Only seven weeks into our look at the biblical story of God and us, and already, a sad, gloomy cycle of broken relationship between heaven and earth has taken hold.
An ever-faithful God is doing what only heaven can do to try and corral the ever-growing ranks of unfaithful mavericks among God’s people. But the Lord isn’t enjoying much success mending the gaping holes in the torn fabric of human-divine connection.
Consider what’s happened so far:
Out of the chaos, God creates the universe and everything in it but then witnesses the first humans break the rules and get themselves booted out of Eden.
With the people, God establishes a covenant of great hope and promise but then agonizes over women and men not holding up their end of the bargain.
Hearing their cries, God through Moses frees the huddled masses from the bondage of slavery but then must listen to the former slaves gripe and grumble day in and day out.
God gives those sweaty ingrates the Ten Commandments to establish a pattern of right living and holy behavior but then suffers through the people’s routine indifference and ignorance of the Lord’s intentions and watches in anger and sadness as the people bow down before false gods and build golden idols to worship.
It is the cycle of sin – disobedience and deliverance: People abandon God, find themselves in bondage to sin and brokenness, and cry out to the Lord for relief, and God comes to their rescue – only to have the cycle repeat itself over, and over, and over.
Which brings us to this morning’s lesson from the Old Testament book of Judges – an entire volume devoted to little else but humanity’s cyclical pattern of disobedience and deliverance.
After the death of Moses’s successor, Joshua, and lacking a military commander and spiritual leader, God’s people soon find themselves lost, confused, and desperate. And so, they turn to the gods of their pagan neighbors, the Canaanites, in defiant rejection of God’s commands to “have no other gods before me.”
Because the people again choose to break their covenant with God, the Lord allows his chosen people to fall into hands of their enemies. Yet, over time, their groans and cries reach God’s ears, and the Lord compassionately delivers them from their oppressors by raising up judges to rescue them.
Listen, then, for the Word of the Lord in this next chapter of the sad-yet-hopeful story of God and us.
Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals.
They abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes.
So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress. Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.
Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD; they did not follow their example. Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them.
But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; and he said, “Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their ancestors, and have not obeyed my voice, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died.”
In order to test Israel, whether or not they would take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their ancestors did, the LORD had left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua. (Judges 2:11-23)
Under the leadership of Moses and his successor, Joshua, the Israelites live in a theocracy, and the direct authority of God governs the people.
As they settle into God’s Promised Land of Canaan, the Israelites organize themselves into a loosely knit confederation of tribes. There’s no pharaoh, no king, no president, no ruler or leader of any kind at the helm of the whole kit and kaboodle. With their enemies better organized, more unified, and fiercely equipped for war, God’s people eventually will call for a king to restore order and ensure everyone’s safety. But for now, though God’s still in charge, their on-the-ground, frontline guides are religious and military leaders of God’s choosing. Enter, the judges.
During their 200-or-so years of leadership, the judges strongly insist that God really is the people’s true ruler, and God bestows upon the judges tasks both formidable and daunting: Call the Israelites back to obedience, unify them as a community of faith, and lead them in battle against overpowering enemies.
Imagine farmers and herdsmen trying to maintain their lands, homes, families, and tribes – all the while suffering periodic attacks from hostile neighbors and lacking a central government that’ll send in the cavalry and the marines to fend off the enemy attacks. Judges fill that void, and when their respective tasks are complete, they disappear from the pages of Scripture like so much dust in the wind.
During these times of conflict and desperation, the surrounding pagan religious practices of the Canaanites exert a strong influence on the beleaguered Israelites. Canaanite rituals include public drunkenness, sexual antics, sacred prostitutes, human sacrifice, and idol worship. That surrounding, sin-sick culture seductively lures the Israelites away from God, and thus they’re guilty of frequently abandoning their faith and ever facing divine disapproval.
Then, yet another crisis erupts when yet another enemy attacks, and people’s attentions quickly turn away from the pagans and back toward God. The Israelites again press the panic button, and their urgent appeals for help rise to God, who comes to the rescue once more by raising up leaders – the judges, who once again punch back the invading armies.
But the calm is short-lived, and human loyalty is fickle. Feeling fat and sassy, the Israelites fall back into disobedience, and chaos eventually returns, and God musters more judges to the same cyclical service that delivers the disobedient once again.
The Lord makes some interesting choices in lifting up the likes Deborah, Gideon, and Samson as judges.
As later pages of the book of Judges reveal, none of them is remarkable for possessing deep faith or enviable spirituality. But they are willing to hear and respond to God’s call to active service, making these judges as much flawed heroes for their people as they are instruments of the Lord.
Deborah is a wife, a prophet, and a judge obviously held in high regard, because people rely on her to settle their disputes. But surely Deborah, as a woman, is an unlikely and unexpected choice as a military leader in her day.
Gideon is the youngest son (the least important son) of an insignificant family (an average, working-class family) in an unimportant tribe (a weak, powerless tribe). When God finds him and calls him to duty, Gideon is cowering in a wine press in fear of the invaders, and he tries to beg off the duty, but God nevertheless lifts up this insignificant, unimportant, and terrified farmer-soldier.
Samson is the perfect example of flawed humanity – prone to folly and quick to act without thinking. And instead of calling his people to action, Samson cavorts his way through the enemy ranks, amusing his friends and dumbfounding his enemies. Sampson captures attention not for his military expertise but for his unusual strength, romantic exploits, and mischievous pranks.
Yet, the fulfillment of God’s plans comes to pass through heaven’s use of these quite ordinary and flawed humans. God ultimately is the one who deliver the Israelites, but the Lord works through the likes of unlikely Deborah, cowardly Gideon, and zany Samson. As is often the case, God primarily works through willing and obedient people upon whom God bestows the raw materials of intelligence, skill, and ability. And God expects those called folks to use those resources to accomplish God’s designs and intentions of freeing the oppressed and rescuing the lost.
In God’s good time, the fullness of those divine duties eventually falls upon Jesus, who in turn gives us his Holy Spirit to carry on the work that he begins. You and I, like the judges of old, are the less-than-perfect saints whom God now lifts up to defend the powerless, speak for the voiceless, and resist the relentless attacks of evil in its many forms. The will of God, the example of Christ, and the power of the Spirit transform us into flawed heroes – the ones who bring deliverance to the disobedient and rescue to the lost.
Even so, as the upcoming season of Lent will spotlight, you and I disobey even as we deliver. So, perhaps our spiritual bottom line is that we need a judge, a savior, who doesn’t just change our circumstances but who also changes our hearts.
A changed heart was the result of Richard Armstrong’s head-turning deed in the days before the U.S. Civil War.
Rev. Armstrong was a Presbyterian minister from Ohio, and he traveled to New Orleans, where he attended a slave auction. There he saw a woman being put up for sale, and Rev. Armstrong listened as potential buyers shouted out their bids. A high bid of $400 wasn’t topped, and that looked to be the woman’s selling price. But Rev. Armstrong quickly threw up his hand and bid $500 – all the money he had with him, and he ended up buying the woman.
As he led her out from the auction house, the woman cursed him and spit in his face, threatening that, if she got a chance, she would kill him. But then the good reverend said to the woman, “You don’t understand. I knew what those men would do to you. I have no use for a slave. Here are your papers. You’re free.” And he walked away.
As the now-former slave tried to wrap her head around the surprising thing that had just happened, the woman now understood that Rev. Armstrong was the flawed hero who had given everything to set her free. So, she ran after him and said, “Master, master, I’ll serve you for the rest of my life.”
When she really understood what this man had done for her, the woman not only had been set free, but also her heart was changed as well. Once filled with the words of slander and the bile of murderous intent, her heart now overflowed with the sweetness of gratitude and the gratitude of service.
That just is the Gospel!
God well knows that we cannot break free from the cycle of disobedience and deliverance by ourselves. So, God sends the ultimate judge in Jesus Christ, who not only delivers us from the disobedience of our sin and brokenness but also changes our hearts as well.
Our changed hearts set us apart as holy people, capable of great strength against formidable foes, yet weakened by sin and blinded by evil, but nevertheless able through the power of the Lord to experience forgiveness and rise from the ashes to strike a blow for freedom once again through broken hearts changed by grace that knows no measure.
And in the end, it is not just a flawed hero but only a changed heart that ultimately mends the rift between heaven and earth, brings peace to warring nations, and breaks the sad, gloomy cycle of broken relationships between families and friends, neighbors and strangers.
Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, February 27, 2022. The eighth sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us,” it is adapted from scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Darryl Dash, Douglas Douma, Shannon Greene, Sara Koenig, and David Krueger.