Sunday, February 7, 2016

A Tough Promise to Keep

A Tough Promise to Keep

Have you ever made a promise you regretted?  Given your word and then realized the price was way too high but couldn’t find a graceful way to back out?

Happened different times in the bible.  Herod had John the Baptist arrested because John wouldn’t stop harping on the fact that Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife was both immoral and illegal under Jewish law.  And if you remember the story, one night at a big blow out at the palace Herod’s Stepdaughter danced for the men present and in response Herod promised her anything, up to one half of his kingdom, seems a little over the top but he had been drinking.  The media would later say, “Alcohol may have been a factor.”  Well the girl went to her mother and asked what she thought and came back to Herod and demanded “Bring me John’s head on a platter.”  Wasn’t what he was thinking, but what could he do?  I mean besides saying “No”?

Judas promised to help the High Priest’s in their quest to stop Jesus, I’m sure he thought he was simply forcing Jesus’ hand, pushing him to establish his kingdom.  But it soon became apparent that things were spiraling out of control and Judas went back and told the authorities, “I’ve changed mind.”  But alas, it was too late. 

And then there was Peter who when Jesus came to them in the storm walking on the water, Peter calls out and says “Lord if it’s you call and I will join you.”  And Jesus said, “come on it, the water’s fine”  That of course is a rough translation, and Peter had no choice but to get out of the boat.

This is week five of our Skeleton’s in God’s Closet series and we’ve been looking at some stories and doctrines in the bible that some Christians find difficult to explain and some non-Christians enjoy pointing out in an effort to shake our faith.

This morning we are going back into the Old Testament to look at a particular story that has bothered me since the first time I read it and when I was thinking of doing this series this was the first story that came to mind.   

I kind of stumbled on it accidentally the first time.  Years ago I was preaching on heroes of faith from Hebrews Chapter 11,which has often been called the “Faith Hall of Fame”.  And I came upon this section that was read this morning and there are a pile of names that are just kind of tossed in.  Hebrews 11:32  How much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and all the prophets.

And I knew most of the names on the list. Gideon, King David and the Prophet Samuel, they were no brainers great stories, lot of faith.  I’ve always considered Samson a bit of a sociopath but it is what it is, I can understand why some would put him on the list, even though he wouldn’t be my first choice. 

But at first glance I was stumped with Barak and Jephthah.  So I did what you did before Google, I dug some books out of my library and starting researching these guys.  Barak turned out to be a commander in Israel when Deborah was the Judge of Israel.  Being a Judge was kind of like being royalty without the palace and perks.  So three thousand years ago Israel had a female ruler, kind of cool.  And you can read her story, which includes Barak in Judges chapter 4. And you’ll want to read all the way to the end.  Now if I had to pick I think I would have put Jael on the list instead of Barak but again, not my list. 

And then I read the story of Jephthah and it nearly knocked me over, I went back and checked, thought maybe I’d spelt his name wrong in my research, but nope, same guy.  And I thought that is just wrong, so I did what we usually do when we find something we don’t understand, don’t like or can’t explain in the bible.  We stuff it back in the closet and slam the door shut. 

But if there was ever a time to heed the advice of George Bernard Shaw who said. “If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance.”  This was it.

So let’s start with the story.  You will find it in Judges Chapter 11.  And it is an interesting story.  Jephthah was the result of a dalliance between his father and a prostitute.  But apparently he was raised by his father because we read in Judges 11:2  Gilead’s wife also had several sons, and when these half brothers grew up, they chased Jephthah off the land. “You will not get any of our father’s inheritance,” they said, “for you are the son of a prostitute.”

It seems there might have a little sibling rivalry there, and Jephthah ends up in a place called Tob where we are told he was soon followed by, and I quote, “a band of worthless rebels”.  And if you are known by the company you keep, and you are, that’s not the best reference. 

But things change, the area that Jephthah was from came under attack from an outside group called the Ammonites and the elders sent for Jephthah to come back and lead their army, kind of a “Who you gonna call?” scenario.  And Jephthah says, “Seriously guys?  Aren’t you the same people that drove me away?  And now you come knocking at my door, what’s up with that?  Why now?”

And I love their response.  Judges 11:8  “Because we need you,” the elders replied.  And then they make him an offer he can’t refuse, “If you lead us in battle against the Ammonites, we will make you ruler over all the people of Gilead.”

And that is the way the story goes, Jephthah first approaches the Ammonite leader to see if they can reach some kind of an accord and when the doesn’t work he leads his people into battle, but before he does he prays this prayer.  Judges 11:30-31  And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. He said, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites,  I will give to the LORD whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Man you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know this is going to end badly.  But maybe the fix was in, maybe he had texted home and said “when you see me coming up the driveway send a goat out through the front door.”  Or maybe everyday when he came home his wife’s annoying poodle would come out the front door barking at him.

Regardless of what the plan was, Mister Murphy stepped in with his infamous “What can go wrong will go wrong.”  My father always said that Murphy was an optimist, but that is a story for another time. 

Well, if we keep reading we discover that the Ammonites were indeed defeated and Jephthah returns home victorious.  I’m not even sure if Jephthah was thinking about his vow, or if he was thinking the fix was in and a goat or yapper was going to come out the front door, but it this story had a sound track the music would now be in a minor key.   And we pick up the story in Judges 11:34  When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. She was his one and only child; he had no other sons or daughters.

Oops.  Not the goat and not the poodle, but his daughter.

We continue to read in Judges 11:35  When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. “Oh, my daughter!” he cried out. “You have completely destroyed me! You’ve brought disaster on me! For I have made a vow to the LORD, and I cannot take it back.”

They say that hindsight is 20/20 so what is it that Jephthah should have known before he made his vow?

You Don’t Have to Make Deals With God  We all do this don’t we?  “Lord, if you heal my child I’ll do whatever you ask.”  “Lord, if you help save my marriage I’ll be the best spouse ever.”  “God if I win the Lottery I’ll give half to the church, or maybe 10%, but I’ll give some.”

The summer before I committed my life to Christ I was still fishing with my Dad and uncle Clint, and my best friend had been sharing his faith with me and I was really struggling with whether or not I wanted t make that commitment.  We were herring seining and my job was to pull the lever.  Most of our fishing was done at night and if you don’t know how a Seiner works, it’s a big fishing boat and on the stern, that’s the back of the boat, there is a big net called the seine.  And on top of that net is a little boat called the tow boat. 

And when you are fishing there are different people, in different places doing different things.  The engineer is in the engine room, the skipper and mate and in the wheel house, where it’s warm and dry.  There are two guys in the tow boat and there is a guy under the what was called the gantry with the lever, that was me. I’m not sure what the rest of the guys were doing. 

And when the skipper and or mate saw fish on the fish finder they would yell into the PA “let her go!”  And the guy under the gantry would pull the lever that would launch the tow boat which was connected to the seine and the seiner would make a big circle setting the seine.  And so that summer I spent many an hour by myself in the dark waiting to pull a lever.  And many of my discussions were with God trying to make deals.  God, if you do this I’ll become a Christian.  God, if you do that I’ll go to bible college.   And I discovered that God wasn’t all that anxious to make deals with me. 

  Instead of trying to bribe God Jephthah would have been further ahead to just commit to figure out God’s will and obey it.  Which is why we are told in the bible, 1 Samuel 15:22  But Samuel replied, “What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.”

If God wanted the Ammonites defeated, and it appeared that he did, and if Jephthah was willing, and it appeared that he was then that in theory should have been all that was needed.

If God didn’t want the Ammonites defeated and Jephthah was working outside of the will of God did he really think that offering a goat or poodle would do the trick?

The most difficult part of the Lord’s prayer is not the part about us “forgiving those who trespass against us.”  The toughest part of the Lord’s prayer is when we tell God “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Because that means that we are acknowledging that God is smarter than us and that we are surrendering to his will, even if we don’t agree with it.

The second thing that Jephthah should have known was There is Never a Good Reason for Doing the Wrong Thing  Jephthah may have had the best of intentions, but as my favourite Auntie used to tell me “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Which according to my cousin my aunt would have heard from my Great Grandmother who used to say it all the time. 

Jephthah may have had the best of intentions, but that wouldn’t have given him licence to break the law of God.  We many justify bad behaviour, our government may justify bad behaviour, but God doesn’t justify bad behaviour.

30 years ago Randy Travis had a song out called “Some of the reasons I cheat.”  And the lyrics said in part,

“A working day to long when everything goes wrong
And a boss who don't know I'm alive

I once had a notion I'd get that promotion, but now I barley survive
A wife to demanding with no understanding
Of why I stay dead on my feet

A dimly lit tavern a willing young woman
Are some of the reasons I cheat
The hair that I'm losing and a women who's choosing
To lay sound asleep by my side
The bills they are mounting that’s when I start counting
On someone to help sooth my pride

A lady that knows me affection she shows me and a smile so easy and sweet
The dreams that I've buried the load that I've carried
Are some of the reasons I cheat”

 Seriously, you cheat because you want to cheat. 

Every once in a while you hear about someone shooting an abortion doctor.  And they try to justify it.   I am pro-life.  I think abortion is wrong.  And if you talk to a person whose parents had considered aborting them, they would mostly likely be glad that their parents chose not to kill them, even if their parents felt they had good reasons.    

But I’m prolife, not just anti abortion, and I think killing abortion providers is wrong as well and I think capital punishment is wrong and I think that someone will have to answer for innocent lives lost in the war on terror because the West was so intent on revenge for 9/11.  Have I managed to offend everyone yet? 

Rob mentioned in his message on the Israelite conquest of Canaan that one of the reasons that God commanded that the Canaanite culture and religion be wiped out was that the Canaanites sacrificed children to their gods Baal and the god Molech. 

The people of Israel are told in Deuteronomy 12:31-32  You must not worship the LORD your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters as sacrifices to their gods.  “So be careful to obey all the commands I give you. You must not add anything to them or subtract anything from them.”

And again in  Leviticus 18:21  “Do not permit any of your children to be offered as a sacrifice to Molech, for you must not bring shame on the name of your God. I am the LORD.”

And the prophet spoke for God in Jeremiah 32:35  They have built pagan shrines to Baal in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, and there they sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech. I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing. What an incredible evil, causing Judah to sin so greatly! 

So the question remains, why would God permit Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter and then include him in the book of Hebrews as someone whose faith should be celebrated? 

Let me tell you a funny story told to me this past week.  A friend of mine was at a Christmas party this year and was talking to a young lady he had never met before, as they were chatting the man playing piano started to play “Silver Bells”. 

When the lady heard this she told my friend, remember they had never met before, “Whenever I hear this song it reminds me of Great Sex!”  My friend was a little taken back and he replied “All the times I’ve heard this song I’ve never thought of Great sex.” The young lady jumped to her feet and said “Grade six, it reminds me of grade six” and she stalked away.

I tell that story for two reasons, the first is it is hilarious, the second is it illustrates that people aren’t always saying what we think they are saying, which leads us to this last point, Jephthah Probably Didn’t Do What You Think He Did

Let’s go back to Jephthah’s vow, we find it in Judges 11:30-31  And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. He said, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites,  I will give to the LORD whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”  In the other translations a lot hinges on this part of the sentence.  In the NLT there is a period, but in the NIV it reads this way,  Judges 11:30-31  And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands,  whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."  And in the Judges 11:30-31  And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,  Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. 

And maybe you still aren’t seeing the distinction.  I’m not a scholar, but many of those who are scholars tell us that the Hebrew word that is often translated “and” is actually more inclusive and can mean “and/or”.  Adam Clarke writes “The translation of which, according to the most accurate Hebrew scholars, is this: I will consecrate it to the Lord, or I will offer it for a burnt-offering; that is, "If it be a thing fit for a burnt-offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to him.”  Clarke goes on to write “That conditions of this kind must have been implied in the vow, is evident enough; to have been made without them, it must have been the vow of a heathen, or a madman.”

Which of course leads us back to what Saul was told in  1 Samuel 15:22  But Samuel replied, “What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” 

And so most scholar believe that while Jephthah did give his daughter to God that day, it was not as a burnt offering, instead she would serve in the tabernacle, she became the equivalent of today’s nuns.  And now Judges 11:39  makes a little more sense When she returned home, her father kept the vow he had made, and she died a virgin.   

In my 35 years in the ministry I have met too many people who have had to bury a child, and that is not the way it’s supposed to be, children are supposed to buy parents, parents aren’t supposed to bury children.  But it happens.  And I’ve heard people tell me about when their child died, they have told me their age, or the circumstances of their death.  He was a child, she was a teenager, had just gotten married.  Knew one family whose daughter was killed in a car accident while she was pregnant with her first child.  And so they told me they lost a daughter and a granddaughter that day.  But no one has described their child based on their lack of sexual experience. 

Let’s go back into the story again, Jephthah has returned home and out comes his daughter, he breaks down and confess his vow to her, to which she replies in Judges 11:36  And she said, “Father, if you have made a vow to the LORD, you must do to me what you have vowed, for the LORD has given you a great victory over your enemies, the Ammonites.”  But she asks that she can do one thing before he fulfils his vow.  Judges 11:37  But first let me do this one thing: Let me go up and roam in the hills and weep with my friends for two months, because I will die a virgin.”   Interesting, if her main concern was dying a virgin I can think of at least one way that could have been solved.   

In Wesley’s commentary he read, “We read, that she bewailed not her death, which would have been the chief cause of lamentation, if that had been vowed, but her virginity:”

If we continue to read in Judges 11:38 “You may go,” Jephthah said. And he sent her away for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never have children.”

The sacrifice that was made was that Jephthah in effect gave up his family.  There would be no children for his only child and no grandchildren to carry on the family line.  And for the record he wouldn’t have been able to sacrifice his wife’s poodle, because dogs were considered unclean and unworthy as a sacrifice. 

So, not nearly as creepy as we first thought but still tragic.  And what do we learn?  I think the first thing is we need to be very careful about what we promise God.  It’s not something we should casually do; you aren’t promising a child they can have dessert if they eat their carrots,  you are making a vow to God the creator of the Universe.

And if you make that vow you need to make sure you do your best to fulfill it.  Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 5:4-5  When you make a promise to God, don’t delay in following through, for God takes no pleasure in fools. Keep all the promises you make to him.  It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it.  And we read in Deuteronomy 23:21  “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, be prompt in fulfilling whatever you promised him. For the LORD your God demands that you promptly fulfill all your vows, or you will be guilty of sin.

Jephthah was honoured in Hebrews not for his military prowess, and not because of the vow he made, he was honoured for keeping the vow, even when it cost him his future family. 

Have you made promises to God?  Have you ever prayed “God if you do this I’ll do that.”?

 Have you kept your promise?  Maybe that something that needs your attention, either in keeping the vow or asking for forgiveness for breaking your vow.

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