TEXTS: Joshua 24:1, 14-28; John6:56-69
In today’s Old Testament reading, Joshua and the people of Israel are beginning their settlement into the Promised Land following their exodus from Egypt. Moses has died and the leadership of the people of Israel have divided up Palestine and apportioned a piece of the countryside to each tribe, the tribes themselves being based loosely on the twelve sons of Jacob. The people have the laws God which were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and now Joshua has one more big speech to make.
Joshua says to the people, “Now you must choose. You must choose between the Lord your God (who, by the way, freed you from captivity in Egypt and brought you through the wilderness to the land of your ancestors) and other gods. (And heaven knows, at that point in history there were plenty of Gods to go around – Egyptian gods, Canaanite gods, Moabite gods, Amorite gods – you get picture.) Joshua says to the people, “You must choose between the God of your ancestors and all these other gods, because the Lord your God is a holy God, a jealous God, who will not stand for you to share your attention with other gods, who will not allow wishy-washiness.
Of course the people are pretty revved up by Joshua’s passionate words at this point, so their response was quick and emphatic, “We will serve the Lord!” But Joshua is not convinced, and he goads the crowd, “I know you. You cannot serve Lord. You’ll screw it up for sure!” And people cry out all the greater, “No, no, we will serve the Lord!”
Then Joshua offers rather a strange statement; a statement that can be easily glossed over if you are not reading carefully. Joshua says, “Then you are witnesses against yourselves.” You would think that Joshua would say, “You are witnessed for yourselves.” or simply, “You are witnesses.” but no, he says, “You are witnesses against yourselves. By saying what you are saying, you will be automatically and immediately condemning yourselves the moment you step out of line. And the condemnation of your folly stands in the words you yourselves have spoken today.”
Have you ever thought of making promises or of offering an oath in those terms? You promise to do something, and for whatever reason you don’t do that thing that you promised. You therefore stand condemned by your own words of promise. That, of course, is the basis of the criminal act of perjury. You stand before the court and offer an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is that oath then, your very words that condemn you when you proceed to tell a lie.
Joshua though goes one step further. Joshua takes a large stone and sets the stone up before the people, proclaiming, “See, this stone shall be a witness (once more against you) for it has heard all the words of Lord that he spoke to us.” And that is why, my friends, that I have brought you a gift this morning. I brought you a rock, a stone, a witness against you. (My thanks to the good people at Hoffman’s supply who very graciously donated the rock and even helped me get it into my car.) From what I can tell, the stone is granite, and I have been told by the person who lifted it into my care that it weighs about 85 pounds, which means that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon! I hope that we can find a place to put it outside the church where it can continue to be a witness.
Last week we baptized two young boys here at Zion. The boys were from two different families. During that ceremony the parents made promises, the sponsors (godparents) made promises, and you (at least those present last Sunday) made promises. (For those who weren’t here last Sunday, you need to know that you are still liable, as the promises made by those present were made on behalf of the whole congregation.) The parents, the sponsors and you are now witnesses against yourselves in the in promises that you made concerning care and support of the ones being baptized. At some point in the not too distant future you will have the opportunity to vote in or deny a covenant with a new pastor. When the time for that pastor’s installation comes you will make promises; you will, as it were, offer oaths, as will your new pastor. And again you will be witnessing against yourselves.
Throughout the ages, since civilization on this earth began, humankind has been setting up stones, building monuments, erecting temples and casting plaques; and it seems to me that the vast majority of those monuments have been created to stand for something, to draw one’s attention to what a people have accomplished or done. We seem forever to be setting up something to point to – to commemorate something else; a person, an event, an action taken, and to honor that person or those people for what they have accomplished, for what they sacrificed, for the greatness of who they were. Our nation’s Capital is replete with such monuments, as are the capitals of most nations. While we can’t hold a candle to most catholic churches or even to the Episcopals, we have a fair number of memorials here at Zion. All the monuments that I can name though, all the plaques here at Zion are placed as a witness for something or a witness to something. None are placed as a witness against a people.
I believe that it is important to have these “witness stones” around, because we too often make promises flippantly and without much concern at all about what those promises involve. It’s sort of like promising to take out the trash. “Yeah, yeah; I’ll take out the trash. I’ll do it tonight. I promise.” But for some reason that task and the promise made concerning it are not strong enough to stay in the forefront of our minds until evening. The task is forgotten; the promise is broken.
Our gospel lesson this morning notes that when Jesus began to talk about eating his body and drinking his blood, some of those who had followed him to that point began to fall away. Now whether they didn’t understand what he was saying and believed that his words should be taken literally or whether they understood that Jesus was saying that they must be ready to share in his physical sufferings is not exactly clear. In any case, when the disciples were suddenly faced with the radical reality of the gospel; when push came to shove, when it was time for the rubber to meet the road, they began to have second thoughts. They began to waiver.
Friends, the gospel of Jesus Christ has not changed since Jesus first proclaimed it some 2,000 years ago. It is as radical now, in this world, in this reality as it was back then. When we share bread and wine sacramentally each time we worship, we are, in effect, committing ourselves, over and over again, to the gospel that Christ proclaimed; a Gospel that proclaims unconditional love, a Gospel that offers kindness in return for offense, a gospel that calls for justice and not for convenience or self-service. It is not an easy gospel to commit to. It never was and it never will be. And in our commitment we are, over and over again, witnesses against ourselves. Yes, we rely upon the grace of God to forgive our mistakes AND God’s grace does not negate the witness nor our failure to live up to our own witness. God’s grace is not to be reduced to an excuse to do whatever we want; to ignore our oaths and our promises.
So I invite you to embrace this stone that I have set before you, a stone that is witness to all that we say today. I invite you to think of this stone and its witness of you when you proclaim your faith in the Apostle’s Creed; to touch the stone when come up for communion or after the service is over; to maybe say a little prayer and to make a little promise on it.
It may be an inanimate object, but it is still a piece of God’s creation, God’s work. And, if you remember Luke’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the Pharisees told Jesus to silence his followers, his response was, “I tell you, if these were silent the very stones beneath your feet would cry out.” Amen.