Every day on my iPad I receive notifications of headlines from a variety news sources with diverse perspectives. As each one pops up, with just a swipe of my finger across the screen, I can choose to read the article or delete it. It's one of my favorite features. So...a couple of weeks ago I received an odd type of notification from CNN but I didn't pay much attention to it. Yesterday, it showed up again The little pop-up read: "A new Star Wars trilogy. A "zombie" star that won't die. And a TV star returns. Here is your politics-free news from the week."
I'm not sure which is more sad...that CNN has to specifically sort out politics-free news for me...or that only thing they could come up with was Star Wars and Zombies.
The truth is that we live in an unprecedented age of instant unfettered access to news feeds from all over the world. At the same time, we also live in an unprecedented age where we cannot be sure which news sources are reliable and which are not. Once upon a time we could turn on the evening news and be fairly confident that we would hear thoughtful, hard-hitting, and mostly unbiased reporting. Now we must make a decision, every single day, about whom and what we will believe.
Granted, the choice about which reporting to believe might not be a life or death decision, but it most assuredly impacts our worldview. It shapes our thinking, our politics, and our actions. At times, it may even influence our relationships and how we live our lives. In fact, that which we choose to believe also says something about the God we choose to serve, so perhaps it is a more significant decision than we realize.
In today's reading from Joshua, we find the Israelites facing a significant decision of their own.
Before we read it, let me just set the context of the passage with a refresher about who Joshua was and how he got to the point that this text picks up. Joshua was born in Egypt and was among the slaves that God sent Moses to free from bondage. As a young man, Joshua grew up under Moses' leadership during the 40-year wilderness period. Although it's not clear that Joshua understood it at the time, as Moses' assistant, he was being groomed to become a formidable leader of God's people.
And that he did. When Moses died, God appointed Joshua as the one who would lead the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land. The book of Joshua chronicles the adventures and challenges the Israelites faced under his very competent leadership. It tells how the nation was eventually established after the long wait in the wilderness.
Joshua was a good leader. He was known for his deep trust in God and his leadership style still serves as a model for modern day church leaders. I particularly like the way he interacts with the people in today's reading which takes places at the very end of the book. By this time, various enemies have been defeated, the land has been divided up, and God's faithfulness has been proven over and over. And we come to this...
Read Joshua 24:1-25
In this covenant-making ceremony, Joshua gathers everyone together and from verse 3 through 13 gives them a huge history lesson. God wants Joshua to remind the Israelites of where they had come from and to leave no doubt that it was God - the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...the God of Moses...their God... who had led them there.
So, after hearing all that history of God's provision and faithfulness, the question that Joshua asks seems almost rhetorical, doesn't it? Which God will they choose to serve? As if that's even a question. But, apparently it is. Now this is where I was saying I admire how he interacts with the people. Joshua tells them what they should do. Revere God. Serve God honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods of the ancestors...and the ones of this new land. BUT...he does not insist on their compliance. He presents the case, offers his viewpoint, and then lets them decide. He tells them what he and his household intend to do, then puts the ball in their court.
Now of course, the people know the answer to the question. They are fully aware that they are to choose and serve God. It's sort of like the answer in the children's sermon is always Jesus. The right answer for the children of God is God. So of course they say that they choose God...and will serve him. But that is an answer from the head...from the intellect...not from the heart.
This is why Joshua pushes them on it several times...even telling them that they can't serve God and continue living rebelliously in sin. He is trying to help them understand that service to God is more than lip-service. As any of our veterans will tell us, service means sacrifice of self - even one's comfort, safety, and personal plans and ideas. Service requires loyalty...and perseverance during difficult times. To serve is about being a part to something greater than oneself and a willingness to give one's entire self to that thing. There cannot be divided loyalties when you are serving your country...and there cannot be divided loyalties when you serve your God.
The language gets fairly harsh...but Joshua is making a life or death point. If you choose to serve God, your life will be different. No more clinging tightly to the other gods...no more trusting in them or yourself. Everything...your heart, your mind, your spirit....your life...must belong to God. It's a tall...if not impossible...order to fill...but those crazy Israelites were surely going to try. In verse 24 they say: We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.
Ummm....yeah...and we all know how that worked out for them, right? The whole rest of the Old Testament recounts their roller coaster of faith: trust God...listen to another god; faithful follower...stiff-necked people; obey God...take matters into our own hands. You get the picture.
We get the picture because it's our story too. We all know the answer to the question. I mean gods of ancestors...territorial gods of specific lands...any other god but God...is never the right answer. Yet, sometimes the answer that we profess to know is not the answer we live.
Sometimes our words and our actions do not match. This is particularly true in a nation like ours where there are many gods competing with the God we profess. And to be quite honest, just like the confusing news sources make it difficult to know fake from true...the other gods sometimes cloud our judgment about what it means to choose to serve God. In fact, the blurred line between the gods of our nation and the God of our faith makes it nearly impossible at times to be sure whom we are serving.
For example, if we participate in a system designed increase our financial security yet endangers the well-being of others, are serving a God of mercy or is it the god of personal wealth?
If we excuse away charges of abuse of power for the sake of political ideology, are we serving a God of justice?
Can we deny access to affordable health care coverage, addiction treatment, and mental health services and still serve a God of compassion?
Is it possible ignore the damage done to the earth's climate and distrust the science behind it and still honor the God of Creation or is some other god in charge of our heart?
If we refuse to welcome a neighbor because of race, socioeconomic status, nationality, or sexuality...are we genuinely serving the God of love or has an ancient god of social construct grabbed our loyalty?
And folks, my personal struggle this week...in a nation that continues to allow unrestricted access to weapons specifically designed to kill masses of people, how do we boldly proclaim to serve the God who gives us the breath of life when the gods of fear and constitutional freedom speak with a louder voice of fear?
So yeah, sometimes, the gods of the land are quite clever. They offer a sense of safety and security. They provide an illusion of freedom. They claim to be a source of comfort. They promise that things will be like the good ole days. They even go as far as to make us believe that they give us power.
But folks...they will all eventually fall short. The gods of this land are not all that different from the false gods throughout the ages. The names and forms may change, but they serve the same purpose...to distract us, create fear, and cause us to doubt God. They are finite things trying to fill an infinite void in our soul. They have god-like status in our society...but they are definitely not God.
They are not the God who created us. They are not the God who saves us. They are not the God who gives us meaning and purpose. They are not the God who remains faithful even when we are not. These other gods cannot offer us forgiveness in our failures...they cannot give us a second chance. They do not stand with us in good times and bad. They do not care if we suffer. They do not give us strength for the journey of life..and they most assuredly do not ever give us new life.
Only God, though his son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit is able to do that. Is this not the one and only God whom we shall choose to serve?
Still, in a world of deception and many gods vying for our loyalty, how do we choose and serve only God? More specifically, how do we choose, not just with our minds, but with our actions, to serve God?
Well, that's where I think the generation-to-generation lesson comes in. (see note at end of sermon)
Now, let's be honest, like the Israelites, clearly as Christ-followers, our best intention is to choose and serve only God. But also like them, we will, at times fail to remain faithful to this promise. Thankfully, by God's amazing grace, when we confess our failure, through Christ, we are forgiven and given another chance to choose differently next time.
And Jesus teaches us that our choices matter. The "oil", if you will, that we pour into the lamp that is our life, matters. The more good oil we have flowing in -- like love and kindness...worship, prayer, and study...acts of mercy and compassion -- the longer our lamp will burn...and...the more our lives look will like the light of Christ that is in them. Our spiritual oil prepares us to serve God...and it is in our serving that God will find us faithful.
So, friends, when we choose the good oil of our faith, filling and refilling from the abundance of God's love, we will be given the light of discernment we need to choose and serve the one true, merciful and loving God. All glory be to his name. Amen.
Children's sermon notes:
1) Discuss how oil candles/lamps work. What would happen if there wasn't any oil?
2) Compare to no food in our bodies - no energy to do things...no clarity etc.
3) Jesus told story about women who had oil lamps. Summarize the story. (5 had extra, 5 ran out)
4) Jesus compares this to the Kingdom of God. What do they think that meant?
5) Time waiting for his return could be long time (2000 years already) - need to be prepared for that.
6) Keep plenty of oil in our spiritual lamps -- spiritual lamps are live of faith.
7) Examples of good oil: prayer, study, worship, fellowship, mission projects etc.