How’s the Water?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to listen for our story in the stories of the Book of Judges.  On January 26 we sat once more with the disturbing character of Samson, perhaps the greatest and undoubtedly the worst of the Judges.  Our text included selected verses from Judges 14 as well as I Peter 2:9-12.

TwoFishDid you hear about the two young fish who were swimming along and encountered an older fish?  “Morning, boys!  How’s the water?” he said as he passed them.  He went on his way.  After a few moments, one of the pair turned to his friend and said, “Water? What the hell is water?”[1]

I love that little story because it reminds us how easy it is to forget the fact that we exist in a culture.  Every day, we make decisions and choices based on what we, or what “everyone” knows.  This morning, as we continue to explore the book of Judges, we see how the story of Samson illustrates for us the ways in which it is so easy to allow someone or something else to define our environment and expectations.  When that happens, rather than looking towards God’s best, I am simply swimming thoughtlessly and often faithlessly along with the tide.

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

Let’s think about what we know already from last week’s reading.  Why was Samson born? “To begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5)  God is sending this person into the world so that God’s people might have an alternative way of living – so that they can reject the slavery, oppression, violence, and greed that characterize the cultures around them and live into the purposes of God.

So Samson is going to begin this.  How?  What is distinctive about this baby?  He is called to be a Nazirite.  One who is set apart, or consecrated.

OK, do you remember what a Nazirite looks and acts like? Are there rules for this sort of thing?  Of course.  Samson is not to allow his hair or beard to be cut; he is to avoid contact with anything related to grapes; and he is to avoid becoming unclean by contact with the dead, or by eating anything unclean.

That’s what we learned last week, and when we left chapter 13, young Samson was beginning to experience the Spirit of the Lord.

In chapter 14, which we did not read, he falls in love with a Philistine woman. Yes, that’s right.  The one who has been sent into the world in order to “deliver us” from the Philistines now finds himself drooling at the thought of marrying one.  That’s a funny way to deliver us…like sponsoring a “Gambler’s Anonymous” meeting at the casino.  But, well, you know…young love…

And so on his way to visit this young beauty, he has an encounter with a lion as he is taking the shortcut through the vineyard.  An observant reader such as yourself might think, “Self, I thought Nazirites were supposed to avoid contact with grapes.  Why is this Nazirite hanging around vineyards, let alone sponsoring a seven-day feast “as was customary” at the wedding?”


This sounds like a lot of grape wine.

At a Nazirite’s wedding.

To a Philistine girl.

The author of Judges reveals Samson as one who time after time receives the blessing or the empowerment of God, but who takes that blessing lightly.  More than any other character in this book of Judges, “the Spirit of the Lord” comes to Samson, but nearly every single time he uses the benefit of that encouragement and strengthening to vent some petty, vengeful, selfish rage.  The impression one gets is that Samson is a shallow hothead, and if we are honest, we see that the one who was born to begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines is, in fact, acting just like them.

Remember, my theory is that the book of Judges was given to describe the choices we make, and to consider in what ways we are willing to embrace God’s intentions of justice, freedom, and joy.

How’s the water, Samson?

In the passage you heard this morning from chapter 15, we discover that the leaders of the nation of Israel are turning Samson over to the Philistine authorities.  Why? Because evidently, they fear the Philistines more than they trust God.  Did you hear what they said to Samson?  “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us?”  Last week, we noted that the people of Israel didn’t cry out when they were suffering the oppression of the Philistines.  Here, we see that they take it as normal.  It’s just the water that they’re swimming in, that’s all.

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

The leaders of Israel cave in to the purposes of their Philistine rulers.  Samson hides out in selfishness and anger, and when he is finally brought face to face with them, the Spirit of God comes upon him.  And when the Spirit of the Almighty fills him, our hero, the Nazirite, grabs… the jawbone of a donkey.  A dead donkey.

Nazirite rule #1 – no grapes.  Gone.

Nazirite rule #2 – no contact with the dead.  Gone.

And in spite of that, Samson overpowers the enemy and slays a thousand men.  With the jawbone of a dead donkey.

And then, for the first time in his life that we can see, Samson cries out to God.  Do you remember how many times the book of Judges contains the phrase, “and the people cried out to God to save them from their enemies…”?  When the people realized how weary they were of sin and death and slavery and idolatry?  Do you remember when the people prayed BIG prayers and said, “Lord, save us”?

And here, the people don’t pray.  The people have given their leader over to the enemy.  One man prays.  And he doesn’t even pray a big prayer.  He asks for a drink of water.

Do you see how the faith is being diminished here?

Yes, God responds – because God’s grace is amazing.  But doesn’t this whole set-up seem wrong?  This can’t be what God had in mind when he brought the Children of Israel to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey – to a life characterized by God’s presence and God’s purposes.

It’s not.  Look at the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson “led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.”  Do you see?  God’s people.  God’s hopes.  But Philistine days.

How’s the water?  It’s Philistine water.  And what has happened in the last fifteen chapters is that our people have become increasingly defined by the purposes of others.  We have lost sight of the Lord and accept as truth conditions imposed by powers in our world – powers that defy the truth and beauty of God.

We believe lies, and we live as though we can’t change them.

And this is what is so frustrating and disappointing to me on January 26, 2014: that the people of God in so many ways continue to live in the days of the Philistines.  We continue to accept as truth the lies of the enemy, and to pretend that there is nothing we can do to change that.

We see that in our world.  This week, Oxfam released a report indicating that the world’s wealthiest 85 individuals have a combined worth that equals that of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people.  One group of people, who could ride in a single Megabus (as if that is ever going to happen), are richer than the number of people who currently live in North and South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and Europe.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

When that statistic came out this week, there was a collective yawn.  A few folks talked about “class warfare”. Some raised questions of justice.  But mostly, the people I talk to said something like, “Well, what are you going to do?  That’s the way that the world is. The rich get richer.”

They do.  We do.  But although these are the waters in which we are currently swimming, they are not the waters of God’s intentions for the earth.  I do not deny anyone the right to work hard and to benefit from his or her labor.  But as George Monbiot has said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

I don’t know how to fix it, but I would suggest that a world in which wealth and power flow increasingly from the many to the few is a world that looks more like the slavery and oppression of Egypt rather than the justice and sufficiency of the Promised Land.  The Church of Jesus Christ worships a savior who was born in poverty, raised as a refugee, lived as a homeless man, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.  We don’t need to attack the rich – but we dare not forget the poor and work for justice.

GunDrawing001In our own nation, we live in the days of the Philistines.  Every year, more than 30,000 human beings are killed in the United States by guns.  Every day, 32 Americans are murdered with firearms.  Every day, 8 children die of gunshots.

Now hold your horses, Second-Amendment Sally.  And don’t get all worked up, Gun-control Gus.  I don’t want to start an argument about strategy right now.  What I hope is that the people of God in the USA in 2014 can think about those numbers – 30,000 deaths in a year, 32 murders in a day – and say, “You know, that’s too many.”

Can the NRA and the people from the Brady Campaign agree on much? Nope.  But can the church of Jesus Christ say that it is not acceptable to simply say, “Hey, it happens.  People die.  Nothing we can do.”

Again, I don’t know what the answer is – I only know that this water is making me sick.  We will disagree on strategies and on policies and maybe even priorities.  If we knew that once a year, somewhere in the USA, a building the size of PNC Park was going to be wiped out, would we want to do something?  I hope so.  In the same way, I hope that we can begin to think that maybe losing 30,000 people a year to gun violence is preventable – that there are solutions that honor individual rights and responsibilities.  People of faith need to be talking about how to end illegal gun sales.

following-the-crowd_thumbAnd it’s not just in our world or in our nation.  It’s in our own lives.  How often do we allow the culture around us to define who we are, or who we are becoming?  We cheat on the test.  We drive like maniacs.  We get drunk and act like idiots.  We participate in all kinds of behavior which is less than God’s best for us.  Why?  Because everyone else is doing it.

Listen, beloved – this is not a sermon on the distribution of wealth or guns or personal choices.  It’s a call to be the people who know that the place we live in isn’t always shaped by God’s intentions but who act like those intentions are still valid.

When we live like this, we refuse to throw up our hands in despair over the evils of racism, domestic violence, or anything else, saying “What are you gonna do?”

When we live like this, we refuse to behave as if these are the “days of the Philistines” and we seek to act reflecting the love and mercy and justice of Jesus of Nazareth.  When we live like this, we acknowledge that our lives point to a greater truth.

The Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson and he slew a thousand Philistines in a fit of rage.  And for doing that, he got his picture in the Bible coloring books.  He’s a hero.

But can we conceive of a reality where the Spirit comes upon Samson and instead of satisfying his personal vendetta he used the power he got from God to establish justice?  Could Samson have used that power from God differently?

To be honest, that’s a rhetorical question, and right now I’m not particularly interested in that.

What I do want to know, this morning, is this:

What will you do, in the waters where you are swimming right now, when the Spirit of God comes upon you?

In whose days do you live?  What makes you sigh and say, “What are you gonna do?”

And what are the intentions of the God that you worship and serve? And how do you point to them…even if no one else can see them right now?  And will you help me point to them, too?  Because unlike Samson, we are not in this alone.  Let us work together to discover and demonstrate the purposes of God in and for this place. Amen.

[1]  Adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College

Finally, A Hero!

On January 19 we continued our study of the Book of Judges as we considered the events leading up to the birth of Samson.  Our texts included Judges 13 and Luke 1:45, which reads simply, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Every morning, I sit at the breakfast table and read the newspaper.  The actual, paper and ink, comes in a little plastic bag, newspaper.  I realize that this ancient and mysterious behavior makes me perhaps the oldest and most backwards man that some of the younger members of the congregation know.  I will wear that mantle.

At any rate, on Thursday the “Drabble” comic strip featured a conversation between Ralph and his wife that makes sense in light of our study of the Book of Judges:

DRABBLE ©2014 Kevin Fagin.  Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK for UFS.  All rights reserved.

DRABBLE ©2014 Kevin Fagin. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK for UFS. All rights reserved.

If there is one thing that we have seen in this ongoing saga, it is that history does, in fact, repeat itself.  You will remember that we have talked about what scholars call “the Deuteronomic Cycle of Judges.”  The people are secure and blessed, and then they do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.  They abandon God’s best for them, and God allows them to walk away.  They discover that this leads them to pain and misery, and they “cry out” to the Lord, who responds by sending a deliverer, or a “judge”, who comes to defeat the Ammonites, the Amelekites, or whoever else is stepping on God’s people at the moment.

Deuteronomic Cycle 1And so when we began reading through Judges 13, it sure seemed like the cycle repeated itself: the story of Samson begins with the narrator of Judges informing us that once again the Israelites did what was evil, and the Lord gave them into the hands of the Philistines.  However, there is a key element missing from the cycle this time.  Did you catch that?  What is not here?

There is no outcry from the people.  For forty years, God’s people are oppressed and victimized by the Philistines, and yet they do not cry out.

I have mentioned that the book of Judges, taken as a whole, seems to be a large narrative about the ways that God has called a people out of one system of living – the slavery, idolatry, and repression of life in Egypt – and invited them into a new way of life as represented by the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey and characterized, we would expect, by justice and joy.  Time after time, the people in Judges walk away from God’s best, find themselves in trouble, and say “Wait! God! This is not where we are supposed to be!  Help us!”  And God raises up someone like Ehud or Barack or Deborah or Gideon.

But here, the world is so distorted and reality has become so unhinged for these people that they cannot even sense that life is wrong.  They have no hope for change.  They are so accustomed to life as it should NOT be that they can’t imagine anything else, and they don’t know to cry out.  We will talk more about that next week.

Manoah and His Wife, Offering a Sacrifice, Saw the Angel of the Lord Flying in the Flame,  Marc Chagall, 1956

Manoah and His Wife, Offering a Sacrifice, Saw the Angel of the Lord Flying in the Flame,
Marc Chagall, 1956

What I want to point out now, however, is simply this – that even when the people of Israel are unable or unwilling to cry out, God is moving.  God shows up to bumbling old Menoah and his wife and reaches out to his people even when they are unaware how far they have wandered away from his intentions for them.

Remember that, beloved.  Remember that even when we are not interested, for whatever reason, in looking for God, God does not stop looking for us.  One of the truths that this story reveals is that we, and those that we love, are not beyond God’s reach.

That leads to a second observation about this beginning to Samson’s story: that God’s movement, whether surprising and intrusive or expected and anticipated, always invites a response.  In the book of Exodus, God interrupts the shepherd Moses in the desert by means of a burning bush and says, “Look, here’s what I’m thinking…” and Moses’ obedience brings about the deliverance of God’s people. God sends an angel to a young woman named Mary, saying basically, “Hey, here’s an idea…”  The passage that Erlina Mae read comes from the story of Elizabeth’s meeting Mary after the angel departs, revealing that God’s own son is coming into the world – as a result of Mary’s willingness to respond to the initiative of God.

In Judges 13, the angel of the Lord promises to send a son to Manoah’s family, but indicates that there is an expected response.  The boy is to be what is called a “Nazirite”.  The Hebrew word nazir means “separated” or “consecrated”.  The one who is to be born will, we learn in verse 5, “begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”

And what does it mean to be a Nazirite?  Well, the three main criteria are listed in the instructions that are given, over and over again, in the reading:

–       Abstain from grapes, wine, vinegar, raisins – in other words, a distinctive diet that will remind the person and his community that he is set apart for something special.

–       Avoid any contact with anything dead that will make him impure in the tradition of the Law

–       Refrain from cutting his hair or beard – an outward sign of an inward consecration.

I want to encourage you to remember those three rules of the Nazirite, because next week when we consider Samson in more detail, I’ll ask you to help me keep score as to how he is doing. But here’s a spoiler alert: I believe that Samson is not only the final “Judge” in the book of Judges, but that he is the worst of the lot.

Hedy and VictorI know, I’m going against all the best Bible coloring books and even Cecil B. DeMille on this one, but I think that Samson was a schnook.

And you say, “Wait, wait, wait, Pastor Dave!  It says right there in the Bible – verses 24 and 25 – that “the Lord blessed Samson” and “the Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him.”

And you are right.  Those things did happen.  But I believe that this part of the chapter is a warning to those of us who might be tempted to confuse God’s blessings with our obedience, or who might mistake our apparent successes as a sign of spiritual maturity.

I get it.  For a long, long, time, Samson is “all that”.  He’s got the star appeal.  He’s apparently filled with the Spirit of the Lord – the scriptures actually tell us that this happens to Samson more often than to any other Judge.  But I would say that he winds up as a failed leader who is consumed by selfishness, lust, and materialism.  He does receive the blessing of the Lord.  He is touched by the power and Spirit of the Lord. And I would suggest that in the next week or two we will learn how he squanders those things and wastes them – and that perhaps that is why he’s in the Bible: to show us the dangers of taking the blessings of God lightly or for granted.

And yet as hard as I appear to be on Samson, I have titled this message, “Finally, a Hero!”  Why?  Because I believe that after 12 chapters of train wrecks and almosts, we do see a pure-hearted, wise, obedient, responsible character in the book of Judges.  The person who is most heroic in this chapter, if not in the entire book, is not even named.

An Angel Promises Manoah’s Wife a Son Antonio Balestra (1666-1740)

An Angel Promises Manoah’s Wife a Son
Antonio Balestra (1666-1740)

She’s called “the woman.”  She is Menoah’s wife.  She is the one to whom the angel of the Lord comes.  And he comes to her in her own brokenness and poverty.  The angel shows up and immediately reminds her of her greatest weakness, at least in that culture: she is “barren”.  She is infertile.  She cannot produce a child in a world that depended on children for everything.

The angel – who is also unnamed, by the way – reminds “the woman” of her inability to conceive, and then says that God will give her a son.

“So, Pastor Dave, if it’s the angel who makes the promise and God who gives the son and Samson who will begin to deliver the Israelites, why are you saying that Menoah’s wife is the only hero here?  What does she do that is so heroic?”

She lives into the truth.  She believes it.  She acts as if it were true.  That’s all she needs to do to be a hero in my book.

Her behavior is miles ahead of her clueless husband’s.  After the angel appears to her, she goes ahead and reports to him exactly what happened.  And the first thing that Menoah does is to ask God to send the messenger again, because it sounds too good to be true.  And the angel returns, and when Menoah questions him, the angel basically says, “Look, buddy – listen to your wife.  We went over all this last week.”

Menoah manages to offer up a little worship, and then as soon as the angel departs, he breaks into a panic and predicts their deaths.  His wife sensibly reminds him that God’s promise of a son is rather dependent on their being alive, and she goes right ahead and gets pregnant, avoids grapes and uncleanliness, and has a son.

An unnamed woman having a baby.  So what?  That happens every day.  Actually, it happened about 370,000 times yesterday, worldwide.  It’s not news.  It’s not startling.

Yet in this case, I’m saying that there was something heroic about what happened.  Because it involved an anonymous and essentially powerless person doing the only thing that she could do: trust that God was for her and act like that mattered.

The great theologian Woody Allen once said, “Showing up is eighty percent of life.” OK, that was actually in a conversation with his colleague Marshall Brickman, and they were talking about play-writing, but I think it fits.

The Birth of Samson Jean Bondol, Bible Historial, 1372.

The Birth of Samson
Jean Bondol, Bible Historial, 1372.

If we can trust the Bible, it’s evident that every now and then, God calls some people to rise up and do something extraordinary.  You’ll find the occasional burning bush or talking donkey or hungry whale.  But in my experience, that’s rare.  Most of us will more closely identify with the life station of Samson’s mother, whose name has been lost to history.  Her example has not.

Beloved, that’s what I think the Word of the Lord is for us today.  Can you leave this place and be a hero of such magnitude?  I’m not telling you to avoid grapes or miss the cemetery or skip your appointment at the salon.  I’m simply asking you if you can bring yourself to believe that in the midst of whatever mess you may find yourself tomorrow, God is there.  And then can you act like God is there by responding with obedience and faith?

You probably won’t face any lions, or be called on to turn water into wine, or be imprisoned for your faith tomorrow.

Show up anyway.  That is to say, act like God is moving in your days, and go to school and to work ready to behave like a believer.  Tell the truth.  Be kind.  Give someone the benefit of the doubt.  Buy a cup of coffee for a stranger. Give five minutes to someone who needs a sympathetic ear. Pray.

The Birth of Samson Jean Bondol, Bible Historial, 1372.

If you believe that God is moving ahead of you, then show up.  And if you show up, then it might be easier for your neighbor to imagine a God who is already here.  History can repeat itself, you know. Your obedience can be a blessing to someone else, just as this woman’s obedience became a blessing to her neighbors.

Be a hero, even if nobody notices.   Amen.

Text of Terror

The good people at Crafton Heights dove back into the book of Judges on Sunday January 12.  The texts for this message[1] were from Judges 11 (quoted below) and Matthew 7:15-23.  

How often do you find yourself in a situation where the words that you use do not accurately reflect the message that you are sending?  There are many times in our culture where I find that what we say is different than what we mean.

For instance, when someone begins a comment about someone by saying, “I love him to death”, you know that she is about to get really, really nasty.  “Ben?  I love him to death, you know that.  But that man is about as dumb as bag full of hammers.”  And when the comments are prefaced by “Bless his heart”, the result is the same.  “Dave?  Bless his heart, he is about the most boring person God ever put on this earth.”

Another place I see this phenomenon is when a friend of mine begins by saying, “Look, not to be racist, but…”  Because whenever I hear him say that, I know that I’m about to be subject to one of the most obviously racially-motivated speeches I’ve heard in a long time.  As if saying “I love him to death” or “bless his heart” or “not to be racist” gives me a pass to go ahead and be cruel or racist because you know that whatever I say is meant in love, no matter how mean it may be.

This morning we are going to take a look at a man whose spiritual-sounding speech hid a dangerous heart. We are returning to our study of the book of Judges – one of the most difficult parts of the Bible.  I’ll remind you that this book describes a specific time in the life of God’s people – they had just been freed from life in slavery in Egypt.  For generations, they had been oppressed and beaten down and subject to all manner of injustice, including infanticide.  They were released from that and led to “The Promised Land”, where they were told to search for and seek God’s best.  Like a number of Biblical scholars[2], I am suggesting that the story of Judges is the story of a people who are being invited to choose between two systems of living: a system of repression and violence and death, or a system of grace and forgiveness and life.  You’ll remember that one of the key verses in Judges is repeated several times: that “in those days there was no King in Israel, and everyone did as he pleased”.  In the first few months of our study I mentioned that it seems to be getting darker and colder as we go more deeply in.  That will get worse.

This morning, we meet Jephthah, a man from Gilead, who is above all else (at least when we meet him), a thug.

Jephthah was a strong soldier from Gilead. His father was named Gilead, and his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife had several sons. When they grew up, they forced Jephthah to leave his home, saying to him, “You will not get any of our father’s property, because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah ran away from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. There some worthless men began to follow him. (11:1-3, NCV)

It just so happens that the people of Israel are getting pushed around again, this time by the Ammonites.  And the leaders of Israel decide that maybe they need to go and find a thug to help them out.

After a time the Ammonites fought against Israel. When the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to Jephthah to bring him back from Tob. They said to him, “Come and lead our army so we can fight the Ammonites.”

But Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me? You forced me to leave my father’s house. Why are you coming to me now that you are in trouble?”

The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “It is because of those troubles that we come to you now. Please come with us and fight against the Ammonites. You will be the ruler over everyone who lives in Gilead.”

Then Jephthah answered, “If you take me back to Gilead to fight the Ammonites and the Lord helps me win, I will be your ruler.”

The elders of Gilead said to him, “The Lord is listening to everything we are saying. We promise to do all that you tell us to do.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him their leader and commander of their army. Jephthah repeated all of his words in front of the Lord at Mizpah. (11:4-11 NCV)

Like left-handed Ehud or the Kenite Jael or the cowering Gideon, Jephthah is essentially an outsider – someone who is on the fringe of the society who is called upon to help restore order and peace.  And he has a promising start, in some regards.  Judges 11:12-29 reveals that in addition to being a gangster, Jephthah is a skilled negotiator and a student of history.  He even appears to have some theological depth.

And then something wonderful happens in verse 29:

Then the Spirit of the Lord entered Jephthah. Jephthah passed through Gilead and Manasseh and the city of Mizpah in Gilead to the land of the Ammonites. (11:29 NCV)

That is good! When the Spirit of the Lord comes on the one that you’re counting on to lead you, that’s a blessing.  But almost as quickly as this good thing happens, something terrible occurs in response:

Jephthah made a promise to the Lord, saying, “If you will hand over the Ammonites to me, I will give you as a burnt offering the first thing that comes out of my house to meet me when I return from the victory. It will be the Lord’s.” (11:30-31 NCV)

Oh no!  I’ve indicated that one of Jephthah’s strengths was that he was a skilled negotiator and diplomat.  Here, though, he makes the mistake of trusting too much in himself and doubting the Lord.  When the Spirit came on him, he could have, he should have known that God was going to give him the victory.  But instead of trusting in God, Jephthah wants to cut a deal with God.  He wants to tie God’s hands in this instance, and to somehow make sure that he earns the victory that he seeks.  “IF you do this, God, THEN I will do that… We are equals, right?  We are negotiating an agreement.” Do you see that Jephthah is seeking to manipulate the Almighty?  And do you see that the Lord does not make any response to this offer of Jephthah’s?

And we do this, don’t we?  We try to get on God’s good side in one way or another.  The other day I was telling my niece Amy that when I was a kid, I started drinking, not because I liked beer, but because I liked Marcia and I liked Joe, and they seemed to like me better when I drank.  So I drank.  And then I got it into my head that God would like me better if I didn’t drink. So I stopped drinking, because I wanted to make God like me more.

It took me a long, long time to learn that God already loved me like crazy, and that there was no way I was going to negotiate a better deal with him than the one he was freely giving me.   God is not interested in keeping score or negotiating packages.  God is intent on giving it away. I’m awfully glad I learned that!

Back to Jephthah.  After he makes this offer to which God does not respond, he leads the armies against the Ammonites.  Even though he is operating with a mindset of fear, control, and doubt, he is able to whip the oppressing army.

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord handed them over to him. In a great defeat Jephthah struck them down from the city of Aroer to the area of Minnith, and twenty cities as far as the city of Abel Keramim. So the Ammonites were defeated by the Israelites. (11:32-33 NCV)

All right!  We are heading in the right direction.  Time to go home and celebrate, right, Jephthah?

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, his daughter was the first one to come out to meet him, playing a tambourine and dancing. She was his only child; he had no other sons or daughters. When Jephthah saw his daughter, he tore his clothes to show his sorrow. He said, “My daughter! You have made me so sad because I made a promise to the Lord, and I cannot break it!”

Then his daughter said, “Father, you made a promise to the Lord. So do to me just what you promised, because the Lord helped you defeat your enemies, the Ammonites.” She also said, “But let me do one thing. Let me be alone for two months to go to the mountains. Since I will never marry, let me and my friends go and cry together.”

Jephthah said, “Go.” So he sent her away for two months. She and her friends stayed in the mountains and cried for her because she would never marry. After two months she returned to her father, and Jephthah did to her what he had promised. Jephthah’s daughter never had a husband.

From this came a custom in Israel that every year the young women of Israel would go out for four days to remember the daughter of Jephthah from Gilead. (11:34-40 NCV)

Jephthah's Vow: The Return, Edwin Long (1885-86)

Jephthah’s Vow: The Return, Edwin Long (1885-86)

If Jephthah were as keen a student of history as he supposed he was, he would have known that since the days of Exodus, the way that we celebrated victory in our house was for the women to come out “with tambourines and dancing” (Exodus 15:20, see also I Samuel 18:6 and Psalm 149).  He has no right to be surprised when his daughter, who is evidently the leading female in his house, comes out to celebrate this victory.

But did you see what he did?  He blamed her!  “You have made me so sad…It’s YOUR fault!”  Jephthah tears his clothes and starts to cry about what he’s going to lose because of what his daughter did.  Seriously?

Do you see that Jephthah, his daughter, and the entire community behave as if what Jephthah has said is what matters the most here?  This is a sign of the fact that the community is getting further and further from God’s gracious intentions for life in the Land of Promise. God’s gift of a daughter?  Secondary.  God’s promise to deliver Israel?  Doesn’t count.  Jephthah has to be seen as the upright, proper person.  He has to be seen as the one who keeps up his end of the bargain he made with God – no matter that God never signed off on the deal.  The worst thing is not that Jephthah would murder his own daughter.  The worst thing in Jephthah’s world, apparently, is that he would be seen as going back on his word.

Look at what we have: a Judge of Israel who sounds like a worshiper of YHWH, who uses the right vocabulary, who asks for the blessing, and is even touched by the Spirit of God.

idol-molochBut this Judge of Israel behaves like a worshiper of the Canaanite God Molech.  Molech was one of the gods worshiped by the Canaanites and the Ammonites.  Molech is thought to be a “sun god” or a “fire god”, and the chief means of worshiping and appeasing his anger was to present live children to be passed through the flames in an act of sacrifice.

Jephthah talks about honor and gratitude, all right, but as he does so he is ignoring the specific commandments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus against human sacrifice.  In Leviticus 20, in particular, God says to Moses

Say to the people of Israel, Any man of the people of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives any of his children to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. (Lev. 20:2, RSV)

The Flight of Molech, William Blake (1809)

The Flight of Molech, William Blake (1809)

So Jephthah talks like a man of faith, but acts like an idol-worshiper.  Can you see why I titled this message “Text of Terror”?  Because this is a terrible – a terror-full – story!  The so-called “hero” is a man who is regarded as just, wise, and honorable for sounding like a religious person when in actuality he does the unthinkable and acts like a pagan!

That kind of a clash between what seems to be and what I want people to think was terrible 3000 years ago when this gangster threw his only child into the flames.

It was terrible 900 years ago when the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ said that it was the duty of Christians to go over to Jerusalem and massacre thousands of Jews and Moslems in the name of the Prince of Peace.

It was terrible 150 years ago when church leaders in the United States of America quoted the Bible in an effort to justify the chattel slavery and despicable treatment of Africans who had been brought to these shores.

In fact, I am here to suggest that it is terror-full whenever God’s people become so acclimated to some aspect of their culture that we can’t see how we have become that which we ought to resist.  Walk into the Christian bookstore this afternoon (it’s ok, you can go today – they’re evidently not troubled by the commandment inviting people to give their workers rest on the Sabbath…) and look in the finance section.  I’m not going to name any names, but I will guarantee you that you can find at least fifteen books by fifteen different Christian leaders who are all assuring you that God promises to make you rich and happy.

The Worship of Mammon, by Evelyn de Morgan (1909)

The Worship of Mammon, by Evelyn de Morgan (1909)

Folks, that’s not God.  That’s Mammon.  Jesus was homeless.  Most of his followers died broke and in prison.  If being rich and happy is a sign of faithful living, those guys were miserable failures.

But we live in a culture that worships money and security and fame and beauty – and so we look for ways to make it sound like the God we worship offers money and security and fame and beauty so that we can go ahead and chase those things while we continue to speak the language of faith.

This is a terror-full story.  I cannot explain it.  I cannot whitewash it.  I can only sit with it and the questions that it brings to me.

When Pastor Timothy Keller wrote about the story of Jephthah, he asked two very difficult questions.  Where are your blind spots?  How deeply are we affected by our culture?  It’s pretty easy for Pastor Dave, sitting in the study 3000 years after the fact, to point the finger at how scary the story of Jephthah is.  Where are we tempted to neglect the core values of the gospel in order to behave like the world around us?  How do we stay centered on the God who is, rather than the God that we imagine?  If we are intent on discovering an answer to that question, the only way that I can see is to join with other believers regularly and sit humbly with the Bible – to ask God to show us who God is, rather than to continue to worship the god that we wished liked us a little better.

And secondly, In what ways would I live differently – more radically, more restfully – if I really believed that God was completely committed to me?  If I really believed that God already loved me, and was already committed to my welfare?[3]

Friends, let us beware using our faith as a negotiating tool or as a weapon.  It is a gift.  You know – or you need to know – that you do not deserve what you have been given in the love of God the Father, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  You don’t.  I don’t.  Get over that, and accept it for what it is – a gift.  Receive that gift with humility and gratitude.  And then let us live in such a way that will allow others to see that love, that grace, and that fellowship as real in their own lives, too.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] The title of this message is inspired by Phyllis Trible’s 1984 book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.  I have never read that book, but the title has struck me.

[2] J. Clinton McCann, for one, makes this point very well in his Interpretation Commentary on the Book of Judges (John Knox Press, 2002).

[3]  Timothy Keller, Judges for You (The Good Book Company, 2013) p. 120-121.

Waiting for The Dough

On January 5, we observed the Day of Epiphany (a day early – so sue me!).  We read from Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-7.

         Since the last time I’ve preached, I figure I’ve logged about 1500 miles behind the wheel of my Toyota.  Most of that has been on the PA Turnpike, and that’s given me, according to Mapquest, approximately 23 hours and 40 minutes (according to current traffic conditions) of time to observe the driving habits of the American public.  In addition to keeping an eye out for texters and tweeters, I like to look at the bumper stickers.  It’s interesting to think that we’d spend ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand dollars on a new car and then we hustle off and plunk down another 99¢ so that we can share our philosophy of life with those who must wait behind us at the toll booth.  And what a variety!

You’ve got stickers that are somewhat tame, like “Beat ‘Em Bucs” or “Greetings from Sixburgh”.  There are a litany of notes from past elections.  Some are sarcastic: “My Other Car is a Mercedes”, or “I May Not be fast, but I’m ahead of you.”  Some offer friendly advice for hard economic times:  “Hungry?  Eat your imported car!” or “If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn’t.”  And some are simple statements of belief. You’ve been invited to “Honk if You Love Jesus”, and then that was upgraded to “If you love Jesus, tithe – anybody can honk.”  And some are out of control…

I don't even know what to say about this one...

I don’t even know what to say about this one…

And there are a number of stickers that seem to reflect a pessimistic philosophy.  Many of them are not entirely appropriate for sharing in this venue, but the idea is that “Life is hard, and then you die”

Life stinks, and then you die.  That must be a hard load to carry around every day.

waiting-for-godot1   When I think about that sentiment, I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot.  This play, which premiered on this date in 1953, was voted “the most significant English-language play of the 20th century.”  It is a classic statement of the despair and hopelessness that  characterizes much of modern life.

The central figures of the drama are two unwashed, nearly helpless tramps named Vladimir and Estragon.  They seem to have come from nowhere in particular and have no place else to go.  They are waiting in the midst of a bleak landscape sitting, chewing carrots, awaiting the arrival of someone named Godot.  As these two hapless men wait in idle conversation, they are interrupted several times, most notably by a young man who arrives to tell them that Godot will not come that night, but will certainly come tomorrow.

The next day the two tramps are again waiting, and again engage themselves in conversation that reveals them to be people without any real hope or purpose in life.

Again they watch the traffic on the road, and again the young boy arrives with a message from Godot, who assures them that he will come tomorrow without fail.  Frustrated, Vladimir asks, “Shall we go?” and Estragon answers, “Yes, let’s go,” but neither one moves a bit as the curtain falls and the play ends.   Samuel Beckett has produced a drama that masterfully states his belief that the human condition is one of paralysis; that we are powerless spectators in a life that is full of pain, and that the only release is death.  Life stinks, and then you die.  Remember, that’s “the most significant English-language play of the 20th Century.”

But not everyone believes this, of course.  That’s just one person’s philosophy of life.

There are many others.

Agrippa_I-Herod_agrippaKing Herod, for instance, had a different philosophy of life.  He was no idle bystander.  He was not waiting for anyone or anything.  And I don’t suppose that if you looked in his stable you would a chariot bearing a sticker reading  “life stinks and then you die.”

Herod was a man with power over his destiny.  He was the king.  He was in charge.  He surrounded himself with the finer things in life, and generally got whatever he wanted.  What he didn’t like, though, was when someone threatened his power or his lifestyle.  So when word reaches him of a baby who has been born to be the king, Herod takes more than a passing interest in the situation.  He calls the best minds together and presses them for information about this infant messiah.  He claims that he wants to worship, but his intentions are obviously elsewhere.  After all, Herod’s got a kingdom to run.  He’s got interests to protect.  And he’s not going to let any kid get in the way of the life that is his to enjoy.

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The visitors from the East, the wise men who had brought this news to Herod, had quite a different philosophy of life.  They are sometimes referred to as “Magi”, from the Greek word, “magoi”.  Sometimes this term refers to men who are magicians, but it’s most likely that in this instance, the travellers are astrologers.  These are men who believe that there is some source of power outside of themselves, that there is an unseen force who directs the stars and who orders the lives of men and women.  The Wise men are on a journey because they believe that they have a clue about who this power and what this force is.  For them, life itself was a pilgrimage – they looked for truth and then sought to incorporate that truth into their lives.

When they entered the place to which this star had led them, they fell down and were amazed by the presence of God in that room.  They offered the baby gifts that were appropriate to royalty.  They worshipped him.  They listened for the voice of God in their dreams, and they went home by another way.  They went home changed.  Although they would have disagreed with Herod in many ways, these men would also have little patience with Mr. Beckett’s view of life.  Their own lives were hardly a journey of pain that would end in death – no, they were always growing, always searching, always seeking the heart of the universe.

For six weeks of Advent and Christmastide, we have met in this room and we have talked about waiting.  We have read about peace, about love, about hope, and about joy.  We have confessed that we long for those qualities to be a part of our lives.  We have read the prophets, and felt their sighing for a world that is so warped by sin that it can’t recognize its creator.  We have prayed for God’s presence in our own lives, and have asked for help on our own journeys.  We have sung “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as well as “Joy To The World.”

There have been times in these past weeks that we have looked a lot like the Wise Men.  We have taken advantage of the opportunities for service or for celebration that we have been given, and our lives, as well as those around us, have been enriched because of it.  We have brought our gifts to the Christ Child: offering food to the hungry through our food pantry, singing carols to the lonely, listening to the troubles of a friend, or lending a hand when it’s been needed.

We’ve made statements of faith, including bringing our estimates of giving for 2014 to be dedicated and holding a single candle against the darkness of the night.  Yes, there have been days when we felt like the magi, when we worshipped, when we were attentive the journey to which we have been called, and when we tried to have hope in the darkness.

And, I suspect, if we’re honest, we’ll realize that there have been days when we have resembled King Herod.  We have heard the proclamation of Christmas joy and have been interested to know more about this new king.  But there have been too many times when we have been willing to run to Jesus as our savior from sin, but have rejected his right to rule in our lives.  We have heard an invitation to change as a threat to the way that we live right now.  We have been tempted to reject those who are poor or on the margins of our world.

If I know you like I think I know you, I would imagine that there have been times these past weeks when we have felt the despair of Vladimir and Estragon – moments when it seemed as though there was no joy in our lives, no purpose in our actions, no relevance to our existence.  We have been tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use!  Nobody cares if I’m even trying….” Yes, there have been days when we have felt hapless and helpless, when we have struggled to believe that there is anything worth waiting for.

communion_elements On this day, though, we are not like the Wise Men, Herod, or Beckett’s characters, because we have gathered to celebrate what for them was at best a distant hope.  On this day, we gather at the table of our Lord to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – the visible demonstration of God’s promise to be with us in all of our days and in that time when days cease to be.

People of God, this meal that is laid before you, this simple combination of flour and salt and water and yeast, this dough is the symbol that reminds us that Christ has come, and that he has broken death’s hold on you and on me.

This meal is what we have been waiting for.  All of the scripture and all of the stories in the world would be irrelevant if we didn’t know that God is here, that God is with us.  And the power of this sacrament is that it provides us with the assurance that our longing is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that Christ is here, and that he is calling us into a journey that will last our lifetime.  This is what we have been waiting for.

So, beloved, arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  Your journey has led you here, and God will lead you away from this table into the places you will be needed in 2014.

Your waiting is not in vain, and your hope is not far off.  Jesus, who has loved you and called to you since before you were born, is waiting for you.

Your story has meaning because it is woven into the story of the People of God.  What are you waiting for?  Christ is waiting with and for you.  What are you journeying toward?  Christ is journeying with and toward you. Let us enter this new year committed to following the star and eager to worship the King who has come that we might live.  And let us pledge that this commitment will not be a hollow sentiment or a holiday feeling, but a way of life that will challenge us, bless our neighbors, and change our world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.