A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on May 6, 2012.
O God, we pray today for these graduates, for their peers here in the city, and others graduating throughout the nation. We pray that their generation would leave behind more peace than they have found. At the end of their adulthood, may the world be a more just place than it is today. May they hold the light of Christ high for everyone to see. Direct every part of their living. From now until old age, direct their speaking so that their tongues utter no false word. Direct their actions so that they do nothing to shame themselves or to hurt others. Control their minds so they may think no evil or bitter thoughts. Control their hearts so that their one desire is to please you. Prepare their way as you go. Prepare roommates and professors who will bring out the best in them. Prepare vocations that will use their best gifts and focus their contributions for the communities in which they live and for the world. Keep them safe in this great adventure. Protect them by the shadow of your wings, and bless their families. We thank you for the love and the discipline that has shaped them thus far. May the days of this month be filled with satisfaction and grace for all. In Christ’s name. Amen.
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
—from Gotta Serve Somebody by Bob Dylan
As slaves, they had no choices. The Egyptian masters told them when to get up, what to do, how long to do it, how well they had done it, and when it was time to quit. They could not change jobs. They could not change locations. The very idea of slavery means that you have no choice. Your absolutely only focus in life is to do the will of the master. For decades, they were slaves in Egypt and given no choice.
After they had been brought out of slavery by Moses, there was an extended period of time where they wandered in the Sinai. By force of necessity, they had to stay together. There was no life and no opportunities if they splintered off. They had to stay together for survival.
During the generation of Moses and Joshua, they stayed together. They came to the Promised Land and it was theirs. On this day, as they prepared to enter into a new chapter of life, it was the first time since Jacob took his family to Egypt to escape the famine that they were truly free and the first time they had the opportunity to make significant decisions about their lives. It was the dawn of freedom and it was the dawn of choice.
Those of you who are graduating have not exactly been slaves, but really in your life you have had little choice. I know some of you think you have, but really your life has given you little choice. All the big choices have been decided by somebody else. Your family decided your curfew. Where your family has lived has determined where you live. Because of your age, every year you will be in school 180 days whether you like it or not. Occasionally, there is a two-month furlough in the summer and then it is back to it in the fall again. If you ask any group of graduating seniors or incoming freshmen what they look forward to the most in the new adventure, the answer that comes up most commonly is the freedom. I am looking forward to the freedom. I am looking forward to being able to make choices for myself.
If you go off this summer for some early advanced summer term or later this fall, the opportunity will now be yours to decide when you go to bed, if you go to bed, when to get up, if you will get up, to go to class or not, to study or to party on Thursday night, or to wear whatever you want to wear without comment or criticism from another adult. Like Israel there by the river, you are on the dawn of a new day of choice and freedom, to do what you want to do.
As Joshua confronted the children of Israel about their choices, I would like to say a word to you about your choices. We know little about Joshua. All we know is from the old spiritual that he “fit the Battle of Jericho.” He is the successor to Moses. He is the one who has been leading the children of Israel. Now, as they come to this moment, it falls to him to define the temptations and the options, and he speaks to them in terms of the gods that they might worship. “Will you choose to worship the gods of the Egyptians that you have brought with you out of the land of Egypt? Will you worship the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are now living?” Essentially, he tells them, “Today, you have to choose who you are going to serve,” and that is what I would like to convince you of as well. You will serve somebody. You will.
I think there are two barriers to me trying to make the same speech to you that Joshua made to them. One is probably the fact that because of the great opportunities, the great gifts, and the great privileges that you have had growing up, you may not think that you will ever have to serve anything. Knowing your gifts and your personalities, there is a good chance you may be the Alpha male or female in your group. You may never remember a time when other friends were not following you. You may already have a guaranteed position in the family business. You may have been an Eagle Scout and people are telling you, “O, you are such a leader. You need to go out and do all of these wonderful things.” But you may think it has made you immune to the need to serve somebody. I am just going to tell you that everybody does, and you have to choose.
You think, I know there are people at the college I am going to who have been national champions. They are ahead of everything. Everybody follows them. If you look, those people who are national champions serve the sport. Nobody becomes a champion without having given their life to the sport. You may know people who are already in position at the campus where you are going who are president of the student body. They are above everybody and are in charge of everything. Well, they serve the idea of election and victory. People at the very top, including everybody, serves somebody.
Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “You cannot serve two masters. You will love the one and hate the other.” But hidden in that message is the idea that everybody will serve one master. It is the same message that Joshua speaks to the children of Israel here. “Choose who you are going to serve.” He does not say, “and one of those choices is not to serve anybody because we will all serve somebody.” Do not mistake your early successes, do not mistake your early victories or opportunities or all your leadership potential to think that you won’t because you will serve somebody.
Unfortunately for us, Joshua talks about serving other gods. The ability of a 21st Century preacher to convince people that this has relevance for us is very difficult. We do not believe in the idols and the stone and wood statues. For us to say, “O that is like a god to us,” just really does not make a lot of sense. But the truth is that there are things that compete for our lives, for our affection, for our attention, and the things that control our lives are the things that we serve. They would be the equivalent of the gods that Joshua is talking about. The most powerful one, the most subtle one, the most dangerous one is the option of serving yourself.
I would offer you this as a real challenge. You may listen to it and say, “That was nice,” but I would offer this to you as a real challenge. Find a secret place that you think a year and a month from now you will be sure to find where you wrote it down, maybe even by accident, and write down these three words: Who is it? Then when you come across that a year and a month from now, ask yourself, “Who flunked out of school? Whose parents said, ‘You are not going back because I am not paying for that again?’” Who is it that has ruined their opportunity because they chose everything about themselves? They chose all the pleasures, all the parties, all the lack of restraint, all the foolishness, all the things that they thought were going to be fun, and they have given away a year of their life for nothing. Who is it? Who is it that decided to do whatever they wanted to do to serve themselves, and if left continuously, will ruin their life? Who is it?
It reminds me of the statement that Jesus makes about “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and lose their life?” What does it profit if you get to do everything you have always wanted to do when you were at home and your parents would not let you, and you ruin your life? This is the danger of serving ourselves. I would say to you that you have to serve somebody. Whatever it is that controls your life, even if it is your own desires, your own foolishness and craziness, you are going to serve somebody and that will be a terrible fate.
Think about service projects that you do in school or in Scouts or in any number of places. Service projects are always about getting outside of ourselves. They are never about doing things for us. They are to try to teach us that the blessing in life is there to serve and do for others. We are all going to serve something. It is a choice of what it is going to be. Of course, I would hope for you that it would be Jesus. I would hope that you would recognize in God’s great love, what God has done for you. If you go back and read from the beginning of Joshua’s speech, this is what Joshua tells the children of Israel. “See what God has done for us.” Sometimes people think, I will serve God and see if God will do great things for me. The message is God has done great things for us. I will serve God. I would hope that you would recognize that Christ has died, Christ has forgiven, Christ guides, nurtures, supports, and answers prayer all the time. Of all the things that you could choose to serve, who or what loves you so much? Who else, what else, would give you so much and just simply ask that you follow? What would you give your whole life to? Think about what that means from this point. What is your whole life going to be like? What is it going to include? Who will be in your life? What will you have? What opportunities? What is worthy of your whole life? Nothing but Jesus.
The title of today’s sermon come from the Bob Dylan song, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” I know he is a generation gone, but he was revisited on The Sopranos and maybe you heard it there. Bob Dylan never had much of a reputation as a religious individual until later in his career. One night in a concert, he had a fever of 105. He pressed through, and the next night, he was someplace else and he felt even worse. Somebody in the audience recognized that he was struggling. They threw something up on the stage. He said, “I rarely would pick up something thrown from the crowd, but I picked this up and it was a cross. I put it in my pocket.” He finished the show. The next night, he had another show in another location, and he felt even worse. He remembered the cross in his pocket. In a way that seems odd to hear someone of his style and his career say these things, he talks about Jesus Christ becoming King of Kings and Lord of Lords in his life. Dylan went out and wrote and recorded a CD of songs that reflected his experience in coming to Jesus Christ. Probably the song from that CD that has had the most play and the most notoriety is this one. When somebody as perceptive and as good at words as Bob Dylan tries to summarize what he has learned about faith and God, he says, “I have learned this:
You’ve got to serve somebody. It may be the devil, and it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Make the right choice. Choose Christ.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.