Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
November 12, 2017 – 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Last week we took up the beginning of the Book of Joshua, as the Nation of Israel crossed the Jordan to re-enter the Promised Land. This week we read the end of that story.
The land has been subdued and all the people live in relative peace with one another. Joshua calls the elders, chiefs, judges, and officers to a great meeting at Shechem.
He is convening a congress or a constitutional convention of the leaders of the people throughout the land. He is asking them to remember not only what they have done together…but even more importantly why they have done it.
And let us not miss the significance of either the occasion or the place.
These are people who follow the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the twelfth chapter of Genesis Abraham heard God call him away from all that was familiar to ‘a place I will show you.’
He was still enough in his being… quiet enough in his soul…to be able to hear the call…and he was faithful enough to the authority of God to obey…to go to where he was sent.
Then, it was at Shechem, at the oak of Moreh, that God then said, “To your offspring, I will give this land.” The choice of the place for Joshua’s gathering recalls the promise God had made to Abraham long ago.
It is an act of continuing obedience to come to this place. It is an act of solemn remembrance by the whole community that their leaders gather there for this ceremony.
We celebrated Veterans Day this past week as an act of remembrance. We recalled the people who gave a portion of their lives to protect and defend us all. We also remembered the values that have called us into community as a nation.
Freedom, justice, and respect for each individual, without regard to race, religious belief or wealth are important to us. Without these values we would not be Americans.
By holding up these values…in good years and bad…we have shown the nations of the world a new day and a new way to live together in peace and prosperity.
We do not crave the battlefield. We are not eager to spill blood. But to defend these values over the years, we have compelled young men to put on a uniform, pick up a weapon and lay their lives on the line.
The Nation of Israel gathered at Shechem to remember those who had served and to remember that it was a divine providence that had brought them through the crisis to a renewal of the covenant that God had made with Abraham.
In the portion of Chapter 24 we do not read today, Joshua reminds the people of the great things God has done for them since the day that Abraham heard God’s voice…and since the day Moses led them out of bondage and into the desert.
And at the end of the Chapter, beyond our reading, the bones of Joseph are buried at this same place and we read the last of Joshua.
The nation is not Abraham or Sarah …Jacob or Esau…Moses or Joshua. It is the people that God has called to serve God’s purposes. Because they hold up this vision, because they honor this call, their cause becomes holy, and their nation becomes a light to all the world.
Having a vision greater than yourself…serving a cause greater than yourself…ennobles the effort, and empowers those who serve it.
That is why it was so important for our founders to clearly state the reasons they were declaring their independence from Great Britain. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
That is why Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg about “a new birth of freedom” had such a profound effect on everyone there…everyone in the country… and the great powers of the world.
So today Joshua calls the leaders of his people together to remind them who they serve and whose they are.
All the fighting and all the casualties on both sides as they re-entered the land and reclaimed the inheritance God had promised Abraham were for a greater cause….one that stretched back to the beginning of time…and would still be a light to all people for thousands of years into the future.
There was and is a truth that is greater than the mightiest army. Ask Moses. Ask Pharaoh. Ask Abraham. Ask Cain. Ask David. Ask Goliath. Ask Washington. Ask King George. Ask Hitler. Ask Churchill.
It is interesting that Joshua’s words at Shechem were finally committed to writing as Israel entered the Babylonian exile. Even when the cause seemed utterly lost…and God’s promises seemed to have finally failed…it was as important for them to remember who they were and whose they were.
Even then, they were in God’s hands. Especially then, they were God’s people. And especially then, Joshua’s words must have pierced their hearts.
“You can’t do it; you’re not able to worship God. He is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won’t put up with your fooling around and sinning.”
They recalled the day their nation had been asked to choose who they would serve…what they had lived for and who they were willing to die for.
It must have stung, 800 years later as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were being cast out of the land by their Babylonian oppressors, to hear the words, “You are witnesses against yourselves.”
They remembered that Joshua… whose name means “Yahweh is our salvation”…had asked all Israel who it was they would serve…what their highest power was…where their greatest good had come from.
“As for me and my house,” he told them, “we will serve the Lord.” It is a reaffirmation of their original vision when Joshua celebrated the settling in the land.
800 years later, as it appeared the end had come, it was a bitter reminder that their ideals were greater than their military might.
They had carried the light forward from the day Abraham had heard his God call him to action… to that day at Shechem…to a day they could not see from where they stood.
They carried the weight of an unthinkable catastrophe into exile with them…but they also carried the remembrance of their devotion to the cause of freedom and to the understanding that there is only one God…only one teacher…for all humankind…and that we are, at last, one in the spirit and one in the Lord.
Somewhere along the way, they lost sight of what was most important to them. In the darkness of their powerlessness, they raised up great prophets whom they abused at every turn.
But the prophets would not go away and leave them alone. This higher calling continues to visit them and call them to be better than they had been…to become the people to whom God had given hope when they were in bondage in Egypt…the people God had led through the wilderness…the people who could hear the voice of a loving God even as they were called away from their home “to a land I will show you.”
We have this wonderful ability to see things that have never been and to co-create them with our creator. Light in the darkness, warmth in the cold, hope when all is lost.
And today, the Great Teacher comes to us and tells us a story about the need to remain vigilant… to burnish our ideals at every opportunity…to remember that while we may be only so much dust, we are also full of light.
Everyone can lose their way. Everyone can fail. When we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, we can lash out with the baser parts of our nature. It is only if we keep enough oil on hand to last through the night that we can truly live the life God has given to every one of us.
Both the wise and the silly virgins fall asleep. To err is human…but to keep a vision worthy of God’s love for all humankind. And so the wise virgins keep extra oil on hand.
How do we do that? Our AA friends do that by going to meetings regularly. We do it by coming to worship regularly.
Joshua had to remind the people of the Promise what a wonderful thing it is to remain faithful…and what a wonderful world opens to us when we act in truth and justice and love.
Jesus reminds them again today in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. He is about to undergo whipping and scourging, but still he has extra oil for his lamp that will allow him…incredibly…somehow …to plead for the forgiveness of the people who would put him to death.
In his last words, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” he accesses that extra oil of faith in his lamp to show that it is finally love that comes from God.
When we fall short, we are witnesses against ourselves…and if we profess a belief in God…we invite the world to heap scorn on that belief.
We are suffering through a time of great upheaval in our country and in our world. Last Monday, I googled how many days in the year had past. The number came back: 310.
Next I googled how many mass shootings there had been in the United States so far this year. You want to guess the number that came back?...307.
We can’t agree that a fact is a fact anymore. If we don’t like what we hear, we dismiss it as fake news and move on to the next challenge on our bucket lists.
But remember Washington and Lincoln, my friends. Remember Abraham and Moses. Stop being witnesses against yourselves.
To do otherwise is to be a witness against ourselves and to usher in the day when we hear a voice say, not to “leave your home and go to a land I will show you”, but instead, “Do I know you? I don’t think I know you.”
We are so rich…and so impoverished. We are so strong …and so foolish.
We are so mortal…and so wise. We are so impulsive…and so faithful.
So today…just like every day…we get to choose to ask what our country can do for us or what we can do for our country. We get to choose whether we will nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.
We come together to worship…to get that extra oil for our lamps…
We do not claim all wisdom, but we claim a faith in one who is all wisdom. We do not claim all power, but we seek to follow the one who was powerless to prevent his own death and still strong enough to overcome death.
We are witnesses against ourselves, indeed. But this day…this hour… in this place…we choose again to serve the Lord. Thank you for being here with me, with Joshua, with Jesus, and with the person your highest calling invites into the world in the name of love. Amen.