A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 23 ~ Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
I know you’ve done it. I’ve done it too. Someone official asks you a question and you know what the answer is supposed to be and you give that answer even though you don’t believe it, or you haven’t actually done the thing they’re asking but you say you have. Or maybe you have some doubts about something but you’re standing in a crowd and rather than go against the crowd you go with the flow.
Too often our actions belie our words.
We don’t practice what we preach.
We may not like to admit it, because it demonstrates a lack of integrity on some level, but we’ve all done it. And the sad truth is that we usually get away with it.
However, if the person asking the question is a good reader of people they’ll know what you’re up to and call you on it. You’ll probably deny it at first, but they’ll know, and sooner or later you’ll probably realize you’re not getting away with it and then you have a choice to make – double down and continue to misrepresent yourself, or admit the truth and come clean.
And the sad truth about that is that we usually choose to double down because it’s uncomfortable and humiliating to own up to a shortcoming.
I call it the mirror moment. It’s that moment when you look in the mirror and you realize that you can’t kid yourself anymore, that you see the thing you’re doing or thinking is wrong, that you can’t keep doing it, and that you’re going to act or think differently from that moment on.
In today’s passage from Joshua he has a wonderful way to describe that mirror moment. He says that the people are witnesses against themselves. Isn’t that a great way to say it? When you’re looking in that mirror you are a witness against yourself. But let me go back a bit and say more about what they were doing wrong that needed a mirror moment.
After their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Moses had led them that far but he did not go with them into the new world. He passed the leadership on to Joshua. Today’s reading comes from the end of Joshua’s story, long after he’d fought the battles, and it shows that he may have failed in his most sacred duty. The people of Israel had drifted away from the One God, Yahweh, and were worshipping other gods.
So Joshua calls them on it. The entire nation of Israel, all the various leaders and key people, everybody is gathered together and Joshua rises up before them and says that they are supposed to be serving or worshipping God like he does. It’s one of the most famous lines in the bible,
“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”
But the people aren’t following suit, and Joshua tells them they’re not.
They answer back, “Yes we are!”
He says, “No, you’re not!”
They say, “Yes, we are!”
He says, “No, you’re really not, and you know it.”
And they say, “Yeah, ok, you got us. No, we’re not. But we will now!”
(I may be paraphrasing a little.)
What it actually says in the end is this, Joshua 24:22
Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.”
Joshua makes them look hard at themselves in the mirror and become witnesses against themselves, realize that their actions are proving the case against them, and they finally admit, “Yes, we are witnesses.”
In church we have a name for the mirror moment. We call it confession. Did you know that you make a confession every Sunday when you’re here? We don’t call it that because some people find the word problematic, maybe because it’s been used poorly in their past, but a few minutes ago we shared a prayer of invocation and transformation and in the end part we all say,
“Standing in your light, hearts broken open, acknowledging our humanness, seeking transformation, savouring your Holy Presence, we pray.”
That’s confession. That’s a mirror moment.
Hearts broken open, acknowledging our humanness – meaning that we realize that we’re not perfect – and seeking transformation – seeking a new way and leaving behind an old way.
So yes, we do confession every week here. It’s a critical part of a disciple’s faith journey.
There’s another even bigger churchy word that goes with this and it has even more baggage than confession – the word is repent. Repent means to stop going in one direction, to realize you need a different direction, to have a change of mind, attitude, thinking, understanding – and to turn and walk in that new way.
Confession and repentance are hard and uncomfortable. That mirror moment usually hurts because it means acknowledging things we’d much rather keep hidden and not admit, even though they’re not good for us.
The mirror moment, that confession and repentance part, gets all the attention – probably because it’s big, transformative, soul-bearing stuff. But what comes next?
Here’s the advice Joshua offers, and it’s really, really good. He says, v.23
“Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”
After a big realization and decision those first tentative steps in your new way are really important. It’s easy to fall back into those familiar bad behaviours and start worshipping those foreign gods again, so you need a plan for your new walk. You need something to focus on – a direction to lean into, and a Presence that reminds you that you are not alone.
The Israelites couldn’t serve or worship God because their lives were too distracted by foreign gods – bad habits, questionable choices.
I’ll leave it to you to figure out what the foreign gods are that are distracting and disrupting your life. We’ve all got them.
But in that mirror moment we realize we need to put them away and instead, as Joshua says, incline our hearts to God. Incline your heart.
We never use the root of that word anymore – cline – but it’s actually a real word. To cline means to bend or to lean.
When it comes to God, which way is your heart leaning?
Or in other words, “Hey baby, what’s your cline?”
Is your heart IN-clining?
To incline your heart means to lean toward God, to open yourself, become vulnerable, and lean in, like an embrace.
That’s the goal of course. Every week I go on and on about this. Like Joshua I invite you to incline your hearts to God – and challenge you to keep doing so – and of course you answer, yes we are! Because we know that’s the right answer!
But the truth is that because none of us are perfect and we’re all frustratingly inconsistent that quite often we find our hearts not IN-clinging but RE-clining. We know we’re supposed to be leaning in but we find ourselves too often leaning back, pulling away, reluctant to go all-in so we stay on the edge and just lean back a little scratching our chin and pondering whether we really buy this whole faith thing after all.
And on other days, or in other seasons of our lives, we blow right through the RE-cline and go straight to DE-cline!
Time for church? No thanks.
Time for prayer? No thanks.
Time to look in the mirror? No thanks. I decline.
People are choosing to decline attending church in record numbers. It feels like the foreign gods are winning!
And when we’re in those seasons of decline or recline it would do us well to hear Joshua’s challenge echoing in our minds:
“Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel. For as for me and my house, we will worship God.”
Here’s another way to think of those words that’s a little less judgmental. Sometimes declining is the most spiritual thing you can do.
Maybe you could decline participating in something you know you shouldn’t be doing.
Maybe you could decline to treat someone poorly.
Maybe you could decline refusing to look in the mirror.
And sometimes reclining is the most spiritual thing you can do.
Maybe after you’ve declined those things you could stop, realize the world doesn’t actually revolve around you, put your feet up, and take a pause, have a breath.
Recline from the frantic busyness that sucks all our joy away.
Maybe the best way to incline your heart to God is to decline the bad stuff and recline!
Hey baby, what’s your cline?
So we’ve heard the challenge, had our mirror moment, and have chosen to incline our hearts to God.
How do we stop ourselves from falling back into our pre-mirror ways?
How do we resist letting those foreign gods get a toe hold back into our lives as we journey on?
Joshua had the people make a covenant, and he made statutes and ordinances. In other words, he had them promise to keep trying, and he gave them some guidelines to follow.
I wouldn’t want to make your faith life into a set of rules, but having guidelines and committing to following them is a great way to help you keep your heart inclined to God.
What statutes and ordinances do you think would serve us well?
How about things like come to church regularly?
Pause and pray from time to time while you’re going about your life.
Crack open your bible every now and then and see what it might say to you.
Offer some of your time to serving others or participating in some sort of church ministry or group.
Or just remember the greatest statutes we have – Jesus’ commandments to love God, love people, and love one another.
Love, love, love is the best guideline ever!
I know you know all that, and I know you do most of that most of the time, right?
Friends, you’re on the right track! You’re here today! You could’ve declined. You didn’t!
I don’t have to go all Joshua on you because as I look around at you I know that you really are honouring your covenant to strive to incline your heart to God.
I shall decline the preacher’s temptation to wag my finger at you and accuse you of breaking your covenant.
I shall recline and savour your presence here, and your spirit, and your commitment to this church and to one another.
And I shall incline my heart to God filled with the knowledge that we’re all in this together – all part of the body of Christ in this time and in this place.
And as I look around this place and at all of you, I can say with the utmost confidence and conviction, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!