Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
August 26, 2018—Proper 16B
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-25; Eph 5:21-33; John 6:60-69
“As for me and my household, we shall serve the Lord!”
It has been embroidered onto pillows and inscribed onto plaques all over Christendom. It’s a great phrase. But honestly, it could use a little unpacking before we just slap it up on the wall. What’s actually going on here?
Joshua has gathered the tribes of Israel at Shechem, where he challenges them to choose: to choose between the LORD and the gods they had served before, between the LORD and the gods of the Amorites in whose land they were living.
They respond in one voice: We shall serve the Lord, because he liberated us from Egypt! We shall serve the Lord, because he protected us along the way. We shall serve the Lord, because he drove out the peoples from this land we have been given. That’s why we shall serve the Lord!
And there’s the clue that cautions us to be careful with this passage. It’s that last part that suggests we might be careful about embroidering it willy-nilly on pillows and plaques.
Because this is a Conquest story, which makes it a complicated story. This is a story from a time when Adonai was a tribal god. When those who worshiped Adonai understood him as “Our god, who is in competition with all the other gods.” When they had not yet shaken off the idea of “Our god can beat up your god!”
Which means this story comes from a time that hasn’t yet fully comprehended the idea of monotheism. The people haven’t yet accepted the idea that there IS only one God. One God who created everything. One God who is Father and Mother of all people. One God whose kingdom encompasses all nations. One God whose spirit suffuses all things and whose salvation will redeem the entirety. One God, who cannot be claimed by any one group of people.
Joshua hasn’t made it that far yet. He and the people are still caught up in a world in which there are many gods. They have chosen and been chosen by Adonai, and have sworn off worshipping any other gods. Not because he is the One God, the only God, for ALL humanity. But because He is more powerful and righteous than other gods. And because he is theirs.
Which is how they end up getting the land. Their mighty warrior god helped them defeat the peoples in the lands they entered, after being freed from Egypt.
It’s complicated stuff, the journey from a system of tribal gods to the idea of One God. You can watch it happening, over the course of the Hebrew Bible. You can see the slow development of a truly monotheistic understanding. It clearly wasn’t easy. Because it was such a departure from what they knew. And because embracing this reality requires giving up the idea of having the special protection and favor of your God.
We are still working on this ourselves.
We are still tempted by the idea of a god who is on call for us. Who is on OUR side. Who bestows lands and riches upon us. Who gives us special blessing, special protection, special status.
We are tempted, tempted by this mindset despite the fact that it’s left over from a system of tribal gods. Despite the fact that indulging it might well be the idolatry we are commanded to avoid. Because there is only One God. One. One God for all humanity, belonging to no people and no nation.
One God. Which means that idolatry isn’t about worshiping the god of another tribe and, as it were, backing the wrong horse in the tribal god battle. Idolatry is allowing your life and your heart to be turned away from the ways of God.
As it says in Ephesians, our fight is not against enemies of flesh and blood. It is no longer a war of nation against nation, our god versus your god. Because there is only one God! But there are countless hosts of things that seek to turn us away from that God (from the realm of God, the dream of God, the ways of God).
Which means our Conquest story will be fought on a spiritual level, within our own persons. It is not our part of the narrative to expect God to grant us military victory if we worship him. Our victory will be righteousness. The Land we are promised, the new home we will enter into, is a life that is God-centered.
But just as the Israelites were surrounded by nations who worshiped other gods, we are surrounded by things that tempt and demand our worship. The writer of Ephesians recognized the danger, and exhorts us to wrap ourselves in Christ. To dive deep into the gospels, and learn the ways of Jesus. To breathe in his ways of humility, his boundless generosity, his endless capacity for forgiveness. To wrap ourselves in the power of repentance, self-denial, and redemption. To adopt his bravery in breaking down boundaries aimed at keeping people outside the community. To try on his radical trust, that gave up every comfort to proclaim God’s kingdom.
This is the armor of God. This will be the way we can turn from whatever idols call to us, tempt us, pull us away from the Kingdom of God made visible in Jesus.
There are so many idols. Wealth is a classic example. Not for nothing are those idols made of gold. Not for nothing does the scripture warn us that love of money is the root of all evil, that grasping at wealth will make it impossible to get through the eye of that needle into God’s kingdom. If our focus is on money, if we think that monetary worth is the chief determinant that makes something (or someone) important or valuable, then we have allowed an idol to get between us and God. We have been cut off from God. Unquestioned pursuit of financial wealth is idolatry.
But there are other idols. You might be pretty good on money, but worship status. Or beauty. Or education. Or your idol might be fear. Not that you deliberately worship fear. But that you allow it to rule you. That it prevents you from trusting God, from experiencing the joy and freedom that comes from releasing anxiety. Or your idol might be a coping mechanism that has become an addiction, so that food or alcohol or sex or gambling is what you turn towards, what feeds you and calms you and feels like it heals you from the pains of the world.
What do you turn to for solace? What do you seek after for meaning? What feels like salvation or success or safety? Ask yourself: is it actually life-giving? Does it point toward redemption and liberation, for you AND for those around you? Does it heal or does it just mask the pain? Does it feed and nourish, or does it just distract or fill you up for a while?
The people of God have been tempted by idols throughout history. You wouldn’t be the first. You just need to learn how to recognize it. To see where your heart goes, where your attention goes, where your values lie. And if God isn’t visible from there, then concentrate on putting on that armor: humility and trust, compassion and generosity, repentance and the willingness to take a second shot.
Choose the Lord. Not so that your side will win, but so that your life will be God-centered. So that you will know wholeness. So that you will be saved from all the destructive idols that the world will dangle in front of you. Choose the Lord. May it be so, Amen.