FIRST READING Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people,
“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. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
GOSPEL John 6:56-69
[Jesus said,] “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Grace to you and peace form our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Do any of you have a plaque or a cup or something else with the words, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord?” We do. It sits on top of one of the doors into our kitchen. It’s probably one of the more well known verses of the Old Testament.
As we learn in our first lesson today, that quote is from a speech that Joshua gave to the Israelites not long before he died. Now if you’re not well versed in Old Testament history, you might not be aware of the context in which he gives his speech or might not know exactly who he is. If you do know that stuff, please humor me while I give a quick tour of early Israelite history leading up to this.
Hundreds of years before this, God called Abraham to follow him to a new country which God would give. Abraham believed God and left his home which was “beyond the river” Euphrates and his gods from there and followed the Lord God. God also promises Abraham many descendants, more than there are stars in the sky.
After many years, they end up in what would become the land of Israel and God renews his promise to Abraham showing him the land his ancestors would possess.
Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac who has two sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob has twelve sons, one of whom, Joseph, ends up a slave in Egypt where because of his God given talent, ends up second only to the pharaoh. There is a drought and Jacob brings the rest of the family to Egypt where Joseph has wisely stored up food and the whole clan settles there, with the blessing of Pharaoh.
Things get bad
The clan does well and grows large. Sometime after Jospeh and the Pharaoh both die, a new Pharaoh comes along and fearing the growing size and strength of this clan, he enslaves them and takes steps to stop their growth by having their male babies killed.
One of the Israelite women, Jachobed, had a son and to prevent him from being killed she hid him in a basket in the reeds along the Nile River. His name was Moses. A daughter of Pharaoh found him and raised him as her son. At some point, Moses discovered his real heritage and kills an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite. Fearing for his life he flees to the desert.
God shows up
Moses meets a pretty girl at a well and is invited to live with her family and work for her father. They end up marrying and Moses lives with them for some time. One day he’s out caring for the sheep and he sees a bush burning that isn’t burning up. Curious, he approaches it and the bush speaks to him with the voice of God. God tells him he’s been chosen to free the Israelites from Egypt. Now remember that Moses grew up among the Egyptians, who had many gods, so during the discussion about doing this Moses asks who he should tell the Israelites sent him. God replies, “Tell them I am sent you.”
Moses heads off back to Egypt to do God’s bidding and Pharaoh doesn’t agree. There are a series of plagues, some of which are challenged by the Egyptian priests, who lose. The last plague has the “angel of death” going throughout Egypt killing all the firstborn sons except for those families which have lamb’s blood painted on their door posts. This came to be known as the passover.
The Israelites are free
At this, Pharaoh relents and lets the Israelites go. They flee to the desert, cross the Red Sea, and are on their way to the promised land, promised by God to their Patriarch, Abraham. Along the way they get the Ten Commandments, eat manna, and get water from a rock. Early in their travels, Moses makes Joshua his assistant. In relatively short order they are on the border of the land God promised them, ready to go in and take the land over.
They screw up
Before they went into the land, Moses sent stout men from each tribe to spy out the land. The spies came back with examples of of the fruit that grew there saying that it flowed with milk and honey. They also said that there wasn’t a chance they could take it over due to the size of the people living there and there fortifications.They said this because they were afraid and they questioned God as to why he had brought them all this way just to let them die in the wilderness. They even said it would be better to go back to Egypt. Only two spies, Joshua and Caleb, insisted that they were capable of taking the land.
The people’s distrust of God’s plan angered God and they were made to wander in the desert for forty years until the entire generation present had passed away. All except for Moses, Joshua, and Caleb. The forty years ended and the people again stood along the border of the promised land. Moses gave the people a long speech culminating in God renewing the covenant with them, basically, He is their God and they are his people. At this point, Joshua is commissioned as the new leader of the people of Israel. After his speech, Moses is taken up a mountain to die by God and Joshua is left to lead the people in taking over the land.
A second chance
They proceed with the battle of Jericho and go on from there, taking the land bit by bit. Now, nearing the end of his life at the age of 110, Joshua is giving his farewell speech to all the people. In it, he lays out a choice for the people. You need to decide who you’re going to serve, the gods of your ancestors from beyond the river and the gods of Egypt where you were held in captivity or the Lord, who freed you from bondage and brought you through the wilderness and gave you this land. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” The people answered, “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”
How it worked out
The Israelites of course did a so-so job of serving over the years. They would do well for a while and then fall away. God would send a judge and whip them back into shape and they’d do well again for a while. This pattern just kept repeating over and over. Eventually it got bad enough that they had a civil war and broke up into two kingdoms. The Southern kingdom, Judah, did okay for while but after enough bad kings who didn’t serve God, the ended up getting captured and exiled to the kingdom of Babylon for 70 years before their return. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, pretty much stopped following God from the get go. They also ended up getting captured and were dispersed among the nations, never to return.
What about us?
Every day, we are faced with the same choice, who or what are we going to serve. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
The gods of the people of Joshua’s time were generally pretty blatant. They made little gold statues of them. Sometimes ours are also blatant, anyone ever watch the Oscars? But oftentimes they are more subtle and we may not even realize we are serving them.
Too often, sometimes without realizing it, we serve the gods in our lives that may seem important but in reality do nothing for us. We may think that our wealth will save us, but ultimately it won’t. We may think our beauty will save us, but ultimately it won’t. We may think that our athleticism or our intelligence or family ties or who know what will save us, but ultimately they won’t. If they can’t ultimately save us, why serve them?
When my mom lay dying from cancer many years ago, the fact that I was financially stable brought no peace to my soul. The fact that I was healthy brought no peace to my soul. Nothing I had or did brought peace to my soul. All that brought me peace was the knowledge that God loved my mom and God loved me and we both carried the hope of the resurrection in our hearts. To be quite honest, I don’t know how unbelievers get through times like that.
How we answer the question may not change all our everyday decisions, but it should guide our lives on such a way that it should be obvious to someone who knows us and also to some that don’t the we are Jesus followers. Our lives as servants of God, of Jesus, should look different from someone who is not. This difference should show up not just in our actions, but also in how we react mentally to the vagaries of life. Do we react with the joy and strength that comes with knowing that Jesus is right there with us or do we react with anger, hopelessness, cynicism, and victimhood when things don’t go our way?
It’s not always easy deciding to serve or follow God. In our Gospel today Jesus is giving some difficult teachings to his disciples and many of them found it hard to accept them and left. Now they had been following Jesus himself and had heard many of his teachings and seen his acts of kindness and the miracles. You’d think people who had experienced that would be solid. But many apparently couldn’t and left him leaving only a few.
I can imagine Jesus hanging and shaking his head dejectedly as they walked away, perhaps wondering if this all was worth it. He looks up and sees the twelve standing there. This misfit group who were often screwing up and often had trouble getting the point of his parables was still there, probably trying to figure what to do now. Jesus looks at them and says, “Well, what about you guys? Do you want to leave me to?” And Peter, who excels at both screwing up and being profound opens his mouth. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter, the one who would later deny Jesus three times, in this instant was blessed with wisdom beyond his ability. “Lord, to whom can we go?”
There is no other god like our God. He brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He made the lame to walk and the blind to see. He gave himself up to death on our behalf and then conquered death itself through his resurrection. He offers his body to us through the bread of the communion meal so that we live forever and offers his blood for us through the wine for forgiveness of our sins. His love knows no bounds and he has the words of eternal life.
When we don’t serve him and follow other gods instead, he forgives us and offers us another chance to answer the question and our invitation to eat and drink of him never ends.
I’m thinking of getting another wall plaque that says: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life…” for the other side of our kitchen doorway.
Amen, Come Lord, Jesus.