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Living Into the Covenant

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Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

I have three texts that we’ll be looking at today.  Don’t worry—that doesn’t mean I will preach three times as long.  All 3 are familiar but I’ve never seen the intersection between them until this week.

The Old Testament or Hebrew Scripture passage from the lectionary for today is Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25.  It begins like this:

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God.  And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors–Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor–lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.  Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.  “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve the LORD in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

Choose this day whom you will serve. Now at this point this seems like a pretty easy choice.  Let’s see.  God brought them and their ancestors out of slavery, protected them from pharaoh’s army, fed them in the wilderness, made a covenant with them to be their God, was faithful in spite of their whining and idolatry, and helped them conquer the people who already lived in the land they called promised.  Hmmm…should we choose to serve this God or go looking for another one?  Seems to me there’s an obvious answer, and apparently it seemed obvious to the Israelites, too.  Our scriptures continues:

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight.  The LORD protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land.  Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for the LORD is our God.”  See, pretty clear, right?  This should satisfy Joshua.  But it doesn’t.

But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for the LORD is a holy God and a jealous God; the LORD will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.  If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then the LORD will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”  And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!”  Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve the LORD.”  And they said, “We are witnesses.”  He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”  The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and will obey.”  So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

Now, we reject this view of God, that God punishes us, that God would do us harm and consume us for transgressing. But Joshua’s message is pretty clear: before you promise, be sure.  Be absolutely certain that you know what it means to serve God because you are making this promise in front of God and one another, so you are witnesses against yourselves and one another.

When I preached on this text six years ago, I said that maybe we make wedding vows too easy.  Usually I say something like,  “Do you take this woman or this man to be your lawfully wedded wife/husband,” and the person responds “I do.”  And I take them at their word.  Maybe instead I should say, “Think about this, now.  Your spouse is not always going to look this good.  You will have to put up with his football obsession and his crazy friends.  You will have to hold her hair while she vomits during her first trimester.  Are you sure you want to take this woman or this man?”  They will respond, “I do!  Really!”  And then maybe I should say, “The day will come when your needs are not being met.  The children will come first or work will come first and you will come last.  You will feel unwanted, undesirable and good only for what you can do, not who you are.  Then somebody will come along who finds you attractive and interesting and who makes you feel more alive than you remember ever feeling.  But if you give in to temptation, you will pay a heavy price because the vows you take this moment assure that you will suffer guilt, self-recrimination, and loss of self-respect.  You can prevent that now by walking away.  Do you still want to say ‘I do?’”  Of course, I would never say that in a wedding, but in life we make lots of promises when we really have little to no idea what we’re getting into.

At this point in their story the Israelites don’t truly understand what it means to serve God.  Oh, sure, they had already made a covenant with Yahweh—several in fact, the most prominent being the Sinai Covenant, when the Ten Commandments were given.  But they still don’t know what it will be like to serve God in real life.  They only know the wilderness, when they were desperate for food and water and Yahweh provided manna and water from a rock.

Now life is about to change as they settle into the Promised Land.  The Promised Land is “filled with seduction and danger for Israel.  Because it is a land of abundance, it may seduce Israel into amnesia about its true character and mandate as the people of YHWH. Israel may be tempted to embrace the alternative gods that occupy the good land.  The text revolves around the ironic awareness that the good land is a seductive land in which crucial choices must be made. . . .What this God requires is a life-commitment that will impinge upon every dimension of public life . . . social, political, and economic. . . . With YHWH it is ‘all or nothing.’”

This makes that seemingly simple invitation a bit more difficult, now doesn’t it?  “Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  It’s not just a cross-stitch pattern or an appropriate saying for a sofa pillow.  Your answer will form a life-altering covenant.  It will affect how you live your life, how you spend your money.  It will affect how you view other people and how you view yourself.  It will affect who you vote for, where you shop, and what companies you invest in.  Those simple words — “We will serve the Lord” — affect every area of your life.

Joshua knows that the covenant they have already made needs to be renewed, because they have only begun to live into it.  That’s how covenants are—that’s how ideals are—we feel our way into them.  We live our way into them.  We don’t always achieve them, these shining ideals, but once we make the commitment, we try to live into it.

This brings us now to our second and third texts for this morning.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And finally: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These words from the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution make bold claims about who we are and what we stand for: equality and liberty, justice and the welfare of all.  These words grace our hallowed halls and our patriotic hearts.  We hold these truths to be self-evident.

We know, of course, that these words, as much as we love them, weren’t entirely true.  When our founders said that “all men are created equal,” they didn’t actually mean all men, or even all people.  They meant men like them.  The Constitution re-entrenched power after the Revolution had thrown it up in the air and they did so in part by declaring who was eligible to vote.  Basically, if you were dependent upon anyone, they figured that your vote could be controlled by that person.  Women were dependent upon men.  Renters were dependent upon their landlords.  Wage-earners were dependent upon their bosses.  So in most states, only white land-owning men could vote.  So sure, all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.  However, our founding documents did not assure those rights for all people.

It gets worse in Article one, section two of the Constitution, which “declared that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation.  The ‘Three-Fifths Clause’ thus increased the political power of slaveholding states.  It did not, however, make any attempt to ensure that the interests of slaves would be represented in the government.”[1]  The racism is baked into our very founding documents.

Yet I still love the words.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  I still get goosebumps when I hear them—not because I believe our country accurately or adequately reflects them, but because I believe in the hope that one day we might live into them.

That’s how the covenant was for Joshua and the Israelites: it was a call for them to make a promise that they would spend their lives trying to fulfill.  They wouldn’t always get it right.  In fact, they often didn’t.  Over and over again the prophets had to remind them what it meant to serve God, which almost always meant helping others, looking out for those on the margins, making sure everyone was treated justly and fairly.  The covenant helped them claim who they were and who they wanted to be.  Our church vision statement does the same.  In fact, when our vision statement was put on our website many years ago, it came with these words: “We believe this statement articulates who we are now as much as it explains who we hope to be.”  Our founding documents do the same.

As a country we have not lived up to our ideals.  We have not honored the rights of all.  We have not offered liberty and justice to people equally.  We have not even governed as if we believe that God has endowed ALL people with rights.  And yet we hold onto the promise.  We hold on to the hope that we can yet become that country we said we would be.  And with that hope comes action.

I grew up hearing the song God Bless America, and it was usually sung with a marching beat.  It was almost a command.  God bless America!  And now, in our deeply divided country, as we move through the next few turbulent weeks, regardless of whether you are pleased with the results or not, we must sing it as a prayer: Please, God, bless America, land that I love.  Stand beside her and guide her through the night with the light from above.  May we live into its promise.



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