October 14, 2018

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Bible Study


Joshua 24. 1-26                                         But who?

John 1. 1-4; 14-18



“And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord…’”                                    


This ends the reading of our Scripture lessons for this Sunday morning.  Let’s pray together: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock; and our Redeemer.  Amen.”


You probably noticed that in between the Scripture reading and the prayer something was missing.  That was on purpose. We’re conducting a little experiment this morning.  I’d like someone to stand up and tell me what I didn’t say—the part I left out.  This shouldn’t be too hard because I’ve said the same thing every Sunday for the last 14 years.  I know what I say, but I’m curious to know what you hear.  Do we have any takers for this experiment?


When I began attending Lake Edge United Church of Christ in Madison, some 20 years ago now, it was my first exposure to a mainline Christian worship service.  The formalities of the liturgy in those services, not to mention the long, black robes, were a bit foreign to me.  My evangelical background had offered a much more extemporaneous, free flowing format to worship.  I had to get used to this new way of doing church.

Every Sunday my mentor and friend Dave Michaels would read the Scripture, close his Bible and say, with confidence: “Here ends the reading of our lessons for this Sunday.  This is the Word of God.  It is true and we can trust it”.  And when I began leading worship I used those same words—for a while.

Now, to be clear, I have no problem reading the Bible out loud and saying “This is the Word of God.  It is true and we can trust it”.  I believe that to be the case.  But I realized, I think within a few weeks of my arrival here 14 years ago, that when I used that formula in this church people were hearing what I was saying, but they were not understanding what I meant.

This, you can imagine, is troubling to a preacher.

“This is the Word of God”.  I might have been mistaken, but my sense back then was that most of the people I was talking to had been raised and educated to understand those words rather literally.  When I read a passage and proclaimed it to be God’s word, people understood me to be saying God had physically spoken those words into the ear of the Bible writer—in English, most likely, who then wrote them down in the book we now hold dear.

But that isn’t at all what I meant. 

I wanted to be understood, so I changed the formula, as many other preachers have done.  So this is what I say every Sunday after I read the Scripture for the day:  “God is speaking to us through these words and when God speaks the words are true and we can trust them”.

Now it may be that this distinction between God speaking in the words of Scripture—as they are recorded in the book, and God speaking through the words of Scripture—as they are heard today, is still too subtle.  Some people still hear me saying what I don’t mean.  Old habits die hard and old understandings change only slowly.  So maybe I’ll work on it some more; but for now that’s what I’ve got :)

Is this really important?  Well, yeah.  And I’ll tell you why.

In our adult Bible study that meets around the kitchen table every Sunday we are taking a new approach to reading the stories we are given for each week.  We read the text and focus on the verbs we find there—the action words; the words that describe what’s happening and what people are doing.  The action is where it’s at, you might say.

The fact is, you see, people haven’t changed that much over the last few thousand years.  Even allowing for the massive developments in technology we have experienced, people still live and die and love and hate and fight and win and lose today pretty much as they did back in Bible times.  We look back because we can see ourselves clearly in their actions and, hopefully, learn something—and perhaps even change a little, as we work together to bring God’s beloved community to life in our time and place.

This week, like last week, we read the closing chapter of the book of Joshua.  This is sort of Joshua’s final sermon delivered just before his death; his last words to the people he had led across the Jordan River and through the conquest of the Promised Land.

The book of Joshua has always been a bit of a problem for me.  As the story is told, it seems pretty clear Joshua could best be described as a war criminal and a terrorist.  He leads the army of Israel in acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing.  He sends his troops into village after village ordering the slaughter of every man, woman and child in town.

All that is bad enough.  But what stood out for me as I read the story again over the past 2 weeks—the part of the story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, was that little clip Phil read a few minutes ago: “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel…’” Believing that he is speaking God’s own words, Joshua then recounts the story of the conquest.

"Thus says the Lord”, Joshua proclaims to justify unspeakable violence and unending bloodshed.  “God told me to do it”, in other words.

Well—what if Joshua got that wrong?  What if the words he heard—words recorded in the Bible as coming from God, didn’t come from God?  Could there be another explanation for what goes on in this story?  Or must this bloodlust be the true and trustworthy Word of God?

If you believe that God speaks in the words of Scripture, you can’t even ask questions like those.  “The Bible says it.  I believe it.  That settles it!” is the way some of our evangelical neighbors put it.  For them, the Bible, as written, is the literal Word of God so you just have to live with the fact that your God sometimes behaves like a terrorist.  Don’t ask questions.  Just believe.

If, on the other hand, you believe God speaks through the words of Scripture, you find yourself in a very different place.  In the effort to hear and understand what God is “saying” you find that  you have to figure things out;  you have to make choices.

This, by the way, is the attitude the Hebrew Bible takes toward itself.  The people who compiled the stories found there brought together a multitude of different, and often disagreeing voices.  So Joshua could command his soldiers—at God’s direction no less, to attack Jericho and to devote “to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.”  But just a few chapters earlier Moses could quote God as saying: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Now obviously both of those can’t be the right thing to do, can they.  We have to think about this; to figure it out.  Our job is to listen to all the stories; to listen with open minds and open hearts for what God might be saying to us through these ancient words.  Especially in the Old Testament, but also in the New, we often are not being told what to do.  We are being told stories of what people did.  And we are left to ask what God might be saying to us today in these stories from long ago.  What can we learn from then about how to live today?

We listen and then we decide.  “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua said.  One of the few things he got right, if you want my opinion—which you probably don’t need and shouldn’t value too highly, in any event.

You see, I think God speaks—and is still speaking, to us through the words of Scripture rather than in the words of Scripture because God respects what God has created—our marvelous brains.  We have functioning minds and hearts and we are encouraged to use them.

I believe that in the inspired words of the Bible God lays before us the way of love and the way of hate; the way of war and the way of peace; the way of generosity and the way of greed; the way of abundance and the way of scarcity; the way of tribalism and the way of community—or, as I put it last week, the way of Joshua and the way of Jesus.  The way of Joshua, the general who led his people into kingdom built of bloodshed, and the way of Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwelt—and dwells among us leading us into a kingdom shaped by love and built for peace.

So choose.

Your direction will be determined by no one but yourself—influenced by others, of course, but in the end the choice is always yours. 

What do you want—what do you really want for your children and grandchildren.  What do you really want for your neighbors and your enemies.  What do you really want for this lovely but fragile and threatened planet that has given you so much and is now asking for a little care in return?

Choose.  But know this: your choice matters—to you, to your children, to your neighbors, to your planet home.  Your choice will affect how you live—and how others live; or even if they live.  Your choice will broadcast your values; show what you stand for and determine who you vote for and where you spend your money.

This is life we’re taking about here.  What you do with the time you have left will change the world—for good or ill.

“Choose”, Joshua said.

“Choose”, Jesus said.

Bur choose wisely.


Adult Bible Study Class

Week 6    October 14, 2018


The story for this week jumps ahead from Mt Sinai to the end of Joshua’s rule as the first judge of Israel.  Joshua had been 2nd in command to Moses during the journey through the wilderness.  When Moses died it was Joshua who led the people across the Jordan River and into the promised land.

In today’s passage, Joshua recounts those first years of Israel’s experience and calls the people to a choice—renew the covenant the Lord their God invited them into at Sinai, of go off to serve other gods.  It’s important to note here that they do have that choice.  They can go one way or the other.  They cannot do both.

Read the story several times and go on the the questions that follow.

Joshua 24.1-26   (Notice the word Lord is is all capital letters in this passage.  This indicates the formal name of the God of Israel, as distinct from the gods of the other nations.)

1Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. 6When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness for a long time. 8Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.

9Then King Balak, son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. (This is the talking donkey story from Numbers 22) 11When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites (The tribes in the land Israel conquered); and I handed them over to you. 12I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.

14 ‘Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’

16 Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 18and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’

19 But Joshua said to the people, ‘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. 20If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.’ 21And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, we will serve the Lord!’ 22Then 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.’ 23He said, ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.’ 24The people said to Joshua, ‘The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.’ 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. 26Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord.

You answered questions 1 and 2 last week.  So unless you have found something that has caught your attention more forcefully, repeat your answers here, then go on to questions 3-6.

1.         “What’s the place in the text that fascinates you, bothers you, troubles you thrills you, haunts you, angers you, gladdens you or otherwise jumps up to meet you?” (Rehearsing Scripture, pg 86). Write out that word, phrase or verse here:

2.         Why does it get you?  Why the strong reaction?  Hint: It might be because you’ve been in a similar situation, made the same mistake, felt the same blessing.  Pay attention to your feelings and answer the “Why?” question here:

3.         What do you know about God from this moment in the text that gets you?  Here we get closer to the point of this exercise.  We read and rehearse Scripture “so that we can say something true—something that matters vitally for the world—about God”.  (Rehearsing Scripture, pg. 90). Honesty, more than certainty, about what you know of God really counts in this answer.                          



4.         Why does your community (this class) need to hear today what you know about God from this story?  Why is it important to tell them?  (“If what we say matters vitally, if it speaks to the needs and concerns of real people we love and care for, then we must speak up…It will be a word about God”  Rehearsing Scripture, pg 92)  

5.         What do you want to say?  Say it in one sentence.  This may be the toughest question.  You may need the help of your fellow students to find the words.  From Rehearsing Scripture, pg.93  “Keep it simple.  God is the subject.  We encountered God in this text.  “I have a word to speak, a word that matters, for people I love.  This is what I want to say:”  

6.  “Since words do things to people, what do you hope your words will do?”  (Rehearsing Scripture, pg 94)  Recall what your words have done in the past—hurt feelings, ruffled feathers or even causing someone to fall in love with you.  Are your words “tasty”,  hospitable?  “The door we open is the one that points to God”, (Rehearsing Scripture, pg 95).  Write your hope here: