Tag Archives: Covenant

Joshua Renews the Covenant – Sunday, October 12, 2014 (NL Week 6)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 4:8-10
Preaching Text: Joshua 24:1-15

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Choose this day whom you will serve!

Joshua’s call rang out over the crowd of Israelites gathered to hear him give his last instructions during his last days. Since the death of Moses, Joshua had been the undisputed leader of the people of Israel, a man of conviction who had steered the people through the difficult process of carving out space for themselves among the tribes who inhabited the land of Canaan. Finally, they had found a place to call their own, in fulfillment of the promise that had been given to their ancestor Abraham. For Joshua, it was important to remind the people of that fact, and of everything that had led them to that moment, because he knew what might happen to them when they suddenly found themselves without a leader again. It had happened once before, and Joshua had watched it unfold before his eyes. Years earlier the people had been gathered at the foot of Sinai, that holy mountain where Moses had first encountered God. They were getting restless, because they had watched Moses climb up the mountain to receive God’s word for the people, and they were unsure that he was ever going to come back down to them. In their fear, the people persuaded Moses’ brother, Aaron, to help them craft an idol, a golden calf that they could worship in the absence of their leader. When Joshua thought of everything that had happened as a result of the people’s panic, it still pained him. That’s why he was so insistent on reminding the people of where they had been, of the great love and faithfulness that had been showered upon them by their gracious God. They had been called from obscurity to become a great nation. They had been rescued from slavery and oppression and promised a place to live in freedom and safety. They had finally arrived in that land… and the temptation to forget how they had gotten there would only grow stronger as the weeks and months and years wore on. The matter before the people was undeniably simple:

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Today, as we read how Joshua gave that ultimatum to the people of Israel, it’s not hard to imagine how it might be relevant to our own lives. People of every time and place have faced this challenge and been called to consider what it means to live in faith and obedience to God. For those first Israelites, the choice was between their God and the gods of the other nations that surrounded them. For much of its history, the church that was grafted onto Israel has struggled to sort out its own internal divisions and choose between God and the various theologies that sometimes took God’s place. In our own time, the choice has become more subtle but no less important. Writing about the first commandment and the call to worship God alone in 1529, Martin Luther put the problem this way:

A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.[1]

For Luther, those other “gods” can include things that are often so mundane that they can escape our attention when we consider our relationship with God. For his part, Luther highlighted the allure of money and its ability to give us illusions of security and control over our lives that diminish our trust in our creator. He also listed other things – such as learning, wisdom, power, prestige, family, and honor – that can easily become idols. Today, these things can still distract us from God and become “gods” for us in significant ways; we might add other things like technology, medicine, the market, or ideology. Truthfully, we live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded by people and things that demand our time, our attention, and our allegiance. As the people of God in Christ Jesus, those alternative messages require us to take seriously the call of Joshua:

Choose this day whom you will serve.

What can Joshua teach us about answering that call? Today’s reading reveals the proper motivation for answering it, and that motivation flies in the face of the way this call is so often heard. In many cases, this passage comes off sounding like a threat, with the phrase “or else” left unspoken but lingering just below the surface. Later in this chapter, Joshua does highlight the potential consequences of choosing not to follow God, and those consequences are not to be dismissed lightly. Here, however, Joshua calls the people to choose obedience to God, not out of fear, but as a response to the grace they have already received. Before many of those standing before Joshua were even born, God had chosen their ancestors, spoken words of promise to them, and led them to the fulfillment of those promises. All who heard Joshua’s call were the recipients of divine love and grace too great to fathom. These seven words – choose this day whom you will serve – are not at the most basic level a threat, but an invitation to remember and celebrate who God is and to trust that God will continue to be faithful to the promises that God has made. To live rightly before God is to remember God’s faithful love and to respond to that love by extending it to others. To live rightly before God is to remember the source of our life and the author of our salvation, and to refuse to allow anyone or anything else to take God’s place in our lives. To live rightly before God is to live in Christ, to remember that in baptism we are joined to him and filled with God’s Holy Spirit, and to deny the natural inclination to put ourselves at the center of our own lives. To live rightly before God is to trust that God has already invited us to experience abundant life today.

Brothers and sisters, these words are a challenge, but they are grounded in unbelievable promise. We belong to God in Christ, and we have been chosen to receive God’s blessing so that it might go out to all the world. Let us take seriously the call to choose this day whom we will serve, confident that the one who calls us has also given us the grace, the strength, and the will to respond to God’s “Yes” with our own. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1]Kolb, Robert; Wengert, Timothy J.; and Arand, Charles P.: The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2000, S. 386.

The Call of Abraham – Sunday, September 14, 2014 (NL Week 2)

Sunday’s Readings:
Matthew 28:19-20
Genesis 12:1-9

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last Sunday, our exploration of God’s story began with the great flood and the promise of God made visible by the sign of the rainbow. After the raging floodwaters subsided and the travelers aboard the ark were released from the confines of their floating sanctuary, God blessed Noah and his family and all the animals they had saved and gave them this command: be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth. It was God’s desire that the entire world be filled once again with the newness and energy of life – that those who had been blessed would go forth across the globe and partner with God once again in the work of stewarding creation. God sent humanity out with a remarkable promise: that God would sustain the world, that even if humanity failed to live up to their vocation at times, God would ensure that season would follow season and create the conditions for continued growth and flourishing. Unfortunately, just as Adam and Eve had fallen prey to the serpent’s deception and grasped for knowledge that would make them like God, the newly-released travelers chose not to heed God’s call to spread themselves across the globe.. Genesis 11 tells the tale of how they chose to gather in one spot and begin the world’s most ambitious building project: the great tower at a place that would come to be called Babel, a tower that the people hoped would stretch to heaven itself and cause those who built it to be remembered forever! Suddenly, the new creation was starting to look an awful lot like the old one, and God needed to act again to get humanity moving in the right direction, this time with a little bit of mischief. God scattered the people by baffling their language, short-circuiting their grand plans and forcing them to strike out and find new ways to build community in new places across the globe.

This morning we pick up centuries later with the story of Abram – whose more familiar name, Abraham, would be given to him by God later in life. Abram was a distant descendant of Noah whose father, Terah, had moved his whole family from Ur, a city in what is now south-eastern Iraq, to Harran, located in what is now south-eastern Turkey near the Syrian border. It was there that Abram first heard the voice of God and received this startling command: Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you! I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Just as the story of flood and promise we heard last week represented the renewal of God’s creation, the story of Abram is the renewal of God’s call to humanity to be vehicles of God’s blessing in the world. Where those who gathered at Babel to make a name for themselves did so in defiance of God’s gracious invitation, Abram left behind everything he had ever known at Harran (a city whose name means crossroads), and struck out in a new direction in obedience to God, spurred on by the promise that God would be the one to make his name great through the gifts of descendants and land.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this story is the fact that, unlike Noah, who was described in Scripture as righteous and whole-hearted, Abram doesn’t appear to be particularly noteworthy. Scripture doesn’t describe him as in individual at all – at least not yet. It gives no indication that Abram was special in any way. Yet the entire story of Scripture turns on his response to God’s command, and the unfolding of God’s plan to bring blessing to the world begins anew when the seventy-five-year-old packs up his entire life and sets out in search of the land that God had promised to show him.

That remarkable fact is really important for us to remember, because it says something about the God who calls Abram (and us, his descendants in the faith). Alongside all the stories in Scripture that tell of extraordinary people and their extraordinary obedience is this foundational story of God calling someone who is utterly ordinary – who by all accounts is “past his prime” – and promising blessing, guidance, and enduring presence without any previous track record of faithfulness. What’s more, the stories of Abram and his descendants are honest and realistic about what life lived in obedience to God looks like. Faithfulness does not insulate us from struggle or hardship. In the chapters and verses that follow today’s reading, Abram rescues his captured nephew from a rival tribe, questions, debates, and argues with God, and even persuades God to change God’s mind (at least temporarily). All that happens before God fulfills the promise that led Abram to strike out in the first place and results in his receiving the name we’re more familiar with: Abraham. Next week’s text – part of the story of Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph – illustrates the hardship that God’s people can experience as a result of human pride, fear, and brokenness. All that is part of what makes Abraham’s story worth reading. Our ancestor in the faith strikes out from the crossroads, not knowing where he is going or whether the God who speaks to him is worthy of trust. Through all the hardship and struggle that he and his descendants would experience – and, perhaps even more surprisingly, despite his and others incredibly bad judgment – God does not abandon Abraham or his offspring.

Brothers and sisters, the story of the call of Abraham is the story of a God who calls us to radical trust and a man who stepped out of his comfort zone to face an uncertain future. Today, we are called to see our own stories in his story, to listen for God’s voice, to ponder how God might be calling us to leave behind what is familiar and safe for what is unknown and mysterious. Let us pray that God’s Spirit would inspire us to do just that, trusting not in our own strength or the power of our faith, but in the faithfulness of God in Christ, whose boundless love and grace has freed us from the power of sin and the fear of death and granted us the promise of God’s presence today and always, and may our lives resound with the words of this prayer:

Lord God, you have called us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.* Thanks be to God. Amen.

*Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Augsburg Fortress (Minneapolis, MN: 2006), p. 304.