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Is God Good? Choose This Day Whom You Shall Serve

A sermon preached August 23, 2015
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector, 
The Falls Church Episcopal

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
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, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel:
"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."

Is God good?

I don’t just mean “is God good” in the sense of “is God virtuous, or right?” like when we say someone is a “good person…”

…but “is God good?” in the sense of “is God kind? benevolent – is God filled with goodness?”

If you don’t know whether or not you believe God is filled with goodness, here’s a little test you can give yourself: 

Think of coming into God's presence. 

What’s the first and primary emotion or reaction you have to that?

Is it fear? Cowering?

(If someone were to come up to you and say, “Hey, God wants to see you,” what’s your reaction? Is it “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble!” ?)

If the veil between heaven and earth were lifted right now would you first and primary posture be apologetic, repentance?



Now of course there’s nothing wrong, per se, with fear or repentance, but as this passage from Joshua demonstrates, in scripture those emotions are not first and primary; they are subsequent and secondary to first and primary feelings of awe and gratitude.

I’m going to ask you to think of coming into God’s presence again, but this time I want to preface it by asking you to use your imagination for a minute and think of several other things.

I want you to imagine the most gorgeous sunset or mountain range you’ve ever seen.

Picture yourself standing there taking it in, one of those times when your breath has been taken away by nature’s beauty.

Now as you’re standing there taking it in imagine someone approaches you, someone you’re acquainted with, and admire, but don’t know well, and this person stands next to you for a while, admiring the scene with alongside you. 

And then this person smiles at you and says

“Some time ago, I won 25 million dollars in the lottery and ever since then I’ve been paying attention to you and your dreams, and when you get back home you’ll discover all your debts have been paid off, I’ve done that for you, and I’ve established college trust funds for your children and grandchildren.

“And also, I’ve deposited 750,000 dollars in your checking account; I want you to have some fun with that, and be a philanthropist with the rest. No strings attached, I’ve long admired you; I think you have a beautiful heart and I want to do this for you.”

Let me ask: What would your reaction be?

Now turn your attention back to the sunset or mountain range, drinking in the beauty, and combine with it that feeling (of gratitude).

THAT is a correct, Biblical image of God.

And if that is not your first and primary image of God then face the fact that you have been worshiping an idol, a false god, a graven image, an angry golden calf of your own imagination, reinforced, perhaps, by decades of bad religion.

In scripture, allegiance -- repentance, obedience, dedication –these things follow awe and gratitude.

Now to the Old Testament  lesson: 

Under the leadership of Joshua, the successor to Moses, the people of Israel have invaded and inhabited the land of Canaan.  Joshua is giving his farewell speech. He gathers the tribes of Israel to Shechem. 

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. 2And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel,”

What’s the first thing he says?

(“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him?”)

No, that’s not the first thing he says.

Sure, that’s what’s printed in the leaflet, that’s what assigned by the lectionary, but “revere and serve the Lord” is NOT the first and primary thing Joshua said.

What’s omitted from our assigned reading, what’s between verses 2a and 14:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

I gave him Isaac; 4and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, [and] Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out.

6When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time. 8Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.

9Then King Balak…set out to fight against Israel. …I rescued you out of his hand. 11When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you.

12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow.
13I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.

(And THEN…and only then, do we get)

14 ‘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.

You see?!?

Obedience, service, faithfulness, repentance, a call to put away the false gods that don’t love us back  – they all follow a long list of things that God has done, out of gift, out of goodness, because God loves us.

And that recollection: the recollection that God is good…filled with kindness and benevolence…fills the people with gratitude, and out of that sense of gratitude everything else follows.

Now…why is this so important?

Let me try to answer that by telling you, again, one of my favorite stories:

An elderly farmer was working in the field outside a small village when a stranger comes up to him.

"Good morning sir.  I am looking for a new village to live in and would like to know what the people are like here?"
"What were the people like in your last village?", asked the elder.
"Awful! They were dishonest and mean.  I was always being treated unfairly."

"I see. You’ll find the people in this village to be like that, too."

The stranger continued on to the next village.  A while later, someone else, another stranger, comes up to the farmer.

"Good morning sir.  I am looking for a new village to live in and would like to know what the people are like in this village?"
"What were the people like in your last village?", the old man said.
"Fabulous! They were the kindest, most generous people you would ever want to meet."
"I see.  You’ll find the people in this village to be like that, too."

We receive what we perceive: we get what we look for.

We are made in the image and likeness of God.  So…I ask you again…

Is God mean?  Or good? 

Is God holding out on you? Or generous beyond comprehension? 

Is God distant and formal? Or close, and intimate?

Choose this day whom you will serve; receive whom you perceive.

--##--

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