Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Great Story - A few Good Men and Women Swim Upstream

Preached on Sunday, October 27, 2013

Scripture readings:
Judges 3:1-11; Judges 13:24-14:20
Mark Twain was a famous smoker. He wrote a lot about this, and sometimes he wrote about quitting. He is reported as saying (although there is no actual record of him saying this), “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it thousands of times.”
July 2013: Manito Park Conservatory; Spokane WA
My dad quit smoking when he was about fifty years old. He had been smoking since he was fourteen. That makes it hard to quit.
He had tried to quit any number of times. This wasn’t because smoking ever seemed to affect his health. Once, when I was a teenager, he hiked with me to the top of a ten thousand foot mountain. In his annual medical exam, his doctors were always amazed that he didn’t seem to have the lungs of a smoker at all. There was no tar or other deposits there.
But my dad could be cheap and he hated spending all that money. He hated to think that something was controlling him and making him spend money against his will.
Finally, when he was about fifty, he had such a bad cold that he simply couldn’t smoke at all. Just one puff on a cigarette would make him cough so hard he could hardly stand up.
The cold went on and on for more than a month. When it was over my dad decided that he had suffered from withdrawals for so long that it wasn’t worth going back to it. He used a negative experience as a positive motivation.
When we talked about this, years later, he said that he still wanted to do it sometimes, but it wasn’t worth it to go back. He quit for good, until he fell off a neighbor’s roof, and hit his head, and left this world, at the age of eighty one.
Smoking is an addiction, and yet the cycle of addiction applies to all of us. The Book of Judges shows us a cycle of addiction and the desire to be free from that addiction. The Bible calls our common addiction sin. It means that human nature is hooked on something.
In the Garden of Eden the first humans got hooked on a desire to be like God in terms of self-government. They wanted to be free to decide what was good or bad for them without reference to God, without need for God. That is why they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
They got what they wanted (a life they could live without reference to God) but this achievement started them on a path that led away from God. And, since God is the source of all life, this path led away from life itself into a kind of spiritual death.
Instead of serving God, they served themselves. Instead of loving God first, they loved themselves first. Instead of worshipping God, they worshipped themselves. Human nature was still in the process of being “programmed”. It was still being fine tuned. And their choice tuned the human nature that we have inherited into a cycle of addiction.
It was an addiction to ourselves that separated us from the good health of having a God who is really bigger and better, wiser and more loving, than we are. Addictions always begin with an attraction to something we think will make us happy, but it keeps us from the life that is really life worth living. It keeps us from true happiness.
In the real world (in the universe as it is) there is only one source of all things. There is only one God. To worship something else beside God, in service of oneself, is to make what the Bible calls an idol. An idol is anything you worship first, or serve first, instead of God. This false worship is called idolatry.
The story of the creation, in Genesis, tells us that, after the first humans turned their lives away from God, God passed sentence on them, and on the earth in which we live. It was like a curse, and a curse is a command that turns things against you.
A curse makes things hard. It can make some things fatal. For the first humans, before their fall, surely nothing had seemed too hard, nothing had ever proved fatal.
And yet it was the goodness of God to do this to us; to make some things hard and other things dangerous and fatal. This was a defense against idolatry. When you live in a world where life can be hard and where dangers can be fatal, it is harder to worship yourself. In such a world you know you are not invincible.
But it is not a perfect defense, because our process of making idols out of the things in our lives, or our making ourselves into idols for our own worship, is simply a part of human nature. It is the sin we were all born with.
When the first humans reprogrammed human nature to go the opposite direction of God, God reprogrammed the world we live in to turn us around, back in his direction, if only we were willing to do so. In a way, God designed the world to be like a traffic roundabout.
I hate those things. They always make me feel like they are going to make me go in a different direction than I want to go. On a real traffic roundabout, that would be a bad thing. But in God’s roundabout it is a good thing. God’s roundabouts are roundabouts of grace because they are designed to unsettle us. They are designed to take us in an unwanted direction. They make it possible to come back to him.
A simple version of how God made our lives and our world into his roundabout is like this. First there is the wrong direction, and that is called sin. It’s the great hereditary rebellion. But when we are turning into the sin part of the roundabout, it is the part that feels good. It feels right to us. It’s what we want.
This reminds me of a very bad joke. Did you know that diarrhea is hereditary? It runs in your genes. (Only in English is this joke possible.) The hereditary nature of sin is very much like this in so many disgusting ways.
The Book of Judges gives to the main sin of God’s people the name “idolatry”: the making and the worship of idols. We should say something about idols here. The Bible names some of the idols as “Baals” and “Asherahs”. These are male and female gods. Part of their male and female business was sex and fertility: lots and lots of children and grandchildren, lots of livestock, and lots of crops. These were important because these were all sources of power, success, and wealth. They made it possible to get what you wanted and to be in control. It is our nature to worship such things.
The principle behind idol worship was that here were gods who would serve you. You could make a deal with them. You could give them something they wanted, so that they would give you what you wanted. They gave you control over your life and, control over other people.
In the end, worshipping idols was the ultimate success scheme. Worshipping idols was a roundabout way of worshipping yourself and serving yourself.
The next part of the roundabout is oppression. Oppression is trouble. It’s the trouble that follows sin. God redesigned the world to save us by not serving us when we misuse it for misguided purposes. God has designed the world to make it sometimes hard, and dangerous, and potentially fatal to those who worship themselves.
In any individual life, worshipping yourself alienates other people. It can make real enemies. When nations do it, the same thing happens. It even leads to war, and invasion, and decline. The people of Israel found themselves surrounded by enemies when they worshipped idols and (through their idols) themselves. They tried to serve themselves and went into decline. This is part of the grace of God.
This raises the question of pain, suffering, and punishment. These things do not always come from sin or self worship. In the New Testament, in First Peter, Peter wrote this. “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17) For Peter innocent suffering was a way to share in the sufferings of Christ. (1 Peter 3:18)
For the people of Israel, the oppression part of the roundabout brought them back to basics. It reminded them that they were not God. It reminded them that there was a God who loved them. There was a God who made them for a better kind of freedom than they had tried to get for themselves. It reminded them of a God whom they had known, and loved, and forgotten, or held at arms length.
As hard and unfair as our own troubles can be, they do bring us back to basics. They bring us back to God, even when we don’t deserve those troubles. In that sense, they are not a form of punishment. The God of the Bible may call it punishment, but this is because often he has to speak to us as if we were children.
Pain and trouble are a strange kind relentless of therapy that we, humbly, cannot explain. They are a form of grace. We find this when we turn to God in our troubles. When we turn to God in our troubles, we find him there. The nearness of death is the same, if we will listen. But who can dare to explain it?
C. S. Lewis wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (C. S. Lewis; “The Problem of Pain”) Even the terrible oppression of the people of God was this grace. Even the pain that God’s people gave to other nations was grace.
The next part of the cycle, or roundabout, is repentance. Repentance means turning around; going back to the source, retracing your path; from your service to your self to the life of real worship and love.
God’s people “turned to the Lord”. In our reading about the judge name Othniel, it says that “they cried out to the Lord.” It was the cry of “self-forgetting”. It was a cry of “God-remembering”. They stopped worshiping and serving themselves.
Have you ever found that you have been wrong after you had been very sure of yourself and sure of how right you were to insist on something? You stop thinking so highly of yourself.
You may be tempted to hate yourself. I think, in this case, it is as wrong to hate ourselves as it is wrong to hate any other person who sins against us. But we can hate what we have done, if only we remember that God is, by his very nature, a deliverer.
God, above all, is love. God, in his love, takes the sins and evil that we properly learn to hate, and sets us free in his mercy. The pattern of calling people to be deliverers (because that is what the judges were: judging, in the Bible means, eliminating what is wrong and making things right) was a pattern that pointed to God himself, in Christ. As we follow Christ, we should think that we, too, are called to be deliverers.
We read that, because of the deliverance of Othniel, “the land had peace”. In Christ, we find that God has taken our sins and carried them on the cross, and buried them in his tomb, and risen to give us the freedom of life with him. That is our land of peace.
The Book of Judges shows us that God has designed life, and the world, as a roundabout. In this traffic pattern, God diverts us from the dangerous direction that our own will would take us. God diverts us into the direction of his grace and his love.
We need some caution here. In our own individual lives we may find dozens of roundabouts, all created to save us from the same temptation over, and over and over again. Or we may find one great crisis roundabout that should cure us of every other mistake; and yet it doesn’t.
These cycles come not because we don’t know about God. They come not because no one ever taught us the story of God in our childhood, or our younger days.
This pattern of cyclical faith and sin comes from our nature. We know God without allowing for a depth of experience with God. We may very well commit our lives to God in Christ, as our Lord and Savior, and enjoy a little bit of intimacy, and yet we always cut it short. We try to make God into just another one of our idols. We try to love God him on our own terms.
Knowing God means living with God in true and deep intimacy. Israel fell into temptation and oppression, not because they had not been taught, but because we all want to rule ourselves. God has designed the world to turn us from our shallow and destructive self-will, and to direct us toward a will that finds its rest and freedom in intimacy with God.
There is another pattern that we are taught, by the Book of Judges, and that is the pattern of decline and corruption. It helps us see the ongoing, perfect faithfulness of God in a declining and increasingly corrupt world. It helps us see that God is not absent. God is never unavailable.
This part of The Story teaches us to live in hope. It tells us that someone went through the bad old days into better days to come, and lived to tell and write about it.
It helps us to trust the ongoing and perfect love of God, when the church itself seems to clearly be in decline; in a state of growing weakness, and imperfection, and sin. The Book of Judges is, after all, about the people of God. And that is what we are.
The early judges are people of virtue. The later judges, like Samson, are powerful but also disappointing and incredibly selfish and weak (if a superman like Samson can be weak).
In Samson’s case, the story tells us about the grace of God, even to the stupid, because Samson could be so stupid. There is no other way to describe him. The Bible is designed to give us the hope that in a world of decline and imperfection, the people of God, as unpromising as they are, still can be filled with the Holy Spirit of God in powerful and inspiring ways.
There is a refrain in the Book of Judges that goes like this: “In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit (or everyone did what was right in his own eyes).” (Judges 17:6, 21:25) This tells us that God’s people truly need a king.
The Book of Judges was probably written in the time of the early kings, like David and Solomon. These kings made lots of mistakes, but they also ruled after God’s heart and with God’s wisdom.
The disappointment was that even human kings could not keep God’s people from doing whatever was right in his own eyes, but the kings were designed by God to point to the King of kings. The kingdom of David was designed to point to the kingdom of God in King Jesus.
The eyes of your heart look at Jesus and you see that he is the God who died for you. He died for all your wrongdoing and for all your wrong heartedness. He died for all your self-serving and self-worship.
In such times, Jesus comes to you with new power and with hope. He has designed your world and your life to lead you upward to him.
In a world of decline you can go through the roundabouts, and they are more like swimming through a river full of eddies and whirlpools. You can swim upstream, against the flow, with Jesus in you. The author G. K. Chesterton wrote, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” (“The Everlasting Man”) This kind of life comes from the love of God.
The Story, in the Book of Judges, is written to tell us that such a time will come. There will be a time to find our way upstream for good.
There have been times when this has come true for me. God has delivered me and given my land rest. The plot of The Story tells me that, in Jesus, God will take me there for good.

God is the real judge, the real deliverer, and the real king. He has designed your life to bring you around, and around, and back to him. The Story tells us that He regards this as his greatest work. We see this work best as he did it in Jesus. 

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