Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lectionary 21
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 8:10-20
John 6:59-69

Choose this day whom you will serve.

We face decisions every day. Some of the decisions we make are mundane, like what to eat for dinner and what to wear to work. Some of the decisions are more important, like which career to pursue or whether we should get married. Though the wrong decision on both the mundane and important choices might have life-long consequences, there is no bigger choice we are asked to make than that in today’s scriptures.

Both Joshua and Jesus lay it before the people: which God/god do you choose? The early Hebrews had just experienced the amazing redemption of their nation, taken out of slavery into a new land with the promise that they will be a great people. The new land was already populated by other people, people who held faith in other gods. It was customary in that day to accept the local deities when moving from place to place, but the God of the Hebrews was a different kind of God. He was not limited to a locale. He was not defined by the believers. He was, and is, who He is.

The people were about to enter into a land of great temptations where their neighbors would convince them that it is good and right to worship all the gods, for the sake of the land and all the people. They were about to face another test of their faith. Could they stand against the natives and hold on to what they believed? This choice is not one we can make after we test out all our options. We can’t play with the local gods and then expect God’s blessing when things get messy. Our God is a jealous God, He expects His people to look only to Him. He is faithful, merciful and forgiving, but we suffer the consequences of our choices.

And so He says, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Joshua did not give them the choice based on what would be, but rather what had been. He reminded the people of the works of God, of His deliverance. He told them the story, a story they knew well because it was a story of which they were part. Their father Abraham was taken from the land in which he lived and led through Canaan. Abraham had many descendents, of whom Moses and Aaron were the greatest. Moses led the people out of slavery and guided them through the Red Sea, to the foot of Mount Sinai and then into the desert. All this was the hand of God and not by the power of men or false gods. Then Joshua led them in the land which God had promised and gave them victory over all their enemies. Then Joshua said, “Now therefore fear Jehovah, and serve him in sincerity and in truth.” Yet the command is not to fear, it is to choose. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

It is not a decision made blindly. The people knew about God’s power and His faithfulness. They’d experienced His grace in the Exodus and as they wandered in the wilderness. They knew His strength as they faced the enemies who threatened to block their way. They willingly and willfully accepted the LORD God as their God. They agreed with Joshua who stood before them and confessed his own faith in the God who delivered them, “…as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah.” The people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake Jehovah, to serve other gods,” and they recited in remembrance God’s good works.

Centuries—generations—later, the ancestors of those first Hebrews were faced with the same decision. Over the years the people had lost touch with the God they chose as they entered into the Promised Land. They were once again oppressed by a foreign nation; they had made so many wrong choices throughout their history that they were suffering the consequences of their devotion to other things. They’d lost sight of the God who delivered them out of Egypt and found comfort in the self-righteousness of the law and by conforming to the world in which they lived.

Jesus introduced them again to the God who was, and is, who He is.

It was a hard meeting because Jesus was offering something that did not fit into the box of their understanding. For the past few weeks, Jesus has been leading us on a journey closer and closer to the source of our life, into His presence, into the heart of God. But the words He has spoken are hard to hear, especially for those who were listening two thousand years ago. In essence, Jesus says, “Bite me” and even to us today this is shocking and inappropriate.

We can’t imagine that Jesus would want anyone to go away, to be turned back from the gospel. As a matter of fact, we spend a lot of time in our churches discussing ways to make the gospel more appealing to the world. We remove from our texts any hint of sin or law, focus entirely on the good things God can do for His people. The phrase “God is love” becomes the sole message and we reject every sense of the word “love” that calls us to sacrifice and suffering. We make our ministry about agendas and present only a God that is not fearful. We lose sight of the God who has the power to set us free and lead us to the Promised Land, replacing Him with a God who fulfills our every need and desire.

A few weeks ago, Jesus fed the crowds. He filled their bellies with bread and fish and their hearts with God’s Word. In response, they saw Him as the Messiah they wanted Him to be. They sought to make Him king, an earthly king who would defeat the Romans and make Israel a free and prosperous nation again. This was the turning point for Jesus however. His ministry was no longer about meeting the needs of the people. He turned His feet toward Jerusalem not to become that king, but to do the will of God. He spoke more openly about His purpose, His death and the faith that will be demanded of the people. They saw the miraculous sign and wanted to cling to it for their future, but Jesus use that meal to point them toward a greater gift: the gift of His life that would be eternally theirs.

He used the opportunity to teach them about God’s amazing grace, to foretell of a marvelous gift that would come from His body—real life, eternal life. All along they had their minds, and their hearts, set on the flesh.

Jesus taught them all that He could, and then it was time to let them go. Yet, they were not yet ready to leave. They were still thinking of their stomachs, of their flesh. They still saw Him as one who would meet their needs and fulfill their desires. That was not what He was sent to do. He was sent to teach them about the kingdom of God and then to die to make it possible for them to become heirs to the promise. If He continued to serve their flesh, they would never look toward the Spirit. So, when it was time to finish this teaching, He made it too hard for them to continue to follow. His words were too much for them to take. They did not have faith. They could not do the work God called them to do—believe. They could not believe in the One whom God sent.

In Joshua’s story, really don’t see that they have any choice. The reality of their life has been laid before them: God saved them from Egypt, brought them through the wilderness and is ready to welcome them into the land He’d promised to their father Abraham. Joshua knew the right answer. The people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake Jehovah, to serve other gods; for Jehovah our God, he it is that brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and that did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way wherein we went, and among all the peoples through the midst of whom we passed; and Jehovah drove out from before us all the peoples, even the Amorites that dwelt in the land: therefore we also will serve Jehovah; for he is our God.” They made their decision based on what God had done.

This week’s gospel lesson is hard because we are disheartened that so many could walk away from Jesus. How could they not see that He was all He promised to be? How could they not see that He is our Promised Land? But He has not yet been crucified or raised. He has not yet given them the Holy Spirit. He seems to contradict everything they knew to be good and right and true. Would we follow someone who asks us to set aside the beliefs that are most important to us?

We would walk away if Jesus offended us as He offended them and if He asked us to set aside everything we believe to believe in Him. When He finally said “Eat me” or “Bite me” it was too much for them to take, for they did not have the faith necessary to believe. They did not yet possess the gift that would make it possible for them to truly believe and inherit the eternal life He promised. His work wasn't done. We often look at these people with incredulity because we can not understand how they would not receive the words of Jesus wholeheartedly. It was not yet time. They could not believe because the Father had not yet drawn them to Jesus. We have the benefit of living after the cross, after Christ has already been raised. We believe based on what God has done, not what Jesus promises God will do. It is easier for us.

We are reminded that it isn’t easy even when we have all we need to believe. Paul writes, “Wherefore take up the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand.” There are entities in this world that constantly seek to keep us from dwelling in God's presence. We are tempted by our physical needs and desires. Our flesh leads us to seek after all the wrong things – stuff – chasing after the perishable rather than looking toward the imperishable. Our busy schedules keep us from studying God's word or spending time in prayer, building up the relationship we have with Christ. This is why Paul writes that we are to wear the armor of God. Six things will keep us looking at the One who offers us life: truth, righteousness, readiness to proclaim the Gospel, faith, salvation and the Spirit. These are all gifts of God, the gifts He has given us through Jesus Christ.

The Word of God is not always easy to speak. Could we tell non-believers about this particular story of Jesus? Probably not. “Bite me” is more like a dare they would rather not take. Many would turn and walk away. So, we are tempted to do whatever is necessary to get them to believe. We try to feed their stomachs in the hope that it will keep them coming. We provide them with programs that meet their physical needs and desires. We live as our neighbors, honoring the gods of the land in which we live, so that they welcome us into their world in the hopes that from there we can make them see God’s kingdom.

It is hard. We are saved based on the work of Christ on the cross, but we have to choose daily whom we will serve. Will we continue chasing after the stuff, giving priority over the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the jobs we take and the people we love? Will we choose the gods of the world in which we live and suffer the consequences of that choice?

We are reminded in both the psalm and in the letter to the Ephesians that there are those who work against God in this world. The psalmist tells us that the wicked will not be remembered; they will perish while the righteous live forever. Paul warns that there are principalities, powers, world-rulers of this darkness, and spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. There are entities against whom God does battle, and we are faced with the temptation of following them and doing what seems right in their world, even when it is counter to the God of our faith. These are the gods that tempt us away from our God, to follow other paths.

But even while we see that we are tempted away from God, we also see the blessedness that comes from believing in Him. The psalmist writes, “The eyes of Jehovah are toward the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.” The righteous might experience suffering, but God is near. Redemption is near. When we keep our eyes focused on the source of our salvation, we will experience the grace He so freely gives. It will take vigilance to keep on the path, to face down the temptations that seek to destroy everything God has done. Though Paul gives a list of military battle wear, our strength is found not in a military response to our enemies but in prayer and proclamation of God’s Word. We are called to be ready, alert and watchful, awake in Spirit and truth.

When Jesus saw that some of the followers were leaving, He asked the disciples if they wanted to leave also. Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and know that thou art the Holy One of God.” For a brief moment, Peter saw everything clearly. All this talk of bread was pointing to the Living Bread who is Christ. This command to eat Jesus’ flesh, while it would point to the Eucharistic meal, also points us to the Word of God which is incarnate in the body of Christ. When Jesus says, “Bite me,” He means, “Eat me and live.” He means, “Chew on my word. Remember it. Hold it. Keep it close to you. Take it inside your heart and your head. Then take it to the world and share it with others.” It is given to us to know all that God has done, and in knowing we can make the choice. Do we stay or do we go? Do we choose this day the Lord, or do we choose those other gods. It is a choice made possible only by that which God has done already—in, with and through our Lord Jesus Christ.

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

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