God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. This week’s message provides the second introduction to the book as well as a challenge to care for our children well. Scriptures include Judges 2:6-19 and I Peter 2:9-12.
You know, I couldn’t tell you how many people have said to me already today, “Do you know what I would love to see, Pastor Dave? I would love to see a simple, creative graphic that describes the Deuteronomic Cycle as we see it lived out in the book of Judges.”
Yeah, well, OK, that’s a lie. Because, quite frankly, no one, ever, has asked me to talk with them about the Deuteronomic cycle. But maybe that’s just because while you have always wanted to see something like this, you never thought to bring it up in polite conversation. So today is your lucky day, because here is a representation of the Deuteronomic Cycle, one that was given to me by our friend Tammy Weins Sorge.
The Deuteronomic Cycle is a term that is used to describe the theological history of God’s people during the time that the book of Judges was written. It’s a way to interpret the narrative that we’ll be studying for the next few months. You can see how the cycle works – essentially, the people start off all right, and then they blow it somehow. God gets really angry and then zaps them. The theological term for this is that “God’s wrath is unleashed.” The people suffer because God is so mad, and then they cry out to God. God hears them and cuts them a break by sending them a leader, or a judge, who sets things straight… until they screw up again, when he gets angry again, and so on.
As I say, this is a time-honored way to understand the book of Judges. And it is essentially correct – at least in the cyclical nature of things. However, I’d suggest that we read the story this way because we’re the people. We believe that God did something to us, when in reality, it may have more to do with our own choices than we’d like to admit.
Did you ever hear a student complain, “Can you believe it? She gave me a “C” in that class?” Or maybe a friend has said, “Well, I lost my job because the cops took my driver’s license.” When you ask why the mean old policemen took his license, he says, “Well, they said that I had another DUI…”
Do you see? We find it very, very easy to minimize the effects of our own choices some times.
I would suggest that in the book of Judges, we see a cycle all right – but instead of it being a cycle wherein God gets angry and punishes people for being so stupid, it’s a description of the truth that time and time again, humanity chooses poorly, and God allows us to experience the consequences of those choices.
Take a look at our reading from Judges for this morning. Twice in the span of three verses, we read of a choice that God’s people made: in verses 12 and 14, we see that God’s people forsook – that is, they abandoned, they left, they walked away from, they made another choice – and they served the other gods. And when they make that other choice, God gives them what they want: God “gave them over…”
In this case, and in many, many places in the Old Testament, the decision that God’s people make is to forget about worshiping God and instead choose to worship the Ba’al and the Asherah, the gods that the Canaanites worshiped before the Israelites show up in the land. Ba’al is a fertility god, usually depicted as either a bull or a man with a lightning bolt in his hand. He is a propagating, inseminating, seed-spreading machine. Asherah is his female counterpart, said to be the “Queen of Heaven”, and she was often worshiped at poles that were erected in her honor. The “worship” of Ba’al and Asherah almost always involved some sort of sexual activity on the part of the priests and the worshipers. It was, I must say, a very popular religion. And time and time again, the people of God, the people who ought to know better, choose to be fascinated with the allure of the Ba’als and the Asherah rather than to serve the God who called them from slavery.
And here in Judges 2 we see a fascinating, horrible situation. It’s a second introduction to the book of Judges, and we once again encounter Joshua giving the people their final instructions. Under the leadership that Joshua shared with Moses, the people have left Egypt and trekked through the desert for a generation. They’ve eaten manna, seen God at work time and time again, and crossed into the Promised Land. And here, before Joshua and his peers are cold in their graves, the people of God choose to abandon God and live, act, and worship like Canaanites. In the space of a few years, they’ve gone from being followers of God to acting as his enemies.
How could this happen? Why did they make this choice?
Last week, I mentioned what I thought was both the theme, and the saddest verse in the book of Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes…” (21:25) We talked about the fact that it is easy for us to behave as if there is no God, no source of authority.
The second saddest verse in this book comes in this morning’s reading:
…and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel. (2:10b)
The people of Israel had done what God asked them to do: they entered the Land that he was giving to them… But they forgot who God was. They forgot who they were, and they forgot why they were.
All those years coming into the Promised Land, and Joshua failed to mentor a leader who could replace him. All those years walking across the desert, and the families of Israel forgot to do what Moses had told them in Deuteronomy 6:6-8
And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. Don’t forget!
Yet in less than a hundred years, the people of God did forget who they were. Of course they made bonehead choices! How could they choose wisely at all when they were operating out of a place of ignorance and mistaken identity?
Beloved, can you see that this is where the Church in North America is heading today? In our own tradition, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the median age is 63. That means that half of the worshipers are older than 63. 80% of Presbyterians are over the age of 45. I came across a study of churches in England that sent chills down my spine. In that country today, 39% of churches say that they have no worshipers under the age of 11. None. 49% have no attenders between the ages of 11 and 14, and 59% report no participation at all by those between the ages of 15 and 19.
And maybe the temptation is to see that skinny red line of participants who are under the age of 20 and then to look around this room and hear the beautiful noise of crying babies and say, “THANK GOD that’s not us. Wow, that would be terrible. Good thing we’re not in that situation.”
And that, my friends, would be a mistake. Because we are the church. And the church is losing her children. We are creating a generation who does not know the power or presence of God.
How is this happening? The folks at the Fuller Youth Institute suggest that one of the problems is that most churches today are giving their kids what they call “Red Bull experiences of the gospel.” Red Bull, as you know, is a drink that contains significant amounts of sugar, caffeine and other substances that will, its ads say, “give you wings”. That is, people who drink Red Bull find that they have a temporary burst of energy and effectiveness for study, driving, or whatever. Of course, that’s often followed by a let-down.
A “Red Bull experience of the gospel” means that the church gives our kids an experience of faith that might be potent enough to help them make decisions at a high school party, but is not deep enough to foster long-term faith.
This research hits me hard on a personal level. Because for the last forty-one years of my life, I’ve gone down to church on Sunday evening for youth group meetings. Thirty-five of these years, I’ve been a leader. For a long, long time, I sought to connect with kids by making a splash, and by making Youth Group entertaining, relevant, and cool. And, I’m ashamed to say, I could get away with that thirty years ago. And I did.
But now, whenever I see entertaining, relevant, and cool, well, it’s in the rear-view mirror. Any relationship I had with those qualities is in the past.
And yet…and yet…I love children and young people now more and better than I did in the 1980’s.
Beloved, here’s the thing that you need to know this morning: studies have shown that teens who have had five or more adults from the church invest in them during the ages of 15 – 18 are far less likely to leave the church after High School.
Back in the day, I tried to be it for the kids that I knew. I played amazing games and was familiar with pop culture and tried so hard to make sure that every kid knew that I was there… And many of those young people are not interested in faith any more… in part, I’m afraid, because I tried to do everything myself.
We need a culture wherein each of the young people whom we are called to love (which, I might remind you, includes all young people) are reminded of who they are according to the glorious truth of 1 Peter – that they, and we, like the first Israelites, are called into a place of blessing so that we can follow God in Christ so that the world might know God’s deep and rich love and blessing.
Each of the young people we are called to love needs to be coached on making decisions and experiencing consequences and living into truth.
What does that mean for us? Well, we have 27 children signed up in our Preschool program. There are an additional 27 students enrolled in the after school program with 5 on our waiting list. In the first two weeks, we’ve had 22 teenagers show up at our Sunday night youth program. If you’re doing the math that adds up to 81 children…not counting all the babies you see here.
Where are the five for these young people about whom God is crazy and for whom Christ died? Which five people are seeking to somehow encourage, nurture, love, and build up each of those 81 children…and the others we know?
Relax, people. I’m not trying to sign you up as a Sunday School teacher, a youth advisor, or a volunteer at the Open Door. Jessica and Jason might do that, and I think that some of you should, but that’s not my point.
And don’t worry, I’m not trying to say that because I’m no longer entertaining, relevant or cool, you need to be those things to attract kids to Jesus.
This is what I’m saying: I have come to understand that perhaps the most important thing I do in life is to try to confirm Christian identity in young people. To help them claim their heritage as being fearfully and wonderfully made; chosen by God for a future of grace and love, witness and service. I really believe that may be the most important thing I do. And I think I can be pretty good at it.
But here’s the deal: like virtually everything else around this place, it doesn’t mean squat if only one person does it. The only way that this matters is if in some way, each of us is one of the five for some of the 81. Don’t come to youth group. But pray for these children. Don’t think you have to play dodgeball on Friday nights. But sitting here being glad that we have kids among us isn’t good enough, either. Can you engage, support, and encourage the young people you see, or at least the adults who are able to be in those relationships more actively? Maybe you can buy a pizza for someone who is working with kids, or babysit for free? How will you act and pray for the ability to see the children and youth in this community the way that Jesus does? As far as I can see, that’s the only way to get off the Deuteronomic cycle in our own age – and in so doing, to raise a generation who is more faithful than we are. God hear our prayer. Thanks be to God. Amen.