I am addicted to love stories. I have been known to throw aside novels and to quit tv series if I find out that the ending does not include a happy union of the protagonists. Much to Jordan’s dismay, I will read the synopses of shows online to make sure the ending meets with my approval. Once I know the outcome, then I can fully enjoy the story. He thinks this is a betrayal of the art form, learning more than the creator intends for the audience to know. I think it’s just common sense — why waste your time on a story with a sad end?
Last winter, I quit this Turkish tv show I’d been watching, named after its two protagonists, “Sayed and Sura,” because I learned that in the last season the man moved on from his Russian lover to a Turkish girl, a choice more acceptable to his family than the daliance that consumed his young adulthood. To me, it felt like a complete betrayal of the characters and their love. In this story, love did not overcome all. The ethnic differences and family pressures broke up the love portrayed in the show; the challenges were too great for love to weather. It was really a very Russian message, come to think of it.
The genres of romantic comedies and romantic dramas garner some shame these days; tragedy and sadness, missed connections and hopelessly mired relationships get a lot of attention and are often held up as more realistic, more true-to-life, more reasonable. We should all just get used to reality and forget about this childish idea that everything will work out in the end. In real life, people die. In real life, marriages suffer divorce. In real life, children are hurt and wars tear people apart and people without enough money are most damaged. That’s real life.
This kind of viewpoint of reality is sort of like what Joshua is saying to the Israelites this morning. Three times he asks the Israelites if they want to be follow this God, Yahweh, or if they’d prefer to choose some other gods with whom they’re familiar. Three times, the Israelites insist that they’re committed to the God who saved them in Egypt and led them through the wilderness. Joshua says, “Dear people, this can never work out. It’s a really sweet love you profess for this God, but there are just too many obstacles. Israelites, you can choose another god, no hard feelings, no strings attached — I really suggest you try one (or a few!) of the gods that your ancestors worshiped, try living the way that your parents raised you, or maybe try the gods that are worshiped by the people where we’re living now, the Amorites, their gods might be a good fit for you. I really don’t think Yahweh is a good idea for you.” The Israelites will have none of it. They said, “no way, Joshua. The God who saved us is the one we want to stick with. This is the God we want. We’re sure.”
Joshua sits them down and speaks a little more sternly, “Do you understand how harsh this God is? His love is powerful, his devotion is complete, but on the flipside, he can get real possessive. If you try to pull the wool over his eyes, if you try to serve both him and anybody else, he will get super jealous and angry. He is NOT down with sharing his people. Not with anybody.” The Israelites maybe pause, but they are determined, “No, no, Joshua. This is what we want. We can be devoted. We can vow to give Yahweh our all. We want that kind of love in our lives. We want that kind of transforming devotion. We want Yahweh. We’re sure.”
Joshua says one more time, “Y’all are really going to have to clean it up here. Do you realize that? There’s no halfway with this god. You can’t just stuff your other devotions in a drawer, you can’t just pack away promises to other ways of life, you can’t just stick other allegiances in the closet. You have to burn your bridges. You have to purge your heart. You have to completely abandon any other safety. You have to throw all of your lot in with Yahweh, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” “Yes, Joshua. The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” They make a covenant to seal this commitment.
And then, my friends, you know what happens. It’s not immediate, but over the next generation or two, the fire that the Israelites had for the Lord their God starts to cool down. The determined commitment starts to wane, the Israelites, like so many lovers, start to take Yahweh for granted, they start to have expectations about what they’re owed for the relationship they keep. The book of the Bible that follows Joshua, where our reading is found today, is the book of Judges. It’s not a very popular book of the Old Testament, but I’ll tell you, I studied it assiduously as a 7th grader. I went to a Christian junior high and high school, and we spent an entire semester on the book of Judges. This is what I learned: there’s a cycle of Judges. There are many great leaders of God’s people who are remembered in this book, including Deborah, the female leader, and Ehud, the left-handed leader, among others. As soon as the leader saves the people, and eventually dies, the people stray. They start cheating on God, their love grows cold, their eyes start to wander, they start making allegiances that challenge their closeness to Yahweh, the God of Israel. When they fall in with these other gods, or are invaded by other peoples, they remember, “Oh no! Yahweh really *does* matter! Our relationship really *does* make a difference!” They cry out to God, and he sends a leader, a judge, to save the people on his behalf. This cycle plays out again and again and again.
Even in the New Testament, Jesus tells parables about this cycle, the parable of the winegrower that we read a few weeks ago — when the owner leases the vineyard and then sends various servants to collect its produce at harvest time. If you remember, the squirrely tenants beat up and kill each servant, one by one. God keeps giving the people chances, keeps sending help their way, but people never learn. They might turn, like the Israelites do in today’s passage in Joshua, but it’s not forever. It’s only for a little while.
It seems like we’re headed here for the same Russian tragedy that is covered in that Turkish television show. It seems like Joshua was right, “this is never going to work out.” It seems like all the fashionable television critics and movie reviewers are right — brokenness and tragedy and hopelessness is just reality. It’s just what life is like. It’s all we’ve got to look forward to, so we might as well get used to it. We might as well grab our bits of happiness as we can, whether it’s in booze or in free love or in luxury goods. Whether it’s in forgetting our families for a few hours or burying our addictions in oblivion, whether it’s in being devoted to our own causes or in defeating our political enemies. Let’s do what we can while we can, for tomorrow we break down and die.
Praise God, my brothers and sisters, that this not the Gospel. This is not the truth of the world as God sees and proclaims it. This is not reality. This is not real life. Brokenness is not the final word. Hopelessness and scrambling for happiness are not our fate.
I suspect this is part of the reason I couldn’t help becoming a priest: I had to know the end of the story. I spend my life telling the end of the story to everybody. Indeed, we’re all called to spend our lives telling the end of the story to everybody. So my friends, here is the end of the story. This love story is not impossible. The love is not insurmountable. It may be unfashionable and not sufficiently hopeless and shady for modern temperaments, but the love that God has for his people does conquer all. This love story does work out. This love between God and each and every person in the world is strong enough to overcome all challenges and defeats, any battle that is lost by this love is redeem in the war over which God in Jesus Christ is victorious.
God so loved the world that he sent his Son, that all who believed in this love incarnate in Jesus would not die, would not be broken forever, would not have to live in hopelessness and grab scraps of happiness from the ground, but would have eternal life. Eternal light. Eternal love.
Here’s the thing about this great love story. Like any great love story, it’s not just about one person wooing the other, or about the friends and family who support this love between the two, it is about each person loving the other one well. About continuing to listen to each other, growing in relationship together. Learning each other, caring for each other.
When Jordan and I had just met, his roommate and I had a class together, and the professor of the class asked this friend’s mom, who also worked at the school, “Doesn’t Nate already have a girlfriend? Why is he spending all my classtime flirting with Emily?” The mother wisely answered, “Yes, he does have a girlfriend. I think he’s wooing her on bahalf of Jordan…” This worked to help fan the sparks of our relationship, but hearing about Jordan through Nate, and on the other side, Jordan hearing about me through Nate, it didn’t work for very long. It was soon time for us to talk with each other, to spend time together in person, to get to know one another face to face, not through an intermediary.
There’s no substitute for God himself, my brothers and sisters. The God who comes to you in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ also comes to you in the words of Scripture, and perhaps most intimately, comes to you in the quiet of your heart, when you are still enough for long enough to hear him. I beseech you by the mercies of God to present yourself to him, to offer your heart in silence and in reflection, to listen with an eager ear to receive the love which he is so eager to give to you.