Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
The people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh, to serve other gods."
Choose today who you will serve.
I think this is a much more difficult command than we realize. Joshua spoke to the people as they were beginning their new life in the Promised Land. It had been a rough trip out of Egypt. They managed to get to Sinai in just a few months, but their unfaithfulness at the foot of the mountain sent them into forty years of wandering. A whole generation died before God allowed the nation to settle in their new home.
They were unfaithful because they gave up waiting on Moses as he was on the mountain with God their Savior, the God of their forefathers. They built a golden calf and worshipped it as they had learned in Egypt. In today’s passage, Joshua reaches even farther back, back to the gods that Abraham’s ancestors worshipped. These are the gods of Abraham’s childhood and youth, before he met the Lord God Almighty. Who are these gods? Terah’s family would have worshipped the moon god called Nanna or Sin. They also worshipped Ishtar, the goddess of love, fertility, war and sex. They are represented in the symbols of the ancient lands with the crescent moon and star.
The long history of living near the worship of these other gods meant that they could easily turn away from the Lord God, their Savior. The worship of the gods of Egypt, those of Ur, and the gods in their new home, was much more exciting than the worship of God. It was also easier to understand from a human perspective. How much better is it to have the name of a god with a specific character or purpose, a god who has an image we can see or touch? How does a woman pray to God about something so personal as fertility when there is a goddess who understands the problems of a woman? Isn’t it better to focus on a god who can bring rain rather than disturb one who claims to do everything?
The people of Israel did follow Moses to the Promised Land, but they weren’t completely convinced. They grumbled and complained. I probably would have done the same if I had been wandering in a desert for weeks. They turned away from God while Moses was gone. Many of them even carried their household gods with them on this journey.
That’s why Joshua said, “Put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, in Egypt; and serve Yahweh.” It was time to let go of the moon god and sun goddess. It was time to stop turning to a golden calf. It was time to put their trust completely in the Lord because they would continue to face people who worshipped gods that were easier to trust. The Promised Land was theirs, but they still had neighbors who worshipped Baal; the threat of false promises was very real.
While we do have neighbors today who worship other gods, I think it is more difficult for us to realize the real dangers we face. I don’t think anyone who reads this writing is tempted to worship Nanna or Ishtar. I doubt that you are chasing after the Roman or Greek gods. There may be many Christians who have an imperfect or incomplete understanding of God, but I am pretty sure that most have a love for Jesus Christ. Those of us who are Christian, however, do have our temptations. We have things in this world that are like gods to us, things that demand more from us than we should give. We have things that we set above the Lord our God, and by doing so we make them our gods.
So Joshua says to the people as they begin to settle in the Promised Land, “Choose today whom you will serve.” He demands a commitment from them; he calls them to the life that will constantly reject other gods while living in trust, serving the Living God. He answers, “As for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh.”
The people willingly answered with bold and confident acceptance. “Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh, to serve other gods.” They went on to make a confessional statement about the good things God has done. These are words that the people remember for generations, even until today. The people in Jesus’ day certainly believed they were true. Yet, Israel did not always remain true to the God who was so faithful to them. They easily turned to the gods of their neighbors, conforming to the world in which they lived and forgetting the God who was their Savior and Lord.
At first it might seem as though Jesus is putting before the people a false demand, after all the people of Israel have strict rules about what to eat and drink. They would never consider cannibalism as a possibility. As we have seen over the past few weeks, Jesus has been leading us to this culmination of His claim to be the Bread of Life. We eat bread, and He calls us to eat His flesh and drink His blood. It is really no wonder that many rejected Him. His words seem to fall under the rites and rituals of the god worship we are supposed to reject!
Jesus spoke words that went way beyond what the people could understand. They liked the miracles. They liked what they saw. The liked the possibility that Jesus was the Messiah, the One who would save them from the oppression of the Romans. They liked that He filled their bellies and healed their sick. They liked that He had a large following, because with so many behind Him He would surely “win.” They didn’t always understand what Jesus had to say; the parables were confusing and the attack on their faith was strange. They weren’t interested in anything spiritual, or even religious. They needed someone with practical answers to their problems. His words in today’s passage are too shocking for the crowds. Those who followed Jesus were simple people. They needed practical lessons on how to live in faith, but Jesus was teaching them about life beyond today. They did not understand.
This week we get the full picture of what Jesus is trying to teach them about the Bread of Life. His words are shocking, disgusting and against the Law. This man they had followed, to whom they looked for healing and provision, was giving Himself as food to eat. They aren’t cannibals. They couldn’t drink human blood. It must have been frightening for them to hear these words. The man they looked to as their Messiah was turning the world upside down.
He answered their questions with an oath, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have life in yourselves.” To the Jews who heard these words, the eating of human flesh and drinking of human blood was not life-giving. As a matter of fact, it was cause for death! This was too much for them to bear and many stopped following Him. They were afraid, but not of the God who offers eternal life; they were afraid of the consequences of the things they did not understand.
We think of fear in the negative context, and yet we are told constantly that we should fear the Lord. What does this mean, especially for those of us who have grown up in a world that rejects the wrathful, frightening God of the Old Testament? God is love, we are told, and while that is true we must also remember that God is jealous and demanding. He can, and has, done great things for His people, but He has also given His people over to their sinfulness. When the Israelites turned from Him to worship other gods, He allowed their enemies to destroy their homes and take them into exile. Yet, through all that, He never abandoned them. He forgave them. He saved them. He restored them.
We aren’t much different than those Israelites. We still turn from God and chase after our own gods. While ours do not have names like Nanna or Ishtar, I think it is interesting that the other name for the moon god is Sin. Isn’t that ultimately what keeps us from worshipping fully the God who is our Creator and Redeemer? Isn’t that why Jesus came in the first place?
See, Jesus was not simply telling the people that they should have a feast on His body, which is an image that I suspect was going through their heads. “Does He mean that instead of lamb at Passover, we should roast up a little Jesus?” In the text, Jesus connects this idea of the Bread of Life with the Word of God. “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life.”
We are reminded of the words of Jesus when He was in His own wilderness experience: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.” The people were still thinking with their bellies, and not with their hearts and spirits. They wanted gods who would meet their every want and satisfy their every need. They wanted to be saved how they wanted to be saved, but Jesus came to save them from more than hunger, disease and Roman oppression.
Human beings needed to be saved from ourselves from the very beginning. We need to be saved by our natural inclination to follow what feels good, to satisfy our flesh, to search after that which makes our lives as we want them to be. We easily turn from the God who saves us to follow the gods that serve us. No one would choose the life of a disciple, with its demands of sacrifice and suffering! No one would choose to follow a Lord who calls us to see our own failures more than that of our neighbors. We’d much rather have gods of our own making than the God who made us.
The Psalmist and Paul both tell us ways to live out our fear of the Lord. We are to speak rightly and turn from evil. We are to take advantage of the time we have to do what is good. We are to avoid drunkenness. We are called to turn away from our evil lives, our false gods, so that we can trust in the God who fills us with His very Spirit. He calls us to worship Him in community with others who believe, encouraging one another in faith and service to the Lord. He calls us to live thankful lives, praising God for all He has done and experiencing the life-giving presence of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Heaven. When Jesus says, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood,” He is telling us to dwell continually in Him and His Word so that we will not be led astray.
There are many ways we can feast on the goodness of God. Besides fearing the Lord and living rightly, we can hear His Word and join together in worship. We can serve one another in love, give food and drink to those who hunger and thirst. We can be advocates for those who suffer injustice. We can pray for those who are in pain. But today’s lesson leaves little doubt what Jesus is saying. He calls us to join one another on the cusp of heaven, to eat the Holy Supper He has established as a covenant with His people.
When we gather together as simple people at the Table, we share in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus. We remember Jesus and receive forgiveness for our sins. He comes to us, not only in word and spirit, but in a tangible way that we can touch, see, hear, smell and taste, filling us with His presence. In prayer we ask, “Send now your Holy Spirit into our hearts, that we may receive our Lord with a living faith as he comes to us in his holy supper.” These aren’t words of people who do not know the Lord, but of the faithful who long to have more and more of His presence in their lives.
When we take the body and blood of Christ, when we satisfy ourselves with His Word, we have no need to turn to the other gods because we see He can truly meet our needs and fill our lives with goodness.
When the people left, Jesus asked the twelve, “You don’t also want to go away, do you?” In one of his brief and inspired moments, Peter answered, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter confessed faith in the One who gives life as no other.
Choose today who you will serve. I suspect that we all would answer as the Israelites, “Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh, to serve other gods.” or as Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” It is easy to say the words, but it is much more difficult to live the life. The key for us is to continuously nourish ourselves with the Word of God - Jesus - in every way we can: prayer, worship, study and the sacraments. “Eat and drink,” He says, so that we will remain constantly a part of His own body, so close that we would never want to turn away. By His body and blood, He will help us to live out the truly faithful answer, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
A WORD FOR TODAY
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