The Story We Choose

Joshua 3:7-17 | Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 | 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 | Matthew 23:1-12

Jeremy Richards

A few weeks ago, I saw a bunch of little Lee Owen Stone students walking through our doors as all kinds of wild animals, super heroes, princesses, and other costumes I could only guess at. The students at Small Wonders couldn’t dress up, but the teachers did, so I saw Katie in a pretty killer Cat-in-the-Hat onesy.

When these children (and adults) dress up as different characters, they are drawn to something they know about these characters and about the world these characters live in. When children dress up as super heroes they are saying that they believe in justice, and they want to be someone who fights for justice, and they want to be part of a story where good ultimately triumphs over evil. When I see little girls dressed up as Anna and Elsa, I see them putting on not just a costume but a belief in their own power and agency. They want to believe in a world where they can be the heroes of their own story. They aren’t Rapunzel waiting in a tower to be saved, or Sleeping Beauty waiting for Prince Phillip to come and wake her up with a kiss. They are empowered to take destiny into their own hands. They are strong, independent women. When they dress up like Anna and Elsa, they are saying that that is the world they want to live in. And, in a sense, it’s a world they believe is possible.

Stories make us who we are. The stories we believe in and ascribe to, as adults as much as children, shape what we believe and how we understand the world, and how we understand ourselves.       

When Paul talks about our relationship to Jesus, he often says we are “in Christ.” In other words, like children putting on a costume, we have put on Christ. Paul actually says in Romans 13:14, “Clothe yourselves with Christ.” And like children putting on a costume, when we put on Christ we believe in the stories we are told about him, and we let those stories shape who we are and what we think is possible.

And we don’t just get the narrative of Jesus, but we are invited into the whole story of Israel. Even those of us who aren’t Jewish have been “grafted in” to the people of Israel, so that their stories in a sense become our stories. So we can read the story in Joshua, of Israel being led by God in the wilderness, being protected and provided for, and believe that that God will walk with us and provide for us as well. When we hear Joshua say to the Israelites, “Choose this day whom you will serve,” we hear ourselves being asked the same question because in Christ we “who were far off were brought near” by Jesus. The God of Israel has become our God.

The church in Thessalonica probably also primarily consists of gentiles, like us – those who were “brought near” by Jesus. When Paul writes to these Thessalonians, they are experiencing an unexpected problem – a problem that seems really normal for us today. Put simply, Christians are dying. While we are saddened whenever this happens, it hardly poses a theological problem for us. Death is simply part of life, and it was for the Thessalonians as well, that is until they became Christians, but they thought converting to Christianity would change all that. Judging from the early writings from the New Testament, the Early Church was under the impression that Jesus would be returning within most people’s lifetime. You might recall Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:28, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”

But the generation of people who were alive and saw Jesus is starting to get old, some are even dying, and still Jesus hasn’t returned. The church is worried, what does this mean? Will they be separated from their loved ones forever? Will death keep those who have died separate from those who are living?

Paul comforts the Thessalonians by reminding them of the story, the narrative, they have chosen, just as Israel remembers their collective story when Joshua asks them who they will serve. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that through the resurrection Jesus defeated death – that was the whole point! So no, death will not separate them from one another or from God. They will be raised by the very power that raised Jesus Christ. Paul says, “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”       

We also come this morning with questions about death, but our problem isn’t with those who have simply “fallen asleep” from old age, but those who have been ripped from this life by the violence of others. We were still mourning the shooting in Las Vegas when a man mowed down bikers in New York city, and we had barely begun to register that shock when 26 people were killed and 20 wounded in a church shooting almost exactly a week ago in Sutherland Springs, Texas – a church much like ours, a small Baptist church.

While the details are different, we, like the Thessalonians, are confronted by the reality of death, and we, like the Thessalonians, may be asking, what does Jesus have to say to this? The church then and the church now ask together, where is Jesus in the midst of all this death? Where is Jesus when loved ones die? Where is Jesus when gunman storm churches, when cowards deface synagogues and burn down mosques?

At the heart of it, we are all asking, is this Jesus story true? Or have we been sold a lie? Does the Jesus of Scripture exist? Is the resurrection real? Is it just wishful thinking? Have we been baptized into a false narrative?    

Paul asserts that the story is true, that Jesus is who he said he was, and that the resurrection really happened. And Paul tells the Thessalonians, Paul tells us, to hold on to hope. That is how he starts this whole passage, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope.”

Notice that Paul doesn’t say, “Don’t grieve,” he says we shouldn’t grieve like those “who have no hope.” That doesn’t mean we don’t mourn the very real presence of death in our world. Scripture says, “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). We can recall Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus.

Grief is needed, grief is necessary, grief is the proper response in times like these. If we don’t grieve over the violence in our world, we aren’t paying attention, and we aren’t understanding how seriously God takes evil, suffering, and death. In Jesus, God took on a physical body, God experienced pain and suffering.

But in Jesus, God repeatedly overcame pain and suffering. In Jesus, God healed the blind and the lame and the leprous. In Jesus, God defeated death, first by raising Lazarus and then, ultimately, by raising Jesus, so that Paul could say in 1 Corinthians, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Thanks be to God! [Who] gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:55, 57).

We have chosen to put on Christ. We have thrown our faith and hope into the stories we’ve been told about him. We have chosen to let the narratives of Scripture shape who we are, how we see the world, and what we believe will be the final outcome: that eventually all who have died will “be with the Lord forever,” as it says in our reading from 1 Thessalonians.

But we are confronted today, like the Israelites were way back in the days of Joshua, with the question, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” You might be thinking, “But I’ve already chosen, that’s why I’m here on a Sunday morning, not sleeping in.”

But this was not the first or the last time the people of Israel would choose to follow God. In Exodus 19:8 and Deuteronomy 26:18 they make similar vows, and they will do so again in 2 Chronicles 15:12 and Nehemiah 10.

The Israelites didn’t choose God one time, they chose God over and over. We also don’t choose the God of Israel, who we meet in Jesus Christ, once, but over and over again. Every time we open our web browser or turn on the news we are confronted with other narratives, and we must decide if we will keep choosing the narrative of Jesus Christ.

And let’s be honest, it’s a preposterous narrative. It’s a narrative that puts all its hope and faith in “the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 5:12). While the rest of the world stock piles weapons and prepares to defend itself, Jesus tells us, as Jesus told his disciples, “throw down your swords” (John 18:11). While the rest of the world continues to respond to violence with more violence, we gather every Sunday with a stained glass of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, before he was arrested without a fight, before he was taken to the cross – the cross, which has come to be a symbol of Christianity.

Perhaps this symbol of the cross has become too commonplace for us, and we forget that it represents the place where Jesus said he would rather die than kill, where Jesus said he would not be a part of the narratives of the world that said protect what is yours, kill if you have to, throw the first punch.

Jesus offered another narrative, and perhaps we should heed Joshua’s warning, “You are not able to serve the Lord!” Jesus’ narrative is not popular. It doesn’t make much sense in our world. Jesus’ narrative says that death and violence are not a way to salvation – ever. Death is the great enemy that has been defeated, that is what the Gospel tells us.

We would do well to remember that today, the day after Veteran’s day. Our country has bought into a narrative that is not the narrative of Jesus, a narrative that believes in the power of violence, and our veterans have paid the price for our sins. We have asked young men and women to risk their own lives for us, to kill for us, and we have done such a poor job of caring for them when they return.

To the veterans who are here this morning, I’m sorry for all that we have asked of you. I’m sorry for the ways we’ve failed to appreciate you and care for you. Thank you for your sacrifice and your service.

Many veterans today continue to carry the physical, mental, and emotional wounds from a narrative that demanded far too much of them, a narrative that says some must die in order that others will live, that says we must kill before we are killed, that says the power of guns is greater than the power of love. It’s time that we stop believing in this narrative. It’s time that we stop asking these young people to play it out for us. It’s time that we truly believe in the narrative of Jesus Christ.

When we put on Christ – and that’s a decision we make every day – we decide to live into the narrative of resurrection, not the narrative of redemptive violence. The narrative of resurrection says that death no longer has any power, but power is found in life. The story of Jesus is the story of  the life of God overcoming the violence and death of the world. It’s this life of God that we “clothe ourselves in” when we are raised up into new life in Christ. It’s this life, the life that’s shared by the Trinity – Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit – that is now extended to us.

This is good news. It’s a wonderful story. Do we believe it?