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July 15, 2018

“Scripture: A Lesson on What NOT to Do?”

By Rev. Dr. Dave Cassel

Hanover Presbyterian Church, July 15, 2018

Matthew 26:31-35 and 69-75 -- Judges 11:29-39

 

PRAYER: Open our hearts and minds this morning, Lord, so that we can hear and wrestle with the difficult issues of scriptural interpretation. Help us to learn both from the positive and negative examples presented to us in text of the Bible and to apply what we learn today to our lives as Christians. AMEN

 

INTRODUCTION: In my experience of working with Christians over the years, I have met a lot of people whose faith seems to be centered on the Bible. If the Bible says it, they believe it is their duty to do it. As I have thought about this approach to the Bible, I have become uneasy because I think that the Bible is a subtle and provocative book. Sometimes, it calls for those who believe to follow the examples it gives, but at other times, I am convinced that a number of Bible stories are included in the text to teach people what NOT to do. Peter, for example, who denied Christ in the passage that Patty read from the Gospel of Matthew behaved in a way that Christians should avoid rather than pattern their lives after.

  1. second example of a biblical story in which the main character is NOT someone we should emulate is the story of the warrior Jephthah who appears in the 10th and 11th chapter of the Old Testament book of Judges. Before we look at the story of Jephthah, however, a bit of background might be helpful. The book of Judges describes the period of time shortly after the Israelites completed their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness east of Egypt and while they were establishing themselves in the so-called “promised land.” The author of the book of Judges explains that the people of Israel became caught up in a disastrous cycle in which they repeatedly forgot God and were then subjugated by a variety of foreign kingdoms. fter a time of suffering and oppression, the Israelites then called upon God, admitting their sinfulness and seeking God’s assistance in saving them from their harsh overlords. God, in response to these prayers, had pity on the chosen people and raised up a series of warriors, called judges, who, with God’s aid overthrew the foreign oppressors. This cycle occurred multiple times, and God’s faithful love and patience never seemed to falter when the chosen people pleaded for divine aid. In the eighth iteration of this cycle, the chosen people again fell into sinfulness, and they were conquered by the neighboring kingdom of the mmonites. In their misery, they prayed to God, admitting their sinfulness and seeking divine mercy. God, the Scripture says in Judges10:16, after hearing their prayers, could bear their suffering no longer, and The Holy One called up a valiant warrior named Jephthah to be the next judge, to unite the disparate tribes of Israel under his leadership, and to cast off the mantel of mmonite oppression.

The sad events in Jephthah’s life are recounted in the passage of Scripture that you will find printed in your bulletin: Judges 11:29-39. It reads like this:

29 Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33 He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.34 Then Jephthah came to his home 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 son or daughter except her. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” 36 She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” 37 And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander[b] on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” 38 “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39 At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.

  1. passage is tragic in many ways, and, I believe that it can be instructive for us as a lesson in what we, as Christians, ought NOT to do. passage points out that Jephthah, despite being chosen and called by God, let his pride and fear of admitting his faults lead to a disaster for himself and his innocent daughter.

There are two primary lessons about what NOT to do that I believe we can learn from Jephthah:

  1. We must not bargain with God as if we can influence divine action by promising some sort of incentive or reward to God
  2. We must never be so entrenched in our wrong decisions or problems that we refuse to admit to our sins and to accept the personal consequences of our actions

Lesson Number One -- We must not bargain with God as if we can influence divine action by promising some sort of incentive or reward to God

  1. initial mistake was a failure to trust completely in God. God had chosen him and called him to be the leader of the people of Israel. He was to be the warrior general, or judge, who would confront the Ammonites and, through the power of God, overthrow them. Jephthah appears to have outward confidence in God’s call and the powerful divine support for him and his army in the section of Judges immediately prior to today’s Old Testament Reading. Jephthah challenges that Ammonite king by reminding him of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites and the disastrous fate of those kings and kingdoms that had had the audacity in the past to attempt to dominate God’s chosen people. “Are you a better man than Balak, son of Zippor, the king of Moab?” Jephthah asks the king. This is a reference to the biblical story of the prophet Balaam and his talking ass when despite the Moabite king’s insistence that Balaam prophesy a decisive Moabite victory, Balaam warns the king that the people of Israel will conquer the Moabites -- a forewarning that soon became a reality. Reminding the king of Ammon of that unlikely victory the ragtag group of wandering Israelites had accomplished over the fortified Moabites, Jephthah continues, “If you persist in your futile attempt at fighting with the will of God, the Lord will bring divine judgment against you and the Israelites will be set free.”

Jephthah’s words are powerful and portentous, but, alas, inwardly Jephthah himself clearly does not believe them. Instead of entering the battle trusting in his divine calling and the supportive power of God, Jephthah decides to practice what might be called the “ancient middle-eastern art of the deal” by bargaining with God to make certain that God would be on his side. “I’ll tell you what God,” says Jephthah, “just to make sure you are going to be on my side completely, I will make a deal with you. If you help me win this battle, I promise to offer, as a sacrifice to you, whatever or whoever is the first thing that I see coming out of my door when I return home.”

  1. not exactly sure how Jephthah viewed God, but it appears that he believed that he could influence God and guarantee God’s allegiance to him if he offered a deal that God could not refuse. It was as if Jephthah did not really believe the speech that he had given to the king of Ammon. He didn’t really believe that God had called him to be the leader of the chosen People and the divine promise that, with God’s help, he would conquer the Ammonites and free the Israelites. I suppose many of us have had the same feelings when we have been in desperate situations. Sure, we say that we trust God, but we really don’t. It’s like the man who slipped of the edge of a huge cliff and caught himself by a single root sticking out of the cliff face. After screaming for a second or two as he dangled above the abyss, he got down to serious praying and asked God to save him before the root broke off and he tumbled down a thousand feet to utter annihilation. Suddenly he heard the Divine voice booming out of the blue. “Let go of the root, and I will catch you.” The man thought about it for a few seconds, and then yelled out, “Is there anybody else up there?”

Think about times when you have faced a financial crisis, when a debilitating illness has attacked you or someone you love, when you have lost a job and the employment outlook is worse than bleak, when a relationship that was central to your life has crumbled, when someone close to you appears to be losing his or her mind, or when you feel as though you are hopelessly disconnected from one of your children. It is in times like these that each of us is tempted to bargain with God. God if you just give my son a job, I will leave my estate to the church. God, if you heal my wife, I will never miss another Sunday in church for the rest of my life. God, if you help me get through this test, I’ll never drink again. The varieties of deals we offer are nothing short of amazing. What makes us think that God needs us to do this or that? What makes us think that God’s mercy is dependent on what we are offering? The miracle of God’s love is that even when we don’t deserve it (as certainly was the case with the Israelites and Jephthah their leader) God is more than willing to stand by us and support us with faithful love. Maybe it makes us feel better if we believe that God will be forced to do something because of a promise we make, but making such a promise appears to be a clear statement saying, “I don’t trust you unless we have some sort of deal.” It seems much more faithful and intelligent if we simply trust in God and realize that we must not bargain with God as if we can influence divine action by promising some sort of incentive or reward to God

Lesson number two -- We must never be so entrenched in our wrong decisions or problems that we refuse to admit to our sins and to accept the personal consequences of our actions

The second part of this story compounds the problems that occurred in the first half of the story. Jephthah and the Israelites, aided by divine power, defeat the Ammonites in battle, and Jephthah returns home. As he draws near to his house, his only daughter is overjoyed to see him, and, rejoicing, she rushes out of her house to greet him. She, of course, is the first thing that he sees, and the consequences of his bargain with God must have been instantly devastating. Jephthah, verse 35 says, tore his clothes and called out to his daughter, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me.” At first, Jephthah seems to be blaming his daughter for the awful situation in which he finds himself – “you have brought me very low; you have become a great trouble for me,” but shortly after these words are out of his mouth, he realizes that he has no one to blame but himself as he says, “I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”

It is a sad and ironic thing that Jephthah seems to believe that it was his vow to the Lord that had guaranteed that the Israelites would conquer the Ammonites. As an honorable and faithful man, he believes that he has no other alternative; he must be faithful to the vow that he made to God and he must sacrifice his only daughter to God. The loving daughter is amazingly supportive and asks her father only that she be given a two month grace period during which she and her girlfriends can bemoan her loss of a full and fruitful life. Having taken the allotted two months, verse 39 says, “she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.”

I would like to suggest this morning that the Scripture is implying that Jephthah’s decision to sacrifice his daughter was not what he should have done; it was rather compounding the initial error that he had made in trying to insure a victory over the Ammonites by bargaining with God. Sure, Jephthah made a solemn vow, but I am convinced that once he saw his daughter running out to meet him, he should have been willing to admit his stupidity and reneged upon his promise. It seems to me that all of Scripture emphasizes a father’s duty to his family so much, that a primary metaphor for God in the Old Testament is that God is a father who loves and tenderly cares for his people as though they were his children. Although God occasionally gets frustrated and angry, faithful parental love always wins out in the end. Which is more important, I think Jephthah should have asked himself, my foolish vow to God or my daughter? Couldn’t Jephthah have refused to honor his vow? Perhaps, it was a public vow and he was afraid that his friends and neighbors would castigate him as a liar whose word was worthless. Perhaps, he was afraid that God would strike him down on the spot for his lack of honor. I think, however, that the Scripture is implying something far different. What friend or neighbor could condemn a man for putting his family above his vow? What sort of God would punish someone for coming to his senses and realizing that the Divine is not dependent on human bargains? Certainly, Jephthah would be humiliated in his own eyes if he reneged on his vow, but shouldn’t he be ashamed for assuming that the Israelites would never have been victorious and God would not have been faithful unless Jephthah added something to the pot? I am convinced that Jephthah, whatever the consequences might have been for him personally, should have refused to honor his vow and allowed his daughter to live.

  1. however, is like a lot of us. We are deathly afraid of being wrong. In fact, we are so afraid of being wrong that if we begin to realize that we have said something stupid or done something stupid, we refuse to admit our problems. This is only to our detriment. The first step in any twelve-step program is admitting our faults and inability to handle the problem that is overwhelming us. How many people have each of us known in our lives who have been crushed because they were unable to admit their failures?
  1. vividly remember one summer long ago, when my first marriage was crumbling around me. was being torn up inside, and I was desperately alone. went to a counselor, and began seeing him twice a week throughout the summer. n retrospect, I wonder what the counselor must have thought of me. You see, during those twice weekly meetings for a whole summer, not once did admit to the problems in my marriage and I did not ask the counselor’s help in determining what I had done wrong and how I might correct the errors of my way. We talked about my childhood and my relationship with my family. We talked about other minor struggles in my life, but not once during all of those meetings, did admit that perhaps continuing on in my marriage as it was going was a mistake. was a pastor, and pastors were supposed to be examples for the flock, they don’t admit to problems. had made a promise in my wedding vows, and I did not believe reneging on such a vow. By refusing to admit my problem, and by refusing to face the consequences of my actions, refused to find a solution to a miserable situation. All of us are proud people who don’t want to be embarrassed in front of others or to admit to ourselves that we have made a mistake. Think of the times you have done, or are doing, less than intelligent things to preserve your so-called “dignity and honor” in other people’s eyes. n what ways are you futilely clinging to a vow, a mistake, or another kind of problem which will cause you to go down in flames, bringing all those around you down with you rather than admitting that you are wrong, changing your behavior, and openly facing the consequences of your actions and decisions? The story of Jephthah has a second negative lesson for us -- We must never be so entrenched in our wrong decisions or problems that we refuse to admit to our sins and to accept the personal consequences of our actions.

As we reflect on this tragic story of Jephthah, let us remember that this awful series of events might have been avoided if Jephthah had realized two things. Similarly, we can avoid much pain in our lives if we remember these two things as well: 1) We must not bargain with God as if we can influence divine action by promising some sort of incentive or reward to God and 2) We must never be so entrenched in our wrong decisions that we refuse to admit to our sins and to accept the personal consequences of our actions. AMEN