November 8, 2015 Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25 Mark 12: 38-44
Rev. Catherine Purves
What do you think of these new cars that can virtually drive themselves? We have come so far beyond cruise control; it’s amazing. There are cars now that can park themselves. I could use one of those. And there are cars that can see what’s in front of them and that will stop by themselves if you’re going to run into something. There are cars that have side vision and that can prevent you from pulling into the path of a car that is in your blind spot. Pretty soon, we will all be able to switch on autopilot and take a nap as we’re speeding down the highway. But, not so fast, maybe autopilot isn’t the answer to all of the dangers that lurk on our streets and interstates.
Have you seen the ad on television in which an engineer at one of the automobile testing facilities is placing the dummies into a car that is about to be driven into a brick wall? This is to determine whether it will stop in time if it’s on autopilot. He carries these dummies quite delicately, and places them precisely in the vehicle, making sure that their seatbelts are securely fastened. They are remarkably lifelike dummies. Two children are in the back and a husband and wife are up front. When all of the dummies are in place, the engineer steps back, and we see that the dummy in the driver’s seat looks exactly like him. And, as he stares with real concern at the other dummies, we realize that this is his family. Going back to the controls, the engineer presses a button and the car shoots forward toward the brick wall. It’s different, the ad concludes, when you don’t think of them as just dummies. Indeed, it is.
Life and death decisions affecting real people shouldn’t be made on autopilot. As our two readings for this morning demonstrate, quick decisions, careless gestures, insincere acts are not just regrettable. They are positively life threatening. In our readings from Joshua and Mark we are warned about the danger we face if we don’t take those life and death choices seriously enough. When we are the dummies in a speeding car, do you really want to be running on autopilot?
In our Old Testament text, we find that the children of Israel have finally acquired the territory promised to their ancestors, the Promised Land. Joshua had led them in battle and God assured their victory. Many years passed, and Joshua was growing old; he was nearing the end of his life. So, he gathered the people at Shechem to renew the covenant that God had established with their ancestors. Joshua made a passionate speech, calling the people to be faithful, and ending with this challenge: “Choose this day whom you will serve …but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Now, the people, at this crucial point, switched onto autopilot. It was obvious what response they were supposed to make. They weren’t dummies. Or were they? They immediately answered Joshua’s challenge: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods.” That was, of course, the right answer. They didn’t even have to think about it. But, not so fast. If they didn’t have to think about it, and if they hadn’t actually thought about it, what exactly was it that they were agreeing to do or not do?
And when we make our affirmations of faith, pledging our loyalty to Jesus Christ, do we really think about what we’re doing? Or are we also on autopilot? Are we making those promises without considering the consequences of a casually affirmed faith? Do we see the dangers involved in making promises that we may not be able to keep?
Joshua’s response to the people’s pledge to keep the covenant was rather shocking. Those dummies didn’t know it, but they were running toward what amounted to a brick wall at full speed. Not so fast! Joshua said, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.” Wham! They didn’t see that coming. They were on autopilot.
The transgression that Joshua was talking about here was the guaranteed deadly sin of serving other gods. It didn’t matter which gods or how seriously they took their little religious dalliances. Any deviance from total and exclusive devotion to the Lord their God would result in dead bodies strewn across the highway, or, as Joshua put it, “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you.” What a bunch of dummies. They automatically pledged their loyalty without realizing how hard it would be to serve only one God, and what would happen to them if they failed to keep their promise.
But, of course, those dummies just doubled down and said, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Now, I’m sure you didn’t count, but the word “serve” appears in our text fourteen times. It is a strong word. From this root we get the words for servant and slave. Whether they knew it or not, the people were not so much agreeing, out of the goodness of their hearts, to help God out through their mostly faithful living. They were agreeing to be owned by God as a servant or a slave was owned. This was a 100% commitment. They were putting their lives on the line and giving up all claims to autonomy or to any kind of life apart from God. All of the foreign gods had to go, and their lives now, entirely and completely, belonged to the God of Israel.
What foreign gods still lurk around the edges of our lives in spite of our pledges of allegiance to the one holy and jealous God whom we claim to serve? Do we sometimes serve (in the biblical sense) money, or pleasure, or family, or career, or nation? Before you say, “Far be it from us that we should…serve other gods,” should we not search our closets and the recesses of our minds and hearts for hidden idols? Don’t answer the call to serve the Lord our God on autopilot. That is a very dangerous thing to do.
Our reading from the New Testament is actually making the same point. Jesus and his disciples were in the temple observing the people coming and going. It was a holy place and people were doing holy things. You can imagine that the disciples may well have been impressed by what they saw. Here were all sorts of important looking people serving God. But, not so fast. How many of those people were on autopilot? How many were truly serving God, in the biblical sense, as servants, as slaves, as people who recognized that their whole lives belonged to God?
Jesus looked and he saw those who had truly chosen to serve God alone. It was not the scribe in his long robe who could quote Scripture chapter and verse and who was treated with honor as a teacher and a religious leader. It was not the rich man who made a show of putting large sums of money in the offering plate while still living in luxury with no real concern for the poor. These were people who were going through the motions, acting the way they thought religious people should act. They were on autopilot, and they thought they were doing fine. Those dummies didn’t see that they were speeding toward a brick wall. They didn’t recognize the idols that they kept hidden in their households. They hadn’t given their whole lives to God. And, as Jesus said, “They will receive greater condemnation.”
But as Jesus looked he also saw a poor woman, and she was the one that he wanted his disciples to observe and emulate. No one else would have even noticed her in such a glorious and imposing place filled with impressive and powerful people. But Jesus did. And he noticed her because she alone had answered God’s call to serve with her whole heart and soul and with everything that she owned. She held nothing back. With her eyes wide open and knowing exactly what she was doing, the poor woman put her two cents, her last two cents, into the temple treasury. She knew what it meant to serve the Lord. Do we?
It does make all the difference once you realize that the dummies have faces. This is not just some general principle or rule of life that Joshua and Jesus shared because they thought we’d find it interesting. They were not issuing their call so that people could simply go on religious autopilot without engaging in genuine sacrifice, without making a real, personal, costly commitment to our God. When the automotive engineer saw his face and the faces of his wife and children on the dummies, everything changed. Real lives were at risk. And the risk was not hypothetical once that button was pushed.
And so, Jesus said to his followers, “Beware,” and Joshua said to the people, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” This warning and this challenge are spoken not to some faceless dummy, but to you, to your household, and to countless real individuals who are living casual “religious” lives on autopilot, and who don’t notice the brick wall dead ahead of them. The danger is real, and the dummies do have faces. So let us choose wisely and with all our heart and mind and strength let us serve the Lord our God.