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. On 1 December we finished our Fall series by hearing the disheartening tale of Abimelech (after this, we really need to take a break for Advent!). The scriptures for the morning included Judges 9:1-25, 50-57 and Romans 7:21-8:2.
OK, I was going to start this message with a warning that this could be the most disheartening passage that you’ve had to hear in the Christmas and Advent seasons. But then I remembered that this is the place we come to hear about King Herod slaughtering the babies in Bethlehem, so if you show up and are surprised or grossed out by the story of Abimelech murdering his seventy-ish brothers, well, it’s not my fault.
All of that being said, we do want to acknowledge that this is one of the most pathetic scripture readings I hope you’re forced to endure this year. Lots of times, I know, I stand up here after someone has read a confusing or daunting passage, and I say, “Don’t worry, friends, there is good news here.”
But here’s the deal: there is virtually nothing redemptive about this story of Abimelech, the murderous son of Gideon. This is horrible. You heard the story: a young man (whose name translates to “My father is the King”) is so eager to seize power that he runs out to Shechem and, waving his father’s name around quite a bit, inspires the Israelites to make him their king. Of course, if he’s going to be king, he’s going to need an army. So they raise the money – and did you notice where they got it? At the temple. Whose temple? The temple of “Baal-berith”. Do you remember who Baal is? The Canaanite fertility god… But look, he has a new name: Baal-berith. “Berith” is a word that means “of the covenant”. In other words, Gideon’s failure in leadership has been so complete that by the time his son is old enough to make horrible decisions, Israel has decided that Yahweh is not the God of the covenant – Baal is! Do you see how bad things are? And this is at the beginning of the story!
So they raid the offering plates at the temple to Baal so that Abimelech can hire some thugs who then go with him on his murderous mission. As you heard, one of his brothers, Jotham, escapes the slaughter and lives to tell a parable, in which the trees go out looking for a leader, but the only one willing to do the job is the thorn bush – a worthless, shadeless weed who makes promises that he is unable to fulfill. The point of his parable is essentially that if the Israelites think they made a good choice in selecting Abimelech, well, more power to them; but if they made a bad choice, well, don’t come running to Jotham.
Who is the main character in the story we’ve read this morning? Abimelech. Who else shows up here? The Shechemites, the “worthless fellows”, Jotham… There’s someone who is not mentioned here… Nowhere in Judges 9 do we hear the name “YHWH.” Is God absent in this story? I mean, let’s be honest, if he’s going to skip out on one, this is a fine one to miss, because there is nothing redeeming here. Plus, the Israelites have apparently decided that Baal, not YHWH, is the god of the covenant.
This is the truth: God may be silent in this chapter, but God is not absent from it. Twice we hear the narrator reminding us that God was involved, even when he is not invoked or worshiped.
I think that’s helpful for us to remember – that we cannot confuse God’s silence with God’s absence. Have you ever experienced the silence of the Almighty? Have you ever been in a situation that seemed horrible and bleak and empty, and was even worse because you could not get a sense of where God was or what God was saying?
I know that you have. I can’t think of anyone I know who has not, at one time or another, experienced the silence of God.
Yet I can promise you, my friends, that not once, since the day you were conceived, have you ever known the absence of God. If God were to leave your life or this world, it would simply cease to be. The Creator is integrally linked with the creation, and you could no more be absent from God than you could cease breathing. Do not, now or ever, interpret the silence of God to mean that God is not present. Even here, in one of the slimiest chapters you’ll ever hear in church (although not, I’m sorry to say, the slimiest chapter in the book of Judges), God is found.
That leads me to a second observation about this chapter: we serve a God who is willing, apparently, to allow us to live with the choices that we make. Every now and then we hear a reference to “Karma” – and it’s almost exclusively a negative reference. Karma is popularly thought to be a cause and effect phenomenon wherein when you do something bad, someone or something comes back to punish you as a result. When we think of karma, we often connect it with a vengeful or punishing force.
What we see in Judges is not karma – it’s the simple affirmation of the fact that God empowers us to make choices and expects us to live with the end results of those choices. Isn’t that the main point of the parable that Jotham tells to the people of Shechem?
This is a good time to remember where we are in the overall story. We’re studying the book of Judges, right? And do you remember what a “Judge” is, and what kind of job description that title carries with it? A “Judge” is raised up by God to restore righteousness and truth and to lead the people back to God. Isn’t that the pattern that Ehud, Deborah, and the rest of the Judges we’ve studied have followed? God’s people rebel, and start worshiping an idol, and then get miserable, and then get oppressed by someone like the Moabites or the Midianites, and then God calls someone and equips him or her to defeat the enemy and lead the people to a place where they are able to choose faithfulness. But remember what I’ve said: that the deeper we go into Judges, the darker things get. And now, please notice that things are so bad that it’s not the Midianites or Amalekites who are oppressing us – it’s us! We have made such poor choices that the other nations don’t even have to come in to screw us up – we are doing it to ourselves.
Abimelech is not a Judge. He is not a bringer of justice or a restorer of peace. He is a selfish, godless, petty tyrant who is bent on seizing power for himself. He chooses to live violently and he winds up dying violently. The Israelites choose to make Abimelech their leader and thereby find themselves increasingly removed from the gracious and generous intentions of God. It’s not karma. It’s simply the consequence of their decisions.
Remember that, my friends: that while there are times where God is willing to rescue us from the misfortunate effects of our choices, there are plenty of times when God allows us to live with the consequences.
So we know that God is present, even when God chooses to remain silent; and we know that God allows us to experience the consequences of our own choices. Add to that the reality that we often wind up paying the freight for the choices of the people around us, and that presents us with a conundrum: what do we do when our reality is shaped, apparently, by evil?
Chances are that none of you have ever been in a village filled with frenzied idol-worshippers celebrating the murder of seventy men and which finds itself degenerating into a culture of violence, lawlessness, and anarchy. I could be wrong, but I don’t see that kind of reality in our lives. So in that case, the scene that is depicted in our reading seems remote.
Yet I would suspect that chances are good that you’ve been in a situation where it would appear as though none of the choices are good ones, or at least that the effort you can expend to “do the right thing” seems hopelessly futile.
How are we to live when we are in a situation in which there are no good options – only “less bad” ones? What happens when we are surrounded by evil and brokenness?
I’ve seen that a few times…as I read the description of life under Abimelech’s rule, I remembered walking through Soweto, the township near Johannesburg South Africa that was home to some of the ugliest and most vile scenes of the apartheid era in that nation. I remembered visiting orphanages in Mexico and in Africa where there seemed to be an overwhelming number of children and an amazing scarcity of resources. I remembered having the opportunity to visit East Berlin and Leningrad and other places behind the Iron Curtain as the bankruptcy of Soviet communism was most apparent. I remembered sitting in my friend Mary’s living room in Rochester, New York – a drafty, unheated, uninsulated, unpainted room that not only didn’t have enough furniture or food for her family, but seemed to be lacking in possibility of there ever being enough.
You see? I know that you’ve never been to Shechem, but I know that you have experienced evil and brokenness; I know that you know that promises are not always kept and cancer sometimes wins and community often fails and the darkness just keeps increasing and deepening. You’ve felt the silence of God and experienced the burden of consequences.
What do you do?
Welcome to Advent. Our world wishes it were Christmas, full of peace on earth and good will to men. But we know that it’s Advent. A time of waiting and hope. A time of increasing darkness and silence. And yet… And yet…
Each of those places that I mentioned a few moments ago – Soweto and Berlin and orphanages and poverty-stricken neighborhoods – was full of people who chose to believe that God was absent. They could not apprehend the presence of a promise, and so they lived as though God was nowhere. And their choices reflected that. And their lives did, too – just like the folks in Shechem.
But that’s not what I remember most about those places. What I remember most is that in each of these instances, there were vibrant outposts of believers who chose to live as though they believed that God’s silence did not necessitate God’s absence, and so they lived as though God was now here.
The external circumstances of the lives, just like the letters on the page, are the same: G O D I S N O W H E R E. Yet the way that we arrange those lives, and the way that we arrange those letters, makes all the difference.
At the end of the day, Abimelech gets his. How? After leading Israel through a tempestuous period of vengeance, ethnic and tribal conflict, and tyranny, he winds up attacking a tower filled with those who once supported him. And he dies. How? Because “a certain woman” dropped a millstone on his head and inflicted a mortal blow.
Seriously? The reign of terror ended when someone dropped a kitchen utensil on the head of a thug?
Who was she? We don’t know. An anonymous woman chooses to act in the only way possible using the only materials at hand. And the narrator comes to remind us that God’s presence was demonstrated as God’s people were once more free to choose well and wisely. A certain woman, acting within her character and using the things that she had, chose to live as though God was Now Here.
You can’t change the world. You can’t do everything. When you are surrounded by Advent darkness, sometimes it’s all you can do to keep your head above water.
I know that. But you can choose to act, beloved, as though even though there are things that you cannot do, God can. You can live in the midst of the evil days as if God is Now Here. Like the communities I witnessed in Soweto and behind the Iron Curtain, in the orphanages and amidst overwhelming poverty, we can choose to live with an awareness of hope and a largeness of spirit. We can frame our days to deal with the realities that face us – including the fact that we’ll be threatened by evil and brokenness. But we can do so knowing that evil and brokenness are not the end of the story. It is Advent. But the Christ-light is coming. Begin your day with an affirmation of the presence of God and even those days that seem silent will become less oppressive. Because God is here. And always has been. And always will be. Thanks be to God. Amen.