By Rev. Daniel Sack
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
What decisions did you make this morning? Did you decide what to have for breakfast? What to wear to church? Whether to come to church? Whether to get out of bed? Did anyone decide whether to believe in God this morning? Do any of you remember ever consciously deciding to believe in God? I’d like us to think and talk a bit this morning about making decisions–about choosing, and about being chosen. But first, let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
A lot has happened since the last time we talked. The last time I preached here was late August, and a lot has happened since then–not only in our lives, but also in the biblical story. The last time I preached was on a passage from the Hebrew bible. It was from the beginning of Exodus, when the Hebrew people are first enslaved in Egypt and the baby Moses was rescued from the Nile. Since then the assigned lectionary passages from the Hebrew scriptures have gone through the entire Exodus story. And as you may remember from Sunday School, or from The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, that there are some pretty big events during the Exodus. What are some of the more exciting things that happened during the Exodus? There’s the burning bush, the plagues, the passover, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the giving of the Ten Commandments. All of these are big, dramatic events, when God does something exciting and all the people just stand back and say, wow. Even Charlton Heston.
The text that Sunday in August was the beginning of the story, when the Hebrew people were first enslaved. Today’s passage is the other end of the story. It’s not as well known, and not nearly as exciting. There’s no miracle, no plague, no lightning bolts on the mountain. In fact, God isn’t a character in this passage at all. But I would argue that this passage is one of the more dramatic moments in the Hebrew scriptures–and the drama has echoes in our daily lives.
So, some context. After leaving Egypt the people of Israel wandered through the desert for forty years. (Insert the obligatory GPS joke here.) God gave them the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and, over time, a lot more laws. They travel towards what we now know as Israel. At the edge of the promised land Moses dies and is replaced by Joshua. The Hebrews fight a long series of battles with the Canaanites who live there–remember the battle of Jericho? Eventually, after a lot of battles and a lot of laws, the Lord’s chosen people are ready to enter the promised land. Before they march in and take possession of the land, however, Joshua gathers them together at a village called Shechem. He narrates everything that the Lord had done for Abraham and his descendents–he brought them out of Egypt, defeated the pharaoh, gave them the law, defeated the Canaanites, and brought them to the brink of the promised land.
After all that the Lord has done, concludes Joshua, it’s time to decide. After all that the Lord has done, do you want to serve him and be faithful to him? You don’t have to, he says. You are free to go back to your ancestor’s gods, or to the gods of the Canaanites, Or you can serve the Lord, the god who brought you out of Egypt to the promised land. But you should know, Joshua goes on, that serving the Lord isn’t easy. You have to be faithful to him–you can’t go running off and following other gods. If you forsake him he will judge you harshly. You all can do whatever you want to do, Joshua concludes, but my family and I will serve the Lord.
This is a dramatic moment. Through the entire Exodus story, the people of Israel have been either passive actors or whiners. God has been the active one, and the people have stood back to watch, or they have just complained. Now, after all the miracles, after all the marching, after all battles, after all the laws, it is time for the people to make a choice. Here in Shechem on the banks of the Jordan they have to decide what god they will serve. It’s up to them. The Lord is not an actor in this story, but you can imagine him pacing back and forth in the background, nervously watching to see what they’ll do. (I apologize for the exclusively masculine language here.)
At the end of today’s lesson the people of Israel say that they will follow the Lord–after all, he’s been good to us. He brought us out of Egypt. Don’t be too hasty, Joshua says–the Lord is a jealous god and will not like it if you start following other gods. No, no, we mean it, the people reply–we will be faithful to the Lord alone. As the rest of the Hebrew scriptures show, this is a promise that the people of Israel have a hard time keeping.
I like this story. It says that human beings have the choice to follow God, to believe in God, or not. It says that we have some free will in the matter. The God who created us and loves us is nevertheless willing to let us make up our own minds. I have to admit that I hate making decisions–that may be why I have had five different careers and always struggle with the restaurant menu. But I do believe that every day we called to choose what god to serve.
I suspect a lot of Americans like this story too. As you may have noticed, Americans love choices. What kinds of choices do American like to make? Walk into the grocery store, and you are surrounded by choices. Listen to political rhetoric–we need to make sure that people have choices. Why is that so much a part of our culture? It might be because of our continent’s abundance, or the tradition of our frontier, but we don’t want to be limited in our options. Even if all the choices ultimately overwhelm us and make us unhappy,
This is why evangelical Christianity is so popular in the United States. In many parts of the Christian tradition you are born into the faith, you are nurtured into it, and you kind of take it for granted. But in evangelical Christianity you choose your faith. You stand up in public and declare that you believe in Jesus Christ. That’s why a lot of evangelical services are called decision meetings–you have to decide to believe in God, to follow Jesus. It’s all in your hands. And this fits with our love of choice. Sociologists say that the United States has a religious free market. No regulations and an almost infinite choices. Just like you can walk in to CVS and choose from fifty kinds of toothpaste, you can walk into most any American community and find fifty kinds of faith.
This approach to faith is becoming more common in American culture, even outside the evangelical world. People who study this kind of thing say that religious faith is increasingly a question of choice. Back in my day–I can say that because I am over 50–back in my day most Americans grew up in a particular religious tradition. They may not have been strong believers, and they may not have always been very observant, but it was generally assumed that everyone was religious in some way. You most likely took on your family’s religious identity. Unbelief was intellectually possible but not socially acceptable.
Increasingly, however, religion is about individual choice. We are less likely to take on a prescribed religious identity. Instead, we are more likely to choose a different faith, or create a new one, or declare ourselves spiritual but not religious, or choose no religious identity whatsoever. Sociologists call this last group the Nones, and they are a growing segment of American society. This idea of choosing your religion or being a None is particularly common among the younger generation–you know who you are.
So in our changing society religion is a choice you make rather than a label you inherit. And there are a lot of good things about this. Faith is not something that should be chosen for you, not something that should be forced on you. That path leads to flabby faith at best and resentment at worst. We need to chose how we live our lives–we can’t just let things happen to us or be chosen for us. I suspect this view is particularly common in congregations like this. Some of us are here because we grew up in this church or in another UCC congregation. But many of us have chosen to be here because we are looking for something new or felt unhappy where we were before. Like the people of Israel gathered at Shechem, we are here because we have chosen to be here, because of what God has done in our lives.
There’s one little problem here–John Calvin. Well, not so much Calvin himself as one of his favorite ideas. He offers a useful corrective to this language of choice. Calvin is not a popular guy among most liberal Christians, but today I’m going to try to defend Calvin–at least a little bit.
Who has heard of Calvin? What do you know about him? Protestant reformer, prolific theologian, lived in the sixteenth century in Geneva, a lawyer by training. His ideas had a lot of influence on the Presbyterians and several historical streams within our own UCC.
His best known theological idea–it was not original to him, but is most often associated with his name–is predestination. I want to avoid getting down into the theological weeds here, but here’s a quick summary–a lot of it is broad caricature, but here’s the gist of it.. In Calvin’s day the church said that human beings could earn their salvation by doing certain things–by being baptized, by receiving communion, by going on pilgrimages, even (when the church was particularly corrupt) by giving money to the church. An idea for stewardship season. But the fundamental idea here was that you could earn your salvation.
Calvin said no. No, we do not earn our salvation. Our salvation is a free gift of God which we can do nothing to earn and can do nothing to lose. God determined our salvation long before we were born. The most extreme form of this is double predestination, which says that from the beginning of time some of us are destined to be saved and some of us are destined to be damned.
A lot of people hate this crude form of predestination, seeing it as cruel and heartless. So do I. It doesn’t sound like the God I know. But I do like this reminder that there is nothing we have to do to earn our salvation. God’s salvation, God’s love, is a free gift that we get whether we deserve it or not. That’s why it’s called grace.
And that’s why, when we talk about choosing God, about choosing our religion, we should remember Calvin. Because when we talk about choosing God, we need to remember that God chose us first. Long before we first saw a church, long before we made our first decision, long before we were born, God chose us. We can choose to be Calvinists or liberals or Buddhists or spiritual-but-not-religious or None, but God chose us first
After all miracles of the Exodus came a dramatic moment. The Hebrew people gathered at Shechem, on the banks of the Jordan River, about to enter into the Promised Land. As they gathered, there were a lot of claims on their allegiance. They could follow the gods of their ancestors, the ones their families had followed for generations. They could follow the gods of their new country, of the people they are going to live among. Or they could follow the Lord, the god who brought them out of slavery in Egypt to this new country. Choose this day, Joshua said, who you will serve.
Millennia later there are a lot of claims on our allegiance. Every day different people, institutions, ideas and commitments make a claim on us and ask us to serve them. As Bob Dylan says, we have to serve somebody. What kinds of gods want to claim your allegiance? Jobs, the economy, political commitments, ideologies, materialism.
The Hebrew people gathered at Shechem and were asked to make a big decision: What god will you serve? Millennia later we are asked the same question. Sometimes the question may be less dramatic–how should I relate to a stranger on the subway? What should I say to my boss? Sometimes the question might be huge–What should be my vocation? How do I act in a time of war? These moments–large and small–confront us with the Joshua question: choose this day who you will serve.
Sisters and brothers, as I said earlier, I hate making decisions. But I know that every day, as I make my decisions and choose who or what I serve, I know that God chose us first. For our choices and for being chosen, thanks be to God, and amen.