Not the music, not the preaching, not the stained glass windows, and certainly not the air conditioning draw us to this place today, but the love of God in Christ who has redeemed us, and whom we have chosen to follow as our Lord. A sermon for Proper 16b
Proper 16b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.
There is an old story about a man and a woman being awakened one Sunday morning by the alarm clock going off. After lying there for a while doing nothing, as people are wont to do, the wife finally says, “Dear, it’s time to get up and get ready for church.” The husband complains, “Oh, I don’t want to. I hate going to church. I don’t like most of the people there and they don’t like me. The music is dull, and the sermons are so boring. I don’t want to go.” The wife responds, “But dear, you have to go. You’re the minister.”
The sad fact is that this unhappy minister is not alone. There are many people who seem to prefer to worship at the shrine of Saint Mattress on a Sunday morning, instead of going to church. Even if they don’t have any particular dislike for the church, they just don’t seem to want to make the effort. Then there are all of the people who have stopped going to church because they do have some particular dislike: they are upset about something — it could be the music, or the preacher, or the worship itself. Perhaps it is something about a decision made or position taken by the larger church — surely we all know of people who left conservative churches because they were too conservative, just as there are those who have left liberal churches because they are too liberal. People have left churches that forbid things they want to do, as well as churches that allow other people to do the kinds of things they don’t think they should be allowed to do.
One begins to wonder is there isn’t a Church of Saint Goldilocks out there somewhere — a church that offends no one because it is neither too large nor too small, not too hot and not too cold, not too hard, not too soft, but “just right.” If there is such a place, I’ve not heard of it; and I can guarantee you that if it existed someone would still find reasons to complain and to depart. “This church stands for nothing! It’s too middle-of-the-road, too wishy-washy!”
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As our Old Testament reading and Gospel show us today, this isn’t a new problem, nor is it a problem faced only by churches. God himself, and Jesus, also seem to have a hard time keeping their followers from taking offense at them and stomping off or drifting away.
Joshua put the question bluntly: he asks the people to choose that very day whom they will serve: whether the gods from the other side of the Jordan, or the gods from the land in which they have come to live, or the gods of Egypt whom they left behind — or will they choose the Lord their God who delivered them from captivity in Egypt and brought them safely through the wilderness after that wandering of forty years, finally to come to the land of promise, driving out the inhabitants of the land before them to give them a home. And of course, you see, the people swear they will serve the Lord just as Joshua and his household will.
Except, of course, they don’t. As the rest of the history of this people spells out in no uncertain terms, they go on to forsake the Lord their God, almost immediately, and in almost every conceivable way through the coming centuries; rebuked by judges, prophets and a handful of good kings; yet also corrupted and misled by crooked politicians, false prophets, and idolatrous kings.
And what about Jesus? He presents the people with a hard teaching, something that many — even many of his disciples — are unwilling to accept. He presents a difficult teaching, and they begin to drift away from him. And of course, a few of his inner circle, such as Simon Peter, swear that they will remain loyal to him.
Except, of course, they don’t. Who are they who flee when the shepherd is struck, but these very sheep of disciples? Who is it that denies Christ before the cock crows on Good Friday morning but Simon Peter himself?
In both cases — both the people to whom Joshua spoke and those to whom his namesake Jesus preached — the people do not just reject a minister or a preacher, but God. This is clearly the case with the people who turn away from the God of Israel as they accommodate the tame gods of Egypt or Canaan or Philistia. They reject the God who brought them into the land of promise with signs and wonders, with a mighty hand and a powerful arm.
But it is also clearly the case with the people who turn away from Jesus in this Gospel passage today, in part because in this passage Jesus is making the kind of claim to divine power that they simply can’t — or won’t — believe. He tells them that he is himself the bread come down from heaven, and that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will live forever. Jesus is not presenting himself simply as a good man or a wise teacher, but as the Son of the living God, who gives life to the world for those who believe, so that they might not perish, but have everlasting life. He claims to be, as Peter recognizes, and declares, the Holy One of God.
The British author C.S. Lewis, perhaps best known for his Narnia stories, once said that this sort of plain speech from Jesus leaves us with few options, as it left few options for those who heard him speak. Either we accept that he is who he presents himself as, who he claims to be, who the disciples recognize — the Holy One of God — or we must categorize him as a madman on the order of someone who claims to be a poached egg, or as a liar as bad as any devil out of Hell. There is no option to treat him as simply a good man or wise teacher. For if what he says is true he is as far above any good man or wise teacher as God is above all of humanity. And if what he says is false he is either mad or a liar. We already know that his family thought he had gone out of his mind, and no doubt some of those disciples in this passage today, who turn away from him, make the same judgment, and turn back from following him. That is their choice.
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But what about us? What is our choice? We are all here today in large part because we do believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be, the one the disciples recognized as the Holy One of God. We trust that in him we have salvation and eternal life. We believe in him, not just that he is a good man, a wise man, but that he is the Holy One of God. We are here today because of him; because at this altar-rail we share in that body and blood, that promise of everlasting life; the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.
We are not here simply because we like each other, or you like me, or I like you — though I hope that that is true — but because we believe in Jesus Christ. We are not here simply because we enjoy singing hymns, or because you enjoy the sermons — although I hope you do get something out of them! — or because of the coffee hour, or because of the stained-glass windows, or because of the air-conditioning... No, it couldn’t possibly be because of the air-conditioning!
We are here, my friends, because we have chosen, this day and every day we choose to be in this assembly, to be with the One who has the words of eternal life. He it is who calls us to this place; he it is who gave himself up for us; he it is who is the bread come down from heaven for the life of the world, not like that which our ancestors ate, and they died; but the bread that will preserve us to eternal life, the flesh and the blood of the Holy One of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom we ascribe, as is most justly due, all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.