“All In” – Because You Give Sermon Series
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18;
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
August 22, 2021
On a few occasions since March of 2020 I have said, “You know, this feels like a wilderness experience.” In the Bible, wilderness is a space of trial and unknowns. A space of wandering. A space that usually goes far longer than any would choose. And the kind of space where we just hit our limit – and so they vent. School board meetings, social media, airplanes, living rooms…Goodness, the Israelites in the wilderness vented regularly to God, to Moses.
While it seems an odd thing to say so clearly on Rally Day of all days, I think the best place for us to start is simply, to be honest with one another: These recent days of Delta and Afghanistan, Haiti and Henri, emergency school board meetings and capacity ICUs (let alone some of the many trials and anxieties many of you are navigating in your workplaces and families)…they have been hard. Which is to say, there remains something very much ‘wilderness’ about our days.
In her book, A Beautiful Disaster, Marlena Graves writes, “When we first enter (the wilderness) we’re convinced we’ve entered the bowels of hell. But on our pilgrimage, we discover that the desert drips with the divine.” One of the things about the wilderness in the Bible is that it is the singularly unique space in which we are given the opportunity to sort our most fundamental allegiances. There is so much that gets tossed, turned, disoriented, unknown, taken away…and they force those more fundamental questions to the forefront:
What actually matters? Who actually matters? Who do we trust? “Choose this day whom you will serve,” calls God to the gathered Israelites as they stand in the wilderness, on the cusp of the promised land. Scholars note that this story in Joshua 24 is told in a liturgical form – sort of a call and response rhythm if you read the whole thing.
This means it is quite likely that this kind of covenant renewal with God was brought forth regularly in the life of Israel. Time and again there were moments when the people were called to declare afresh whom they and their household will serve. Which is to say, who their very person, their property, their wealth…will serve.
As we stand in the wilderness, as we stand on the cusp of our fall ministries, as we stand peering toward 2022 and God’s plan for this church…perhaps the gift given us today does not come in the form of easy answers or an escape from wilderness realities, but rather it comes in the opportunity to discern afresh our response to the call of God,
“Choose this day whom you will serve.” To be sure, that call makes it clear that there is a choice. There are competing gods. The passage mentions gods just beyond the river and back in Egypt and among the Amorites among whom Israel currently resided.
As we consider financial stewardship, I am mindful that Jesus famously provides a way for us to discern if any of those many other gods have sway in our life. “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also, there your allegiance is also.” In other words, look at where you put your money. Your resources. Not where we think our ideal self would put those things, not where we think others should be putting their money and time and resources…where, honestly, are those given? This will tell the story of where the heart actually is. The allegiance actually is.
I imagine we could spend a good bit of time unpacking the gods of our age who compete for our attention, our time, our energy, our resources…our heart. And we are wise to have a healthy awareness of that. But our passage from Joshua 24 also invites another option. Another way that helps us respond to this call to choose this day whom we shall serve. I call it the way of the self-portrait.
Earlier this summer I took a continuing education class through Fuller Seminary in which we explored the intersection of worship and the arts. And the very first assignment for the class was this: create a self-portrait and then prepare to share that self-portrait over Zoom with your fellow classmates at the next meeting time.
Most of the pastors in this class, including myself, would not consider themselves artists in the least. Truly, I never paint, draw, sculpt, design, sew, write music…so I did not like this assignment. And yet there it was. I signed up for this. So I begin thinking about how to draw my face, quite literally. Then it hits me that I don’t have to do a literal depiction. In fact, given that I would have to rely heavily on the stick figure motif, that probably is not a helpful way to go. Maybe I could depict something more in terms of imagery or metaphor.
So I start thinking about my life and where I have lived, things I’ve done, things I enjoy. I try to piece together in a rough draft form of images that speak to these kinds of things. And that could have been how Israel recorded their own story, their own self-portrait of sorts. Joshua 24:2-15 is where the history of God’s people is recounted in great detail before God calls on them to “choose this day whom you will serve”…that whole section could read like this:
“Joshua said to all the people… We as a people once lived beyond the Euphrates River. We once worshiped other gods. But Abraham and our people stepped bravely beyond the Euphrates and into Canaan. Isaac was born, and then sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob and that part of the family went down to Egypt and when we all eventually became enslaved by the Egyptians, Moses and Aaron came along and led us out.”
The point is, there is a very natural way to tell our stories based on place and events. We once lived there. We did this. We accomplished that. We hit hardship and moved there. Did that. Accomplished that. Think of your life stories…could you piece it together by place and event? Might we would get something of a self-portrait? A picture of you?
I will tell you, the strangest thing happened when I got out these art supplies to actually attempt to make a self-portrait that would somehow symbolically tell my story. I had not yet decided on the backdrop to this self-portrait, and I initially thought that would be sort of a filler. I began mixing a little white paint with the blue paint and then doing these circular brush strokes. And I kind of liked it. Something about that felt true. So I kept going and filled the whole canvas that way before doing anything else.
And then it struck me: that backdrop was going to be the single most important part of this entire self-portrait – because those are baptismal waters. Those are the waters that have held and carried every aspect of my reality. No matter what I put on top of that backdrop, no matter what aspects of my life I try to highlight or what aspects I try to hide – all of that is held in those waters. Which is to say… My story is most fundamentally God’s story. My story is most fundamentally what God in Jesus Christ has done time and again, in season and out of season.
(And I think it is true for all of us…) For the baptized people of God, a true self-portrait is the story of God alive in us and through us and despite us – and God made known most vibrantly in the wilderness times.
Here is how part of Joshua 24:2-15 actually reads (see if you can hear the difference): “Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors…lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. 3 But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and (I) led him throughout Canaan and (I) gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, 4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his family went down to Egypt.
5‘“ Then I sent Moses and Aaron…and I brought you out of Egypt…(then later if the point was not clear enough): I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’
The story of Israel is most fundamentally told as the story of God.
And interestingly, every aspect of that story highlights a time of hardship and unknown and wilderness reality…but the story is dripping with the divine – the story is told in such a way that what we see is the Water of Life holding, shaping, leading the whole thing. And so…before the people of God ever get to the point where they name clearly and fully this day whom they shall serve – they first take an extended amount of time to paint this self-portrait of who they are. And they see God everywhere – wilderness, especially.
This is to say, they take time to remember that God has been all in for them from the beginning and to the further ends of the canvas itself. We place a cross centrally upon our spaces of worship that we might likewise regularly remember ours is a God who is all in – all the way to the most parched spaces of wilderness – for us.
I don’t know how many here consider themselves artists. Perhaps we rarely if ever paint or draw or sculpt or design or sew or write music…and honestly maybe it feels like the last thing for us to consider in these times that beg for answers and clarity and a way out of this mess. And yet… what if God’s invitation this morning is not to pull us from the wilderness, but to invite us instead to do a self-portrait and consider if it doesn’t drip with the divine – most especially in the wildernesses of yesterday?
Where would you start? What if we tried a church self-portrait?
If we spent this afternoon or this week reflecting on our many stories as individuals and families and a church…would we likewise come upon the realization that no matter how you tell it, how you depict it – would it become impossible to tell our story without telling of the Water… carrying, shaping, forgiving, holding, renewing?
Which is to say, would it become impossible to tell our story without telling of Jesus?
And what might that simple self-portrait exercise do for the soul of a people?
Having heard afresh the long story of God at work through them generation after generation…the people of God stand before Joshua and they respond:
“As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Amen.