Knowing What You’re Getting Yourself Into

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
November 9, 2014
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

Image courtesy wordle.net

Joshua 24:1–3, 14–25 • Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders of Israel, its leaders, judges, and officers. They presented themselves before God. Then Joshua said to the entire people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Long ago your ancestors lived on the other side of the Euphrates. They served other gods. Among them was Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor. I took Abraham your ancestor from the other side of the Euphrates. I led him around through the whole land of Canaan. I added to his descendants and gave him Isaac.
“So now, revere the LORD. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the LORD. But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the LORD, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the LORD.”
Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the LORD to serve other gods! The LORD is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. The LORD has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”
Then Joshua said to the people, “You can’t serve the LORD, because he is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won’t forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you leave the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn around and do you harm and finish you off, in spite of having done you good in the past.”
Then the people said to Joshua, “No! The LORD is the one we will serve.”
So Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the LORD.”
They said, “We are witnesses!”
“So now put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the LORD, the God of Israel.”
The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the LORD our God and will obey him.”
On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people and established just rule for them at Shechem.”

Matthew 16:24–28 • Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? For the Human One is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One coming in his kingdom.”

I. BEGINNING

The fall semester of my junior year of college, I spent the semester abroad in the Soviet Union. For the younger members of the congregation: the Soviet Union was a country roughly where Russia is today; ask your parents about it. At the time, the program I was a part of at the University at Albany, was the only direct undergraduate exchange program with a Soviet institution in the country. It was one of the reasons I picked the school.

Over the summer before we left, we all gathered for an orientation session, where they would tell us what we needed to know and prepare us for the coming semester. There are a few things from that training that are etched into my memory.

The first was this very direct piece of advice the director of the program gave us: “Do not marry a Russian while you are there. You don’t know enough of the language to communicate properly; there are huge cultural differences. Don’t marry a Russian.” Now, the thing I that etched that particular piece of advice into my memory was the fact that the assistant director of the program—who himself had married a Russian when he was a participant years earlier—was squirming the whole time and looking uncomfortable.

The other thing I remember was their heartfelt assurance that the Soviet Union we had heard about—with shortages of personal goods and basic provisions—was really no more. Under perestroika the USSR had made great strides and so there was no need to worry about bringing our own toilet paper or other sundries like that. We’d be fine.

Oh, and we’d be fine with bringing our cash in travelers checks; that would be safer than bringing a bunch of American currency around that could get lost. In the special stores called beriozki that only foreigners could use, our travelers checks would be just as welcome as our dollar bills.

And so it was that we set off in the fall of 1988 to travel to study at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages named for Maurice Thorez.[1] And it was not long after our arrival that we discovered that the bathrooms in our dormitory did not, in fact, have toilet paper (or toilet seats, for that matter), such sundries were incredibly difficult to find, and personal goods were not overflowing on the store shelves. In fact, it seemed that there was a defitsit—a shortage—of practically everything in the USSR.

Later, when we discovered where the hard currency beriozki were and went there to procure hard-to-find items, we also learned that they weren’t always keen on taking our travelers checks. Especially if the purchase was only a small percentage of the value of the check. They were loath to give out a lot of change in foreign currency. I remember one night trying to buy ice cream from the Baskin Robbins on Red Square for a friend’s birthday. The Baskin Robbins would not take the travelers checks, and the beriozka around the corner would not cash the travelers check even if we bought something.

It would turn out that we had not been adequately prepared for the experience we were going to have abroad. We were constantly having to figure out things on our own because we had not been given enough information about what the experience would actually be like.

(As an aside, one of the grad students in the program did marry a Russian.)

We did not know what we were getting ourselves into.

II. THE TEXT

In the text we heard read earlier, Joshua is trying to make sure that the Israelites, however, do know what they’re getting themselves into. He has gathered the leaders, elders, chieftans, and ministers of the people of Israel at Shechem and he is asking them to make a choice: will they serve Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or will they serve the other gods from across the Euphrates where their ancestors are from or from Egypt, where they had until recently been in slavery.

What I find interesting about this whole scene is that Joshua gives them the option of not worshiping Yahweh.

But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the LORD, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the LORD.

This is not typically how we imagine an evangelism rally. Rarely does an evangelist stand up and say something like, “Come forward friends and commit your life to Christ for remission of your sins! Or follow the teachings of Buddha, your choice.”

Joshua invites them to serve the Lord but says that if they don’t think that’s right, then worship whatever gods you choose. But you have to make a choice. Notice, too, that Joshua asks them something like three times whether they will choose the Lord or not. When he first asks them to choose they respond that they will serve the Lord; after all, God was the one who led them out of Egypt with great signs and wonders.

But that’s when Joshua says, “You can’t serve the Lord, because he is a holy God.” That is, ‘You’re not good enough to serve Yahweh.’

Now, either that is the most brilliant marketing strategy ever—appealing to people’s vanity and relying on what ad men call “snob appeal” (“I would give you my religion, but only the most discriminating religionists can handle this faith.” “I’m in!”)—or something else is going on here.

III.  MAKING AN INFORMEd CHOICE

There are certain decisions that people make that require being given certain information before the decision can be properly (and legally) made. For example, when you go in for a medical consultation and the doctor gives you a choice about a medical procedure, there are certain things that the doctor has to tell you: risks, side-effects, dangers of complication, etc. etc. It’s what we lawyers call “informed consent” and without it, a doctor is liable for malpractice if something goes wrong. If something goes wrong but you knew the risks going in, then the consequences are on you.

In the same way, if some major information about a property is not shared prior to purchasing that property, the contract for sale can be deemed void because the buyer did not have all the information they needed to make an informed decision.

So here, Joshua is telling people what they need to make an informed decision: and the most important thing they need to know is that it’s not easy serving this God. You can’t sign up now and then opt out later. This God has an exclusivity clause and a right of first refusal: you can’t say you’ll worship God and then decide that you’ll also worship the gods of Babylon or Egypt. It’s an either/or circumstance. And the consequences of the breaching of that contract are severe. Still in? Because now’s your chance to opt out.

“Yes, we’re in!” the people respond. “Okay, you said it. It’s on you, now. Can’t say you weren’t warned.” The covenant with God is serious business.

IV. THE CHOOSING PEOPLE

There’s an old Jewish midrash that God offered the covenant to all the other nations of the earth and when they all turned it down because it was way too difficult, the Israelites were the only ones left. The rabbis would say that the Israelites were picked by God because they were clearly so retched that everyone would know that their success had to be God’s doing, not their own. Some rabbis even insisted that the only reason the Israelites agreed to the covenant was because God held a mountain over their heads.

But this is why many Jewish thinkers prefer not to think of the Jewish people as the “Chosen People” but as the “Choosing People”—as the people who choose God. Who make a conscious choice to serve God.

Certainly, that is not an easy choice. The covenant is onerous. And in case anyone thinks that “Chosen People” means a people selected for special treatment or privileges, it quickly becomes apparent that the covenant means the people are chosen for special responsibility and obligation. Because the people are aware of God’s laws, they are held to a higher standard. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2), which is basically the Biblical version of: “I don’t care what other parents let their kids do, you’re my kid and you know the rules: you’re grounded.”

And when the Israelites gripe that they don’t seem to know what is expected of them, the prophets respond: “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 CEB)

The prophets’ answer is always the same: You know what you’re supposed to do. You’ve known all along. This should not be a surprise to you.

It’s for precisely this reason that Joshua warns the people about the demands of following the Lord. It’s not an easy life to which they are being called. They can opt out if they want, but once they’re in, they’re in.

V.   END

The life of a Christian is not meant to be easy. After all, we follow in the footsteps of one who was himself crucified for standing up for what was right. And who called on us to take up our own cross and follow him.

In the ancient world, religion was supposed to be about what benefit you could get out of it. If I worship this god, it’ll rain on my crops. If I worship that god, I’ll do well in business, and so on. The notion that you would choose a god to worship and then your life would get harder or more challenging was nuts. And yet, that is what the God of Israel keeps offering us.

We needn’t, of course. There are plenty of easier gods to worship: pleasure, self-interest, expediency, fame, wealth, and so on. They will expect less of you and probably give you a lot more in the short term. If in your opinion, it’s better to serve those gods, then choose to serve them.

But we, like Israel before us, are a choosing people. And the God we have chosen is a God who expects something of us. A God who calls us to live lives not just of blind loyalty, but of loyalty to God and one another that is manifested in righteousness. Lives that are defined by compassion and mercy. Lives that are committed to justice and peace. Lives that are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the other. None of these things is easy.

We Christians are fond of saying phrases like “I gave my life to Christ” or “I accepted Jesus” but we tend to say them in ways that sound almost formulaic: as if saying that is enough. “Are you with Christ?” “Sure, why not.”

But the commitment we’re called to make is no simple commitment. It is not an empty declaration; it is a declaration with consequences. A declaration that we are willing to forsake our own welfare, our own security, our own prosperity for what is right: for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. For the marginalized and the oppressed. For the downtrodden and the outcast. For the weak and frightened. These are the ones we are called to serve, these are the terms of our employment.

And at the end of the day, when we behold the story of the people of Israel, who suffered greatly for their faith, when we behold Christ on the cross, suffering at the hands of the unjust and crying out to God, we can hardly say we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.

But at the heart of our faith is this truth, too: we may have signed on for a difficult task, but we didn’t sign on for it alone. As we walk down the path of discipleship, we walk down it together with one another in community and fellowship, and the One who has walked this way before us and invites us to follow, walks beside us still.

 


 

Notes

[1] Maurice Thorez was the longtime head of the French Communist Party.