Avoiding the False God of Convenience

Since retirement, I have been using a little devotional guide by Charles Ringma called, “Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  Each day has a short quote from Bonhoeffer, a Bible verse, and a reflection by Ringma. I intend to use this little devotional guide for the first year of my “post-Advent Presbyterian Church” life. The devotional is very different than the devotional life I had as a pastor. Thus far, I am enjoying doing something a bit different devotionally. I don’t know how long this will last, but I am enjoying it and intend to finish my year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This week, one of the devotions had to do with our human tendency to seek God’s actual presence only when we have exhausted all human avenues to accomplish something we desire to accomplish. All of us, pastors and non-pastors, have a tendency to call on God and seek God most passionately when all else fails. Ringma reminds us that, “God is not not a god of the gaps when we have run out of human resources or explanations. God is not be called on only when human wisdom fails. He is not waiting in the wings to be called on only when things run into difficulty. He is there at the center–central to our wisdom, to our answers, to our very life. His wisdom is not geared for a life of religious escapism. It is sufficiently comprehensive to embrace family and political life, personal faith and social transformation.”

This morning, as has become our custom, we attended two different churches. In one of them, the pastor was talking about the false God’s we rely upon a lot of the time. One of them, partially responsible for some of our social tensions is the “God of My Tribe,” that racially and socially acceptable God that defends MY PEOPLE. There are a lot of false God’s in our culture. Perhaps most importantly, the God of MY Personal Peace. This is the God of wealth, health, perpetual youth, and personal fulfillment.  This is the God of pleasure, of security, and of affluence. There is no such God. It is an idol we have created in our own minds–and like all false gods, it must surely fail us and our culture.

The text for this morning’s sermon at one of our churches was from Second Corinthians. It reads like this,Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” II Corinthians 1:3-7).

Over and over again, Paul talks about “comfort.” To the modern ear to talk about “a God of comfort”  seems to mean that God is a God who makes us comfortable, at ease, without problems. This misunderstands what Paul is saying. The Latin word that we translates “Comfort” is made up of two words that mean, “To come beside and strengthen.” This puts an entirely different perspective on what Paul means. What Paul is saying is that God is the God who comes beside us to strengthen us so that we can face difficulties, aging, loss of vigor, disease, loss of jobs, of meaning, even of life itself. The ONE TRUE GOD is not a god who allows us to escape life, but the ONE TRUE GOD who comes beside us and strengthens us for this life. This God is always with us, in life and in death, and in every circumstance in between.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God came close to the human condition and suffered with and for us all that we can suffer: injustice, betrayal, disease, death. In Christ and in the resurrection, God demonstrated his power over our circumstances. Sometimes he will deliver us from them when we cry out to him. Sometimes, he simply walks with us through them.

Bonhoeffer knew such comfort. He was not delivered from the Nazi’s. They ultimately killed him. But he had a powerful understanding that God was with him in his circumstances empowering him to face them. Those around him at the end understood this and remarked on his remarkable calm in the face of suffering, injustice and death.



When Everyone Does as They Please

If there is one single value that underlies American culture, it is the ideal of freedom. When our forefathers and mothers came to America, they came in search of freedom. The societies of Medieval Europe were highly structured. One’s social and one’s economic status was almost entirely determined by birth. The kingdoms of the Middle Ages were ruled by hereditary elites who owned and controlled most of the farm land. This was at a time when land was the primary source of wealth. There was little freedom of religion. Most European nations had state religions to which everyone had to subscribe. Economically, most children followed the career of their parents, which for most people meant what we would call “tenant farming.” Most people would never own their own land or leave anything to their children.

The early settlers of America wanted “freedom.” But by this freedom they did not mean “the right to do whatever I want so long as it does not obviously hurt anyone else”. They meant “the right to worship as I decide, to work at the job I desire, and to own a piece of property to leave to my heirs, as opposed to being tenants of a lord”. Today, we often misconstrue the founding principles as “the right to do whatever I please”—and in so doing we create a kind of social chaos as millions of Americans try to get what they want and do what they want without much regard for others.

In this blog, we are thinking about the time of the Judges and about what Israel learned between the death of Joshua and the ministry of the final judge, Samuel. This was a time of great social upheaval and period suffering for the people of Israel. It was also a time of periodic religious and moral decay. Unfortunately, Israel of the time of the Judges was not so different from America today: It was a society that lacked a coherent governmental, moral, religious, and cultural base from which to defend itself and provide security of its people.

Text and Prayer

Our text is from the second chapter of Judges. If you remember from two weeks ago, after Moses died, Israel was ruled for many years by the great military leader, Joshua, after whom Jesus was named. [1] Joshua led Israel as the reentered the Promised Land after over 400 years of slavery and wandering in the wilderness. One would think that Israel would remain faithful to God as a result of seeing the great miracles of their deliverance from Egypt and entry into the Promised Land. But, that was not the case. Here is a passage from the Word of God as it comes from the sixth book of the Bible, Judges:

After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.  In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them.  But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways (Joshua 2: 6-19).

Let us Pray: God of History: we come before you today asking that you would give to us a word for our lives, for the lives of our children and grandchildren, and for the future of our nation. Convict us, convert us, and make us wholly yours. In The name of the King of King and Lord of Lords we pray, Amen.

The Mistake of Joshua

Moses managed the transition between his leadership and Joshua’s in a magnificent way.. Moses picked Joshua when he was still a young man. Joshua was with Moses at many of the most important moments of Moses’  ministry. Joshua led Israel in a battle against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-15). He accompanied Moses on the Mountain to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:13). He guarded the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:11). He observed the Spirit of God among the people—and saw times when the spirit was misused (Numbers 11:17-29). He was one of the spies sent by Moses into the Promised Land the first time they entered it (Numbers 13:8; 14 6-38). Joshua was ready for leadership because he had been mentored as a leader by Moses. [2]

Unfortunately, it does not seem that Joshua did as good a job of preparing the people for his absence as did Moses. When Moses died, the people had not yet entered the land, and they knew they needed strong, experienced, competent leadership. Joshua provided that leadership. But, as Joshua grew older, and as the Jewish people conquered more and more of Palestine, the tribal leaders wanted to stop fighting and enjoy their new homes. So, Joshua distributed the land among the tribes of Israel near the end of his life, leaving a bit more land to be conquered. This was a mistake. I allowed the Jews to intermarry and adopt pagan customs. It also gave the enemies of Israel time to regroup. When Joshua died, he did not leave the a single successor. This was also a mistake.

When you are Number 1 it is easy to forget what made you Number 1. When you have had strong leadership, it is easy to forget that leadership is hard and necessary—and that good leaders do not grow on trees. When you have profited from sound judgment, it is easy to forget what a rare quality sound judgment is—and the terrifying consequences of bad decisions and bad leadership.

Problem: Our Short Memory

When the Jews left Egypt a good number of the people quickly forgot what it was like to be in slavery. They began to long for what they mistakenly remembered as the “easy life” as slaves. They remembered the food, the spices, and the waters of Egypt. They remembered the god’s of Egypt and began to long for them. Similarly, after the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they began the process of forgetting the price of their freedom. Judges records that the generation which fought with Joshua continued to hold fast to the faith of Israel and remembered what God had done for them (Judges 2:7). But, the next generations forgot the price of their freedom and the requirement of holiness and faithfulness to God, and so Israel entered a time of social decay. So, Judges records:

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them (Judges 2:10-12)

I am afraid we human beings have a problem—we suffer from short memories. One reason it is so important that one generation tell another generation of the mighty acts of God (see Psalm 145:4) is that, if they do not, the next generation will forget the lessons prior generations have learned in toil and sweat and blood.

My parent’s generation was not perfect, but they understood the necessity of hard work and how quickly human society can degenerate into chaos. The generation that went through the Depression and fought World War II saw the consequences of overspending, of high living, and of economic and financial foolishness. They felt the consequences of a lack of preparedness as the nation suffered the attack at Pearl Harbor and the early losses of the Second World War. Consequently, for as long as they were the majority of Americans, they made sure that, whichever party was in power, they managed our national finances more or less wisely, remained unified on foreign affairs, and prepared for conflict should it become necessary. I am afraid that, as they have grown old and passed on, we’ve forgotten the old truths they knew.

Solution: the Example of Gideon

Judges describes a cycle that occurs over and over again in history. The people of Israel fell away from God and suffered economic and military hardships. They were then placed into slavery and underwent oppressions by the surrounding tribes, but particularly by the Philistines. In addition, they suffered a lack of internal security due to their loose confederation. Finally, the people repented and cried out for salvation. Ultimately, a leader arose—a charismatic military leader who provided temporary relief. Unfortunately, some of these leaders were little more than thugs, and some of them ended up as mini-dictators. And, as soon as the danger ended, the people forgot the price of their freedom and went back to worshiping false God’s. In Judges this story is told over and over as it applies to Israel. [3]

Gideon’s story is a good example. When we first meet Gideon, he is hiding in a winepress threshing wheat (Judges 6:11). The Midianites are harassing the people of Israel as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God (See, Judges 6:7-10). Gideon is not the most impressive possible leader. He is from a small tribe and the least member of his family (v. 15). Yet, he is the chosen of God so that through this weak man, God can show his power (v. 16). After testing God, and seeing proof of God’s power, Gideon agrees (vv. 19-22). To make a long story short Gideon cuts down the pagan altars, raises and army, and sets out to defeat the Midianites. He does so in an unbelievable way, winnowing his already inadequate army down to a size that has no chance of defeating the Midianites without the help of God (See, Judges 7). After his victory, Gideon led Israel for forty years, but eventually he grew old and died—once again without mentoring a leader (Judges 8:28-33). So, the people of Israel slipped back into worshiping false god’s and pretty soon Abimelech, his illegitimate son and a would be dictator, rose up and the people suffered again (see Judges 8:28-9:59).

Those of us who are inclined to wonder what in the world made the Jews act like this should perhaps take a look at the recent history of our own nation. We too have forgotten many of the principles that resulted in our freedom. We have forgotten how hard it is to earn freedom and how easy it is to lose it. We too have worshiped the false God’s of Personal Peace, Personal Pleasure and Affluence. [4] And, we too suffer the consequences. We too need to remember our past, repent of our present, and be restored.

When Everyone Does as They Please

At the end of Judges, the author pronounces his judgment on the period of the Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25 [NIV]). The very same phrase appears in Judges 17:6 and parts of the phrase in other sections of the book (See, Judges 18:1). In the end, the period of the Judges was a disaster for Israel. The dispersed tribes, largely disconnected and unified occasionally by charismatic leaders, could not defend itself against internal violence or external threats. Just as examples, a terrible rape and murder in Judges almost ends in the extermination of the tribe of Dan. Over and over again the Amorites, Ammonites, Midianites, and Philistines made war against Israel, causing untold suffering. The author of Judges blames the people themselves for the problem: they were not faithful to God, the degenerated morally and spiritually, and they suffered the consequences.

The term “Bedlam” applies to disorder, tumult, chaos, clamor, turmoil, commotion, pandemonium. It is sometimes used in connection with lunacy. The word “Bedlam” is a Middle English form of the Hebrew word, “Bethlehem,” which means “House of Bread”. The word got its current meaning because it the name “Bedlam” was given to an English hospital for the insane that had a terrible reputation. [5] I think this derivation has a point to make to all of us: When we forget the one born in Bethlehem who came to us to give us the Bread of Life in the form of the Wisdom, Love and Forgiveness of God, we degenerate into Bedlam. The current state of our society is a good example of this truth.

Message of the Judges

Is our situation hopeless? I don’t think so. The message of judges seems to be that, while we human beings have short memories and often degenerate into sin and foolishness, if we repent and ask for forgiveness, we will be restored. God will forgive us. This also seems to be the message of II Chronicles 7: 14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (II Chronicles 7:14 [NIV]). This need for humility, repentance and prayer was not just a need of the ancient Jews; it is our need as well.

Copyright, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua,” which means “savior” in Hebrew.

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Entering a New Era: Passing the Torch (September 30, 2012): 5

[3] See, Jacob M. Myers “Judges” in The Interpreter’s Bible vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1953): 688.

[4] Francis Schaeffer often spoke of the two values of our culture as being personal peace and affluence. See, “How Shall We Then Live” in The Collected Works of Francis Schaeffer Vol. 5 (Wheaton Ill, Crossway Books, 1982): 211.

[5] See, “Bedlam” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Online (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02387b.htm, October 11, 2012.