jesus’s parable about the seeds and the soils: The farmer scatters seeds in three different places, and the seed neither takes root in the hard soil or on the path where the birds feast on it. It’s only on the good, fertile soil that the seeds take root. When I was in junior high school, I stood up before the entire congregation at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in my hometown and in upstate New York with my best friend Pasquale and proclaimed Jesus Christ as my lord and savior during my confirmation. Then I went right back to being a kid. I never felt the needle move. Again, in the summer before my sophomore year in high school, I stood before the congregation at a Church of God along with my best friend Pasquale and proclaimed Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. This time I was “saved,” so it had to be different, right? I remember me and Patsy, as we called him then, used to get together and read our Bibles each day. By the time football practice started back up that August, the needle stopped moving again. And then there were the college years…. And right after college, I was dating a girl who attended a Christian school in New York City. Her prerequisite for our relationship was that I had to be saved. With Pasquale serving in the Marines in Okinawa, Japan, I was on my own. And it was a radio pastor on Interstate 87 coming back from New York City who got hold of me that day. And there on the roadside in the pouring rain, I proclaimed Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. A month or so later, the girl dumped me, and I struggled to keep up with my faith. A few months later, I found myself distant again. Now, I always believed I was a Christian, and I prayed daily and even read my Bible. I would tell people all the time that, yes, I was saved, that I love Jesus and I’d even show up in churches regularly. I would say “I will serve the Lord, because he is my God.” But then I’d find myself doing the opposite. I thought I was serving the Lord, the One God, but I was serving myself first, and certainly not putting God as No. 1 in my life. Joshua In our reading tonight, Joshua — the chosen successor to Moses as leader of the Hebrews — has finished the job Moses began: Joshua was ordained to bring the Hebrews into Canaan, and realize the land of milk and honey — Israel — that God had promised. He does this, but then he notices God’s chosen people are still following other gods — gods in the form of statues and idols that they brought from the other places and cultures in which they lived. And Joshua tells them to remember all that God has done and the Law that Moses gave to them: God delivered us from bondage in Egypt, provided for us on a 40-year-journey, protected us against various enemies, gave us this Promised Land and covenanted with us to be with us always. And Joshua tells them all beginning in verse 15: You have a choice. You can serve the One God, or you can serve whoever you want. If you serve the false gods, you will die. And, as the often-quoted verse goes, “As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” Of course, the people say, “We too will serve the Lord. We remember what he has done for us!” But Joshua says, It’s not that easy. You can’t just give lip service here; the needle has to move and keep moving. The people respond that they will make sure they are devoted only to God. Joshua says “We all are witnesses of this choice.” Verse 22. Moving needles Did the needle move? Consider this: Joshua led the people way back in about the 13th century BCE (or BC). This account was written many centuries after that. There were various kings elected against God’s better judgment. The Jews intermixed with those outside of Israel, against God’s better judgment. We know the prophets had to continue to remind the people to remember and honor their covenant with God. And in 587 BCE, supposedly because of all the sinning going on, Israel is sacked, the one Temple is destroyed, the people are scattered and taken captive in Assyria and Babylon… …the needle not only had stopped moving, but the gauge seemed completely broken. What happened? Well, the writers, Deuteronomistic editors and historians and prophets would all say Israel turned away from the One God. They again served idols, false Gods and did not honor their covenant that “I will be your God if you will be my people.” (Exodus 6.7) It ain’t easy Joshua was right: It’s not so easy. The temptations and influences of the culture had proven exactly that. You can serve the One God, or you can serve the foreign gods; but you can’t serve both. The reasons why we struggle are at least twofold: * One one hand, we might say that we do, in fact, serve the One God, but we slip from time to time; that is, we sin. But we seek forgiveness, through the blood of Jesus Christ, and we’re back in right relationship to the One God. * On the other hand, we might say, well, I “think” I’m serving the One God and trying hard — maybe not my best — but that’s only because I don’t know enough about what God wants from me. These are both valid points, but Joshua says — and tells us here today, too — that it’s not easy; in fact, we really have to make the choice. And how cool is that that we actually get to make the choice? See, the One God is the God of love and forgiveness, yes. You can’t force someone to love you. That isn’t love… But you have to give them the choice to love you. Now, Joshua seems in his statement that he’s putting a gun to the heads of the Hebrew people and saying, “OK, the choice is yours. Decide NOW!” But what Joshua is doing is showing the people that through all of their trials — from slavery, to freedom, to the Exodus in the desert, the protection from attacks, and now safe in the plentiful land that was promised to them… he says, do you see the alternative? Love the God who loves you and serves you, too, with realized promises. With proof of God’s love! Just a few minutes ago, we talked about what it looks like to serve more than one god. We do it all the time. And it can be simplified as thus: We either follow the One God, or we follow the world. It’s really that simple, my sisters and brothers. When I was a kid, the world told me how to live. How to act. How to think. I wasn’t ready to understand how God was telling how to live and act and think. The soil wasn’t quite ready. I was God’s, and God was mine, but I didn’t understand. Later in life, the world continued to tell me how to live and act and think. But there were just so many distractions, that those seeds would simply be scattered any anyone or anything that would come for them. I still didn’t really understand. And even today, we get led away to these foreign gods— Things like material possessions that we think we own but they, in fact, own us. The power that we’ve accumulated through experience and knowledge and hard work and protect at any cost… these things own us like false gods. And the fact that we never really commit to doing what Jesus commands us to do — To love our neighbors as Jesus loves us — because the world will tell us clearly who gets our love and who doesn’t. The world tells us what our egos need more than what our hearts need. The world tells us how to vote, and how to look the other way when evil is enacted right in front of our eyes. Is that putting God first? Is that making God the only God? Or are we saying — like Joshua was warning — you can’t have all your little fake gods that might make you feel good right now but can’t give you anything real and have the One God who can. Doesn’t work like that. We can’t take a vow with a husband or a wife and then go out clubbing each night looking for someone else. The vow is broken when that happens. The covenant is null and void. It doesn’t work. Hindsight In hindsight, we can see that the authors and editors of Joshua was used the hundreds of years of trials and struggles that the Jewish people had faced to reiterate or continue, basically, the book of Deuteronomy— that is how to follow and serve the One God. The Jews were a scattered people. There were all sorts of outside influences on them. And they had forgotten their covenant. And that’s what happens when we get too distracted with what the world tells us. Now, let’s be careful here for a moment. I’d hate to think that anyone got the idea here that we need to hole up behind some walls with those just like us and not let any outside sources influence us. That’s just silly. The One God is the God of all of God’s children. God’s children are not simply the ones who are like us, the ones who are American or Western, the ones who only believe in Christ, and the ones who don’t commit sins. No. God made every single person here. And even if they believe in some other god, well, we simply can proclaim what we know about the One God. Because I’m not going to pretend simply because of location — where I was born or the color of my skin or what my parents believed — that the God I know and the God we celebrate and worship here tonight doesn’t love everyone of God’s children just the same. There is a difference here, and we need to acknowledge that. Our God is pure love. And only acts in love. Only creates in love. And if we’re doing the same in the way we love all of God’s children, then we’re doing exactly God’s will and Jesus’s commandment. A false god, like Joshua is talking about, takes us away — puts distance between us and the One True God. The false gods are damaging and cause us to damage others. Do you see how easy it is to see materialism and the way of the world as a threat to our relationship with God? This is where Joshua is going. We need to indeed remember our covenant with God and then go out and live it. I’m not talking about the Law or the 10 Commandments. If we truly love God, we don’t need laws telling us not to hurt one another, hurt this planet or all of creation, and forsake the One who created it and gave it us to take care of. We can’t break creation and say we love God. Love We don’t say the word “covenant” all that much anymore. Not in a biblical sense, anyway. But I would ask you all tonight to seek God, and to try to understand what that covenant still looks like. Because it was broken, we were lost, and it took Christ’s blood on the cross to bring us back to the fold. Ask first, what did Jesus do for me? And then what are the only commandments Jesus said: Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. We simply cannot hurt others or destroy creation and call it love. Because if God is love, then when we do this, we are we are not loving. And we are un-creating. The love is there for us. Because the One God is there for us. Like Joshua tells the people: The choice is yours.