Comedian Flip Wilson (boy, I am really dating myself now) used to say “don’t let your mouth write a cheque that your body can’t cash !”. Joshua seems to be saying don’t make promises to follow any god if you don’t intend to keep them. Joshua says: “You cannot serve the Lord …” a strange thing for any preacher to say, but it makes sense in light of a warning that should not be so surprising: commitment has consequences.
In the face of challenges I often say to my parishioners “If following Jesus was so easy anyone could do it” Of course anyone can follow Jesus but only if they are willing to follow Jesus! This amounts to a tautology: you won’t be committed if you aren’t committed!
“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. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.”
When I baptize infants I often tell parents that having a child baptized but never bringing them to church is like having a child adopted but then never letting then go to live with their adopted family. Being on a parish roll but never going to church is like pretending to belong to a hockey team but never going to any games or practices and then complaining that the coach never spends anytime with you. Those who don’t attend church because they “don’t get anything out of it” have probably not yet figured out that like a bank what you get out of church is often directly related to what you put in to it.
Joshua wants the people to make their choice of who they will serve deliberate rather than subconscious or accidental happenstance. Joshua suggests that it is not only more honest to admit who or what we really want to serve, but it is also safer because we can’t be held responsible for saying one thing and doing another.
If a friend or family member takes a turn driving the car so we can nap, we are rightly dismayed if we awake to find them asleep at the wheel. The consequences may not seem as immediate or drastic, but why would we think there is any less danger in promising to follow Jesus and then carelessly falling asleep at the wheel?
So, we are probably better off just admitting who the gods are that we really intend to serve. But in our culture idolatry is so subtle and so easy that I am not sure many of us are even conscious of having chosen other gods. Perhaps one of the saddest things is not just that we serve other gods but that we often seem to do it without realizing it or being able to name our functional deities.
The costs of following the great comforting god of Consumerism are hidden in the plethora of promises to produce fulfilled lives. It is only later that we might see the ironic waste of a good life, spent pursing the “good life” in all manner of ultimately unsatisfactory places. We think the jealousy of our LORD is unbecoming and we tend not to speak of it. But the LORD’s jealousy is informed by compassion for those loved ones who will suffer the inevitable consequences of trading their precious gifts of life and faith for a few cheap trinkets.
Perhaps the problem of wishy-washy church commitment is prevalent because unlike Joshua and Jesus we preachers and teachers have not laid out the costs and consequences of committing to follow God. North American Christianity seems to face a crisis of failing to grasp the implications of discipleship reminiscent of those addressed by Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonheoffer.
I think we made a major mistake when we thought we could get more people to come to church by making it easier and more attractive for them. Inviting folks to follow Jesus without warning them of the possible consequences is as irresponsible as inviting someone on an expedition to climb K2 or ski to the south pole without mentioning the inherent dangers. Better not to join the expedition than to drop out part way. Either way if you unclip from your guide’s rope and then fall down the mountain you can hardly blame your guide.