“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness…choose this day whom you will serve…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24: 14-15)
About the time I was six years old, my family moved to the western suburbs. Our house was only a block away from a county forest preserve where on many Saturdays during the summer, companies would host their employees at picnics around a large field house. This created an opportunity. Because on Sunday, my friend Butchie and I would go into the woods and collect the empty glass soda bottles that were left behind. In those days each bottle had a return value of two cents. We would take the bottles we found up to the corner store and redeem them. Mr. Fellows would count out the nickels and pennies. Then I had to decide what to buy. As I clutched the coins in one hand, with my other hand I would go through the cooler. Should I have a Kayo chocolate drink or a Squirt? If I still had some coins left over, should I buy a small pie or a candy bar? The difficult part was that if I chose to buy one thing, it meant not getting something else. Choices. Our life is made up of them and we have to make so many. Today we live in a world in which we are confronted with more choices than any other people who have ever lived on earth…over 125 cable TV channels, shopping centers filled with stores, all kinds of clothing options, more and different kinds of food products that crowd the grocery shelves. Sometimes I long for those days when bread was either white or whole-wheat and lettuce either Boston or Iceberg. What exactly is radicchio anyway?
Having so many choices is a good thing, I suppose, but sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming. Not because there are so many choices, but because we spend way too much time trying to decide about relatively unimportant things, and not nearly enough time on things that really matter.
Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as having said once: “One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves by our choices. The process never ends until we die.”
About the time my son was graduating from college, I read an article about how young people are taking longer and longer to grow up. A bachelor’s degree used to take four years, but it’s more and more common these days for students to take a lot longer than that. First your daughter majors in botany, then in elementary Ed, then communications, and pretty soon six years of college have flown by. And if it’s hard to choose a major, it’s even harder to choose a career. There are so many options! It’s an important decision, but to choose one thing is to unchoose something else. What is the better direction to take?
John Fowles wrote many books, most famously, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. His first novel, The Collector, was published in 1962. Shortly thereafter, Fowles wrote a short essay entitled, “I Write Therefore I Am.” In it, he describes how ten years before his first book was published he had chosen to be writer. He says, “I constantly had to renew this choice and to live in anguish because I have so often turned down better jobs; I have staked everything on this one choice…I think, now, that even if my book had not been accepted, even if I had never had any book accepted, I was right to live by such a choice.” Then he concludes, “I am surrounded by people who have not chosen themselves, but who have let themselves be chosen – by money, status symbols, by jobs – and I don’t know which is sadder, those who know this, or those who don’t.”
Who we are as men and women is a product of the choices we make. Someone has said that to be true to yourself, you must remember what it is you want. I have to say I wonder about that. I wonder if being true to yourself doesn’t begin at a deeper level. I wonder if it doesn’t begin with remembering what kind of person you are, or, at least, what kind of person you want to be. Our choices are a life-long learning project as we try to define who we are, figure out what guides our lives, and then comes the harder part – committing to our choice and following through. It is about deciding what we aspire to give our hearts to. And, as John Fowles reminds us, it’s also about taking risks and having doubts. When you were in a gym class growing up, do you remember the gym teacher selecting two captains who were to take turns choosing up sides? I always felt sorry for the kids who were among the last ones chosen. At my grade school, so many times it was Dicky Dodge. When his name was finally spoken, he would look off to the side and walk across the floor to his team acting like he wished he were somewhere else, anywhere else. Maybe that’s why, as a person of faith, I find it so heartening and encouraging that Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” It may be that the last shall be first, but first or last, Jesus chooses us before we choose him.
When we baptize a child, we affirm that God has chosen them by reaching out through their parents. And then when that child grows older, we send them to Confirmation class – so that they can think seriously about whether they are ready to choose back the God who has already chosen them in their baptism. Confirmation will be the first formal time they have to make that choice. However they will learn that their choosing happens not just once, but over and over again. So what about us? God has chosen us. Do we choose God back in the every days of our life?
“Choose this day who you’ll serve,” Joshua declares. When Moses died, Joshua became leader of the people of Israel. They have come a long way, out of Egyptian captivity, through the Red Sea and into the wide and unknown wilderness. Now, after forty years of wandering and wondering if they would ever get to where they were going, they are entering into the Promised Land.
Joshua calls the people together in a great assembly. He recites for them their history, reminding them of how graciously God had dealt with them in freeing them from slavery in Egypt and watching over them during their long, arduous journey. Joshua tells them of the many ways God has guided them as his “chosen” people for a special mission in the world. Then Joshua says, “Now therefore, revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” And then to emphasize the importance of what he is saying, Joshua pointedly puts the crucial issue directly to them: “Now, if you are willing to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve.”
As I have already said, our lives are full of choices and decisions both big and small. There are some choices we do not have control over, but there are other choices we do have control over. What we do with those choices determines, in large part, our character. And that is the essence of what Joshua is pressing the people to decide at the critical time at the end of one part of their journey, and the beginning of the next part of their journey.
Perhaps the most fundamental decision that life presents to each of us is “whom shall I serve.” Who or what determines the path you follow? Twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich once defined God as “that which is our ultimate concern.” So the question becomes: What is your ultimate concern? Who are you going to serve?
In his album, Slow Train Coming, Bob Dylan sings that whether or not we are aware of it, you and I are always serving someone or something. Listen to some of the words:
You’re going to have to serve somebody. You may be an ambassador to England or France, You may like to gamble, you might like to dance. You may be the heavyweight champion of the world, You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls. But you’re gonna have to serve some- body, yes indeed. You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you’re gonna have to serve some- body.
Joshua knew that the decision to serve God is a very serious one. Because when you decide to serve God, it will affect your whole life. It will affect your choices and your decisions.
But when Joshua exhorted the people to choose, they answered rather too easily. He’d asked them to turn their backs on the religion they knew as slaves in Egypt; and they replied without hesitation that they’d be glad to serve the Lord. But Joshua was not convinced of their sincerity. These people’s roots were in Egypt where it was common to worship a multiplicity of gods. In the Promised Land as well, it was also common for people there to worship many gods. Joshua sensed their ready acquiescence betrayed a soft commitment. So he insistently pushed his point, issuing a warning that sounds stern and harsh to us. He described God as a “jealous God.” Then he said, “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then God will turn and do you harm, and consume you after having done you good.”
Whoa! That sounds rather terrifying, and Joshua no doubt meant it to sound terrifying. Biblical language can be blunt language. It is meant to warn us against danger. And one danger against which the Bible repeatedly warns us is the danger of the divided heart when it comes to committing to our faith. The divided heart turns this way and that way. The divided heart is easily seduced and distracted. The divided heart makes compromises. The divided heart rationalizes. The divided heart wants it both ways…both a “yes” and a “no” at the same time. The divided heart resists making a single-minded choice! But that is a losing proposition, because eventually we have to lie down in the messy bed we have made for ourselves.
Galen Guengerich of All Souls church in New York City tells about seeing a television profile and interview with singer k.d. Lang. In it, she reflected on the difficulties she had encountered and experienced in life. Near the end of the interview, k.d. Lang was asked to account for the unusually well-developed musical texture and the unexpected spiritual depth of her work. She replied, “I believe that you are only as deep as what has been carved into you.”
What has been carved deeply in your life? Who is shaping your life?
Joshua knew the challenges of being faithful. He also knew there comes a point at which a person has to declare. And so he said, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, was a committed Christian. He wrote this in his diary:
“I don’t know who or what put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer “Yes” to Someone or Something, and from that hour, I was certain that existence is meaningful, And that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, has a goal.”
The heart needs to be single-minded if it is to be true in answering “yes” in serving God. The single-minded heart makes a commitment. The single-minded heart serves God in making daily and routine choices: choices about how you spend your money, choices about how you use your time, choices about the priorities you set, choices that come with the dilemma of ethical decisions. Again and again, we have to choose.
Joshua spoke with a sense of urgency to the people of Israel saying, “Today is a day of decision, a day of choosing whom you will serve.” The reality is every day is a day of decision for each of us.
At the time I entered seminary, I had a mentor. The man was a gift to me in so many ways. (Not to mention he always bought me lunch for those three years). Ken was a minister who had served the church for decades. Ken was a recovering alcoholic. For years he had lived and worked with a bottle always near by…until he eventually discovered a new life of sobriety through the help of AA and friends who cared about him and supported him. One day I asked Ken how his faith had made a difference in reclaiming his life and vocation. He answered, “Ben, every morning I wake up and think to myself, ‘I choose to be sober today.’ Then I say a prayer and thank God for another day. It keeps me both honest and grateful.” “Choose this day who you will serve…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.