Proper 27A

November 03, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 25:1-13

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    Professors of preaching often try to prepare seminarians not just for the preaching task in general but also for what could be called “special occasion” sermons. Funeral sermons, wedding homilies, baccalaureate meditations, and the like represent specialized sub-sets of homiletics, each requiring slightly different techniques and sensitivities. Another special occasion sermon type is the farewell sermon. The general wisdom is that a farewell sermon should preach the gospel. Such a sermon is not the place to settle old scores by chiding the congregation for its failures nor is it a time for the pastor to apologize for his own shortcomings. It’s not a time, in other words, to deal with unfinished business of the past.

    Instead it is an opportunity for the pastor and the congregation to remember that the gospel call to fulfill the Great Commission is bigger than any one congregation or preacher. It is a task that is always fresh and always there. Thus, a good farewell sermon will point ahead to the work that must continue during the upcoming period of vacancy and when one day a new shepherd arrives to tend the flock.

    Joshua, of course, lived long before any such homiletical advice was available. So he appears to have done the smart thing and that was to imitate the one farewell sermon he could remember: Moses’ sermon as it is recorded in Deuteronomy. As such, Joshua delivers a bracing swan song to the Israelites, full of warnings and threats.

    I doubt any preacher today would dare to end his or her ministry in a congregation with a sermon that repeatedly says things like, “Now, my dear people, remember to keep serving God faithfully because if you don’t, God will squash you!” Such a hellfire-and-brimstone message would probably leave an acrid taste in most people’s mouths.  Folks would be glad to see such a preacher leave town!

    But Joshua knew that despite all the good that had been accomplished in his tenure as Israel’s leader, the people were nevertheless strangers in a strange land. There were apparently just enough remnants of foreign people and false religions around to make Joshua nervous. Some of the Canaanite girls were very pretty and there were rumors that some of the Israelite boys were proposing to these maidens, even agreeing to adopt a few of the family gods if that’s what it would take to seal the marriage. And every once in a while, when taking an inspection tour of the various Israelite settlements, Joshua was certain he caught glimpses of people quickly sticking little golden idols in various closets.

    All in all it made Joshua nervous.  Because if there was one thing Yahweh had communicated consistently to Joshua it was that the people had to keep up their end of the covenant bargain if they expected to remain in the Promised Land. In the midst of war the people had done pretty well. Sure, there had been that ugly incident with Achan, but for the most part the pressures of wartime had kept a lid on the people’s tendencies to wander.

    But now things were settling down and the people were nestling into comfortable homes. There was a chicken in every pot and an ox-cart in every garage and, as Moses had feared a generation earlier, so now Joshua worried that this prosperity would soften them. It was natural to depend on God for everything when fierce Amorite warriors with fire in their eyes were bearing down on you. But now there were many days when the biggest worry was whether to have red wine or white with dinner. How easy to forget Yahweh in good times!

    Thus, the urgency of Joshua’s farewell sermon. Joshua even seems a little sarcastic in chapter 24. When he asks them if they will follow Yahweh only, the people reply with a thunderous, “Yes!” But then Joshua comes back at them, “You’re not even serious, are you? You don’t mean what you say and you know it! I’ve seen you men dating Canaanite women, I’ve caught glimpses of those little Baal totems. You folks are going to rebel and so undo everything I’ve worked to help you achieve, aren’t you!?” But the people are adamant that they will follow Yahweh, and so the Book of Joshua concludes with a renewal of the covenant and with what looks for all the world to be a happy ending.

    Of course, all you need to do is turn the page to see what’s next: The Book of Judges. Joshua and then his lieutenants die, the people get fat and happy from all that rich milk and high-calorie Land-O’-Promise honey and they forget all about God’s covenant, his laws, and even his abiding presence in the land. Soon chaos reigns supreme in the very place that should have been an island of God’s cosmos.

    This is an unhappy but all-too-familiar story. But perhaps for us Christians the real difficulty of Joshua 23 and 24 is how conditional it makes God’s love seem. The gospel according to Joshua is a tit-for-tat scheme: if the people do this, God will do that; if the people fail here, God will smite them with every plague in the book. Apparently, the Israelites had to walk a fine straight line over very thin theological ice.

    It could be pointed out that most of Joshua’s warnings are not about minor infractions of the rules but about a wholesale dismissal of Yahweh in favor of a new religious cult. Still, the sheer number of conditional sentences here may unsettle those of us who believe God’s love comes as an unconditional gift of grace. The people’s faithfulness has a pretty high profile in passages like this one, making it seem that their actions could either merit or forfeit God’s love. It looks like it’s all up to them.

    And yet, even though the people do prove to be repeatedly faithless in the Old Testament, God’s faithfulness keeps coming up again and again. After a while it looks like despite temporary setbacks here and there, the one constant in Israel’s history is that God is going to keep returning with a love more fierce than even the worst of sins. Joshua, and Moses before him, told the Israelites that if they were not careful, God would scrape them off forever like mud from a shoe. Curses without end would come their way if they messed up.

    Yet in truth, God is never done with his people. He keeps getting hurt by them, keeps fulminating in anger at them, keeps weeping bitter tears of hurt over them but he never stops coming back with open arms, essentially saying, “Come on, let’s try it again, OK? You messed up during the Judges, but look: here’s Samuel to bring a better day. Saul was not the greatest choice for king, but now I’ll bring you David and then Solomon. You ended up in exile in Babylon, but look: now I’m going to work through even the king of Persia to bring you out of the concentration camps and back home.” On and on it goes in a rhythm of failure and restoration so regular as to become scandalously predictable.

    Finally the day comes when God no longer proffers the likes of Samuel, David, Elijah, or Isaiah to bring a better day but instead he comes in person, in the flesh, through Jesus the Son. And in the wildness of grace Jesus somehow brings together the abiding faithfulness of God and the fickle faithlessness of us human beings.  Jesus brings them together and resolves all the inherent tensions once and for all.

    In the Old Testament, much of the Promised Land’s goodness had to do with meat and figs and butter and wine. All such gifts were, in their own way, a sacrament of God’s abiding love then, though the people eventually missed it. These days in the church the Savior who is Alpha and Omega, First and Last, the faithful witness raised from the dead, regularly calls us for dinner along with the rest of this world’s greasy failures. And if we pull up a chair and take bread and wine from his hand, then what we are finally celebrating is that long history of God’s faithfulness that we see recorded again and again in Scripture.

    Because the wonder of God’s greater faithfulness is that God knows all of that about us–knows it better than we do, in fact. Still he hands us the bread of life and the wine of heaven, bringing God’s enduring love into direct contact with our wobbly spirits in a way that will insure that grace will win and that we will finally push back from the table stuffed–filled to the top with a faithful and forgiving grace that will not let go.

    Illustration Idea

    Along with his buddy Caleb, Joshua had been one of the “good spies” back in the day when Israel first scouted out the Promised Land for Moses.   The other spies surveyed the land from the bottom up and saw only giants who would surely squash the puny Israelites.  Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, surveyed the land from the top down from the perspective of the God Yahweh whom they served and from that angle of vision, even the giants in the land did not look so big after all.  It was all a matter of scale in the end such that if you took as your point of comparison first of all the mighty God of Israel, things looked far more manageable.

    The spies also brought back fruit from the Promised Land, and it was mighty impressive fruit at that—bunches of grapes so large and so heavy they had to be carried on poles between two strapping men.  N.T. Wright and others have noted that in a way that fruit from the Promised Land was the food of the future, the food of the promise.  And in this way it bears some resemblance to the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper—it, too, is finally the food of our future in the kingdom that is to come.

    But unlike that future kingdom of God, the first Promised Land for God’s people was not quite so safe and secure from dangers.   Joshua assured the Israelites they could take this good land back when Moses had been in charge.  But by the time the people really do take the land and it’s time for Joshua himself to exit history’s stage, Joshua found that being in the land made him as nervous as cat in terms of the people’s future.

    This may be a reminder that for all the goodness that just was the Promised Land for Israel, it was even so nothing but a staging area for God’s grander plans for this creation and for his covenant people.   No one would truly be home—much less home free—until that day when the Promised Land was ruled by no less than the Son of God.

    And for that day we rightly still long and pine.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 78:1-7

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

    Author: Stan Mast