November 12, 2017: Sacred (Lessons)
Scriptures Used: Joshua 24:1-3, 15-24;, Psalm 78:1-8
I was recently reminded of a phrase that I was taught as a child: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Kids have sticky minds. I was talking to a friend of mine who has three kids, and he told me the story of how his son, in his first day of class, dropped a perfectly timed and grammatically correct swear in front of the class. When he reminded his child of the rules of listening instead of just doing what other people do, the son responded, “but YOU said it.”
How easy it is for kids to pick up on all the wrong things. And yet, getting them to learn other lessons like saying kind words, tying their shoes, or doing their own laundry takes a lot more effort. Wouldn’t the world be better if our kids just did what they were supposed to do by knowing what to pay attention to?
I imagine Joshua, as leader of the Israelite people, felt the same way as he led them into the Promised Land. He had been Moses’ assistant and chosen successor as the leader of the Israelites who had wandered the desert after escaping from Egypt. For 40 years, things went like this:
- The people complained that slavery was better than wandering in the wilderness.
- Moses prayed they would be given good food; God provided good food.
- The people were happy for a time, then forget and start to complain.
- God sends a punishment. They get mad, complain some more.
- Moses tries to make it better, pleads with God. God blesses them.
- They forget and complain, God punishes again. Rinse and repeat.
Over and over, especially after they had been given the law from Moses after he met with God on Mt. Sinai, they would be reminded of who they were supposed to be so they would be ready in heart and mind before making it to the Promised Land. But, like all people, living under the law takes a lot of practice, and they instead did the wrong things. Once they made it to the Promised Land, right living became even more difficult. For one, they were going to take the land from the people who lived there, which meant living in a war mentality that tends to ask for forgiveness before deciding if they had permission to do what they would do. Then, of those that they did not kill, the lifestyle of the foreign people seemed new and exciting: new foods, new riches, new gods, and new people with whom they could “make friends.”
As a sidebar, I don’t know how to feel about what the Israelites do to the other peoples in the Book of Joshua. Given that God never encourages the Israelites and Jews to conquer again, one can surmise that God’s command to kill and conquer, if it truly existed like it is written in the Bible, began and ended there. So, not to down the Choir’s offertory music today, but let’s stick to the idea that God keeps promises rather than thinking it is ok to tear down cities and kill everyone inside.
So, back to our lesson, of course, after years of being told to eat kosher, dress a certain way, live modestly, and worship God with all they had, the people instead started repeating the things they had learned from the Amorites, Canaanites, Moabites, and others. Like children that hear their first curse word and repeat it to others, they found that they liked these new cultures. Joshua reminded them that it was when they were faithful and not when they were disobedient that God allowed them to take the land. It was also God that gave them good harvests of grapes and olives when they settled. Joshua knew their disobedience, just like it happened in the desert, would lead to destruction.
By chapter 24, Joshua has become old, so he reminds them of all the good God has done for them and presses them to uphold the law as God’s people. He even makes them swear to it. If you notice in today’s Call to Worship, “we are witnesses” is the same language as is found in their response to Joshua when he made them promise to keep the law. It’s saying “we promise!” He tells them, “Focus your hearts on the Lord.”
To uphold the law would take focus. Not much has changed throughout our history. It’s human nature to see things that are good for us as less fun or enjoyable so we become easily distracted and tempted. Who do we notice most in elementary, middle, and high school: The good ones who do everything they are told, never talk in class, and answer all the questions or the funny ones who make you laugh?
And adults, the same is true for us. There’s a reason why Real Housewives and Game of Thrones are so popular – we like it when people say and do things we don’t think we should.
Following a strict set of rules just seems so unappetizing. Have you ever been on a diet? It’s hard! But perseverance and allowing ourselves to be affected by the good stuff takes hold. After a while, you don’t want the fried stuff or the sugary drinks because you feel awful afterward. Doing what is good can feel like a chore, but it becomes a necessity after a while.
Even so, the temptation to live and be as we want is far more powerful than living by rules. That is why the verse 23 says to ‘focus your hearts…’ and not ‘think about…’ or, ‘remember…’ Focus means discipline and constant reminders.
In Psalm 78, the psalmist writes it this way: “Listen, my people, to my teaching; tilt your ears toward the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a proverb. I’ll declare riddles from days long gone— ones that we’ve heard and learned about, ones that our ancestors told us. We won’t hide them from their descendants; we’ll tell the next generation all about the praise due the Lord and his strength—the wondrous works God has done. He established a law for Jacob and set up Instruction for Israel, ordering our ancestors to teach them to their children. This is so that the next generation and children not yet born will know these things, and so they can rise up and tell their children to put their hope in God— never forgetting God’s deeds, but keeping God’s commandments— and so that they won’t become like their ancestors: a rebellious, stubborn generation, a generation whose heart wasn’t set firm and whose spirit wasn’t faithful to God.
The oath to serve the Lord in Joshua was not only meant for those people who were there. They were promising that they would keep their oath for generations, and that requires teaching their children and their children’s children of the law and its importance as the way the people declared their obedience to and love of God. The psalmist here again tells of that promise – they are to teach each generation so that they never forget God’s deeds for them and the promise they made to keep their commandments.
We Christians inherited this promise to teach each generation from our Jewish roots through Jesus and the disciples. And like their ancestors, we are just as easily tempted to lose focus and go after other things. We become Christians when we are around church people or people we think would think bad of us if we did something wrong. We pray in public and even talk about our faith to others, and yet, when we are alone or away from people who know of our traditions, we do what we want in ways that do not glorify God.
The remedy that has long been how we have pushed back against our loss of focus was to be in church or around church people all the time. We had Sunday School, and Bible Study, and small groups, and youth group or children’s and family night and cookouts and camp meetings. We used to schedule our lives around places where we could listen and teach God’s deeds and keep our focus. But we don’t do that anymore.
The Sacredness of keeping contact with God has become the thing we put on the nightstand to do first thing in the morning or before bed and even that sometimes takes a backseat if we don’t feel like it. Church attendance is when we feel like it. And I get it – I don’t always want to do my Bible reading or to get up here and preach or go to meetings or events, because I don’t feel like it. But then I still do it. And I remember what God has done in my life, and I feel joyful again.
Each time I come to a meeting, and people want to talk about the good ol’ days of church, we tend to get sad that things aren’t like they used to be. No wonder people don’t want to uphold the Sacred traditions of teaching and worship and Bible Study – we in the church have also lost focus and fall into making it a sad thing.
This past week, I met with a group of conference leaders who are going back to basics in developing churches to do ministry specifically with youth and young people. One thing we realized quickly: people don’t want to be at church because they don’t enjoy it. We don’t know each other – some we don’t know their names or their stories and even people we call friends we only know surface level stuff.
When we talked about children’s and youth ministry, we noticed that when churches do ministry around events and traditions rather than developing relationships with the kids and showing them love, kids and youth quickly realize how much effort is being put into knowing about them. And in worship, we can change the order and the music and do all kinds of things, but people only come back when they are noticed each week and the folks in the pews around them actually care about who they are. Churches grow when they care about showing that they know what God has done for them and actively want to share it, and they die when they insist upon doing it the same old way because that’s how it has always been or what we’ve always done.
If we want to claim church is Sacred, we have to focus on what we are teaching. Are we teaching our kids that they are loved children of God? Are we teaching our youth that they matter and have something to contribute? Are we teaching our adults that it is their responsibility to be actors that want the church to be what God wants them to be? Or are we window dressing and doing the bare minimum so we can get out of here and do what is fun and exciting elsewhere?
Go out this week with these sacred teachings of the church:
- Live for Christ. Not for the rules of Christianity – for Christ.
- You are already made good, strive for better.
- Love more.