Is There Any Hope When God's People Fail?
Is There Any Hope When God's People Fail?
From the editor
As a part of our Getting the Gospel Right theme in the Skills section, we are currently featuring an article by Steven Mathewson, entitled Preaching the Gospel in Judges. This sermon is a working example of the hermeneutical-homiletical principles Steve addresses in that article. Along with the sermon manuscript, Steve offers a helpful preface and a postscript filled with insights into what he loved about the sermon and what he would do differently if given the chance.
The following sermon manuscript will provide an example of how to preach the gospel from a narrative in the Book of Judges. As much as possible, I have tried to maintain an oral style. I want the manuscript to sound like a transcript, even though I prepared this manuscript prior to preaching the sermon. At the end of the manuscript you will find a manuscript commentary that resembles a director's commentary on a movie and explains what I was trying to do and how I was trying to do it.
When you and I fail to walk with God, we walk at the edge of an abyss—a deep, dark pit. That's where God's people found themselves at the end of the Book of Judges. In a dark hole. Their situation is grim and hopeless. It feels like the time when my son and I were stuck in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disney World for about 20 minutes—the same eerie skeletal figures and shrieks and screams. I couldn't wait to get out! So why not just skip the end of Judges and go on to something more upbeat? Here's the deal: I don't want you to miss the end, because God has something powerful to say to our church through the final story. I'll warn you, the final story gets very dark, but there is hope at the end of the tunnel.
A story of violent inhospitality
Our story runs from Judges 19 through the end of chapter 21. If the story in chapters 1718 describes a failure to love God, this story describes a failure to love one's neighbor. It describes a chain reaction, with one failure after another leading to a state of hopelessness.
The story begins with an act of inhospitality. When you open the curtain on Judges 19, there are two people on the stage: a member of the tribe of Levi and his concubine. A concubine was a legal wife with a lower, secondary status who came from a lower social-economic situation. She was higher than a slave, but with few inheritance rights. She was likely taken for sexual gratification. Anyway, she has been unfaithful and has returned to her parents' home. Now, her husband, the Levite, has persuaded her to come home. He's at her in-laws, and he can't get away from them! The narrator doesn't tell us the father-in-law's motives, but whatever they are, he shows profuse hospitality.
Finally, toward the end of day five, the Levite and his concubine head for home. But it's late in the day, so they don't get very far from Bethlehem. When it's time to turn in for the night, the Levite's servant suggests Jebus—the city that later became Jerusalem. But the Levite says, "No. We won't go into any city whose people are not Israelites. We will go to Gibeah." Gibeah is a city in the territory given to the Israelite tribe Benjamin. They are in for a surprise. Chapter 19:1415 tells us: "So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin. There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them into his home for the night."
Now that's outrageous! In the ancient world, before Comfort Inns and Holiday Inns, citizens were expected to provide a place to stay for travelers. To refuse that would be like refusing to stop for a distressed motorist whose car is broken down and who is motioning for help.
Eventually, an old man invites them to his house because he didn't want them to spend the night in the square. It was soon apparent why. While the little group was enjoying themselves, there was pounding at the door. Some wicked men of the city demanded that the old man bring out the Levite. They wanted to have sex with him! The old man was horrified by this, but he did something even more horrible. In an attempt to provide hospitality to his guest, he offered the wicked men his own virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine! How revolting!
If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it should. It resembles another sad, sordid tale in the Bible—the story of Lot's visit to Sodom and Gomorrah. So it's Sodom and Gomorrah all over again. That's how awful life had become in Israel. The old man pleads with the wicked men not to do such an outrageous thing, but the narrator tells us in 19:2526 that his plea is ignored:
But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.
That breaks your heart, doesn't it? You want to rescue her. She's been severely abused, and where's her master? Tragically, he's cold and uncaring. Verses 2728 describe what he does:
When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, "Get up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.
That is so cruel, so cold-hearted. But what happens next is shocking, unthinkable!
When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, "Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!" (19:2930)
If you know something about the ancient culture in which Israel lived, you know this functioned as a call to war. In 1 Samuel 11:7, we learn that King Saul called Israel to war by cutting an ox into pieces and shipping them to places throughout Israel. But for this Levite to dismember his concubine, how revolting and sickening! Even the people were blown away. By the way, despite the Levite's testimony in the next chapter, we don't know if his concubine was dead when he did this terrible deed. Perhaps she was. But perhaps he was the murderer. The narrator doesn't tell us.
One injustice turns to devastating war.
In chapter 20, war breaks out. The Israelites, in response to this horrible call to arms, come together "before the Lord" at Mizpah. The outcome of this assembly is a decision to give the city of Gibeah what it deserves. But when the Israelites send messengers throughout the land of Benjamin to call for the wicked men of Gibeah to be handed over, it triggers a violent response. The Benjamites not only refuse to hand over the wicked men of Gibeah, but they go on the attack. They have 26,000 swordsmen and 700 soldiers who could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. The results are devastating. On day one, they cut down 22,000 Israelites—fellow Israelites from the tribe of Judah. This is civil war. On day two, another 18,000 Israelites lose their lives.
To make a longer story short, a great reversal takes place on day three. This time, the Israelites use an ambush. They lure the Benjamite troops away from the city of Gibeah. Then they burn the city, and by the time the Benjamite troops realize their wives and children are dying in the city, it's too late to do anything. They flee, and by the end of the day, 25,000 of them have been slaughtered. Only 600 survive and then flee to the wilderness.
Do you see how things have deteriorated? Like a single spark can lead to a raging forest fire that destroys thousands of acres, a single act of inhospitality sets in motion a tragic chain of events: sexual violence, dismemberment, civil war, and now near extinction. There's a moving scene in the aftermath of this battle. Judges 21:23 reports:
The people went to Bethel, where they sat before God until evening, raising their voices and weeping bitterly. "O Lord, the God of Israel," they cried, "why has this happened to Israel? Why should one tribe be missing from Israel today?"
Outrage turns to grief. For the third time in this story, the people are weeping. They realize in this moment that one of the tribes is in danger of disappearing. The Benjamites have been wiped out, except for 600 warriors. What can be done?
The Israelites fall deeper into immorality.
Now the story turns bizarre. In chapter 21, the Israelites come up with a rather immoral solution to provide wives for the 600 remaining Benjamites. The solution is connected to a couple of vows that they made back at the Mizpah assembly. The first was not to give their daughters in marriage to Benjamites (21:1). The second was to kill anyone who did not assemble (21:5; cf. 20:1). Both of these vows were rash vows. And when the Israelites proceed to honor them, we see the same kind of superstition and violence that we saw in the Jephthah story when he fulfilled his tragic vow.
For starters, the Israelites provided 400 wives for the Benjamites by fulfilling the second vow. When they investigated whether any from the tribes of Israel failed to assemble, they discovered that no one from the town of Jabesh-Gilead had attended. We're not given the reason. While it may have been defiance or apathy, it's even possible that the residents of the town did not receive word. Whatever the case, the Israelite assembly sent 12,000 warriors with instructions to kill everyone, including the women and children. How brutal! Once again, instead of carrying out "holy war" on the wicked Canaanites, the children of Israel are carrying out "holy war" on themselves. The one caveat was that any virgins were to be spared. There turned out to be 400, and these were given to the Benjamites for wives. But as the narrator says at the end of 21:14, "there were not enough for all of them."
So, more grief. More deliberations. How are they going to find 200 more wives? It is striking that there is no mention of the assembly consulting Yahweh. They had done this previously before they fought the Benjamites. But not here. All the people know is that they have made a vow not to give their daughters in marriage to Benjamite men. But wait! There is a possible solution. When the tribes come together at Shiloh for an annual festival, there is something that can be done. Let's start reading 21:20 to see what that solution was:
So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, "Go and hide in the vineyards and watch. When the girls of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, then rush from the vineyards and each of you seize a wife from the girls of Shiloh and go to the land of Benjamin. When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, 'Do us a kindness by helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war, and you are innocent, since you did not give your daughters to them.'" So that is what the Benjamites did. While the girls were dancing, each man caught one and carried her off to be his wife. Then they returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and settled in them. At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance. (21:2024).
They are treating Yahweh, their God, like a Canaanite god or goddess. They have to honor their vow, even if it means dishonoring their daughters by instructing the Benjamites to capture them—actually, seize them by force. We can't give you our daughters because of a vow we've made, but if you kidnap them, we'll look the other way, and we won't be guilty of breaking our vow.
The narrator ends the book with the now familiar refrain: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (21:25). End of story. The rape of one woman has multiplied into the rape of 600 women. Israel has become thoroughly Canaanized. They've fallen apart because they've adopted their values from the surrounding culture. What a depressing end to the story. Is that it?
Judges forces us to examine our current condition.
I suggest to you that the abrupt end of the story is a deliberate strategy of the narrator. The Book of Judges is a well-crafted story, and the ending is no exception. By ending the book this way, we are forced to do a couple things.
First, the author forces God's people to take a hard look at their condition. For you and me, that means taking a hard look at the church today and seeing its failure. Do you see our church in this story? As I look around at the carnage and wreckage in the church today, what's so appalling is that so much of it is self-inflicted. We say, "We're losing our youth," yet we're the ones driving them away. Apathy, bitterness, jealousy, anger, racism, resentment, hostility, cheating, immorality, greed—I've seen it all in the church. I could introduce you to pastors who have destroyed their churches because of theft, adultery, and spouse abuse. I could introduce you to a retired pastor who still carries around bullet fragments in his leg, not from the Vietnam War, but from one of his deacons who shot him. Like Israel then, the church now is God's treasured possession, given the responsibility and privilege of proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:910). But we keep going back to darkness.
The abrupt ending to this book forces me to do something else in addition to taking a hard look at the condition of our church. It also forces me to ask if there is any hope. Is there any hope in all of this failure? I get to the end of a book like Judges, and I think about how Christianity today resembles it, and I think, "Why bother?" Do you ever feel that way? Why bother? We're just on a course to self-destruct, so why bother? Is there any hope for the church?
Even when we fail, God's grace gives us a reason to hope.
There is a reason for hope. Let me tell you what it is. It's what keeps me going. When I look at the Benjamites, I see a group of people that I expect to be written off by God. Think about it. Every Benjamite boy or girl would have to trace their ancestry to violence and kidnapping. That was the only way they got wives. But let me tell you the rest of the story.
Years after this event, another Benjamite showed every sign of living out the ugly heritage of his tribe. He was prideful, so stubborn in his view of life that he attacked other Israelites who didn't see things his way. That is, until God knocked him to the ground. When he got up, he was a changed man. His name? Saul. Better known today as the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul, from the tribe of Benjamin. According to Romans 11:1 and Philippians 3:5, that was Paul's heritage. You can trace it back to a tribe that survived because of brutal violence and rape.
What's the reason for hope? It's the grace of God. God has a way of bringing good out of ugliness—even the ugliness created by his people. You'd think God would write off a tribe that survived only because of brutal violence and kidnapping. That was Paul's heritage. But God in his grace changed Paul, so Paul became known as the apostle of God's grace.
We also know him as the minister of the new covenant. In the new covenant, God in his grace provides what messed-up people and dysfunctional churches need to turn their lives around. Jesus is the mediator of that new covenant. When he died, he put it into effect. It provides for the forgiveness of sins and for the coming of the Spirit in a greater measure, the Spirit who creates a new heart in those who put their faith and trust in Jesus.
Through this story and its ending, God in his grace is calling you back to himself. He is saying: Even when you fail, God's grace gives you a reason to hope. Never forget the rest of the story to the Book of Judges. We serve a God who takes messed-up people, dysfunctional churches, people who have gotten hopelessly tangled in the consequences of their sin, and in his grace he restores them. And he does great things through them. That's not to deny the casualties. That's not to suggest that everyone recovers, or that sin is no big deal if God reverses its effects through his grace. There are some churches that might as well have "Ichabod" written on the front of them—"no glory." The glory of God has departed. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Perhaps your family may have "no hope" written all over it. Maybe you wonder if God can overcome your background. But God's grace gives you a reason to hope. Poor decisions, sinful choices, crushing consequences. The grace of God. That's the only reason I can keep on going. God is still at work in the darkest of times. His grace is still at work. His grace is greater than all our sin. His grace is enough!
To see an outline of Mathewson's sermon, click here.
To listen to Mathewson's sermon, click here.
The goal for all of my sermon introductions is to create interest, to raise a need, and to orient listeners to the biblical text. In this sermon, the opening statement attempted both to create interest and to introduce the need. Toward the end of the introduction, the need becomes obvious. God's people need hope when they have failed. Notice that I "side" with my listeners and acknowledge how dark and depressing the Book of Judges is. The Pirates of the Caribbean illustration attempts to describe how they feel as they read it. But once I have acknowledged the dark side of Judges, I plead with the reader to be patient since God has something to say to modern believers—the church—through the closing story of Judges. I could have been more direct and said, "This story will show us that there is hope when God's people fail." But to keep my listeners in suspense, I only hinted at this, promising listeners that God has something to say to them in the story and that there is hope at the end of the tunnel.
As sermon introductions go, this one was relatively brief. I kept it brief for two reasons. First, the story in Judges 1921 is lengthy, so I needed plenty of time to work through it. Second, I did not want to detract from the power of the story. The stories in Scripture have a unique ability to engage listeners, so I like to get listeners into these stories as quickly as possible.
One of the challenges of preaching a story that spans three chapters is how to read the text. Reading the entire story could take one-third of the sermon. At times, this may be appropriate. But in this case, I simply chose to summarize the story and weave in the reading of specific verses or statements. I tried to choose these verses or statements strategically, reading those that offered key reports, descriptions, or speeches on which the story turned.
The body of the sermon unfolds as a story. In this case, I organized my retelling of the story around the chain reaction of events: inhospitality, sexual violence, dismemberment, civil war, near extinction, and the immoral solution. With each reaction, the crisis worsens and the tension rises. Sermons on narrative texts must reflect the rising tension and the crisis or series of crises. This keeps listeners engaged.
You may notice that the body of the sermon is thin in illustrations. If I were to preach this again, I might work on adding an illustration or two. But sermons on narratives require less illustration than sermons from other literary genres in Scripture. As previously noted, the plot development keeps listeners engaged. I tend, though, to use some contemporary images. For example, when I described the value of hospitality in the ancient world, I noted that this was in the day before Comfort Inns and Holiday Inns.
Notice that the telling of the story leads to a theological point that reflects both the ancient and modern situation: God's people wreck their lives when they fail to follow God instead of the surrounding culture. While I do not use this exact wording in the manuscript, it's definitely the idea I am trying to communicate when I talk about how the narrator forces God's people to take a hard look at their condition and about how we keep going back into darkness. I develop my two points inductively: 1) God's people wreck their lives when they fail to follow God instead of the surrounding culture, and 2) even when we fail, God's grace gives us a reason to hope. This means that these two ideas surface after I work through the sub-points of each one.
At the end of the sermon's first point or movement, I transition into the solution by asking if there is any hope in all of this failure. A sermon on a biblical narrative that organizes itself around the flow of that narrative will take the form of "crisis-resolution," that is, "problem-solution." The resolution or solution becomes the sermon's big idea. This particular narrative is tricky, though, because the resolution—to the book as well as to the story—is not theologically satisfying. In effect, it keeps the reader hanging. The Israelites have succeeded in becoming just like their Canaanite neighbors. To state this as a theological idea: God's people wreck their lives when they fail to follow God instead of the surrounding culture. It is at this point that the gospel emerges.
As in any other narrative text I preach, I get at the gospel by asking the question: How does this theological message connect with the Bible's larger story or meta-narrative? Obviously, the message of Judges 1921 raises a question about hope. God's people are in a desperate mess, so what hope is there for recovery? This question becomes a bridge to the gospel story as it continues to unfold in Scripture and culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In this particular story, tracing the development of the Benjamites leads to the wonderful discovery that one of them—Saul/Paul—became the minister of the new covenant, which is, of course, the solution to the problem in Judges 19-21. The solution, then, becomes the sermon's main idea: Even when we fail, God's grace gives us a reason to hope.
Finally, like the introduction, the conclusion is brief and to the point. My goal was to get people thinking about the ways in which their churches or families have "no hope" written all over them. I debated whether or not to provide some specific, concrete examples. Doing this might have strengthened the conclusion, but it would have made the sermon too long. So I simply referred to poor decisions, sinful choices, and crushing consequences. Most listeners, I suspect, would not have trouble identifying specifics in each category as they think about their lives and churches. The final sentences restate the sermon's main idea, emphasizing that the grace of God provides us with hope even when we face the dark times resulting from our sin.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism".
Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.