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)

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.

September Kick-Off

Well, I don't know what we're going to be celebrating in four months, but for a lot of us this is the real New Year. So I'd like to welcome you back from your summer, and also to wish you a Happy New Year, or at least a happy September.

What I'd like to do this morning is to talk about what's ahead for us as a church for the coming year, and then as we get ready to go to the Lord's Table to talk about why it's so important.

As we start into Fall, it's usually the time that our ministries kick off again and we begin to ask what's ahead for the coming year. You may be aware that we're in a state of flux right now, with some change in staff and a move to a new leadership structure with elders, who will provide spiritual oversight of the church. As well, there are lots of smaller needs and challenges and happenings in many of our ministries, but I want to take a wider view at what I think will be on the agenda, besides all of these things, for the coming year as God allows.

There are lots of books out there on what it takes to have a healthy church. They list anywhere from six to twelve features which have to be present if a church is going to be healthy and grow. I have many of these books, and it's hard to keep up. But a pastor in New York named Tim Keller has wisely, I think, suggested that when you distill everything, there are only really three church growth principles. Here they are:

  1. Sound doctrine
  2. Continuous renewal by the Holy Spirit
  3. A contextualized philosophy of ministry

From this I'm going to pull together a phrase. If Richview is to be healthy and grow, it will be because we're a gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church that loves our neighborhood.

Let me explain what I mean.

Gospel-Centered

Tim Keller said that churches need sound doctrine. In other words, we need to get our message straight. And the message that we need to get straight most of all is the Gospel. Why? Because Paul said that the gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16 ESV). It is "the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord's people" (Colossians 1:26). It is how we have received a "new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade" (1 Peter 1:3-4). It is, the apostle Paul said to Timothy, the "good deposit entrusted" to us (1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:14).

More than anything, if our church is going to be healthy and grow, we need the gospel. If we don't have the gospel, we have nothing. If we have the gospel, we have the power of God to everyone who believes.

So let me just take a minute to ask the question, what is the gospel?

There are really, when you get down to it, three ways to live. Think of the parable of the prodigal son. One way to live is to be the prodigal, and to squander our lives in wild living. These are people who know that they're sinners. They're not even sure that they believe in God, but even if they do, they sure now that they're not measuring up. These people need the gospel.

But there's a second way to live that's just as lost. Remember that the prodigal son had a good older son who stayed at home and never rebelled? He said to his father, "I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders" (Luke 15:29). There is a way to live that is morally upright and law-abiding. It's about following rules and maybe even about going to church and living upright lives. But this way of living is equally lost, because when we live this way we're acting as our own lord and savior. When we live this way our trust isn't in God; it's in ourselves. The prodigal son and his morally upright brother were both equally lost. You can be irreligious and lost, but you'd better be sure that you can also be religious and lost. The gospel has nothing to do with moving from irreligion to religion, because both are essentially the same. In both cases we'll still be lost.

The gospel is really about a third way to live. The gospel is not that we are righteous before God and therefore he owes us something. It's that God demonstrates his righteousness through Jesus Christ and then freely gives that righteousness to us. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The gospel is that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again to bring us salvation.

The gospel isn't good advice about what we have to do. It's good news about what Jesus has already done for us. The gospel isn't just the means of salvation, but it is the way that we grow as Christians. It is not the ABCs of the faith but the A to Z of the Christian faith. That's why Paul wrote to Timothy, "Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2).

In a few minutes we're going to celebrate the gospel as we take communion. But the gospel has to be part of everything we do. Every message, every ministry, every small group meeting, every action in this church has to have as its center, as its motive, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Spirit-Empowered

Let me hit the other two quickly. Our ministry must not only be gospel-centered but Spirit-empowered. We need continuous renewal by the Holy Spirit. Somebody asked me a while back how I ended my sermon on the day of Pentecost. I really didn't know, so he took me to the website and read it for me. Here's what it said. I ended the sermon by quoting J.I. Packer who said:

The Christian scene today in the Western world highlights the importance of attending to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The lack of divine energy and exuberance in most congregations, even some of the most notionally orthodox, is painful to see. The current quest for church renewal...demands that we get clearer in our minds about the divine Renewer....It is as if God is constantly flashing before us on huge billboards the message REMEMBER THE HOLY SPIRIT!...We study and discuss God, Christ, body life, mission, Christian social involvement, and many other things; we pay lip service to the Holy Spirit throughout (everyone does these days), but we are not yet taking him seriously in any of it. In this we need to change.

I concluded, "Pentecost reminds us that, more than anything, we need to pray that the Spirit would renew, revive, and empower us. Don't ever think that we have the power in ourselves. We need the Spirit to move. I want you to pray with me to this end."

Do you believe this? When we have the message of God and the power of God, we will be a church that can be used by God. So let's talk lots about the gospel this coming year, but let's also spend time in prayer asking for the Spirit to renew us and to show his power to do what only he can do.

Last point before I talk about why this is so important:

Community-Loving

This is where Richview becomes different from any other church that exists. This is also one of our greatest needs and it is something that I believe we have to address in the coming year.

Keller talks about a contextualized philosophy of ministry. Out of all the churches in the world that exist, God has put us in this particular location for such a time as this. We are not called to be a People's Church or a Willow Creek or any other church. We were put here in this postal code because God wanted us to be Richview, to learn the shape of ministry in our neighborhood.

There are two kinds of churches. One says to the community, "You come to us and learn our language, our interests, and meet our needs." The other kind says, "We will come to you. We will learn your language, your interests, and meet your needs." Only the second type of church imitates when Jesus became human and moved into the neighborhood. God is calling us to discover what it is that he wants us to do to love our immediate community. This year, we're going to ask for your help in figuring out what that means.

That's it. It's simple. If Richview is to be healthy and grow, it will be because we're a gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered church that loves our neighborhood.

The Importance

And here's why it's so important.

Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:10: "[God's] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms." Paul has been writing about how Christ came to break down the wall between Jews and Gentiles, which was the greatest division of his time. God has made them one people through his death on the cross. Paul then describes his life's work and how it fits within what God is doing, but then he gives us the purpose of the church.

The purpose of the church, according to Paul, is to display before angels and demons the multifaceted wisdom of God. If someone asked you why Richview exists, this is the answer: so that angels and demons can see the wisdom of God. How? By showing that his plan of redemption has worked, and is so great that it has created a new community of people that has overcome social barriers and unified us. We don't exist as a voluntary association. We don't exist to make our members satisfied. We exist so that angels and demons know that the gospel is real because they see the evidence of the gospel in the life of this church. "The church," someone has said, "became the mirror through which the bright ones of heaven see the glory of God." The church is the theatre for the display of God's wisdom.

That's why this is so important. Speaking on this passage, John Piper says:

The church of Jesus Christ is the most important institution in the world. The assembly of the redeemed, the company of the saints, the children of God are more significant in world history than any other group, organization, or nation. The United States of America compares to the church of Jesus Christ like a speck of dust compares to the sun. The drama of international relations compares to the mission of the church like a kindergarten riddle compares to Hamlet or King Lear. And all pomp of May Day in Red Square and the pageantry of New Year's in Pasadena fade into a formless grey against the splendor of the bride of Christ...The gates of Hades, the powers of death, will prevail against every institution but one, the church.

Somebody I read this week said this:

Though no local church is perfect, and the universal Church often looks more like a cheating spouse than a faithful bride, I identify myself with this bungling bunch of believers. The church is home. The church is God's beloved. The church has been bought with precious blood.

Though the presence of the Kingdom is not as intensely felt in the church as I would like, it is the sign of the Kingdom in this age, faults and all. And if Jesus is content to give his life for an unruly Church, I must find satisfaction in serving his church with all my heart and soul. Because he died for her, I live for her. (Trevin Wax)

The principalities and powers in the heavenly places are watching. Let's show to them by the way that we live and function as a church that his plan isn't failing.

Let's pray.

Father, thank you for the privilege of displaying to angels and demons the multifaceted splendor of the wisdom of God. Who you've called us to be is no light thing.

I pray that in the coming year we would be a church that displays your wisdom as we center on the Gospel, as we rely on the Spirit, and as we look for ways to serve our particular community.

Most of all, as we come to the Table, may we be a church that finds our strength in the cross. In Jesus' name. Amen.