Choosing to Serve Jesus

Feast Day: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

“Choose this day whom you will serve.”

We have been in the sixth chapter of John for a few weeks now and we’ve been hearing from Jesus’ bread of life sermon. Two weeks ago, we heard that Jesus himself is the bread of life and that anyone who comes to him in faith will have eternal life. Last week we heard Jesus continue down this path: “Whoever eats me will live because of me,” he said. And we explored how Jesus comes to us and gives himself to us as food in the Eucharist.

This week we come to the end of John chapter six and what do we learn? That following Jesus is difficult. His teaching is hard to accept because it challenges our assumptions. And we learn that many disciples—not outsiders but disciples—turn away from Jesus because of this. This is surprising to us. We know that people are attracted to Jesus in the gospel, but people are also repelled by him as well.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ then is to choose him above else. Not choose once and be done with it. But choose each day, each moment even. Not choose only when it is convenient for you, when what he says is pleasing to your ears. But choose when it is difficult, demanding even. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

The temptation for God’s people to turn away from him and follow lesser gods is, of course, not a new story. Indeed, it is echoed in our first reading from the book of Joshua this morning. Joshua, if you recall, assumed leadership over Israel after the death of Moses. Moses brought Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and right up the promised land but died before entering. The mantle then fell to Joshua to lead God’s people into the land of promise, which he did.

Now in the land, Israel must choose. Either, “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness,” or return to, “the gods your ancestors served.” A decision lies before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

One Biblical commentator says that this story in the twenty-fourth chapter of Joshua is “atemporal.” Meaning, it speaks to every person at every time in every place. The call to, “choose this day whom you will serve,” is a call to the people of God, wherever and whenever they find themselves, to examine themselves and see if they are indeed living up to their identity as God’s people. In other words, those words are addressed to you and I: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

In our gospel reading Jesus likewise challenges his own disciples. They have just heard Jesus’ teaching about himself, that he is the bread of life come down from heaven, made food for all, and that whoever trusts in him—but only those who trust in him—will inherit eternal life and be raised up on the last day. And how do his disciples respond? “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they say, and they complained among themselves. A little later on in the same passage John tells us that because of Jesus’ teaching, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” These are not outsiders that are falling away on account of Jesus’ teaching but his own disciples. Sobering words to be sure.

How is Jesus’ teaching difficult? The Anglican New Testament Scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright believes that the teaching of Jesus makes a huge hole in our world-view, and when that happens some people prefer not to think about it anymore.[2] Jesus calls each of us to come to him but when we do we inevitably discover that his words tear down a lot of the assumptions we have about the world and ourselves, and about God, and instead offers us a new way of seeing and understanding. “You do not have to come,” he says. “You can stay where you are with everything arranged to your liking, but if you or anyone at all hungers for more they can come to me. I can show you a better, truer, more beautiful way. But if you come, there are some things you are going to have to leave behind.” When Jesus challenges you, how do you respond? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

In light of this new reality that Jesus opens up those who want to follow him must choose a way of life that not everyone is willing to embrace, a way of life that in fact no one can embrace except as they are enabled to by the grace of God. It is a way of prayer and fasting, of self-discipline and restraint, of sacrificial love and obedience. In a word, it is the way of the Cross. Followers of Jesus are invited to choose this way not only willingly but with joy.

What regulates your life and gives it it’s shape? Is it the Cross of Christ?  Do you embrace it with joy knowing that it is not an intolerably harsh burden but rather the way of eternal life? Do you embrace it even when it cuts against the grain of worldly wisdom? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

There is a scene in the 1999 film ‘Dogma’ where, as part of a campaign to renew the image of and interest in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Glick—played by George Carlin—does away with the “wholly depressing” image of the crucifix in favour of a more uplifting image of Jesus—Buddy Christ. Buddy Christ is an image of Jesus, smiling and winking while pointing at passers-by with one hand and giving them a thumbs-up with the other. It is the image of a Christ who is very unlikely to cause offence or challenge us. It is the image of a Christ who fits nicely into our life as we have arranged it, over there on the shelf. But it is not the Christ of the gospel who confronts us with the message of God’s faithfulness and love and invites a decision. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

Seeing many of his disciples falling away on account of his teaching Jesus turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” “Lord, to whom can we go?” responds Peter. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Will Peter and the others also fall away from Jesus on account of his teaching? Peter knows there is only really one choice. He knows who Jesus Christ is. He knows the power of his words. He knows that Jesus is the one who has come to bring God to earth so that human creatures might live. Knowing this Jesus where else can he go? Peter’s decision to remain with Jesus is predicated on who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. How can Peter not choose Jesus when Jesus has already chosen Peter?

The very same thing is at work at the end of the book of Joshua as well. It is only after Joshua gathers Israel together and recounts God’s steadfast love towards them over time that Israel is called upon to “choose this day whom you will serve.” They are already God’s people. God has already acted for them in their favour. God has already chosen them and demonstrated his faithfulness to them. How then could they not choose to revere and serve him in faithfulness?

Jesus, like Joshua, has come to remind us of God’s great love for each of us. Only then can God’s people respond in faith. And both Joshua and Jesus courageously lead the way. “But as for me and my household,” says Joshua, “we will serve the Lord.” Likewise Jesus leads us in the way of faithfulness. He takes on human flesh, becoming a man, and lives in total loving obedience to the will of the Father. And in baptism he makes us members of his household. Will we remain with him? Will we follow him in faithfulness and love? “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

And if this day we should choose to serve Jesus Christ let us be ready for all manner of spiritual attacks that will come. Because the spiritual forces of evil that oppose God will take note. That is why Saint Paul councils us to put on the armour of God, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” The people of Israel along with Joshua decided to serve the Lord but within one generation of Joshua Israel was caught up with the old gods again. And if you are anything like me then you know the history of your own unfaithfulness as well. The devil is your enemy and he is against you but God is for you. Over and against our history of unfaithfulness stands God’s history of faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ. God has chosen to be faithful to you therefore you can choose to be faithful to God today. “Choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

[1] Butler 279
[2] Wright 89