November 6, 2011

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-8
Matthew 25:1-13

Recently I heard a preacher suggest that Christianity is unique in that it demands that you make a choice. You consider the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus that you read about in the Gospels, and you decide what to make of it. You decide how to respond.

At some point, you have to make a choice about what to believe about Jesus. Either he was somehow the God of the universe made physically present in our world – reaching out, loving, forgiving, and reconciling the world – or he was a crazy person – living an itinerant life of poverty and getting himself killed. We have to choose what to believe as well as how to live in response to those convictions.

The book of Joshua tells the story of the Hebrew People entering the land promised by God and settling there. It’s the story of God’s chosen people – the ones who once lived as slaves in Egypt, who cried out to God to help them, and who followed Moses out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years.

These are God’s own people, who have finally been freed both from oppression and from their wandering. They finally have a home – a place where they are no longer the ones being oppressed – and they have a choice to make.

It’s not that they hadn’t made this choice before. They had chosen to cry out. They had chosen to follow. They had chosen to rely on God’s help along their journey. But perhaps those choices were simpler to make – almost as if they didn’t really have any other options. Well, some of them had tried to worship a golden calf at one point, but their foolishness was quickly revealed, and they turned again to worship the one true God, the only one who could actually help and protect them.

But now, as they made their homes in the new land of plenty, Joshua reminded them that they had a choice to make. He reminded them about what God had done for their ancestors and for them, and he called them to declare their allegiance. He challenged them to make a choice: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And he announced his own choice too: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

I wonder if you have ever made a choice like that. Can you remember a time when you declared your faith and your intention to follow Jesus with your life?

Perhaps it was here in this church that you stood up to profess your faith for the first time or for the hundredth time. Or perhaps it was in an outdoor chapel at camp, or in the midst of a deep conversation with a friend. Maybe it was in a hospital room, or during a long walk along the river. You might remember choosing God after a period of thoughtful prayer, or you might have mad that choice in the midst of a crisis.

I wonder… did someone challenge you to make that choice? And did that person ever point out the fact that it is a choice? In other words, we actually need to choose between several options. Our faith is not just an “add on” – an extra thing that we get to do on top of all the usual things that are part of life.

When Joshua asked the people if they wanted to serve God, they said, “Yes, of course!” They remembered how God had been with their ancestors and helped them. They remembered how God had led them and guided them into the Promised Land, and they were grateful. “Yes, of course, we will serve the Lord.”

But instead of simply agreeing and congratulating them for their choice, Joshua said, “Are you sure? I’m not convinced that you can do it.” “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God,” Joshua warned them. “He is a jealous God” and “he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will consume you, after having done you good.”

In other words, this choice that we are asked to make is not just to come to church and worship on Sundays. It’s not just an extra thing that we devote some of our time and attention to. But it’s a choice that requires us to leave some other things behind. It requires us to stop worshipping the god of money and the god of things. It challenges us to put aside the gods of personal comfort and pleasure. We have to give up the gods of power and prestige, popularity and fashion.

The choice we are asked to make is no small thing. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua said. You can serve the one true God of the universe who made you and who loves you. Or you can serve yourself – you can serve all those false gods that claim they will make you happy. You can’t serve both. You have to choose.

In our Christian tradition, when individuals make the decision to profess their faith and to serve and follow God, they make several vows or promises. We promise not only to serve God and to follow the way of Jesus, but we promise to turn away from hatred, selfishness, and all that is contrary to God’s ways.

It’s the same thing that the people of Israel decided to do, even when Joshua challenged their commitment. They said, “No, we will serve the Lord!” And they agreed to put away the foreign gods that were among them, and to incline their hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel. They promised to do it. They made a covenant, and vowed to live by it.

Like many of you, I made those promises once too. As a teenager, I professed my faith and I was baptized. I promised to turn away from evil and towards God. And I can’t count the number of times that I have renewed those promises in church, in my own personal prayers, during spiritual retreats, and in moments of crisis and stress.

But if I’m honest, I’ll also acknowledge that I’ve let the false gods creep into my life as well. I’ve been vain and self-serving. I’ve craved attention and recognition. I’ve let impatience, bitterness, and pride direct my interactions, and failed to demonstrate the forgiveness and love of Jesus to my neighbours.

Like a foolish bridesmaid, who was initially excited about the wedding banquet, I haven’t always followed through and fulfilled my promises. I’ve let my lamp go out. I haven’t always been there to do my part in preparing the world for the coming Reign of God.

Jesus’ parable is a warning for those who want to join in the great celebration when the Kingdom of God is made complete. Now is the time to be working towards it, to be preparing for it, to be leading others to it.

Now is the time for us to choose whom we will serve, and to do our best to follow through on those choices. Will our choices each day contribute to the building of the Kingdom? Will they help to set the table for the great celebration, or lead others through the darkness towards the great feast where there is no more hatred or war or oppression or fear?

I know… it’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot to live up to, and we are probably right if we predict that we’ll mess up again, even after we renew our promises. But although our God is a jealous god, demanding our allegiance and our faithfulness, we have seen in Jesus Christ the amazing capacity of our God to forgive. It is never too late for us to put aside those false gods and to choose to serve the one God of the universe who made us and who loves us.

Let’s begin again today to fill our lamps and to prepare for the celebration. The Reign of God is coming. It is almost here.