Nov. 12, 2017
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
A rabbi talked to one of my former confirmation classes about the process of conversion in the Jewish faith. He talked about the time when his wife and he were newly married. He was a Jewish lay person and she was a gentile. But she was so in love with him that she thought she would switch to his faith. And so, she went to their rabbi and told him she would like to convert. The rabbi asked her a bunch of questions and she tried to respond in such a way that would convince him without a shadow of a doubt that deep down she had always been a Jew and would always be a Jew. When she was done he said, “I don’t think you are ready yet. Take some time and come back again later.” And so she did. She studied up on the Jewish faith, refined her answers, and returned a few months later. She was sure the rabbi would be impressed with her knowledge this time and would let her join. But again, he responded, “I don’t think you are ready yet. Take some time and come back again.” She couldn’t believe it. What more did the man want to hear from her? She waited a couple more months and returned to the rabbi. This time she didn’t prepare. She sat in his office and said, “I am committed to joining this faith, but I don’t know what else to do. I just really want to be a Jew.” The rabbi smiled and said, “okay.”
It turns out that he wasn’t looking for her to know a certain body of information or for her to say the right words. He was going upon a Jewish tradition that said, if someone wants to join the faith send that person away twice. If she comes back a third time she must really mean it, and so, you should welcome her.
Joshua’s final act as Moses’ successor and leader of the Israelite people reminds me of the rabbi’s story. Joshua’s job is just about over. He’s guided the people into the promised land. He’s led them to victory over the Canaanites. He’s helped them get settled. And now he calls all the elders, judges, officials, heads of families, and other important folk and says, “choose this day whom you will serve!” Are you going to serve idols and pagan gods or are you going to serve the God of our ancestors, the Lord of Salvation? “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The people all respond, of course we’ll serve the Lord. Look at all God’s done for us. Why would we serve anyone else?
But, Joshua seems to think that they’ve answered too quickly, too easily. “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
In other words, Joshua says to the people, if this is just another promise, one more priority among the ever growing and changing list of priorities, don’t make it. Joshua wants them to know that a commitment to God is a commitment of one’s entire self, heart and mind. All other commitments and priorities are determined and defined by this one. You can’t worship this God and seek fulfillment in your golden calves or fancy toys. You can’t worship this God and ignore the poor and the oppressed. You can’t worship this God and treat creation like a dumping ground. You can’t worship this God and still worship the god of your self.
Now, whether Joshua really believed that God was so disinclined to forgive or whether he overstated his point in order to make his point, one thing is clear: the calling to be God’s people is a calling to commitment. Heeding that call requires a kind of dying to self in order to live to something greater.
In a sermon on this same text Talitha Arnold, Pastor of a UCC church in New Mexico, writes, “As a parish minister, I assume Joshua’s role when I invite people to affirm their covenant with God and one another. But I seldom have his courage in the follow-through. If I did, when parents brought their child for baptism, I would ask more than the generic, ‘Do you promise to grow with this child in the Christian faith and offer him or her the nurture of the Christian church?’
Instead I’d ask, in front of God and the whole congregation, ‘Do you promise to get him or her out of bed, dressed and here every Sunday morning for the next 18 years, even when you’ve had a long week or you’d rather sleep in or there’s a soccer match or when this darling infant has grown into a surly, tattooed teenager who thinks church is dumb?’
I’ve never been honest about baptismal vows [she continues.] I bet Joshua would have been. When people join the church, Joshua would have asked more than a rote, ‘Do you renounce the powers of evil and seek the freedom of new life in Christ?’ After the unsuspecting new member said yes, Joshua would have followed with , ‘So when you buy your next car, will you resist all the commercial hype that encourages you to overspend on something that eats up resources and pollutes the air?’[i]
Just so you know, I quote Rev. Arnold with a keen awareness that her challenge applies to me as much as it does to anyone here. It’s not soccer that will get us, though I expect basketball will. When those Sunday morning games come around we’ll be facing tough choices about what we’re committed to and what’s really best for us and for the church. And, whether it is buying cars or any other use of money we’re forced to assess the extent to which we are sacrificing more worthy causes on which to spend.
Those of us who turn to the New Testament for easier listening – less vengeance and perhaps a more comforting message – are a bit disappointed today. Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of God. Ten bridesmaids await the groom’s arrival. The groom is so late that the darkness outlasts the oil in their lamps. Five of the women have extra oil and 5 do not. As it happens, the groom arrives while half the bridesmaids are out looking for refills. The five with reserves are brought into the party while the other five are left out in the dark. Jesus’ message: KEEP AWAKE!
In my opinion it’s an ugly parable. The groom is way late. He’s left 10 women out in the dark and cold for too long. And, instead of apologizing to the five who happened to be filling their lamps when he finally showed up, he locks them out of the banquet. If you ask me, the groom is unfair, inhospitable, and arrogant.
I’m not sure how Jesus’ early audience would have heard this particular story, but I know that part of Jesus’ goal in telling stories was to make waves, to shake people up, to get their attention. And, I expect it worked.
Most of the commentaries indicate that the oil is meant to represent preparedness. The bridesmaids who came with extra oil came prepared. When the groom arrived, they were ready.
When Jesus tells his disciples, “Keep awake!” he tells us all to be prepared. His message isn’t all that different from Joshua’s. The God of Jesus Christ, the Lord of our salvation, is worth committing our lives to.
The good news in all of this is not simply the party at the end. Though of course that’s a piece of it. The good news is that in the preparation the celebration has already begun. In living lives that are committed to Christ, we don’t simply prepare for some future gift of heaven, we begin to discover ways in which we are in fellowship with a living and active Christ in our present days and nights.
For example, when we’re in tune with our love for God, dedicated to it, and conscious of cultivating it, we come to see more and more of it within us and in our fellowship with those near to us. When we devote ourselves to God’s word of grace above the words of fear, and violence, and self that the world so often speaks, we come to hear more and more its message for our lives. When we commit ourselves to the priorities of God, that is when we shape our lives around the confession that the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the disempowered are indeed blessed to God, we find more and more God working in both amazing and subtle ways for comfort, wholeness, health, and liberation.
Interestingly, though the parable’s message is about preparedness, it seems to be less about preparedness for Christ’s coming and more about preparedness for the wait. Last week our theme was “Wait for it!” and we talked about an active kind of waiting, a waiting that requires a willingness on our part to receive grace as it is given and not as we require it – a willingness to position ourselves with God so that we are the child, the student, the saved (as opposed to the Father, the Rabi, the Savior.) In other words, waiting requires the hard work of humility and openness.
This week I think our instructions continue. After all, what if those foolish bridesmaids never left? What if they understood that it wasn’t oil they needed, but rather light? What if they stuck together because they knew that in their fellowship there was enough light for all of them?
After Christ rose from the dead, after he ascended into heaven, he left us with his Spirit to fill us, and his church to surround us. Waiting for what God has in store for us, whether it’s filled with anticipation or confusion or dread, is not a task to do alone. There is a reason we are here. There is a reason that together we are the Church. Amen
[i] Christian Century, Oct. 23-Nov. 5, 2002. Page 18.