Thursday, April 03, 2008

Sermon on Jephthah - Judges 10-12

I foolishly left my MP3 recorder at home when I went on tour this Easter. So here's a near-transcript of my sermon on Judges 10-12.

When you look at other people, are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you think that we're basically good, but maybe we sin sometimes or basically bad, but occasionally we get some stuff right?

Do you think that people are fundamentally beautiful or ugly? How about yourself?

Well, whatever you think, this passage has something to say to us tonight. We're in Judges 10-12, looking at the story of Jephthah, and I've got two main headings. The first one is that God's people keep abandoning God. God's people keep abandoning God.

I don't know if you've ever read George Orwell's book Animal Farm. In the book, there's a load of farm animals who are being oppressed by the farmer, so, led by the pigs, they have a revolution and get rid of the farmer. But as time goes on, the pigs who are leading the revolution get more and more like the humans they were meant to be replacing.

It's kind of the same thing happening in Judges. At the start of the book, Israel has come into the Promised Land. Before they got there, the land was full of Canaanites, who did really evil things like sacrificing their children to their gods. So God sent the Israelites in, Israel conquered most of the land, and they lived according to God's law. But as time goes on, they get more and more like the Canaanites they were meant to be replacing.

And we see that in Judges through a series of cycles. There's a 5 part pattern that keeps on repeating, which you can remember because it goes ABCDE.

A is for Apostasy – Israel keep going off and ignoring God and worshipping other gods.

B is for Baddies – some baddies come along and attack Israel and win.

C is for crying – God's people cry out to God for help. And God raises up a deliverer, that's D. And the deliverer beats the enemies, and then God's people rest – that's E for Ease.

And this pattern keeps on repeating itself through the book of Judges. Every time, Israel avoid God. Every time, they get invaded by some group of baddies. Every time, they cry out for help Every time, God raises up a deliverer, and then the people are ok, until the deliverer dies.

But now we're into the second half of Judges, which started either when Gideon went bad or with Abimelech and the pattern starts breaking down.

In chapter 10, which we didn't have read, we see that the people abandon God and go after even more gods than before, so they get two lots of baddies instead of one. And they cry out to God, but God sees that they aren't being sincere because they always keep on ignoring him after he saves them, so God doesn't save them. He doesn't raise up a deliverer like he has all the times before. The people go off and find one themselves, and there isn't going to be any mention of rest.

But even when the people seem to turn back to God, they don't worship God rightly, they worship him just the same as they'd worship one of their idols, and that's the key point in this passage. When God's people worship him, they worship him just like the Canaanites worshipped their gods.

We see a great example of that in 11v11. “So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the LORD at Mizpah.”

Now, God hadn't made Jephthah leader, like he did with the other judges. The people decided to make him leader, and they didn't ask God about it. But then they decide to go and have a ceremony in the sight of God, just to kind of rubber stamp their decision. But they don't do it where the ark is, or where the tabernacle is, or any of that. They ratify this decision that they've already made at Mizpah of Gilead, where they were already. It's where it's convenient for them to be, not where God has said he will be.

They try bargaining with God. Jephthah is a prime example of this. He says in v30 “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.” Jephthah is trying to do a deal with God, just like the Canaanites had done with their gods. But as we're going to see later, God isn't like that. We can't just worship him the way everyone else worships their gods. But the extreme example of this is when Jephthah sacrifices his own daughter. We hear about that, and we think it is shocking and horrible, and we're right. But we only think that because we're in a culture which has been Christian for so long, and because our views about what is right and wrong and horrible have been shaped by the Bible. In Israel, it was wrong to kill people, but in the Canaanite culture, people sometimes sacrificed their children to their gods. In fact, it was partly because the Canaanites sacrificed their children that God had driven them out of their land and given it to Israel.

Here's Deuteronomy 12:31 “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshipping 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.”

But that's exactly what Jephthah is doing. Yes, it's horrible and it is wrong, but the point here is that it's what the Canaanites did. Israel are worshipping God like the Canaanites worshipped their gods.

And we still do it. I don't mean child sacrifice, though maybe we do that too – I'll talk more about it later. I mean we make the same basic mistake as Jephthah did. We try to worship God the way that the people around us worship their gods. And often that's in ways our society finds more acceptable than child sacrifice, but which are still unacceptable to God.

There's probably loads of them – I want to focus on two, I guess because they're the ones I'm most aware that I do.

First, We ignore God's holiness and pretend that we're ok. We ignore God's holiness and pretend we're ok. One of the features of the way people today worship their gods is that their gods help them feel good about themselves. Do you know what the reaction in the Bible always is to someone getting a vision of God's holiness? Isaiah said “Woe is me, I am ruined.” Ezekiel fell on his face. John fell on his face, as though dead. And we'd probably offer to help them up and get them a cup of tea because they didn't seem to feel too well.

Where is that combination of longing to look on God because he is so beautiful and yet terror of looking on God because we know we are so sinful, and the light of his presence will show up all our imperfections? When was the last time that an awareness of God's holiness drove us to cry over our sin? Was it today?

Have you noticed how the confessions we use get blander? We don't tend to say “the memory of them grieves us” any more - we can say we are sorry for our sins, but we don't like saying we feel sorry, because at the end of the day we don't feel sorry, because a lot of the time we completely ignore God's holiness and pretend that we're ok.

Lets make this very concrete. Imagine a friend of yours comes to you, and they've done something wrong and are really upset about it. What's your first reaction? A lot of the time, I think my first reaction is to want to come up with an excuse for what they did, and that's because actually I pretend I'm ok and I ignore God's holiness. We forget that we should worship God acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

But we also ignore God's demand for holiness and stay respectable. The way the world worships its gods is to give them a bit of their life, but not the whole thing. If someone gives absolutely everything to chase after money, we say they'd sell their own grandmother. If someone lets their support for Man Utd affect their love for their kids, we'd really worry about them. The world has a way of partitioning up life and only letting gods have bits of it. But God claims our whole lives. He doesn't necessarily want us to be respectable; he wants us to be following him, even to the point where people think we're fanatics.

Question. When did you last put your middle-class respectability on the line because you were following Jesus? When did you last take the kind of risks that the world just won't take because you were trusting God? When was last time you were passionate about God to the point where other people thought you were being stupid, but you carried on anyway?

We all do it, I think. We all try to keep back bits of our lives from God, we all have those relationships that we don't want to give to him. We don't want to give him our relationship with our difficult parents, with our husband or wife or with our colleagues at work. We want to set up a partition and not let our relationship with God affect our professional life, or our money, or our sex life, or whatever. And when we do that, we're not serving God the way he wants to be served. We all know that really. We're serving him the way the world around us worships its gods, just like Jephthah did when he sacrificed his daughter.

You see, I don't think we're that different from Jephthah after all. The culture surrounding us is different, but at the end of the day, we all try to worship God the way the world around us worships its gods rather than the way God wants to be worshipped.

And while we're thinking about how God's people abandon God, it's worth spending a minute thinking about Jephthah himself, because in Jephthah, Israel got the leader they deserved.

If you'll excuse the language, I think the best word for Jephthah is “bastard”, in more senses than one. He's born to a prostitute, and we're just told his father was “Gilead” - the area where he lived. Gilead wasn't quite in the Promised Land anyway, and Jephthah doesn't even get an inheritance there. He isn't really part of God's covenant people, and because his daughter gets killed, he doesn't have any descendants to be part of God's covenant people either. Jephthah isn't in any of those genealogies that the Jews loved so much. He isn't anyone's father, he isn't anyone's son.

And Jephthah only really seems to want one thing – power. He doesn't want to rescue his own people, until they offer him the chance to be their ruler if he does. And as soon as they make him ruler, he starts acting just like a king. 11:12 literally says “What do you have to do with me, that you have come into me to fight in my land.” That's the way kings talk. Jephthah thinks he owns everything.

Likewise, he is willing to give anything to win the battle, because it means he will get power. He even tries making this bargain with God in 11:30 – he offers God whatever comes out of his house if God will help him win the battle. We say some people would sell their own grandmother – Jephthah literally would and did give up his own daughter if it meant he could get power.

And when his daughter does come out, who does he blame?

v35 “You have made me miserable and wretched”. He makes the offer, then he blames his daughter for her having to be sacrificed.

Incidentally, people always ask what Jephthah should have done once he found he'd promised to sacrifice his daughter. There are two ways out he could have taken. The first is just not to sacrifice her. Yes, God might well curse him for not keeping his promise, but it's him that gets cursed and his daughter survives. The other way out is in Leviticus 27, which specifically says that if you vow to dedicate someone to God, you're allowed to buy them back for a substantial amount of silver. Does Jephthah know that law? We don't know, but he should have done.

So Jephthah could have suffered in the place of his daughter, but he doesn't do that. He could have paid money to get her out of it, but he doesn't do that either. What does he do? He sacrifices his own daughter, and blames her for it. What sort of man does that?

And he doesn't care about God's people either. In chapter 12, we see him getting into an argument with Ephraim. Gilead was just outside the promised land, on the wrong side of the Jordan, but was still inhabited by Israelites. Ephraim was just across the river, in the promised land. They have several arguments through Joshua and Judges. In Joshua 22, there's nearly a war between them, but they talk about it and settle all their problems. Jephthah can't be bothered doing that. He just kills them. 42000 of God's chosen people. Dead. Jephthah is a daughter-killing son of a prostitute who doesn't object to genocide against God's own people.

So far, this passage seems pretty bleak. God's people keep on abandoning God. But there are three big surprises I've not talked about yet, and they all come under the heading God never abandons his people. God never abandons his people.

First surprise – God uses Jephthah to rescue his people. You know what? If I was God, I'd have let Jephthah lose. But in 11:29, God's Spirit comes on him and 11:32-33, God uses Jephthah to rescue his people. So never think that you are too foolish or too weak or too sinful for God to use you. God used Jephthah; he can and will use you, and he uses me, even though I compromise so much with the world. That doesn't mean that it's ok to sin – what Jephthah did was wrong and led to lots of suffering, but it means that God can and does work despite our sin.

Second surprise – Jephthah gets commended for his faith in Hebrews 11. However much of a mess he makes, however selfish and wrong he is, Jephthah trusted God's promises 11:23, 27, and he is one of the great crowd of witnesses. So child-killing power-hungry son of a prostitute that he is, Jephthah gets saved by God's grace because he trusts God. So you know what? No matter who you are, no matter what you've done, God can and will save you if you trust him. And no matter what other people have done, God can save them too. There may well be people here who have had abortions and who feel guilty about it. But you know what? If you trust Jesus, God will forgive you, God will save you, God can make you into a hero or heroine of the faith, just like he did to Jephthah. Whatever we have done, we're never too bad for God. Jephthah was responsible for the deaths of 42000 people, and he is a hero of the faith. So however bad we are, God can make us into heroes and heroines of the faith too.

Does that offend you? If it does, maybe you don't understand God's grace. Maybe you don't understand what it means for you to be sinful, what it means for you to be like Jephthah, to be someone who compromises so much with the world around you that a lot of the time it doesn't even look like you're serving God any more. Maybe we need to understand what it means that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It means that Abraham, that great hero of the faith, wasn't righteous. But he trusted God, so God saw him as wonderful and righteous. Jephthah really wasn't righteous. But he trusted God, so God counts him as righteous too. Even though he did so much stuff wrong, even afterwards, Jephthah was willing to bet his life on trusting God's promises, so we see him as a hero of the faith. And the same is true for us. If we trust God, he will see us as righteous. He will look at us, no matter what we've done, and say that we are beautiful and good, because we trusted him.

Final surprise. God uses Jephthah to point to God's greater salvation. Jephthah was illegitimate. He was homeless, and followed by a group of outsiders. He seized power, and when it came to it, he killed his own daughter to get power and refused to die in her place.

Jesus was illegitimate too. He also was homeless, he also was followed by a group of outsiders. But Jesus gave up his power, and when it came to it, he was the Son who gave himself up to death, who died in the place of rotten sinners like Jephthah and you and me, so that we could have life.

So what are we going to do? Are we going to carry on compromising with the world in the way that we follow our Jesus? Are we going to keep clinging on to our own sense of self worth? Or are we going to see that we, like Jephthah, deserve God's anger, and deserve to be condemned because of the way we fail to follow him, but find that because we trust Jesus, God graciously gives us life and forgiveness and makes us into heroes and heroines of the faith?

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