We have Been Here Before

Sermon Preached at Christ the King on November 9, 2008

Joshua 24:1–3a, 14–25 (Semi-Continuous)
Psalm 78: 1-7 (Semi-Continuous)
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
Matthew 25:1-13
Lectionary 32
Proper 27
Year A

I.N.I. (In the name of Jesus)

It seemed like an eternity. The years dragged on as the nation tried to forget the experience of terror and fear. While the images faded and there was unity at first, the fighting continued. The initial feelings of victory and increased security gave way to a sense of frustration and abandonment. What had seemed like solid leadership was questioned and although there was an interceding time of support for the nation’s leader, confidence in him soon faded.

Then there was a surge, a show of force that miraculously seemed to turn the violence and despair around. But the military prowess was largely ignored and the people continued to complain, desperately longing to leave the wilderness of malaise and tired nationalism. “Perhaps, perhaps there is a better way” the people wondered and sought other ways to find hope or a way out. This wrestling and wondering led some to question God, and seek other things to focus their adoration and worship.

And then it was over. The long drawn out period done, complete, the difficult chapter had ended and the nation collectively turned the page. Now in this new chapter, with unknown transitions, with hope for change and a new way of life before them, the nation awaits the leader to write their next chapter as a people.

The gathering was massive and as he stood alone in front of the crowds, he made an impassioned speech. You may know what was said, as most caught at least some of it as he ushered in a new era, and asked the nation to reflect and look forward. In doing so he asked people to focus and be a part of the work of the nation at this historic moment.

Now some were disappointed or even downright angry, while others were thrilled beyond belief shouting yes we can! But there were also those who were unsure and squirmed as they listened, as some of you are doing right now. You’re wondering if I’ve started on a political rant, stepped onto that slippery slope of church and state or worse political prophesy…

Yes, I confess that I am speaking about national politics from this very pulpit… the national politics of Israel, the people of the promise whom we heard about in our first reading from Joshua.

Joshua of course was the leader of Israel, the people of the promise. He was
chosen by God to continue the journey begun with Moses, to lead God’s people into the land God had promised. But the people had endured many years of struggling, turning away from God time and time again during their wilderness wanderings. Joshua knew that the Promised Land was more than a prized piece of real estate: it was the fulfillment of God’s promise. It was a tangible place where God promised to live in relationship with Israel.

While it was only a generation or two since God had been revealed to Moses, the people have many options moving forward. Joshua is direct and tells them that they can only vote for one of the options. The people of Israel must choose, do they…?

  • serve the gods of their ancestors before Abraham,
  • serve the gods of the Amorites whose country they are occupying now, or
  • serve the Lord God, who liberated them from Egypt and brought them to the land of the promise.

The polls are about to close and Joshua makes his speech in Shechem, a place of tradition and high importance, where the people of Israel had been before.

Shechem was a place that had played an important role in the worship life of the northern tribes and was a place of previous connections. Abram passed through it in Genesis 12:6. It was near Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, the place where God promised the land and where Joseph was abducted (and later buried). It is described as a sanctuary with sacred stones and tree in Genesis 33:20 and as a place where the gods of the fathers were put away in Genesis 35:4. While the message was new, this was a place the people of Israel had in a sense been before. It is in this place we hear the familiar words of Joshua, “as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Hebrew Scripture scholar Terry Fretheim notes that “Joshua 24, with its fifteen (!) instances of the word ‘serve, worship,’ makes one clear point: the future of the community in the land is finally determined by whether it worships YHWH alone, or turns to the worship of other gods (too).” Fretheim says that Joshua emphasizes that God has chosen to be dependent upon people to do God’s work in the world. God works with people and situations in the form that they are available, with all their sinfulness and unfaithfulness so that God’s work in the world has a contextual character so that we as human beings will never have perfect perception as to how we are to serve as God’s instruments.” (Deuteronomic History, Interpreting Biblical Texts, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983)

Joshua was at the end of his leadership and in his farewell speech, wanted the people to know where he was with God, and challenged them to do the same. The way Joshua frames the options for the people is important for us to pay attention to. He does not say they can, or need to “choose” God. The option or “choice” before the people and to us is to serve or not serve the Lord our God. Choosing God is not an option, because God has already chosen us.

Our God is a God of covenant. A God of promise who through the covenant with Israel created people of Torah, the law who lived, worshiped and served God. The people of the promise knew Torah as a lifestyle to practice. A lifestyle that led to the creation of people called servants of God.

Today we live in a world where we rarely let others know where we stand with God, a time and place where Joshua’s urgency is truly needed. Today we usually know…

  • where people are on political issues: we place signs on our front lawns, discuss and argue on talk radio and even in church at times,
  • where people are on moral issues: we share our thoughts on Gay marriage, abortion, or the death penalty, and
  • where people are on sports issues: we root proudly wearing or displaying team logos on shirts, homes and car bumpers.

When it comes to God, outside and even inside this place we hesitate to share our questions, our longings, our thoughts, and our passions.

Throughout our lives, we pause at historic moments and remember we are people of the promise. At these times we reflect on God’s promises and our commitment and faithfulness to serve a God of hope and love.

When we are at the Font as Caiden William was last week, we need to remember…

  • that Baptism is not simply plain water, it is water used according to God’s command and connected to God’s word,
  • that it brings about the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare,
  • that it signifies that the old person in us with all the sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and
  • that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God.

When we are at the Altar as we are every Sunday morning, we need to remember…

  • that it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and to drink,
  • the words “given for you” and “shed for you” show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words,
  • that whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state: the forgiveness of sin.

When we are in the world each day using the gifts God has given to us, we need to remember to affirm our baptism and confirm our faith as Alexander and Richard did last week…

  • to live among God’s faithful people,
  • to come to the word of God and the holy supper,
  • to learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, and have in our hands the holy scriptures,
  • to nurture one another in faith and prayer, so that we may learn to trust God,
  • to proclaim Christ through word and deed,
  • to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.(Luther’s Small Catechism)

When we at the Grave-side mourning the death of a loved one and the brevity of life,
We need to remember…

  • that we are dust and to dust we shall return,
  • that baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death,
  • that we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was
  • raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live new life,
  • that if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Talitha Arnold in an article in Christian Century writes about Joshua’s farewell speech. Joshua and his family had chosen to follow the Lord and the people roared enthusiastically that they would do the same. But Joshua didn’t accept their initial response and reminds them three times the cost of that covenant and the consequences of breaking it. Joshua warned that if they were not authentic, God would do them harm and consume them.

Arnold confesses that as a pastor when inviting people to affirm their covenant with God and one another, she seldom has Joshua’s courage in the follow-through. If she did, when parents brought their child for baptism, she would ask: “Do you promise to get him or her out of bed, dressed and here every Sunday morning for the next 18 years, even when you’ve had a long week or you’d rather sleep in or there’s a soccer match or when this darling infant has grown into a surly, tattooed teenager who thinks church is dumb?”

She adds that when people join the church, Joshua would have asked more than the rote “Do you renounce the powers of evil and seek the freedom of new life in Christ?’ After the unsuspecting new member said yes, Joshua would have followed with, “So when you buy your next car, will you resist all the commercial hype that encourages you to overspend on something that eats up resources and pollutes the air?” (The Christian Century, October 23-November 5, p. 18)

Joshua reminds that we are the inheritors of the covenant and people of the promise but does not go easy on us in outlining our choices. We like the people of Israel have been chosen by God, loved by God, called by God and here in this place we come, broken by sin and asked familiar questions…

  • Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
  • Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
  • (Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

The polls are about to close, will you serve God who has chosen you? Will you pay attention to a God who shows up at unexpected times and places? As Luther states in The Freedom of a Christian, “I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”

My seminary advisor and Lutheran Confessions professor Dr. Timothy Wengert challenged my class one day by asking, “So, now that you are free from doing anything, what are you going to do?” Quoting Paul’s Gospel, Wengert emphasized that God’s grace isn’t an excuse to sin, because “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” Dr. Wengert referencing Luther’s Freedom of a Christian boldly holds that freedom is an opportunity to do good in thanksgiving for God’s grace.

Today as the society pursues its idols and worldly temptations try to draw us away from Christ, I ask you in this sacred space to remember the earnest questioning and proclamation of Joshua. Holy people, saints and children of God, choose this day who you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the one who has chosen us. Thanks be to God!


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