Today, I would like to do something a little bit different. Instead of a sermon per se, I would like to offer a witness, a personal testimony.
I grew up on a small family farm outside Woodward, Oklahoma, the last of six kids. My family was a church-going family. Each and every Sunday, the eight of us piled into the station wagon, and we went to the early service at St. John’s Episcopal Church. But we didn’t stop there. We went out for breakfast, and then headed over to the First United Methodist Church, where we attended Sunday School and our second worship service of the morning.
I am not exactly sure how long we followed this routine. But at some point, my Dad, rather wisely in my opinion, decided that it would be better for us kids, if we only attended one service on Sunday… not one church, mind you, but one service. So we started worshipping at the Episcopal church and Sunday schooling at the Methodist church. Or we might reverse the order, if we attended the second service at St. John’s. So, I guess you could call me a cradle Episcopalian with a twist. Years later, I used to joke that this was exactly how John Wesley would have wanted it—Anglican worship and Methodist formation. After all, Wesley—who was the founder of the Methodist movement—was an Anglican priest until the day he died.
I will always love and value my Methodist roots, but my Episcopal roots are much thicker, and they go much deeper. I was baptized in the Episcopal church at five weeks old, and I was confirmed in the Episcopal church when I was eleven years old. Before I could read, I could recite the whole Rite I liturgy. I also received my first communion in the Episcopal church. I was six years old. I don’t have any memories of the communion itself, but I do remember receiving a cross necklace for the occasion.
It was a Celtic-style cross made of thin silver metal, and on the back were engraved the words: “In case of an emergency, call an Episcopal priest.” As a kid, I thought that was rather funny. I mean, shouldn’t you call 9-1-1 in case of an emergency. After all, what good is an Episcopal priest, if your house is on fire? All they are going to do is show up with a thurible and some incense.
I also remember thinking, if you are in an accident, is anybody going to say. “Hey, he’s got a cross on. Let’s flip it over and see if there are any instructions on the back.” And, if by chance that did happen, who in the world was going to have an Episcopal priest on speed dial. Heck I wasn’t even sure that most of the people in my hometown even knew what an Episcopal priest was, let alone how to contact one in an emergency.
In any case, most of the significant spiritual moments I had growing up were connected to the Episcopal church…. But not all of them.
The most profound experience I had as a youth occurred when I was in junior high. The year was 1984; I was 14 years old, and I was in the 8th grade. I was just starting to listen to contemporary Christian music. I liked Amy Grant and the Christian rock band, Petra. But my favorite artist was a relatively new Christian singer by the name of Carman. I had two or three of his record albums—the old 33s—which I played all the time. That year, I had a good friend named Dustin, who was also into Carman. Dustin went to an Assemblies of God church, and he invited me to a lock-in at their church. As it turned out, Carman was coming to town, and Dustin’s youth group was going to his concert. So on Friday evening, April 6th, 1984, we went to see Carman in concert. The theater was packed, and we sat up in the balcony. I had never been to a concert before, certainly not a Christian concert. But here I was… in my little hometown theater, where I used to watch the Saturday matinee, listening to my favorite Christian singer. I loved every single minute of it.
As you might expect, there was an altar call at the end of the evening. Now, as I said, I had never been to a Christian concert before, nor had I been to a revival meeting or to a Baptist church. So, up to that point in my life, the only altar call with which I was familiar was the weekly walk up to the altar rail to receive communion. Now I don’t remember anything Carman said that evening, but I do remember seeing people leaving their seats and going forward to the foot of the stage. I also remember how much I wanted to go forward. But we were up in the balcony, and I just couldn’t bring myself to move. I so wanted to go, but I just sat there frozen to my seat. But then, by the grace of God, an older kid in the youth group got up to go forward. When he passed by, I stood up immediately, and I followed him down. Somebody met me at the foot of the stage and prayed with me. I don’t remember what I prayed or what was prayed over me, I just remember how alive I felt. Afterwards, I got to meet Carman. He signed a pocket New Testament that I had been given.
There are so many details about that evening that I don’t remember, but I will never forget how I felt. Somehow the world was different. I felt more alive and more connected to God than I had ever felt before, almost as though for the first time. I will also never forget how long these feelings lasted. They didn’t last forever, but they lasted a good long time. Those feelings were not only there the next morning; they were still there the next week, and the next month. In fact, these feelings lasted for a full six months before they began to fade. My heart was filled with such joy, and I walked around with a smile on my face. I also kept that New Testament in my back pocket wherever I went. How often I would pull it out and read it.
Here it is. When Carman signed it, he wrote Romans 12:1–2. I have it highlighted.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
That all happened 30 years ago. And since that time, I have had many occasions to reflect on that evening. What exactly happened? Clearly the Holy Spirit had come upon me in a powerful way, but what did it mean? Was that the moment when I first became a Christian? If you had asked me that question in the months that immediately followed, I would probably have said, “Yes.” But as the years have gone by, I have come to understand that evening and its aftermath differently. After all, I had been baptized; I had been confirmed. I had been raised in a Christian home, and church was one of my favorite places to be. Moreover, I could not ever remember a time when I didn’t love Jesus or know that Jesus loved me. So what did happen?
That evening God spoke to me. God spoke to my heart, and this is what I think I heard. In a gentle voice, God said to me, “Ted, I have always been with you, and you have always been with. But now it is time for you to decide. Do you want to stay with me? Or, do you want to go your own way?”
Do you want to stay, or do you want to go?
That was the question I was asked thirty years ago.
Joshua and the People of God
It’s the question that God asks all his people. And, it’s the same question that the Israelites are being asked in today’s Old Testament lesson. Here’s the situation.
It’s the climactic scene in the book of Joshua. Joshua is nearing the end of his life. And just like Moses before his death, Joshua gathers all of Israel together in order to issue his last will and testament, to offer his final words of wisdom and counsel. Joshua, you may recall, was Moses’ successor. By the hand of God, it had been Moses who led the children of Israel to freedom, delivering them out of the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters. And it had been Moses who had conducted the Israelites on a forty-year trek through the wilderness until they had reached the borders of Canaan. Moses had looked over Jordan into the Promised Land, but he himself would never enter it.
Instead, Moses died, and the mantel of leadership was passed down to Joshua. Like Moses, Joshua had been equipped with a portion of God’s Spirit. And so, it was Joshua who led the people into the Promised Land, taking them through the waters of the Jordan River in Red-Sea fashion. And it was Joshua who led the people as they established themselves in the land of Canaan. And now, it is Joshua who reminds the people where their loyalties lie. He reminds the Israelites of all that the Lord has done for them these many years. How the Lord has fulfilled his promises to their ancestors, how the Lord has been with them all this time, to provide for them, to protect them, and, yes, at times to discipline them.
It had been their parents who had entered into the covenant with the Lord at Mt. Sinai, but now it is time for them make their own decision. Do they wish to remain with the Lord and follow his ways, or do the wish to go their own way? “Choose this day whom you will serve,” says Joshua. They can choose the Lord, or they can choose some other god or gods, but they cannot choose both. The Lord does not share his people with any other so-called gods. The Lord does not tolerate divided loyalties, but the Lord will not force his people to stay. The choice is theirs, but they must choose. Will they commit themselves to loving the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Or, will they put their trust in other things. Will they pledge their allegiance to the Lord alone, or will they devote their lives to those things that promise security and happiness, but are merely idols of their own making, which cannot deliver. Will they stay, or will they go?
Choosing to Stay… This Day, and Every Day
Special Moments of Grace
In life, there are special moments of grace when we encounter God, or rather, when God encounters us in a unique and powerful way. Special moments of grace, when our eyes and ears, our hearts and minds are opened, and we are given a glimpse of who God is, a revelation of how much God loves us and what all God has done for us. And in those special moments of grace, we are compelled to respond, to make a choice.
When I was fourteen years old, I experienced one of those special moments of grace, and I was faced with a choice, to stay with God or to go my own way. I chose to stay. That was my confirmation, when my faith truly became my own.
Ordinary Moments of Grace
But these special moments of grace are not the whole story, for the God who meets us in special moments throughout our lifetime, also meets us in ordinary moments in our daily lives. For each and every day, we are faced with the same decision: to stay or to go… to follow God’s ways, or to go our own way,… to put our trust in God, or to take matters into our own hands.
So when God says to us, “Choose this day whom you will serve!,” we must not hear that as a one-time decision. It is not a one and done with God. It is a daily decision. In fact, it is a decision that we will be faced with multiple times a day, but here is the important bit. When God calls us to choose, God also grants us the power to choose rightly. That is why it is a moment of grace, for God meets us where we are and empowers us to be where he is. Each and every day, each and every moment of every day.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.