Judges and Kings: When God Calls, Answer

Scripture: 1 Samuel 3:1-18

Previously on Judges and Kings: the Israelites, after wandering in the desert for forty years, have entered and conquered the Promised Land, and have been living in it since then as a loose confederation of twelve tribes without a central leader.  Every once in a while the people forget just who it was who brought them out of Egypt, and they do evil things and worship other gods, and they get conquered by another nation for a while, then the people cry out and God raises up a judge, or warrior-leader, to deliver them.

This pattern repeats throughout the book of Judges, only things get worse every time, so by the time we get to the last judge, Samson, he is no longer the heroic deliverer we hope for but rather a strong and powerful man hell-bent on his satisfying his every personal desire and exacting revenge on anyone who gets in his way.

By the time Samson dies, the people of Israel have descended into complete chaos.  They are ruled by the Philistines.  Law and order is absent.  The tribes are at war among themselves.  And the cycle we’ve seen throughout Judges has broken down.  The people no longer cry out to God to get them out of this mess.  It’s as if they don’t even know to anymore.   Instead, a chorus begins to echo over and over toward the end of the book, all the way to the very last line: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”

What does Israel need?  A king.  At least according to this author.

And we’ll get there.  But not quite yet.

It’s against this backdrop of societal breakdown and anarchy that 1 Samuel begins, and the curtain opens on a woman named Hannah.  Like other well-known biblical women before her and after, Hannah is unable to have children.

Every year Hannah, her husband Elkanah, and Elkanah’s smug second wife make a pilgrimage to Shiloh, where God’s tent sanctuary is stationed.  Remember this is before we have a Temple, before Jerusalem is even the capital of Israel, so Shiloh is the worship center of Israel.  In the sanctuary at Shiloh is the ark of the covenant, the chest that houses the Ten Commandments and represents God’s presence on earth, and tending to worship there are the high priest Eli and his two corrupt sons.

So Hannah and family go to Shiloh, and Hannah prays for God to give her a son.  She prays harder than she’s ever prayed in her life.  She prays so hard, in fact, that Eli initially thinks she’s drunk.  Hannah promises God that if God gives her a son, she will make him a nazirite, that is, someone specially dedicated to God’s service, for his whole life.

God listens, and Hannah has a son, who she names Samuel.  And once he’s weaned, she takes him back to Shiloh, and presents him to Eli, and says, “This is the son I prayed for.  He’s here to work for you.”  And so begins Samuel’s career as assistant to the high priest.  And, the story goes, “The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and the people.”

But remember as you hear this passage from 1 Samuel 3, anarchy and chaos still reign supreme around him.  Because Samuel’s story is not just about Samuel himself.  It’s about a nation in need of redemption, and the person God is going to use to make that happen.

As they say, the personal is political.

 

1 Samuel 3:1-18

 

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days.”  It seems like an odd way to begin a story.  Has God really dropped off the scene altogether?  Is God really silent?  Is God no longer on speaking terms with God’s people?  Is God just asleep at the wheel?

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days.”  It doesn’t quite seem to jive with our Sunday School image of God, God who is always there for us and with us, the one set of footprints who carried us when we couldn’t walk.

Then again, even if the idea seems theologically suspect, maybe it makes sense in our experience. Have you ever been in a place or time where it seemed like God simply wasn’t speaking?

But remember, by the end of the book of Judges and the beginning of 1 Samuel, God’s people have forgotten how to even cry out to God for help.  The lack of communication goes both ways.  Maybe God is saving God’s breath.  And I suppose it’s not a far stretch of the imagination to think that if the people have forgotten how to talk to God, they’ve also forgotten how to listen.  Maybe God isn’t always as silent as we think.

But hear the good news: into this time and place when the word of the Lord is rare, God does speak.

And it’s not to someone who is especially attuned to God’s voice, either.  It’s night, and Samuel, now a young man, is on night duty, sleeping next to the ark of the covenant and tending the holy lamp, when he hears a voice.  I can only hear this in the voice of my Sunday School teacher Mrs. Allender: “Saaaaaaaamuel, Saaaaaamuel.”

Of course Samuel thinks it must be Eli – who else could it be? – so he gets up and runs to him and says, “Here I am, you called?”  And Eli says, “What? No.  Go back to bed.”

So Samuel does, but then he hears it again: “Saaaaaamuel, Saaaamuel.”  And he runs to Eli and Eli says, “Samuel, do you know what time it is?  Go lie down.”

The story tells us that Samuel “did not yet know the Lord,” which is odd if you think about, because he’s grown up serving God, sleeping right next to God’s earthly footstool, but I suppose it’s possible to go through all the motions and do all the right things and not yet know God for yourself, not in a way that instantly lets you recognize God’s voice when it’s calling your name.  And I suppose it’s possible, also, that no one really taught him to recognize God’s voice, because the people around him didn’t know how to recognize it either.

There it is again.  “Saaaaaamuel, Saaaaaamuel.”

Again Samuel gets up and runs to Eli, and says, “Here I am, you called?”  And this time Eli sits up, rubs his eyes, and realizes what’s happening.  So he tells Samuel to go back to bed and next time, when he hears the voice, he should say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Finally, someone is listening.

It strikes me that for a God who apparently hasn’t been speaking much, the voice of God sure is persistent.

And maybe we can take some comfort in that: that even in a time when it seems like God has nothing left to say, God isn’t shutting down.  God is just looking for God’s next move, the one that might actually get someone’s attention.  And when God finds that opening, God isn’t going to let it go.  God is going to stand out in the hall and call your name until you figure it out one way or another.

This is the same God who will get your attention with a burning bush, a smoke-filled Temple, or a surprise pregnancy.  It’s the same God who, when nothing else seems to be working, says, “All right, I’m coming down there myself, and I’ll sacrifice everything – maybe then they’ll understand who I am, and what I want from them.”

I think of a story one of my colleagues once told about a young man at her church who thought God might be calling him into ministry.  But he wasn’t sure.  He wasn’t sure if it was really God speaking, or if so what exactly God was saying.  And my friend told him, “Don’t worry so much.  The call of God is not something that is going to be missed.”

Even in times and places when the word of the Lord is rare, God still speaks, until we figure out how to listen.

But here’s the thing.

Remember how I said this is not just a story about Samuel?  Up until now, it seems like it could be.  It sounds like a personal kind of story, a story about the ways God speaks to us to let us know that God is there even when it seems like God is absent, that God is in fact that single set of footprints carrying us along.

And I don’t for a second want to say that God isn’t like that.  God cares about us, and our lives, and our problems, and our pain.  This is, after all, the same God who showed up for Hannah, who answered her prayer.

But Samuel’s call isn’t a matter of personal comfort and encouragement.  It isn’t a promise that despite what is going on in the world around him, God will be with Samuel.  The personal is political, and this call is no less than a political upheaval in the making.

Samuel’s first job is to give Eli a message “that will make the ears of anyone who hears it tingle.”  The days of Eli and his corrupt sons and their authority over the holy things of Israel are numbered. “The iniquity of Eli’s house,” God says to Samuel, “shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Imagine having to tell that to your boss – or worse yet, to the man who raised you.

But Samuel’s job won’t get easier from there.  By the end of chapter 3, Samuel will be known throughout Israel as a prophet, the one through whom the word of the Lord is heard.  As the story goes on he will be a kingmaker – and a king-breaker.  This story of the call of Samuel isn’t just the story of encouragement for a faithful young man in the midst of a faithless people; it’s a story of the redemption of Israel.

I wonder if that’s not exactly the kind of word of the Lord that we’re accustomed to listening for.

I don’t mean that we don’t care.  I know that you all are a congregation who cares about what’s going on in the world around us.  You read the news and you’ve been to the places that are in it.

I mean that it feels impossible to have any clarity these days when no one even seems to be operating with the same set of facts, when we read the same Bible and come away with vastly different conclusions.  I mean that it’s easy to remain in our own echo chambers and assume we know what God is saying.  I mean it’s easy to lament that fact and take refuge in a neutral position just to not be controversial.  I mean it’s easy to get overwhelmed and compassion-fatigued and simply retreat.

It’s easy to retreat to that idea of God who simply speaks comfort into our own lives.

And again, God does – Scripture is full of people who have prayed to God, yelled at God, harangued God for the things they need; people who presented themselves to Jesus for healing and forgiveness, and God answered; Jesus healed and forgave.  It’s just that the story is bigger than that, because our lives are part of a bigger whole, and at the same time God cares about each one of us and our problems and challenges, God is working for the redemption of this whole crazy world, bringing it out of chaos and into love, justice, mercy, reverence, and care for the most vulnerable among us.

And God calls God’s people to be part of that..

I don’t believe that the word of the Lord is rare these days.  I believe God has something to say.  But I do sometimes have trouble listening – listening through the words of Scripture honestly read, through carving time for silence from all the voices that have something to say, through staying attentive to what is going on in the world around me without letting its anxiety grip me too hard.

Let’s not miss call to be part of a bigger story.

The good news is, God is pretty persistent.

And even when it seems like the word of the Lord is rare, God keeps speaking and God keeps calling.  All you have to do is answer.

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Judges and Kings: The Secret of Your Strength

Scripture: Judges 16:4-22

Previously on Judges and Kings: The Israelites have finally made it safely to the Promised Land.  They are supposed to get rid of the people already living there, because otherwise they might get tempted and worship foreign gods – but they didn’t quite manage to do that.  And so a pattern begins to emerge: the people do evil things and worship other gods, God lets some other king conquer them, the people cry out to God, God raises up a judge – a warrior-leader – to deliver them.  Then there is peace until the whole thing started all over again.

I told you last week that this pattern is less a neat circle and more a downward spiral: each judge worse than the last, each period of foreign oppression longer than the last, each period of peace more tenuous than the last.

So last week, when we met a judge by the name of Ehud, things were still going OK.  The Israelites had been conquered by their old enemies the Moabites, and the people cried out to God, and God raised up a left-handed warrior who handily tricked and killed Moab’s king and then led the Israelite forces to rout the Moabite army.  And the land had peace, shalom, for 80 years.

(I know it is hard for many of us modern-day people to believe that God could be at work through the slaying of Moabites, and if you have some questions about all of that, let’s talk more offline.  Suffice it to say for now that even if today we picture God as a little more neutral, these stories still have something to tell us.)

From Ehud, things start to go downhill.  Our next judge, Deborah, is still a good judge – though it is presented as a little eyebrow-raising that the man who is supposed to be leading the Israelites in battle has to keep coming to her for advice and encouragement.  Then there is Gideon, reluctant at first to lead at all, who finally lets his success go to his head and rushes into battle shouting, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”  And there is Jephthah, who makes a hasty vow in exchange for God granting military success that ends up costing him his beloved daughter.

But oh, we’re only getting started.

I made the point last week that none of our favorite Sunday School Bible stories come from the book of Judges.  But maybe that’s not quite true.  Chances are, if you’ve ever heard a story from the book of Judges, it is the story of Samson – Israel’s last and most powerful judge.

Samson’s story begins as the twelve tribes of Israel are descending into chaos.   At this point they are ruled by their neighbors to the west, the Philistines.  But one day an angel appears to a barren woman and tells her she is going to have a baby.  This baby, the angel says, should be dedicated to God as a nazirite from birth.  This nazirite business is something we learn about in the book of Numbers – it was a temporary vow you took to dedicate yourself to God for a time, and the rules were 1) no alcohol, 2) no touching a corpse, and 3) no cutting your hair.  Samson, however, is to be a nazirite for his whole life.

From the beginning of his story, we know that Samson is special, and we are led to believe that he will do great things.

As it turns out, Samson’s special status makes him strong.  Really strong.  He will do things like tear a lion apart with his bare hands, and fight a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone, and escape – time after time – from those who try to subdue him.

The first we hear of Samson as a young adult, he has his eye on a certain Philistine woman.  (This is not Delilah, yet.)  He sees her, he wants her, and he tells his parents to get her for him as a wife.  They object, of course: “Couldn’t you marry a nice Israelite girl?”  But Samson says, “NO, MINE” and they do what he says.  At their wedding feast, where Samson certainly breaks the nazirite vow rule of no alcohol, he also makes a bet with the Philistine townspeople: a bet that they can’t solve a riddle he poses to them.  His new wife wheedles and nags him for the answer until he finally gives it to her.  She promptly passes the answer on to her kinfolk, who win the bet.  Samson gets so mad that he kills thirty people and storms home to his parents’ house.  Her father considers this an official divorce, and marries her off to someone else.  When Samson returns and realizes that, he lights the tails of thirty foxes on fire and sets them loose in the Philistine grain fields.  In response, the Philistines kill both this woman and her father; in response, Samson kills some more of them, and soon the Israelites and the Philistines are engaged in an all-out war.  Samson narrowly escapes by tearing the city gates out of the ground.

We learn a couple things about Samson from this story: 1.  He’s impetuous.  He wants what he wants, no matter the cost.  And 2.  He has a weakness for women.

And it’s against this backdrop that a woman named Delilah moves onto the scene:

 

Judges 16:4-22

 

I believe, a lot of the time at least, that our strengths are our weaknesses.  They are the same thing. I, for example, am a fairly introspective kind of person, in my head a lot.  This makes me good at writing but not so fun at parties.  I know some people who are real visionaries.  When I worked with Keary Kincannon at Rising Hope Mission Church, he always had it in mind to be starting a new food pantry or thinking about their move to their next building when they grew.  I’m not a great visionary.  I like to know the details, how it’s all going to pan out in real life.  On the one hand, I can help those visionaries think through how things can actually happen.  On the other hand, I can really rain on some parades.

Our strengths are our weaknesses.  It all depends on how we use them.

Samson, is, physically, the strongest judge to lead Israel.  The question is, will he use that strength for Israel’s deliverance?  Or will his great strength end up being his own downfall?

I think we know the answer to that.

Let me tell you the rest of the story.  The Bible doesn’t say whether Samson’s new love Delilah is a Philistine herself, but it does tell us she’s working for them.  She, like Samson’s first ill-fated love, coaxes Samson’s secret out of him.  She demands to know where his strength comes from; she pouts each time he lies to her and the plan doesn’t work, and she accuses him of not really loving her.  Maybe Samson simply can’t resist her.  Maybe he thinks he’s invincible.[1]  In any case, he finally tells Delilah his secret – that his strength is in his hair, which has never been cut.  Really, it’s not just his hair, but what his hair represents: his special status, the unique relationship with God that was given him at birth, the last nazirite vow that he hasn’t broken.

So she cuts his hair when he falls asleep with his head in her lap, and when, for the last time, Delilah says “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” he discovers he can’t just bust his way out of the ropes that bind him or uproot some city gates.  Not this time.  Instead, the Philistines take him, blind him, and condemn him to a life of servitude.

However, we learn – his hair begins to grow again.

One day the Philistine leaders gather for a festival in their temple, honoring the god Dagon, and they call Samson and make him dance for them.  This is the ultimate humiliation.  But Samson knows how to end it.  He stands between two of the pillars of the temple, and cries out to God: “Make me strong once more!  Let me die with the Philistines!”

His last words are a prayer of revenge.  Then with all his might, he pushes against the pillars.  They collapse, and everybody dies.

“So,” the story ends, “it turned out that he killed more people in his death than he did during his life” (16:30.)

This is the tragic ending of the story of Samson – the boy from whom we expected great things.

The story of Samson is a story of the strength and power we have – and how we use it.

I suppose you might say, Well, that’s a good lesson for President Trump.  Or Jeff Bezos.  Or someone else with actual power.  But  I don’t have power like Samson.  He was special, born to lead and deliver Israel.  I’m just a regular person trying to make it through the day, here. 

I get that.  Most of the time I feel that way too.

There’s a quote I come across every once in a while, by Marianne Williamson, that goes: “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”  I hear that and I’m like, nah.  I’m pretty sure I’m not afraid of that?

After all, what difference do I think I can really make, in a world where students get shot and killed in their classrooms on a regular basis, where volcanoes bury people in ash, where crying immigrant children are taken away from their mothers, where my dad has cancer that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?  I listen to the news, I get prayer requests, I see my own problems and those of the people I love, and most of the time, I feel so completely powerless.

But maybe that’s Marianne Williamson’s point: that thinking we’re powerless becomes an excuse.  Because we do all have some measure of power.  On the bulletin board in the Fellowship Hall, which has probably been the same so long you’ve stopped seeing it, there are post-it notes from our last Charge Conference where we listed our various circles of influence.  We may not have much influence over nature or other people’s violent actions or even our government’s policies, but we have influence in our families, our friend groups, our neighborhoods, our book clubs and Rotary clubs, our condo associations, our communities.  You don’t have to be a deliverer of Israel or a nazirite from birth to have some sort of power.

It’s not a question of whether you have any strength or power.  The question is, are you going to use what you’ve been given for good?  Are you going to use it for the deliverance of your country, community, and world?  Are you going to use it for justice and righteousness, in the service of the Kingdom of God – or, like Samson, are you just going to use it for yourself?

As I was outlining this sermon I decided I should have an example of someone using their power for good in a small, day-to-day kind of way.  At first I didn’t know what example to use.  But as soon as I started looking, I started seeing examples of it all around me.  There was the woman who emailed me, who stopped into our church to pray last week as she accompanied her friend to her asylum hearing nearby.  There’s the guy I know who just wrote a book reflecting theologically on his own experience of mental illness, because he believes that this is a conversation that needs to be had, especially in churches.  There was the person who came to me and wanted to talk about a prayer vigil for migrant families and other justice issues, because it seemed like there was nothing she could so but pray, but she believed in the power of prayer in community.

Of course you have power.  So what are you going to do with it?

The New Testament has some thoughts for us on where our true power and strength come from.  When Jesus’ disciples fight about who is the greatest and who will get to sit next to him in heaven, Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first of all must be the servant of all.

Later, in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that once when he prayed to God to take away a burden from him, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  For Paul, it wasn’t about his own power at all, but the power of God to work through him.

There’s a reason Jesus was a different kind of a leader from Samson.

Samson got what he want, but Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.  Samson sought revenge, Jesus said to turn the other cheek.  Samson died a fallen man, bringing everyone else down with him.  Jesus died for love of this world, and all of us, and rose again in victory.

Which one was ultimately more powerful?  Hint: it wasn’t the one who looked the most imposing, or had the greatest feats of strength, or who struck fear into the hearts of the most people.  It was the one whose power came from servanthood and vulnerability – and who always wielded it for the cause of love.

And yet even Samson’s downfall isn’t the end of the story.  God continues to work for the liberation of God’s people.  The Philistines might still be around today, but Israel will come together under King Saul, and then King David, and eventually, God’s oppressed people will be free.  And shalom will reign – at least for a time.

The question isn’t whether the Kingdom of God is on its way.  The question is, will you use the strength and power you’ve been given to be part of it?

 

[1] Common English Bible Study Bible, p. 397 OT

 

Judges and Kings: Someone to Deliver Us

Scripture: Judges 3:15-30

I’m going to preach part of this sermon before we read the Scripture today, because I think it will help to have a little context.

There are some parts of the Bible we come back to again and again.  The Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the 5000, the conversion of Saul, the Christmas story.  (What would you add to this list?)

Let me state the obvious here: approximately 0 of these stories come from the book of Judges.  In fact, there’s basically hundreds of years of Israelite history between Joshua fit-ing the Battle of Jericho and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace during the Babylonian exile that’s all a little hazy.

There are some familiar stories in there – you may have heard a thing or two about King David and his exploits – but even so, I think we tend to know them as isolated stories, rather than stories that fit into some overarching narrative.

But the stories that come from this part of the Bible are really good stories, and it’s a really good overarching narrative.  Last year when some of us were reading the Bible together in a year, it was this middle section of the Old Testament, in Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel, that got to be a real page-turner.  I didn’t want to put the book down.  That’s one reason we’re going to spend this summer in the stories of this era of Israel’s history, from the time of the judges through the reign of David’s son Solomon, who was the last king to rule over the united kingdom of Israel before it split into north and south.

The other reason I decided to spend the summer in these stories is that I think they are surprisingly relevant.  This part of Israel’s story is the story of people living in chaotic times, in times of transition.  They are stories of leaders and their people trying to figure out who they are and what is most important to them and how they govern themselves and how they relate to God.  They are stories of politics, power, and the Kingdom of God – which is, conveniently, what I’ve named this series.

When I say that a sermon series is about politics, I don’t necessarily mean partisan politics, which we’re all sick of anyway.  I mean, more broadly, how we live our lives in public; the issues we deal with together.  And when I say it’s about power, I don’t just mean our elected officials, but the question of who has power, and what kind, where it comes from, and how it is used.  And when I say the Kingdom of God, I mean how God shows up and acts in the midst of the mess we are often prone to make.  The stories of Israel’s history are about all of these things, and of course so is the history we are making today.

But before we get to today’s Scripture, let me start at the beginning.

Going back to those familiar Bible stories: if you’ve spent much time in church in your life you probably know that the Israelites spent some time in slavery in Egypt.  And you probably know that they had a leader, Moses, who brought them to freedom by parting the Red Sea.  You may even know that they wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the land God had promised them, for 40 years.

Moses’ protege Joshua finally leads the Israelites into the Promised Land, and the book of Joshua is the story of the Israelite people capturing the land from the people who (surprise) already live there.  The writer of Joshua records full and total victory, but it becomes clear at the beginning of Judges that the indigenous people have not in fact been wiped out of the land entirely.  (I’m inclined to be a little glad about that, but in the story, it’s not presented as a good thing.)

The book of Judges begins the story of an in-between time.  The people are in the land but they don’t yet have the stability of a nation, or a recognized head of state like a king.  So who are these people in this new place?  What, if anything, makes them one people as opposed to twelve separate and loosely associated tribes?  What is their relationship to the God who has brought them here, and how does that play out in real life?

If you’ve ever been in an awkward and sometimes painful time of transition like that, Judges is your book.  It’s a story of people figuring it all out – or, perhaps, not figuring it out at all.

Judges is not a book for the faint of heart – there’s plenty of violence, though as one writer pointed out, we today live in the most violent era in history.[1]  But I also think Judges has some of the best-told stories in the Bible.  They often have the quality of folk tales, which after all, is what they were – not in the sense of tall tales, but in the sense of stories passed down orally over generations and then eventually written down.  I think a lot of times when we hear Scripture read, we have this sense that we have to be all serious and somber and reverent, but folk tales are meant to be enjoyed, maybe even laughed at.  So I hope you’ll hear this story from Judges 3 with that in mind:

Judges 3:15-30

 

When I read the Bible, I write in the margins: questions, reactions, connections, you name it.  It’s my way of being in conversation with God through the text.  In my Bible at the end of this passage I have written: “I love everything about this story.”

The Israelites, now in the land, have somehow found themselves under the oppressive thumb of Eglon, King of Moab, their old enemies from across the Jordan River.  It is apparently their fault – they’ve done something God doesn’t like. But even so, God raises up a judge named Ehud who will deliver the Israelites from Moab’s power.

It’s important that when I say judge here you don’t think of, say, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Judges aren’t really judges.  They’re mostly informal leaders: they are warriors, they are establishers of justice; avengers, maybe.

Ehud is the second judge we read about. He is selected to bring tribute to King Eglon – tribute being the money they had to pay for the privilege of having been conquered by him.  He goes with a group and they do their thing – “Long live King Eglon,” etc – and then the group turns around to go home, but Ehud turns back.  “Oh, ahem, your highness,” he says, “I have a secret message for you.”

“Oh well then, come on in!” says Eglon.  “I love secret messages!”

Because Ehud is left-handed, Eglon’s guards don’t notice the sword concealed on the right side of his body, when you’d normally expect it to be on the left.  Once he’s in Eglon’s chamber he utters the great line, “I have a message from God for you,” and stabs him in the stomach, and we’re told Eglon’s fat closes around the blade, and something spills out, whether guts or excrement.

Ehud then quietly slips out and locks the door.

Meanwhile King Eglon’s people are waiting, and he’s not coming out, so they try the door, and it’s locked, and also they’re kind of getting a whiff of something from the other side, so they think he’s going to the bathroom.  It gets more and more awkward the longer they wait.  Finally they can’t wait any longer so they bust the door down and find their king dead on the floor.  Ehud, of course, has gotten a head start back across the river to Israel.

Let’s just have a moment of appreciation for this story.

That said, I won’t blame you if you’re wondering how in the world this makes for a sermon.

But it does (I hope) – when we put it in context.

In the book of Judges, we see a pattern emerging.  The people of Israel disobey God, usually by worshiping the gods of the other people in the land.  They suffer the consequences, usually by being oppressed by another nation for a time.  The people cry out to God asking for help, and God sends someone to deliver them.  Then there is a period of shalom, peace and well-being and wholeness, until they forget and the whole thing starts again.

This story is one example of this pattern.  The Israelites, we learn, have “done what is evil in the eyes of the Lord.”  God gives them over to King Eglon of Moab.  The people cry out to God, and God sends Ehud, the judge, the avenger, who kills King Eglon and ushers in eighty years of shalom.

Now if only it were that simple.

Plenty of people have tried to look at America, at one time or another, seemingly in the grip of chaos, and apply a pattern like this.  Of course, no one can agree on what we’ve done that is evil in the sight of the Lord or what other gods we are guilty of worshiping.  Is the problem gay marriage or capitalism?  Depends on who you ask.  How do we return to God?  Is it a matter of putting the Ten Commandments in every courthouse, or – as I believe – is it a matter of taking stock of how we treat the most vulnerable among us?  We also can’t agree on who God may or may not have sent to deliver us.  Some people speak about Donald Trump as if he is the fulfillment of some divine prophecy.  When Barack Obama was first a presidential candidate, some also saw him as a kind of Messiah figure.

And I probably need to say that oppressed people are not oppressed because they’ve angered God in some way.  Nor is prosperity itself necessarily a sign of God’s favor.  And while I’m at it, it’s probably helpful to remember that God never made God’s covenant with America, God made a covenant first with the Israelite people and then with people from all nations who choose to sign on – and yet surely God cares about America, too, and what we do here, just as God care about all the nations of the world.

So it’s a little more complicated than all that.

And even so, something about this pattern does ring true, doesn’t it?  The idea that we’re not in a good place as a society these days, and somehow we’ve gotten ourselves here by not being faithful to what God wants from us, and we’re going to need God’s help to dig our way out of it, and maybe there can be shalom on the other side of that, at least for a little while.

Judges isn’t ultimately an optimistic book.  In fact, as this pattern repeats, it gets worse every time, until the book ends in just undiluted chaos.  Judges does not believe in “progress.”  That’s hard for me, because on my better days, I think, I really want to.  I want to believe that things are better on the whole than they were 50 years ago.  We’ve come so far in terms of women’s rights and racial equality and technology and medicine and GDP – haven’t we?  Well, maybe in some ways, yes.  And yet the gap has continued to grow between rich and poor and sometimes it feels like we haven’t gotten very far in terms of racial equality at all and technology means we have weapons that allow us to be at war for years without me thinking about it much in my daily life at all.

God, deliver us.  We have done this to ourselves.

But what the book of Judges does tell us is that God continues to act decisively in our story, over and over; that God, as one writer put it, “is unfailingly faithful to a faithless people.”[2]

Our story as God’s people is a story of falling away, forgetting, worshiping the wrong things, suffering the consequences physically and spiritually, crying out to God – and God doesn’t say, “Too bad, you did this to yourselves.”  God says, “OK, here is help; come back to me.”

As Christians, of course, the story continues for us, not just through the succession of judges and kings who will never truly be able to deliver God’s people, but to Jesus, who can.  Who does.  Who is God’s ultimate decisive act in history.  Who recognizes the enemies and chaos both around us and inside us and promises us another way.  Who invites and empowers us to live in God’s shalom even when no one else around us is.  Who succumbs to the worldly powers of evil and then rises to conquer them, fully and totally, and who will come again to reign over God’s Kingdom on earth.  When no human deliverer can save us from ourselves, God sends one who can.

Our story as God’s people together is a story of grace – of us turning away and God calling us back.  Maybe, as we hear the story continue to unfold, we can believe it is still true – not just thousands of years ago in a land far away, but here, and today, and for each one of us.

 

 

 

[1] J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation: Judges, p. 20.

[2] McCann, p. 3.