Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pick 'Em! (Joshua 24:1-2; 14-18)

Even though Joshua's "retirement speech" to the Israelites is most certainly not the same thing we do when we "share Jesus" with people, there are a lot of things we can learn from it about how we should share Jesus when we do.

I say it's not the same thing, of course, because Joshua was a Jew who lived many hundreds of years before Jesus. He was not a Christian, because at that time there were no such people. But he was a devout follower of God, which is not too different from what Christians are supposed to try to be. And that's where some of the similarities can show up.

First off, he clearly says that the Israelites will need to choose whom they serve. They must make a free choice about their allegiance. God will not coerce them into serving him. He won't trick them into following him. He won't throw a bolt of lightning at their feet and then say, "Next one's coming faster." They will either follow him or not, but they are free to choose for themselves which one of those paths seems best to them.

That means they have to make an informed choice. Joshua won't have them choose from ignorance, which is one reason why he gives a brief overview of their history as a people since the time of Abraham. They will need to know what God has done for them and how difficult a choice they may be making, so that their choice is truly a free one.

When we talk about what it means to follow Jesus, we need to do the same thing. We need to tell people the truth about what that means. Some parts of it are good, but some parts of it are hard. If we make up stuff that sounds good but isn't true, we run the risk of people deciding to follow Jesus based on lies and then turning away from him when they find out the lies. All kinds of people would follow Jesus if we told them that they would get a promotion, a raise, kids that never lip off and hair that never falls out or chocolate that has no calories -- depending on their gender.

None of those things would be true, though, so the first time the bathroom light glare from his head makes a fellow squint or the first time a lady realizes that chocolate cake really does have calories they're outta here.

The temptation might be to say nothing about Jesus at all becaise we don't know what we should say or don't know enough about church history or the Bible. But that doesn't work. God wants us to make an informed choice, which means we need information. God doesn't operate on a "Hey, I just met you/This is crazy" basis. And that means we need to learn a little bit. Not everything. If someone asks us about the hypostatic union of the divine and human in Christ, we're still free to say, "Gesundheit." But we need to know something about Jesus's message of how our relationship with God is broken, but God's grace in Jesus heals it.

And Joshua is clear that whether the Israelites serve the Lord or the gods of some other nation, they will serve somebody (and I have now quoted Raylan Givens, Carly Rae Jepson and Bob Dylan, making this one of the weirdest sermons ever). In his day and time, people who believed in no divine presence whatsoever were few and far between. Some cultures added everyone else's gods into their mix in order to make sure all the heavenly bases were covered. Some maintained only their own gods. But there were not many who would match our modern definition of an atheist.

The same question faces us. Will we serve the Lord, or will we serve other gods? Our "other gods" may have different names than Moloch or Asherah -- like power, or wealth, or fame. But they tempt us away from the Lord just as well as those ancient idols did.

Even one of those people who completely rejects the idea of anything other than this material world chooses to "worship" something -- themselves, if nothing else. When they say they and they alone decide what they will do, then they make themselves gods. And if you think all of your decisions will come from your own free will, see how long you can hold your breath.

When we share the gospel message with people, we share with them two hard-cased truths of life: In this life, you will serve somebody. And there is no better One to serve than the One who made us, redeemed us, and showed in the person of his son that he would rather die than live without us.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

The Loss of Absalom (Second Samuel 18:5-33)

David's problems have now become full-grown. We can draw a direct line from his callousness to Bathsheba and Uriah to the revolt of his son Absalom and the prince's death.

We first meet Absalom when his sister, Tamar, is assaulted by their half-brother, David's eldest son Amnon. Although the crime warrants punishment under the law, David loves Amnon and takes no action against him. Nor does he do anything to redeem Tamar's honor. So Absalom waits two years and invites all the king's sons, including Amnon, to a feast, then sends servants to murder Amnon and avenge his sister. He himself is exiled three years for this crime, and returns with an understandable load of bitterness towards David.

For four years, Absalom builds support among the people and then makes a lightning bid for the throne. David, caught unaware, has to flee with his court in order to save his life, but he leaves spies. Absalom sleeps with his father's concubines in order to promote to the people that he is the king now, rather than David.

But David's spies have allowed David the time to gather an army of his own and attack. They rout Absalom's army, which is not prepared because the spies have fed him false information. Absalom himself is somehow caught in a tree, helpless, where he is later killed by the general Joab, David's nephew. On hearing this, David falls to the ground, weeping and saying he would rather have died himself instead of Absalom dying.

You may remember that when Saul was trying to kill David, David would only flee from Saul and wouldn't attack him. Even though he had two chances to kill Saul, he refused to strike someone the Lord had anointed to be king. David recognized that God chose the kings of Israel, and he had no right to take from Saul what God had given to him.

But Absalom has no such scruples. Had David not fled, we can little doubt that Absalom would have had him killed in order to solidify his claim to the throne. He has no respect for the Lord's anointed. In fact, we don't really see him pay much attention to the Lord at all. Especially during his time of exile, David prays to God all the time. He doesn't always keep God in mind later on during his reign, but his contact with God and his seeking God's direction are still frequent.

Absalom, on the other hand, takes every action on his own. His justifiable rage against Amnon and his disgust with the fact that David does nothing turns into his plot to take justice by his own hand. He will not wait for time to bring him his chance at the throne if that's the will of God, but tries to grab it for himself. He doesn't seek advice from the priests or from prophets, but from court advisers who see things only in political terms. God may have chosen the first two kings of Israel, but the third king will choose himself, thank you very much. He'll play by his own rules.

That last habit, I imagine, he learned by watching his father. David played by his own rules when he wanted Bathsheba. He played by his own rules and ignored God's law when he "solved" his problem with Uriah's murder. He created a culture of the idea that being powerful meant you didn't have to follow the same rules everyone else did. So Amnon didn't, and he died. And then Absalom didn't, and he died.

Had either young man come back to his father and said, as did the younger son in the story of the prodigal, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and am no longer worthy to be called your son," what would have happened? We can't know, but my guess is that something of the peace of the house might have been restored. But such actions would require real repentance, a real turning around to a new way of living, and neither of them could do that.

If we live life by our own rules and guide our actions according to whatever we want, we bring discord and maybe even destruction wherever we go. Only by living life according to God's law of love and respect for others and for God himself can we live lives that match what our spirits were created for, and thus find the peace we can't get otherwise.

The good news is that we have a chance to do that every time we fail. Thanks be to God.