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Preaching To A Stone

Sermons On The First Readings
Series I, Cycle A
I'm going to confess a trade secret. We preachers often wonder just how much good our preaching does. We all appreciate the compliments at the end of the service, especially when someone says that he or she really needed a particular sermon we have preached. At those moments, we begin to believe that our work and struggle have paid off. We wonder, though, about the compliments we receive at the end of the service. A friend of mine noted wryly that he has had parishioners compliment his sermons even on Sundays on which he had not preached. After a guest preacher had spoken, or the choir had led a hymn sing, someone would shake his hand on the way out, saying, "I enjoyed the sermon today, pastor."

Even when such a comment is genuine, we want to know more than that. We want to know more than that you enjoyed the sermon. We even wonder if "enjoy" is the sentiment we should be aiming for. Do our sermons provide more than just "enjoyment"? We want to know if our preaching makes a difference. Does our preaching change people? Does it increase faith and strengthen the church? If people enjoy our sermons, are we preaching what we ought to preach? Shouldn't we make people angry or at least uncomfortable sometimes? We know that preaching can have real power, and, if we are honest, we wonder if we are unleashing that power.

In a television documentary not long ago, a middle-aged African-American man talked about the experience of hearing Martin Luther King, Jr., preach during the Civil Rights era. King was preaching outdoors to a seething congregation, many of whom wanted to take their frustration out with acts of violence. The man on the documentary said he was holding a rock in his hand as Dr. King began to preach. The rock was intended to express his outrage at injustice as it shattered some window somewhere. As King preached, the young man's anger began to evaporate. Little by little, his grip on the rock relaxed until finally it fell from his hand. Preaching has power to change people.

Joshua's proclamation in this passage certainly has power. Joshua has much to accomplish in this sermon. He is old, near the end of his life. The possibility exists that everything he has worked for will die out. The sacrifices he has made for God could just fizzle away. He doesn't want the community of Israel to break up or forget its mission. So, in one sermon he wants to bring the tribes together as a unit, to impress upon them their role in God's plan for creation, and to motivate them to exclusive worship of the Lord and an understanding of their identity. Now that the long journey is over and the battles have been won, the passion might fade out. Joshua knows he won't be around to provide leadership, so he has to preach the sermon of his life to try to mold the tribes into a community that understands who they are.

Joshua begins with the authority of a prophet, "Thus says the Lord." We preachers always hope that God has given us the right words, and that God speaks through our sermons. Joshua boldly claims the role of prophet, even speaking in the first person for God.

Joshua's sermon recounts what God has done in the history of the community. What God has done is thrilling! The tribes who are standing there listening to this sermon are part of God's mission reaching all the way back to Abraham. With just a brief description of the Abraham story, Joshua evokes memories of how Abraham had stepped out in faith to go toward an unknown adventure. Joshua recounts the days of slavery in Egypt and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, so that they can once again imagine the toil of brick making and the marvel of God forcing back the Sea to expose the dry ground.

With story after story, Joshua tells them, "This is who you are! God has been working for a long time, through many people to get you to this place. You aren't here by accident." By bringing to mind their history, Joshua gives them their identity. He tells them that they are not just a collection of tribes, but God's chosen people.

After Joshua reminds them of what God has done, he issues the "altar call." We've all heard the famous phrase or seen it on a bumper sticker, "Now 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." The people have to respond, to make a decision. Will they be who God calls them to be? Will they put away false gods and worship the Lord exclusively? Joshua exhorts them to choose.

After Joshua issues the altar call, the sermon begins to sound like the best tradition of modern-day African-American preaching. Joshua and his congregation begin a call and response dialogue. Joshua holds out the choice for them, and they answer, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods." Joshua has indeed tapped into their memories of the stories heard around the campfires. They know how the Lord has acted on their behalf. They know that the Lord has given them their identity. They choose to serve the Lord.

Joshua is only getting warmed up, though. He challenges the people's response to his altar call, "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God." Joshua must have wanted more than a quick and easy commitment. Joshua pushes the people to think about the covenant they are making. Joshua even stretches the point. Perhaps in an effort to get the people's attention, Joshua blurts out, "He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins." We can agree that God is a jealous God, expecting us to put away other gods. We know also that God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. Even the stories Joshua cites in his sermon bear that out. Abraham showed great faith to leave everything behind, but he also doubted and committed his share of transgressions. He pressured Sarah, his wife, to lie and say she was his sister -- not once, but twice. Even Abimelech chewed him out for that. The former slaves who escaped from Egypt marched in the wilderness for forty years, which is more of a sacrifice than most of us make. They committed sins, too, like making a golden calf. God forgave Abraham's sins and the people's sins. We can appreciate Joshua's intensity, but we don't have to deny God's mercy to motivate people.

Joshua pushed the people to make a commitment, and they made it. Joshua then seems to relent on his pessimism about the people's ability to live out what they have promised. He makes a covenant with the people. God has acted; God has called them; they have responded. They will choose the Lord. They will put away their idols. They will be God's people, no matter how hard it may turn out to be. That is their pledge.

It sounds as though Joshua's last sermon has succeeded. He has found the words to make a difference. When people tell him they enjoyed the sermon, they really mean it. It changes their lives. His sermon has been part of the process of shaping them into a community. Still, Joshua is not satisfied. So, he does something strange. He takes a large stone and sets it up under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Then he says something that makes us wonder if he has been nipping at the communion wine. "See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all of the words of the Lord that he spoke to us." Come again, Joshua? The stone has heard the sermon?

If Joshua can get the people to use their imagination, they can see that stone as a kind of sponge that has absorbed the sermon. The words of the Lord have not dissipated into the air; they remain forever in a solid stone that refuses to budge. Every time they pass the stone, they will call that sermon to mind, and they will hear again who they are. They will be reminded of the commitment they have made. They will know again that they are a part of God's plan, that they have a history and a purpose. They have something to live up to.

We have something to live up to as well. God has acted in our history. We look back to Abraham as our ancestor in the faith. We add Sarah and Isaac and now Joshua to our family tree. We look back especially to Jesus, of course, in whom God acted decisively. We are who we are because Christ died for us. We are the church, and not just a collection of individuals because the Spirit calls us to be the church.

Those of us who are members of the church have made our choice. We have said, along with Joshua, that we will put away other gods and serve the Lord. We will not just take from God. We will give back; we will serve. That commitment calls us to live our lives in certain ways, to resist the world's greed and violence. We, who are in the church, model redemptive love and agonizing forgiveness. When we took our membership vows, we bought in to God's agenda, with all of its joy, but also all of its demands.

When we preachers hope that our sermons matter, what we hope is that we give our congregations enough strength and courage to live out the pledge we all have made. It is not easy to be the church. We have questions, doubts, and distractions. We get tired and frustrated being the church. We get angry at the world and don't care if it hears the message of redemption. Nevertheless, God has called us to be the community of faith, and we have said yes. We need to keep our commitment fresh. As Old Testament scholar Jerome Creach says, "At no time can the relationship with God be put on automatic pilot."1

As crazy as Joshua's scene with the stone might have sounded, maybe what we need is a big stone to be a witness against us. When we start to lose our passion, when doubts start to cloud our minds, when we wander off the path, we need a giant boulder to remind us of who we are, and to keep us going.

We in the church are that boulder for each other. David Lowes Watson, a professor at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D. C., tells of an experience he had as a young preacher in Great Britain. He went to supply preach at a small church in northern England. After fellowship time and some singing, the leader of the service stood up and began firmly but caringly rebuking members of the church for public indiscretions, such as cursing in the coal mines, or skipping a service, or arguing before choir practice.2 We might not go for accountability in quite that fashion, but maybe we in the church can remind each other of the pledge we have made. Maybe we can help each other be the church. Maybe we can be stones of witness for each other. Maybe together we can be who God has called us to be.


1. Jerome F. D. Creach, Joshua (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2003), p. 130.

2. Steven W. Menskar, Accountable Discipleship (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1984), pp. 51-52.

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