The Choice of a Lifetime
13 Pentecost B
August 22/23, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s reading from the OT book of Joshua has inspired more wall plaques that you can shake a stick at. What’s on those plaques? It’s part of one of the verses in the middle: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” It’s actually one of the bible passages that Evangelicals love most—because it demands a choice and it makes things crystal clear.
What’s happening here in the story? Well, Joshua has led the people into the Promised Land, after Moses died on the other side of the Jordan River. Joshua is talking to them and reminding them that now they’re in the Promised Land, they have a choice. Either they choose to follow the Lord who brought them up out of Egypt and slavery, or they choose to follow the gods of the peoples of the land. Gods like Baal, the storm-god, to whom people prayed for rain. Or gods like Asherah, the fertility goddess, who was his consort.
These foreign gods always felt sexy and enticing to the Israelites. And in their eyes, these gods had one huge advantage. You could make images of them. Statues of them. Have something to hold in your hands. Not just rely on words and ideas—which too often were hard to get your mind around.
So this is what Joshua is alluding to in this passage. He tells them, “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” And we read that the people all said, “don’t worry, Joshua. We will serve the Lord.”
But we know what happened again and again in the Old Testament. People made promises; they broke them. They asked for forgiveness, and they came running to God for all kinds of things. And later on, when the storm god just got too attractive, they abandoned the Lord in favor of him, and all the other gods all around them.
Now, the setting of this scene with Joshua and the people is really interesting. Barry and I were taken to that place on one day of our course in Israel 4 years ago. It’s the old town of Shechem—and it’s very close to present day Nablus, across the wall in the West Bank.
There’s been some archaeological work done there. You see parts of walls and foundations, made with yellow rock on a parched landscape. So you can get an idea of how small the dwellings and other buildings were. And you get also this amazing geographical vista spread out before you, as well.
For, as you stand in Shechem and look out, you’re looking down a valley that actually creates a wonderful natural amphitheater. On either side of the valley stand two very sizable hills—they actually called them mounts or mountains back then. There’s Mount Gerazim on your left. It supports a lot of grass and trees. And Mount Ebal on your right. It’s barren, covered with bare rock and not much else.
So Joshua spoke to the Israelites here, taking advantage of the good acoustics of the amphitheater, and taking advantage of the two very different mounts before the people. He gave them a choice: Gerazim or Ebal, trees or barren rock, blessings or curses, the Lord or the empty gods of the pagan peoples.
And the people, like Joshua, chose to follow the Lord and obey his commandments. But we know the end of the story. The next book of the bible, Judges, gives us many examples of the people straying away from the Lord and embracing other gods. We see the same thing happen after Judges as Israel is governed by kings like Saul, David, Solomon, and the others that came after them. The people leave God, disaster happens, and they come running back, asking for forgiveness. And here’s the amazing thing: God always forgives.
It’s also what happened before the exile: the Israelites were worshiping false gods and also ignoring the needs of the poor. There was a moneyed class that oppressed the poor in order to increase their own profit. And they were warned, and they didn’t change. So what happened? They were overrun by the Babylonians and carted off to exile for 70 years. They returned, chastened but forgiven.
This is the pattern for Israel: forget God and God’s commandments. Fall into chaos. Come back to God and be forgiven, and start afresh.
So Jesus is actually the culmination of the ways that God reached out to his people. God finally came himself into a human body and a human society. Jesus taught us God’s love and God’s forgiveness. And still, people have the choice. Who will I follow: God—Jesus—Holy Spirit OR the false gods of this world? And they are legion, aren’t they? Help me out: what are some of the false gods that humans are tempted by now?
Our gospel shows us Peter speaking out, at the very end of the passage, for those who are choosing the Lord. We see the outcome of the teaching about the bread and Jesus’ assertion that when we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we abide in him and he abides in us--this mutual indwelling.
But it’s stunningly threatening to so many people there in Capernaum. Jesus, God incarnate, walking among them, and all they can see is a guy who sounds like a nut. They leave.
And Jesus challenges Peter. Peter replies in this stunning statement of faith, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus has the words of God. Jesus is the Word of God. He is our teacher, our friend, our lover. He lives in us, in our cells. We live in him. He is our guru, and we will never get to the bottom of his teaching. He is the heart of our hearts.
How about each one of us here today? Have we chosen who or what comes first in our lives? And is it Jesus the Christ? Or some empty thing that ultimately leaves us unsatisfied? Where is our deepest allegiance and where is our deepest love?