Sunday, January 19, 2014

Law & Disorder: Ehud & the Book of Judges [sermon excerpt]

This is an excerpt from today's sermon on Judges 1-3, specifically narrowing in on the story of Ehud. This is the part where I warn against a couple interpretation-mistakes we'll be trying to avoid as we work through the book of Judges. I'll cut right to it, so if you want to read the Ehud passage for background see here.

Now, I think we are right to be careful with scenes of violence, because we certainly do not wish to glorify them. But frankly I don’t think that’s even the most common or worst misuse of the book of Judges we have to watch for today. In fact, I need to clear up two very dangerous misconceptions before we go back to the story of Ehud for application, or go on with the rest of the series.

The first mistake we make with books like Judges (and Joshua) is that we assume that if God used something once then God must have blessed it for all time.

We make this mistake with ancient slavery, with ancient gender roles, and we make it with ancient wars—the same way we make it with modern sins. We figure: “God used it for good before, so we’ll keep doing it.” But Paul warned against this in Romans 5 when he celebrated that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more,” and asked the rhetorical question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!”

What we have to understand about the Bible is that God always meets us where we’re at and moves us forward redemptively from there. So we see the ancient Israelites taught a kinder master-slave relationship and we see the seeds sown for abolition—but God does use slavery and slaves for good along the way. That doesn’t bless slavery. It is the same with patriarchy and with violence and war: That God made use of them does not mean they are blessed forever.

At least not the way we think.

The truth is that bloodshed is the sacred means of our salvation, for God. But when Christ comes he takes the place of the sacrificial fat bull on the altar and dies for our sins and for the sins of our enemies as well, freeing us in his forgiveness for the courageous self-giving love of justice and mercy in this world—freeing us even to love our enemies.

In Jesus Christ the spotless, eternal, holy Son of God takes the spot of Eglon, so that the sword is absorbed in his flesh and taken right out of our hands.

(picture credit: James-Michael Smith)
The second mistake we make is that we assume the we are always the guys in the white hats in these stories.

If you like big words or have been reading my blog you might recognize this as the “supersessionist” mistake. It is the source of too much of the world’s racism and prejudice and superiority. Supersession is when we supercede or substitute ourselves for Israel and conclude that we are to act toward the world the same way they were told to act in that time when they were to conquer the Promised Land.

We do this as individuals, easily inserting ourselves any old place we want, like when God promises Joshua he will be prosperous and successful—neverminding that this might not apply in cases where our calling is to suffer on the side of the poor and oppressed. And we do this as religious groups and nations, easily placing the white hat on all our good intentions, declare that you are either with us or against us, and place a black hat on anyone who gets in our way. Like when colonizers and missionaries married whiteness and industrialization to the idea of Christian civilization and conquered indigenous nations under the assumption we’d be doing them a favour. Even thinking the white hat is the good-guy-hat means we assume too much!

The supersessionist mistake is to assume that the church or a Christian nation replaces Israel, and gets to freely apply their ancient command to conquer. Even the nation of Israel today would be wrong to assume that! The promises to Israel have been fulfilled in Christ in such a way as to open up God’s promises to all nations, as they are reconciled in Christ! We may have to come back to that in weeks to come, but for today we need to bring this to a close and get back to Ehud.

Even the Israelites would not have expected Ehud to wear the white hat. But time and time again, by his choice of judges, God upsets people’s expectations and goes to unlikely sources to achieve liberation. We see it here in the victory of this left-hander Ehud over this fat-cat on the throne. Ehud comes from a tribe whose name means “sons of the right hand”—but 3:15 says literally that Ehud is disabled in his right hand. He’s not just a lefty, he’s disabled.

In those days being left-handed meant you were unclean, unable, and unlikely. I imagine it occurs to Ehud on his way out from having literally beat the crap out of the manicured palace-dweller: "Who is unclean now?"

This reversal foreshadows the ways of Jesus when the unlikely ones are called as Judges and Saviours for the people of Israel, just like Ehud. Not only does it show God’s desire to use the “least of us”, but it is also God’s way of opening doors for the previously discarded. Here it is the left-hander—whose tribe later trains itself to be ambidextrous, perhaps inspired by Ehud and his element of surprise. Next week it is Deborah—who defies everything we continue to assume about the place of women in leadership today.

That’s next Sunday. Today we end where Ehud’s story begins: With the phrase that starts each episode in Judges: “Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” That’s why they came under the rule of Eglon. But then it says (as it often will): “[Once] again they cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer.” Sound familiar? If you’re going to insert yourself for Israel, do it here.

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