Sermon - Ordinary 32 Year A

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A jealous God

Joshua led the people of Israel when they entered the promised land after they had wandered for forty years in the wilderness with Moses. God blessed them with prosperity after their initial struggles; they were conquerors and enjoyed more than they deserved:

After many years of enjoying the fruits of the land Joshua feared that they might have forgotten the Lord who gave it to them and they would turn to other gods. There were plenty of other gods which might appear to be more compatible with their new-found comfort. Agricultural societies tended to have gods of the seasons, reproduction and fruitfulness, gods which would tend to justify their prosperity and might appear to allow them freedom to enjoy it with less constraint than the exacting loyalty of the Lord they had come to know in the desert when their very survival depended upon a more disciplined way of life. There is a contrast between the austere God of the mountain in the desert from which Moses descended with the law of their covenant with him, the core of which we know as the ten commandments, and the alternatives offered by the agricultural societies around them. The difference was symbolised by the idol of the golden calf [Exodus 32:1-8], and it was a continuing source of tension for the people of Israel.

In his old age, just before he died, Joshua called the elders, the heads of the tribes and the judges together to challenge them with the question of whether they would continue to serve the Lord, the God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and brought them to the promised land, or whether they would chose different gods in their prosperity. Then, as now, people tended to change their religion to suit their new situation. The alternative gods for them might have been chosen from more ancient times, perhaps from the gods their distant ancestors had worshipped before they entered into a covenant with the Lord, or they could have turned to the gods of their settled neighbours:

Our "promised land" and false gods

You can, I am sure, see some parallel with our situation of relative ease compared with the struggles of our ancestors in settling this land, or if you are recently arrived then perhaps the comparison might be with a harder life elsewhere. You might even see a parallel question about the justice of dispossessing the people who were already in the land. However it came about, we must admit that we have been blessed with the fruits of the land as if it were a promised land for us. It must have seemed especially so for people like the convicts and refugees who were forced to come here and later enjoyed far more than they could have expected or ever asked or deserved. Yet people get used to prosperity and think they have a right it, and soon to claim even more. Then they tend to forget the poor, whoever among them might not appear to be so blessed, and they then imagine that the poor deserve their poverty.

It is these self justifying attitudes that easily lead to the worship of false gods. So in our society today there are plenty of alternative gods to satisfy the religious needs of the people. People will be religious one way or another, whatever secularist might prefer to imagine: it is a question of whether they will have good religion or bad religion. Naturally, in a consumer society there will be plenty of choice in religion as in everything, without much regard for the truth. So many seek ancient pagan sources of spiritual life and superstition increases. One way or another symbols of power, sex and money are raised up as idols: idols not so very different from the golden calf which represented for the ancient people of Israel the potency of the bull, in both its sex and power, and the golden wealth of settlement in a prosperous land. What kind of gods are people worshipping in Melbourne's brothels, businesses, gambling houses, theatres, art galleries, stadiums, parliament, press and living rooms?

So Joshua's challenge comes with a strong clear voice across the centuries: choose this day whom you will serve; and we hear the commitment in his own affirmation of faith: as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. It is necessary to make a deliberate choice. Joshua's own commitment was a clear example and emphasised the challenge he was putting to his followers. If you do not serve God, the maker of heaven and earth, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the loving Lord sought by people everywhere who was revealed to the people of Israel and made known by Jesus in the flesh, then without him you will worship other powers whether deliberately or simply by conforming to what people around you are doing. Not to make a commitment when the challenge is there before us is to make a choice, a choice against the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The call to commitment

The contrast is sharper and the choice more urgent as the Kingdom of God is revealed. As in the parable of the foolish bridesmaids which we read today (Matthew 25:1-13), the closer the time comes to the arrival of the bridegroom, the time of the great celebration of the Kingdom, the more urgent the choice and the sharper contrast. The closeness of the Kingdom which Jesus proclaimed heightens distinctions between good and evil and makes the choice more stark. He came into Galilee proclaiming that the Kingdom of God had come near, it was upon them now. There is an urgency about the message that the Kingdom of God is upon you as in this parable:

Choices for or against God always have that character of urgency, as Joshua put it: choose this day whom you will serve! You cannot drift into the Kingdom of God. One way or another you must make a deliberate commitment. Whether it develops gradually or instantaneously it requires a clear conscious act of mind and will, and of the heart. Nor is it sufficient for a choice to be made once and for all. Given the frailty of human nature and the effect of changing circumstances on our relationships with others and our whole way of life, it needs to be renewed from time to time.

Such renewal of our commitment is part of our tradition, especially from the Methodist Church, and the general principle of covenanting was important too in the Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions. John Wesley provided a special Covenant Service for occasions to renew our covenant with God. A version of that service is still in a Uniting Church official book of worship services and many congregation use it annually. The wording of this service is always a challenge. Let me remind you or share it with you. As we have it now the Covenant is introduced as follows:

In the Old Covenant,
God chose Israel as his people
and gave them the gift of the Law.
In the New Covenant,
he made the gift of his Son Jesus Christ,
who fulfils the Law for us.
We stand within the New Covenant
and we bear the name of Christ.
God promises us new life in him.
We receive this promise
and pledge to live not for ourselves but for God.
This covenant is renewed each time we meet
at the table of the Lord.
Today we meet, as generations before us have met,
to renew that which bound them and now binds us to God.

You see how it relates us to the Old Covenant of Moses originally made in the desert which Joshua asked the people now enjoying the promised land to renew: In the Old Covenant, God chose Israel as his people and gave them the gift of the Law. Then we recall the New Covenant we have received through Jesus Christ: God promises us new life in him; and we are reminded that This covenant is renewed each time we meet at the table of the Lord. [An so we will make that renewal today as the Lord's Supper is celebrated and I will invite you do it consciously and deliberately as we come to the Lord's Table.]

The call to renew the covenant is given in words which spell out it meaning in terms of specific effects on the way we live our lives:-

Beloved in Christ,
let us again claim this covenant for ourselves,
and take the yoke of Christ upon us.
To take this yoke upon us means that we are content
that he appoint us our place and work,
and that he himself be our reward.
Christ has many services to be done:
some are easy, others are difficult;
some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations
and material interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
in others we cannot please Christ
except by denying ourselves.

The challenge concludes with an assurance of the grace of God which enables us to fulfil the promises we are about to make:-

Yet the power to do all these things
is given us in Christ, who strengthens us.
Therefore let us make this covenant with God our own,
trusting in the eternal promises
and relying on divine grace.

The challenge was much the same when Joshua offered the ancient people of God an opportunity to renew their commitment when they might have chosen otherwise, but he was not able to offer the same assurance of the grace of God in Christ which we have. But we can learn from their response and how Joshua persisted in heightening the choice by emphasising the demands of the covenant. Their first inclination was to follow Joshua's example and assert their willingness to remain faithful:

Avoid the too easy commitment

You would think Joshua would be satisfied with that! But, no; he tried to frighten them off:

It is almost as if he is saying you will be better off if you do not make this commitment. He knows them well and says, you are a weak and untrustworthy lot, you are likely to break your promises and then you will be in worse trouble than ever. God, whom you would serve, is a jealous God, and will not tolerate your playing around with other gods. He will punish you severely for unfaithfulness: would it not be better for you not to pretend that you will be faithful?

This exclusive demand to be faithful to the one God and serve him alone was at the heart of the covenant he had made with them in the wilderness. We see this right at the beginning of the ten commandments:

They knew that and persisted nevertheless:

So Joshua bound them to it, as if they were convicting themselves:

The Christian Covenant

The Christian commitment similarly requires us to put away all other gods, all alternative commitments, to submit to the discipline of God: and take the yoke of Christ upon us. Together with this similarity to the Old Covenant, it is important to accept the assurance in the Covenant Service that we make our commitment as Christians who are in receipt of the grace of God that came to us in Jesus Christ, as we have already been reminded: Yet the power to do all these things is given us in Christ, who strengthens us. Our situation is different from that of the people who were challenged by Joshua. God is still a jealous God today and will not tolerate disloyalty. We need no less than the ancient people of Israel to hear the challenge of Joshua to make a deliberate choice, to turn away from the powers of this world in which we are so easily entangled with confused loyalties, and turn to God. That challenge remains. What is different is that in Christ God has offered us salvation, a life fulfilled in fellowship with him, in spite of our sins. So we turn to him in a spirit of thanksgiving rather than fear of the jealous God. It is then with thankful hearts that we may repeat from time to time the words that Wesley gave us and which will serve at any time as a monumental point of reference whenever we consider how we are to respond to the love of God. I read those words now as a prayer: Let us pray:-

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you;
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours,
to the glory and praise of your name. Amen.

 

[The following conclusion had local application and a different statement would be needed for other situations.

Renewing our covenant

Today as we welcome one new elder and re-commission another who has served the church well for the past five years, we renew our own commitment. Nothing is more important to the future of this congregation than a deepening of commitment to God, and that means a willingness to put him first in our lives and not allowing other things to take his place. We will do it by spelling out the way in which we aim to serve God here in Templestowe. That requires not only a willingness to worship God in the congregation and work for the church in various ways; it is necessary at the same time to renew our commitment to God personally. We do that as Christians.

Now one of our elders, Andrew, who worked on drafting the mission statement, will help to remind us of what we are committing ourselves to in the congregational covenant we make today.]

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