Divine DNovember 6, 2005, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
quot;It's déjà vu all over again." Yogi Berra gets the credit, but after reading our Old Testament lesson today, I think it was probably God who thought of it first. It's déjà vu all over again for God. Once again, the leaders of the Israelites is getting ready for a crucial event in Israel's relationship with God. Once again it is at Shechem, where God first showed the Promised Land to Abraham, where Jacob's household put away the idols of foreign gods they were worshiping, where Joshua read the entire Law to the assembled people of Israel.1 Once again the people are gathering to hear the covenantal history, the story of God's saving grace towards the people of Israel, faithful in bringing them out of Egypt to finally claim the Promised Land, their inheritance from Abraham. And once again they swear a covenantal oath of faithfulness to God; to trust in God alone, to serve and obey God alone, just as they did with Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai.2 It's déjà vu all over again; God has seen this before, and heard it before.
If history is any guide, that's not especially encouraging. Joshua, more than anyone, seems to understand that: "Fear the Lord and serve him with sincere faithfulness,"3 Joshua tells them. That sounds a little redundant, doesn't it? Sincere faithfulness? Is there such a thing as insincere faithfulness? Well, yes, actually: an insincere faithfulness is a faithfulness that is professed, even intended, but not enacted. It is claiming to worship God alone and yet building or buying or turning to the idols of other gods any time we feel ourselves in doubt or in need. The Israelites know about that; it happened almost as soon as they accepted the covenant with God at Mount Sinai.4 While Moses is still up with God, receiving the Law, they grow tired of the delay. They begin to pester Aaron for new gods, since both this one and his emissary, Moses, are taking too long up on the mountain. Aaron, of course, agrees and forges the Golden Calf for them to worship, and to which, almost bizarrely, they attribute their deliverance from Egypt. Within mere days of pledging their exclusive devotion to God, they are throwing themselves at other gods, idols of their own making, seeking safety, security, and fulfillment in more tangible, more manageable forms.
And we, of course, know about that too. We, like the Israelites, have a tendency to dig out our own idols when things get tough, to seek our safety and security and fulfillment in those things. You may be having a déjà vu experience here yourself: have you heard this before? Probably. One of the books I was reading this week identified this passage from Joshua as a classic favorite of preachers. And no wonder! After taking them through a long recounting of all the things God has done for them (which our reading skipped over), he challenges them with a sweeping finale and a rhetorical flourish worthy of the most charismatic tent revivalist: "If you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve...but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
Preachers love that stuff. It is something of a preacher's cliché to identify the idols that we worship from the culture we live in or the family we come from: money, power, career, social standing, intellectual achievement, even family traditions or expectations. And, of course, it's true; all those things can and do become idols that we worship, turn to, and serve in times of doubt or need. It's not that we don't trust God, it's that we don't trust God alone. Our faithfulness turns out to be insincere because we just can't quite believe that faithfulness to God alone will be enough, will give us what we know we want, will give us what we think we need.
So it's interesting to realize, then, that Joshua's kind of a lousy preacher in terms of bringing people into a covenantal relationship with God. He actually tries to talk the people out of choosing to serve God when they're all set to sign on the dotted line. Look, you can choose to serve other gods who won't mind if you play the field, he says: gods that will let you maintain an open relationship, see other gods without their getting jealous or demanding exclusive faithfulness. No way, we don't want other gods, we want the Lord, the people respond; the Lord's the one who's done all these amazing things for us. So Joshua ups the ante even further: "You cannot serve the Lord," Joshua warns flatly; you can't do it; you won't do it. And they go back and forth, the people insisting that they want to serve God and Joshua warning them not to make promises that they won't deliver on, until finally Joshua gives in, warning them that they are witnesses against themselves, that they have made this promise and can be called to testify against themselves if they break it. There is no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination here! They have made their choice. They have taken the vow, made the promise, signed the covenant; they have committed themselves to serve the Lord.
Taking the vow does help us keep the promise; it gives us a structure for our actions, a substance to our intentions; it lays out the parameters and the path for our faithfulness. I was reminded of that the other day when I found myself trapped on the sofa, when my infant son fell asleep on my chest. Such moments of daytime rest are rare for either of us, so I certainly wasn't going to risk waking him up with any movement beyond turning on the remote control. And so it was that I found myself watching part of a marathon of recent episodes of "The West Wing" on the Bravo channel. It's a show that, frankly, I gave up on years ago, frustrated by its tendency to go skipping off into the realm of political fantasy: how the writers wish Washington worked instead of how it actually does. Yet, ironically, it was a particular episode's unswerving realism that caught my attention.
The President, apparently, has recently had an attack of Multiple Sclerosis that has left him physically unable to attend to his duties, effectively isolating him in the White House Residence. And, of course, a crisis develops and he wants to go down and take charge in the Oval Office. As he struggles to get dressed, the First Lady is scolding him for his carelessness with his health. While she's still talking, he stops moving and sits on his bed silently, looking down and away from her. When she stops for breath, he says quietly, still unable to meet her eyes, "I can't put on my pants. I'm trying, but I'm just not able to do it." It was a stunning scene of vulnerability: here's the most powerful person in the world, sitting helplessly on his bed, humiliated in front of his wife because of his inability to dress himself. She looks at him, then abruptly crosses the room, grabs the pants, and sticks his feet in each pants leg. Then she heaves him up, supporting his dead weight with one arm while yanking awkwardly on his pants to hike them up his bare legs. As she struggles and he hangs on, he sighs, still embarrassed, finally looks at her, and says, "So I guess this is why they make you say vows." "Yes," she replies, not kindly, not resentfully, but simply and matter-of-factly as she grapples with his belt; "yes, this is why."
It's been observed more than once that if anybody truly understood what they were promising, what they were getting themselves into, when they said their marriage vows, nobody would ever get married. For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, from this day forward, as long as we both shall live; those are astounding, even outrageous promises to make--when you think about them. It's easy for them to get lost in wedding hubbub, buried under the layers of flowers and dresses and music and menus and limos and so on. But, in the end, it is only the vows that matter; it is only in sincerely making those vows that a true marriage is forged, and it is only in faithfully keeping them that a true marriage is maintained. Our circumstances may change and fluctuate, our feelings may wax and wane and wax again, but the mandate of our vows remains constant.
I believe that pretty much everyone who gets married, stands up before God and witnesses, honestly makes those vows with every intention of keeping them. But we don't really understand what they mean until we live into them. No matter how much preparation we go through, no matter how many conversations we have, or premarital counseling sessions we're forced to take, it isn't until we find our vows in tension with our feelings, desires or circumstances, that we really understand what it means to have made them, that we truly comprehend both the blessing and the burden of them. That's what that scene in the White House so vividly illustrated; that's the reason they make us say vows. They are a blessing because they propel us forward, calling us to faithfulness and supporting us in faithfulness when we might not make it just on our own. And, of course, they are a burden for the exact same reason: they make us accountable for our actions, making it impossible to follow our own desires uncritically, to be exclusively self-centered, self-directed, or self-indulgent without suffering real consequences.
And that is the real spiritual issue that is at stake here. Faithfulness is about more than resisting the temptations of idolatry or adultery; faithfulness in any relationship, whether in marriage, friendship, family, or religion, is about finding our identity more in loving than in being loved, more in serving than in being served. That doesn't mean that faithfulness should be freely given or maintained even in abusive or exploitive relationships. In fact, just the opposite: choosing whom you will serve is a decision of paramount importance in which you will have to consider most carefully the character of the one you are binding yourself to, which is why Joshua goes to such lengths to remind the Israelites of God's character, God's saving grace, God's intentions, God's keeping God's promises.
Not all of us are married, but every one of us who is a member of this church is baptized, has taken solemn vows. The Font here in the center of this room reminds us of that; each time we symbolically make our way to gather around this table, we pass the baptismal font that reminds us of the vows we have taken to serve God. And so, when we hear this passage from Joshua, it can be a little disturbing in looking for the good news. It sounds a little dire. At the end of this passage there is a tension between the danger of breaking vows and the people's almost naïve assumption that they'll be able to follow through. Vows are powerful motivators, but they don't guarantee our faithfulness. So it's helpful to realize that this is déjà vu for God. God has seen it before--and has heard it before. This scene is a scene of covenantal renewal, of new life, of reconciliation and new purpose. You see, faithfulness is not a onetime decision, a make-or-break-it choice; sincere servant faithfulness is something that must be practiced. That's what we do when we come here every Sunday. That's why we call this a worship service. We are serving God through what we do here in our prayers and praise, in our ministries of this church, in our studying God's word, in our generosity, in our inviting others to take part in the life of the church. Those are all ways of practicing our faith, and our faithfulness. It is a constant decision every day to keep and act upon the vows that we have made. In a few minutes, some of those whom you've elected to be leaders here in this church will be making a new set of vows, but those vows stand on top of the foundation of baptism that all of us share. And those baptismal vows, as well as ordination vows, are radical, even outrageous in their expectations. But that's the whole point of them: to remind us what we were created for and how we have promised to serve God; they drive us and inspire us to greater faithfulness in and through our lives and relationships; and they remind us that there is no circumstance we can find ourselves in that God has not seen before. And that God will not simply remember the promises we have made, in which, in our human frailties and shortcomings, we so often trip and stumble, God will remember the promises God has made: to remember us and be faithful to us--from the moment of our baptism, throughout the practice of our lives, until we are called home to be at God's table. And therein lies our hope.
The word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- Genesis 12:6; Genesis 35:4; Joshua 8:30-35
- Exodus 24:3-8
- My translation based on the Hebrew, though this translation is supported by a similar version in the NIV. See also Robert Coote, Joshua, New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998) p. 715, for a similar conclusion.
- Exodus 32:1-6
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