A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
Aug 23, 2015
Josh 24:1-2a, 14-18
John 6: 56-69
I love that scripture still has the power to surprise me. May it always do so. A while back, I was reading through the texts for this week, and I stopped toward the end of the John passage and gasped. “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
When did that get added? You mean to tell me that for the past 2,000 years, there has been a report in scripture that DISCIPLES turned back from following Jesus and nobody told me?
Sure. I knew the CROWD often turned away. I knew rich men turned away in sadness when they were told their money wasn’t going to buy them eternal life. I knew the Pharisees and Sadducees turned away from what Jesus said and then went and plotted to have him killed.
But I never noticed that verse in John 6 before, where DISCIPLES threw in the towel and went back to their job at the bank or Starbucks or wherever.
And when they left, Jesus just let them go. He didn’t announce that ‘boy are you in trouble now and I hope you like hell!’.
He also did not race after them, crying, “PLEASE come back! I need you! Please. What will it take? Do you need a coffee bar? An X-Box in the youth room? I’ll do anything!”
He’s very chill about it all. “Does this offend you? Sorry. As I was saying….”
Maybe the reason I’ve never noticed these verses before is because church people get twitchy when disciples leave. No matter how much we say and know that church isn’t a about the numbers of people in the pews, the reality is we miss our friends when they leave.
We want church to be like the Hotel California—you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
But Jesus just watches them walk away and gets back to what he has to do.
On one hand, this text is a huge relief to me as a pastor. It is a reminder that not even Jesus made everyone happy. In that sense, it frees me a little to do what we’re called to do and just keep on keepin’ on.
On the other hand, of course, I’m well aware that I’m not Jesus and so I shouldn’t make that comparison too easily. I will continue to mourn the disciples who leave this family.
And I suspect Jesus mourned the loss of those disciples too. Not because he was worried about their ticket to heaven. But because he, too, valued relationships and the gift that comes when people journey toward discipleship together.
The passage from Joshua is similar in some ways. There is no coercion in it.
“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.”
Joshua reminds the people of their story, of how God has gotten them to this moment in time. But the choice is still theirs to make. They can choose to serve God or not. God will not force their hand.
What I appreciate about the question from Joshua is that he asks us to choose “this day” whom we will serve. And we, on this day, consider that question in light of all of the days before us. From the time God brought our ancestor Abraham from beyond the Euphrates to the time God brought our ancestors to Boise. From the time God called Southminster Presbyterian Church to be built on the southern edge of Boise in 1956 to the time God called each of you to become a part of this family.
There have been a lot of “these days” in our past, bringing us each here from our different journeys to be family, to be God’s people here in this neighborhood on this day.
And embedded in the word “choose” is the option to not choose.
Choose this day if you will follow God or if you will follow someone else. It is your choice.
On one level I know this to be true. We are not puppets, being moved across the Stage of Life by the Almighty Puppet Master.
On another level, though, it is more complicated than that.
Why are we here? Today, I mean. Why are we here?
There are other things we could be doing. Like sleeping in. Or reading the Sunday New York Times at a coffee shop. Or hiking or camping or whatever.
There was an article last week from NPR that reported people who live in areas with lots of things to do in nature have lower church attendance. Well, duh. I thought. When people go skiing, or camping, or whatever, then clearly they will miss church on Sunday. The authors of the study believe it is more than that. They think the experience of the Divine in nature is replacing the experience of the Divine in church.
I’m skeptical. I know lots of people who manage to enjoy the beauty of nature AND make it to worship most weeks. But it did remind me of Joshua’s command—choose this day whom you will serve.
There are lots of other things we could be doing. Yet we are here.
And Jesus’ message to us has not gotten any easier, quite frankly, than it was 2,000 years ago. He still challenges us and confronts our assumptions. His teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?
Yet we are here. We have chosen, this day, to come to church.
I think, though, that in equal measure to our choice to be here, there is a double measure of God’s love compelling us here.
After some of the disciples turned back, Jesus asked the 12 remaining disciples:
“Do you also wish to go away?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter’s answer makes it seem as if they don’t really have a choice to be there, as if the power of God’s message is so strong that they cannot turn away. We aren’t puppets on a stage. Yet God seeks us, and wants us to seek God. Whether or not we respond to God doesn’t change the fact that God will always seek us.
As the psalmist writes in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
That’s what Peter responded to. “Lord, to whom could we go?”
Our choice to follow Jesus and his difficult teaching is only a part of the equation. Our choice is a response to the much stronger power of God’s choice to seek us.
And that compelling love of God that draws us in is not an easy love. It requires things of us. It demands things of us. Part of Jesus’ challenging message was: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
Are we ready to abide in Jesus? To make our home and life in him? Even scarier, are we ready to let Jesus abide in us?
Often, I think, when church leaders hear that message, we think, “we’ve got to clean that message up a little. Make it more palatable for folks. Let’s tell them that if they abide in Jesus they’ll get rich, skinny, and beautiful. Let’s tell them that even though abiding in Jesus sounds difficult, it’s actually easy.”
When we do that, we give people a false choice. It leaves them feeling God’s compelling love drawing them in, but not finding the words of eternal life when they get there.
Choose this day whom you will serve, and listen for an authentic message of God that matches the pull on your heart.
As you choose this day whom you will serve, recognize that others may make different choices. We don’t, sadly, get to choose this day whom our neighbor will serve. Or whom our brother will serve. Or our children. We only get to choose for ourselves. What we can do, though, is reflect God’s love back to the world so people might recognize God’s love when they do answer the call.
Even as people make other choices than I do, I do believe God is still calling to each of us. It’s okay if people respond to that call differently than you or I do. It would be a shame if the message we offer the world, however, doesn’t allow people to recognize the God who waits for our choice.
God is waiting. Choose this day, and do it without anxiety or fear. God is waiting to respond with Love.
And here’s the video with which we opened worship.