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.

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.

What’s Your Kryptonite?

On February 2, 2014 the saints at Crafton Heights walked through the third and final installment of the Samson story (see the two previous entries for the beginning and middle of this saga).  Our scriptures included excerpts from Judges 16 (below)  and Hebrews 12:1-3

superman_kryptonite11_138My hunch is that anyone who grew up in the USA in the 20th century knows something about what kryptonite is.  Superman, as we all know, was born on the planet Krypton, and miraculously made his way to Earth.  As he grew, he discovered that his body interacted with the elements of our planet in such a way so as to give him super powers – faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a mighty locomotive, and so on.  Yet when Lex Luthor or anyone else brings some fragment of Superman’s home planet into his presence, those powers evaporate and Superman is rendered ineffectual.

Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)

Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)

Samson is about as close to Superman as anyone in the book of Judges.  And if you’ve been here the past two weeks, you’ve heard me say that I think that much of Samson’s life was wasted in the pursuit of selfish gratification, and that Samson was, in my opinion, a petty man who failed to lead Israel into faith, and instead acted exactly like the Philistine overlords from whom he was called to deliver Israel.   Last week, we ended with the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson was a judge in Israel for 20 years “in the days of the Philistines.”

Chapter 16, the last chapter of Samson’s life, opens with a rather pedestrian story about the chosen leader of God’s people taking the red-eye over to Philistine territory so that he can meet up with one of their prostitutes. The folks at Philistine Immigration call him out, and in a superhuman feat of strength, Samson tears out the doors of the city gate and carries them halfway home, thus wounding their pride and leaving them with a large gap in their public-works budget.  It is an account of an incident that is thrown into our narrative so that we, and the Philistines, will know that Samson is still Samson.  Twenty years have come and gone, but he’s still ridiculously strong and apparently insatiable.

Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)

Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)

And then we get to “the main event” in Samson’s life – the part of the story with which we, and Hollywood, are most familiar.  Samson and Delilah – an epic love story.  If by “love story” you mean that he was vain and lustful and eager to use her to his own ends and that she was greedy and willing to sell out Samson for cash on the nail.  Yeah, it’s a real romance, all right.

The narrative unfolds with a rather curious game in which Samson and Delilah engage in a series of lies and deceits to each other.  We might call it “guess my secret”, wherein Samson’s secret is the source of his strength and Delilah’s secret is that she doesn’t really give a hoot about Samson, but only the silver pieces that the Philistines have promised her.

Three times, she comes to him at her sultry best, and pouts, and says, “Come on, big guy, don’t you love me?  Tell me what makes you so big and brave and handsome…”  He tells her that he can’t be tied up with fresh bowstrings or with new ropes, or that if his hair were tightly braided, he’d be out of luck.  With each round of this game, Samson is the apparent “winner”, as he gets to kiss the pretty girl (and, presumably, spend a significant amount of time in other pursuits with her) and she receives only lies.  But finally, after days of pestering, round four brings us a different result.  Listen for the Word of God in Judges 16:

Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.

So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. (Judges 16:15-19)

Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)

Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)

Do you see – for Samson, it really is a game.  As an observer, you might think, “Why in the world would he tell her what keeps him strong?”  But the truth is that he had long ago stopped believing that his strength and power were gifts from God. He saw that tremendous strength as something that was simply his by right.  After all, we have noticed that there are three aspects to the vow of the Nazirite: no shaving or hair cutting, nothing to do with grapes, and not becoming unclean by contact with the dead.  For decades, Samson has been blithely ignoring two of those rules – he’s the host at several and the guest at many drinking parties, and he is never far from something or someone who is dead.

Here, he tells Delilah about the Nazirite vows, but it’s just another round in the game.  He tells her about these things the way that my dad told me about Paul Bunyan or the Easter Bunny.

We see this borne out in Samson’s response to the situation in verse 20:

Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”

He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. (Judges 16:20)

For him, it’s business as usual: “I’ll just get back to my old self here and…what the heck?!?!”  He found that he was as weak as any other middle-aged man who had been lulled to sleep in the arms of a mercenary, yet beautiful female spy…that is to say, he found that he was helpless.

We know that in the case of Superman, it’s kryptonite that causes the loss of his strength. So for Samson, it’s the hair, right?

Wrong. Samson loses his power because he has finally succumbed to the pride, the self-reliance, and the sense of invulnerability with which he has flirted his entire life.  His hair is an outward sign of an inward reality – and the truth is that Samson had long ago stopped believing in the mystical power of his flowing locks…and instead, relied on himself and taken that strength as his due.

For Superman, it’s kryptonite.  For Samson, it’s pride.  What is there in your world that saps your strength and leads you from God’s best in the world?

For some of us, it’s a fear of being known.  Every day, we look at ourselves in the mirror before leaving the house and as we pat down our hair one last time, we think, “OK, looking good. Keep up a good front, because if they found out what I was really like, then I’d be in trouble.”  We say and do this because so many of us are deeply dissatisfied with who we are, but we are not sure how to change…and so we hide behind an image or a mask or a job… We hide from others, we hide from ourselves, and we even try to hide from God.

And when we spend so much energy hiding from God or from each other or even from ourselves, then there’s not much left for seeking God’s best or for acting it out.  This fear will kill us.

Some of us struggle with the burden of regret.  Every hour of every day, we are reminded of some secret guilt that gnaws away at us.  We think of promises that we’ve broken, or angry outbursts directed towards those we love, or choices that we made an hour, a month, or a lifetime ago, and discover that they make for a debilitating load.  Regret is like a sack full of stones that we feel obliged to carry everywhere… it just gets heavier and heavier, and sooner or later, it’s just easier to not try to go anywhere at all, but to stay home, inside, and dwell in the land of “I wish I had never…” or “If only…”  This kind of regret is a waste of energy, emotion, and life.

The despicable twin of regret is the demon of worry about the future.  We look ahead, and of course, we can’t see everything very clearly.  So we become paralyzed, and are unable to move.  We think, “How can I do this, when that might happen tomorrow?  This may be a silly example, but perhaps you can relate:  when I started the tenth grade at Concord High School, I was seized with despair.  Here I was in a whole new system, a new place, with a new hierarchy, set of expectations, and opportunities. And what paralyzed me was the fact that I knew that I’d only be there 3 years.  Well, given my academic prowess, I should say that I hoped I’d only be there three years.  Why should I make friends, why should I try anything, why should I even care when I know that it’s all going to disappear in 3 years?  It all seemed so futile.

A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson.  Coincidence? Hmmmm.  Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I'm holding in my hands.

A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson. Coincidence? Hmmmm. Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I’m holding in my hands.

Fortunately for me, a band teacher and a youth group advisor told me that I was being an idiot (in nice, kind, Jesus-y language) and suggested that I enjoy the life that God gave me.  And I did. And I have.  And whereas I went into high school sure that there was no value in making friendships, I actually went on a few dates with a gal named Sharon McCoy that wound up changing my mind about that…

My point is that we know what it means to be surrounded by the worry, regret, or fear that seeks to render us powerless.  None of us comes from Krypton, but all of us know something that would drain the life from us if we let it.  So how do we deal with it?

Back to Samson.  What happened after his shearing and capture?

Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding grain in the prison. But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved. (Judges 16:21-22)

Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Did you ever think about the stuff that is and isn’t in the Bible?  We never hear about any of Jesus’ hobbies, for instance. Nobody bothered to write down whether the Apostle Paul kept any pets.  But here, someone thinks it’s important that we know that Samson’s hair started to grow after it was shaved.

Really?  Doesn’t all hair do that?  Isn’t it one of the properties of hair?  Why do we need to know that?  I’ll tell you why it’s not there – it’s not a teaser for the reader, so that we can say, “Ha, ha, those Philistines are so stupid, they don’t know that the source of his strength is his hair.  Go ahead, Samson.  Sneak up on ‘em.  Grow that hair.”  No, the faithful reader knows that Samson’s strength is from God, not his hairstyle.

The author of Judges includes that sentence because it’s a way of acknowledging that the Philistines believed that they had won.  Of course they noticed his hair growing, but they didn’t care, because they believed that he was no longer a Nazirite.  Not only did they believe that Samson had been vanquished for good, but that the God of the Israelites, YHWH, was as good as dead, too.  We see that in the worship service that they organize in the temple of their god, Dagon:

Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”

When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying,

“Our god has delivered our enemy
 into our hands,
 the one who laid waste our land
 and multiplied our slain.”

While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. (Judges 16:23-25)

In a kind of reverse “Minute for Mission”, Samson comes out and offers the crowd “proof” that Dagon has defeated YHWH.

And then, something happens.  Samson finally gets it.  After a lifetime of being proud and arrogant and fierce and stubborn and godless, he is humbled and abused and blinded and mocked.  And he finds himself in the arena of the god who opposes YHWH, the very center of the shrine to all that he has been called to oppose.  And the once-proud and mighty warrior speaks quietly to the slave who is charged with leading him around:

When they stood him among the pillars, Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. (Judges 16:26-27)

He feels the weight of his own decisions and behavior.  For the second time in his life that we know of, Samson cries out to God.

Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)

Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)

Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. (Judges 16:28-30)

Samson dies in an act of self-sacrifice.  He is strengthened – not because his hair grew back, but because God’s call is for always.  Do you remember when the angel showed up to old Manoah and his wife?  He told the couple that the as yet unborn child would be a Nazirite.  “…for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.” (13:7)

As badly as he had blown it, time and time again, Samson could not escape God’s grace.  God had said that he would be blessed until the day he died, and he found that strength on that day.

This is a tragic end to a horrible story.  I know in the last few weeks I have been pretty rough on Samson.  I am troubled by his story because he could have chosen otherwise – but in the end, he deals with his demons in death the same way he did in life – with violence and destruction.

Beloved, you know fear.  You know regret.  You know worry.

Can you – can we – lay these things aside and cling to the good to which Christ calls us?  Can we choose to live as those who are endowed with superpowers – the gifts of trust, and forgiveness, and hope?

baptismYou are no better, and you are no worse, than Samson.  The things that derailed him can derail you and me – and will, if we give them half a chance.  Samson wound up killing himself as he fought his pride and pettiness and selfishness.  But you and I can claim our baptism and say, “Yes, I have already died to fear, regret, worry, and anything else that weakens me and gets in the way of the peace, faithfulness, and obedience to which I am called.”  You don’t have to live with the kryptonite.  And you don’t have to kill yourself.  We can lean into God’s grace for this day – forgetting about yesterday and trusting for tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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?”

Hmmm.

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.

Karma or Consequences?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  On 1 December we finished our Fall series by hearing the disheartening tale of Abimelech (after this, we really need to take a break for Advent!).  The scriptures for the morning included Judges 9:1-25, 50-57 and Romans 7:21-8:2.

OK, I was going to start this message with a warning that this could be the most disheartening passage that you’ve had to hear in the Christmas and Advent seasons.  But then I remembered that this is the place we come to hear about King Herod slaughtering the babies in Bethlehem, so if you show up and are surprised or grossed out by the story of Abimelech murdering his seventy-ish brothers, well, it’s not my fault.

All of that being said, we do want to acknowledge that this is one of the most pathetic scripture readings I hope you’re forced to endure this year.  Lots of times, I know, I stand up here after someone has read a confusing or daunting passage, and I say, “Don’t worry, friends, there is good news here.”

 

James Tissot (1836-1902), Abimelech Slays His Seventy Brethren

James Tissot (1836-1902), Abimelech Slays His Seventy Brethren

But here’s the deal: there is virtually nothing redemptive about this story of Abimelech, the murderous son of Gideon.  This is horrible.  You heard the story: a young man (whose name translates to “My father is the King”) is so eager to seize power that he runs out to Shechem and, waving his father’s name around quite a bit, inspires the Israelites to make him their king.  Of course, if he’s going to be king, he’s going to need an army.  So they raise the money – and did you notice where they got it?  At the temple.  Whose temple?  The temple of “Baal-berith”.  Do you remember who Baal is?  The Canaanite fertility god… But look, he has a new name: Baal-berith.  “Berith” is a word that means “of the covenant”.  In other words, Gideon’s failure in leadership has been so complete that by the time his son is old enough to make horrible decisions, Israel has decided that Yahweh is not the God of the covenant – Baal is!  Do you see how bad things are?  And this is at the beginning of the story!

So they raid the offering plates at the temple to Baal so that Abimelech can hire some thugs who then go with him on his murderous mission.  As you heard, one of his brothers, Jotham,  escapes the slaughter and lives to tell a parable, in which the trees go out looking for a leader, but the only one willing to do the job is the thorn bush – a worthless, shadeless weed who makes promises that he is unable to fulfill.  The point of his parable is essentially that if the Israelites think they made a good choice in selecting Abimelech, well, more power to them; but if they made a bad choice, well, don’t come running to Jotham. 

Who is the main character in the story we’ve read this morning?  Abimelech.  Who else shows up here? The Shechemites, the “worthless fellows”, Jotham…  There’s someone who is not mentioned here…  Nowhere in Judges 9 do we hear the name “YHWH.”  Is God absent in this story?  I mean, let’s be honest, if he’s going to skip out on one, this is a fine one to miss, because there is nothing redeeming here.  Plus, the Israelites have apparently decided that Baal, not YHWH, is the god of the covenant.

This is the truth: God may be silent in this chapter, but God is not absent from it.  Twice we hear the narrator reminding us that God was involved, even when he is not invoked or worshiped.

I think that’s helpful for us to remember – that we cannot confuse God’s silence with God’s absence.  Have you ever experienced the silence of the Almighty?  Have you ever been in a situation that seemed horrible and bleak and empty, and was even worse because you could not get a sense of where God was or what God was saying? 

I know that you have.  I can’t think of anyone I know who has not, at one time or another, experienced the silence of God.

Yet I can promise you, my friends, that not once, since the day you were conceived, have you ever known the absence of God.  If God were to leave your life or this world, it would simply cease to be.  The Creator is integrally linked with the creation, and you could no more be absent from God than you could cease breathing.  Do not, now or ever, interpret the silence of God to mean that God is not present.  Even here, in one of the slimiest chapters you’ll ever hear in church (although not, I’m sorry to say, the slimiest chapter in the book of Judges), God is found.

That leads me to a second observation about this chapter: we serve a God who is willing, apparently, to allow us to live with the choices that we make.  Every now and then we hear a reference to “Karma” – and it’s almost exclusively a negative reference.  Karma is popularly thought to be a cause and effect phenomenon wherein when you do something bad, someone or something comes back to punish you as a result.  When we think of karma, we often connect it with a vengeful or punishing force.

What we see in Judges is not karma – it’s the simple affirmation of the fact that God empowers us to make choices and expects us to live with the end results of those choices.  Isn’t that the main point of the parable that Jotham tells to the people of Shechem?

This is a good time to remember where we are in the overall story.  We’re studying the book of Judges, right?  And do you remember what a “Judge” is, and what kind of job description that title carries with it?  A “Judge” is raised up by God to restore righteousness and truth and to lead the people back to God.  Isn’t that the pattern that Ehud, Deborah, and the rest of the Judges we’ve studied have followed?  God’s people rebel, and start worshiping an idol, and then get miserable, and then get oppressed by someone like the Moabites or the Midianites, and then God calls someone and equips him or her to defeat the enemy and lead the people to a place where they are able to choose faithfulness.  But remember what I’ve said: that the deeper we go into Judges, the darker things get.  And now, please notice that things are so bad that it’s not the Midianites or Amalekites who are oppressing us – it’s us!  We have made such poor choices that the other nations don’t even have to come in to screw us up – we are doing it to ourselves. 

Abimelech is not a Judge.  He is not a bringer of justice or a restorer of peace.  He is a selfish, godless, petty tyrant who is bent on seizing power for himself.  He chooses to live violently and he winds up dying violently.  The Israelites choose to make Abimelech their leader and thereby find themselves increasingly removed from the gracious and generous intentions of God.  It’s not karma.  It’s simply the consequence of their decisions. 

Remember that, my friends: that while there are times where God is willing to rescue us from the misfortunate effects of our choices, there are plenty of times when God allows us to live with the consequences. 

So we know that God is present, even when God chooses to remain silent; and we know that God allows us to experience the consequences of our own choices.  Add to that the reality that we often wind up paying the freight for the choices of the people around us, and that presents us with a conundrum: what do we do when our reality is shaped, apparently, by evil? 

Chances are that none of you have ever been in a village filled with frenzied idol-worshippers celebrating the murder of seventy men and which finds itself degenerating into a culture of violence, lawlessness, and anarchy.  I could be wrong, but I don’t see that kind of reality in our lives.  So in that case, the scene that is depicted in our reading seems remote.

Yet I would suspect that chances are good that you’ve been in a situation where it would appear as though none of the choices are good ones, or at least that the effort you can expend to “do the right thing” seems hopelessly futile. 

How are we to live when we are in a situation in which there are no good options – only “less bad” ones?  What happens when we are surrounded by evil and brokenness?

I’ve seen that a few times…as I read the description of life under Abimelech’s rule, I remembered walking through Soweto, the township near Johannesburg South Africa that was home to some of the ugliest and most vile scenes of the apartheid era in that nation.  I remembered visiting orphanages in Mexico and in Africa where there seemed to be an overwhelming number of children and an amazing scarcity of resources.  I remembered having the opportunity to visit East Berlin and Leningrad and other places behind the Iron Curtain as the bankruptcy of Soviet communism was most apparent.  I remembered sitting in my friend Mary’s living room in Rochester, New York – a drafty, unheated, uninsulated, unpainted room that not only didn’t have enough furniture or food for her family, but seemed to be lacking in possibility of there ever being enough.

You see?  I know that you’ve never been to Shechem, but I know that you have experienced evil and brokenness; I know that you know that promises are not always kept and cancer sometimes wins and community often fails and the darkness just keeps increasing and deepening.  You’ve felt the silence of God and experienced the burden of consequences.

What do you do?

Welcome to Advent.  Our world wishes it were Christmas, full of peace on earth and good will to men.  But we know that it’s Advent.  A time of waiting and hope.  A time of increasing darkness and silence.  And yet… And yet…

Each of those places that I mentioned a few moments ago – Soweto and Berlin and orphanages and poverty-stricken neighborhoods – was full of people who chose to believe that God was absent.  They could not apprehend the presence of a promise, and so they lived as though God was nowhere.  And their choices reflected that.  And their lives did, too – just like the folks in Shechem.

But that’s not what I remember most about those places.  What I remember most is that in each of these instances, there were vibrant outposts of believers who chose to live as though they believed that God’s silence did not necessitate God’s absence, and so they lived as though God was now here.

The external circumstances of the lives, just like the letters on the page, are the same: G O D I S N O W H E R E.  Yet the way that we arrange those lives, and the way that we arrange those letters, makes all the difference.

 

  Death of Abimelech, Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913-1996)

Death of Abimelech, Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913-1996)

At the end of the day, Abimelech gets his.  How?  After leading Israel through a tempestuous period of vengeance, ethnic and tribal conflict, and tyranny, he winds up attacking a tower filled with those who once supported him.  And he dies.  How?  Because “a certain woman” dropped a millstone on his head and inflicted a mortal blow.

Seriously?  The reign of terror ended when someone dropped a kitchen utensil on the head of a thug?

Yup.

Who was she? We don’t know.  An anonymous woman chooses to act in the only way possible using the only materials at hand.  And the narrator comes to remind us that God’s presence was demonstrated as God’s people were once more free to choose well and wisely.  A certain woman, acting within her character and using the things that she had, chose to live as though God was Now Here.

You can’t change the world.  You can’t do everything.  When you are surrounded by Advent darkness, sometimes it’s all you can do to keep your head above water.

I know that.  But you can choose to act, beloved, as though even though there are things that you cannot do, God can.  You can live in the midst of the evil days as if God is Now Here.  Like the communities I witnessed in Soweto and behind the Iron Curtain, in the orphanages and amidst overwhelming poverty, we can choose to live with an awareness of hope and a largeness of spirit.  We can frame our days to deal with the realities that face us – including the fact that we’ll be threatened by evil and brokenness.  But we can do so knowing that evil and brokenness are not the end of the story.  It is Advent.  But the Christ-light is coming.  Begin your day with an affirmation of the presence of God and even those days that seem silent will become less oppressive.  Because God is here.  And always has been.  And always will be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.