Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of
Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, 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.”
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The Choices of the Chosen
For another whole year we will be in “election season” in this country. If you are not already weary of it, you may become so at some point between now and then. But I bet no one here would want to live in country in which you didn’t have a choice about who would govern. Even though ours is not a perfect system, we value highly our right to choose, or to elect our leaders.
Both of the texts we have read involve moments of choosing. In the reading from Joshua, the Israelites are presented with the choice of renewing the covenant their ancestors made to be bound to Israel’s God, Yahweh or to go after the gods of the surrounding peoples. The ten bridesmaids in the parable Jesus told, have all made choices about lamp oil; some have chosen wisely, some not. Choices have consequences.
It is not just political seasons that present us with important choices. In fact, we make choices and live with the consequences all the time. If we could look at our behavior more often as though it were chosen, instead of automatic, perhaps we would live better.
Choices quickly become habits, and habits stop feeling like choices. At some point, choices, which have grown into habits, take on the feeling of inevitability. We get used to our habits and stop questioning them.
But habits have their roots in choices – repeated choices. This fact can be a great source of hope for people who recognize that some of the habits they have chosen are unhelpful. Habits can be broken. We can choose to behave differently.
That’s what our doctors tell us about our diet when the cholesterol levels or the blood pressure gets too high. We may be used to eating this
way, but the truth is, the choice is ours.
Moments of decision
That visit to the doctor can be an important moment in our lives. It is not just another day in the routine of habitual days. Because the doctor calls attention to the consequences ahead, she presents us with a fork in the road. In her office, it’s no longer an ordinary day, it is a day of decision.
That was what Joshua did with Israel on that day; he created a moment of decision.
15 “choose this day whom you will serve”
Joshua, remember, was Moses’ successor. Moses had led the Israelite slaves across the Red Sea into freedom and had given them the book of Torah, or guidance, to show them how to live as God’s chosen people beginning with the ten commandments.
Joshua led the people across the Jordan River, into the Promised Land, and after many conflicts, finally the land had rest. In this text it is near the end of his life. Joshua wants to give the people of the generation that will follow him the opportunity to choose for themselves to put their allegiance and trust in Yahweh, the God who had set them free and given them the land.
Our text presents us not with a monologue, but a conversation, or, should we think of it as a call-and-response litany? He begins, in a rather ominous tone:
“If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
Then they, with one voice answer:
“No, we will serve the Lord!”
Joshua wants to make burn this moment of decision into their memories, so he continues:
“You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.”
And again, in unison they reply:
“We are witnesses.”
They choice has been made. They will not be a people on auto-pilot, following the covenant made for them by their parent’s generation with Moses. They, the chosen people are now people of the choice. They bind themselves in solemn covenant, “cross my heart, hope to die.”
I wonder if you felt that Joshua was a bit hard on the people as he presented them with their moment of choice? It is as if he expected them to fail.
We must remember that the story of Joshua was written down long after the events it tells about. Looking back at that moment of choice, from the point of view of an Israelite exile, in Babylon, after years of doing the opposite of what they had promised to do, probably affected the way that day was remembered.
Looking back on the day of the doctor visit, months later, the day you decided to go on the heart-healthy diet, after all all those subsequent
tasty, fatty meals, that followed, and all those desserts, all those “just this once” exceptions, it makes the previous decision to go on a strict diet look a bit pathetic.
I think that must have been how it felt to the author to look back on that day of decision from the perspective exile in Babylon, after it had all come to grief. Choices have consequences.
Fear and Failure
Why do people make bad, self-destructive choices? Why did the people of Israel, after saying they would choose to follow Yahweh, instead turn and follow the gods, the idols of the nations around them? Why the failure of faith?
Failures of faith are often fear-based. We choose to believe a version of the future as we imagine it, that presents us with uncertainty, risk, and danger. We feel vulnerable; we need protection. We are tempted to believe God cannot handle it, so we find supplemental insurance policies to cover us.
That is what idol worship was about for Israel: not just temptations to venerate gods with other names, but rather, a sneaking suspicion that Yahweh, Israel’s God was not up to the task of providing rain, not like the local rain-god who was a specialist, so, they reasoned, best hedge your bets.
God may not be up to the task of ensuring a healthy reproduction season for the lambs and goats, so why not give a nod to the fertility gods who make that their primary business, they wondered? It’s all about security in the face of imagined uncertainty. Failures of faith are frequently fear-based.
Are we do different?
We are not so different, are we? We come up to a moment of decision every year at stewardship time. Will we fill out a pledge card or not? We are tempted to repeat what we did last year and the year before. We have habits, nevertheless, we all know that what we do this year is actually our choice.
And when we consider the amount our giving, whether we write down a pledge or not, the same thought processes go through our minds that the Israelites faced: “Are we protected sufficiently from danger? Sure, we say to ourselves, God asks for a tithe, but can that work in the real world, especially in an economy like this, we wonder? We can imagine not having enough; it scares us.
Are we tempted to the idols, as the Israelites were? Idolatry, according to Walter Brueggemann, is the monopoly of our imaginations.
Idolatry is yielding the imagination so that we experience our world according to the terms of the idol, so that we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted to do serious imaginative work; the work of a subversive imagination of an alternative.
Imagining an alternative world
Maybe this world is not, after all, merely subject to the mindless, heartless economic market, as it appears. Perhaps, with enough imagination, we might be able to believe in a world in which our Heavenly Father really is at work behind the scenes providing our daily bread.
Perhaps we could even be so bold as to imagine a world in which no only our personal needs were met, but a world in which God gives us enough to share with our neighbors in need; a world of blessed, broken bread, given away, and baskets upon baskets left over.
I read of a group of Christian men who wanted to help each other live lives of integrity as believers. They were tired of superficial accountability; they wanted to be real with each other. So, they decided that they would all share with each other their tax forms from the previous year. No hiding. They were saying that they wanted to make choices that would echo Joshua’s:
“as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
That is what I want to say. I want to let God’s good dream for the world fill my imagination, and set my agenda.
It is not easy, I know. There have been times I have made the right choice, and other times I have given in to fear and experienced failures of faith. But I can tell you that in every year in which I was faithful, God has been faithful to provide for my needs. I have never suffered for making the right choice. The only regrets I have are for the times I chose wrongly. What has your experience been?
I want to ask something of you; even if your habit has been not to read the newsletter, please choose to read it this month. I would like you to read the cover article, but not that one alone. I have an article in it that I would like all of us to reflect on, called “Why Give to the Church?” Consider it a moment of decision occasion; a moment to make choices. Wise choices.
As we come to the Lord’s table, let your imagination run wild. Picture the great banquet of Messiah, in which bread is blessed, broken, and given to all, and there is always enough. All are fed, and no one is hungry.