Sunday, October 16, 2022

Sermon: “Hayyom”, Joshua 24:1-26 (October 16, 2022)


Today is a day I’ve been waiting almost 10 years for. Today, the lectionary has assigned the exact passage that I wrote my ordination exegesis exam on. (In case you didn’t know, ordination in the PCUSA requires prospective pastors to pass five different tests covering five different areas of ministry, including one on biblical interpretation – or “exegesis”.) Candidates for ministry have a full week to prepare and write the exam (much like when preparing for a sermon), and they can use whatever resources they have at their disposal as long as they’re cited properly. Back when I took the test in January of 2013, I still had access to the Theology library at Boston University, so I was able to do a ton of in-depth research and reflection on the 24th chapter of Joshua. I even put together a sermon outline as a requirement for the test. It was all solid work: I was in my final semester of seminary when I wrote it.

So I wouldn’t blame you for assuming that you’re about to hear that very sermon. I was certainly tempted to use the materials I’d prepared ten years ago as this week’s sermon. I easily (and quickly) could have just expanded the outline I’d already written, supplementing it with the 8 years of ministry wisdom I now have under my belt. I could have let my past-self speak on my behalf this week.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with repeating a sermon – God is timeless, people are forgetful, and pastors are finite. Sometimes an old chestnut is just what we all need to catch our breath and reinforce an important message. But before I committed to this plan, I thought I should at least reread everything with an open mind to see if the Holy Spirit had anything else she wanted me to say. And as I reviewed the passage alongside my research, I found myself returning to one particular word, a word that seemed to be jumping off the page at me. That word was “hayyom” – the Hebrew word for “today”. “Choose TODAY whom you will serve.”

To be entirely fair, it wasn’t JUST the Holy Spirit that drew my attention to this word; seminary-student me was also intrigued by its use in the passage. She (well, I) was drawn to the contrast between Joshua’s lengthy recitation of Israel’s salvation history and his abrupt insistence that the people choose THIS DAY (hayyom) whom they will serve. Past-me was also struck by the contrast between God’s first covenant (with Abraham) a thousand years prior,[1] which was entirely promissory and future-facing, and the covenant that Joshua is proposing, which has a distinct sense of immediacy and urgency. Even though the book of Joshua is located early in the biblical canon, he makes a point to highlight both the people’s past and their future before bringing the present decisively into focus. Needless to say, it didn’t feel quite right to preach a sermon of yesterday when the Holy Spirit seemed to be insisting on “today”!

People of faith sometimes look for God primarily in the past. We recount our sacred stories to one another and remember where God has previously acted in our own lives. Other times, we turn to God in search of hope for the future, whether in our days to come on earth or in the life that’s promised after this one. But while all of this is valuable and essential to our faith, Joshua reminds us that the here and now is also a crucial part of our relationship with God – and it happens to be the one in which we have the most agency.

I’m gonna go ahead and say something that may be slightly controversial and mildly heretical, so don’t tell on me. In the grand scheme of things (and I mean like in a cosmic sense), what’s happened in the past and what will happen in the future is, ultimately, irrelevant to God. The past and the future both play important roles in the Church, but not for the reasons we might think. The salvation history that we faithfully learn and lovingly recite isn’t for the purpose of padding God’s resumé or boosting God’s ego. The heavenly kindom that we anticipate doesn’t exist to prove God’s omnipotence or demonstrate God’s sovereignty. God, who acts within human history but exists outside of time, doesn’t need any of this.

Scripture’s salvation history and the promise of God’s kindom are not for the sake of our eternal God but are gifts given for US. More specifically, for the us that exists RIGHT NOW. The past and the future are important for people of faith insofar as they lead us to action TODAY. Learning about how God has helped in the past gives us strength and courage to follow God now; knowing what God intends for the future gives us comfort and the determination to work towards it now. The past and the future are the fuel for our faithful choices in the only time that really matters: hayyom.

This is really important for us to remember. Church people are excellent at idealizing what used to be and obsessing about what comes next. We’re great at leaning on the successes of the past and banking on our hopes for the future. What we’re NOT always so good at is paying attention to and living in our present. Joshua knows this. He knows that despite their best intentions, the people are still stuck in their past and preoccupied with their future. So he forces them to practice living in the present by making their vows over and over again: we will serve the Lord! In this seemingly unnecessary repetition, Joshua teaches the people that a one-time commitment isn’t enough for a real relationship with God. We cannot make the decision to follow God once, only to let that decision quickly fade into yesterday. We must make it in every moment – today, and today, and every today.

As we continue to lean into our Capital Campaign theme, we must make a conscious effort to do the same. As we seek inspiration in what this community has been and done in the past, we should also pay attention to what this community can be and do today. As we talk about the ripples of ministry that we hope to make into the future, we can’t forget about what God is calling us to do right now. So hayyom I ask you, whom will you serve? [We will serve the Lord.] Are you sure? Whom will you serve NOW? [We will serve the Lord.] A righteous past isn’t enough for God; so whom will you serve today? [We will serve the Lord.] There is much to be done, and it can’t wait; whom will you serve this very day? [We will serve the Lord.]

We are witnesses against ourselves. Hayyom is all we have. Even if you’ve known and loved God your whole life, even if you feel like you’ve messed up too badly in the past, even if you plan to step up in the future, hear the renewed covenant that Joshua is calling us to: choose THIS DAY whom you will serve. Make the decision to serve God with all that you have and all that you are RIGHT NOW. And then do it again. And again. And again. A life of faith isn’t a single moment of decision followed by
years of comfortable certainty. It’s deciding each and every second – hayyom and hayyom and hayyom – to belong to God. Just as transforming the world is most often accomplished through the ripples of small, faithful actions, the most righteous life isn’t built upon a single, climactic declaration of faith, but upon thousands of tiny moments where God is chosen again and again.

I still might use that sermon from my exegesis exam someday. It represents an important stage in my spiritual growth; my thoughts and ideas and beliefs from that time in my life were a gift. I wouldn’t be who and where I am today without them. But while my faith from ten years ago was formative, it wasn’t definitive. It could never be. My belonging to God isn’t a result of the promises my parents made on my behalf at my baptism, it’s not a function of my own vows at confirmation or ordination, and it doesn’t hinge any of the other vows I might make between now and the day that I take my final breath. It relies solely on the choice that I make here and now, this very instant, whom I will serve. And when I get to the next moment, it will rely on whom I choose to serve then. And whom I will choose to serve in every day that I’m given. Hayyom, I choose to serve the Lord. What about you? Amen.


[1] Scripture reading in worship on September 18, 2022.

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