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.


  1. oh pastor Dennis, you're so inspiring.
    all of your writing pieces are absolutely wonderful and also are so profound.
    you're blessed to have such abilities to enchant people with your superb words and thoughts.

    most probably something i needed to read today.

    be well, pastor Dennis,

    p.s. my apologies for my late response to your lovely comments. i've been so very busy lately trying to get some things done before my trip....i'm flying to UK tomorrow.

  2. ...and the photos are really beautiful!

    Please disregard the word "probably" in my last lines.
    of course I meant to say DEFINITELY!!

    weel done:)