Inspired by Joshua 24:1-15
So we have to start by asking that now familiar question, “How did we get here?” Especially because, since last week’s reading of the Ten Commandments, or vows as we called them, at Mt. Sinai, we have fast-forwarded through quite a bit of Israel’s history. To sum up, after they left Mt. Sinai, they continued on their journey through the wilderness to their new home, Canaan, the Promise Land, “a land flowing in milk and honey”, as scripture describes it. But it takes them forty years to get there.
On the way, their whining and complaining never ceased, testing God’s patience at every turn, including, but not limited to, still having trouble giving up their old Gods, after all these years. They finally make it to the border of the Promise Land, where Moses gets to see it from afar, but dies before he’s able to enter it. His protégé, Joshua, takes over as leader of the Israelites, and is tasked with moving them into Canaan, their new home.
|"The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan" by Gustave Dore|
And then had the nerve to attribute these genocidal tendencies to God! How convenient, right? Every nation the world has ever known has a dark chapter or two in their history, and the Israelites, our faith ancestors, were no different. America has slavery as one of its dark chapters; Germany, the Holocaust; South Africa, apartheid. But it’s not just nations that can have a dark chapter. The Catholic church has the inquisition. And our very own Martin Luther has his extremely anti-Semitic writings.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing the Israelites by saying, “Well, everyone has done this!” But if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that, from cover to cover, it is chock full of example after example, of how God’s people have broken the Ten Commandments, and if the Bible was still being written today, our dark chapters would be in their too. Why? Because the more our sin is revealed, the more God’s grace is revealed. Why?
Because we believe in a God that loves us unconditionally, as that is the only kind of love that works with us humans who continually make bad choices. And our religion, has spent way too much time covering that up, rather than celebrating it. Think of the time and energy that has been spent on trying to make us look like we somehow deserve God’s grace, that somehow we have earned it, that somehow Christians are a better breed of humans, when that couldn’t be further from the truth!
It doesn’t take much reading of church history to see why phrases like “holier than thou” or “goody two shoes” or “self-righteous prig” (that’s one of my favorites) or names like “prude” or “priss” or “choirboy”, all get directed at Christians. Because if we’re honest with our history, it’s our own fault, we’ve asked for it. Christianity has a long history of using our faith to elevate our moral superiority over other nations, over other groups, over other religions, over people of color, over women or nonbinary individuals, you name the group and Christianity probably has a history of lording itself over them at some point.
And scholars have offered many reasons why we have a habit of doing this: for power, for wealth, for our egos, but I think most pastors read history and just say, “Oh, that’s because of sin.” And why is our faith even around still, after all we have done wrong in God’s name? Most pastors see that and say, “Oh, now that’s grace.”
However, there could have been a different way we lived out our faith over the centuries, that didn’t include us trying to hide our imperfections. We could have owned them. We could have been honest about our imperfections, about our sin. Not in a “Look what I got away with!” kind of way, but a “This is who we are.” kind of way. Imagine how freeing that may have been for people over the centuries, and today, who were trying to do their best but just kept falling short—for them to hear from us, “Join the club. We’re trying too. And we’re falling short too.” With maybe even an invitation to, “Come and try with us!” But no, we have had this nasty habit of judging others faults, making them feel less than, when we are struggling with the same things. Institutionalized bullying is what it comes right down to.
In a letter to his friend and colleague, Phillip Melanchthon, Martin Luther told him to “sin boldly.” Now this wasn’t Luther giving him an excuse to sin. This is what he wrote, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin.” This was just Luther’s odd way, and yes he was an odd duck, this was his odd way of saying—you can’t celebrate God’s grace until you have first lifted up your sin! And the more boldly you do that, the more boldly you’re going to celebrate God’s mercy! So own it! Own it!
I’ve got an idea for a new motto for Christianity. Imagine someone going to our website, and seeing right on the front page, in big bold letters, “WE SIN…A LOT.” That’s the kind of boldness I’m talking about! Imagine that as a conversation starter! I can hear people seeing that motto and asking, “Umm, if y’all sin that much then how do you even function? How do you even get by then?” And then we can say, “I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you about a carpenter I know. Great guy! Loved wine. You’d like him!”
If we could be that bold about our sin, imagine how much bolder we’d have to be about God’s grace and mercy! Which brings us to our reading from the end of the book of Joshua. They have finally “moved in” to their new homeland, “a land flowing in milk and honey” which had turned into a land flowing in the blood of those they trampled to acquire it. And Joshua and God take a moment to give them a hard reality check! Because even though things are going well for them right now, they are not going to stay that way for long.
And so they tell them, you’ve got to decide! You’ve got to choose who you are going to follow, God, or your old gods. Which was really another way of saying, you have to choose between your present or your past. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to continue to live in the past then you go right ahead. Make a decision and own it! But you can’t live your life with one foot out the back door and expect to move forward.
God, God’s people, and this world, need you fully here, in the present. And God wants all of you, meaning, all that makes you who you are—all your faults, all your strengths, all your sins, all your good deeds. And God invites you to be bold about all of it. Remember, the bolder we are about our sin, the bolder we can be about God’s grace and mercy. Unfortunately, Joshua did not understand this and gets a few things wrong.
If you keep reading there’s a few more verses to the end of the book where the people tell Joshua that they have indeed chosen to serve God. And Joshua basically tells them no, they can’t, because they haven’t in the past and he sees no indication that they will in the future. But that’s not what he gets wrong. He then tells them that God won’t forgive their rebellion or their sins. But that’s only because he hadn’t met Jesus yet. Thankfully we have, and hopefully, we’re getting to know Jesus better and better every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.