Sunday, August 22, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 12:43; sermon starts around 19:59)
Our readings for this morning actually begin with the end of a story. The Israelites have been dreaming of the promised land since the days they were slaves in Egypt. They followed Moses through the sea and into the desert. They wandered for decades in the wilderness, where they buried an entire generation of their people. They followed Joshua, son of Nun, into battle as they conquered the land of Canaan. And now, at long last, God has “given rest to Israel from their enemies all around.” They finally made it! The promised land is theirs.
Now, in the last couple chapters of the book, Joshua gathers all the people together – he “[summons] all Israel, their elders and heads, their judges and officers, and [says] to them, ‘I am now old and well advanced in years; and you have seen all that the Lord your God has done… for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you.” He reminds them: God “gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” Now that all the tribes of Israel have settled into the land that they have been given, Joshua calls them together to remember that everything they have received is a free gift from God, and not something that they earned for themselves.
And so this story that we read today is a scene of thanksgiving and celebration, just as you might expect. But there’s also more to it than that. After Joshua finishes retelling all the wonderful things that God has done for the people of Israel, he says to them: “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve God in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” And together, Joshua and all the people of Israel pledge their allegiance to God, renewing the covenant that God first made with Abraham.
By renewing the covenant, they are recommitting themselves to relationship with God. They are recognizing that even though their journey to the promised land is at an end, that doesn’t mean that their relationship with God is at an end. More is expected from them. God has chosen to be in relationship with them and wants to be chosen back. God has given them this land and all the good things in it out of love – and God wants to be loved and served in return. God wants and expects them to hold up their end of the covenant.
Now I know, as Lutherans, this kind of talk can make us feel a bit uncomfortable. Talking about holding up our end of the covenant starts to sound an awful lot like works-righteousness, which is more or less the idea that we have to somehow earn the things that God gives us. It’s the idea that faith is transactional, and Luther himself was deeply allergic to that idea. Instead, Luther emphasized God’s grace: that God has given us salvation and all the good things of creation as a free gift that we did not and cannot earn.
But it’s important to understand that the covenant God made with the Israelites was never about them earning the things that God gave them – it has always been about relationship. Their covenant was more like a marriage covenant. Everything God gives to God’s people is given out of love – and in return, God’s people are expected not to be a deadbeat spouse, but to be faithful and to love God back. Good, healthy relationships are not just one-sided affairs – God wants real, true, two-way relationship with humanity.
This desire for deep relationship with humanity is also at the heart of our gospel reading for this morning. It picks up right in the same chapter of John that we’ve been for the last few weeks, talking about Jesus as the living bread from heaven. You might remember from last week the story that I told about the garlic – that you are what you eat, and we eat Christ to become more like Christ. I hear Jesus saying basically this same thing in a different way in the first verse of our gospel reading. He says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” It’s a pretty graphic description of the kind of close, intimate relationship that Jesus wants to have with us. He wants to be part of us and for us to be part of him – kind of like in a marriage how two are joined together to become one flesh.
This is the point in the story at which a lot of Jesus’ followers get really turned off. They start complaining that this teaching is difficult and hard to accept. And it’s understandable – the things Jesus is saying are shocking and uncomfortable and not the kind of things that you would expect your teacher to say to you. They’re weirded out by the degree of closeness and intimacy and (literally) all-consuming loyalty that Jesus wants from them. And as a result, many of them go away and stop following Jesus.
But the twelve stay (and in fact this is the first time in the book of John that they are called “the twelve”). After watching everyone else walk away, I imagine Jesus sounding a little sad as he asks them if they want to go away too. But Peter replies with the same words we sing every Sunday: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Like, yeah, this is some pretty weird teaching, Jesus – not gonna lie – but where else are we gonna turn? Who else could offer us all that you are offering? You are the Holy One of God, so we’re all in. Peter’s powerful declaration echoes Joshua’s words from our first reading when he tells the Israelites that it’s up to them to choose what gods they will serve, and he declares, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Like Joshua, Peter and the other disciples pledge their allegiance to God, before all others. They recognize that the only path to true life – to eternal life – is with God, and so they commit themselves to follow Jesus, whatever the cost may be.
Like our ancient ancestors in the faith, we are also faced daily with the question of which gods we will serve, which gods we will give our hearts to. Instead of gods like Ba’al or Moloch or Asherah, we face the temptation to serve gods with names like: Money, or Status, or Addiction, or Comfort – or the name of anything in our lives that seeks to take priority over God. And like our ancestors, we are called to actively choose to put God first, to be on God’s side.
Being a disciple is about more than just passively accepting a set of beliefs; it’s about more than passively accepting God’s free gift of grace. Discipleship is about being fully in relationship with God, throwing in our lot with God. It’s about being on God’s side. We are called in our baptism to actively resist all the powers of this world that seek to draw us away from God. We are called to resist the powers of this world that defy God’s will – all the forces that seek to disrupt God’s mission of love and justice and peace. And as disciples, we must recognize that our own hearts are often the field on which this battle is fought.
It’s no wonder then that our second reading uses this language of taking up the armor of God to protect ourselves – to draw our strength from God’s power, to root ourselves deeply in our relationship with God – and to equip ourselves with truth and righteousness and faith and the good news of God’s word. God knows that the path of discipleship is not easy. It takes a lot of prayer and discipline and help from God to keep putting God first in our lives – and even then, God knows we still often fall short.
This is actually where God’s grace comes in. God loves us and gives us everything we need to keep going. And God gives us new chances every day to try again to get it right. Every day is a new opportunity for us to choose God back. Every day is a new opportunity to recommit ourselves to our own covenant relationship with God.
Today, this morning, we are being asked once again to choose which gods we will serve. I can’t speak for all of you, but I know that, as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.