The late Fred Craddock told the following story: “It is not with the blink of the eye that a thirty-something year old will say to me, “Let’s see now, was it next Sunday that my daughter was going to be baptized?”
I said, “Yeah, next Sunday.”
“Well . . . she has dance lessons next Sunday.”
I said, “Well, this is Sunday morning.”
“Well . . . the dance lessons are at 10:30.”
“On Sunday morning?”
“Yeah. The dance studio has classes on Sunday morning.”
I said, “On Sunday morning?”
“That’s what she said, Sunday morning.
I said, “Then we have a decision to make, don’t we?”[i]
That encounter happened to Fred Craddock many years ago. Today, activities that compete with the church on Sunday morning are a routine thing: dance lessons, karate, soccer, football, lacrosse, little-league. Not to mention the demands of work that seemed to spill over into the weekend. Weeks, even months, might roll by without seeing some of our young families in church on Sunday morning.
“Choose this day whom you will serve . . .” goes the Joshua passage, “. . .but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
That verse jumped off the page and hit me square in the face with its blunt demand.
I debated with myself over whether or not to try to preach on it. The Gospel alterative was Jesus’ parable about the Ten Bridesmaids in Matthew (five foolish and five wise), which can also quickly turn condemning if the preacher isn’t judiciously cautious. Neither passage presents an easy sell for the preacher (which seems to be more often the case than not).
I subsequently turned my bulletin information into Kristin (our administrative assistant) for this Sunday, pointed out the sermon title and lamented about my dilemma: “How can I preach on this passage without sounding judgmental toward our young families?”
Kristin didn’t know when she took the position that she would have to assuage the pastor’s occasional homiletical angst. Although, I must say, she patiently listened, smiled and nodded quite admirably. Very pastoral. But she had no answer for me; also very pastoral-like. And very wise.
Because wrestling with these kinds of texts are part of my weekly routine. And, I find that – if I do so prayerfully and doggedly – I will eventually discover, rarely any definitive answers, but at least a better understanding of the strength of the text.
This happens to be one of those Scripture verses that we’ve done a good job of domesticating in the pop-Christian culture of this country. We’ve relegated it to nicely framed needlepoints, wooden signs that hang over our front door, and bumper stickers.
“Choose this day whom you will serve . . . as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Somewhere along the way the meaning has gotten lost in the American landscape.
After forty years in exodus, the chosen people were finally standing on the threshold of the land long promised by God. Many of the people who began that journey forty years before did not finish the trip; including Moses himself, who never saw the promise fulfilled. Indeed, no doubt many who were now standing on that promising threshold had been born along the way.
Joshua, who had succeeded Moses, would be the one who led the people into that Promised land. And he feared that, during those forty years of wandering, the true meaning of the people’s faith – and the reason the exodus began in the first place – might have gotten lost along the way. So Joshua assembled the people to remind them of the mighty acts of God, and to assured them that Yahweh would continue to bless them if they were faithful.
As people have ever been, the Israelites were confronted by complicated alternatives. Some were interested in materialistic gods. Joshua knew this and challenged them to choose their god. Joshua did not want them to live by half choices, convenient choices, or popular ones. The climax to his valedictory was “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River (that being Egypt), or the gods of the Amorites (the former residents of the Promised Land) . . . but as for me and my house,” affirms Joshua, “we will serve the Lord.”[ii]
This question of the people’s allegiance arises in the midst of a crisis of choice between Yahweh and the gods of the ancestors. Behind this crisis lies the old perspective (common to Near Eastern religions of that time) that deities had geographic limitations.[iii] Every land had its own god. New land; new god.
But, as Joshua was pointing out, this was a different kind of God, who makes a different kind of promise. This God is not tied to any geographic area or to any particular place; or, for that matter, even to any specific sanctuary. This is a God who promises to accompany the covenant people wherever they happen to roam.
Nor is this simply a fair-weather God. This God promises to be with the people, not only during times of prosperity and security, but also – and perhaps especially – in times of suffering, perils and trials.
When Adolf Hitler, the head of the National Socialist Party, was named chancellor of Germany, on January 30, 1933, Karl Barth, the Reformed Theologian, was teaching at the University of Bonn. But even before that, Barth described the chaotic political situation in Germany to be “like sitting in a car which is driven by a man who is either incompetent or drunk.”
Barth said that he wanted to urge his students to keep on working as normally as possible in the midst of the general uproar. “I also felt,” he said, “it my duty to join in helping the Evangelical Church to carry on its work in the changed national situation, in other words to maintain the biblical gospel in the face of the new regime and the ideology which had now become predominant.”
Karl Barth likened the Israelites choice of “other gods” to all the “other authorities which for some reason are thought to be important.”[iv]
Every now and then someone will come up to me after the Sunday morning worship service to tell me that my sermon was too political. And I try to explain to them, as gently and respectfully as possible, the dilemma I have. I would never advocate for one candidate – or one political party – over and against the other, of course.
But, my dilemma is that the Word of God, as presented in the pages of Scripture is, by its Divine Nature, a Word spoken over and against, in contrast to, sometimes even in opposition to – the political realties of this world; a world inundated with conflicting principalities and political power struggles; a world in which governments all too often oppress, exploit, persecute and enslave their peoples.
Joshua spoke God’s Word as a reminder to the people Israel of divine deliverance from the subjugation of the Egyptian occupation. Jesus’ message to those of his day was one of justice and jubilee, of liberation and a promise to be lifted out of the oppression perpetuated by an unholy alliance between the religious and political leaders of that time.
Leaders who subsequently conspired against Jesus for his sociopolitical rabble-rousing, forcing Jesus to make his choice concerning whom to serve; a choice which ultimately led to his own demise.
“Choose this day whom you will serve . . . as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!”
When we are willing to wrestle that Scripture verse `to the mat’, we discover that it isn’t about a weekly ritual after all; its true strength is characterized by an essential relationship which permeates all of life.
For we learn that God is not limited to geographical boundaries; nor can God be restricted to the confines of the sanctuary walls, or relegated to one hour on Sunday morning. And God’s Word cannot be contained within religious platitudes or defined by incorporeal spiritualism. God’s Word intrudes Itself into the world stage in ways that are life-contextual and earthshaking. And it almost always demands that choices be made; choices that are typically countercultural, often radical, and sometime even dangerously revolutionary.
Walter Brueggemann calls such Divine Intrusion as the “Saving Disruptive Moment.” That moment, he says, “When God comes to bear us on eagle wings to himself” with such power that “ . . .all the might of the Egyptian Empire, all the magicians and armies could not resist . . . this powerful coming of God.” Brueggemann continues to proclaim that, “. . . we may say of [God’s] coming in Jesus Christ that all the Jewish piety and Roman law could not resist this powerful saving moment, even when they thought he was done to death.”[v]
God’s Saving Disruptive Moment continues to intrude into our contemporary global political uproar and chaos with a Word that can bring hope and peace, a Word that promises the unseating of oppressive principalities and the diffusion of occupying powers which still strive to enslave the peoples.
Joshua 24 was likely used as a liturgy by which the people Israel reminded themselves from time to time of God’s faithfulness and the profound significance of their relationship with God. It was a form of worship by which the people reaffirmed the Covenant and rededicated their loving obedience and daily allegiance to God. So our worship should be for us.
Today our world seems, perhaps, more complex and chaotic and insecure than ever before. When under such threat people, sophisticated as we might be, still tend to grasp for false gods; such as the love of wealth and acquisition, the harboring of hatred toward those we identify as enemies, fear of those who are different than us, ultimate trust in military might. Instead of making those countercultural, risky, perhaps even radical, choices required for reaching out to the alienated, oppressed, exploited and persecuted people of the world with the Saving Disruptive Word of God. Choices which are the clarion call of Life in Jesus Christ.
[i] Graves, Mike & Ward, Richard (ed.), Craddock Stories, Chalice Press, St. Louis, 2001.
[ii] Jones, G. Curtis, 1000 Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching, Broadman Press, Nashville, 1986.
[iii] Henry-Crowe, Susan, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Proper 16.
[iv] Raynal, Charles E., Theological Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Proper 16.
[v] Brueggemann, Walter, “The Saving Disruptive Moment”, The Collective Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011.