Rev. Teri Peterson
12 October 2014, NL1-6
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. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time. Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. Then King Balak, son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.
‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him 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.’
We’ve come a long way since we first left everything behind and boarded the boat with Noah. We’ve seen rainbows and fiery pillars, stars and sand, the bottom of the ocean and the top of a mountain. We’ve walked through wilderness and through the sea. We’ve waited in a dungeon and in a palace. We have met people from every corner of God’s creation. We have stood on the shore between the chaos of the unknown and the certain death of the familiar. We have been found and fed, by the voice of God and by manna in the desert. We have left home, stepped out in faith, and wondered if we were doing the right thing. Now today we stand in the place God made for us.
Last week I mentioned a quote from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: "I cannot answer the question "What ought I to do?" unless I first answer the question "Of which story am I a part?"" Though MacIntyre is still alive today, it’s as if Joshua heard him from the future. And so Joshua begins his speech with a story. These people, this nation that now stands in the promised land, is not the same people they were when they left Egypt. And yet they are, at the same time.
Physically and factually, they are not the same people. The people who crossed the Red Sea, the people who trembled at God’s voice thundering from the mountain, the people who whined constantly through the Sinai—those people have died. They were unable to tear their eyes and their spirits away from the life of slavery, and that spirit has no place in the promised land, so they could not enter. Even Moses didn’t get to come in—he handed the reins to Joshua to lead the people across the second water, the river Jordan. It’s been a few years since that day when the Jordan stopped flowing so the Israelites could yet again walk through on dry ground into the place God had prepared for them. So the people standing before Joshua today are a new generation. They have no memory of Egypt.
And yet through the power of the story, they are the same people that walked with Abraham and Sarah, that came to Egypt seeking famine relief and found grace, that trembled at the banks of the Red Sea, that stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Joshua tells the story so that they—and we—might find ourselves in it yet again. This is our story.
Well, more accurately, it’s God’s story.
Every action in the story Joshua relates is an action on God’s part. God took Abraham from his comfortable place beyond the river, and led him to a new land. God made a great nation from Isaac and another from Ishmael. God took care of Joseph in Egypt, and brought his family there too. God sent Moses to Pharaoh. God led the people through the sea. God led them in the wilderness. God fed them and gave them water from a rock. God brought them into the land. Over and over, we look back and see how God has been active in our lives, and in history too. God is the one telling this story.
We could tell our story the same way, of course. God stirred the heart of John Talbot and the Presbytery of Chicago to push westward. The people of Palatine heard the Spirit knocking on their doors, and they came out of their new homes in the midst of the fields. God called together families of all kinds, and created the largest new church the Presbytery has ever seen, where before there was just a school on the prairie. God gave gifts of teaching and preaching, building expertise and musical talent, gardening and friendship. God brought people to our doors, seeking shelter and welcome, and opened our hearts to them. When we cried out for help, food and blankets appeared in the evening and in the morning. The Spirit, in the form of a school principal, asked us to be an answer to prayer. Just as the Israelites lived in houses they did not build and vineyards they did not plant, so most of us sit here today in a sanctuary we did not build, and do ministry with the generosity of past generations. And yet both the Israelites, and our foremothers and forefathers in this place, and we, are blessed not for ourselves, but in order to be a blessing to the world.
Though not all of us were here for all of this story, it is still our story. Or rather, it’s God’s story, being told in this place through people and bricks, tomatoes and watermelons, trays of Greek food and cups of macaroni and cheese, prayer groups and women’s circles, bakery boxes and electronic fingerprints.
So Joshua says to the people, and to us: choose this day. God’s choice is made—now it’s time for our choice. God has chosen, from the beginning of time, to tell a story of love made visible, of grace and hope. The story of a new heaven and a new earth begins with one person answering the call.
So choose this day. We all serve something. Will we choose to look back to the familiar, to the gods of our ancestors back beyond the river or in Egypt—the idols of comfort and status quo? Or to look forward to the place God is creating for us, even if coming to that home means leaving home?
To put it another way: We have been found by God’s grace. We have been fed at Christ’s table. Will we follow where the Spirit is leading?
The people tell Joshua that they choose the Lord, and he immediately tells them that they’re not actually capable of that. They will mess up, they will find themselves following other gods, they will resist the new thing in order to stay in their favorite pew. They protest, but he’s right: we do mess up, all the time. But also, God is good, all the time. And since this is not our story, but God’s story, the good news is this: God has made God’s choice. We have been chosen, and our messing up doesn’t change that. It may change us, but it doesn’t change God, who will still be standing beside us, or just ahead of us, leading us home. It may be a circuitous route, it may take generations, it may be scary, but the fact remains: The first choice is always God’s, and our choice is about how we will participate in the big picture God is painting.
The whole picture does not depend on any one of us—remember that though the Body is One, it has many members. All of us are called and marked by the Spirit for a life of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.
So you are invited to choose this day to serve the Lord—to let go of the idols of the past and to look toward God’s glorious future; to hear the story of God’s love and decide to be a part of God’s vision. Jesus said “you did not choose me, I chose you”—and then he called us to come and follow him. The promise is for us, and for our children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God shall call. As we come to renew the promise made to our ancestors, and to us, we are asked:
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
I will, with God’s help.
Let us pray.
You are invited to come to the font and remember God’s story of grace beyond comprehension, to be found yet again as you pass through the water, and to commit anew to your piece in God’s big picture.