Choose this day whom you will serve.
IA. Cheesecake & Halibut?
I think most of us are familiar with at least part of this morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures. It is, after all, an all-time favorite preaching text of Protestant pastors. Israel has been through a long ordeal. They were delivered from slavery, they spent years wandering in the wilderness, and they completed the conquest of the country God had promised them. And after it was all over, their leader, Joshua, gathered them together at Shechem—near the modern Palestinian city of Nablus—and offered them a choice: Choose between the God who brought you here, and the old gods—the ones you used to worship, the ones all the people around you have chosen.
It’s a good passage of scripture to take at face value. It’s just as valid a choice today as it was 3300 years ago. Choose this day whom you will serve: the God who made you what you are and who brought you this far, or the things you used to serve. Or, Choose this day whom you will serve: the God of your ancestors, or the things and values that hold everybody around you in thrall.
There must be a million different sermons a pastor can preach on this one little verse. Indeed, I’ve probably preached a hundred of them. And though the narrative as a whole is easy to include in sermons, there’s one section that not only makes it difficult if we include it, it literally flies in the face of Christian theology:
You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.
Wait. God will not forgive our transgressions? Why is that in there? Whatever happened to God having mercy on Israel in the wilderness not once, not twice, but multiple times? And what about the whole 103rd Psalm?
As the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s steadfast love… as far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so God has compassion for those who fear him.
Not to mention where Isaiah says, As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you (66:13).
And that’s just a few examples from the Hebrew Bible. It could be argued that if God didn’t forgive sins, there wouldn’t even be a New Testament.
But there are two things going on here that might help us better understand what Joshua’s talking about; and the first one is really easily dealt with. That’s because we’re reading this as English-speakers, and in particular, American English-speakers. Joshua said, “You cannot serve God,” and we can’t help but read it exactly as it’s been given to us in translation. How would we interpret it if somebody said to us, You cannot serve the cheesecake with the halibut? or, You cannot serve dinner in the middle of Memorial Parkway? And it’s not just service, it’s anything. When we’re told You can’t do that, we interpret it to mean that something is being forbidden to us, or that something is simply impossible.
Of course, in British English, they’re not as likely to speak this way. In the first Lord of the Rings Movie (The Fellowship of the Ring), had Boromir been played with an American accent, he’d probably have said, You simply don’t walk into Mordor. But, of course, what he actually said in the movie is the now famous line, One simply does not walk into Mordor. Thus, when the British want to say You cannot serve the cheesecake with the halibut, they’d probably say something like, One simply does not serve cheesecake with halibut.
IB. I Know Y’All
And another part of the problem lies in the fact that the modern English language doesn’t differentiate between you (pl.) and you (sing.). We used to. We had several different words for you: thou was you (inf.), ye was you (pl.), and you was the formal form of you—the pronoun you used when you didn’t know someone very well, or to whom you wanted to show respect. We still see all these when we read the King James Bible, or when we pray old prayers. But for some reason, they all fell out of use, even though in most languages, these differentiations are all seen as critical to speaking clearly.
And so when Joshua says, You cannot serve the Lord, we naturally assume he’s saying it can’t be done. But if we could hear it through any ears but American ones, we might actually understand what he’s saying here. The first thing we need to do is let go of the assumption that You cannot do something means that we’re being advised against something or something is simply impossible. And the other thing is to remember that Joshua is using a plural pronoun here.
So let’s paraphrase this just a little bit, and since we’re in Alabama, we’re going to say it as somebody from Alabama would say it. Pretend for a second that Joshua’s from Cullman, and he says to the people who are listening, “I know y’all, and you can’t serve the Lord. I saw y’all with that golden calf, and I heard y’all complaining in the wilderness. There may be some people who could serve God, but it ain’t y’all.”
So Joshua isn’t saying here that God can’t be served. He’s trying to remind the people he’s talking to that they haven’t been faithful in their own service in the past. And then he goes on to say that God won’t forgive them their unfaithfulness in the future. We can take this statement literally, I suppose, but what came before and what came after will definitely contradict it. Or we can look at it in the same way we hear Jesus when he said,
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
Did Jesus, who was God’s love incarnate, truly intend tell us to hate our family members? Or was he using a bit of hyperbole because he couldn’t emphasize enough how much more important the blood of the cross was than the blood of biology? Or what about the time he told a poor woman who was begging for help for her daughter that it was “not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”? Are we really to take that statement literally, or should we look at setting and history and the end of the story before making our final judgment?
Yes, there are plenty of individual verses in the Bible where something is overstated in order to drive home the point. And I believe this is one of them. Joshua tells Israel that he’s aware of their track record, and they need to know that they can’t do in the future what they’ve done in the past. “I know y’all, and y’all can’t do what you’re saying you’re going to do. And God’s not going to put up with this back and forth. God’s not going to fix all your mistakes like what happened in the wilderness.”
In other words, they can’t promise one thing and do another. They can’t make a covenant with God, and then when that covenant becomes inconvenient, turn to the gods they worshiped in the past or the gods worshiped by the people around them to negotiate a better deal. Their relationship with God is cheapened when they so casually turn aside from God, assuming that all will be forgiven when they return to the path. Thus the strong language Joshua uses when he tells them that they can’t do in the future what they’ve always done in the past.
II. Meanwhile in Pomerania
A cheapened relationship. One of the 20th century’s greatest theologians also talked about this, and the stakes were at least as high for his people as they were for Joshua’s. The theologian’s name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in a book called The Cost of Discipleship, he talked about something he called cheap grace.
A bit of background: As the German nation was transformed into the Third Reich, the people in the churches were transformed into German Christians, who acknowledged the leadership of Hitler and accepted his teachings about minorities—especially, of course, Jews. Over against the German Christians was a group calling itself the Confessing Church, those Protestants who refused to capitulate to the Nazis and were themselves therefore in danger of persecution, arrest, and execution.
We usually hear Bonhoeffer referred to as a Lutheran theologian, but in reality he was a member of a united church—the same church that in this country joined together with the Congregationalists in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ. And it was in coöperation with this church that Bonhoeffer studied at Union Seminary in New York in the early 30’s.
Because of his international connections, after the Nazi came to power, many thought Bonhoeffer would go where he could lead the resistance to them in safety, He did not. He returned to Germany to take his place among others protesting Nazism, even taking charge of educating young confessing pastors at a seminary he founded in Pomerania. It was during this period that he wrote in his book on discipleship about the dangers of believing in cheap grace—grace that asks nothing of us, grace that doesn’t change us, grace that is handed over without being asked for. “Cheap grace,” he wrote “is not the kind of forgiveness… which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves.” It is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Costly grace, on the other hand, costs a person their old life in return for a new one. It demands change. And “above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son… [and] it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life… Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
III. Whom Will You Serve?
Whom will you serve? Joshua asked his people: If not God, then whom? The old gods from beyond the river, or the new ones that surround you? But if you choose God, don’t think you can cheapen God’s forgiveness by switching back and forth for convenience’ sake.
Whom will you serve? Bonhoeffer asked his people: If not Christ, then whom? The old gods of respectability, or the new nationalist ones that surround you? But if you choose God, don’t think you can cheapen the grace of Christ by claiming a part in it while refusing the cross of Christ.
Every age is faced with the same question, and each people must answer. Whom will we serve? And how can we serve with integrity? It’s easy to discount ancient Israel for making poor choices, and even easier to put down Germans from eighty years ago for coöperating with the powers of evil. But we, too, fail to understand the cost of discipleship. We think the church is here to serve the family, rather than vice versa. We have become enraged when a flag is burned in protest but looked the other way when a cross is burned in someone’s yard. We prefer political leaders who say they’re Christians but act like everyone else to those who don’t discuss religion but work toward justice.
We, too, turn to our old gods from beyond the river—the ones that offer us comfort when Christ would lead us toward the cross. We, too, are surrounded by a plethora of new gods that offer us entertainment or prestige when Christ would lead us down a path of humility or even risk-taking.
Most of us, without hesitation could answer the question, Whom will you serve? by enthusiastically affirming that we will serve God—the one God, who made heaven and earth, the One who was incarnate in Jesus Christ, the One who poured out the Holy Spirit on us to empower us and unite us. And having said that we move on.
But perhaps our enthusiastic decision should be followed by a great deal of self-examination as we ask ourselves who these other gods are that might tempt us to fall away. Who are our old, comfortable gods from beyond the river? Who are the contemporary that surround us, threatening daily to supplant the values we know to be right?
Choosing a faith that asks nothing of us over taking up our cross and following Jesus is the difference between cheap grace that we grant ourselves and costly grace that is granted by God. Let us discover these other gods and root them out. Whether old or new, whether in the form of unhealthy relationships or ideologies or money or possessions, these are the cheap gods that draw us away from the God whose love was so costly that it was worth the life of the Only Begotten.
Let us choose now whom we will serve, and let it be God.
—©2017 Sam L. Greening, Jr.