Is there a tree that is special to your family? Is there a tree on the family farm where dinners stretched out on simple picnic tables giving space for animated conversation? Did someone put up a gazebo, sprinkle it with flowers and get married in the shade of its branches on a warm summer day? Is the tree near the driveway where your grandfather climbed into a Model T to start a new life with your grandmother in another part of the country?
Our family cottage is built on the shores of Lake Michigan. The property has been in the family since the 1890’s although our cottage was built in 1974. We have come up to Michigan for more than 120 years as a family, sitting on chairs along the bluff that afford a vista of the water below. It’s so beautiful that local artist James Brandeiss has painted three stunning sunset pictures from our bluff. One of them features two trees that stand proudly next to each other.
I wonder how many generations of our family, those still among us and those who have long since left this earth, would recognize those twin trees that withstood winter storms and summer heat? Our shoreline is ravaged with the high water levels. The bluff is a raw wound, open sand that loses the battle against wind and water on daily basis. One of those trees has already fallen.
I climbed over our safety fence when I was there a couple of weekends ago and cautiously leaned against the remaining tree. In my heart I thanked it for keeping a vigil over the lake for so many years. Much of its roots are already exposed as it stands with dignity on the precipice of a land that is disappearing. I imagined my grandfather scrambling past that tree to get down to the lake when he was boy. He and his six siblings bathed in the lake, he always told us. My mother spent summers there with her grandmother and aunt. No matter where we lived as an Air Force family, we tried to get to this piece of property for much of the summer. I stood against that tree that probably won’t survive the winter, reflecting on who has benefitted from her broad branches.
Is there a tree that is significant in your family life?
Joshua called a meeting of all the Israelites. “Y’all gather by the oak tree for a family meeting!” They numbered in the thousands. That’s some family reunion! It almost sounds like a rally of loud people who are excited to be together. Can you picture that?! Joshua chose this place because it had meaning for them. They were in Shechem which is the first place where God appeared to Abraham, the patriarch of their clan. It’s the place where Jacob and his entourage renounced their idols and buried them. In those moments of their history they were foreigners on this land. But now, at this point in our scripture passage, the land is theirs. The old oak tree that had witnessed so much of their ancestral story now belonged to them. Not because they deserved it, paid for it, or fought for it. Joshua makes it very clear that they are able to put together a revival on this sacred ground because God gave it to them. God has been there for them all along and this is God’s gift to them.
Joshua calls out, his voice thick with conviction, “Did we do anything to deserve it? No! Remember that–NO! The God of our ancestors has brought us into this promised land and given it to us. GIVEN—IT—TO—US!”
Joshua called this meeting because his newly-liberated people were claiming this familiar place. None of them had been there before. 40 years in the wilderness and, before that, 400 years of slavery in Egypt separated them from this land that had been formational to their tribe. So Joshua knew it was essential that they lay the spiritual foundation to rightly align their priorities in this new home. His people had lived for generations among foreigners who worshiped many gods. The Hebrew people had gone along with that. It’s easier to give in to the dominant culture than it is to fight it for generations. They still loved their God but threw in statues of other favorite gods for good measure. Better to cover all the bases than discover that your Deity Insurance Policy doesn’t offer the broad coverage you imagined!
No more of that, Joshua told them! They are told that they must revere and serve Yahweh, the name they had for their God.
Do you want to do that? Because if you do you will have to “put away” the other gods. The translation for this verb could not be stronger. They will have to radically renounce all that they had counted on in the past: their greatest comforts, their security blankets, their stash of weapons, their hoarded treasures, whatever they valued more highly than their relationship with their Maker. Joshua asks for commitment from the present generation who stands where the very first generation met Yahweh. They are told to make a choice—freely—but they must then be ready to adhere to it.
There’s a back-and-forth rhythm to this ceremony. Imagine the speaker at the podium calling out to the massed gathering:
Do you want to serve the God of our ancestors?
This isn’t easy! You have to incline your heart and obey God’s voice. Are you sure you want to do this?
The crowd roars, YES!
Joshua replies, NOT SO FAST! This is not an easy commitment! Maybe you’ve forgotten that our God is holy…and jealous! If you say yes but go back to worshiping your former gods, it’s not going to end well! Remember 40 years in the wilderness we just left behind?! That’s because our ancestors gave up on God. Are you sure you want to throw away all that you’ve counted on in the past and worship this God alone?
YES! WE WILL WORSHIP THE LORD ONLY!
Three times they affirm their loyalty to God. Since there are no neutral parties to serve as witnesses to this mass pledge toward revival, Joshua chooses a boulder, joins with other family members, and heaves it under the old oak tree where Abraham met God and Jacob ordered his people to bury their false idols.
The stone is our witness to all that we’ve agreed to today. There can be no more wishy washy faith. You cannot divide your allegiance between gods. You are committing to a singular focus on the One who asks for your very lives. Joshua offers the words that have traveled like a challenge across the ages: As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD!
Is there a tree that’s significant to your family, where promises were made and loved ones gathered? Where graduates posed for pictures and initials were carved into her bark? Perhaps the undertaker’s hearse carried a loved one away for the last time under the canopy of her gracious branches? Did you discover in those moments what really mattered to you? Were you crushed to find out that your security blanket couldn’t protect you?
Martin Luther challenged his people to get rid of their idols. His challenge revolutionized the Church. He stated that anything that we rely on and trust in is a “god.” What are the idols you have had to give up in this COVID time? What gods have failed you in the bitterness of this election year?
In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey writes, “A political movement by nature draws lines, makes distinctions, pronounces judgment; in contrast, Jesus’ love cuts across lines, transcends distinctions, and dispenses grace. Regardless of the merits of a given issue—whether a pro-life lobby out of the Right or a peace-and-justice lobby out of the Left—political movements risk pulling onto themselves the mantle of power that smothers love. From Jesus I learn that, whatever activism I get involved in, it must not drive out love and humility, or otherwise I betray the kingdom of heaven.” (page 245)
In this election year battle lines were clearly drawn, rules of engagement were made, changed, and remade. Enemies were characterized and vilified. It seems as if there is no neutral ground on which to stand. A question that surfaces from my gut is, do we have to buy into that?! Is there no other way to stand together under the family tree on land that is dear to us and join our hearts as one in worship of the God who created us? What would it cost us for this to happen?
For us to commit to a covenant renewal as we look with uncertainty at our future we must be ready to let go of our gods. Charles Raynal puts it this way in a commentary on the text: “Like Joshua, the covenant renewal will remind the people of the unique miracles of the Lord for the people and issue a call to forsake the false gods and insecurities in our common life, such as the love of North American wealth, the fear of terrorism, the trust in military force instead of the other choices required for building up alienated and oppressed people. We all need to rediscover Joshua’s way of single-minded loyalty to the Lord, the obedient refusal to give ourselves over to the temptations of compromise with the great wealth, powers, and fears that enthrall most people and all nations today.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, page 366.)
Those who lead this country forward will have to be healers. And we know that healing isn’t linear. There can be several good days and our hopes soar. But then the fever returns, the muscle aches and we have to take a nap just three hours into our day. There’s a reason Joshua asked the throng of family members three times to what faith convictions did they really want to surrender their lives? Change doesn’t happen overnight. Healing takes time, especially when the wounds are deep. Joshua’s style is affirmation followed by command. We like the affirmation. We can even make an affirmation to love and serve only God. But we aren’t so fond of the commands that follow: Incline your hearts to Yahweh and obey only that divine voice.
Are you ready? Can you pledge your allegiance to Christ alone? I wonder if we can do it together?