We Will Serve the Lord -- A Lectionary Reflection
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We Will Serve the Lord
The phrase “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” has long been bandied about in religious circles. It’s a nice defining statement, a line in the sand. You can serve your gods if you want, but we’re God’s people, and we’re going to go with God. There’s a parallel in the response of Peter and John to the Sanhedrin – who are we going to listen to – you or God? As for us, we’re going to keep on telling our story about our experiences with Jesus (Acts 4:18-20). Of course, it’s much easier to declare our allegiances than to really abide by our statements. How often do we find ourselves making choices that seem to contradict our statements of allegiance? We say we’re going to serve God alone, but then culture, family, and our desires take us in a different direction. In fact, we often reconfigure our faith to fit with our vision of reality. We did this after Constantine embraced Christianity. We do it now in America by confusing political goals with spiritual ones. And don’t think that the other side has the monopoly on confusing these goals. There is myopia in us all. So, will we serve the Lord, and when called upon will we be ready to go and do as we’ve been asked?
There are three passages before us. One tells the story of Joshua making a covenant with Israel, asking them whether they will serve the Lord. The second passage is rather disconcerting for some of us because it has been the basis of a particular doctrine causes us fits, but it is intended as a word of grace and hope. And finally, in the gospel reading we hear a parable, reminding us that it’s important to stay at the ready. It’s not yet Advent, but the warning has been issued – stay awake; be ready, for the day will come, and it may be unexpected. If only it was that easy!!
I begin our conversation in Joshua, which is a book that can be rather disturbing to our modern sensibilities, especially in light of those efforts at ethnic cleansing we’ve seen occur over the past two centuries. By this point in the story the Hebrews have crossed the river, and beginning with Jericho, have occupied the land, with God taking the lead in pushing aside the Canaanites who had inhabited this land. For the writers of this text, this is as it should be, for the land has been promised to this people, and by rights they should occupy it. Of course, that has been the mantra of conquering forces from time immemorial. It is the message behind America’s doctrine of Manifest Destiny. This is the dark side of our story, one that maybe we’d just as soon put aside (or do we?). Whether or not we’re discomforted by this part of the story, it is part of the story that invites us to consider the question: Who will you serve?
With occupation well underway, the story of Joshua comes to a close with an invitation for the people of Israel, now having a home to call their own, to stay true to their covenant with the God who led them out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Knowing that Joshua is written long after the deeds described are said to have happened, it’s useful to remember that according to the broader story, the nation of Israel continually chased after other gods – even as we do. The question that is raised here concerns whether there hope of forgiveness. Is the LORD a jealous God who will wipe us out or will the LORD have mercy on us? How long will we try God’s patience? These are all questions that should cause us pause as we attend to a passage like the one before us.
At this point in the story God has finished the job of cleansing the land, territory has been occupied, but now that they’ve occupied this land it’s time to renew the covenant that God had made with the people in Sinai. Will they live in faithfulness now that the journey has ended and they’ve taken up residence in the Land? They gather at Shechem, long the center of life for this people. It was, according to Genesis the home of Abraham and then Jacob. It’s the place where Joseph was buried, and now the tribes gather together to renew their covenant. Joshua takes on the mantle of prophet and reminds them – on behalf of Yahweh – that God had called out Abraham from beyond the River Euphrates to come to this place so that his offspring might be many. The reference to Egypt is a reminder too that the people had been led from bondage to this place to make their home. In both places there had been the temptation to worship other gods, but in this place they are to forsake all others and devote themselves to serving Yahweh. Will they do this? Will they reaffirm the covenant and walk in its ways with sincerity and faithfulness? They answer Joshua – “We will serve the Lord, he is our God.” Yes, we will serve and obey the God who has led us out of slavery and into this Promised Land. With that Joshua makes the covenant and establishes the rules by which they will dwell in it. As for us – who will we serve?
The Pauline text takes us in a somewhat different direction. If there is a text that undergirds the idea of a “rapture” that has caught the imagination of so many people and leading to a entire publishing industry of books from The Late Great Planet Earth, which swept us up during my youth to the more recent Left Behind series. Here is one of those texts that reminds us that the early Christians held out hope that the return of Christ would come quickly, that this era in God’s economy, would give way to a new kingdom with Christ as ruler. Paul writes to a people concerned that they might have been “left behind.” I can’t go into a deep discussion of the idea of rapture. For that discussion, one would be wise to turn to Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. The point here is a word of encouragement – When Christ returns, the dead will be with him, and the living will meet him as he descends from the heavens. Don’t lose heart, simply be ready. Don’t grieve for the dead, for we are people of hope. The word of hope is that the same resurrection that Jesus experienced, the people of God will also experience. This text invites us to wrestle with this who question of afterlife. I realize that there are many Christians who find this discussion distracting, and yet for many people, perhaps the vast majority, there is this need for assurance that this isn’t all there is. Whatever lies beyond the grave, it must offer the promise of something more. It’s not to denigrate or distract from the present, but rather simply give hope as we move forward into the future.
If Paul is offering of comfort to those who fear they’ve been left behind, in Matthew 25 we have a parable that warns us to stay awake and be prepared. There are two kinds of people, according to the parable of the delayed bridegroom and the ten bridesmaids. You can see a change in expectation between the time that Paul wrote the first Thessalonian letter and the point at which Matthew writes this gospel. For Paul’s churches, the expectations of a quick end to this age are still apparent, but by the time of the writing of the gospel the people are settling in, recognizing that the return of Christ is delayed.
So we have this parable of the kingdom. There are ten bridesmaids who have gone out to meet the bridegroom. Where they have gone isn’t stated, but they have taken their lamps with them. The only problem is that five of these bridesmaids took their lamps, but no extra oil. As they waited they fell asleep, but at midnight, the warning is issued – the bridegroom is coming, so get ready to greet him. The wise bridesmaids, those who thought to bring along extra oil, are ready. Those who were foolish now have empty lamps. They can’t go and greet the bridegroom without oil. So they ask if the wise ones might share. The wise, however, reply that if they were to share, there would be enough and they too would not be ready. So go and buy oil from the dealers. Of course, it’s midnight, the shops are closed, and it’s too late. But they go anyway, and when they return (probably the next morning, after the shops have opened), the gates are locked and as they shout out “Lord, Lord,” the Lord answers “I truly do not know you.”
The moral of the story is – keep awake, because you don’t know the day or the hour. It is a message that continues through time, as the return continues to be delayed. Be awake, be prepared, and don’t get lax in your devotion to the kingdom of God. As with the other two texts, there’s a flip side that needs to be acknowledged. The moral of the story – keep awake – is one that we hear during Advent, which is on the near horizon. It’s important to remember that Advent has two different foci – the first coming, the one celebrated at Christmas, when a God is revealed to humanity in a child born in Bethlehem (according to the story told in the infancy narratives, even if scholars today might raise questions about that story). The second coming, the return in glory, is also part of the Advent story. And we’re invited to see the parallels and the differences between these two appearances. The dark side of the question posed by the parable is one of scarcity and abundance. The wise bridesmaids refuse to share, because there won’t be enough. This is a belief among many Christians, that there isn’t room enough for us all. But is there a scarcity of grace, or is there abundance? As we ponder this parable, this is a question we need to address, even as we stay alert to the presence of God in our midst.
The question that all three texts pose is this: Who will you serve? Will we answer with Joshua and say “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord?”