THIS IS THE END
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So we’re at the end of our look at Judges. I said early on to hold on, that things would get worse. Here we are. Last week we looked at the story of Samson. A deliverer who only made a start at delivering. The last judge. At this point there are no more judges. All the people are doing what is right in their own eyes. Why are we looking at these stories? One writer calls them texts of terror. We look around us and we see terror all around us, don’t we? It’s not all we see, thankfully. We also see grace. We also live in a world in which grace doesn’t seem to garner a lot of traction. I was watching the news recently and listening to a politician from Ohio who said “Where I come from, if someone pushes you, you push them right back.” Grace doesn’t seem to garner a lot of traction. What does the end of the book of Judges have to say to us and to our world at the end of 2016? Let us look at our text this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
“There was a man in the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah.” His name means “Who is like God?” Who is like God? This is a great question with which to praise God – “Who is like you Lord God Almighty?” The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, nobody. The question has a very practical application in our story, however. Who in our story is like God? Who in our story is reflecting God’s ways? The answer is nobody. Micah stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. He wants to return it, maybe because he doesn’t want to fall victim to the curse his mother uttered about whomever stole it. His mother says “May my son be blessed by the Lord!” and “I consecrate the silver to the LORD” but her way of consecrating it is to make an idol of silver (and just with 200 pieces by the way). And it was in the house of Micah. This man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and a teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest.
The question at the heart of this story for any of us is the same question that’s been running throughout the book of Judges. Who will go up for us? Who will lead us? Where will we go for our peace? For our wholeness? Will we look to God for our peace, every day? Will we look somewhere else? Will we look to ourselves?
This is the situation that is described in Canaan at the end of the book of Judges. In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. Some have argued that the book of Judges is making a pro-monarchy argument here. This is not just some moral or polemic story though. I talk about the need for us to read scripture in light of the whole Bible. We will see (maybe next fall?!) that the Israelite demand for a king did not lead to lasting peace for them. The extent of peace and rest for the Israelites was very much dependent on how they reflected God’s ways, how they turned to God. We don’t ask these questions so we can judge the Israelites or the Pharisees or anyone else in the Bible or anyone else around us for that matter. We ask these questions of ourselves because the book of Judges is an invitation or a command or a plea (or however you would like to phrase it) to turn away from our desire for self-determination/self-assertion and toward God because it is in God that peace and wholeness and life abundant and our most authentic existence (and all the words we use to try and express the joy and beauty and rightness of a life lived in communion with God) is to be found. And repentance is an ongoing process. It’s a daily process. It’s a lifelong process.
The 20th century has been described as the Century of the Self. The autonomous self. This is the title of a BBC documentary filmed in 2002. Here’s a quote about it and one of the people involved - “Where once the political process was about engaging people's rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a group, Stuart Ewen, a historian of public relations, argues that politicians now appeal to primitive impulses that have little bearing on issues outside the narrow self-interests of a consumer society.”
I’m not saying anything too too controversial. I live in the same world that you do and I pay attention to what’s going on. To the ways in which our desire for self-interest plays out. From someone at the corner of Bathurst and Lawrence leaning out of their car and swearing at the car in front because they’re taking too long to make their turn and we’re all in a hurry right? We all have places to be. To a politician who says things like “We should have gone in and taken their oil and gotten out” because might makes right after all. This is the way the world works.
Why have we spent all these weeks looking at these sometimes horrible stories in the book of Judges? I think because we live in the world that largely rejects grace. We need to be shocked a little into accepting grace. There are flashes of it for sure. Shock I mean. The Tragically Hip did a farewell cross Canada tour recently. Their lead singer Gord Downie had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. People became outraged when scalpers tried to make money out of the tour by selling tickets online for thousands of dollars. Maybe I’m overly cynical but I wasn’t surprised. What do you expect, I thought, in a culture in which we have commodified almost everything? What do we expect in a world where we say “You need to look out for yourself.” If you’re a good person you also look out for family and friends. “I’m a good person,” we say, “I look after my family.” As Chris Rock put it “You’re supposed to!” Beyond that though, how do we do with our enemies? How do we do with the most vulnerable people in our society? How driven are we by our own desires, consumerist or otherwise?
At the end of Judges, we see a society that is driven by its own desire. Micah says let me set up my own worship centre in home so that my desires will be met. Let me install my son as priest. Let me use religion for me own ends. When a better priest comes along, an actual Levite, looking for a situation, Micah asks him if he’ll preside over his idolatrous set-up for free room and board, some clothes and ten pieces of silver a year.
Great, thinks Micah, once his priest is installed. Now I know that I’ll be prosperous now and every day will be like a Friday! I can use this stuff to get what I want. I’m glad the church has never been like that, seeking power for power’s sake. I’m glad the church isn’t like that today.
Actually many of you know that I don’t often bemoan the end of Christendom in Canada. The age where the church held a lot of sway politically, socially, economically even. I don’t think the church was ever supposed to operate from a position of power, of centrality. I like to say that I enjoy being on the margins and I think we’re called to work on the margins where God has placed us. Christ had friends in low places, after all. I’m not surprised that the message of dying to self and taking up our cross daily doesn’t get a lot of traction in our world. I’m not surprised that the message of enemy-love and grace and forgiveness and mercy and justice doesn’t get a lot of traction. God grant that He make us attractive, winsome invitations to this call though. Would God that he would do that in and through us in this church. Because it is in this call that life is found. That is the message.
The priest gets a better offer when a group of Danites come along. The tribe of Dan is looking for a home. There is no seeking after God in this search. No inquiring of the Lord. It’s not like it was in the days of Joshua and Caleb. They send 5 men to spy out the land and they come to Micah’s house. Give our quest some legitimacy, they ask of this priest. They want to do what they want to do. Not your will but mine be done, in other words. “Go in peace” they’re told. “The mission you are on is under the eye of the Lord.”
It’s ironic this “Go in peace” business. They come upon a peaceful people living in Laish. They were living securely there, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting – the word there is the same root as trust, so trusting – lacking nothing. It sounds a lot like these people are living a lot like God intended people to live. The same way God told the Israelites they needed to live in the land God was giving to them.
These Danites go to Laish and put everyone to the sword. Burn down their city. Before that they coopt the services of the priest. Six hundred armed men with weapons of war stop by Micah’s place, take the silver idol, the ephod, the terraphim. When the priest objects they say “Shut up and come with us too.” Better to be a priest to a whole clan and tribe than to one family. And so the self-assertion spreads. When Micah chases them and objects, he’s basically told “Go away or we will kill you.”
Because in this world where everyone is doing right in their own eyes, might makes right. You need to look after yourself. You need to take everything you can get for yourself. This will ensure that you have a good life. This kind of thing is the inevitable result of such an attitude. There was no deliverer for the people of Laish. V. 28 “There was no deliverer, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with Aram.” How sad it in that in book that is all about deliverers there is no deliverance in the end?
In the remaining chapters we’re told about another Levite priest. The narrator doesn’t use names anymore. It’s like this chaos is so widespread there’s hardly any point in naming anyone anymore. The Levite priest and his concubine (wife) end up in a town called Gibeah, part of the tribe of Benjamin. They’re in the town square because no one would take them in to spend the night. Why would anyone want to help a stranger, a wayfarer? Someone different. Why ever would we do that? To make a long story short the man’s wife is assaulted that night and left for dead. This results in a gathering of all the tribes at which point they decide that whoever did this must be put to death. When the Benjaminites refuse to hand over the perpetrators, the rest of Israel decides that the entire tribe of Benjamin must be wiped out. They almost succeed. There is much weeping. The book ends as chapter 17 began – “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The book begins and ends with weeping.
And again I sit in my office saying to myself – “Why are we looking at the Book of Judges??”
But the message has been the same throughout friends. Who will lead us? We’re hopeful when we read about a king. Surely when there’s a king in Israel all will be well, right? Sometimes things will go well, sometimes they won’t. It’s not about the system, you see. We’ve been saying that from the beginning. It’s not a system of government or a system of organizing our church or a constitution or an election or a set of laws or economic or military strength that is going to save us. This book of Judges has been a continual call to repentance. A continual call to turn toward the one who saves us, who saved us, who is saving us, who will one day finally save us and all things – the one who will one day bring all things to himself.
We’re hopeful when we read about a king. Yes we are. The monarchy won’t save Israel. Israel will end up exiled. That’s not the end of the story though. God will bring them back. The promise was made to one of those kings. His great-grandmother was Ruth. His son was Solomon. The line will go right down until we come to Jesus. The promise will be repeated to Mary.
In any age friends when it looks as if everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes, God hasn’t abandoned his world. He hasn’t abandoned us. He calls us to turn to him. To name him as our Deliverer. To be filled with his Spirit. To rest in him, to live in him. To swim in that fountain which is light and life like wise and rational fish. Who will go up for us in the midst of all the chaos? May the answer ever more for us be Christ Jesus.