Friday, September 30, 2011

After Two Weeks' Disappearance

My mom suddenly took ill and was hospitalized for about a week and a half. She is improving but has a lot of convalescing to do. So I was down in California to be near her during a very scary time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Witnesses of the Kingdom and the Power

Preached Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scripture readings: Luke 4:14-30; Luke 24:36-49

The day Jesus rose from the dead began a day of complete confusion for his disciples and friends. Jesus’ body was gone. This much they knew. They didn’t know what it meant.

Had the body been stolen? But who would do that, and why? Who had anything to gain from it? Would the authorities do it in order to blame it on them, and then the authorities would produce the body to shame them, and make them a laughing stock?

Of course Jesus had said he would rise from the dead, but surely he didn’t mean that literally. (Luke 18:33) When they lost Jesus, they lost not only a teacher, a friend, a leader; they lost their hope.

They hoped that Jesus would be the Messiah, the King, and lead them at the head of an army to defeat the Romans and drive their enemies out of the land. They hoped that Jesus would lead them forth to conquer the earth and hold the world-empire for the glory of God.

They loved God and they loved Jesus, who stood, in their hearts, very much for God and for the kingdom of God. Now this was lost and their hope had died.

When Jesus died on the cross, they died too; and that upper room, in which they had eaten with Jesus, had become their tomb. Only it was a living tomb of a disappointed faith, and a failed hope, and a grieving love, and (on that first day of the week) a complete confusion.

They had had their doubts all along about Jesus’ strategy to bring the kingdom. They had never really bought into it. They just liked Jesus. He was scary sometimes, but he made them happy. And he made them feel important, too; very important. They especially liked that.

The Bible is a gift by which God speaks to us. It tells us about God. It tells us about ourselves. And here we find a little picture of God’s people, the church. It shows us how they were afraid of believing and living in faith. It shows us that they liked Jesus, but they didn’t like it when he went too far, or asked them to go that far with him. They felt far better huddling in the room of a building where they had had good times, and where they felt sheltered from the risks and the judgments of a community that surrounded them, and judged them, and wanted them not to exist.

And there we are. It turns out to be a picture of us, or at least a picture of what we are always on the edge of becoming, because we like to be prudent and safe, because the world outside is a messy place (really only as messy as we are, if we could see ourselves as a faithful God sees us).

And we are not sure that we buy into Jesus’ priorities and strategies. We like Jesus a lot. He makes us happy. But he can be sort of scary. He has crazy ideas about love (his love for us and the love he tries to get out of us) that are just too risky.

Instead of leading an army, Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, and for our sins. Instead of ruling a world government from Jerusalem, Jesus rose from the dead to give life to the world, and to us.

This seems an odd way to build a kingdom. What kind of kingdom could he have been thinking of?

That is the first half of his strategy that didn’t make any sense. The second half of his strategy is this. It required him to show us that he is alive and victorious. But it also required him to make sure we saw that his victory was built upon his death on the cross and upon the wounds he will always bear. Once we see the glory of those scars that he got because he loved us (a strange kind of glory). Once know from personal experience that Jesus’ kingdom works through his death and his empty tomb, he puts us in charge of gathering the world to this strange kingdom. Then he disappears.

Well he doesn’t exactly disappear, but he sure doesn’t leave footprints or fingerprints. The only prints left on the scene now are our own. But he shows himself the same way to each one of us. He has to. So we know. And then he gives this job to us and disappears. What kind of strategy is that?

The love of a God who became human in order to die for the sins of the world, and in order to rise from the dead, is supposed to bring the kingdom of God by changing hearts, and minds, and lives. The whole world is supposed to recognize that it needs this kind of love. It is supposed to realize that armies, and laws, and education, and technology (though they have their place) will never change what really needs changing: hearts, and minds, and lives.

The message that God takes upon himself the sin, and the evil, and the suffering and death of this world on himself, through his own death, as a substitute for the world (as a substitute for us) shows us a God who loves us more than we love ourselves. It shows us a God who loves the world and loves life more than we do, and has the power to set us free to live well and not be afraid.

The new life of the kingdom of this God revolves completely around repentance and the forgiveness of sins. In the kingdom of God there is the power to really change. This is where repentance leads us. In the kingdom of God there is the power to be truly free. This is where the forgiveness of sins leads us.

Jesus not only makes this possible; he makes it a promise. Jesus makes you the evidence-givers of change and freedom. He makes you and me his witnesses. The purpose of witnesses is to give testimony, but the best kind of testimony is evidence.

So your purpose and mine, as Jesus’ people, is surely to give evidence of the dying and rising of Jesus. And even more than that; we are to give evidence of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

So when do you intend to start? When are you going to change? When are you going to forgive? I know, this means me too! It raises a lot of questions.

Repentance is a kind of change. Forgiveness is a kind of freedom. It is a kind of liberation and healing of the heart. Repentance and forgiveness are both ways of making a new world and setting things right.

Sometimes we make repentance and forgiveness into purely spiritual things. Jesus describes his mission in a way that includes everything in life, everything in the world, and not just what we consider to be spiritual. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and acceptance.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus created the kind of change and freedom that deal with every kind of problem. He didn’t only deal with spiritual blindness. He gave real blind people sight. Jesus didn’t only deal with the spiritually poor. He fed the hungry. The repentance and forgiveness that Jesus authorizes is not just spiritual help for people, but passionate help for all the kinds of problems that people have.

There are prisoners of the mind, and prisoners of abuse, and prisoners of addiction, and prisoners of depression, and fear, and anger, and lust, and pride. And there are prisoners in prison. Jesus’ mission applies to them all. If we are in any of these prisons we need the good news of Jesus to become real for us. And we need help in whatever prison we find ourselves. We need the help of Jesus, and we need the help of his witnesses. And then Jesus gives us the job of being witnesses.

The idea of witness has another side to it. A witness is a kind of extension of an event. A witness is a kind of extension of another person. What Jesus does for us is not supposed to stop with us. Jesus wants to play through us. He wants to extend himself through us.

So he extends himself to each one of us in our hearts. He extends himself through the way we relate to the other members of his family, the church. He extends himself by stretching us as his church into the world. His work becomes our work. We become an extension of Christ to the world, as individuals and as the church of Christ.

What are we to do?

There is a basic issue of faith in the Christian life. We are nothing if we don’t believe that (one way or another) the Lord is the creator of the heavens and the earth. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1) Faith means living like people who believe the world belongs to God.

In the same way we are nothing if we don’t believe that the Lord is the creator of a new world of grace through the cross and the resurrection. We live like people who believe that the old world has passed away and that a new world has come, and is coming.

New rules apply. The rules which the citizens of the old world believed were important, and smart, and successful, no longer apply in the new creation. Faith requires us to live believing that what Jesus stands for are the things that matter. That is part of the repentance we need to show as evidence, as witnesses.

Jesus said that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be preached in his name; that is, in the Christ’s name, the Messiah’s name, the King’s name. The idea of doing something “in his name” is easy to understand, as easy as it was when we played cops and robbers long ago. When we were the cops who yelled, “Stop, in the name of the law” it meant that we had authority to say “stop”. Our order carried weight; the weight of authority.

As the people of Jesus you carry weight with me, you have authority in my life. I may not do what you want, or what you say; but I care about what you want and I care about what you say, because I love you and I know you are children of God. You are loved by Jesus.

We do not always do what Jesus wants or says but, if we love him, he carries an immeasurable weight with us. The authority of Jesus sending us on his mission as his witnesses weighs upon us, even if we do not listen or respond.

If we go with the weight it will free us and move us. If we don’t go with the weight it will squeeze us and press us.

I am not proud of being a pastor. I am not proud of my service to him. But Jesus’ calling carries weight with me. When I tried, a long time ago, to ignore his calling, it made me very unhappy. You can’t love God, and not do what you know he wants, and expect to be happy. And a lot of Christians, if they were honest with themselves, would realize that their spiritual dryness had something to do with not doing a particular thing they know very well the Lord wants them to do. There is something that they are avoiding and they pay for it.

But you have to understand that I am not talking about the guilt that comes from neglecting a duty. I am talking about the weakness that comes from ignoring a grace. The next single thing that God calls you to do always has grace in it. It is always a new discovery of God’s power and love.

You have a mission to the world in the King’s name. It may be the world at your doorstep. It may be the world around the world. The mission of Jesus does not stop with you.

Then you must know that you have the Father’s promise, the power from on high. (Luke 24:49) For one thing, the word promise means that you are people of promise. You need to know that, as the old saying goes, “God don’t make no junk.” Dependence on God is not powerlessness. Confidence in God is not a lack of confidence. When I see a child fumbling around with a ball, or plinking tuneless notes on a piano, I don’t see imperfection and failure, I see promise, and that is how God sees you, as people of promise.

The Lord promises you his Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit you will have the gifts and you will bear the fruit you need to be the glorious children of God, and the witnesses of the cross and the empty tomb.

When Jesus talks about the “power from on high” “power”, here, translates the basic Greek word “dunamis” from which we get our word “dynamite”. We are people of promise because God has given us dynamite.

Both Christians and non-Christians are hurt when we play with, and tamper with, this dynamite of the Holy Spirit. Watch out for those who play, and tamper. They insert their own egos into their show of the Spirit. They imitate Christians in the Spirit without knowing either the Spirit or themselves.

But know that there is something you cannot see or hear that is at work. The life of the Spirit is not just talk. God is God, and God is supernatural in his power. But the supernatural work of God goes on in disguise. The work of God goes disguised as you and me, and as the Body of Christ.

You may fret and grumble, but there is a power that is able to work beyond your ability, and beyond your best plans. People may come to see something in you that you do not see in yourself. People will come to see in your words and your actions something that points beyond yourself.

The Holy Spirit is the most secret and invisible aspect of God; the most humble aspect of carelessly humble God, who is not afraid to sweat, and bleed, and die. This Holy Spirit is a gift of the Father and the Son. The power from on high has been given the freedom to work in every follower of Jesus, because Jesus’ death and resurrection has made you a new person, and therefore you are fit, in the Father’s sight, for the fullness of his power.

The Holy Spirit was present in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the Holy Spirit is present in God’s recreation of your new life. The Holy Spirit is present in the new creation that is taking place in others when you bear witness to Jesus in your words and actions. Trust the promise of the Father.

Jesus’ kingdom is a strange kingdom. It rules by means of death and resurrection. It rules by means of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. So Jesus knows we need a strong dose of meeting him as he is; as our sacrifice for sin and our risen Savior.

Then we will know the change of repentance and the freedom of forgiveness, and we will have something worth giving to the whole world. We will be his true witnesses.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

All Was Lost; All Shall Be Well

Preached Saturday, September 10, 2011 for an evangelistic service
Scripture readings: Genesis 3:1-15; John 1:9-14

The Bible tells us about the kind of world and the sort of life we were designed for and created for. It also shows us a picture of what has gone wrong.

The part of the story we read from Genesis tells us how things went wrong. If we kept on reading we would see how things got much worse; but then the TV, and the radio, and the internet all tell us that it has gotten much worse. We wonder when the next terrorist attack will come, and when the next jet will plow into the next skyscraper. The big world around us shows us that things have gone wrong.

But we see it on the small scale of our own lives. Even in our own homes (or even if we live alone) there can be angers, and stresses, and betrayals, and griefs that eat at our minds, and our wills, and break our hearts, or embitter us, or isolate us.

The Bible tells us that we were designed and created to live in a garden, a paradise, a place of harmony, a place of good relationships. And we lost it. The world and human life became broken and dysfunctional things. This happened long before we were born, but it is a fact of life.

Long ago the first humans tried to put themselves in a state of independence from God thinking they could get away with this, even though God is the source of life for all things. And God responded by letting them have what they wanted, a life lived outside the source of life.

They had wanted an independence that was beyond the ability of any creature living in a world made by God. It was as if beings with lungs wanted to live independent of the air, or a fish wanted to live out of water. What hope could there be for a life like that?

Before the portion of the story that we have read, you can read how God brought all the animals to the man, and the man named them, and he did not find among them a helper suited to him. And since none of the other creatures were capable of giving him the help and the depth of relationship that he needed, God gave him a wife. And the man immediately knew who this person was and how good for him she was.

If we were in harmony with God, we would be like those first humans in the beginning. We would be able to size up anything (and anyone) that came our way, and know what to do. We would know what was good for us, and what was not. We would know what we needed and what we did not need. Any person who came into our life, we would understand, and we would be able to see how that person was a gift from God, and we would know how to deal with that person. We would know what to say to that person, and how to live together.

Our human nature is out of harmony with God. If God brought the best person, the greatest source of human love to us, we would fail to praise that person properly and give God the proper thanks.

In the temptation, where Adam should have accepted responsibility for his own actions, he blamed his wife instead. And Adam blamed God for giving her to him. And so, in the story, half the human race was divided from the other half, as it has been ever since.

The fall of the human race and the breaking up of human nature shows us who we are. When we do not live in harmony with God, we don’t know how to live in this world. We don’t know what anything is. We don’t know how to relate to our opportunities. We blame others instead of facing ourselves. We allow our pride to divide us from others. It becomes our nature to fight, and hurt, and get hurt.

Before the first humans divided the human race from God, the garden life was a place where you could work and know what you were working for.

With the help of God work can be a blessing but, living in a world that does not work God’s way, you can do all the right things and have nothing to show for it. Farmers know this. You can invest the work of your life in a job, in a marriage, in a way of seeing the world, and end up with nothing.

You can even work so hard, so intensely, that it makes the work go bad. The sweat in your eyes makes you fail to see how you are toiling for what you think you want in all the wrong ways. This is what it means to work for thorns and thistles.

Even though we often live broken lives in a broken world, it is not completely natural to us. We see that something is wrong. If we were really designed for the world as it is, and for life as it is, we wouldn’t know any better. We would feel perfectly at home.

But we don’t feel at home. The fact is that most of us know there is something wrong, and sometimes we can imagine the way things should be.

We are not like blind people living in a world where everyone was blind. In such a world there would be no one who would know that there was such a thing as light.

We live in a spiritually and morally hungry and thirsty world. Most of us know that we are missing something. Hunger and thirst tell us that we are made to eat and be filled; to drink and be quenched. At least some of us know that we hunger and thirst for goodness, and for fairness, and justice, and forgiveness, and love, and truth.

This shows us that we were made for a better world than we see around us, and that we are made for better lives that we have the power to live on our own. This tells us that, either the world was once such a place for finding fullness, and harmony, and fulfillment, and satisfaction; or else it tells us that we are made for a better world that is ahead, a better world that is coming.

The Bible and the good news of Jesus tell us about such a world and such a life. It tells us about a paradise that has been lost, and a human nature that has been broken, and about relationships that have been divided. It tells us that we were made for peace with God, and that such a peace would make us able to grow in peace, and in healing relationships with others, and we would have something to give to the world that would make a difference.

The Bible tells us that there will be an end to the world as it is; that Satan and all the powers of evil will be crushed as one might crush the head of a rattle snake when you’ve killed it. The Bible tells us that God has a plan to make each one of us a new person fit for a new creation that is coming.

The Lord told the serpent, the devil, in the garden, that one of the woman’s children would crush the serpent’s head and the serpent would strike the child’s heel. That is the first picture, or prophecy, in the Bible that shows us the healing and the salvation of the human race and the whole world. Everything else is built on this promise.

The serpent is Satan, the Devil, and all his minions, and all the forces of darkness, and all the sin rooted in human hearts, and all the rebellion in human beings that poison nations, and families, and each one of our individual lives.

We are all children of the man and the woman in the garden. We are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. We cannot crush the serpent because the serpent is a part of us. At least we are allies of it. It is our very nature to be allies of the serpent, even though we have been made in the image of God and made for life with God. We are divided against ourselves, and so we cannot defeat, for good, the evil in the world and in ourselves.

So God became human to fight the battle that must be fought. God entered the world as Jesus, the son of Mary.

His coming into the world was his own doing. It was his free, and gracious, and miraculous act of love.

There is something in the love of God that is parental, which we call the Father. There is something in the love of God that submits and serves, which we call the Son. The Bible also calls this submitting and serving Son, the Word of God, and the light that enlightens everyone and everything.

The Son, the Word, the Light, says everything about God and everything about us. When he comes to us we see true glory, and holiness, and love, and worth; and we see ourselves just as we are. And this Son, this Word, this light in the nature of God is what led God to become human, to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

God became human as Jesus to invade us and establish a beachhead in us. In Jesus God built a perfect human life; the kind of life of faith, and compassion, and wisdom that we were created to live.

In Jesus God suffered the injustices, and the griefs, and the pains, and the death that human sin made a part of our life. He suffered the experiences that sin in our nature deserved. He who was without sin died the death our sins deserved.

He was beaten and whipped bloody by those who arrested him and prepared him for death on the cross, but our sins were in those fists, and in the lashes that tore his flesh. Nails were driven through his hands and feet. His whole body’s weight hung upon those nails, but all the sins and injustices and evils of this world hung upon him. The pain and blood of the cross are the pictures of the extreme and infinite love of God for you. They are his power to reach into you, and claim you, and make you whole.

He bore our punishment on the cross. He went through the gate of death because he was human, and because he was God he broke the power of death, and he broke the power of sin that brought death into the world.

On the cross it was as if all the evil and sin of this world, and of our own hearts, struck the Jesus’ heel and killed him, but Jesus lived again and crushed the serpent’s head.

If we will receive Jesus we receive everything that he is, everything that he has. We receive his grace and his forgiveness.

Everything we have, from then on, and every step forward, is the result of that forgiveness. We never receive the victory of Jesus in order to brag, or to be better than anyone else, or to look down on others. Apart from Jesus we don’t have anything to call our own, but Jesus makes us his own. He makes us children of God.

Even when we first meet God, in Christ, we see the serpent at work because we are bothered by the light. We don’t want to see ourselves just as we are. We don’t want to know too much about our responsibility. We don’t want to completely escape from the crippling and destructive desires within us, because these desires may give us the only pleasure that we have known; even though they are hurting us and those around us.

We may think we want God and what God has to give us, but we don’t want it all. We want to pick and choose what God will deal with in us and what we can keep for ourselves.

And so the light shows us that the old sin of Adam and Eve is at work in us, wanting to be independent from our very source of life. It is as if we want to be sober and drunk at the same time. It is as if we want to be sick and well at the same time. In that sense we want to live a lie, even when we see all the goodness of God waiting for us in Jesus.

But God is full of grace and truth and he shows us this through his Son. There is no grace or truth outside of him.

We have to die with Jesus and rise with Jesus by receiving him. We have to die to our stubborn independence, and rise in a life of grace alone: the beautiful and freely given mercy of God alone.

And we have to die and rise with Christ so that we die to our version of the truth and listen only to him. We have to die to the lies we have told ourselves, about our lives, and about our real priorities, and about our true responsibility. We have to die to ourselves, and rise in God’s truth about us and about the new life he sets before us.

Receiving Jesus, the word and light of God, means the deepest surrender. It feels like the greatest risk in the world. It’s like floating on your back when you are afraid of water. It is like sky diving and jumping out of that plane when you are afraid of heights. We have to lose our selves and give up ourselves to put to an end to a life that needs to stop, and to receive a life that comes from God.

The life God gives is a life that we cannot manufacture for ourselves. The life we receive from God has its beginning before the creation and it will never end, and there is no shadow and no fear in it.

This new life will enable us to go forward in harmony with God and make us into givers of grace and truth to others, and to the whole world. This new life is the end of something old that we know too well, but this life is only the beginning of something else. To receive Jesus, you have to be ready to begin what only God knows.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In a World Adrift: God of the Half-Baked

Preached Sunday, September 4, 2011
Scripture readings: Judges 11:1-13, 29-40; Luke 22:24-38

The story of Jephthah is the story of a man who received the Spirit of the Lord (11:29), and who, in the power of the Spirit, went out in battle to save his people from their oppressors, and who came home and made his daughter a human sacrifice as a offering for his victory. Poor Jephthah! Poor girl! And what about the mother in all this!

This is terrible. Some people try to deal with the scandal of this story by explaining the legal quandary Jephthah was in. The laws that God gave to the people of Israel forbade the breaking of vows (Numbers 30:2 and Deuteronomy 23:21-23), and they forbade offering children or adults as human sacrifices (Leviticus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 12:30-31).

The promise you made to the Lord, or the promise you made to others in the presence of the Lord, was holy. To break such a promise was sin, because you belonged to a God who never broke a promise.

The strange thing is that there was no penalty attached to this sin. There was no penalty for breaking a promise and leaving it broken.

You might forget to keep a promise and there was provision for that. You could make a sacrifice to compensate for your forgetfulness. But then you had to return to keep the promise.

If you left the promise un-kept the implication was that you stood before God as a promise-breaker and there was no solution open to you. The fact is that the only solution to such a problem is to be found in God alone.

Jephthah was terrified by this. Jephthah had made his terrible promise because, even though the Spirit of the Lord had come upon him, he did not know the Lord very well.

It was a time when none of God’s people knew God very well. They were likely to think they had to bargain and pay for God’s favor; and then live in fear of the results. Even Jephthah’s daughter believed that her father had to sacrifice her.

There was a penalty assigned to sacrificing a child. The penalty was death. (Lev. 20:2) But that penalty was not carried out in Jephthah’s case, and it was not even mentioned.

The daughter seems to have been old enough to start thinking about marriage or at least about her wedding (the way girls do). She might have been twelve years old, or so; and her parents would soon start looking for a suitable match.

But that was not to be. She went off with her friends to mourn her approaching death, and the curtain comes down on this part of Jephthah’s story, and the story of his daughter.

Some scholars try to take the horror out of the story by claiming that it ends without specifically saying that the girl actually died at the hands of her father. They think that her father settled on the solution of confining her to their home for the rest of her life and keeping her from ever marrying.

And yet the plain sense of the story assures us that the girl would be sacrificed and killed. If Jephthah was so worried about keeping his promise, he would have kept it to the letter. That is why it became a custom, at least for a while in Israel, for girls approaching marriage age to mourn for the memory of Jephthah’s daughter.

Toward the end of the Book of Judges, the authors themselves give their judgment on the whole history they have told us. They say, in conclusion, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25; NIV, RSV)

Except for a few glimmers of light and goodness, Judges is deliberately told to us as a sad, and tragic, and shameful story. It is a story of outrage.

Well the human side of the story is sad, and tragic, and outrageous. We have to remember that it was written in its present form at a time when God’s people had a king who led them to do what was right in God’s eyes.

It seems to make sense to say that this sad and tragic book was written during the time of King David. It was not a perfect time, but the time showed that God had clearly not abandoned his people. That is the real lesson all along.

Even in the time of the judges, the authors note that God does not abandon his people. The Spirit of the Lord did not come upon Jephthah because he deserved it, but in spite of the fact that he did not deserve it.

The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah because the Lord is faithful in his love. The Lord’s people need him. The whole world needs him.

The Book of Judges shows us a true picture of God’s people so that we can have a true picture of God. The Bible, as a whole, does the same thing.

This is the key to understanding the most famous verse in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16-17) Then the next verse ought to be just as well known. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Even the darkness of the Book of Judges tells us that it is God’s nature to save and not to condemn.

What we see as unforgivable, what we see as hopeless, God sees as redeemable, God sees as savable. We are willing to break faith because of what we see. God sees everything and he still keeps faith as the faithful God. We are willing to write the world off, but the Lord writes the world in his heart. This is what Judges is about. This is why God became human in the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

Jephthah had a bad life from the start. This does not excuse him, but it is just the truth. He got thrown out of his home and thrown off the family farm by his brothers, when their father died. Jephthah was probably a teenager when this happened.

The brothers were the sons of their father’s wife. Jephthah was the son of their father’s prostitute. Everyone but Jephthah wanted to wipe out all memory of this embarrassment. They saw themselves as the good people who had no obligation to their brother, and so they threw him out.

There you have the portrait of the people of God. It’s written for you, and for me. It’s written for the church. Do we identify with it?

Jephthah lost his connection to the land. He lived in a time when people had life because they had land. Without land there was nothing for him to do but to live outside the law and to set up a gang.

He was the gang leader. His gang hid in the hills. They raided villages. They stole from travelers. When they raided villages it means they came to town and asked for money, and food, and goods in exchange for “protection”; and they would come by, periodically, after that, to receive their monthly payments.

They were not “adventurers” as the New International Version translates them. They were a gang, and Jephthah was the gang boss. But he was smart and successful enough to become famous. He had skills in fighting and organizing, and when his family and his tribe got in trouble, they had no one else who could compare with him.

That was the state of the people of God; a sad state to be in. That is what Judges tells us God’s people can be like.

Jephthah was shocked and surprised when the good people came back to him and asked him to lead them. He didn’t trust them. Why should he?

He made them repeat their promise, and he made them swear to the Lord, because he knew from experience that the good people could not be trusted. And he went, probably with some of their leaders in tow, to the sanctuary of the Lord at Mizpah.

He made them repeat their promises in the house of God, in the presence of God. And here we see the gang leader caring more about what God thought than the good people who had thrown him out, and driven him into a bitter and violent way of life.

I don’t think Jephthah cared about God when the good people drove him off. I think he hated them and their God. I think they drove his faith underground. But the chance to come back was like the door of a chance to return to a faith he thought was lost. It was a call to come back to a God who was much more faithful than the people who had broken faith with him and driven him away.

When the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah he was claiming Jephthah and his whole people for himself. He was renewing their faith in the truth about himself; the truth they had forgotten. By claiming them through the power of his Holy Spirit, the Lord was equipping them by reminding them of his faithfulness.

God was arming them with the power of a relationship with him. It would bear fruit far into the future. In that relationship they would be able to fulfill his purpose for them. They would be able to bring his Son, the Christ, into the world. They would be able to provide the environment for the coming of his kingdom into the world.

They were a building block in the history of God making a new life and a new world for us. God gives us his Son and his Spirit so that we can share in the same project.

When the Lord claimed Jephthah (just as when the Lord claims us) what did he (what does he) get? What does God get when he gets us? In Jephthah’s case, the Lord got victory, peace, and freedom, not for himself but for his people. The Lord got what his people needed to live their lives fully: victory, peace, freedom. These give us the room we need to grow and mature in our life and faith.

But God also got a leader who thought that offering a human sacrifice would make God do his bidding. God got a father taking his own child’s life. God got a nation that kept going downhill in spite of his faithful love.

In a sense, the Bible is telling us that God’s claiming a human being through his Spirit gained for God the reward of ongoing human error and human failure. This is what happened. It still happens.

When Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples it was just one action out of everything he had ever said and done to claim them for himself. The real heart of that meal was the cross and the resurrection that were racing toward them.

But Jesus, seeing the events of the cross and the resurrection, also saw disciples arguing among themselves and trying to prove that they were better than the others. And Peter was trying to insist that he would never betray Jesus. Jesus knew that he was getting a man who would thoroughly betray him, but who would also come back to him and be a source of strength to others. (Luke 22:31-34)

Jesus knew that his claiming of Peter, and Peter’s betrayal, and the return of Peter into fellowship, was all part of the story that Jesus had come to write. And he was writing it for us and for the whole world.

We, like Peter and Jephthah, bring to the Lord all our disadvantages: all the wrongs we have done and have been done to us. And we bring to the Lord the certainty of all our future betrayals and failures, and our need for future repentance, and healing, and mercy. This is part of the story that the Lord is writing through our lives.

Jephthah’s life, after the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, was both amazing and appalling. This is what the Lord got by claiming Jephthah. Peter would continue to be amazing and appalling, and so will we. This is the benefit the Lord gets for his faithfulness.

This might not seem to be enough. It might not seem quite worth it, except that God is faithful. God loves us. His love carries its own reward for him.

The love of God, as we see it in Jesus on the cross, and the power of the Holy Spirit carry with them their own reward in our lives. The true experience of God’s faithfulness begins a real, new life from God in our hearts.

The horror of his promise and the innocent, faithful love of his daughter were a wake-up call for Jephthah to see himself just as he was. In spite of his tragic mistake, Jephthah tried to be as uncompromisingly faithful as God was. The New Testament calls him a man of faith. (Hebrews 11:32)

Through the words of Jesus about Peter’s future failure and his future renewal, God inserted his presence into that failure, and made that renewal possible. When Peter understood it, his heart was melted and he was free to weep and come back in faith.

When the Spirit of the Lord comes upon us we hear the stories of God’s people and God’s faithfulness, and we see ourselves in those stories. When we know God as he truly is, when we truly see him in his grace, when we see that he carried out his grace by living for us and dying for us on the cross, then we can see ourselves just as we are. We can see ourselves as God intends us to be.

God gets our baggage. We get a life where we are sometimes amazed and sometimes appalled. The Bible is designed to give us an unyielding and relentless picture of our humility and our need for humility as God’s people. Jephthah and Peter are part of our own picture. That is the way it is supposed to be.

But most of all the love of God carries us forward and makes us part of a purpose that has a future and hope. God has come in Christ to claim us and give us a new life with the presence of his Spirit. Knowing ourselves and the faithfulness of God makes us able to carry the message, and not lose our grip on it, and not lose our taste for it, and not lose the joy it gives us.