Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
November 9, 2104
I follow in this weekly column the Revised Common Lectionary as I get it from the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church. Occasionally, the listing of suggested biblical texts includes some special celebrations or particular emphases that an attentive preacher may address in that Sunday's sermon. On this particular Sunday, my list includes both "Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday" and "International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church." Both of these suggestions are fully worthy of a preacher's most serious engagement, and any preacher would do well to research each of these subjects carefully and present a serious address on either of them for his/her congregation. I would urge the willing preacher not to attempt to engage both, in the same way that I some weeks ago urged preachers never to take on all of the Ten Commandments in one sermon. Important subjects take time and require depth of reflection if they are to be given their serious due.
Though I am a registered organ donor (have you registered?) and have great concern with the persecution of Christians around the world (though no less concern, I add, for any forms of religious persecution our wounded world presents), it strikes me that any sermon that tries to address such modern topics must always do so in the bright light of the biblical text. Such a statement would appear to be so obvious as not to need saying, but I sense after my own struggles with the Bible's texts for now nearly fifty years, that our employment of the Bible for appropriate context for our ruminations on things modern has become problematic at best and downright dangerous at worst.
For example, anyone who has followed the searing and unending issue of the Bible's address of Gay/Lesbian existence, and questions of same-sex marriage, have seen again and again the dreadful misuse of biblical texts, recruited rather more as sledge hammers for bloody victories than as thoughtful contexts for discussion and enlightenment. It can fairly be said that the ancient texts of the Bible say precisely nothing directly about our modern and evolving understandings of sexuality and its vast complexities. Why should I expect 5th-century B.C.E. Hebrew priests or the 1st-century C.E. evangelist Paul to show sensitive and nuanced understandings of issues of human sexuality when such understanding was plainly unavailable to them? The Bible may indeed provide helpful context for contemporary discussions, but slinging an isolated verse or two into the discussion of such questions cannot serve us well.
Today's text may be a prime example of the value that the Bible can offer for a modern issue. The Deuteronomic historian (known in scholarly circles as DTR) edited the stories of the book of Joshua sometime in the 8th-7th centuries B.C.E., while setting the stories in the very distant past, before Israel's entry into the land of promise. At the end of the book of Joshua, after the supposed defeat (one must say "supposed" since the book of Judges makes it abundantly clear that the tribes of Israel were in no way capable of defeating many of the well-established cities of the Canaanites, especially those in the northern mountains—see Judges 1 for confirmation) of the peoples that lived in what became Israel's land, General Joshua calls the victorious tribes together at Shechem and issues to them a famous challenge.
"Choose this day whom you will serve," he thunders, and the people all respond that they will now and readily "serve YHWH" (Josh. 24:15-16). Well, we might say, who wouldn't? Standing in the land of promise, gazing around at the defeated enemies, eying greedily the land long promised by YHWH, it is quite easy to choose the victorious God, rather than the little gods and godlets either beyond the Jordan, whom they once revered, or the divinities prized by the "Amorites" who live now in the land. "Far be it from us that we should abandon YHWH our God to serve other gods…we will serve YHWH, for YHWH is our God!" (Josh. 24:16, 18) Well, the book of Judges is a long paean to the fact that they cannot and will not serve YHWH, as they so haughtily proclaimed, but that is a story for another Sunday.
Joshua's call for the choice of YHWH at the expense of all other possible objects of worship is the context from which a preacher may address fruitfully a modern question. After all, are not all questions, when seen in the light of the Bible, provided context by the choice of YHWH, as opposed to the choice of other allegiances?
If I choose YHWH, what choice have I made? YHWH is the creator of the skies and the earth. YHWH is the one who establishes and maintains justice in the earth for all of God's people. Any activity that I choose that does not recognize the fact of YHWH's ultimate ownership of all things, of YHWH's maintenance of justice for all people, is a choice of other gods.