Choices Have Consequences
Based on Joshua 24:14-25, 1Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
When I was a young boy, all cars had working cigarette lighters. For those not familiar with this concept (since now they are simply a place to recharge phones and other electronic devices) one would push in the lighter, the inside would get red hot, it would pop out and then you would touch an unlit cigar or cigarette to the lighter. None of my family or either set of grandparents smoked, so the cigarette lighter remained a mystery. One evening I was the first to get out to the car when the family was leaving my grandparent’s house, and I decided to see for myself what this mystical device was all about. I pushed in the lighter and waited anxiously for it to pop out – signaling it was hot. I had been warned not to play with this, but the temptation got the better of my 6 or 7-year old self. The lighter popped out and I pulled it out and looked at the glowing red coil. I just had to touch it to see if it was really hot. It was, and I had a nice coil burn mark on my finger for a couple of days. I held my burned finger against the cool winter window to ease the pain on the way home. Like all humans, I learned that night that my choices have consequences.
One of the hallmarks of parenting and leading is that one needs to allow humans to encounter natural consequences from their choices. Natural consequences are those things that predictably occur once a decision is made – such as touching a glowing hot lighter with your finger. While most natural consequences are mild and we can pick ourselves up and walk away no worse for wear, some choices have consequences that mark us for life. The latter consequences are what our scripture readings have set before us this week. Joshua is about to die and needs to address his people about their choice of what God or gods they will follow. Paul is reminding the believers in Thessalonica that those who choose to die in the Lord will not be forgotten. Jesus has a rather harsh teaching about choices and consequences, but it is one that we need to hear – especially in our day of false prophets and constant distractions. Before we unpack these scriptures, let us go to God in prayer asking that God’s word might guide our decision making…
Paul’s oldest letter to one of his church plants is winding down. He has reminded the believers to choose to live in ways that are pleasing to God. Those who choose to live according to the world end up rejecting God and God’s promises. Our reading today has Paul teaching about the big promise to those who die in and for Jesus. Paul writes unequivocally that they will be lifted up as Jesus was lifted up. Thus, we who are believers in Jesus and followers of the Christ should live lives that reflect the hope of the fulfillment of God’s promise of eternal life. Choosing a life lived in and for the Christ carries the natural consequence of a glimpse of heaven on earth and everlasting life with our Lord and Savior once we die.
Joshua and God have led the Israelites as they successfully conquered the Promised Land. It is now time for Joshua to end his servant leadership and go to be with God. Before he leaves, however, he needs the people to affirm their commitment to serving the God of Abraham. Joshua lays out the choice before the people, as Moses had done before him. Joshua says, “…Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the LORD….” The people replied that they would serve the LORD, but Joshua didn’t believe them. He had them swear a total of three times that they would faithfully choose the One God, and reminded them of the consequences of breaking their vow, “…If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good….”
Jesus has been telling some pointed parables about the end-of-times (seminary word for that is “eschaton”) in Chapter 24. The stories include tales of persecution, the necessity for watchfulness and a tale dealing with faithful or unfaithful slaves. Thus, our parable for today in Chapter 25 is in good company in this litany and ushers in more challenging parables. Our parable today deals with bridesmaids who are tasked to keep watch for the bridegroom. Half of the bridesmaids planned ahead, just in case the groom was delayed, while half did not. When the tardy groom arrives, the ones that planned ahead are rewarded while those that did not are left out in the dark. When taken along with the teachings in the previous chapter, we can see that the choice for those of us who await the second coming of the Christ is to either be watchful and prepared to work for the kingdom of God, or we will be left out in the dark!
Seems to me that if all of the events of the year 2020 were reduced to a bumper sticker it might read, “Choices Have Consequences”. I began writing this sermon on Tuesday, Election Day 2020, not knowing when the Nation would know for certain who would be its next President. Certainly, this is just one example of choices having natural consequences. The average adult makes an estimated 35,000 choices in each 24-hour period. Since we sleep about 8 hours a day, that means we are making approximately 2200 choices every hour or 37 choices a minute. That’s more than 1 billion decisions by the time we are 80 years old! It is clear to me that not all choices are created with equal consequences, therefore, it is important that we spend adequate time discerning about choices and their consequences before rushing into a decision.
That’s what Joshua was trying to get across to the Israelites. He was trying to have them to slow down a bit and not just make the choice to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. He asked them to affirm their choice to serve the God of Abraham three times so that the commitment became real to them…along with the understanding of what the LORD might do if they chose down-the-road to follow the Canaanite gods (spoiler alert: this is exactly what the Israelites do in the remainder of the Hebrew Bible). Joshua knew his people had a tendency to be stiff-necked, hard-headed, hard hearted, and impatient (sound familiar?). He knew that once the people settled in to this new land “flowing with milk and honey”, with no wars to fight nor wilderness wandering to do, that the idols of the Canaanites would begin to look better than a God who was no longer visible. Their choices would bear the consequences of kings who would not lead well and ultimately, destruction and exile by foreign armies. The final vestiges of the Kingdom of David would be “consumed” by the Romans and the people sent into diaspora – because they had chosen to worship the world instead of the LORD.
Jesus had seen the choices of the Temple leaders – their complicity with the Roman slave economy and imperial power. He was trying, like so many prophets before him, to warn the people and their spiritual leaders of coming consequences. He needed them to wake up and to see that what was going on around them was not what God intended when God brought them to the Promised Land so many generations before. Jesus was trying to shake them up so that they would realize that the choices they were making to leave behind their living God in favor of imperial idol worship would mean that many would not reap the reward of eternal life. Jesus, like his cousin John, was trying to get the people to choose to repent and come back to the God who gives abundant life.
God gave us free will so that we would make the choice to have a relationship with God without any coercion. God never twists our arms, nor does God try to out compete the idols of this world to win our affection and our faithfulness. God is neither showy nor strident, God speaks through grace with a still small voice that calls us by our names. God inspired humans to record God’s self-revelation and great deeds on our behalf in what we know as the Bible. A collection of teachings that has stood the test of time; that, when we choose to follow those teachings, continue to reward our choices thousands of years later. Our spiritual ancestor, Joshua, calls to us again this day asking us if we will choose to serve the God of Abraham or the gods of the world? Joshua knew that choices have consequences and thus he chose to serve the LORD. Will you and your household make the same choice? May God and the Bible guide your discernment. Amen!