LeBron may be a free agent, but we’re not.
13th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) – August 23, 2015 – Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; John 6:56-69
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
No One Else – Pastor Evan Davis
If you know me, you know I love basketball. And yes, unlike many, I love the NBA – I love the quality of the game and the players. There’s nothing quite like a seven-game playoff series between two evenly-matched teams. So I remember clearly when, in the summer of 2010, the reigning league MVP, LeBron James, in a nationally-televised TV special, told the country and his hometown fans in Cleveland that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” signing as a free agent with the Miami Heat, where he would win two NBA championships in four years. Even though he had brought so much success to Cleveland and he was from Ohio, he just left. You thought there was loyalty, but he was a free agent. It was just a negotiation between two equal parties. Free agents look at their options and make a choice. Which team can offer more? Where do I belong? What’s the better opportunity? It’s just a choice.
Joshua said to the people of Israel: “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of your ancestors … or the gods of the Amorites … but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” And then the people say, yes! We will serve the LORD! Sounds like they’re a bunch of free agents. Maybe they looked at their options and the LORD won out. Maybe we do. What does each god offer? How many years on the contract? Will the LORD one day decide to trade me in the middle of the night for two draft picks and a believer-yet-to-be-named??
Which choice makes more sense – is it reasonable to believe in God? Is it more likely than not that God exists? What’s our opinion as faith free agents?
How much guaranteed money? How many guaranteed experiences in our God contract? What’s the value here, in going to worship, serving on committees, and giving any bit of my income, let alone a full tithe, to a congregation? What do I get out of it? Performance incentives? If I pray more, hear the Word, study the Bible, show up in worship, try to walk the Way of Jesus as his disciple every day, does that mean I’ll get that job, that my family’s issues will disappear, that my date will call me back, I’ll lose that weight, that cancer will never come, that tragedy will never strike?
Is there an opt-out clause in the contract? If you read the latest reports, it’s clear millions and millions of our neighbors and family have opted-out of their God contracts. They decided it no longer makes sense to them that God exists. They’ve decided they get far more value from spending their Sunday mornings at home playing with their children, reading the newspaper and sipping their coffee. I’m not gonna lie – sounds pretty good to me! They find more value in sending their kids to music lessons, soccer practice, and theatre rehearsals than to confirmation class, Sunday School, and mission trips. And I can’t blame them for finding value in those wonderful pursuits. If you’re looking for a better deal from God, like LeBron deciding between Cleveland and Miami, most families are taking their talents somewhere other than church. The competition’s got better facilities, more professional instructors, and that stuff looks way better on a college application.
But, you see, this is the God who chooses the cross rather than the throne. If our life of faith in this God is about expecting a better deal, we will soon conclude that God is in breach of contract. We’ll wonder, what’s the point of all this? And we will opt-out with the rest of them. We will devote ourselves to the other gods of our day. They might not have names like Baal or Asherah or Zeus like they did in Joshua’s day. We know about the gods of wealth and power, but even so we fall victim to their easy promises. Yet there are other, more subtle gods, like the god of success and achievement that rewards us with promotions, titles, awards, and admiration. But sneakiest of all is the god of being good, of being truly religious, thinking we’re choosing the LORD all on our own as free agents, making the right choice, following all God’s laws and living as purely as we can as his followers. But even in thinking we’re choosing God, we’ve already chosen the idol! We’ve chosen ourselves – worshiping the god of self-righteousness. In our moments of weakness, when we face our limitations, the world’s brokenness, and our own mortality, all these gods will betray us, they’ll all leave us helpless, broken, and alone.
We might wonder how Joshua and the people can do it – can they really choose God like this? And can that choice ever be genuine? Not if they’re free agents, and only because they were reminded that the other gods in their day were just as empty as these in our day. At the end of his life, when Joshua is instructing the people to continue to follow God after his death, Joshua first reminds them they do not stand on their own. He speaks God’s words directly:
I took your father Abraham from beyond the River…and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4 and 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… I sent Moses and Aaron,….I brought your ancestors out of Egypt…13 I 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 oliveyards that you did not plant.
Lord, to whom shall we go? There’s no one else. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua – there’s not a free agent among them! God drafted them to the team. God created them, gave them the gifts, the energy, the encouragement to do everything they did, and God gave them everything they had. No other god could do that. Joshua reminds the people that this God, the LORD, is not one option among many. They’re not free agents with a free choice of which team to play for – no, this is the LORD who made them, who saved them, the source of all they are and all they have. They could go about their lives deceiving themselves, devoting their time and energy and hopes to other gods, but it would be just as pointless as us following after wealth, power, achievement, and purity.
In our gospel story, when Jesus starts talking about eating his flesh and blood – pretty weird stuff – most of those following him run away, and Jesus asks, “do you also wish to go away?” But Peter blurts out the truth that has found its way into his heart: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” There’s nowhere else to go. No one else to run to. No one else who speaks eternal life in is every word. Peter gets it wrong about a lot of things but he knows at least this…that when he screws up, when it’s clear Jesus is taking them straight to the cross, there’s no one else with whom they’d be better off. Every other choice is an illusion, a false god with nothing but empty promises.
Even when this God disappoints you, sends you in an unexpected and undesirable direction, sends you the diagnosis even when you eat right and exercise 4 times a week, this God is still the only God there is. And this God can handle your rage, your terror, your darkest nights of the soul. This is the God of the cross, not the deal. This God isn’t watching your stat sheet. He’s not even keeping score. It’s not a question of committing to God over against the other options – you are no free agent – it’s simply acknowledging there is no one else who holds your destiny in his wounded hands, in his heart. This God hands you the championship trophy before you even learn how to dribble. You worship and follow Jesus not because he offers a good deal, but because this God is the ground of your being. Whether or not you can prove his existence, no matter how well or often you have worshiped or followed her, this God is still your God. Whoever you are, whatever you get to do, whatever heights you may reach, whatever depths you may fall into, whomever you are blessed in your days to know, to serve, to befriend, to love, for however long, it’s all a gift, it’s all from God. Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia. Amen.