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We’re in the home stretch of our look at Judges. Last time we were in the story of Gideon. I’ve been talking about how things get worse and worse as we move through this book. The Israelites are in a downward spiral. I said we need to hold on. We need to hold on to the fact that God never forgets them. He never forgets his promise. He continually delivers them. After the death of Gideon we have his son Abimelech establishing himself as king, murdering his 70 brothers in the process. He rules Israel for 3 years, not as a judge, and ends up killed in a battle in which he’s trying to set a tower on fire and burn everyone in it alive. A woman in the tower drops a stone on his head. Abimelech asks his armour bearer to run him through with his sword so people will not say a woman killed him. Now we’re all caught up.
Oh except for the insertion of Tola and Jair. Two judges who rule for 22 and 23 years. They’re almost like oases in the midst of all the craziness. We’re told that Jair had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys and they had thirty towns. To have children in the Old Testament meant to have a fulfilled life. It meant your name would live on. To have donkeys and towns meant things were good.
Then things get bad. We’re accustomed this this by now. The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. This time the activity is described. A whole bunch of other gods are listed in 10:6 – “worshiping the Baals, the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, the gods of the Philistines. Thus they abandoned the Lord.” They’re crushed and oppressed and distressed for eighteen years. They cry out to the Lord. This time though we’re told what they cry out in 10:10 – “We have sinned against you, because we have abandoned our God and worshipped the Baals.” For the first time, God answers the Israelites directly. He starts with a word of grace – “Did I not deliver you…”, which seems to be where God normally starts. Look at what comes next though in 10:13-14 “Yet you have abandoned me to other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the other gods you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.”
What are we to make of this? I would make two things out of this. The first is that God’s grace is free. It’s not cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about grace not being cheap. God is gracious, God loves us without condition. This love demands a response from us. Not just a feeling either. Love of God is not simply a feeling. Something to make us feel warm. Love of God results in changes in us. It results in acts of love. It results in us putting away the things that keep us from God. It results in a desire to know God’s way – to delight in God’s way – and not our own ways. It’s never cheap.
We need to make sure we understand this and are able to communicate it. I remember one Saturday night eating supper downstairs at OOTC. A friend at the table was asking me about this movie he had seen, a gangster movie. A mob boss was committing crimes and ordering hits and all the things that mob bosses in such movies do. He would then go to confession where he was absolved of all his sins. Then he would go and continue his mob boss ways. What did I think of that? I said that those who love God are called to love not only in word and speech but in deed and in truth. I told my friend that this mob boss was missing something fundamental about God and who God is and who God calls us to be. If we think that God loving us unconditionally and offering forgiveness and grace freely means license to do whatever we want we are missing something. At this point in the story it’s not just about words. It’s like God is saying “Your words aren’t enough anymore.” The Israelites respond well – they cast themselves on God’s mercy in 10:15-16, “’We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you; but deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and worshiped the Lord; and he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” Wrath, anger. They’re not part of God’s nature. They’re how God responds to self-assertion, self-determination, pride, what we call sin. Do you know how else God responds to sin? With sorrow. With suffering. The NRVS has “He could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” A more literal translation is “His soul was cut short by the misery of Israel.” His soul was cut short, or his life was cut short. I’ll come back to this.
For now though let me say, to love means to suffer. To love leads inevitably to suffering, as one writer put it. So Happy Sunday everyone! We know this is true don’t we? If you’ve been around long enough, you know it’s true. If you haven’t you will know. Our love is rejected. We lose people. People hurt us. Someone has said God is humble enough to allow us to reject him. Yet we’re called to love. We believe that God is love. That God’s love has brought us back to him. That we’re called and enabled to love as God loves. To take part in God’s delivering work as followers of Christ. I’ll come back to this too.
The question goes up again – “Who will begin the fight against the Ammonites?” Who will lead us? Who will go up for us? At the beginning of the book the Israelites asked this question of God. Now they’re asking it of one another. This is where things are. “Now Jephthah, the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior.” He’d been driven out of town by his more legitimate brothers, who told him he wouldn’t inherit anything because of who his mom was. He collected a band of outlaws around him and would go out raiding. God used Jephthah. Jephtah is the one who points out to the elders of his town that victory is of the Lord – “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” This was the deal. Jephtah is recognizing that victory does indeed come from God. His faith is going to gain him a mention in the Hebrews 11 faith hall of fame. God uses this son of a prostitute leader of outlaws to bring deliverance.
Doesn’t that give you hope for the church? I’ve said before the only qualification we need to serve God, to follow Christ, is to recognize our need for him. It’s not about who we’ve been, what we’ve done, and many of us have done things. Do you ever look around and wonder how God could use a group of people like us? He’ll use us when we look to him and say “Lord we don’t know what we are doing, but our eyes are on you.” When we say along with the Psalmist “Like the hands of a servant on the eyes of her mistress, so our eyes are on you. Have mercy on us Lord have mercy.” It’s been the key all along. What potential does God see in us that we don’t see in ourselves. What did God see in Gideon when he called this man who was the least of his family in the least of his clans a mighty warrior. What might God do in and through us? Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth and he told them “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” God chose me. God has friends in low places, friends. God chose us to take part in doing something new. Can you imagine?
Jephthah starts well. The spirit of the Lord comes upon him. This has only happened for Othniel and Gideon. Things take a turn for the tragic. From chapter 1 we’ve seen people thinking they needed to hedge their bets to do what God was asking. Jephthah believes that he needs to make a vow to ensure success against the Ammonites. I’ve been talking throughout these weeks of the things we think we need to depend on in lieu of God. Jephthah thought he needed to make a deal with God. We get this. We sometimes want to put our own ideas on God. If you do this for me, I will fill in the blank. Let your yes be yes, God’s word tells us. Let your yes to God be enough, and trust me, says God. This is the only vow we have to make. This is not a bet we have to hedge. The only vow we need to make is “I trust you Lord.” The Psalmist puts it like this “This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me? My vows I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you.” This is the only vow we need to make. Thank you God. I trust you, Jesus. I love you, Spirit. It’s the question of this series and the question of our lives. Who leads you? Do you love him? Are you his friend? Do you trust him? Are you coming to love and trust him more? This is where victory and peace and fulfillment are found.
Jephthah’s mistake was tragic. He wins the battle against the Ammonites. They’re subdued. They won’t represent a threat again. He returns home. He might have considered that his daughter might be coming out of the house with a tambourine and dancing. This is what women in Israel did to celebrate victories. It’s what Moses’ sister Miriam did. It will be what the women of Israel do after David kills Goliath. “Then Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no other son or daughter except her.”
Matthew Henry wrote a biblical commentary some of you might know. You can read it online for free. He writes that we should take a lesson from this story that it’s important to keep your vows. John Wesley thought this was pretty grim take on the story. I would agree. I’ve said throughout this series that these stories are not to be reduced to a set of moral tales. What might the end of this story tell us about God and the nature of God?
We’ve been talking about deliverers and how these judges point us forward to Christ who has delivered us. One commentator puts it like this “Like God in the book of Judges, Jepthah’s daughter is the victim of unfaithfulness and disobedience… Jephthah’s daughter anticipates Jesus, another innocent victim of human unfaithfulness and disobedience. Like Jephthas’s daughter, proclaiming and remembering Jesus’ death became a custom or tradition for those whom he called friends… Both the death of Jephtah’s daughter and the death of Jesus are called sacrifices.” Jephthah’s daughter’s life was cut short because of her father’s desire for self-assertion. Jesus’s life was cut short because of our need for self-assertion, to go our own way. Thanks be to God that Jesus’ death was not the end though!
I said earlier that love causes us to suffer. Love caused God to suffer. In the person of Jesus, God showed what lengths to which God was willing to go to bring us back to him. Our disobedience and unfaithfulness- our desire to go our own way, to do our own thing, to listen to that lying voice that tells us that is in going our own way that freedom is to be found – these things result in the absence of peace. This was a horror show. Jepthah’s daughter was burned. These things were done to her outside of any will of her own. We see her though taking what control of the situation she could. Let me go for two months and mourn, she asked her father. In Christ we see God taking control of the situation. The cross was a horror show too. These things weren’t being done to God. This was a situation Christ was in control of from the moment of his arrest until he appeared outside the empty tomb. I said that love leads to suffering and it does. God loves us and we love because love is redemptive – it was love that brought us back to God, that brings us back to God and that reconciles us with each other.
I said earlier that children were the mark of a fulfilled life in the OT. A guarantee that your name would live on. Jephthah’s daughter’s name lived on in being remembered by the daughters of Israel who would go out to lament her for four days and every year – to lament the result of disobedience and unfaithfulness. This young woman points forward to the one who would establish new relationships among people. The one who would establish a new family. The one who would hang on the cross and say to his mother “Woman, behold your son.” Who would say to the disciple that he loved “Behold, your mother.” We have a new family, whether we’re married, single, widowed, mothers, fathers, with children, without children. “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” These were Christ’s words. This is why we all stood up this morning and said we’re going to come around little Ethan, and Marly, and Gina. Everything changed with Christ you see. Ultimately our fulfillment is not to be found in people, though we pray we’re blessed by our families and those whom we love; that God makes us a blessing to them too. Fulfillment is to be found in the one who gave himself to bring us back to God. The one we call our peace. The ritual we conducted this morning points to this wonderful truth and the desire of Ethan’s family and his church family that Ethan finds his peace in the Prince of Peace. Lasting significance is not to be sought with the continuation of your name, but in the fact that followers of Christ have a new name written on a white stone signifying pardon and peace.
We pray these things will be true for little Ethan. I pray that these things may be true for all of us, friends.