DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Filtering by Category: Judges

Where Did Things Go Wrong? (Judges 19-21)

Any father here who has a daughter understands that no matter what happens, that daughter will always be your little girl. The other thing you know if you have a daughter is that no guy will ever be good enough for her. My apologies to the men out there, but that's just life. That's the way it always has been and always will be.

So you'll understand that when my daughter came back home, I was glad. Oh, I was sad that her marriage had come to an end. It actually wasn't really even a marriage. She was a concubine. You don't have concubines in my day, but back then concubines were really like wives without all the privileges. I know what you're thinking: "Wives have privileges? When did this start?" But believe me, you wouldn't have wanted to be a concubine. They had it even worse. So when my little girl returned back home, I was sad for all that she had been through, but I was also really, really glad to see her.

I wish I could say that my daughter was completely innocent. The truth is that she had done some things I'm not proud of. But if you knew her husband, well he had his issues too.

But anyway. My little girl was back with me for four months. Then one day I looked out and saw her husband show up. He had a servant and two donkeys with him. I didn't know what to think at first. Maybe it was the look on his face, or the fact that he had come all that way to get his concubine back. It could have been the tears I had seen my girl shed. But for some reason, as much as I hated to see my daughter go, I was glad to see her life come together. Again, those of you who are fathers will understand. Although no guy is good enough, and you want to tell that no-good son-in-law a thing or two, you really do want your daughter to be happy. So I saw him and welcomed him in.

He came. We ate and we talked. One day turned into two, and two days turned into three, three days turned into four. I knew the time was coming when my girl would be gone, but I tried to delay it as much as I could. On the fifth day, again, he got up to leave. I stalled, and the day dragged on. But near the end of the day I could persuade my son-in-law no longer. He saddled his donkeys, took my daughter, and they were off. I didn't realize it at the time, but that would be the last time I saw my little girl.

They left, and they headed toward the city of Jerusalem. Not such a good plan. Jerusalem was only nine or ten kilometers from where I lived, but it's not the kind of place you want to spend the night. It was a foreign city, and you never know if you're going to be safe or welcome among people who aren't your own kind. So, they kept on going another nine or ten kilometers until they arrived at Gibeah, a Benjamite city, where they should have been safe. Thus began one of the worst night you could ever imagine, one of the saddest stories that could ever be told.

My daughter, her husband, and the servants went to the city square, just inside the gate, where they couldn't be missed. There were no hotels in my day, but hospitality was a big deal. If you saw someone in the square with no place to stay, it was only common courtesy that you invite them back to your place.

But they waited. People passed by them and took a good look, but nobody invited them to their house. They kept waiting and started to get a little concerned. Eventually this old man came back from working the fields, and he invited them back. He washed their feet, fed the donkeys, and provided everything that they needed. It took a while, but at least somebody came through.

I can barely talk about what happened next.

Everyone was enjoying themselves, relaxing after a day of travel, when they heard a noise outside. I don't know if you've ever heard what a mob sounds like, but if you have, you can picture what they heard. There was some banging on the door, and some shouting. They had seen my daughter and her husband all right. "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him!" they yelled.

Their host would have none of that. He went outside and tried to handle the situation. He rebuked them. You won't understand this, but his honor was at stake. He had a duty to his male guest, by son-in-law. He had obligations.

I can't justify or excuse what happened next. He was so concerned about protecting my son-in-law that he offered his own daughter and mine to the angry mob. "Look!" he said. "Here they are. Use them as you wish. But just don't touch this man."

They wouldn't listen. The crowd got louder. The noise was too much. It looked like they were going to come crashing through the door at any moment. So eventually my son-in-law took things into his own hands. He took his concubine, my daughter, opened the door, and threw her out into the mob. I can't tell you what they did to her. I will never forgive him for throwing my girl to the mob, nor will I forgive those who did these terrible things to my daughter.

You know what really gets me? My son-in-law slept through that night. In the morning he got up and found my girl on the doorstep. She's lying there, and he says, "Get up, let's go" like nothing happened. She didn't answer. So he picks her up, puts her on his donkey, and goes home. I don't even know if she's dead at this point. But when he gets home he takes a knife and mutilates my girl's body, and sends pieces of her body to all the areas of Israel.

I'm not one to make wild accusations, but I'd like to know: was she dead at this point? Is my son-in-law guilty of murder, or did he only - "only" - desecrate the corpse of my little girl? I'm not mad at him for issuing the call to all of Israel to wake them up from their lethargy. Oh, that had to be done. But I can't accept that this man, to whom I gave my daughter, whom I had just fed and entertained in my house, could do this to my girl. As far as I'm concerned, he's responsible for my girl's death. I don't know who killed her - it could have been the mob of people - but as far as I'm concerned, he didn't have to give her to the mob. He certainly didn't have to hack her body in pieces.

You know, Sodom is the low point in the Scriptures. You can't get much lower than Sodom. You may remember the story of Sodom. It's pretty similar to what happened to my girl. But at least that time angels intervened and saved Lot and his family. There would be no salvation this time. Sodom is as low as it gets, but we - the people of Israel - had become Sodom. We could not possibly sink any lower.

I just have to say: nothing like this has ever happened before in Israel. I don't know if anything worse has happened since. This is about as bad as it could possibly get.

Well, there's more. When everyone received the part of my daughter's body, it shocked them as it should have. They all came together. If I take pride in anything, it's that what happened to my daughter brought people together like no judge ever could. I'll give my girl that. Her life counted for something.

They all came together and they realized that this wasn't right. Gibeah had to answer for what they had done. So all of Israel assembled an army; they set up supply lines and got ready for battle. Israel had its battles, but never before had they come together with such unity, not against an enemy nation, but against one of its own cities.

They went to the tribe of Benjamin, and sent out the message that the men of Gibeah had to be punished for what they had done. Unbelievably, the Benjamites refused to hand them over. Unbelievable. So Israel lined up four hundred thousand swordsmen against Benjamin's almost twenty-seven thousand, and went to battle. Battle one: Benjamin won, and we lost twenty-two thousand. Battle two: Benjamin won, and we lost eighteen thousand. Battle three: Israel won. All but six hundred Benjamites were killed. Finally we had won. Justice had been served on the men who committed this horrible crime against my daughter.

You'd think that we would have been happy to finally be rid of the problem. But how can you be happy when you have been fighting against your own people? An entire tribe had been all but wiped out. So Israel gathered again. They came up with these elaborate plans to snatch unwilling wives so that the tribe of Benjamin could be repopulated by these six hundred Benjamites that escaped. There was more bloodshed. As a father, I have to feel for the fathers of the daughters who were snatched away and given to the Benjamites as wives. But you see, everyone was doing what looked right to them. We didn't need a king to lead us into evil. We were capable of finding it ourselves. We had no king; we were just doing whatever appeared to be right in our own eyes.

I guess I have to ask: Where did things go so wrong? Moses had said that we were supposed to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. The LORD had promised to bless us, so that we would lend to other nations and rule over them, but they would not rule over us. Moses had said, "And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth" (Deuteronomy 28:1).

I ask you, where did things go wrong? Was it when we didn't take the land that the LORD had promised us? Was it when we, little by little, adopted the customs of the people around us, so that eventually we became just like them?

Where did we go wrong? How did we get to the point where we became our own worst enemy? How did we get to the point where we - God's own people - had become rotten to the core? It was the Canaanites out there that were the problem. It was the Canaanites within our own hearts. We had become the problem.

Where exactly did things go so wrong? Was it the paganism of Gideon, the self-centeredness of Samson, the cowardice of Barak? Was it when we decided that we could be the judges of what is right or wrong in our own eyes?

How did it get to the point in which we don't show hospitality to our own people, where gang rapes take place, where a Levite throws his concubine to a mob, where we can wipe out an entire tribe?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I know that Moses laid out a path for us that would lead to blessing, and for God to set us as a light to the nations so that he could show his glory, but it's a path we didn't take. We took a different path, and it didn't look so bad at the time, but look where it took us. Look where it took us.

I don't know what the answer is either. We need help. Will God save us from what we've become? It's almost like God himself would have to come down to earth as a man to save us. Nothing else has worked. We need a Savior.

###

The Book of Judges ends on a depressing note. Everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes. God's people have become rotten to the core. They had sunk to the level of Sodom, which, in the Bible, is as low as you can go.

Scholars believe that this last story happened earlier than some of the other stories we have read. So why was this story placed last? Because the author wanted to make a point: When God's people wander from him, the consequences don't look bad immediately. But if God's people persist in rebellion, this is where it leads. The consequences are worse than we could imagine.

But there's also a note of hope. Despite the great evil described within Judges, God had not forgotten his people. Slowly - through Samuel, David, the prophets, and ultimately Jesus, God's light began to penetrate that darkness. The darkness could not extinguish the light that God sent into the world. The prophet Isaiah wrote:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined...
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:2,6)

At the end of Judges, the tribe of Benjamin was almost wiped out. Centuries later, a descendant of this almost-lost tribe, Saul of Tarsus, became the premier interpreter of the good news of Jesus Christ.

When we disobey God, the consequences are far worse than we could imagine. But God is faithful in keeping his promises. God has not abandoned his people. He has sent us a Savior to save his people from their sins.

A Mess From Top to Bottom (Judges 17-18)

We're getting toward the end of the book of Judges. I figure it's as good a time as any to ask the question: what is the point of this book? The author wasn't just recording history. These authors were expert writers who were communicating something through the stories. That's why it's important to spend some time thinking about what the author was trying to get across in writing the book of Judges.

The most common view of why Judges was written comes from a statement that is repeated four times in the last five chapters of the book: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Some people say that the author was arguing that the problem with Israel is that they needed a king. In other words, it's building a case for a king like David. But I'm not so sure about this view. The writer doesn't paint a very positive view of leaders as the solution to the problems of Israel.

I believe there is another purpose, one that is just as relevant to us today as it was when it is written. Like an expert storyteller, the writer includes two stories at the end of the book of Judges that bring the problem right to our doorstep. I'd like to look at the first of these two stories with you today, and explain how the problem he's addressing is still a problem that we are facing today.

The Problem with Micah

We read in Judges 17:1-2:

Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim said to his mother, "The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it."

Then his mother said, "The LORD bless you, my son!"

By itself, this story seems rather insignificant. I'm sure that many parents have discovered that money has disappeared from their purse or wallet, and they find out that somebody's fingers in the family have become a bit sticky.

Here a mother discovers that eleven hundred shekels is missing, and she curses the one who took it. To give you an idea of what eleven hundred shekels is worth, it's the amount that each of the Philistine governors gave Delilah for betraying Samson. Later we read of a priest who gets a salary of 10 shekels a year, so this money is worth over a hundred years salary. So we're talking about a huge amount of money here. This isn't $20 going missing from your wallet. This is your whole life's savings going missing.

When you hear of a son stealing this amount of money from his own mother, you have to ask, "What is wrong with the boy?" There's obviously a huge moral defect in this son. You just don't go around stealing your mother's life savings. That's just not what being a good son is all about. It's also interesting that Micah doesn't return the money out of remorse. He was motivated by superstition - he heard his mother utter a curse and didn't want the curse to come true.

I read this and think that something really stinks about this whole situation. But then we read and realize that the problem is a whole lot bigger than it first appears.

The Problem with the Family

We don't just have a problem with a son here. It turns out that we have a problem with a whole family. How do you respond when your son returns what he's stolen from you? She responds by saying, "The LORD bless you, my son!" - which isn't exactly how I would react.

But then you realize that she has issues too. Verses 3-4 say:

When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, "I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make an image overlaid with silver. I will give it back to you."

So after he returned the silver to his mother, she took two hundred shekels [b] of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who used them to make the idol. And it was put in Micah's house.

She sounds godly. She wants to dedicate this money to the LORD. But she doesn't present her gift to the priests at Shiloh, where she should have gone. Instead, she gives only 200 shekels out of the 1,100. And what does she do with it? She makes an idol with it. First, we're talking about only about five pounds of silver, which wouldn't have made that impressive an idol. But an idol? Whether it's impressive or not, what is she doing making an idol?

It gets worse. Red verses 5 and 6: "Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some household gods and installed one of his sons as his priest. In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."

So we have more than a problem with a boy, we have a problem with a whole family here.

Does anybody here know of families that have problems, even serious ones? Sure, we all do. At this point you can just say that we have a family with some serious issues. Except - and watch this - we're being sucked in. There's a problem with a boy. Fine. But the problem isn't just with the boy, it's with the whole family. Fine. But then, the author expands the scope. It turns out that there's an even bigger problem.

The Problem with Spiritual Leaders

The problem isn't just with a son or a family. You start to get a glimpse of the bigger problem as the story zooms out another level. In verse 7 we're introduced to a young Levite who passes through looking for a place to stay. Levites were the priestly tribe of Israel. This tribe was given responsibility for the spiritual leadership of Israel.

Micah meets him, and realizes that this is a golden opportunity. Micah has appointed his own son as priest, but here is his chance to hire a real professional. Micah says to him, "Live with me and be my father and priest, and I'll give you ten shekels of silver a year, your clothes and your food" (Judges 17:10). The young priest agrees, and we read the results in verses 12 and 13: "Then Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in his house. 13 And Micah said, "Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest."

What we don't read right away is who this young priest is. Maybe the author is keeping the man anonymous so that we generalize. This nameless priest could be any priest. He represents the entire tribe. But we read in the next chapter, in Judges 18:30, that this priest indeed has a name: Jonathan. Not only is his name Jonathan, but we also read that he is the grandson of Moses.

What's wrong with hiring a priest? If you are a Levite, you are not supposed to make your services available to the highest bidder. Not only does this priest hire himself out, but he does so at someone's private, idolatrous shrine. He's become a chaplain to a family's idolatrous worship. Micah thinks that God will bless him because he's hired this priest. Daniel Block writes:

In the words of Malachi, the heirs of "the covenant of Levi" have corrupted their high calling. Instead of serving as an agent of life and peace, revering Yahweh and standing in awe of his name, offering truthful and righteous instruction...turning Micah back from iniquity...this Levite has himself apostatized...The religious establishment in Israel has been thoroughly infected with the Canaanite disease.

And don't forget. This isn't just any priest. This is the grandson of Moses. Things have gone downhill fast.

So you have a problem with a son, but the problem isn't just with a son. The problem is with a whole family. But the problem isn't just with a whole family. It turns out that the problem is also with the religious leadership. We're talking about the corruption of the pastoral ministry. But - and you know this is coming - the problem is even bigger than that.

The Problem with a Whole Tribe

We start out thinking that the problem is with a son. Then we realize it's an entire family, then the entire religious establishment. But then we come across some Danites in chapter 18. We read:

In those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. So the Danites sent five of their leading men from Zorah and Eshtaol to spy out the land and explore it. These men represented all the Danites. They told them, "Go, explore the land." (Judges 18:1-2)

The problem that the Danites faced is not that they weren't given an allotment of land. Instead, they had failed to take possession of the land that God had given them. Instead of seeking God's help to conquer their allotted territory, they instead went looking for land elsewhere.

So in verse 3, they stop in Micah's house and recognize the priest's voice - most likely his southern accent. They discover that Micah has a personal priest. A little later, they return with a bit of an army to try to take some land. On the way, the spies realize that Micah's house contains everything they need to set up a religious shrine, so they go to steal it. When the priest sees this, he protests, until they make him an offer. "Be quiet! Don't say a word. Come with us, and be our father and priest. Isn't it better that you serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man's household?" (Judges 18:19) Look at how the priest responded: "The priest was very pleased. He took the ephod, the household gods and the idol and went along with the people" (Judges 18:20).

This still happens today, by the way. Daniel Block writes:

The question the Danites posed to him is asked every day by pastoral search committees: "Which is better, to be the pastor of a small family or to be the pastor of a megachurch?" The contemporary problem of ambition and opportunism in the ministry has at least a three-thousand-year history.

The priest goes with them, and in verse 27 we learn that they attack and burn the city of Laish, "a peaceful and unsuspecting people." And the story ends in verses 28-30:

The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. They named it Dan after their ancestor Dan, who was born to Israel—though the city used to be called Laish. There the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. They continued to use the idol Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.

The problem, it turns out, is not with a son or a family or a priest or even the whole religious establishment. The problem is with an entire tribe of the nation. The entire tribe has been corrupted. In fact, the good guys - Israel - have become the bad guys, and the bad guys - the Canaanites - have become the good guys, "a peaceful and unsuspecting people." Israel hasn't just sunk to the level of the Canaanites. They're now even worse.

You've got sons stealing from mothers, mothers building idols, priests for hire to the highest bidder, idolatrous worship, the slaughter of peaceful people. It's a mess. The corruption is at every level. There isn't a single admirable character in these chapters. "No one displays any devotion to Yahweh;" writes Block, "no one demonstrates any concern for national well-being; no one behaves with any integrity." The integrity of the entire nation is at stake.

Understanding the Real Problem

So with this story in mind, and everything that we've covered so far, what is the point of the book of Judges? I think this is the perfect story to get to the root of the purpose and the relevance of Judges. I want to get at it in two ways: by asking what is our problem? And what is the solution?

What is our problem? Judges is clear that we have a problem, and it's a serious one. It's not a problem of a person or a family or a particular pastor or a particular group. It's every person, every family, every pastor, and every group. And it's not just a problem of people who lived long ago and far away. It's our problem too.

One commentator writes:

We must not be so naive to imagine this to be a problem confined to ancient Israel or to primitive tribal communities. The essence of idolatry is to want to bring God within our pockets, so as to control him. Foolishly, we imagine that we can deal with the source of life on the same level as ourselves, so we can bribe him, or drive a bargain, or compel him to give us what we want out of life. Above all, and at all costs, what natural human beings want is a god that will not make demands on our lives. (D. Jackman)

I think we need to be clear that this is our problem too. The problem is idolatry. It has affected each of us. John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. Idolatry happens any time we make good things ultimate things, when we value anything more than we do God. Ironically, idol worshipers often think they are worshiping God, and do not realize that, like Micah and the whole tribe of Dan, they have made a religion in which God revolves around them. Idolatry is the default mode of the heart, and it has affected all of us.

Judges is written to tell us that we have a problem. The problem is not what we think it is. It's much deeper. You may remember what English author G.K. Chesterton wrote in answer to the question, "What's wrong with the world?" He wrote, "I am." I don't know of any book that brings this home more than the book of Judges. We can't look at others as the problem. The problem is us. But it's not just us. What's true of us as individuals is true of our families, our religious leadership, and in fact our entire groups.

We're often guilty of the very thing that we found in today's story. We do not act as if we exist to serve and adore God; instead, we use God as a means to an end. Instead of serving God, we want God to serve us, our dreams, and our requests. We still believe in God, but our lives don't revolve around him. We expect God to adapt to us.

Judges is important because we have a tendency to underestimate our problem. Judges, and in fact the whole BIble, won't let us away with this. What is the problem with your life, and what is the problem with our church? We could answer that we need to lose ten pounds or make more money or get a little more organized. At the church level you could say that we need better leadership or better structures. But Judges points us to a much deeper problem, and the solutions have to go beyond trying harder or getting a new leader. The problem with the world is us. The problem is that we need new hearts.

So what is the solution? A lot of people think that the purpose of Judges is to argue for kingship. Judges 18:1 says, "In those days Israel had no king." A lot of people take their cues from this and think that Judges was written to point out the need for a king to change people's hearts; in other words to build a defense for David's kingship.

But if you know anything about David and the other kings of Israel, you know that they sometimes provided help, but often they were no better than the judges. This book doesn't give a rosy view of leadership as the answer to every problem. In fact, the problem is with leaders. We are all the problem. The problem is much deeper than a new king or a new pastor or a new leader can fix. The problems are far too deep. A new leader can help, but there's a much deeper problem.

I believe that Judges was written to God's people to demonstrate the depth of the problem, and to call us to the only solution, which is a return to the God we have abandoned. In other words, it is a book that shows us our condition and that calls us to repentance.

We, as North American Christians, have largely forgotten the covenant Lord, and have taken his gracious work on our behalf for granted. Like the people of Israel, we have been squeezed into the mold of the world around us. We are preoccupied with materialism; we worship on our own terms; our values are similar to the world around us. We have reluctant to hear God's call into service. We are prone to pray, "My kingdom come" rather than "They kingdom come." We fight the Lord's battle with our own resources. We do not live God's priorities. Judges shows us that this is our problem, and it also shows us where it all leads. It's not a pretty picture.

The problem is that we need help, and that help has to come from outside of ourselves, because all of us have been affected. We have all fallen in the pit, as it were, and therefore nobody is able to lift us out. We need someone to help us who is not part of the problem.

There is a leader who eventually does come, who has not fallen into the pit, and he alone is able to solve the problem with this world. He is the Judge that Israel, a King who is better than David. His name is Jesus. Judges invites us to return to God in repentance, and the rest of the Bible comes in to tell us that God has provided a Judge, the Judge that these people never had, the Judge that we desperately need to deliver us not only from our enemy, but from ourselves.

I'm going to invite you to come to that Judge this morning. His name is Jesus. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Our salvation is 'from outside ourselves' (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ...What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures.

It's found in Christ. Let's turn to him in repentance today.

The Danger of Strength (Judges 13-16)

What does it take for a person to be used by God in an extraordinary way? If God wants to move and to do something really unique, what kind of person does he choose? I've been thinking about these questions.

I spent some time thinking about people that God has used in my life. I thought of a preacher. I don't know him personally, but I heard him preach almost thirty years ago, and to this day I can still tell you what he said. I remember being captivated as I heard him speak. Just the other week I met with some friends who were also at the same service, and they said, "Remember when we went to hear that guy preach?" Not everyone can preach in a way that different people remember the same sermon thirty years later. He was a mean with extraordinary preaching gifts.

I thought of some of the preachers on my iPod. I have two or three people on there, and their sermons are consistently good. They have a way of expressing themselves. In some cases entire churches have risen up around their speaking abilities. They have a way of communicating that makes truth come alive.

I have a friend who started a church five years ago in one of the most challenging cities in America. His church has grown like crazy. A magazine for pastors arrived in my mailbox not long ago. I opened it and saw a full page picture of him along with an interview and a recommendation for his book, which is a really good book by the way. I'm excited for him. He's uniquely gifted and God is using him.

Then I thought of some of the dead whose lives have long been over, but whose influence continues: Martin Luther, who changed the course of church history and helped us rediscover the gospel; John Bunyan, a tinkerer who fixed pots and pans, and who wrote a novel that's one of the great works of English literature; Jonathan Edwards, a brilliant thinker and a spark in the revival they call The Great Awakening; C.S. Lewis, who called himself "the most reluctant convert in England," and yet who wrote one of the clearest books exploring Christianity, and volumes of other great works.

I could go on. What all of these people have in common is that they have unique and, I guess you would say, exceptional gifts. You look at them and realize that they have extraordinary gifts that have been used by God in such a way that they have a huge influence. I guess you would have to say that God uses people to who have exceptional gifts.

As a result, we're always looking for that unique person to follow. We live at a time in which the really exceptional individuals can become prominent. So if I asked you to name some people that God is really using across North America at the present time, you would probably come up with five or six people that most of us would recognize from TV or radio or books. We look to these people to set the pace, and we realize that we'll never be these people. It's not that God won't use us; we just don't expect as much because we're not exceptional in the same way. These people are extraordinary, which by definition means they're not like the rest of us.

I don't want to put down these exceptional people. I'm grateful for them. I know that a lot of them didn't ask for the prominence or influence that they have. God has given them exceptional gifts, and with that comes a lot of responsibility and pressure. So I pray for them. I pray that God would continue to use them and that they would stay faithful.

Samson's Exceptional Gifts

But I'd like to look at a story today that calls into question whether we're really looking at the right things when we look at the people we think God is going to use. We're going to look at the life of an extraordinary man, and we're going to realize that in the end, extraordinary gifts aren't always what God uses. Today we're looking at the most famous judge in the book of Judges. If you had to compile a list of the most gifted people in the Bible and throughout history, he would have to appear on that list. His name is Samson.

In all of history, there are few people who showed the promise that Samson did. The story of his birth takes an entire chapter. You can make a short list of people whose birth was miraculous and announced by angels and miracles: Isaac, Samuel, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Samson. Before he's even born, God's hands are on this kid. We read:

You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines (Judges 13:5)

This is completely unparalleled. I think this is the only case of a lifetime Nazirite. Nazirites were men or women who voluntarily dedicated themselves to God's service for a limited period of time. For the time that you were a Nazirite, you could not take alcohol, touch a corpse, or get your hair cut. When the temporary period was over, you could go back to normal.

We read a couple of verses later that Samson is to be a "Nazrite of God from the womb until the day of his death" (Judges 13:7). Samson is unique. He's a Nazirite, but not for a limited time, and not voluntarily. He's chosen by God to be a lifelong Nazirite, somebody whose entire life is dedicated to God in sacrificial service.

At the end of the chapter we read, "He grew and the LORD blessed him, and the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him" (Judges 13:24-25). He is most likely to succeed, what they call a wunderkind - a person who achieves great success when relatively young.

Once in a while, somebody comes on the scene, and it's clear that God's hand is all over that person. Before we had kids, I used to debate nature versus nurture. I wondered how much of the way kids turned out is because of the way they're raised. Then I had children, and the debate was over. Children don't arrive in this world as blank slates. They arrive with certain bents, and of course nurture plays a role too. Here is somebody who shows up who is, both by divine design and the way that he is raised, meant to make a difference.

And we see that Samson does demonstrate extraordinary ability:

  • When attacked by a lion, he tears the lion apart with his bare hands, "as he might have torn a young goat" (Judges 14:6). That makes it sound like it's easy to tear apart a young goat with your hands. Personally, I'm impressed if you're tough enough to tear apart a young goat. To tear apart an attacking lion is way beyond impressive.
  • When he loses a bet and has to pay the wager - thirty pieces of clothing - he doesn't buy the clothes. He goes to a major Philistine city, kills thirty men, and takes their garments to pay the winners who won the bet. No idea how he can go into a major enemy city, kill thirty men, and return with their clothes.
  • When he gets angry with some Philistines, he catches three hundred jackals, ties their tails together, lit their tails, and sent then into grain and orchards. Think about what it would take to do that.
  • When he's bound, he's able to break the ropes like they're nothing. He's then able to use a fresh jawbone as a weapon. Fresh bones were not yet dried out and hard, and therefore less useful as a weapon. But it was enough for Samson to kill a thousand men.
  • When Philistine men lay in wait for him, he not only gets past them but he unlocked the huge city gates and their bards, put them on his shoulders, and carried them away.

I know a lot of this is gruesome, but it's supposed to be. Samson was born to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistine enemies. He shows that his strengths are more than equal to the task. This man can do practically anything.

Samson has been announced by angels before he's born. He has superhuman strength. He wins fights with the enemy without seeming to even try. He is one of the most gifted and capable people in history. No deliverer in the book of Judges matches his potential.

Samson is the child prodigy who shows talent at an early age; the author whose every book is a bestseller; the preacher that can't help but pack out the church every time he preaches. He is, actually, a picture of Israel: chosen by God, brought into being by his power, commissioned at an early age, dedicated to God.

Yet in looking at Samson, we come to realize that his life is a downward spiral into tragedy, the story of a great leader who squanders everything that he has been given and never lives up to his potential. Despite all of his gifts, he wastes his life. In the end, the best thing that he ever does is die. He accomplishes more by dying than he ever did by living. Talk about a wasted life.

Samson's Wasted Life

Do you realize that in Samson's entire life, despite all of his strengths, he never once leads an army into battle against the Philistines? His whole life is a series of personal crusades based on his whims and desires.

Not to mention all the times that he violated his Nazirite vows. He wasn't supposed to drink wine, yet he is attacked by a lion near a vineyard, and spends a week drinking with his Philistine buddies. He wasn't supposed to touch a corpse, yet he tears animals apart; he eats honey out of the carcass, and he uses a donkey jawbone as a weapon.

He was supposed to deliver Israel from the Philistines, right? Instead, he takes a Philistine wife and frequents a Philistine prostitute. He violates his Nazirite covenant at every turn. He is foolishly arrogant, rash, insolent, impetuous, and he gets himself into all kinds of compromising situations. He's drawn to idols - the idols in his life are foreign women. Never in the entire narrative does he act in anyone's interest but his own.

Eventually, he falls in love with a Philistine woman, Delilah, and gets entangled with her and loses his strength. Why? His strength wasn't in his hair. The reason that he lost his strength is much more serious than that. Judges 16:20 says, "He did not know that the LORD had left him." Daniel Block, a commentator on Judges, writes:

To be abandoned by God is the worst fate anyone can experience. Now the divinely chosen agent of Yahweh has lost him. Samson's game is over. For a whole chapter he had been playing with his God-given talent; now he discovers that he has frittered it all away.

God raises up this man and gives him extraordinary gifts, but in the end walks away from him. Gifts aren't enough for God to use him.

Even at the end of Samson's life, with his eyes gouged out, Samson prays to God which is good, but he prays a very self-centered prayer. "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" (Judges 16:28). No mention of the national emergency or the divine agenda he was supposed to fulfill. No thought of God's long-range plan. He's completely self-absorbed.

But - God answered his prayer. The Nazirite, set apart from God's service, pulls down the pillars of the temple and dies with the enemy. The narrator comments, "Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived" (Judges 16:30). That's not a compliment. It's tragic. "This man, with his unprecedented high calling and with his extraordinary divine gifts, has wasted his life. Indeed, he accomplishes more for God dead than alive" (Daniel Block).

Israel is better off with the death of Samson than they ever were with his life. It's a wasted life, a tragedy. It's only at the end that you see even a glimpse of his promise.

Somebody's written:

Samson is the archetypal strong man who could defeat his enemies in battle but could not control his sensual appetites. Most tragic heroes are afflicted by a single dominant flaw of character, but Samson exhibits multiple flaws. We can bring them into focus by completing the formula "the dangers of...": the dangers of self-reliance, physical strength, success, appetite, self-indulgence, overconfidence, susceptibility to women of questionable character, religious complacency, recklessness, misplaced trust, squandered gifts from God, and broken vows. (ESV Literary Study Bible)

Another person comments, "Never has so much been given to someone who accomplished so little."

Spiritual Fruit and Ministry

What do you make of all of this? I asked you at the start of this sermon what it takes for a person to be used in an extraordinary way. We said that God uses people to who have exceptional gifts. I think of many of the people that I mentioned - the extraordinary preachers, the thinkers and writers and other people who have had a huge influence. But as I think about it now, their strengths are only part of the picture. The preacher I heard thirty years ago, whose sermon was riveting - he's a great preacher, but I'm not sure he's a great man. We really value gifts, but you can have all the gifts in the world and still end up wasting your life.

I actually think we need to revise this now. Samson had exceptional gifts, but he does not represent someone that God uses in an extraordinary way. He represents someone who wasted his talents, and who in the end wasted his life.

I don't understand why some people are extraordinarily gifted by God, even though they're anything but godly. Remember Amadeus, the movie about Mozart? Mozart's contemporary, Antonio Salieri, prayed as a young man, "Let me make music that will glorify you, Father. Help me lift the hearts of people to heaven. Let me serve you through my music"

God didn't answer that prayer. Salieri never became that great musician. But Mozart did. Mozart dazzled the crowds, playing music as if it was second nature to him. His melodies were complex and fun all at the same time, songs that soared till they seemed to bring heaven right down to earth. Yet Mozart was an obvious sinner. He was immature, vulgar, and obscene. He made off with the ladies every chance he could get. Salieri never understood why God chose to give Mozart extraordinary gifts and not him.

The problem is that we often confuse spiritual gifts with spiritual maturity, and spiritual maturity is far more important than exceptional spiritual gifts. We tend to confuse the two, and it's one of our most deadly mistakes. You may not be a person of exceptional spiritual gifts, but through the power of the Spirit you have the potential to be a person of spiritual maturity. And these are the people - not those with exceptional gifts - that God delights in using.

Spiritual gifts, extraordinary gifts, are nice. But you can have all the gifts in the world and end up wasting your life. In the end, what God uses is not people with extraordinary gifts. It's people who are moving toward spiritual maturity. It's people who come to understand and apply the gospel, no matter how much or how little they're gifted.

In the refection quote today, Tim Keller gets at this. What he says about pastors and church leaders is true of all of us:

Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don't need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn't based on their performance.

You don't need strengths like Samson. You need repentance, and a knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. Spiritual maturity is far more important than spiritual gifts.

Robert Murray McCheyne was a Scottish minister back in the 1800s. He was only 29 when he died. The week before he died, he preached on Isaiah 60:1: "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you."

They found a letter by his bedside when he died. The letter was from someone who heard him preach his last sermon. That sermon, the letter said, brought him to Christ, but it wasn't what he said in the sermon. That's just what a preacher loves to hear. It's what he saw in McCheyne. "I saw the glory of the Savior resting on you." It wasn't his gifts that counted in the end; it was the glory of the LORD in the life of this man. Spiritual maturity is far more important than spiritual gifts.

By the way, Samson also reminds us of the one who is able to bring about these gifts in our life. Samson is a foil for Jesus. They are polar opposites in attitude and action. Samson's concerns were about Samson; Christ, on the other hand, emptied himself of self-interest, self-determination, and self-glorification.

He made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
(Philippians 2:7-8)

In his death, Samson cared more about personal revenge, not God's plan to deliver the Israelites. In Christ's death, Jesus laid aside self-interest for the Father's plan to be fulfilled.

It doesn't matter how gifted you are. The one who turns to that Jesus, who has the same attitude of mind that Christ Jesus did, and through the power of the gospel becomes transformed - that, not the gifted individual, is the person that God uses.

Father, we are so impressed with those who have exceptional gifts. But in your kingdom, it isn't the gifted or the strong that you use. You have chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.

Therefore we will boast all the more gladly about our weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on us. That is why, for Christ's sake, we delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when we are weak, then we are strong.

Teach us that spiritual maturity is more important than spiritual gifts. And draw us to the One who has the power to change us. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Knowing God (Judges 10:6-11:38)

I'll never forget the day. I was young, maybe 12 or 13. My brother came rushing in the house covered with paint. It turns out that he and a friend had been over at the church doing some painting. They started arguing about theology. One was a Calvinist, who believed in God's sovereignty. One was an Arminian, who believed in free will among human beings. One thing led to another, and before you knew it they were throwing paint at each other. They ruined a perfectly good day and some cans of paint with an argument about theology.

It's easy to see why people don't like theology. Theology means the study of God, which sounds like it should be okay. But we've all met people who delighted in taking the most obscure points and who have split hairs. They don't have time for anyone who believes any differently than they do. We've also all sat through sermons where the preacher has gone on endlessly about some idea that excited him, but to us it was as interesting as the small print on a contract.

When I go to a mechanic, I don't want to get a lecture on how cars work. I just want them to fix the car. And, by the same measure, people say that they don't come to church to learn theology. Leave that up to the scholars. Many are tired of all the talk about theology.

I've even heard pastors - lots of them - say something like this:

We've had enough talking. It's time for action. I don't preach theology. I think that people need to have an experience of God. People need to know how to relate. I'm into helping people who come on Sunday morning to have an experience. I don't give much time to theology. One thing I've learned is that you don't preach doctrine. Preach to people's needs.

I can understand this view, I really can. Preaching theology isn't a crowd-pleaser. We've all seen it done badly. It's much easier to find something that can relate right to our needs, and to leave the theological discussions for the ivory towers.

But before we decide to downplay theology, we may want to consider the story of this man. His name was Jephthah, a tragic character who lived years ago. His story is strange, but I think you'll soon discover that his story may cause us to reconsider brushing aside theology in our lives and our churches.

The Tragic Life of Jephthah

We've been working through the book of Judges these past couple of months. Judges contains a series of stories about - as you may have guessed - judges. These weren't judges like we're used to. They were tribal chiefs who delivered Israel from oppression. The cycle of disobedience, oppression, regret, and deliverance continues like a downward spiral in this book, until, as we saw last week, things fall apart within the lifetime of one of these judges, and God has to deliver Israel not from an enemy nation, but from one of their own leaders.

Today we come to the story of one of these cycles. You can tell things are getting worse. Last time they went through one of these cycles, God sent a prophet before he sent a judge to deliver them. He wanted to call them back to the covenant he had made with them. This time, again, the people disobey and are oppressed. God this time doesn't send a judge or even a prophet to save the people. Judges 10:11-14 says:

The Lord replied, "When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!"

God is both reminding them that he has saved them in the past, but scolds them for their ungrateful response. There's a big difference between regret and repentance. God knows they regret the situation that they're in. Repentance is turning away from sin and turning back to God. Regret is when you're sorry you've been caught.

God knew they hadn't repented. He knows they just want to use him to get out of their difficult circumstances. He's heard them in the past, but this time he says no more.

But then they intensify their cry. It still looks like a conversion of convenience. They haven't really changed. I don't really know what the end of verse 16 means: "He could bear Israel's misery no longer." Does this mean that God changed his mind once again and agreed to deliver them? Or does it mean that he just got exasperated and withdrew his help from Israel? I don't know for sure - but I do know that God is silent in the rest of this passage. There is no mention of God raising up a judge. There is no mention of God strengthening him.

Instead, the people go looking for their own judge. They remember a man named Jephthah. He's essentially a gang leader. He used to be part of Israel, but he had a dysfunctional past and was no longer part of his family. Judges 11 reads:

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead's wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. "You are not going to get any inheritance in our family," they said, "because you are the son of another woman." So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him. (Judges 11:1-3)

By any standard, Jephthah came from a dysfunctional family. He was rejected by his own family for financial reasons. He still made something of his life, becoming a freedom fighter or a gang leader, depending on your perspective. If you come from the right family and have all the right connections, you can reach positions of power without even really trying. But to become a leader after growing up with rejection and dysfunction says something. Jephthah has something: male aggression, drive, leadership ability, maybe even anger. He became a warrior, and he and his group developed a reputation.

He developed so much of a reputation that when Israel goes looking for someone to fight the Ammonites, Jephthah's name comes up. I'm sure that they kept trying to think of other names, knowing that they would have to eat some major crow in asking him to come back and rescue them. But evidently, there weren't a lot of other options. So they send a committee and go to see him.

This must have been an enjoyable moment for Jephthah. It's like when the people who used to pick on you come back to you begging for your help. Jephthah says to them, "Didn't you hate me and drive me from my father's house? Why do you come to me now, when you're in trouble?" (Judges 12:7) But the elders are willing to swallow their pride. They need help desperately, and they've decided that he's the man.

Sometimes stories tell us a lot by what's not said. Notice that in selecting Jephthah as leader, God is nowhere to be found. "Far from playing the decisive role, as he had in the provision of all the other judges, God is relegated to the role of silent witness to a purely human contract between a desperate leader and an ambitious candidate" (Daniel Block).

If we're honest, we have to admit that we're tempted to do the same thing today. There are a lot of times that we get into trouble, and we go looking for something to save us. We try to find our own solutions, often without looking at the underlying problems. In this case, Israel never really considered repentance as an option. They went for the quick fix, and they included God only as an afterthought.

By this point in the story, we're not expecting much. What could you expect from a son of a prostitute, the product of a dysfunctional family, a gang leader, somebody chosen without any input from God?

You wouldn't expect much, but surprisingly, Jephthah looks like he's going to pull it off. Instead of going right to battle, he tries to negotiate, arguing not only with history but with theology. Jephthah is a man who takes God seriously:

  • He refers to God as Jehovah, which was the covenant name of God, more than any other person in the book of Judges.
  • When he goes to battle, the text says that the Spirit of the LORD came upon him. This is said of only three other judges.
  • Before he went to battle, he presented himself to the LORD.

Against all odds, Jephthah is taking God seriously. He's making all the right moves. He appears to have faith in God, and things are looking really good.

But right before going to battle, Jephthah makes a huge mistake. Read verses 30-31:

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."

There's a lot of debate about what Jephthah is doing here. Is he promising to sacrifice an animal to God, or a human? I've looked at both sides, and to be completely honest I'm not sure. But I am sure of one thing: Jephthah was heavily influenced by his belief that you could bargain with God like the Canaanites bargained with their gods. He thought he knew about God, but what he knew came more from culture than it did from Scripture.

In the nations surrounding Israel, sacrificing your child to the gods was at the pinnacle of spirituality. It was the height of piety. Jephthah had learned more about spirituality from the culture than from God himself. He thought, "If I promise to God what is most precious to me, I can get God to do what I want."

It's the same problem that we face today. By the time that we sit down to read Scripture or to listen to a sermon, we are so shaped by culture that we're already conditioned to approach God. David Fitch puts it this way:

We ask parishioners to sit and take notes on sermons on Sunday morning. Meanwhile their souls, character, and imaginations are being formed by the culture technologies of the Cineplex, the television, the university, or the local Starbucks...While parishioners sitting in the pews are agreeing with doctrines intellectually, their so-called autonomous minds are being compromised before they even come to church. They can no longer hear the preacher's words alone apart from the ways of seeing the world. (The Great Giveaway)

The real problem for Jephthah - and the real problem for us as well - is that the ways that we think about the world are formed more from the world than they are formed by God's world - the world of Scripture and his kingdom. And here is where it leads.

Jephthah goes to battle. We read that the Spirit came upon him, and "the LORD gave them into his hands" (Judges 11:32). But then the unthinkable happened:

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break." (Judges 11:34-35)

It's interesting - Jephthah seems to blame her for what happened. He's crying, and they're not tears of joy. When his daughter realizes what happens, she tells him to keep his vow, but asks for two months to mourn that she would never have children. Because of Jephthah's vow, there will be no descendants. It's the end of Jephthah's blood line. We read the awful words in verse 39: "After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed."

The really sad thing about the vow is that he didn't have to make it. If he had just read the Scriptures, he would have known from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that God forbade human sacrifice. All he had to do was open a Bible:

You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)

A vow is a vow, but if Jephthah had read the Scriptures, he would have known that there was a way to break a vow before God. Leviticus 27 allowed someone to pay twenty shekels to the priest as compensation for the life of his daughter. It's not exactly the same situation, but it certainly would have applied. If only he had known. If only he had read the Scriptures.

Haddon Robinson says:

We have churches in every community, sometimes on every corner. We have bookstores that sell Bibles. We have radio programs that have a continued array of preachers. We have television stations devoted to preacher after preacher. But how much do [we]...know about God? Not much, if you listen to the pollsters. They say the knowledge is very meager. Not very much, if you listen to the radio...Not very much, if you watch the religious television programs and the trivia that passes for religion...

Jephthah ends up winning a victory. He ends up being listed as an example of faith in Hebrews 11, which lists the great examples of faith. But what he doesn't know about God costs him, just like it costs us today.

Why Knowing God is Crucial

I began this morning by explaining why some of us are turned off by theology. We've seen the fights. We have endured the boring lectures. We have experienced enough bad theology to last a lifetime. The solution, for many people, is to get rid of theology altogether and to simply focus on what's practical.

I got an e-mail this week that said, "Forget your programs and denominational doctrines and theology. Throw out your religious-speak. Just give me more of Jesus. I want a relationship with the Triune God. If you can show people how to achieve that...Everything else will fall into place."

I know what he means. I'm all for getting rid of bad theology and irrelevant theological debates. But if you want to see where forgetting doctrines and theology gets us, then you have to look at Jephthah. It's not a formula for success. It's a formula for killing your daughter. In fact, as one person has said, the more faith you have in God, the more dangerous you are if your knowledge of God is not accurate.

Listen to what J.I. Packer says in Knowing God:

Knowing God is crucially important for the living of our lives...We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentenced yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.

What we need - what we really need - is not more bad theology, but the best type of theology, the stuff that can really change our lives, and indeed our church, and then the world: to know God; to know all about him; to understand the Gospel; to let it soak into our minds down into our hearts and to every part of our lives; to understand who Christ is and what he has done for us at the cross. That's what will keep us from being Jephthah's. If you're looking at something practical that will change your life, there is nothing more practical than good theology that soaks down from your head to your soul.

Knowing God, and knowing about him, is crucially important for the living of our lives. There's nothing more practical, nothing more helpful, than really understanding and then living what God has revealed about himself.

Father, we live in a world that focuses on the practical, what works. We are always looking for the bottom line, and we often buy into the irrelevance of knowing about something, even about you.

This morning we have seen where this leads.

So would you help us to see the importance of knowing you, of really understanding in great detail who you are and what you have done for us. May we meditate on your Word day and night. May the gospel sink deep into our minds and then into our souls so that it shapes everything about us. Would you help us avoid living like Jephthah's, and instead make us into people who are renewed by the transforming of our minds. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.

When Good People Go Bad (Judges 7-9)

Well, it happened again. Just over a week ago, I was reading the newspaper about a horrific crime that had happened in the city. The details of the crime aren't what I want to highlight; what I want to highlight is a description that seems to be more common than I'd like that goes something like this:

A church-going dad accused...was always a "gentle giant" and a "solid Christian" who had a great relationships...He showed no signs of mental illness, didn't have a temper, and was never violent or abusive, said one of his best friends. "He wasn't evil, he wasn't bad, he wasn't twisted. He wasn't anything (like that). He was just a great guy, a gentle giant, a fun guy. He was a great father."

Somebody else said of the man charged with this crime, "He was a regular guy...He's a church-going guy. Nobody expected this."

You've had this experience. Have you ever really looked up to somebody within the church, wishing that if you could be half as spiritually mature as they are, only to be crushed with disappointment when they let you down badly? It's the same experience as when we hear about the church treasurer or secretary that everybody trusted who, it turns out, had been skimming money from the offerings for years. It's the same experience as when yet another pastor is found to have been living a double life.

What do you do with this? How do you keep from becoming judgmental or disillusioned? What do you do when over and over, the people who seem to be spiritually alive, maybe even powerfully used by God, are found out to be less than we thought?

There's a story I'd like to look at that will help us answer this. More importantly, it will also lead us to reflect on something that is absolutely crucial for our own futures. So follow along as we look at a case study and ask how we handle when a good person goes bad.

Gideon the Good

We've been looking at the book of Judges. Today we're continuing the story of a man named Gideon. If you know this story, I think that you would have to agree with me that by almost any standard, Gideon is a good man. Out of all of the judges in this book, God is most visible in the story of his life. Out of every judge, it is to Gideon alone that an angel appears. It's the longest story in the book of Judges, which speaks to its importance. As well, Gideon wins a resounding victory.

Centuries later, the writer of Hebrews gave Gideon as an example of someone who through faith conquered kingdoms. Even later, in our time, we have the Gideons, a Bible society that's named itself after Gideon. It's almost all good.

Of course, Gideon wasn't perfect. If you were here last week, you'll remember that Gideon didn't start out that well. When we first meet him, he was hiding in a winepress because he was scared of the Midianites, the enemies of Israel at that time. When an angel appeared to him and says that he will save Israel from the hands of the Midianites, he came up with every reason in the book why was not the man. But this almost makes Gideon more real. It helps us appreciate that he was an ordinary man. We appreciate his flaws in a way because it helps us relate to him.

But then God accomplished something unbelievable through him. Remember how scared Gideon was? You would expect God to make allowances for Gideon given his fear. Gideon was afraid of the 135,000 warriors who were lined up against him, and frankly, who can blame him? 135,000 warriors. I think I would be scared too. The text says that the Midianites were "settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore" (Judges 7:12).

Gideon had good reason to be afraid, because Gideon was vastly outnumbered. Gideon only had 32,000 warriors. He was outnumbered 4 to 1.

But what did God do? God told Gideon that he has too many warriors. He asked Gideon to dismiss anyone in his army of 32,000 who is afraid, and 22,000 leave. Now he's down to only 10,000 warriors. He's outnumbered 14 to 1. If Gideon was afraid before, he should be petrified now.

But God isn't done with him yet. God said that Gideon still has too many. God devised a plan that resulted in a further reduction in Gideon's troop strength, and Gideon ended up sending everyone but 300 people home. Gideon is down to less than 1% of the warriors that he started out with. He's outnumbered 450 to 1 now.

Why would God do this? In Judges 7:2, God said, "You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, 'My own strength has saved me.'" One of the great dangers we face is that if God uses us, or if God grants us success, then we'll take the credit.

So picture you're Gideon. Remember that he was scared. God takes someone who was scared, somebody that is compared in this chapter to a barley loaf - plain, tasteless, bland. God takes what meagre resources he had and strips them away, leaving him with practically nothing. As far as we know, God doesn't give him any battle plan. God just left him there with the assurance that everything would work out.

What happens next is brilliant. I don't know how Gideon came up with the idea, but he knew that if he had each of his 300 warriors act like army officers, the Midianites may get confused and think there's a massive army rather than just 300 guys. Ordinarily, only army officers used trumpets to give directions. The plan worked. The 300 guys blew the trumpets; the Midianites thought that behind each trumpet was a massive number or troops. They panicked and turned on each other. Gideon's plan worked. It shouldn't have, but it did.

It gets even better. Gideon had to face down an additional problem. At the beginning of chapter 8, one of the tribes of Israel, the Ephraimites, complained that they've been left out of the battle. They killed two of the Midianite leaders, but they hadn't been part of the battle and victory from the beginning.

Gideon's just defeated the enemy; now he has to deal with grumbling among his own people. How is he going to handle this? His response is brilliant. He talks them down. He gives them an incredibly diplomatic answer: "What have I accomplished compared to you? The leftover grapes from your tribe are better than the best grapes from my tribe." In other words, they accomplished far more than he did. Not only is Gideon a mighty warrior, he's also a diplomat who defuses tensions among his people.

You would expect all of this to get noticed, and it does. The people see how powerfully God is using Gideon, and they asked him, "Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian" (Judges 8:22). They've noticed God's hand on Gideon. Who wouldn't want him as their leader?

But notice Gideon's humility. Gideon replied exactly as he should: "I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you" (Judges 8:23). Gideon understood that becoming king would take too much of the credit away from God. It would replace the Lord's rule. So Gideon did exactly the right thing and encouraged people to trust in God.

You read all of this and you can't help but admire the man. He was someone that God chose to use in powerful way. He's smart, victorious, diplomatic, and humble. One Old Testament scholar has gone through this story and identified twenty admirable things about Gideon in this story. He's listed in Hebrews 11 as a hero of the faith who through faith conquered a kingdom.

I would not hesitate in choosing Gideon to serve as an elder at Richview. What's not to like? He's like many of the people, perhaps, that we look up to. I've got my list. They're smart; they are profound; they really seem to have a close relationship with God. I look up to them. It's easy to look at these people, like Gideon, and wish that we could be just like them.

I wish I could stop here. But there's a tough reality that we need to confront. It's a reality about Gideon, but it's also about the people that we look up to. If you're completely honest, then you'll also realize that it's a reality about you. We need to look at the other side of Gideon's life, because the picture I've given you so far is accurate, but it's not the whole picture. It never is. There's a dark side to Gideon, just as there is in all of us. If we don't face up to it, we're going to continually be surprised when seemingly good and godly people let us down.

Gideon the Bad

I wish that I could end at Judges 8:3, because then we could avoid the brutal truth about Gideon and ourselves. We could end with Gideon as a saint; we could avoid the hard truth that Gideon was both at the same time a sinner. He was a terrible sinner.

Just when you think that Israel finally has a good and righteous judge, things fall apart. For the very first time, it wasn't the Canaanites who led Israel into idolatry. It's a judge. It's Gideon. For the very first time, people began to backslide during the tenure of a judge.

Look at how bad things get in chapters 8 and 9.

  • When Gideon crossed the Jordan and asked for bread from the Israelite cities of Sukkoth and Peniel, they rudely turned him down. This time Gideon wasn't diplomatic. He lashed out at them and threatened to get revenge. Later, he came back and tore the flesh of the townspeople of the first city with thorns and briars, and pulled down a tower and killed the men of the other city. He's on a vendetta of revenge, killing his own people.
  • Gideon has two Midianite kings captured. He decides they have to be killed. But we discover that the reason he wants to kill them is not a noble one. He wants to kill them so he can pay them back for killing his brothers. And he doesn't want to do it himself; he asks his son to perform the killing - a boy! Again, Gideon is on a personal vendetta.
  • Remember how Gideon turned down the kingship? That was good. But his behavior afterwards was bad. Even though he turned down the kingship, he began to act like a king. He took earrings from all the plunder, and made a gold ephod weighing some forty pounds. He made his home town a religious center. "All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping [the ephod] there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family" (Judges 8:27). He may not have been a king in name, but he took all the privileges of kingship, and led the people into idolatry.
  • When Gideon died, his legacy was brutal. One of Gideon's sons set himself up as king - the first king of Israel - and murdered his seventy brothers so they're no longer a threat. Under his son, Abimelek, there was all kinds of senseless bloodshed. For example, they set fire to a tower with a thousand people inside. Read chapter 9 sometime. It's a brutal chapter. And all the slaughter, all the senseless destruction, is Gideon's legacy. At the end of the chapter, God delivers Israel, but this time not from foreign oppression. God rescues Israel by ending the life of one of Israel's leaders. Israel needs saving from itself.

Even at Gideon's finest moment, you're left wondering a little bit. Remember what Gideon's soldiers yelled as they charged the enemy? "A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!" Why did they include Gideon's name? You could make a case that Gideon was merely the human instrument that God was using, and that it was appropriate for his name to be there, and I could buy that. But you have to wonder if already Gideon was getting a little bit big for his bridges, taking a little too much credit for what was happening.

It's ironic that God whittled his army down to 300 so that they couldn't possibly take credit for the victory, and so he would have to get the glory. Ironically, this may have led to even greater pride. Gideon could brag about how great a victory he won with so few resources. What was meant to bring God greater glory may have in fact become twisted so that it led to Gideon taking more of the credit.

But you're left with this troubling picture. Gideon has all these great qualities, and was powerfully used by God. But he becomes a self-serving leader who is vengeful, and who leads Israel into idolatry. The after-effects are brutal. All of this has led one scholar to write a paper called, "Will the real Gideon please stand up?" He listed 20 admirable things about Gideon in this story, but he also lists 16 questionable elements in this story as well. He says, "The greatest threats to Israel's existence do not come from outside enemies who may occasionally oppress them. Israel's most serious enemy is within. She is a nation that appears determined to destroy herself." And leading the charge is Gideon.

So what do we make of all of this? How is it possible to be both a mighty warrior, someone greatly used by God, and at the same time be egotistical, vengeful, and idolatrous? Is Gideon a hero or a villain?

What We Learn

What this passage reveals for us is something that will help us as we struggle with other Christians who let us down. What's more, it will help us even more as we look within our own hearts and realize that we're not all that different from Gideon ourselves.

The thing that will help us the most is something that Martin Luther has taught us. Martin Luther was a Catholic monk who grew concerned with some of the abuses that he saw taking place within the church of this time. One of the teachings that Luther developed is summarized in a Latin phrase: simul iustus et peccator. It means "at the same time righteous and a sinner." In other words, those who trust in Christ are justified, declared righteous before God. We are counted righteous in God's eyes because of Christ. But at the same time we are sinners. God begins to transform us, but we are a work in progress. At the very same time as we stand righteous before God, we continue to struggle.

So, at the very same moment, we are both justified and we are sinners at the same time.This is not a condition that will ever be transcended in this life.

This has led one person to say, "Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but, through you, I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope." When we really understand the gospel, we understand that at the very same moment we are weaker and more sinful than we ever believed, but we are also more loved and accepted than we dared hope. We are at the same time righteous and sinners.

What this means is that we should never think too highly of anyone. In the end, the best of us are just like Gideon. We may be greatly used by God. We may win great victories. We may appear to be spiritual giants. But we are never that far away from completely blowing it.

George Whitefield, the famous preacher who lied in the 1700s, wrote:

I cannot pray but I sin. I cannot preach to you or any others but I sin. I can do nothing without sin; and, as one expresses it, my repentance wants to be repented of, and my tears to be washed in the precious blood of my dear Redeemer. Our best duties are as so many splendid sins.

The reality is that we're sinful enough that we can't even do good things without sinning. As Whitefield said, even our repenting needs to be repented of.

We should never be surprised by our capacity for sin. We should never pin our hopes on people, because even the most godly person will ultimately let us down.

The hymnist who penned the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing nailed it:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

The famous preacher Spurgeon once said, "For my own part, I desire constantly to stand at the foot of the cross, with no other testimony concerning myself than this — I the chief of sinners am, But Jesus died for me."

Repentance

So what do we do with this knowledge that at our best, we are still unprofitable servants? When we understand that we are, like Gideon, both righteous and sinners, what do we do?

There's only one thing we can do. If we believe that we are saved by grace through faith through the substitutionary work of Christ alone, that we are simultaneously sinners in ourselves and completely accepted in Christ - we will understand that we're sinners but infinitely loved. We're as loved now as we will be a million years from now.

This gives us the freedom to see sin everywhere in our lives. You and I begin to realize that we are sinners, just like Gideon. Because we understand that we're accepted unconditionally based on the work of Christ alone, we don't have to be in denial about our sins. We can face up to the truth that we are just like Gideon. And there's only one way to respond.

So what do we do about this? When Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, the document with started the Protestant Reformation, his first point said, "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent,' he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." The entire life of believers is to be one of repentance.

Listen: What if we really believed that we're weaker and more sinful than we dreamed, but more loved than we hoped? We would repent. My greatest prayer is that we would see the truth about ourselves like never before, and that our entire lives - the entire life of this church - would be one of joyful repentance.

Let's pray.

Father, forgive us for those times that we put people on pedestals. We're continually surprised when people that we thought were spiritually mature fall. We're always making idols out of people instead of putting our hope in you.

Today we face the truth about ourselves, and understand that we are at the same time righteous because of the work of Jesus Christ, and also sinful because the Spirit's work of sanctification is not done. The fact that we're accepted gives us the freedom to face this truth about ourselves.

May you teach us like never before that when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent,' he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. And may we live this out in our lives and in this church. By your grace and for your glory, Amen.

More Than History (Judges 6)

On Thanksgiving weekend, my brothers and my sister were comparing notes about our children after dinner. We all have good children, and we really have no right to complain, but we're going through the normal things that parents go through with their children. As we compared notes about our joys and our struggles, my mother smiled and said, "You kids weren't so different yourselves." The joys and the headaches our kids are giving us are exactly the same joys and headaches that we gave our mother when we were kid.

We are looking at the book of Judges right now, and one of the reasons is that you and I aren't so different from the people that we're looking at. The theme of this series is, "What's wrong with the world?" Often we look around and blame all kinds of people and groups for what's wrong with the world: liberals or conservatives, secular humanists, lobby groups, feminists, non-feminists, capitalists, socialists - whoever. But Judges holds up the mirror and says, "The problem with the world is you." In the book of Judges, the greatest problem wasn't the Canaanites or the people who didn't believe in God. The greatest problem, to be frank, was staring back at them in the mirror. What is wrong with the world is us.

The Problem

Today we get to one of the most detailed descriptions of oppression in the book of Judges. We read in the first verse that the people of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and then we read all the consequences of that disobedience. The Midianites overpowered them. The people of Israel fled to dens they made in the mountains and hid in caves. Every time they planted crops, the Midianites and Amalekites came and raided all of the produce. They would take everything, including the livestock. We read that these enemies were so numerous that they were like a plague of locusts that devoured absolutely everything. And verse 6 of chapter 6 says, "And Israel was brought very low because of Midian." They were made very small. They were experiencing the very opposite of what God had promised to them in the covenant. The oppression was so bad at this time that the prophet Isaiah mentioned it centuries later. This is one of the dark periods of Israel's history when everything was going wrong.

Do you ever look around and wonder why God's people aren't experiencing what he seems to have promised? God's people can get themselves into a real mess.

Someone close to me just resigned from the church where they were serving. I saw them a few months ago, and the pastor's wife lifted the sleeve of her blouse to show me a giant bruise. One of the people at the church who didn't like them had grabbed her in church after the service and left this bruise. All kinds of nasty things have been happening at that church, and I ask, "This is supposed to be the body of Christ?" We get ourselves into a real mess.

I've been reading a book lately about evangelical churches. The author writes convincingly of our call to be robust theologically, people who transcend the barriers of race, culture and social status. We should be a vibrant movement of churches that embody the kingdom of God, care for the poor, and that transform culture for the good of all people and the glory of God. But instead, the author says that many of us are living out an individualistic, consumeristic gospel. We have bought into "individualism and a consumer-oriented, homogeneous-unit-principled, safe-haven church where a family-friendly faith protects Christ's followers from those who think, look, and even sound different than they do." He goes on and talks about what someone else wrote about "pop psychology" replacing sound doctrine, as well as our preoccupation with "success, wonderful marriages and nice children," our fixation on "numerical growth and money," and our neglect of "the great social issues of the day, above all racism and the plight of the poor" (Consuming Jesus).

I read all of this and think, "This is the church?" Then we look at our own lives. Most of us, I think, long for God to really move, and for his power to be shown in our lives. But we're not experiencing it.

I don't mean to start on a negative note. However, when I read about God's people living in caves while the enemies of God thrive, I can relate. I wish I didn't, but I can.

We seem to be living less than what God promised. God's people can get into a real mess, and we're left wondering, "Why? Why aren't things the way they're supposed to be? Why aren't we experiencing God's power as we should?"

The Real Problem

Well, notice what happened when things got really bad in this passage, and the people cried out to God. Usually what happened in the cycle that repeats over and over again in the book of Judges is that when the people cried out to God, he sent them a deliverer. But not this time, at least not right away. This time, God sent them a prophet.

Why would God send a prophet instead of a deliverer? Because the reason they were living in fear in caves wasn't because of the power of the Midianites. The reason they were living in fear in caves is because they had forgotten the gospel. They had forgotten God's saving acts, and that the same God who saved his people in the past was still available to save them today. Read what the prophet said in verses 8 to 10:

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. I said to you, 'I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.' But you have not listened to me.

Why is Israel living in caves? Why have they been brought very low? Why are we today not experiencing what we should be? The problem isn't the Midianites. The problem is us. The problem is that we really don't believe the gospel - at least we don't believe it enough to transform us. We may believe it as a set of facts, but we're not living as if we really believed it. And as a result we've been brought very low, because we have forgotten the gospel.

In the rest of the chapter we have a case study of someone who personifies this, and it may surprise you who it is. Let me ask you what you think of when you hear the name Gideon. How many people think of Bibles? Gideon is definitely a household name for people who don't even know a lot about Old Testament history, because we have a group of people today who have named themselves in his honor.

For those of you who actually know the story of Gideon in the Old Testament, he is a good guy. He is one of the judges who delivers Israel when they were in this mess. He is listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the heroes of the faith. But you may not know that he is also the personification of a person who has forgotten the gospel, or who is at least left the gospel back in the history books. Virtually everything that we read about Gideon in this chapter highlights his lack of faith and his reluctance to follow God. He is an example of what the prophet has just said is wrong. In this chapter, Gideon is the personification of what's wrong with God's people. In this chapter, Gideon is just like us.

So we get to verse 11, where Gideon is beating his wheat in a winepress. If you know anything about how this was done, you know that you're supposed to do this in a wide-open space. But Gideon is doing it in a winepress. Why? He's scared. If he does this in a wide open area, he's afraid of what the Midianites will do to him.

Then an angel appears to this guy hiding in a winepress because he's scared, and the angel says, "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." There's a bit of irony here - this man hiding for safety is a mighty warrior? If so, Israel's in a lot of trouble.

Gideon responds by asking the question on everybody's mind. Why doesn't our faith and experience match? Verse 13:

"Pardon me, my lord," Gideon replied, "but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian."

In other words, Gideon asks the question that should be on all of our minds: Why are God's people in such a mess? Why, if the promises of God are true, and if God has acted so powerfully in the past - why are we in such a mess? It's interesting that the angel doesn't answer Gideon. For one thing, the prophet has already given the answer. Besides, Gideon is about to provide the answer himself through his own actions.

What happens next is that the angel calls him to be the deliverer. "The Lord turned to him and said, 'Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?'" (Judges 6:14) And for the rest of the chapter, Gideon throws up reasons why God is wrong to use him, and doubt after doubt:

  • In verse 15, he argues that he's from the wrong family, despite the fact that his family were probably aristocrats.
  • In verse 17, he asks for a sign as proof that what the angel said is true. He wants to see evidence because he can't believe what the angel says is true without seeing proof.
  • In verse 27, he pulls down the family idols, but he does it at night because he's afraid of all the townspeople.
  • And at the end of the chapter, verses 36 to 40, he famously lays down a fleece. He gives God a test, and if God passes the test, then Gideon will obey and do what God said in the first place.

I still hear people talking about laying out a fleece like Gideon did. They say, "If God really wants me to do something, then he should make the phone ring at 8:42 p.m. or make somebody say these exact words, and then I'll know that God has spoken." They say, "Lord, if you want me to do missions work, then give me a sign," and then they open their newspaper and see an ad for Hawaii, and think that God is calling them as a missionary to Hawaii.

But Gideon's fleece isn't given as a positive example. Gideon wasn't asking for God's will. He already knew God's will; he just didn't want to obey it. He's stubbornly resisting doing what he knows he should be doing. The fleece isn't a model of how to find God's will; it's an example of hesitating to obey when we already know what we should be doing.

Why was Israel in such a mess? Because they were all like Gideon, and so are we - at least those of us who claim to believe the gospel. Gideon is an example of someone who knew what God had done in the past, who has memorized the Bible verses and knows all of the theology, but who has a hard time believing that God is at work right now. The gospel - God's saving acts - is a theory to him, but it has no relevance to today. It's only a theory. The reason we're in such a big mess today is that we've left the gospel in the history books.

It is possible to believe everything that the Bible teaches - every line. It's possible to sing worship songs and talk about how God saved us. It's possible to talk about God parting the sea, and about Jesus walking on water and calming the storm, about Peter being released from prison, about Jesus being raised from the dead. It's possible to believe all of that - and then live as if it wasn't true. We believe it in our heads as a set of facts, but like Gideon we don't believe it in our hearts.

When Gideon asks the question, "If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?'" the answer is: when we forget the gospel, we lose our identities and act like everybody else. We also lose the resources to face our problems.

The same is true today. When we forget the gospel, or treat it like history, two things happen:

We lose our identities - One of the major themes of the book of Judges is that the God's people had become Canaanized. They became just like the neighboring nations, and nobody could tell the difference.

The same is true today. You've probably heard about all the studies of how our behaviors really aren't that different from the culture's. When we forget the gospel, we lose our identity and become just like everyone else around us. We believe the gospel, but it hasn't become personal for us yet. It's just history. It hasn't formed the basis of who we really are.

We all get our identities from something - from our jobs, our relationships, our power, our possessions. When we get our identities from any of these things - and they're good things - then we won't be any different from anybody else. But when we get our identity from the gospel, it will change us. Getting our identity from anything or anyone else will let us down, and we'll end up like everyone else. But when we see what Christ did for us, and when the gospel seeps into every area of our lives, it will truly change us.

When we forget the gospel, we also lose the resources to face our challenges - The people in Gideon's day had problems, and they had no idea how to handle them. We're the same. To paraphrase Andy Stanley:

Speaking from my limited view I feel like so much of our problem is that we are just scared to death. We're scared of their people, we're scared, we're scared, we're scared. The irony is we stand up and talk about Daniel in the lion's den but then we won't even confront our own situations. I think that dynamic alone is a big part of why the church is where it is. It's a fear of people. I don't know where that comes from...

So how do we handle this? We could respond by giving to-do lists - good advice on how to handle our problems, therapeutic tips, keys to relationships, and so on. But that really doesn't take the pressure off. It's still more stuff that we have to do. It turns us to ourselves to find the resources for our own struggles. If there's one thing that's clear from Gideon's day, it's that the people didn't have the resources for their problems within themselves, and neither do we.

But we don't need good advice. We need good news. When we remember what God has done - when Gideon remembers how God delivered Israel in the past, and when we remember what God accomplished through Christ for us - then we have all the resources we need to face whatever comes our way. It's why Paul could write: "God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32). It's why he could also write:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed....Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18)

Could it be that we have forgotten the gospel? When we do this, we lose our identities and we also lose the resources to face our problems. But when we remember what God has done through Christ, we have an identity that can't be taken away, and we have every resource we need to face whatever comes our way.

Let's pray.

Father, we confess that we are people of little or no faith. We're in a mess, and the reason is often because we've left the gospel in the history books. We don't live and act as if it's true today.

Thank you that you use people like Gideon, people with very little faith. Thank you that you took the disciples, to whom Jesus often said, "Oh you of little faith," and he used them to turn the world upside down.

Help us to bring the gospel out of the history books, to really grasp it, and to believe that the same God and gospel are just as powerful as ever before. We believe; help our unbelief.

As the apostle Paul prayed, may the eyes of our heart be enlightened so that we would know the hope to which you have called us, the riches of your glorious inheritance in your people, and your incredibly great power for us who believe - the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead.

Help us bring the gospel out of the history books, and experience its power today. We pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.

When God Uses People (Judges 4-5)

This past September marked the 150th anniversary of a lunch-hour prayer meeting that started in a small church in New York City. When this prayer meeting started, the nation was in turmoil. 30,000 men were idle on the streets of New York. Drunkenness was rampant, and the nation was divided by slavery.

A church at Fulton and William Street decided to relocate, and they left a man behind to start a mission in that area. His name was Jeremiah Lanphier. He walked the streets and began to notice the worried looks of the businessmen in the area. He decided to call a prayer meeting. On September 23, 1857, the lunch-hour prayer meeting started. Six people showed up a half hour late. Not a very promising start.

The group decided to meet the next week, and 14 people showed up. The week after there were 23. The following week there were 40. Within three months there were over a hundred meetings in the city with more than 50,000 New Yorkers pausing to pray daily.

God moved so powerfully that the prayer meeting spread across the nation. Within about 18 months, it is estimated that nearly 1 million people were converted out of a national population of 35 million, including 10,000 weekly conversions in New York City for a while. The effects of this prayer meeting are still being felt today.

One researcher says, "When we look back, we really see that this was not a movement of great men or great women. This was a movement of a simple layman who was left behind by a relocating church" (Ed Stetzer)

There seem to be times when God takes an ordinary individual - often unexpectedly - and initiates something far beyond that person's abilities. In many of these cases, the impact is felt today.

We're going to look at a case study of how God uses people today. When we look at today's passage and meditate on it, we will discover three things:

  • First, when God uses people, he initiates.
  • Second, he initiates with unexpected people
  • Third, he uses them far beyond their abilities.

First, God initiates

When we start today's passage, things aren't looking so good. We read in verses 1-3:

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.

This is pretty bad. We know that God had promised Israel this land, but now because of their disobedience he has sold them into the hands of this enemy king. What is worse, this king had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron. This is really serious business.

But in the middle of this crisis, God initiates. He doesn't give up on his people, because he gives them a prophet. Her name is Deborah. Verses 4-7 say:

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, "The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: 'Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.'"

From here God initiates with two people. One knows it; one doesn't. But in both cases, God initiates.

First is Barak, who is a warrior. Through Deborah, God tells him to take ten thousand men and go to war against Sisera and his nine hundred chariots. How would you feel getting this assignment? It reminds me of the ad that explorer Ernest Shackleton supposedly placed to find a crew for his trek to the South Pole:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

But when God wants to move, he often taps someone on the shoulder and initiates his action through them. When God wants to do something, he always seems to want to use people.

God is God, and he can do anything that he would like. If he wanted to, he could have defeated Sisera himself. He didn't need Barak's help. He could have started the Fulton Street Revival any way he liked. But he often initiates and uses someone. In this case, it was Barak. In the Fulton Street Revival, it was Jeremiah Lanphier. God may be initiating with some of you to do his work right now.

You'll notice, though, that Barak was a little hesitant. Look at what Barak says in verse 8: "Barak said to her, 'If you go with me, I will go; but if you don't go with me, I won't go.'" Barak appears hesitant, and so are we at times. Some of us have sensed God initiating his work through us, but we've backed off. Maybe we've been afraid or unsure.

Deborah responded to Barak's hesitancy. "Certainly I will go with you,' said Deborah. 'But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman'" (Judges 4:9). As a result of Barak's hesitancy, he will go into battle, and he will be victorious, but he will not get the glory. God still initiated with Barak, but Barak missed out on all that he could have experienced because he held back when God initiated.

I know that there have been times when God has initiated in our lives, and we have held back for whatever reason. If you read later on in the next chapter, you find that entire tribes held back and missed out on what God was doing. If God is initiating and would like to use you, how will you respond? How you respond will determine how much you will experience of what God would like to do through you.

So God initiates, and sometimes we know it. But sometimes he initiates and we don't know it. We just happen to be in the right place at the right time. We're not even aware of how God is using us; he just does and we happen to be there. Verse 11 says: "Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses' brother-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh."

You know what's happening here? God is positioning Heber and his wife just where they need to be, and they don't even know it. He's sovereignly working things together so that Heber and his wife make choices - in this case, to switch allegiance - that lead them right to where he wants them to be.

Every time God does his work, he initiates. Could it be that God is initiating in your life this morning? Maybe you know he's been initiating but you've been hesitant like Barak. Maybe he has positioned you to be in the right place at the right time without you even knowing it. When God uses people, he initiates, and how we respond can determine how much we experience of what he wants to do through us.

But as we look at this passage we also see that:

Second, God initiates with unexpected people

When God initiates with Barak, and you learn that Barak has 10,000 soldiers, who do you expect God to use to defeat Sisera? Barak, right? That would be the obvious choice. To a certain extent, God does use Barak. Verses 14-16 say:

Then Deborah said to Barak, "Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?" So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. At Barak's advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.

Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera's troops fell by the sword; not a man was left.

So God does use Barak, but he's not really the person who wins the glory in this victory, because Sisera is still free. God uses him, but not as we expect.

Do you remember what Deborah said? "But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman." Who do you expect that woman to be? Deborah, right? She's a prophet. I think we preachers sometimes give the impression that God does his best work through preachers. We sometimes act as if we are where the action is, and the rest of you have just missed out. Nothing could be further from the truth. God didn't win the victory through the warrior or through the preacher.

When God defeated Sisera, he did what he often does: he used an unexpected person. Just like when God initiated the Fulton Street Revival, he used a businessman. It's amazing how many times he has moved not through the clergy or the people that we would expect, but with unexpected and ordinary people.

In verses 17 to 21, we read that as Sisera flees, he comes to Heber's tent. Knowing that The Kenites and his king had friendly relations, Sisera thought he was home free. Jael invites him in. He asks for water and she gives him milk. She promises him safety, and he goes to sleep. And while he's sleeping, verse 21 says, "She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died."

In those days, setting up and taking down the tents was considered women's work. So you have this stay-at-home wife who takes a common household tool and wins the victory. Being killed by a woman, especially in a time of battle, was considered an insult, but that didn't matter to God. It's not the preacher who wins; it's not the warrior; it's a stay-at-home wife that God uses. God uses people, and he doesn't always use the people we expect.

After this incident, Deborah wrote a song which is recorded in the next chapter. It's the more poetic and theological account of the battle. But Deborah captures what we need to learn perfectly. Read Judges 5:1:

When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves— praise the Lord!

God initiates. He initiates not with the people that we would expect, but with ordinary, unexpected people. And when he does, God gets the glory.

One last thing we discover about when God uses people as we meditate on this text. When God uses people, he initiates, and the people he uses are unexpected. But finally we discover that:

Third, God uses them far beyond their abilities

These couple of chapters are unique, because we get two versions of the same events. In chapter 4 we get the narrative version. In chapter 5, we have the poetic version. We're seeing the events through two lenses.

In both, we see that God uses people far beyond what they are able to accomplish by themselves. In chapter 4, we see that what Jael does looks ordinary in a sense. She knew how to use a tent peg. It was gruesome but it really wasn't hard to use that tent peg to kill someone. But she could never have orchestrated events to make this happen. God put her in the right place at the right time and gave her an opportunity that she couldn't have engineered by herself.

But we see how God uses people beyond their abilities even more clearly as we look at the two accounts of the battle. In chapter 4, verses 14 and 15 we read: "So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. At Barak's advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot." Notice that Barak and the ten thousand people moved, but it was the LORD who routed them.

But look at the details that Deborah's account gives us in chapter 5, verses 20-21:

From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong!

Do you realize what happened? Sisera and his army were trapped. God himself fought them from heaven with storm and caused a flash flood, and he washed away the army. Picture Barak charging down the mountainside with ten thousand men as the heavens pour down against their enemies and wash them away. God himself went to battle that day and won a decisive victory - a victory that was won before Barak even started. That's why Deborah said to him, "Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?" (Judges 4:14)

Donald Gray Barnhouse said, "It is our business to see that we do right; God will see that we come out right." We allow ourselves to be used by God; God is in charge of the results. He is "is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20).

The Fulton Street Revival and the victory over Sisera are both examples of how God uses people by initiating with unexpected, ordinary people, and using them far beyond what they could do themselves. God gives his grace to undeserving people by saving them when they did not deserve it. Christ gave his life so that we could live by grace, not because we were worthy at all. And then God by his Spirit uses us, not because we have the power, but because he initiates with unexpected people and does more with them than we could think or imagine.

Father, we want to be used by you. Today we ask that just as you did in the days of Deborah and Barak, in these dark days, that you would move again and show your power. Just as in the days of Jeremiah Lanphier, raise up people through whom you will do more than we could ask or imagine.

And when you initiate, would you help us respond without hesitancy so that we can experience all that you want to do through us. And most of all, may the glory be yours and yours alone. Through Christ we pray. Amen.

God and Messes (Judges 3:7-31)

Today we're looking at a passage from a disturbing and yet hopeful book. We've been looking at Judges, which is a story about how bad things get with God's people. Things keep getting worse and worse. There seems to be no limit to the way God's people sin in this book, and they get themselves into all kinds of trouble. But Judges also gives us hope because no matter how bad things get, God doesn't give up on his people. God is the real hero of this book.

I said that Judges is a disturbing book. Even with that in mind, today's passage is extra disturbing. Few stories in the Bible are more crude or bizarre than the one we're looking at today. It's been called a literary masterpiece. It's an ancient literary cartoon that has a bit of fun at someone's expense. It has everything: plot twists, foreshadowing, plays on people's names, satire, humor - bathroom humor at that. You could say that today's story is related at least PG, and it's not for the squeamish.

Besides being rude - there's no way around it - we're also left with questions about the morality of what happens in this passage. Strangely, this passage doesn't resolve all of our moral questions as we finish it.

So let's look at what happened and ask three questions:

  1. What happened that's so rude and disturbing?
  2. What does it tell us about us?
  3. What does it tell us about God?

First, what happened that is so rude and disturbing?

In this chapter, we have the stories of 3 of the 12 judges in this book. If I didn't know better, I'd think that we were about to be bored. Why? Because almost all of the stories of the judges fit into a formula or structure with six parts. 2 of the 3 judges in today's story fit that pattern perfectly. The pattern goes like this:

  • The people do evil in the sight of the LORD
  • The LORD gives them into the hands of their enemies
  • The sons of Israel cry out to the LORD
  • The LORD raises up a deliverer
  • The LORD gives the enemies into the hands of the deliverer
  • The land has rest for X years

For a minute it looks like we're going to be reading a bunch of formulaic stories. It's a little like going to an art gallery and looking at a bunch of paintings that came from paint-by-number kits. If that's what you think, then we're set up for a surprise. The first two stories follow the formula to a T, yet there's nothing boring about them at all.

Outsiders

Take Othniel in verses 7 to 11. It's probably the cleanest cycle. It fits the formula perfectly, and it hardly wastes a word. It's all downhill from here: none of the remaining cycles are anywhere near this clean or perfect. But even here, there's a twist. Who is Othniel? Verse 9 says that he is "son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother." We read in Judges 1:13 that Othniel was both Caleb's nephew and son-in-law. Who was Caleb? He was one of the spies who explored Canaan and, in faith, said, "We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it." He was a hero of the faith.

But here's what you need to know about Caleb. Joshua 14:6 calls him a Kenizzite. Here's the thing about Kenizzites: they're not really Israelites. Caleb's name literally means "dog." No self-respecting Israelite would ever call his son "dog" - just like you wouldn't. So the first judge, even though he follows the formula perfectly, still breaks the mold. The first judge to rescue Israel isn't even an Israelite, and he's probably not all that young. God uses outsiders to get his work done.

The third judge mentioned in verse 31 also breaks the mold. Verse 31 says, "After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too saved Israel." Shamgar completely breaks the formula. It has none of the six elements it's supposed to. From what scholars can make out from his name, it appears that Shamgar was an Egyptian mercenary working for Pharaoh. God uses someone who not only isn't an Israelite to deliver Israel. He uses a pagan foreigner - a complete outsider who doesn't even believe in God.

In both Othniel and Shamgar, we see that God uses outsiders. He uses people that we wouldn't think of as options. You'd never expect God to use these people. God often uses the most unlikely people to get his work done.

A Real Mess

But nothing prepares us for the story that's sandwiched between these two outsiders, the story of Ehud in verses 12-30. I have to warn you. This isn't a story you'll want to tell to your kids at bedtime.

Ehud's name means, "Where is the glory?" As we begin reading his story, we're meant to ask, "Where is God's glory?" What happened to Israel that they are in so much trouble? This story gives us the answer - but it's a different answer than you may be expecting.

You have this man named Eglon, king of Moab, who conquers Israel for 18 years. Eglon's name means "calf." You have a surprising detail about Eglon's physical appearance in verse 17: "he was a very fat man." Biblical narratives never throw in random comments about someone's physical appearance. Whenever it does, it's always for a reason. The reason here is that the narrator is having some fun, and foreshadowing what's going to happen. This king, who has been ruling over Israel for 18 years, is really a fattened calf.

But you also have a physical description of the judge who comes to the rescue. Verse 15 says that he's "Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite." If you do a study in the Bible about being right-handed, you'll find that it's all positive. No offense to those of you who are left-handed. The right hand in the Bible is a symbol of power and authority. God swears by his right hand. Pleasures lie at God's right hand. Jesus is sitting at the right hand. It's all good. But here you have a man who is left-handed, from the tribe of Benjamin which means "son of the right hand." You have a left-handed man from a right-handed tribe. So you have a fattened calf as king, and a left-handed man from a right-handed tribe - the last person you would ever expect God to use.

Then you have this crude and disturbing series of events. Ehud pays tribute to Eglon in Elgon's palace in Jericho, a place where he came to collect his tributes. Archeologists have discovered a structure, by the way, that the think might have been the palace in this story. In any case, Ehud leaves, and then comes back with a "secret message." In the Hebrew, message can mean a word, a matter, or a thing. In his case, it's a different message than Eglon was expecting. He was probably expecting an additional gift or word about a traitor. But look at what he got.

We read in verse 19 that Eglon dismisses all the guards. Why would he ask to be left alone with a member of the enemy? Probably because nobody thought a left-handed man could be a threat. Probably because they had searched everywhere they normally looked for weapons.

You can almost sense the excitement. Eglon dismisses the guards, and with some effort given his size rises from his seat. Ehud approaches him and again says, "I have a message from God for you." He then takes his left hand, draws the dagger from his right thigh where they probably wouldn't have frisked him, and plunges his dagger into Elgon's body where it's swallowed up in all of the fat. Ehud escapes. The guards begin to wonder what's happened, but from the smell they guess that Ehud is relieving himself. They eventually can't wait any longer, and so they go in and find that Eglon had been killed. As a result, ten thousand Moabites are killed, Israel is delivered from its enemies, and they have peace for eighty years.

The writer is making a number of statements. He's making fun of Eglon, the fattened calf. The king that God had strengthened, according to verse 12, becomes a pile of oozing excrement, a pile of smelly feces and a corpse. Ehud, the left-handed man from a right-handed tribe, is the last man that people would have expected to deliver Israel, but he does so with cunning treachery.

On top of that, you have the moral ambiguity of what happened. There's no question that God used Ehud to deliver Israel, but what do you think of his treachery? It's interesting that the narrator says nothing about God's involvement in the assassination. The silence is deafening. Is Ehud a hero or a villain or both? We're left wondering at the end of the story.

You'll hear all kinds of people talk about how it's good to be like Gideon or like many of the characters in the Bible. You'll never hear anyone talk about "Dare to be an Ehud. Dare to stand alone. Dare to take a hidden knife and dare to make it known!" You'll never hear the kids singing that in Sunday school, and if you ever do, let me know. We'll get right on top of that.

So we're left wondering - what does this all mean? Let me try to answer this with two questions. What does this story tell us about us, and what does it tell us about God?

What does this story tell us about us?

A New Yorker cartoon shows a grandfather, father, and grandson walking together down a city street. The grandfather is declaiming loudly, to the others' annoyance, "Everything was better back when everything was worse!"

I think some of us have these airbrushed ideas of times back then - whenever then is - of when God was alive and well, and people were godly and had their acts together. We think, "If only we lived at that ideal time!" We think, "If only we lived at the time of the Puritans!" or whatever time we think was a golden age. We read some of the worst types of biographies, in which there are no rough edges, everything was cleaned up, and everyone was above average.

By extension, we think, "If only we could get our acts together! If only I could arrive at a time when I am finally free from doubt, when my schedule is clear, and when everything I do comes from a pure heart." There are only two problems with this view. First, there has never been and never will be a time when God's people had it altogether. Second, if there was, then it would be all about us and not about God. We wouldn't need grace. We would be the heros instead of God.

Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, says that we sometimes read the Bible and say, "Look at these people! Look at what they're doing! These are supposed to be moral exemplars, aren't they? What kind of people are these? I don't want to read about this!" When we do this, we're misreading the Bible. Keller says:

If you ever feel that way about reading the Bible, it shows that you don't understand the message of the Bible. You're imposing your understanding of the message on the Bible. You're assuming that the message of the Bible is "God blesses and saves those who live morally exemplary lives." That's not the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is that God persistently and continuously gives his grace to people who don't ask for it, don't deserve it, and don't even fully appreciate it after they get it.

Here, according to the Bible, is who God uses: complete mess-ups; completely unqualified people; people with glaring personality and character defects; people that we would say are completely unusable by God; sinners.

Are any of you here today sinners, mess-ups, completely unqualified? Anybody here have glaring personality or character defects? Feel unusable by God? Improbable characters are almost the norm in the Bible. It doesn't justify the mess or the sin, but it doesn't stop God from working either. God uses mess-ups. He uses the most unlikely people. He can even use you. And when he does, it won't be because of how great you are. It's always about how great God is. Whenever God uses us, it's in spite of ourselves and only because of his grace.

That's why Tim Keller says that the biggest question for us isn't our capabilities or our resume. Keller says:

Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don't need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn't based on their performance.

It is all about grace. It is all about grace. That's what you need to know about you. He uses people who aren't all clean and nice. God always gets his work done, and he doesn't use cardboard cut-outs. It's not always clean and nice.

That doesn't even justify all of Ehud's actions. But somehow God weaves his deliverance into human choices, even when those choices aren't the best ones. God gets his work done, and he often uses ways that we wouldn't imagine.

Some of you need to hear this. God can use Ehuds. God can use you. It's never because we have it all together. It's always because of God's grace.

But here's the final question:

What does this story tell us about God?

What we most need to understand in this story is, I believe, the character of God. The reason why Israel flirted with other gods is that they had domesticated the living LORD, the one who had saved them and brought them out of Egypt and given the land of Canaan to him. They presumed on his mercy.

God had every reason to give up on Israel, yet he never did. He had no reason to rescue them yet again, and yet in his mercy and grace he delivered his people from the hands of their enemies.

And when he did so, he didn't use someone who had his act together. He used methods and people that we would never expect. Just like when God acted to save the world, his method of salvation was the last that we would have predicted. One commentator writes:

Who would have predicted that when the Judge came himself in the flesh, he would come as such a "left-handed" person, with "no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him...despised and rejected..." (Isaiah 52:2-3) (Michael Wilcock)

But, as Isaiah writes, "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 52:5)"

How would we live if we really understood that God is greater than anything we see around us; that he never breaks his promises; that in his grace he never gives up on us. How would we live if we believed that he works through the most unlikely people, situations, and even the most unlikely churches, and that in Jesus and through the power of the Spirit he has given us everything that we need?

How would our lives change if we believed that God is at work even in the messes? That God - not us - God is the hero of every text and every situation? Imagine if we didn't just believed this, but we actually lived it out.

Do you remember what Ehud's name means? "Where is the glory?" This story answers that question. The glory of God can be found even in messes. It can be found when God goes to work even in the most unlikely of places.

Salvation comes, my friends, not through great human triumph or through our skills and our victories. It doesn't come like it does in the Hollywood movies. "It will come from outsiders born in mangers, through weakness, not (what the world calls) strength, through defeat, not (what the world calls) victory, through folly, not (what the world calls) wisdom." (Tim Keller)

Let's pray.

Father:

A lot of us really misunderstand the way that you work. We think that we approach you and can be used by you on the basis of having our acts together.

But you are the God who relates to us not on the basis of our qualifications. You use the most unqualified and the most unlikely people. And you work even in messes, absolute messes. You relate to us on the basis of grace. And you always get your work done, even through ways that we would never imagine.

Today we repent again of worshiping idols. We pray that you would deliver us from our captivity to them. May we realize that we are delivered from idols not by our own effort, but by the salvation that was won by that most unlikely of Judges, Jesus Christ. May your grace show up in our messy lives. And may Jesus Christ be glorified as the Spirit does his work in our lives and in this church. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Breaking the Idolatry Cycle (Judges 2:6-3:6)

Last week we began looking at one of the most depressing and yet also one of the most hopeful books in the Bible, the book of Judges. One of the questions that we're forced to ask as we read this book is: how could the people of Israel have been so stupid? They had everything going for them. They had seen God act. God kept on raising up new leaders. He kept on bailing them out. And yet they kept on blowing it. They didn't just make small mistakes either. They really and absolutely blew it.

Today's passage lays out a pattern for the rest of the book. It's a cycle that repeats itself over and over. It's not so much a cycle as a downward spiral. Judges shows that Israel spirals downward further and further away from God and into trouble. What we're going to look at today forms a template for most of the book of Judges. We're going to see as well that the heart of this downward spiral is an issue that's just as much of a problem for us today as it was back then.

What I'd like to do today is to simply ask three questions:

  1. What is the downward spiral?
  2. What's at the heart of the downward spiral?
  3. How can we break this downward spiral?

What is this cycle, this downward spiral?

The downward spiral we're about to read about happens over and over in Judges, at least six times. Here's how it works.

Continually, the people of Israel fell into apostasy and did evil in the sight of Yahweh. Look at verses 11-13:

Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord's anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.

They rejected the Lord. They still worshiped him, but they also added worship of Baal, the Canaanite storm god, and the Ashtoreths, the goddess of fertility.

As a response to this sin and idolatry, Yahweh sold them into the hand of their enemies. He gave them over, reversing their conquest. Israel's enemies had no power unless God allowed it. Verses 14-15 say:

In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.

Then the people cried out in desperation for God's help. Verse 18 says: "The Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them."

In response, God raises up judges - tribal chiefs who rescues them from their oppression. He gives them a savior. Verse 18 says, "Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived." God then empowered those leaders and gave the enemy into their hands.

But it never lasted long. Verse 19 says, "But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways." In other words, they go right back to the beginning of the cycle and start all over again.

So they kept this spiral going, and things kept getting worse and worse. Rebellion, oppression, a cry for help, new leadership, and right back to rebellion again.

You read this and think, how could they be so stupid to get caught up in a pattern like this that repeats itself over and over with such tragic results? Why couldn't they break out of this pattern? If we're honest, we have to admit that we get caught in cycles just like this.

They couldn't break themselves out of this downward spiral, and neither can we. The reason is that there's s a problem at the heart of this cycle that still affects us today. It's a problem that pulls us into downward spiral as well.

So what is at the heart of the downward spiral?

And how do we get caught in the spiral as well?

If you look carefully, you'll see that at the heart of the downward spiral was the irresistible pull of idols. No matter how God delivered them, they couldn't resist the allure of idolatry, and neither can we. Their problem, in one word, was this: idolatry. As long as our hearts can't resist the pull of idols, we'll never break free from the downward spiral of idolatry.

I know what you're thinking: I've never worshiped an idol in my life. Well, I wish it was that easy. We are idolators today. In fact, idolatry is the sin behind all sins, the problem behind all problems.

Now, we don't have Baal or Ashtoreths anymore. We don't worship carvings or images. But idols aren't just images or carvings. An idol is anything we worship, anything we add to God, as a requirement to be happy. We do have idols today. Richard Keyes wrote:

An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions towards them...idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God's existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good...An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero - anything that can substitute for God.

Whenever we value something more than God, we are committing the sin of idolatry. An idol is a substitute for God that one loves and worships and serves rather than the one true God.

That's why the apostle Paul wrote that you don't need an actual physical idol to be an idolator. If you look to anything for satisfaction, and If you have to have it, then you're an idolator. In Colossians 3:5 he writes, "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry." Do you see what Paul says? Greed is idolatry. It's the sin behind all sins. It's a chief vice: wanting more. It's the condition of our hearts that isn't happy with what we have, that's always looking for more - even to good things - for happiness and satisfaction. Augustine said that this is the essence of sin: inordinate desire, or making good things ultimate things. Whenever we do this, we're committing idolatry.

Now here's the thing. John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. The problem with the judges is that they could get rid of all of the idols, but they couldn't do anything about the idols in the people's hearts. The minute that we take our eyes off God, our heart begins to manufacture idols for us to worship, because we have to give our hearts to something. Right now you are giving, or being tempted, to give your heart to someone or something else other than God, even a good thing: a person, a career, a job. Right now you are being tempted by the same sin these people were powerless to resist, the sin of idolatry.

Your greatest danger isn't that you'll stop worshipping God and become an atheist. Your greatest danger is that you'll combine the worship of God with the worship of idols, and you won't even know it.

And when we do this, and we all do, it's ultimately unsatisfying. Verse 17 says, "Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them." The problem with idolatry is that it's a lot like prostitution. Prostitutes give themselves away without getting any real pleasure or love in return. When we serve idols, we enter into a relationship in which we give ourselves away but get very little back in return. We become completely vulnerable but become little more than slaves.

Cornelius Plantinga writes:

All idolatry is not only treacherous but also futile. Human desire, deep and restless and seemingly unfulfillable, keeps stuffing itself with finite goods, but these cannot satisfy. If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but undernourished, and we find that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being.

Sin is really like continually running from God to some far country and looking for substitutes for God, and never being satisfied.

We are caught in this cycle of idolatry. It's a downward spiral that we're powerless to resist, and as we'll see in Judges, it will destroy us. There are good things in your life that will destroy you, not because there's anything wrong with them by themselves. They'll destroy you because you'll be tempted to give your heart to your career or to technology or fitness or your children more than to God. You'll take these good things and make them ultimate things. It never satisfies and it ultimately destroys.

So how can we break this cycle of idolatry?

What isn't the solution?

Unfortunately, we can't deal with idolatry by getting rid of all the things we're tempted to worship as idols. It would be nice, for instance, if you are tempted by the idolatry of careerism to be able to quit your job and retire at the age of 30 so that you're not tempted to make your career a god anymore. But the reality is that you'll probably have to keep working. We won't be able to get rid of all the idols around us even if we wanted to. God said in verse 22 that he was going to leave these nations and their idols as a way of testing Israel. We'll never be free of the temptation to give into idol worship.

The solution isn't even for a change in our outward circumstances. We read in verses 16-17, "Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them." And then in verses 18-19:

Whenever the Lord raised up a judge [tribal chief] for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

The problem isn't a change in outward circumstances.

That's why, by the way, religion can't cure idolatry. Religion is essentially about trying harder - to follow rules to please God. The problem with religion is that despite all of our efforts, nothing really changes.

That's why yelling at the people, "You shouldn't have idols!" would really do nothing. You can get rid of all the idols in your house, but if you still have idols in your heart you have a problem.

So what is the answer?

The answer is that we need a judge, a savior, who can not just change our circumstances but also change our heart.

Richard Armstrong was a Presbyterian minister from Ohio. He who went to New Orleans to free a slave before the Civil War. He went to a slave auction and saw a woman being put up for sale. He listened to the auction.

The woman was going for $400 they would pay. He thought about it and offered $500 - a lot of money in that day, all that he had - and bought her.

He led her outside. She didn't realize what he was doing. She spit in his face and said if she got a chance she would kill him. He had set her free, but he hadn't changed her heart.

But then he said, "You don't understand. I knew what those men would do to you. I have no use for a slave. Here are your papers; you're free." He walked away.

And as the slave woman understood that he had given everything to set her free, she ran after him and said, "Master, Master, I'll serve you for the rest of my life." When she really understood what this man did for her, she was not only set free, but her heart was changed as well.

This is the gospel: that God knew we couldn't break free from the cycle of idolatry ourselves. But God sent the ultimate Judge, who not only rescues us but changes our heart as well.

Let's pray.

The only two things you need to remember from this morning is that we have a problem. Our problem is one that we can't break out of ourselves. We are idolators. You can get rid of all the idols you like, but as John Calvin said, your heart will just make more. The problem isn't even the idols. The problem is our hearts.

But God in his grace has sent a Judge to break the cycle of idolatry that only leads to death. He sent his Son as the ultimate Judge, and he's not only set us free but changed our hearts as well.

Father, may we give our hearts only to you. Because Christ has set us free from both the penalty and the power of sin, and we are no longer slaves, may we live freely because of the gospel.

We confess our idols and lay them down before you and repent. Thank you for setting us free. In Jesus' name, Amen.

What's Wrong With the World? (Judges 1:1-2:5)

Today we're beginning a series from one of the most disturbing and yet one of the most hopeful books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Judges. It's one of those books that makes you shake your head at times and wonder how they could have got it so wrong. Things get bad in this book, and they only get worse. If you were to try to find a book in the Bible that illustrates that people are sinful, this would be your book.

As dismal as this book is, it's a book in which we see ourselves. One Old Testament scholar says that Judges may be one of the most relevant books for the North American church at this time. Why? We're going to see a little bit of the answer today.

We will probably go through the following experience a number of times in reading this book. First, we'll read a passage and say, "They're so bad. I can't believe they did that." Then, after thinking for a minute, we'll realize that in some ways we're just the same. Judges hits uncomfortably close to home at times, because we are often like the people we're going to read about.

And yet it's also a book of hope. No matter how bad things got at the time of the Judges, God never gave up on his people. This book shows us that God is gracious, and he often treats his people "not according to what they deserve but out of his boundlessly merciful heart" (Daniel Block). The book of Judges reminds us that God's people often disappoint, human leaders often disappoint, but God's purposes will prevail, not because people are great, but because God is great. "The true hero in the book," someone has said, "is God and God alone."

Let's take a look at the beginning of the book of Judges, which sets up the rest of the book. Then let's look at the core question which we need to answer, and we'll have to answer again and again in this book.

A Hopeful Beginning

At the start of the book of Judges, Israel was in the process of taking possession of the land that God had promised them. Judges 1:1-2 say:

After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the Lord, "Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Canaanites?"

The Lord answered, "Judah shall go up; I have given the land into their hands."

There's some background to this passage. Years earlier God made a covenant with Abram in Canaan, saying, "To your descendants I give this land" (Genesis 15:18). Generations later God delivered Abram's descendants from slavery in Egypt. When God did this, he told Moses, "I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8). In Exodus 23, God promised, "My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land...I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River" (Exodus 23:23, 31). Again, God said in Deuteronomy 1:8, "See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them." God had given them the land. God promised this repeatedly.

In this first chapter of Judges we have a crisis - the death of Joshua - but we also have lots of hope. We have God's promises given over and over. You have people who have seen and heard of all that God has done to deliver them. And you have the people of Israel inquiring of God what they should do, which is much better than happened earlier, like in Joshua 9 when it says that they "did not inquire of the Lord" (Joshua 9:14). They were ready to obey God's will, and they understood what God's will was. Things in the book of Judges start out on a very hopeful note.

They get results too. Verse 4 says, "When Judah attacked, the Lord gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands, and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek." Verse 8 says, "The men of Judah attacked Jerusalem also and took it. They put the city to the sword and set it on fire." This was a promising start.

You and I know what this is like as well. Most of us can think of a time in our lives when we were aware of God's saving acts and power. We felt like we were right on the verge of something. God's Word really seemed crisp and alive. We were prayerful and had a real sense of relationship with God. And for many of us, that's not where we are today. So what happened?

First Signs of Trouble

Just to warn you, it's almost all downhill from this point. There's a hint of a problem even in the first few verses. God had told them, "Completely destroy them...Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

Now, this is a hard command - but it's a clear command. A lot of people have grappled with what looks like a holy war or genocide. How could a good God command the elimination of a whole race, including men, women and children? Is this not genocide of the worst sort? This is a hard question. I've included in insert that tries to respond it.

But as we wrestle with this issue, we also need to wrestle with this: they don't do it. And the reason they don't do it isn't because they're more humane. Read verses 5-7:

It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes.

Then Adoni-Bezek said, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them." They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

They're not being more humane. They're actually being more barbaric. Instead of killing Adoni-Bezek, they mutilate him and bring him to Jerusalem as a trophy of war where he later dies, maybe from an infection. They're already acting like the Canaanites.

After starting out really well, they start to get into some trouble. Verse 19 says, "The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron." You almost feel sorry for them. They were facing superior military equipment.

Then verses 27 and 35 say:

But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land...And the Amorites were determined also to hold out in Mount Heres, Aijalon and Shaalbim.

Not only did they face superior military technology. They now faced people who were more determined to live there than the Israelites were to defeat them. It's not necessarily that the Canaanites had better technology this time. They just had more chutzpah.

Then verses 28 to 35 mention that many of Israel's tribes enslaved the Canaanites and pressed them into forced labor. It seems to have been more economical and convenient to make them slaves than to drive them out. They may have thought that it's such a waste to destroy the nations when they could instead be exploited.

Chapter 1 ends at this point. It doesn't give us an evaluation of what's happened. It just reports the facts. But at the end of chapter 1 you're left with the realization that, for a number of reasons, they haven't done what God has asked them to do.

Most of us live in the real world. We're prepared to accept that things don't always turn out the way that we had hoped. But I mentioned that chapter 1 sets us up for the rest of the book. They end up living with the consequences of not doing what God told them to do for a very long time. The rest of this book is, in a way, the result of what happened in chapter 1.

What's Wrong With the World?

G.K. Chesterton once wrote a book called What's Wrong With the World. It's a social commentary on his times, examining capitalism, socialism, education, and many other issues.

Given that we too live in a broken world, and like the Israelites in Judges 1, are not experiencing life the way that God said it would be, we too need to ask what is wrong with the world. If God is good, then there are really only two possibilities for why our obedience is less than complete, and why we live with the consequences of our lack of obedience. The first is:

1. Circumstances.

The Israelites faced some pretty tough circumstances. It's not easy to go to war against people who have chariots fitted with iron when you don't. These were pretty powerful weapons. It's also hard to go against people who are determined. Everywhere the Israelites looked, they had circumstances that made it difficult for them to do what God told them to do.

The same thing happens today. God has clearly said to do certain things, but circumstances often get in the way. God says, "Do this," and we say, "We'd like to, but we can't because of circumstances."

Let me give you some examples. God says, "Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses" (Proverbs 28:27). I don't know many people who disagree with the principle behind this verse. I think I know a lot of people who say, "I would like to give to the poor, but you don't understand. My money is tight right now. If I made more money, then I would give to the poor." In other words, our circumstances keep us from doing what God tells us to do with the poor.

Or, few disagree with what Jesus says in Matthew 6:14: "For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." But who here has a hard time forgiving someone because they are special cases? We agree with Jesus, but circumstances make it very difficult to do what he says.

Or, what about temptation. We know that something is wrong, but we say, "I can't resist doing it even though I know it is wrong." In a sense, we're right when we say this. We can't stop sinning through sheer willpower. But on the other hand, it is possible to humble ourselves and to get help. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, "God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it."

When we ask what is wrong with the world, then we have to admit that in the end, circumstances are not the problem. Circumstances are never ultimately the reason why we fail to obey God, because God is always able to deal with any circumstances that we face. God has the power and the money to deal with any circumstance.

Iron chariots aren't a problem for God. God had told Israel, "The Lord has driven out before you great and powerful nations; to this day no one has been able to withstand you. One of you routs a thousand, because the Lord your God fights for you, just as he promised" (Joshua 23:9-10). Joshua had told them earlier, "Though the Canaanites have chariots fitted with iron and though they are strong, you can drive them out" (Joshua 17:18). Later in the book of Judges, we see Israel defeating armies who have iron chariots.

Our problem is never ultimately our circumstances. Our circumstances are never an excuse for disobedience. The real problem actually runs a lot deeper.

2. Us

God himself tells us what the real problem is at the start of chapter 2. Listen to what God says in Judges 2:1-3:

The angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, "I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.' Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? And I have also said, 'I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.'" (Judges 2:1-3)

The Times in London invited several eminent authors to write essays on the theme "What's Wrong with the World?" Chesterton's contribution took the form of a letter, and was probably the shortest and most accurate reply they received. What's wrong with the world?

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

God says in these verses that the failure of the Israelites in Judges 1, and our failure today, is not a failure due to circumstances. It is ultimately disobedience. Verse 2 says, "Yet you have disobeyed me." Of course, the ultimate reason for our disobedience is our sinfulness. But God gives us two particular reasons why we are disobedient in verse 1.

He says, "I brought you up out of Egypt." In the Old Testament, God's greatest saving act was the exodus, when God brought Israel out of Egypt. God says that their problem is that they have forgotten God's saving acts. In the New Testament, God's greatest saving act was the cross, where God "rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (Colossians 1:12). When we are disobedient, it is always because we have forgotten the gospel. It is because we have forgotten his saving acts.

God says that there's something else we've forgotten. He says in verse 1, " I will never break my covenant with you." God says that you have forgotten his holiness and faithfulness. Anytime we are disobedient, it is because we have forgotten the character of God. We essentially fail to remember who he is.

If the people of Judges 1 had remembered God's saving acts and his unchanging character, then the Canaanites would not have been a problem. If we remember what God has done for us in Christ, and that "no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:20), then our circumstances would never be a problem. Our disobedience does not come from circumstances. Our disobedience comes as a result of forgetting who God is and what he has done for us.

We are the people of Judges 1. We have forgotten the victory that Jesus has already won. We are like the people that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones described who have been set free, but still cower because we forget that we've been set free. But there's hope for us. That hope comes when we remember who God is and what he has done for us.

So let me pray for us this morning. Let me pray for us together as a church for the times that we don't obey. Let me pray for you individually as well. Let's learn from Judges 1. What's wrong with the world? What's wrong with the world is me. What's wrong with the world is that we've forgotten who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.

Father, we bring before you all the areas of our lives in which we are just like the people of Judges 1. We have not done what you have told us to do. What is even worse is the way that we haven't taken responsibility. We haven't confessed that our disobedience is due to our sinfulness, that we have sinful hearts and are not capable of doing what you have called us to do.

Indeed, Father, the problem with the world is our hearts.

But we thank you for Jesus. We thank you for your divine power that has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Remind us today of your character - your holiness and your faithfulness. Remind us of your saving acts. And allow us to live in light of your character and your saving acts. We pray in the name of the one who died to set us free from both the guilt and the power of sin. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.