(This sermon was preached at Messiah Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN on Sunday, August 26, 2012, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16B. The sermon derives from the RCL pericope of the day, specifically Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 and John 6:56-69)
Okay, so let me get this straight. Joshua, the great leader of the Israelites has gathered the people at Shechem, that holy, worship site where God first confirmed the covenant with their ancestor Abraham. Gathered in worship there at Shechem, Joshua gives the people his farewell instructions, calling them to renew the covenant partnership with God, saying “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; [putting] away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.”
And the people, the Israelite people respond “Yes!.,..we...will!...Yes,...we will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” 1 No hesitation. No, we’ll try our best Joshua. No questions or conditional clauses. Just, "Yes, we will!"
Israelite people how’d that work out for you?
Is that really how your story plays out?
Because of the way the Revised Common Lectionary committee slices up today’s first reading, we are not privileged to hear what happens next. So let me, share with you how their story plays out in Joshua 24:19 and following, according to The Message translation: in response to the people’s “Yes, we will,” ...Joshua told the people: "You can't do it; you're not able to worship God. He is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won't put up with your fooling around and sinning. When you leave God and take up the worship of foreign gods, he'll turn right around and come down on you hard. He'll put an end to you—and after all the good he has done for you!" But the people told Joshua: "No! No! We worship God!" And so Joshua addressed the people: "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen God for yourselves—to worship him." And they said, "We are witnesses.” Joshua said, "Now get rid of all the foreign gods you have with you. Say an unqualified Yes to God, the God of Israel." The people answered Joshua, [Yes,]"We will worship God. What he says, we'll do." 2
Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. The more palatable, edited version which serves as today’s first reading seemed a little,...okay a lot far fetched to me. But now that we’ve heard the rest of the story, now we’re getting real. Now we’re getting to the truth.
Joshua understands the truth. The people, his people, the Israelite people are a fickle bunch, moving from faithfulness to faithlessness on a moments notice. They may want to worship God, genuinely desiring to be faithful. But, as Joshua knows all too well, they just can’t do it. And what Joshua’s knows, will prove to be the case. His people will not remain faithful. Oh initially things go smoothly. But eventually, the people forget both God and the covenant gift. Regularly, wantonly, they turn away from the only true God, seeking life in other so-called gods. Even though they promised never to do so, regularly, wantonly they chase after the latest, greatest, shiny thing that promises to finally satisfy them. They know from their history that the only, true God has provided, does provide, and promises yet to provide all that they need for life. But, regardless, they end up forgetting this and worshipping other so-called gods. Again, they may have had the best of intentions, genuinely desiring to be faithful. But, as Joshua said, they just can’t do it. They simply don’t trust God completely. And their very lives will witness against them that they are faithless.
One of my favorite singer, songwriter’s is Derek Webb. In his song “Wedding Dress” he sings:
I am a whore, I do confess
I put you on just like a wedding dress
And I run down the aisle
I run down the aisle
I’m a prodigal with no way home
I put you on just like a ring of gold
And I run down the aisle
I run down the aisle to you
So could you love this bastard child
Though I don’t trust you to provide
With one hand in a pot of gold
And with the other in your side
'Cause I am so easily satisfied
By the call of lovers so less wild
That I would take a little cash
Over your very flesh and blood 3
Derek Webb’s song is a reflection on the profusion of stories from the Hebrew scriptures, like today’s story of the people at Shechem, that remind us of the faithlessness of the Israelite people. Faithlessness is their history. Faithlessness is their story. Webb’s song is also a critique of the church, the bride of Christ, who takes faithfulness to God on and off like a wedding dress, playing about between God and other so-called gods. Faithlessness is the church’s history. Faithlessness is it’s story. And of course, by direct implication then, faithlessness is also our history. Faithlessness is our story.
We too, I’d argue along with Webb, like the Israelites don’t trust God to provide. With one hand in a pot of gold And the other in [Christ’s] side, we say we trust God, but so quickly look to all those other so-called gods to save us. I mean, just look around. Turn on the television. Check your Sunday paper. Watch your email inbox. Listen to the evening news. Even though we promise not to do so, regularly, wantonly we chase after the latest, greatest, shiny thing that promises to finally satisfy us. Our portfolio. Our wardrobe. Our presidential candidate. The latest technological gadget. The latest relationship. Our athletic, business, academic, or career success. Our Facebook or twitter portrayed success. Our Pinterest to-do list. Our bucket list. We regularly say, “If I can only just...do this. If I can only purchase that.......Then, then I’ll be satisfied." But our satisfaction is limited, isn’t it? That feeling of accomplishment fades. So we have to do the next thing, purchase the next thing. Constantly we stoke the fire of our need, regularly, wantonly, turning away from the only true God, seeking life in other so-called gods. Oh, we really want to be faithful to the one, true God. We have the best of intentions, genuinely desiring to trust God to give life. But, as Joshua says, we just can’t do it. On a moment’s notice we turn to those other gods,...who will never, ever satisfy. Only God can truly give life. The other things, they just lead to death.
So, because we can’t do it, because we can’t choose life, it seems, we are headed for death. Period. We are pursuers of death, breakers of covenant. We are, in Derek Webb’s words, “prodigals with no way home.” How then can we be saved? How can we harlots, whores, thieves, prodigals, well-intentioned children of God become easily distracted pursers of death, how can we, one and all, be saved?
Well, it seems, if we are faithless, then we need someone faithful. It seems if we can’t help but to break covenant, we need someone who can keep covenant and proclaim forgiveness. If we are on the way to death, and we are, then we need someone to enter death with us.
Jesus, in our Gospel reading for today has this to say about himself: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven....not like that which your ancestors ate and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” Some of his disciples counter, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” [Who can do it!?!] And with that, some of the disciples turned away from him. Jesus then asked the twelve. Are you going to turn away too? And Peter said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” 4
Yes, in God alone is life. We...know...this. But it IS such a difficult teaching to accept, to do. It is a difficult conviction upon which to center one’s life. We just can’t do it. Everything in us yearns, regularly, wantonly for any other god, but the true God. Even Peter and the other disciples, even after what Peter says, ultimately they too will turn back and go away from Jesus.
But, Jesus doesn’t go away. Jesus is the one who stays. Jesus, the faithful one, the covenant keeper, the forgiveness proclaimer, he comes and enters death with us. Jesus answers Derek Webb’s “So could you love this bastard child / Though I don’t trust you to provide?” Jesus answers that question with a resounding “Yes, I will! Yes, I will love you.” And unlike the hollow “Yes, we will” of the Israelites, Jesus’ “Yes” is trustworthy and true.
So, for you who wonder whether God in Christ Jesus can love and forgive you, even when you find yourself walking away with the unbelieving disciples. Hear his “Yes, I will!”
Or those of you who find yourself with the Israelites regularly, wantonly chasing after other so-called gods. Hear Jesus’ “Yes, I will! Yes, I will love you.”
Or for you who find yourself already in death’s deep, dark hole, hear Jesus’ “Yes, I will! Yes, I will be with you. Yes, I will love you.”
For you who wonder whether God in Christ Jesus can love and forgive us, harlots, whores, thieves, prodigals, well-intentioned children of God become easily distracted pursers of death, hear Jesus’ resounding “Yes, I will!”
Even when our “Yes,...we will serve the Lord, for he is our God,” sounds as hollow as the Israelites, Jesus’ “Yes, I will love you!” resounds through death’s void.
Jesus is the one who stays
and who loves and who forgives,
and who loves and who forgives,
and over again,
even through death.
And with Jesus there is no hesitation.
No, “I’ll try to do my best.”
No questions or conditional clauses.
“Yes, I will!”
1 Joshua 24:14 (NRSV)
2 Joshua 24:19-24 (The Message)
3 Derek Webb, “Wedding Dress” from “She Must And Shall Go Free” (Nashville: Derek Webb, 2003)
4 John 6:56-69, portions directly quoted or paraphrased.