Prone to wander
August 26, 2018
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Today’s texts all share a very prominent theme: that of faithfulness to the one true God, even in the midst of struggles and temptations. They are texts as convicting as they are encouraging. They fill me with hope in the power of faith, and with hopelessness at my inevitable failure always to keep that faith. In other words: they do exactly what the gospel, the living Word of God, sets out to do: comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
In the reading from Joshua, Joshua asks the Israelites which god they will serve: Yahwah, or the various false idols they have in their possession. The people give an unequivocal “yes!” to Yahwah. In Ephesians, Paul talks about the devil and the forces of evil that are among us, working their woe, and how we must prepare to defend against them by putting on the armor of God, wrapping truth around our waist like a belt, and being prepared always to rely upon the gospel and to pray. And in John, you remember we have just come to the end of Jesus’ long Bread of Life discourse. Anyone remember the difficult teaching Jesus offered them last week? The one about how they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to abide in him and have eternal life. It’s a difficult teaching, one which, as we’ll see, causes many to turn their backs on this compelling teacher. Yet when faced with the decision as to whether to leave Jesus’ side, Peter utters the words now memorialized in our Gospel acclamation: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Faithfulness and commitment. It is a gift and a challenge as old as time. Let us feast upon these stories of faith, as we reflect also on our own journeys that have taken us to the edge of doubt, and back again. Let’s listen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This coming week, Tuesday, will be my ordination anniversary, an event which happens to correspond with my baptismal anniversary. Two-for-one deal on the Spirit descending on me that day! I loved the symmetry of that at the time, and I still do, because I always considered my real call to ministry, and to a life of faith, to have come first of all in the waters of baptism. My dad preached at my ordination, and played upon that fact, that my baptism and my ordination are intertwined. The epistle for the day came from Romans, in which Paul bids us not to lose heart. Here is what my dad said: “’We do not lose heart.’” What’s that? Losing heart? Yes, I’m here to tell you that’s part of the challenge. Paul goes on to recite some of the realities of ministry—and really, the realities of the Christian life: affliction, perplexity, persecution. That’s what Johanna has signed up for, you know. She has signed up for a life that sometimes makes one lose heart.” (As he said this, I could feel a pit forming in my stomach, wondering what I was getting myself into! But then he went on.) “Yes, that’s what she signed up for—28 years ago when she was baptized! Those are the challenges that Paul outlines, those are the challenges of all who seek to be faithful.”
I haven’t forgotten that – when the life of faith or the life of ministry gets difficult, it has offered me some consolation to remember that a life of faith has not ever been easy, since the very beginning of faithfulness! Take Joshua, for example. Joshua asks the Israelites if they will give up their false gods, and everyone sounds like they are all in and everything will be fine, they even make a covenant that day that states their commitment to YHWH… but of course we know how that turned out. The rest of the Old Testament recounts a string of corrupt leaders, idolatry, disregard for God’s covenant, trampling on the poor and needy, bloodshed… with only a few bright spots along the way. Thing is, as enthusiastic as their initial promise, the Israelites, like we, were human beings, in bondage to sin and unable to free themselves. Just like us, when something easier came along, they went for it. When pride and greed got the better of them, they embraced it. When following God’s commandments required of them to sacrifice something important to them – safety, comfort, reputation, power – they set aside that promise that they’d made, and sought instead the false idols that so many of us continue to seek.
Oh yes, the temptation to compromise our faith in and dedication to the Holy One of God is alive and well – as much now as it was then. We still are too willing to put aside our dedication to the life-giving command of God, to care for the least among us, to put our trust only in God, to love our enemies, to welcome the stranger – we put that aside in favor of the false idols of greed, pride, comfort, power, and safety. When the going gets tough, it is all too easy to lose heart, and seek the easy way out.
Why do we do it?
Well, in our reading from Ephesians, Paul puts the blame squarely on the forces of evil that are rampant in this world, the wiles of the devil himself trying to “work us woe.” And oh, are those forces powerful! And equally so, they are cunning. They sneak about, masquerading as good things – like logic and reason, and keeping our loved ones safe, and trying not to rock the boat, but rather, keep everyone happy. Sometimes the powers of evil are very clearly evil – rampant abuse comes to mind, or unjust war, or corrupt and oppressive systems of government, or murder of innocents. Sometimes evil comes in various shades of gray, where there is a possible bright side to the darkness. Or sometimes, evil looks like a downright good, when it fact, it is wielding all kinds of hidden harm. The devil, my friends, is sneaky.
Jesus points out the same thing, in the verses that directly follow what we just heard. The reading we heard ends on a nice note, with Peter declaring Jesus the Holy One of God. But listen to Jesus’ response: ‘“Did I not choose you, the twelve?” Jesus says. “Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas… for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.’ Youch, what a reality check. Right there among them, one of the 12 chosen disciples – a devil! And if it can happen to Judas, can’t it happen to us? Aren’t we all capable of falling into sin, of betraying our faith in Christ? Aren’t we all capable of breaking God’s covenant with us? Haven’t we all put aside what we know the Word of God calls us to, in favor of convenience, or money, or reputation, or self-serving, or fear? Haven’t we all trusted ourselves, and our own wisdom or that of the world, more than we trust our God? Surely we all have stories in which we have done exactly this. I know I do.
So what are we to do about it? How do we protect ourselves against the wiles of the devil, against so many temptations that draw us from God?
Paul suggests this powerful metaphor: that we put on the armor of God. That we surround ourselves with God’s living word, with prayer and supplication, with a community of faithful people, so that all these things might guide us into the way of peace, the way of God.
Absolutely – I’m all for it! Yet… sometimes that is easier said than done, isn’t it? As we’ve seen, there are devils right among us – sometimes you are even the devil! Sometimes I am! We are all prone to fall into sin. Reading the Bible is great, but it can be hard to understand. We pray, hard, and sometimes it seems we are left waiting and waiting for an answer, and anyway, how do we discern which voice is God’s and which is the devil’s?
The armor of God gets heavier and more awkward to wear, as we keep searching to understand and live into Jesus’ tough teachings. And like those people listening to Jesus, we might be inclined simply to drop the armor, drop the whole thing, and turn away. Sometimes, leaving just seems like the easier and more reasonable option. I totally get those folks who turned away, who heard Jesus’ teaching and said, “This is too much. I can’t get on board with that.” I have been there. I have had moments where it seemed easier to give up and turn away, rather than keep trying to live into those baptismal promises I signed up for 35 years ago on Tuesday. Jesus’ teaching is difficult, and Lord knows there are devils among us, cunningly trying to convince us that it is not worth it to live into God’s covenant with us.
In those moments, I like to turn to the wisdom of so many faithful people before me, who have experienced the very same thing. One of my favorite hymns is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The last verse especially, speaks to me and gives me hope in those moments where I might be inclined to turn away: “Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.”
Yes, we are prone to wander… yet in the in the end, you see, Peter’s words are true: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Our hearts may be prone to wander, we may turn away. Yet we can be sure, like Peter, that there is nowhere else to go that will give us the same life, hope, love, grace and peace that is given by our God. And so we pray that God would bind our hearts, like a chain, to the promises not of the world, but to the promises of grace. And God does.
The teaching is difficult. Sin and devils crouch at our doorstep, ready to pounce. It can be hard to accept the demands of a life of faith, and harder still to live it: to care more about the poor, the immigrant, the lost and dejected, the broken, the weak, the morbidly obese and the sickly skinny, the drug-addicted, the imprisoned – to care more about all of them than we do about ourselves. To live a life that shares the love of Christ with everyone we meet, even people we don’t like, or who disagree with us, or who voted for the wrong person, or who did something to hurt us, or who are just really annoying. Living that life of faith is not easy.
But here’s the good news: this teaching is difficult, and the devil lurks and cheers for us to fail… but we’re not in this alone. Jesus promises us that, too. And we receive that promise every time we wake up in the morning, every time we splash water on our faces and remember we are baptized, we are loved, we are forgiven. We receive it every time we hear the words of eternal life. We receive God’s promise every time we come to this table and feast on the body and blood of Christ, where we receive the strength and nourishment we need to faithfully live this life Christ calls us to. This life of faith is so much fuller of grace and life and love than it could ever be full of devils. So let us indeed put on that armor of God, complete with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness and the shoes that make us ready to proclaim God’s love and peace whenever the need arises. This teaching is difficult, yes, but friends, there is nowhere else to go. So let’s do this thing.
But first, as Paul wisely advises, let us pray…Eternal God, you are the one and only thing that gives us life. Bind our wandering hearts to you, so that when we inevitably are tempted by the devils among us to stray toward false gods and false promises, we will be able to find our way back to your gracious and loving embrace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.