Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18, John 6:56-59, August 23, 2015
It’s covenant renewal time in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Our church has covenants with the Samaritan Counseling Center and the Day by Day Warming Shelter and the Preschool. Each year during worship we read each covenant out loud, and we hear about the important work our covenant partners are doing. We also post the covenants in frames on the wall outside the copier room. I am a huge believer in hearing the terms of the covenant every year, even if the only thing that changes from one year to another is the date and the signature. These words should guide, remind and inspire us.
Whenever I read the last few verses of this reading, it strikes as manipulative. Or obvious. “Choose today, whom you will serve!” Joshua, the deliverer says to the Israelites. And they haven’t been “Israelites” very long. They only get that name and identity when they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. Before that they were “wanderers,” another term for that is “Hebrews.”
You may have noticed that there are a lot of verses that get skipped in this morning’s Old Testament lesson, usually when that happens, it excludes a passage that is very difficult to interpret, or troubling, or a digression. That’s not the case this morning. What is left out is another retelling of God’s mighty acts in history. This happens a lot in the Old Testament, in the historic books and also in the psalms. The story of God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” and what they have accomplished for the people is told overandoverandover.
We do the same thing here, every month when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We retell the story, knowing that it will speak to us in new ways, even though we’ve been hearing it all our lives, perhaps because we’ve been hearing it all our lives, it still speaks to us. This story still reminds us of who, and whose, we are.
When my 19 year old was little I started telling him stories about when I was a little boy, and even stories about when my mother, his nana, was little. We call them “Nana Stories.” They started one night when I’d read his allotted stories before bed and he wanted another, because it wasn’t too late, and because I didn’t feel like looking for another book, I just started telling stories off the top of my head. After telling a story once, I realized that I had to tell it exactly the same way. For example, the dolly that Nana wanted as a little girl in one of the stories, she wanted “very much” not “very badly.” The stories bind the generations together.
It’s the same way with the hearing and retelling of God’s mighty acts. The story starts with Abraham and how he trusted God and wandered far from home, from the other side of the river, he found himself in Shechem. His family prospered, but eventually, when a famine hit, two generations later, Jacob and his family went down to Egypt and became slaves. They were slaves for a long time, “When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians and made the sea cover them: and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt.” Reads part of what was skipped. They wandered for forty years and finally took possession of the Promised Land, driving out its residents with God’s help. Because of everything God had done, because they were beginning to claim and settle in the Promised Land, it’s a crucial moment for them to decide whom they will serve. They could worship the gods that Abraham worshipped way back in Terah, when his name was Abram; they could worship the gods they learned about in Egypt. They could even worship the gods that the people who used to inhabit the Promised Land worshipped. They had a lot of choices. And now they had to choose. Choosing the God who set them free and led them to the Promised Land would require them to be dedicated, devoted and determined. It would not be easy, it probably would not be fun. It meant choosing One who had already chosen them. Heidi Husted has said that the covenant is “shorthand for ‘what God has done’.” So at the ceremony where the covenant is renewed Israel is confronted with what God has done and is asked to choose. Joshua speaks first and says those famous words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” One vote in. All those taking part also recognized what God had done and also decided to serve the Lord.
That decision makes them different. Every time they face temptation and resist, they grow closer to God. Every step they take filled with awareness that God is walking with them depends their relationship with the living God and their faith. They have made a choice and now they must keep making it. Day by day by day.
In the Gospel lesson, we also hear about having to choose. Jesus had just fed 5,000 people and the crowd is impressed, who wouldn’t be, but Jesus is being followed by some of those who had been fed miraculously. And he said something that sounds gruesome and cannibalistic, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide with me, and I in them.” The disciples heard it and said, “this is a hard teaching to accept.” When you think about whom Jesus was talking to, it’s a little clearer: there were observant Jews who adhered rigorously to keeping food laws, and there were disciples, who were probably also from the Jewish tradition. The disciples began to crumble away at this teaching. It’s hard; it’s weird.
Earlier there were 5,000 people who had heard him and experienced a miracle and immediately they started falling away. Even some of his disciples turned away. He’s down to 12, again and he turned to them and asked, “Do any of you also wish to go away?” It’s practically the same question Joshua asked, “Whom will you serve?”
Peter spoke up, just as has before. Where else could we go? Sure, it’s hard to be a Christian, and we’re often misunderstood, but what else is there? “You’re the One who is the Holy One of God, Jesus.” There isn’t any middle ground; there’s no being a little committed to Christ.
Story teller [This story appeared in the Christian Century 8/2-9/2000] Walter Wangerin tells a story of one of his sons who was reading a stack of comic books one day, “Where did those come from?” he asked.
“I took them out of the library.”
“You mean you borrowed them?”
“No…” So the father marched his son to the library and saw to it that the comic books were returned. The librarian gave him a stern lecture on stealing. So ended the matter….until Wangerin found his son with another big stack of comic books. “Where did you get those?”
There was no use lying, the son admitted that he’d stolen them the prior summer on their vacation. It wasn’t possible to return them, so the father tore them up and threw the pieces in the fireplace.
When the son stole comic books a third time, his father said he was going to have to spank the son—a very rare occurrence in the Wangerin household. Five spanks later the boy hung his head in shame. The father excused himself and left the room sobbing.
Years later the son was reminiscing about those days. After the third time, the boy never stole anything again. The mother believed it was the spanking that cured him. “Oh no,” the young man answered, “it was because when Dad left, I could hear him crying.”
If anything is going to make us choose to live our lives committed to God’s way, obedient to God’s word, it is knowing God’s heart. Our disobedience and stubbornness break God’s heart. Yet God loves us like a mother and father, with a love that seeks us and disciplines and builds us up. A father or a mother that is waiting to see how we turn out and what we do with our amazing ability to choose.
So, what’s it going to be?