The gods We Choose

9 November 2014 sermon — Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
The gods We Choose
Click here to read scripture first: Joshua 24:1-25 (NRS)

I have a confession. Though some of you know this already. . . . I love the Green Bay Packers! They’ve had a week off; but it didn’t really feel like it to me because I was busy being a sophisticated Packers fan for Halloween. In other words, I didn’t have a cheese-head to top off the costume. . . . The true confession is: I wrestle with how much of a Packer nut I may be – though I really think it seems like I am, more than I really am. I wrestle even more with the people I know who go totally ga-ga over their teams. I know people with entire rooms devoted to their sports memorabilia, which covers every inch from ceiling to floor. So much money. So much time. So much energy put into following a sports team. Entertainment – which may be the church’s primary competitor these days; though I’m pretty sure we’ve fallen far behind ‘em in the race to capture folks’ loyalties.

It doesn’t have to be the Green Bay Packers – or any team for that matter. Some of us get just as psyched up for movies or the theater or fashion or cars or the latest techno-gadget or whatever thing vies for our utmost attention. Just take out your check book and see where all your money goes. Jesus always said it’s where our treasure is that shows our heart’s true loyalty. We have so many marvelous options from which to choose. For some of us, it could be our children or grandchildren or significant other; our parents or even our work. They’re all equal opportunity attention-getters when it comes to the things we absolutely LOVE. Today we have so many options to choose to be our gods.

That’s a little case g in gods, by the way. And we’re certainly not alone in the process. Throughout human history, we have had the opportunity to decide what we shall put first in our lives. Even good things like our families or our work often get put on the pedestal far above anything else in our lives. Ancient Israel faced the very same situation. It’s the story we get in the reading from Joshua: time to decide that to which they’d pledge ultimate allegiance. Joshua is about to be on his deathbed as their leader. They’ve all had some time to be at home in the Promised Land. But before he goes, he summons them all together once again to ask what or who they will serve before all others. . . . “Choose,” Joshua says. Will it be the gods of your ancestors? Whatever Abram worshipped before Yahweh called him into a whole new life. Or maybe the gods of the Egyptians. They always seemed to be so lucky; leaving the Egyptians fertile and exotic and always in charge. Which shall it be? “Today,” Joshua says, “Make your final choice.”

I wonder sometimes if we see it that way. What or who will be our first choice? Many of us grew up in the church. It’s just something we do. We went to confirmation classes because our parents told us it was time. We stood in front of the church maybe not really knowing what we were doing and claimed the name Christian for ourselves. Maybe we wear a cross necklace every day ‘cuz someone we love gave it to us. Or we came to be a part of the church because everyone else was doing it. Or because our spouse convinced us to come along. Maybe we even say a prayer now and again – especially when things get rough. But to say we’ve chosen God – the LORD our God – above everything else may not quite reflect us accurately. So many of us, even in our faith, just fall into the circumstances of our lives.

The problem is: something is going to be number one in our lives. Something is going to get our top attention – be our highest priority. Joshua stood before the Israelites that day so long ago because something always ends up first in our lives – whether we self-reflectively make a choice or not. You see, Yahweh, the LORD our God, wanted the people to put God first. Hence the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Joshua goes on to give the LORD God feelings – like ours. Something we often project unto God. Making God more like us than God really is. But the point’s a good one here — an important metaphor. Beware, because the LORD God is jealous. (Josh. 24:19-20). Like a scorned lover, this One might burn hot with anger because this God is the God of love. The passion-filled Creator of the earth and skies who knows that all our other lower-case g gods never will be enough. . . . All those other lower-case g gods will suck the life right out of us if we let them. They’re phonies. They promise us our hearts’ desire but in the end they leave us empty. Instead of serving that which leads to life, we’re left with nothing. Nothing but a road littered with self-serving sacrifices that haven’t brought any real meaning to the world.

Choose . . . and know that if you choose to serve the LORD our God – a choice, really, that we fallible humans need to make again and again each day. If we choose to put the LORD our God first, we will encounter obstacles along the way. So many other wonderful things vie for our attention, remember? Especially in our world today. Where like a billion dollar industry exists that seeks to tell us what other things we just have to have in order for life to be good. What other lower-case g gods will make us feel complete. If we don’t remind ourselves every day about our primary choices, we can end up being tossed to and fro like an autumn leaf blowing every which way in the blustery wind. Readily being seduced by other lower-case g gods in a world that’s not really all that interested in our ultimate well-being. Intentionality is essential if we want to make good on our choice – if we hope to have a shot at living as if the LORD God is our number one priority.
This week I heard a preacher say that each year before Stewardship Sunday he tells his church members to examine two things as a part of making their pledge for the year ahead. He said it’s a powerful exercise – one that can be incredibly affirming, or helpfully re-aligning. Before writing anything on the Stewardship Pledge Card received from the church, sit down with your calendar and your bank account. Look ‘em over. Really look – not just to see if we can squeeze in another event or make sure our bottom line’s still on track. But take our calendars and prayerfully look at how we’ve been spending our time. Wouldn’t this be a great thing to do together in your household? It could lead to such amazing conversations about what really matters to us, and if we’re really giving that enough of our calendar. . . . If we’re pre-retirement people, we may begin to see that we’re spending too much time on the job – maybe because a boss is telling us to, or maybe not. Either way, what lower-case g god is driving that? Might some of us begin to see a pattern of near exhaustion because we’re taking care of everyone else from sun up to sun down? Maybe we complain there’s never enough time to do something like take a quiet walk outside just to be with God and our thoughts, but we’re mindlessly in the habit of watching television anywhere from one to three hours a night. Or surfing the web. Or whatever. . . . Summoned or not, God always is with us. Do our calendars reflect that we’re committed to being with God each day?

In this world where they say time is money, such examination of our calendars may sound more like meddling than it does for a preacher to tell us to examine our bank accounts. And since I’ve already crossed that line, I might as well remind us to look there too. Let me be clear that I’m not talking about such things because the church needs your time, talent, and money. Stewardship is about us needing to give of our time and talents and money because of our loving dedication to God. It’s a discipline, meant to be undertaken weekly, in order for us to be shaped by God – and I need that reminder each year as much as the next. . . . There’s no other way around it: our giving is a reflection of our primary choice. I know many people don’t like to hear preacher-types talk about our money – though it was the topic Jesus covered in his teachings more than just about anything else. But as your pastor who loves you and wants to urge us all on in our putting of God first, we have to be encouraged for our own spiritual health to prayerfully examine our bank accounts. . . . It may not seem like it all the time but giving our money in the offering plate each week is a way that we participate in the mission of God in this world. Isn’t that remarkable? That through our time, talents, and money, we are doing the work of God???!!! . . . I’m not going to lay on the guilt trip that it has to be ten-percent or it isn’t good enough. And I’m not going to say that we have to give ‘til it hurts. A loving God doesn’t work like that. Just make a proportional financial commitment and step up as you can each year. Give something regularly because seeing that entry to the church in our check registry each week is about us being about God’s work. Is there any loftier thing in which we have the opportunity to participate every week? Our offerings making sure we ourselves, and those we’ve grown to love in the fellowship of the church, have a place each week to worship and learn and be connected on our journeys when our days are easy sailing and when we greatly need to lean upon one another. Do our bank accounts show that that matters to us deeply?

I know that we’re still going to pull for our teams. We’re still going to get seduced by the things of this world. Some days we’re even going to waste our time and throw away our money on other lower-case g gods. Thankfully we have the mercy of God to give us a fresh start each day. To remember that our marvelous God of infinite love wants our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength, our all. For God knows that choice truly is the only way that leads to life – here and now and forevermore.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

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