The Light of the World

This Lent, the folks at Crafton Heights are continuing to look at the “I Am” statements of Jesus.  In Isaiah 42, God says that he is calling his servant to be a light to the world, and in John 8, Jesus says, “I Am the Light of the world.”  Some thoughts about what that means to disciples today…

Kruger1998

Ariel and I wait for the “Night Drive” to begin at Kruger Park in August 1998.

Let me tell you about one of the most memorable nights of my life – it must be memorable, because it took place more than 15 years ago when Ariel was only 9, but it seems like it was only last week. Sharon, Ariel and I were staying in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  This is one of the most famous animal refuges in the world – home to every kind of creature imaginable in the African savannah.  It’s a huge park – imagine the State of Massachusetts with a fence around it, filled with all manner of amazing beasts. We had the opportunity to get seats on a “night safari” – a four hour ride in an open jeep through the scrubland. On that ride, I learned at least four things about light.

We got into the truck and took our places near the edge.  Since it was winter, and since we were close to the equator, it was really dark really early.  By 6:15 p.m. it was pitch dark.  The ranger approached the group and told us the ground rules for the trip.  We’d be driving slowly, and the cab and each side of the truck would have a light like thisHandheldSpot. The idea is to sweep the light across the landscape, and when we see something, yell out.  The truck would stop, all lights could focus on what was seen, and we’d be told about whatever it was that we were looking at. She went on to say that if we saw a large animal, we were to be sure to avoid shining the light directly into the animal’s eyes so as not to cause any alarm.  Any questions?  Great! And off we went.

Well, we were about ten minutes into the trip when I learned the first thing about light. I want to be in control. I’d see a shadow move over there, I’d hear a noise over there, and that knucklehead four seats over had the light. “Hey buddy,” I’d whisper. “Over there.”  Did he ever shine the light where I wanted him to? No way.  I wanted to have the light – I wanted to be the one who was directing the beam, seeing what I wanted to see, when I wanted to see it.

African Cape Buffalo at night...a surprising and dangerous sight!

African Cape Buffalo at night…a surprising and dangerous sight!

Not long after that, I discovered the second truth about light that would become important to me that night. We heard a commotion in the distance, and got closer to it.  The lights were sweeping back and forth (of course, I wasn’t holding one) – but all we could see was dust.  Then, in the midst of the cloud, a pair of eyes and a set of horns – it was a herd of African Cape Buffalo. It was cool, because these are some of the biggest, strongest, most majestic beasts alive.  But it was disconcerting, because this herd of the biggest, strongest, most majestic beasts alive was down at the bottom of a gully. If we’d not have had the lights, we’d have driven down into it and not gotten back out.  I learned that light is helpful because it can reveal dangers in our paths.

AFR1 766A couple of hours into our journey, we came upon a couple of beautiful lionesses – right by the side of the road. They were no further away from me than the front row is right now.  There they were, just sitting by the side of the road.  The first light shown on the one who was awake and looked interested. And then the second. And finally the third light came. Right in her eyes. She blinked, and moved. So did the lights. She shook her head. The people holding the lights (all of whom, I might add, were sitting behind me in this open truck), said things like, “wow!” and “isn’t this amazing?”.  She continued to show irritation with the light, and roared.  The people behind me said, “Oh, my!  Wonderful!”  I grabbed my nine-year-old daughter a little closer and said, “Do you remember what she said about not shining it in their eyes?  Let’s not get these lions angry, now.”  At which point the people next to the people holding the lights said something like, “For crying out loud, Bill, don’t you remember? Turn that light away!” And thus, we are still here. But I learned that light can often bring agitation or fear.

GirSunriseAnd most importantly, that night I learned that light can reveal great beauty.  I’d been over those roads in the daytime – but here at night it was like I was in another place.  The animals were different.  The shadows had character.  And time after time, the light revealed some hidden landscape, majestic animal, or curious sight to me.  The lights showed what was there in the midst of the darkness.

So let me tell you why I’m bringing this to you now.  Because in some ways, that trip is for me a parable about light, and a means to understand this passage in John wherein Jesus claims to be the Light of the World. Listen:

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he insists on being the one to define reality.  He calls the shots.  He decides, if you will, where the spotlight will shine.  And the people who hear him in John’s gospel don’t like this any more than you do – because we all want to be in control. We want to call the shots. But we don’t.  And we can’t.

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he reveals danger.  If the people continue to act and believe as they have, they are headed for certain death, he says.  A huge part of what it means to follow Jesus is to be attentive to the things that he says about right living, and truth, and appropriate behavior. I know from personal experience that time after time after time, I could have avoided great pain and suffering simply by doing that to which Christ calls me.

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he brings fear.  His listeners in John were sure that he was possessed by a demon. There’s a fire in his eyes that is alarming –a quality of his speech that can be simply frightening to those who want to keep things the way that they always have been.  In fact, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day insist that if people were to believe Jesus, then they’d be in danger of eternal damnation because, after all, he’s a blasphemer.  That’s why they tried to kill him – because they knew that Jesus was a dangerous man of whom they were deeply afraid.

And lastly, when Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he shows the world for what it is. He reveals those who are genuinely seeking truth and those who are seeking glory from others; he shows the difference between honest questioning and tricky reasoning.

Yes, in the ways that Jesus defines reality, reveals danger, frightens the powerful, and illuminates the hearts of men and women, he truly is the Light of the world. And this is disconcerting to nearly everyone who hears Jesus preach that day, because he is not what they are looking for.

In his study on John, Gerard Sloyan points out that  people were disappointed in Jesus for two closely related reasons.  Either they believed too much or too little about him – in either case, they did not take him at his word.  It was as if everyone that day had a cartoon Jesus to whom they’d rather relate, rather than a living, breathing carpenter from Nazareth.  Some were anxious to make him God in a man-suit; that is, a being that looked to be human, but clearly was not, and could not be. How could God become flesh? Impossible.  But God could seem like a human – and so for some, Jesus was simply God in disguise – God pretending to be human.

For others, though, they believed too little.  They believed that Jesus was the quintessential “nice guy”, a prophet like Moses who would bring them what they needed in a miraculous fashion – but no more than that. Surely not divine.

space-sunriseAnd to these people, and to you and me, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  I am the timeless revealer and Son of God. I am the means by which you can see and experience the fullness of God.  I am the light that illumines your world.

So what does that mean to us?  How relevant is that today? What difference might that make in your life?

For some, it means that we must recognize the fact that there are flaws and blemishes in our own lives. I think that I’m speaking now to those of you who have been Christians for a while.  People sometimes come to see me and they speak of some sin, some error, some evil in their lives as though they are surprised to find it there. New believers don’t have this problem as much – we see sin in our lives and say, “all right, God, there’s another clump of it – get it away from me, please!”  But those who have believed for a while will come to me and say, “I can’t believe I’m struggling with selfishness right now.  It never bothered me before.  Why am I dealing with this now?  Shouldn’t I have moved past this?

Friends, think of the light.  Before you walked in the Light, you were in darkness.  You couldn’t see very far in front of your face, could you?  If there were blemishes or blotches or stains, you sure didn’t notice them, because you were in the dark, and you couldn’t even distinguish them. But as you get closer to the light, the imperfections stand out, don’t they.  What didn’t look so bad from way back there looks pretty rough when Jesus shines the light on it, doesn’t it?  Living with an awareness that Jesus is the light of the world means remembering that each step of your spiritual journey is a step that must be accompanied by forgiveness and reconciliation – because each step we draw closer to the light we discover new scars and blemishes – new places in our lives that don’t quite measure up to God’s best for our lives.

For some of you, living as though Jesus is the Light of the world means that you recognize that you’re not the one holding the spotlight.  You’re not in control, are you?  It would be nice if you could get to where you wanted to get right away; it would be nice if you could choose the path that you were taking.  But the fact of the matter is that there are some seasons in our lives when we’re going to be led someplace that we aren’t all that excited about going.

When you say that Jesus is the light of the world, it means that when you enter into the scary places of your life – the medical diagnoses that frighten you, the relationships that fail, the jobs that let you down – you can be sure that you are not alone in those places.  Is it all right for you to wish that you weren’t there?  Sure, I suppose so.  But the reality is that the only way out of those places is to follow the light one step at a time, trusting that you’ll come to the place where God wants you to be.

And for some of you, living as though Jesus is the light of the world means that you remember that it is he, not you, not me, who truly illumines the landscape around us. It means that we look through the lens of his life and see the beauty and the majesty of our own lives – the ways that God has blessed us time and time again – even when we have been unaware of his walking with us.  Some of us are so worried about moving ahead that we forget to stop and look up every now and then, remembering that he is the one who is in control, not us. Living as though Jesus is the light of the world means that the natural posture for a believer is gratitude and thanksgiving for all of God’s blessings.

Earlier this week, the participants in the Confirmation Class sat with these verses from John and we noticed something else about what Jesus said.  There is a lot of legal language here – Jesus is reminding his hearers that he can be trusted because he will back it up; he’s not just talking to hear himself talk; he is saying the truth that he will demonstrate.

But how do we prove what he said?  How do we know that he is the one who can illuminate the path and direct our steps and define reality appropriately?  The same way that I learned on the jeep in South Africa: we get on and go for a ride. We trust in him. We look where he tells us to look and follow his instructions.  He said that he was the light of the world. Nobody made me get on that jeep fifteen years ago – but it was one of the most magnificent rides of my life. This week, friends, let me invite you to hop onto this ride – the ride of Christian discipleship – and learn to see the world in the light of Jesus.  You won’t regret it.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Bread and Life

Eight times in the Gospel of John, Jesus looked at folk around him and said, “I am.”  Bread of life.  Light of the world.  The Gate.  And so on.  As we journey towards the garden, the cross, and the grave, we want to stick close to the Lord to learn more of who he is in order that we might discover that which we are called to be.  This is the message from March 16 as heard at the Crafton Heights Church.  Our scriptures included selected verses from Exodus 3 and John 6 (quoted below).

What really frosts you?  I mean, what gets on your last nerve, and just makes you see red?  Don’t feel like you have to shout out answers during the message…

Someone might say, “When I’m cruising down the parkway and traffic just stops…because no one seems to know how to drive through a stinking tunnel!”  And that’s true.  That really chaps my hide…but I was thinking a little more ecclesiastically.  What bothers you spiritually?

Several times in recent weeks I’ve thought about one of the first times I ever went to share communion in a nursing home. I was the associate pastor, and the senior pastor had said to me, “I’m glad you’ll be going out there.  Try to visit with Esther.  I think she might connect better with you than she does with me.”  This is, of course, pastor’s code for “She really doesn’t like anyone, but why don’t you give it a shot?”

So I went out to the home, and was told that Esther was indeed there, and that she was the blind lady in the wheelchair over in the corner.  I approached, and our conversation went something like this:

“Esther?  Hi!  My name is Dave Carver, and I’m…”

“I know who you are.  You’re the new preacher, aren’t you?  I don’t know if we’re going to get along.”

“Esther, why would you say that?”

“Well, they tell me you’ve got a beard.  Do you have a beard?”

“I do.”

“Well, let me feel it then.”  And she reached her hand up and touched my face.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought.  I don’t think I can get used to the idea of a preacher with a beard.  It’s just not right.”

“Uh, Esther?  Can you see me?”

“Of course not!  I’m blind!”

“Well then, if you can’t see my beard, how can it bother you?”

“I can think it, can’t I?”

Esther was offended by the idea of a preacher with facial fondeur.  What about you?  What offends you in church?  If we allow it, that could be a long list – and a subjective one, too: what offends you now might not offend you in ten years; what offends me might not offend you.

But looking past the things that you encounter when you show up here – where do you find Jesus to be offensive?

“Oh, Pastor!  Jesus? Offensive?  No, no, no…Jesus and me?  We are good!  I love my Jesus, my savior…”

Really? Nothing about what Jesus said or did rocks your boat, even a little bit?  Because it seems to me that the people who took him seriously, who really let him in, who were there to pay attention – well, they found him to be at least intrusive, if not offensive.

In fact, our Gospel reading for this morning is about a time when Jesus managed to offend a whole lot of people, including some who thought of themselves as his friends.

jesus-teachingJohn chapter six opens with the story about how Jesus and the disciples were looking for a break after a pretty rough stretch of ministry.  They went out into the boondocks in search of a little peace and quiet, only to be followed by great crowds – crowds that had needs that the boondocks were not equipped to handle.  So what started out to be a little retreat wound up to be an all-day teaching session that led to the feeding of the 5,000.  John tells us that after that happened, they tried to make Jesus into a king, and he didn’t want any of that…so he and the Twelve set off again – to someplace even boondockier –  in search of some R & R.

Yet the crowds found them again, and Jesus called them out, saying, “Look, we all know you’re not here for the Bible Study – you just remember the bread and the fishes from yesterday.” Then he threw out a little teaser, saying that they ought to really want the food that would allow them to live forever.  Well, they fell right into that one, and said, “You bet! Give us that!  That’s the stuff we want!”  Listen:

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” (John 6:30 – 34, NIV)

Sharing Bread (Sieger Köder, German, 20th c.)

Sharing Bread (Sieger Köder, German, 20th c.)

If you’ve read much of John before, you could see this coming.  Time and time again, John presents us with a Jesus who talks about things on an intensely spiritual plane, while mere mortals are thinking that he’s talking about the mundane stuff of human existence.  So when they beg him for some of this bread, Jesus gives them the theological knock-out:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:35-40, NIV)

There are two things going on here.  First, Jesus uses two little words that sound so inoffensive in English, or even in Greek.  He says, “I am”.  “Ego eimi”.  We say that all the time, don’t we?  “Who’s in charge here?  Who is going for ice cream? Who’s ready for Spring?”  I am!  That’s me!

But for Jesus and the rest of the faithful in his time and place, saying “I am” – particularly in a theological context – was a loaded proposition because, as you have already heard in the reading from Exodus, “I am” is more than a simple declarative statement.  “I am” is the Divine Name.  “I am” is who God revealed himself to be.  And Jesus here, for the first of eight times in John’s Gospel, uses that phrase to refer to himself.

images-of-jesusFor a carpenter’s son to use the Divine Name was wildly offensive to his hearers.  “Who do you think you are?  Do you know what you’re saying?” When Jesus said, “I Am” so often in that context, it was an unmistakable sign that he was equating himself with God’s presence and God’s purposes.  Listen:

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42, NIV)

And while this is going on, you can just about feel the disciples cringing.  “Oh, come on, Jesus!  You have just cracked the top ten!  People are really paying attention to you now!  Don’t offend them with this stuff!  Give the crowds what they want, and don’t rile the authorities.”

But he doesn’t stop.  In fact, he goes deeper:

“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:47-51 NIV)

Jesus says that God, through Moses, directed the faithful to manna – the bread that would help them get through another day in the desert.  And now the same God, through Jesus, offers the true bread from heaven.  And what is that bread? Jesus says, “That’s me.  I am.  I am the bread of life.”

And then Jesus takes it a bit further.  He says that he’s better than the manna that the ancestors ate, and, in fact, the bread that he is is bread for the life of the world.  “If you want eternal life, then you’ve got to eat my flesh.  If you want eternal life, you’ve got to drink my blood.”

And when he said this, some of the people who had been following him looked around at each other and said, basically, “Eeeew, that’s nasty.  I don’t know if I can get into that…”

Jesus presses the point:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” (John 6:60-61, NIV)

Jesus is saying, “You need me.  I am the basic stuff of life.  If you don’t have me, you can’t experience life.  I am what sustains you.”

And then we get to one of the most curious parts of this story:

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)

Sometimes in scripture, we see things in black and white; as good and evil.  When someone opposes Jesus, we want to think right away that it’s the bad guys.  “If I was there…” we think, “I wouldn’t question anything that Jesus said.”  But friends, you see the truth.  Here, in this passage, it is the good guys – the followers – disciples of Jesus – who turn away and can no longer follow him.  Why is that?  Because Jesus, talking about the body and the blood, claims to be the sustaining, equipping presence that we need each and every day.

Bread has taken a bit of a bad rap in our culture lately.  You may have seen articles like, “Why Bread Is Bad for You: the Shocking Truth!” or “Cutting Bread From Your Diet”.  Many of us are being told that we shouldn’t eat bread, or that we eat too much bread, or something like that.  And, thanks be to God, most of us are in a position where we have a lot of options when it comes to food.

breadYet the reality is that for most of the world, there is a dish that sustains us.  Come with me to Malawi, and watch women standing for hours around the big pot of nsima, the staple food on which most Malawians rely for two meals a day.  I remember walking the streets of Cairo and seeing men with giant platters of bread, selling the small loaves for two pennies each.  Most of the people on this planet rely on a simple combination of grains to keep them going day after day – it is bread, or nsima, or pap, or funche, or polenta… it is what we need to live.

And here in today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at those who would follow him, and say, “Yes.  That’s me.  I am what you need.  I am that for which you were created.  I am.”  And that notion of exclusivity offends people – and they want to leave.  Because they are not in the business of depending on Jesus.  Of needing him.  Of thinking of him as the way to live.  He’s a nice guy.  A great man, even.  We ought to pay attention to him.

But is he God?

I wonder if we really appreciate what a leap it is to go from thinking that Jesus is a good man – even a great man, like Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr. – to believing that Jesus is truly the bread of life.  To tell you the truth, I’m not surprised that people are offended.  It’s pretty tough to comprehend, isn’t it?

But not everyone turns away:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69, NIV)

The twelve stick around.  They’re invited to leave, but Peter matter-of-factly says, “Seriously, Lord, where can we go?  Because we KNOW you.  We were so hungry yesterday – and you fed us.  We were so scared in the boat last night – and you were there.  We have seen you.  We know you.  And we cannot leave.”  And the twelve, save Judas, all end up spending the rest of their lives pointing other people towards the things that Jesus said and did – because they believed that he WAS the essence of life.  The difference between the people who were offended and those who were not was not that somehow the apostles “got” what Jesus was saying any better.  They were lost, too.  But they had seen him and known him and experienced his power – and they knew they needed to stay with him, even if they didn’t understand everything at the time.

The Lord's Table in Crafton Heights, complete with our itty-bitty, really hard bread and empty cup.  Shallow? Perhaps, but symbolic nonetheless.

The Lord’s Table in Crafton Heights, complete with our itty-bitty, really hard bread and empty cup. Shallow? Perhaps, but symbolic nonetheless.

Look at that table before you. It’s a rich, sturdy, oak table.  They don’t make ‘em like that any more.  It’s quality furniture.  And look at what’s on it.  An empty cup and a small loaf.  It’s just a reminder… It seems so, normal.  It’s almost … harmless the way that we remember that Jesus is the bread. Like we have “tamed” him, somehow.  Made him less offensive.

We have to remember that Jesus is the bread.  We don’t remember that Jesus and something else is what we need.  We don’t claim that our lives are pretty good, pretty whole, and then we sprinkle a little bit of Jesus on top just to round things out, as though Jesus was a special additive that makes our lives sparkle a little bit more.  This little loaf and empty cup, as shallow as they may be, remind us that Jesus is all of what we need.  They are here to serve as symbols, pointing us to what we really need.

It is a statement of belief:  in coming to the table, you say, “I believe that I need Christ and his power in my life, and I believe that he is there and is sufficient to reign.”  And it is a statement of intent: in sharing the cup and the loaf, you say, “I will follow where he leads me.”  And it is a statement of testimony: in our worship, you say, “Yes, I could have gone.  I might have gone.  But there have been times in my life when he has fed me.  I don’ t know how he’s done it – but I was fed.  There have been times in my life when he has calmed me, and been present to me when I was scared, or frightened, or in need, and he walked out to me and comforted me.”

Do you see, you lovely people of God?  Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”  And now he’s asking you to believe that that is the case.  He is not an additive; he is not an enrichment.  He is life.  And he invites us to follow him.  And to tell the story that has changed our world.  For some, that is offensive.  For us, it is life.  Let us live it as though we counted on him to nourish us today and always.  Amen.

Worst. Story. Ever.

On March 9, the good people of Crafton Heights sat through my fifteenth and final sermon in a year-long study of the book of Judges. For many months, it had been on my heart to work through this book, and I am deeply grateful for the chance to have done so with such a wise and loving congregation.  This final message, encompassing the last three chapters of Judges, is an exploration of how bad it can truly be.  The New Testament passage that was read for the day was Romans 1:18-25.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of nights riding (as an invited passenger!) in the back of a City of Pittsburgh police car.  It was an effort to get to know the neighborhoods and understand what some of the problems are.

After we were summoned to a home, one of the officers with whom I was riding said, “I hate these calls involving a domestic dispute.  You never know what’s going to happen; you’re not sure who the ‘bad guy’ is, it’s hard to think that you’re really going to make any difference, and at the end of the day it could all just blow up in your face.

This morning, we are here to read what could be the worst story ever.  I am sure that this is the first time I’ve ever encouraged you to get your young children out of the room before we start reading from “the Good Book”.  And our reading starts, fittingly enough, with a domestic disturbance: Judges, chapter 19

The Levite and his Concubine in Gibeah, Jan van Noordt (1620-1676)

The Levite and his Concubine in Gibeah, Jan van Noordt (1620-1676)

In those days Israel had no king.

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. Judges 19:1-3, NIV)

Like most domestic disputes, it is a long and difficult story.  And because I’m not sure that you have the time to hear all three chapters, and I know that I don’t have the stomach to read all three, we’re going to move through them and I’ll tell you the story.  You can follow along through Judges 19-21 if you’d like.

It starts with a Levite – a member of the nation of Israel who is charged with reminding the people about God’s best for them.  The Levites were not given specific territory in the Promised Land, but instead, all the other Israelites were supposed to be looking our for them and alert to hearing the Good News from them.

So this Levite “takes” a woman – and I want you to note the violent word that is already here.  She is unfaithful to him, and they split up. Four months later, he decides that he misses her, or he looks bad, or whatever – and he chases her down.  The woman’s father is eager to avoid the messiness, expense, and shame of a divorce, so he does everything he can to convince the Levite to make things right.  After five days of partying, the Levite is convinced and they head for home.  Unfortunately, they get a late start because of the intensity of the night before, and they don’t make it very far before the sun starts to go down.

The Levite’s hired man suggests that they head into Jerusalem and find a Holiday Inn or something, but the Levite won’t trust that town because it’s filled with foreigners.  So they press on and by dark, they make it to the town of Gibeah, in the territory of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin.  And the situation that they find there is not good.

Judges 19:15 says, They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night.” Uh-oh.  In the ancient near east, when there’s no one to offer you hospitality, you’re in a bad place.  It says something terrible about Gibeah and Benjamin that a group of strangers would sit in the town square at nightfall and not receive help.

Rembrandt, The Levite and the Concubine with the Field Laborer in Gibeah, ca. 1648/49

Rembrandt, The Levite and the Concubine with the Field Laborer in Gibeah, ca. 1648/49

But wait! Help does come – from an old man, another stranger in town, who says to these travelers, “What are you, nuts?  You can’t spend the night here!  Come and stay with me.”  The tension heightens.

And after dark, it really gets bad. The men of the city start to pound on the door of the house, and demand that the visitor be sent outside so that they can rape him.  This is not about sex, it’s about a city that is intent on humiliating and debasing a guest.  The old man shouts through the door that he’s not about to let his guest be treated this way, but if it’s sex they want, they can have his daughter and the Levite’s wife in order that the crowd can “violate them and do with them what seems good to you.” (19:24 ESV) Then the text tells us that the Levite “seized” his wife and threw her out the door…and then he went to bed.

Look.  I really wish that was the worst part of this story.  Because it is awful.  In what kind of universe does this even make sense?  But it gets worse.

Rembrandt, The Levite Discovers the Body of His Dead Concubine, ca. 1655/56

Rembrandt, The Levite Discovers the Body of His Dead Concubine, ca. 1655/56

The man gets up the next morning and starts to leave the house, and there is the woman laying across the threshold.  “Get up,” he says.  “We’re going home.”  But she does not answer.  Is she alive or dead?  The Bible doesn’t say.

What it does say is that he put her on his donkey and carried her home, and when he got there, he cut her body into twelve pieces and sent a hunk of his wife to each of the twelve tribes of Israel as a means of complaining about the way that he and his property were treated by the people of Gibeah and Benjamin!  Each tribe receives a messenger who says, essentially, “Can you believe this?  What is this world coming to when this kind of thing can go on?”

And I really wish that this was the most disgusting part of the story.  But it’s not.

The Levite Declares His Wrong, Charles Joseph Staniland (British, 1838 - 1916)

The Levite Declares His Wrong, Charles Joseph Staniland (British, 1838 – 1916)

Chapter 20 opens with a big meeting of all the tribes of Israel.  Evidently, this message had gotten through, and the people are of one mind on this.  In fact, the narrator of Judges uses the words “all of Israel” five times, and “as one man” another three.  Finally, God’s people are going to do something, right?  They ask the Levite to tell his story, and he does, more or less.  I mean, he doesn’t express any sadness at the death of his wife and he makes himself out to be the victim, but at least he’s got their attention.  And they decide to act.

Eleven of the tribes of the Israelites turn to the folks from Benjamin and say, “This is outrageous.  Those folks from Gibeah ought to be punished.  Hand them over.”

But the Benjamites say, “Nope.  That’s not gonna happen.  They are our people, and nobody touches them.”  The people of Benjamin refuse to deal with, or even to acknowledge, the sin and brokenness that is in their midst.

The rest of Israel gets pretty worked up about this, and says, “What do you mean, you’re not going to listen to us?”  Well, one thing leads to another.  First off, they all make this silly promise that nobody is going to let their daughter marry a Benjamite ever again, but that doesn’t seem harsh enough, and before you know it, you’ve got a civil war, where 400,000 men of Israel are prepared to go up against 26,000 from Benjamin.  There is all kind of treachery and violence, but by the time we get to the end of the week, 40,000 Israelites have died along with 25,400 Benjamites.  This is how chapter 20 ends:

Six hundred men [from Benjamin] got away. They made it to Rimmon Rock in the wilderness and held out there for four months.

The men of Israel came back and killed all the Benjamites who were left, all the men and animals they found in every town, and then torched the towns, sending them up in flames. (Judges 20:47-48, The Message)

Now let’s just stop and take a look at what is happening here as a result of this “domestic dispute”.  Do you remember what comes before the book of Judges in the Bible?  The Book of Joshua.  What is the event that leads us to Judges? The release of the people from Egypt.  For 400 years, God’s people are held in a hostile and violent place.  They are enslaved and treated as property and murdered and abused until finally, God’s voice comes to Moses and calls them to a new way of life.  And he leads them to the Promised Land and he says, “Look, come in here and do things differently.  Don’t tolerate the systems that seek to own or destroy.  Get rid of anyone or anything that stands in the way of your true worship of me.”

And the people fail miserably at that.  The book of Joshua is filled with story after story indicating that the people of Israel failed to drive out the Canaanites who opposed them.  But here, in Judges, we see that they succeed in doing it to themselves!  They couldn’t get rid of the Hittites or the Amalekites or the Philistines, but they wiped out the entire tribe of Benjamin.  Every man, woman, and child; every donkey, every cow, every house – killed or burnt.

It is terrible!  And I wish that this was the worst part of the story.  But it’s not.

You see, next, the Israelites get to thinking about how there should be twelve tribes in Israel, and what have they done by going and killing all the Benjamites and someone says, “Hey, no, there are still 600 of them left!  They’re all hiding out over by the rocks in Rimmon.”

Eventually, someone states the obvious and says, “Look, all of those Benjamite soldiers are men, and unless they find someone to marry, the tribe of Benjamin is going to perish.”  But because they made this oath about not allowing their daughters to marry a Benjamite, they are stuck.  And then some sharp thinker says, “Wait, did we all promise not to do this?”  And it turns out that there was one town, Jabesh-Gilead, who did not send anyone to the big meeting.  So the people of Israel, in the name of God, decided that the way to ensure the survival of the tribe of Benjamin (which they had wiped out) would be to attack Jabesh-Gilead.

The Benjamites Take the Virgins of Jabesh-gilead, Gustave Doré, 1866.

The Benjamites Take the Virgins of Jabesh-gilead, Gustave Doré, 1866.

So the congregation sent twelve divisions of their top men there with the command, “Kill everyone of Jabesh Gilead, including women and children. These are your instructions: Every man and woman who has had sexual intercourse you must kill. But keep the virgins alive.” And that’s what they did. (Judges 21:10-11, The Message).

In wanting to preserve their own integrity and be seen as “people of their word”, the Israelites said that they couldn’t possibly break their oath about marrying the Benjamites, so they commit an act of genocide against an entire community.

As bad as that was, it turns out that there were only 400 women who survived the slaughter, and they needed two hundred more in order to give every Benjamite a wife.

So they came up with a plan that, well…they came up with a plan.  They knew that the Israelites who lived near Shiloh had a big festival at this time of the year.  And as a part of that festival, the young women would go out into the vineyards and dance.  So they told the Benjamites to go and hide out in the vineyards and when they saw the girls from Shiloh coming out, they could pick one they liked and take her home.  Their reasoning for this was simple: if the girls were kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married, then it wasn’t like anyone was actually breaking his oath.  No one was allowing these marriages.  They just happened.

This is, as I have said, the worst. Story. Ever.

I’d like to make a few observations about it.  We see here how sin and brokenness clearly amplifies itself. We go from a troubled marriage and an adulterous affair to the rape and murder of a single woman to civil war and finally to state-sanctioned genocide, kidnapping, and mass rape.  The last sentence in the book of Judges says it all:

In those days there was no king in Israel: everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)

The Concubine of Gibeah 3, by Janet Schafner (1998). Used by permission. For more, including a fascinating description of the wolf as a symbol of the tribe of Benjamin, visit http://janetshafner.com/biblical-visions/The+Concubine+of+Gibeah+3.jpg.php

The Concubine of Gibeah 3, by Janet Shafner (1998). Used by permission. For more, including a fascinating description of the wolf as a symbol of the tribe of Benjamin, visit http://janetshafner.com/biblical-visions/The+Concubine+of+Gibeah+3.jpg.php

The story of Judges is in the Bible to set up the books of Samuel and Kings.  It’s there to tell the people why they needed a king – because when we didn’t have a king, do you see what kinds of trouble we got ourselves into?  One writer puts it this way: “In a society where people pursue their own self interest rather than the purposes of God, everybody eventually stands to lose.”[1]

Theologically, Israel needs a king.  They need someone who will bring justice and truth and righteousness.  A king, as best understood in the Bible, is the one who comes in and sets up the world the way that God wants it to be.

The trouble is that the King of Israel is going to be, well, from Israel.  Saul, the first king? He was from Gibeah.  You’ve heard what kinds of standouts that community is capable of producing in this morning’s reading.  The second king?  He’s associated with Jerusalem, the place where the Levite was afraid to go before he went to Gibeah.  In other words, the only people available to be kings in Israel are the same sorry lot that gave us the book of Judges.

And I could wander down the path of historical reflection a little further, but here’s the truth: it’s not just the people in the first half of the Old Testament who need a king – who need someone to help them know right-ness, someone who can orient their world. Haven’t we seen how time and time again in our own experience the incredible violence and harm that comes when my desire to do what I want to do becomes a selfishness that leads to an idolatry that encourages me to make myself (or my people or my country…) the highest authority?

Just think about the beginning years of the 21st century!  Our nation is attacked on 9/11 and that leads to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan…throw in Abu Ghraib and Benghazi and car bombs and drones…look at Russia and Ukraine and Syria and Sudan…

Doesn’t our world give testimony to the fact that when every person does what is right in his or her own eyes, it’s bad news?

And let’s make it even more personal.  How many times has my life, my world, gone from bad to worse because I was not willing to allow anyone to speak truth to me?  How much pain and suffering have I undergone or have I caused because there was no room in my world for anyone to speak for righteousness or justice? How quickly do our bad decisions pile up?

What about the guy who has a bad day at work and decides that he owes it to himself to stop off at the Casino on the way home and, because he’s a little irritated, winds up losing his month’s pay?

What about the kid who is so angry at her mother that she decides to take the car without permission and drive like a maniac, forgetting to notice the stopped school bus?

What about the person who didn’t prepare for the project at work or at school, and instead of coming clean about it goes in and makes stuff up, and then finds himself in a deeper hole than he was before?

Do you see how in our lives, and in our world, just like in the book of Judges, one choice leads to other choices that leads to a breakdown?

I called this message the Worst Story Ever not because it’s so stinking filled with violence and destruction and inhumanity, but because it keeps happening again and again and again.

We need a King!

Individually, we need a moral compass, a center, an authority who is greater than we.  One who can teach us how to live in ways that please God and serve our neighbor.

Collectively, we need to realize that there is Truth, that we are a people and that God has a purpose in this world.

It is not up to us.  We dare not attempt to live by doing what is right in our own eyes.

And we do not have to.

crown-of-thorns-hung-around-the-easter-crossThis is Lent.  And we are through the book of Judges.  And we have a king.  In the back of a room, there’s a banner that has the image of his crown.  It’s made of thorns, because he’s not like any King the world has ever known.  And now, we have the chance to walk with him, and to learn to walk like him.

Thanks be to God, the King of Kings has come to us.  Let us open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, to Jesus – the King of kings, that we may be faithful followers this Lent and always, to the end that we might be found doing what is right in his eyes.  Amen.


[1]  J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation commentary on Judges (John Knox, 2012) p. 133.

Baptized Dust

Psalm 103

Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.

He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.

The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.

Praise the Lord, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
Praise the Lord, all his works
everywhere in his dominion.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

 Do you remember starting a new job, and how you want to make sure that everyone likes you, everyone thinks that you are competent, and more than anything, you just don’t want to be the person that makes a mistake and draws attention to yourself?

So I had been a pastor for a few months and found myself in the position where I was to conduct the funeral for one of the saints of that congregation.  The local funeral director was a deacon in our church, and I was eager to show him that the new pastor had the right stuff.  We got through the service all right, and headed out towards the cemetery, where we’d be interring my friend Bob’s ashes.  As we walked out of the funeral home, I already had my coat on, and he gave me an armload of things to hold as he put on his coat and then buckled into the driver’s seat of the hearse.

Acting incredibly nonchalant, I said something like, “You know, I can’t remember the last time I did an interment like this.”  I looked into the back of the empty hearse.  “How are Bob’s ashes getting to the cemetery?”

The Funeral Director looked at me with some surprise and said, “All that’s left of Bob is in that little box on your lap…”

Fortunately, I was able to control my “bwuah!” response enough to ensure that Bob remained in the box and was not scattered all over the floor of the hearse. But I remember my utter shock at the fact that I was holding all there was.  “Keep the ashes in the box, Dave.  Ashes in the box…” I kept saying… Because my secret, inner fear was that if I didn’t carry that box exactly right, then that somehow, some of the ickiness of the ugliness called death might rub off on me.

You know the truth, I think: you can’t keep the ashes in the box.  Oh, we got Bob, or at least what was left of him, out to the cemetery without any incident.  But the reality is that the ickiness of death and the ugliness of that rubs off on me – and on you – all the time.

We’ve known this for a long time…Since God looked at Adam in the Garden of Eden and said, “you’ll get your food the hard way, Planting and tilling and harvesting, sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk,
 until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried; you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt.” (Genesis 3:19, The Message).

We heard it again when Abraham encountered God face to face:  “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27, NRSV).

And Job brought back that same refrain as he contemplated the mystery of the holy, complaining that God has “cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes…” (Job 30:19, NRSV)

This is the truth: I have spent a good portion of the last five decades trying to convince myself that whatever Adam’s, or Abraham’s, or Job’s experiences were – that was not me.  That was simply not true.  I am alive!  I move.  I accomplish.  I travel.  I talk.  I do, for crying out loud.  I want to think that somehow, I am different.

But I am not.

I am Job.  I am Abraham.  I am Adam.

dusttodustAnd every day, I, like they, must remember, that I am nothing but dust and ashes.  That I, no less than they, came from the dirt and am heading to the dirt.  I must remember.

And fortunately for me, it’s not just me who remembers.  God remembers, too.

Listen to this: two years ago, on a trip to Texas, a friend of mine showed up in the kitchen with the mystery of mysteries: a pie (which I love) made out of grapefruit (which I love).  I had never considered such a thing, and I tasted of this rare and delicate dish with gratitude.

And then again, last year, my friend showed up with more pie.  More awe.  More wonder.  And more boldness: because I carried some of that Texas Ruby Red grapefruit home with me and I made myself a grapefruit pie that was every bit as delicious as the one my friend had shared.

And earlier this week, I set to work in my kitchen and I made not one, but TWO grapefruit pies with the fruit that Steve Imler schlepped through the airports.  And I was disappointed.  Because the pie was not as good.  Why? Because I had forgotten the recipe that I’d used.  I did not care enough to remember.  It was grapefruit pie.  It’s not a big deal.  Lord willing, I can try again some time…

I forget how I make things all the time.  Who cares?  But God? Not so much.  “He knows how we were made.  He remembers that we are dust.”

Isn’t that liberating?  God knows how he made me.  He remembers.  And every time he looks at me, he thinks, “Yup.  Dust.”

So I don’t have to fake my way through some sort of an act whereby I am trying to impress you or anyone else that I’m something that I’m not.  I can be myself.  There is no shame!  Because the Creator remembers me.

Think about that word: remember.  Usually, we take that to mean that we call something to mind:  do you remember that day when Dave was preaching and we got out before noon?  Usually, we think that the opposite of remember is what? Forget.  “Did you remember to stop and get milk?” “Nope, I forgot.”

But what if we consider it in another way?  What if remember is re-member?  What if the opposite of re-member is dis-member.  If I dismember someone, what am I doing?  I am taking them apart.  I am destroying them.  I am denying them.  The world seeks to dis-member.  Death seeks to dis-member.  But God?  My creator? He re-members.  He is in the business, not just of calling you to mind every now and then (“Dave?  Dave Carver? Likes to fish? Talks a lot? Sure, yeah, I got you…”) – but of putting you back together, and of making you whole.  God is in the business of reversing dis-memberment.

Back to dust.

I don’t know what you talk with your friends about, but a few of us pastors were on the internet today and Pastor Susan asked whether we would be having communion first or doing the ashes first.  There was a lot of back and forth until Pastor Howard said that he was going to do the communion first so that his hands wouldn’t be all ashy when he went to break the bread.

And that’s when it occurred to me that the ashiness of my hands is directly connected with the purity of these baptismal waters.  I can break the bread tonight with these hands that have touched the ashiness of death – but only after I wash them in the waters of the baptismal font.

What happens to the ash when I wash my hands?  Does it disappear?  Does it cease to exist?

Of course not.  I’m merely transferring the ash from my skin into this water.  The waters of baptism do not change the ash – but they surely encompass it and envelop it.

Tonight, I stand with Adam, with Abraham, and with Job, and I confess that I am dust and ashes.

But I am baptized dust.  I am ash that has been suspended and upheld and maybe even lost in the waters of baptism.

My dustiness, my ashiness, my brokenness, my death does not get to define who I am or what I am.  I am defined by the fact that I am made by God the Father.  I am loved by Jesus Christ the Son. And I am sustained daily by the Holy Spirit.  Because God remembers me!

I may be dust.  But I am baptized dust.  And so are you. Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

The Church of Sheila

On March 2, the folks in Crafton Heights braved the blizzard…er, dust-up of 2014 and gathered to sit around one of the more unfortunate passages in the book of Judges, the story of Micah and his priest.  Our texts for the day included Judges 17 and 2 Peter 1:16-21.

“Everybody should believe in something,” W.C. Fields is credited with saying, “and I believe I’ll have another drink.”  While there’s no evidence that the old comic actually said that, it’s a clever line and lends itself to whatever you want… “Everybody should believe in something, and I believe I’ll have more coffee…”, or “I believe I’ll go fishing…”, or “I believe I’ll turn on the game…”  It’s cute, and illustrates that what we believe shapes our actions.

Of course, everyone does believe in something.  To be human is to believe. Each and every person ever to walk this planet has looked at something or someone and said, “Yes, this thing or this person is worth my trust and my acknowledgement.  I will regard this person.  I will honor this thing.”  To be human is to look at something and say, “Yes, that is Truth with a capital ‘T’”.

I know, sometimes – especially in church – we talk about people as being “believers” or “unbelievers”, but that’s really just shorthand for saying that someone “believes what I believe” or they don’t.  We all believe in something.  It just gets complicated when we get to talking about what or who is worth giving our lives to.

It’s been suggested that the dominant belief in the United States is a faith that might be called “Sheilaism.”  Nearly twenty years ago, a team of researchers published Habits of the Heart, the results of a massive five-year study on American communities and values.  One of the most intriguing insights of the book came in the chapter on religion. A young nurse named Sheila Larson was asked about her faith, and she said, “I believe in God.  I’m not a religious fanatic.  I can’t remember the last time I went to church.  My faith has carried me a long way.  It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” When she was asked to describe the elements of Sheilaism, she said “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

If that sounds a little extreme, then you should know that a Gallup poll indicated that 80% of Americans agreed with this statement: “An individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.”  Sheilaism is then, perhaps, the most popular religion in America.

But we didn’t invent it – not by a long shot.  In fact, as we continue our study of Judges, we see the same phenomenon.  When we left Judges last month, we said goodbye to the last of the true “Judges” in the book: Samson. I hope that some of you remember that cycle of Judges that we used so often, where the people are obedient, and then they leave God’s best for them, and are placed in a situation where they suffer, and then they cry out for God and a deliverer or a “judge” comes to save them and help them to be faithful, until they leave God’s best for them and… The reality is that that cycle has finally broken down.  For the rest of this book, it’s just people leaving God’s best.  There is no crying out, no deliverance, no restoration.  It is a description of how things are.  Spoiler alert: things are not good.  Let’s look at the text.

There was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah. And he said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and also spoke it in my ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it.” And his mother said, “Blessed be my son by the Lord.” And he restored the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother; and his mother said, “I consecrate the silver to the Lord from my hand for my son, to make a graven image and a molten image; now therefore I will restore it to you.” So when he restored the money to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver, and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into a graven image and a molten image; and it was in the house of Micah. And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest. (Judges 17:1-5, RSV)

OK, in the words of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem.”  Let’s just look at all the things that are wrong with the lead-in to Micah’s story:

It starts out as a burglary report.  Mom is missing 1100 pieces of silver.  It turns out that her son has taken it.  Instead of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, she excuses his behavior and offers him a formal blessing, and promises to give all of the silver to the Lord.  However, she takes 1/6 of the silver and melts it down into an idol, and Micah and his family start to worship that as their god.

In the first five verses of this story, Micah and his mother manage to violate at least six, if not seven of the ten commandments.  So far as I can see, there is no adultery or murder in this passage and there’s no record of them having broken the Sabbath…but everything else? Lying, stealing, idol worship, failing to honor one’s parents, graven images, taking the Lord’s name in vain, and probably coveting…it’s an ethical train wreck here.  How did we get to this place in “the Promised Land”, where God would be with us?  Verse 6 of chapter 17:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, RSV)

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a theme that has grown more and more pronounced as we have walked through the book of Judges.  Here is Micah, 3000 years before the sociologists meet Sheila Larson, living into the truth of her core belief: we all get to decide what is right and wrong for us.  There is no higher standard or greater truth.

How does that look for Micah and his family?  Listen for the rest of Judges 17:

Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite; and he sojourned there. And the man departed from the town of Bethlehem in Judah, to live where he could find a place; and as he journeyed, he came to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah. And Micah said to him, “From where do you come?” And he said to him, “I am a Levite of Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to sojourn where I may find a place.” And Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and a suit of apparel, and your living.” And the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man became to him like one of his sons. And Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. Then Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.” (Judges 17:7-13, RSV)

Micah and the Levite Worship the Idol (Artist unknown, 14th century)

Micah and the Levite Worship the Idol (Artist unknown, 14th century)

Isn’t this great?  Micah has his own god, made of silver that he stole from his mother and then she gave back to him, and now he finds his own priest!  He hires a young man, gives him a $300 suit, an apartment, and a salary. Micah tells the man that he wants him to be like “a father and a priest” – in other words, that he wants to be led and guided by this young man’s wisdom, but in reality, he treats the Levite like a son, and comes to believe that because he has his own little priest in his own little chapel that he’ll be blessed.  The problem, of course, is that he has his own little god, too.  He’s not worshiping the creator, there’s no mention of YHWH, the God of the covenant.  He has tamed and domesticated the One who brought his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land and instead, is worshiping some shiny metal and doing whatever he wants to do.

That comes back to bite him in the rear end in chapter 18, where a group of men from the tribe of Dan are on the move and they hear about Micah’s idol.  They steal the idol, and they make his priest a better offer and hire him away from Micah, and proceed to invade the town of Laish, a village beyond the boundaries of the territory that God had given to Israel.  Judges 18:27 describes Laish as “a people quiet and unsuspecting” who the Danites murdered before they burnt down the city and built their own right on top of the ruins.  There was no help for the people of Laish – no deliverer – because everyone was doing what was right in his or her own eyes.  Look at what is happening here: God’s people are going outside of God’s best and subjecting strangers to the terror that they themselves had survived.  “There was no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes…”

It is horrible.  And it happens again and again and again.  Amazing Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, a more recent study of American culture, found the same thing: that given half a chance, we tend to shape religion to suit our own lives and desires, rather than expecting our faith to shape and discipline our lives and desires.  This study reveals that in the last fifty years, Americans would rather change their religious views in order to fit with what they perceive to be politically and financially true than change their political or financial behavior so that it reflects what their religion might expect from them.

For instance, this more recent study found that politically liberal people tend to believe that religion is for those who are conservative, and so many liberals have stopped going to worship because even though they believe in God, they feel like it is compromising their politics.  What shocked me even more was the increase in the number of people who identified as political conservatives who think that “the right thing to do” is to go to church, synagogue, or mosque, even when one doesn’t believe in God.

We live in a time and place where people find it easy to worship what we find convenient and leave the other stuff aside.

Author Timothy Keller puts it this way:

The real issue…is the desire to shape and revise God…We filter out (consciously or unconsciously) things about God that our hearts can’t accept.  In some ways this is the main sin of our time.  How often have you heard someone say: I don’t believe in a God like that – I like to think of God as…?  … We, like Micah’s family, are reshaping God to fit our society and hearts instead of letting God reshape our hearts and society.

American_Idolatry_revisedOuch.

How do we go about the business of being faithful to the God who IS, rather than the God we wish there was?  I think that the reading from 2 Peter has some help for us today.

Jesus MAFA, Art in the Christian Tradition.  Used by Permission.  www.jesusmafa.com

Jesus MAFA, Art in the Christian Tradition. Used by Permission. http://www.jesusmafa.com

First, we must not only allow, but expect the Word of God to be intrusive – to walk into all the corners of our lives, boldly, and point us somewhere.  The author of this letter points back to the transfiguration on the mountain top, when their little picnic with Jesus was interrupted by a voice declaring Jesus to be the Son of God.  They may have met him as a carpenter or a schoolmate, but the voice of the Lord burst in on that reality and said, “Pay attention to him!”  The first disciples – and we ourselves, if you think about it – have been “eyewitnesses to his majesty”.  We’ve seen Truth – but sometimes find it difficult to allow that Truth to filter into and at times, disrupt our lives.

That leads to the second insight from 2 Peter, namely that this Truth is not, primarily, a matter of personal interpretation.  As Peter says, “We have the prophetic message.”  We know the Bible.  Now we have to wrestle with it and allow it to shape our lives.  We have to be open to it, and, as Peter says, allow that light to shine into the dark places of our lives. Will we always agree on what it says or how to apply it?  Not likely.  But we have to realize that none of us has the right to say that “this is my own truth”.  We need each other to continue to help us explore and navigate these waters in order that the Truth might be increasingly apparent to us and visible in our lives.

And how do we do that?  But coming together and considering this word humbly and in community.  Peter indicates that we’ve received the truth – and now we’ve got to figure out what this truth looks like in the world in which we live – and then we’ve got to live it out so that those around us can see and know it.  The only way to do this is to assemble and ask God to help us, together, to be able to grow in understanding his word, not just expressing our own opinions.

Everybody has to believe in something.  And I believe that I need the scripture, the church, and the Holy Spirit to tell me who I am.  Otherwise, I might wind up like old Micah, with a home-made temple dedicated to a shiny god following a pretend priest paid for with stolen money and offering false hope.  I can’t go there.

And, thanks be to God, he doesn’t want me – or us – to go there. So let us follow this voice, however falteringly, in the confidence that God’s Spirit will give us the light that we need at the time we need it in the places where it’s necessary.  Amen.