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Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Matthew 25:1-13

It bothers me when I go to a wedding where the vows aren’t really vows at all. You know, where the bride and groom promise to do the best they can with what they have until they get tired or somebody has to move out of town or somebody gets bored or gets a better offer.

A marriage is an important covenant between two people, and it needs to mean something. The maidens in Jesus’ parable are looking forward to a wedding, and the people in our reading from Joshua are looking forward to an even MORE important covenant -- one with the living God of Israel.

In both covenants, there is a time of introduction, a time to recognize exactly who and what is involved in the covenant to be made. There is always a time to introduce the bride and groom not only to the congregation, who represent the community of faith, but also the idea that THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING, WE ARE REALLY GETTING MARRIED.

Something similar happens in Joshua: all the tribes of Israel gather around, and Joshua introduces the idea of what is going on here, “From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River. . . , and they served other gods. Then God took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him through all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants. . . .”

Joshua is bringing everybody up to speed on what is going on -- who the parties are, why all this matters, and that it is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly. That is usually the part where the bride and groom’s knees go weak.

And it doesn’t get any easier. Then you will often have something called a ministerial charge. In a wedding ceremony, this is the part that sounds like the preacher is trying to scare them out of it. This is the part where you hear, “I charge you both in the presence of God to remember that true love and the faithful observance of your vows is required. . . . “

The next part is sometimes called a declaration of intent. In the wedding it’s usually along the lines of, “Do you affirm your desire and intention to enter this covenant?” And usually, the bride and groom answer, “Yes,” or, “I do,” or, “I will.”

Joshua asks his people, “Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living.”

And they answer: "Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for the Lord our God brought us and out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God."

And in a marriage ceremony, that is usually when they say the vows. But Joshua is not through with the people of Israel yet. He wants them to be sure that they know what they are doing, and he tries even harder to scare them out of it. He says, “You will not be able to serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.”

And the people answer, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” So with that behind them, this is usually where the minister says, “SINCE IT IS YOUR INTENTION TO MARRY. . . .”

Joshua says, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen for yourselves the Lord, to serve Him." And they said, "We are witnesses."

And at that point, it’s sort of like the suspense is over. This is the place where the the preacher says, “Before God and in the presence of this congregation, Muffie and Scooter have made their solemn vows to each other, and THEREFORE, I proclaim that they are now husband and wife, those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.”

Joshua says, “Now therefore, put away the foreign gods which are in your midst, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel," and the people say, “We will serve the Lord our God and we will obey His voice." And then the covenant and ordinance are made -- sort of like signing the marriage license and mailing it in to the judge of probate.

And then everybody lives happily ever after, right? I said, right? Well, no, wrong, of course. We all know that covenants are broken, people break promises, marriages fail, and, in general, things never turn out quite the way we expect them to.

How does that happen? How do things fall apart the way they do? I’m sure there ARE some people who just decide, “I’m going to break up this marriage,” or, “I’m going to break this contract,” but I’ve never known any of them.

No, usually our covenants end up unfulfilled for the same reason houses go to ruin -- lack of maintenance. Sooner or later an uncared for dwelling will reach the point where anybody who looks at it will realize, “this is no longer a house.” And sooner or later an uncared for covenant will degenerate to the point where anybody who looks at it will say, “This is no longer a marriage,” or “This is no longer a business partnership,” or, in general, “This is no longer the agreement we made.” And that is a sad time, because it usually ends with divorce, a broken partnership, lawsuits, and lots of hurt feelings.

God looked at Israel and saw that the agreement that Joshua had made with Israel at Shechem was no longer the agreement by which Israel lived, and knew that something had to change.

But where human human covenants end with plaintiffs and defendants and lawyers arguing over who did what to whom and who is going to pay for it, when Israel broke its covenant with God, God already knew who was going to pay for it. And it wasn’t Israel.

To Israel’s credit, at least they made a vow worth making: "We will serve the Lord our God and we will obey His voice," and they knew what the consequences of their failure in that covenant would be: "If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you."

That’s why I said it bothers me when I go to a wedding where the vows aren’t really vows at all. When the people of God make vows, we make them with the understanding that WE are not the only ones at work in this covenant. We make our vows with the understanding that, long before we came to make the arrangments, long before we made our agreements, God was at work. That’s why, when people take an Oath of Office, they say, “So help me God.”

Before we enter this life, God’s work is being done, and even after we exit this life, God’s work is being done.

That is why we are expected to make and keep such a bold promise in our weddings, “To be faithful as long as we both shall live.” We are not the only ones at work keeping the vows we make.

We are never alone, never foresaken, never left behind, no matter how badly we fail, and no matter how horrendous a mockery we make of even the most sacred promises. And for that reason, we should only make promises that are worth making and worth keeping. Our fear and fretting over promises made and promises broken is no more sensible than our fear and fretting about death, and for the same reasons.

People break promises, people fail, and people die. But Christ will never break promises, Christ will never fail, and Christ will never die. It is in this sure and certain faith we make our promises to each other, and to God.