July 10, 2016

Missing the Mark

How many of you remember where you were on January 28, 1986?  I’ll confess that I was four and I really don’t remember much of anything prior to my 5th birthday, but I’ll bet some of you who are a bit older than I am do.  And just to prove my point, what happened on that date?  Just before noon local time a space shuttle called the Challenger was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  While that’s always exciting, this launch was special because it was the first of the now-infamous Teacher-in-Space program.  Christa McAuliffe, a history and English teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, had been selected from more than 11,000 applicants to the program in 1985 and here, a few months later, she was making her debut.  But the excitement quickly turned to shock and dread as 73 second into the flight the Challenger exploded, killing McAuliffe, and the six other crew members on board with her.

After a period of mourning, people demanded to know how this could have happened.  President Reagan quickly assembled a group to investigate.  The group became known as the Rogers Commission after its chair, William P. Rogers, a former U.S. Attorney General (under Eisenhower) and Secretary of State (under Nixon).  What the Rogers Commission discovered after a lengthy investigation was that the explosion was caused by a faulty O-ring.  The O-rings were rubber seals that were supposed to protect the solid fuels in the rocket’s main boosters from the super-heated gases on the outside.  Due to a design flaw that occurred as many as ten years before the accident the O-rings in use by NASA at the time tended to lose some of their structural integrity in low temperature settings—like those, say, of a late January morning—resulting in an ineffective seal.  The final result is that while the faulty seals had been used without incident for several years, on this particular occasion, the conditions were just right for them to fail.  And so when the rocket launched and the gases on the outside heated up to a sufficient temperature, they bypassed the O-ring seals, ignited the solid fuels in the boosters, and the rest is history.

Now, while we could certainly shift the blame here around to all kinds of different places—and indeed it was in the years following the tragedy—in the final analysis, an error in judgment in 1977 blew up—literally—in the faces of those who made it ten years later.  When we don’t do things right, there are always consequences.  Sometimes those consequences may not manifest themselves until later…much later even…but they always eventually do come to the light.  The Challenger disaster played this truth out on a very large and very public stage, but more often than not, it comes in an entirely smaller and more intimate package—our lives.

The reason for this has its foundation all the way back in the very beginning of humanity in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in direct contradiction to His instructions to stay away from it.  One of the things that lies at the heart of what they did then was their intention to try and do life on their own.  They wanted—because Satan had convinced them of such—to be “like God” by knowing what He knows.  They had forgotten, of course, that they were already more like God than anything else in the whole of creation in their being created in His image, but then, that’s how Satan works.  He convinces us to want something we already have and to put our desire for that above our desire for God.

In any event, they wanted to do life on their own.  Still today, the heart of our rebellion against God is that we want to do life on our own.  We try and do it all the time.  We try it in a thousand different ways.  Without exception, though, every single one of these attempts ends in failure.  But the real problem here is that we don’t always or even often see the failure until it’s too late.  Because of this, we keep right on going it alone in life, blissfully (or not so blissfully) unaware of the shoe that’s just waiting to drop when the time is right.

Fortunately, the Scriptures have some good reminders for us that going it alone when it comes to our relationship with God is not a neutral proposition.  It’s not something that we can take or leave depending on how we feel at a given moment.  It’s something that’s central to who we are as followers of Jesus.  If we leave it behind, we leave behind our one abiding source of life.  Well, just like disconnecting from your shuttle base on a spacewalk will result in a tumble into nothingness, disconnecting from your source of life in this world will result in disaster every time.  But still, that disaster usually comes slowly enough that in any given moment we don’t really believe it’s coming.  Thus we need these Scriptural reminders that this particular path never works out well for us.  One of the best of these is found in the narrative of what happened to the people of Israel after Joshua died.  It’s called the book of Judges and for the next few weeks in a brand new series called, Going It Alone, we are going to take a look together at this gripping set of stories about a people trying to do just that.

In order to get into a book like Judges, though, we need some background.  We need some background and also a framework to give us a context from which to interpret and understand what we are seeing.  The book of Judges describes a period of Israel’s history between the initial settling of the land of Canaan and the beginning of the series of monarchies that would carry them to eventual conquests by Assyria and Babylon.  Now, keep in mind that when we get to the beginning of this period of Israel’s history while they had been free from Egypt’s rule for roughly two generations, they still really didn’t have a clue how to be a free nation.  As you read through the story you see that God was very much holding their hand the whole time.  He gave them strong leaders in Moses and Joshua.  Through Moses He gave them a law that spelled out pretty clearly what it was going to take from them in order to live with the gift He was giving them.  Through Joshua He led them militarily in driving off the people groups currently living in the land so their new homeland was free from enemies who sought to do them harm both externally and internally.

Now, as a quick aside here, not a few folks struggle with this part of the Bible.  In fact, more folks struggle with this series of stories than with just about anything else in the whole of the Scriptures.  The reason is simple: the thought of one nation aggressively taking land from another and killing many of their people in the process sounds terrible to us.  That type of territorial expansion is what sparked World War II.  But there are three things to keep in mind in order to help us make a little better sense of it.  First, we have to get God’s character right.  The God revealed in the pages of Scripture is 100% loving and 100% just.  He always does what’s right and His actions are always liberally tempered with love.  If we come across something in the Scriptures that seems to paint God in a different light the most rational conclusion is that we are getting something wrong in how we are reading and understanding it, not that God has character problems or even that there is a problem with the Scriptures themselves.  That should be a baseline assumption for all of our Scripture reading, but especially parts like this one.

Second, the peoples living in Canaan when the Israelites arrived were unbelievably evil.  They were okay with child sacrifice and practiced it often.  They were rampant with sexual immorality.  They were brutal with one another and with themselves.  They were incredibly unjust in all their dealings.  What’s more: they had been that way for a long time.  God had declared to Abraham more than 400 years prior to this that the people of Canaan were going to be judged, but, because He’s a God of mercy, He was going to give them more time to get themselves straightened out in order to avoid that fate.  By more time He meant more than 400 years.  If anything God waited way too long to put a stop to their evil.  That He happened to use Israel to do this says nothing about them at all.  It is merely a reminder of the fact that God uses whomever He will to accomplish His purposes of mercy and justice.  He would later use Assyria and Babylon to bring justice to Israel for their many long years of grievous sins.  In this case, the people of Canaan had been shown mercy for more than 400 years and were now facing justice for their many, many sins.

Third, this kind of warfare was entirely commonplace back then and no one would have thought it morally problematic at all.  We need to be careful in reading our moral assumptions back on them.  We know a great deal more about God and His ways now than they did.  We recognize that the kinds of things they were doing aren’t necessarily good.  But sometimes God works in peoples and cultures where they are in order to bring them a step or two forward rather than expecting them to miraculously behave like people hundreds of years removed from them morally.  Now, this looks awful to later peoples and cultures who understand Him better, but it is a testament to the patience of God in bringing us from where we are to where He wants us to be.  Rest assured, should our Lord tarry we wouldn’t want people living 500 years from now to judge us on the basis of their moral assumptions.  Such judgment wouldn’t be just.  Thus God doesn’t judge that way.

Getting back on track, though, God had done all of this different hand-holding for the people to get them to where they were: moving into the land He had been promising them for nearly half a millennium.  But, have you ever tried to hold a child’s hand when he was excited to go somewhere?  How long did that last?  Yeah, not so long.  When we were in Kansas City we made a trip to Target.  Micah and I were the last out of the van and Mimi and Grandpa were ahead of us almost into the store.  By the time we got to the street separating us from the story Micah was not interested in holding my hand anymore.  He was pulling away as hard as he could and yelling at me the whole time.  He wanted to run on ahead and catch up with his grandparents and was thinking about nothing else least of all the possible consequences of crossing the street on his own.

God’s handholding got the people successfully into the land, but once there, they pulled away and things started to go downhill…fast.  It mostly started when Joshua died.  Check this out in Judges 2:6: “When Joshua dismissed the people, the people of Israel went each to his inheritance to take possession of the land.  And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel.  And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years.  And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash.”

In other words, as long as Joshua or somebody who was alive when Joshua was leading the people was alive, the people still clung to God’s hand.  But those folks didn’t live forever.  Eventually they died.  And it became clear that while they served to keep the people on the right track by their leadership and the power of their stories, they were not successful in passing their faith on to the next generation.  Look at v. 10 here: “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers.  And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

And for my Bible scholars in the room, that verse may sound kind of like another one that comes a bit earlier in the Scriptures.  Way back at the end of Genesis, Joseph, the son of Jacob, served as the second-in-command over all Egypt.  During his tenure his father Jacob and the rest of the family joined him there and flourished in the land Pharaoh provided for them.  But then Joseph died and we have this in Exodus 1:8: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”  What comes next is about 400 years of misery for the people.  Well, after Judges 2:10 comes a long period of history for the people of Israel that did not go well for them.  They forgot.  They forgot who the Lord was and what He had done for them.  They forgot how He called them to live.  They forgot the advice—commands really—He had given them to help them live along those lines.

Now, you couldn’t tell at first that this had happened.  Memories sometimes take a few years to drain away.  Indeed, jumping back to Judges 1:1 we see this: “After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’”  So here at least it looks like things are going to continue just like they were when Joshua was alive.  The tribe of Judah got the nod and so they teamed up with Simeon to continue the task of clearing out the Canaanite people still remaining in the land that had been given to them.  The next several verses detail this happening.

But then in v. 19 we see this interesting little note: “And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country…”  So far so good.  Then there’s this: “…but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.”  So what’s this mean?  Well, at the time not very much.  Judah got some land to call their own which is what God wanted them to do.  Seemingly no big deal.  Now sure there was this thing God had said about driving the Canaanite peoples completely out of the land and not leaving any of them to remain in it, but if Judah had enough land to spread out and live comfortably what would it matter that they didn’t quite follow all of God’s instructions.  One time does not a pattern make.

But you see that’s just the point.  It wasn’t one time.  After v. 19 we come to v. 21: “But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day.”  Okay, but that’s still just two tribes out of twelve.  Surely the others fared better.  Didn’t they?

Yeah…not so much.  The tribe of Joseph went to take Bethel, got help from a local with the promise of leaving him alone, and he went and built another city for himself that remained in the land.  Then we get a whole succession of slips starting at v. 27: “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megidddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land.  When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.  And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them.  Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them, but became subject to forced labor.  Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob, so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out.  Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land.  Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them.  The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain.  The Amorites persisted in dwelling in Mount Heres, in Aijalon, and in Shaalbim, but the hand of the house of Joseph rested heavily on them, and they became subject to forced labor.”

So what is all this beyond a litany of one of those lists of hard-to-pronounce names that make us not want to pay any attention to it?  Remember the failure of Judah and Benjamin to completely clear out their land?  Yeah, it went beyond just them.  Every single one of the tribes failed to do what God had commanded them to do.  Sure they conquered the peoples of the land—God had promised He would help them do that—but enslaving them wasn’t God’s command.  God’s command was clear back in Deuteronomy 7:2: “…and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them [which He had and which they had], then you must destroy them totally.  Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”  Now, again, we can talk about the difficulties here another time, but God gives a pretty specific reason for this command a couple verses later and it’s pretty prescient.  Check this out: “…for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”  In other words, “If you don’t get rid of these guys and their influence in its entirety you’re going to regret it.  It’s going to come back and bite you in the tail.”

Well, the people did exactly what God said they shouldn’t do.  They conquered, but they did not destroy.  They did not remove.  They did not cleanse the land of the evil influence of these folks whose land God had given Israel in part as a judgment for their grievous and incorrigible sins.  Remember that generation that “grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel,” the children of the folks who didn’t follow God’s command to completely destroy the Canaanites and to entirely exterminate their influence from the land?  Guess what happened with them.  Flip over to Judges 2:11: “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 the 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.”

In other words, they insisted on going it alone and as a result they paid the price for it.  God told them what would happen if they didn’t do what He said…they didn’t do what He said…and all the bad things He said would happen happened.  And so began a pattern that would last somewhere between two and four hundred years during which time the people would try and go it alone, God would allow them to face the consequences of this decision, they would come to their sense and cry out to Him, He would take pity on them because of His great love for them and rescue them, and then once everything settled down they would try yet again to go it alone, starting the pattern all over again.  Yet each time they would leave the boundaries of their relationship with God they would go a little further afield.  And each time they returned to His gracious arms they wouldn’t come back quite as close as they had the last time.  Eventually their turning and going it alone bore bitter fruit.  It bore bitter fruit whose seeds would fall and germinate and eventually grow roots that would poison the land until God finally had enough and used another nation to do to them what He had used them to do to the Canaanites.  And while there are perhaps many lessons that could be drawn from all of this and there will be many more to come from the rest of the book of Judges, there is one that stands out very clearly at this point in the story: Disobedience always has consequences.

Disobedience always has consequences.  Always.  Sometimes those consequences may seem far removed, but they will always come.  This is what happened in the Challenger disaster.  One error in judgment, one attempt to go it alone, led to another and then to another and then to another until the payment finally came due.  This is what the people of Israel found.  They did not entirely remove the influence of the Canaanites from their midst and so just as the Lord said it eventually poisoned their hearts.  They tried to go it alone.  It was too hard to do what the Lord commanded.  They got to a place of stability—one of those respites God gives us along the journey where we are to renew our strength for the next leg—and instead of moving forward again after a time, they settled in and called it home.  We drove to Charlotte a few weeks ago for couple of days away with Lisa’s family.  Along the way we had to stop at a rest area.  I’ll tell you: it was a really nice rest area.  The bathrooms were clean.  The snack house was well stocked.  There was plenty of space to run around and play.  There was even a Vietnam War Memorial there.  We got the few things we needed and finished the trip in much better spirits than we were before the stop.  We needed the respite.  But what if we had stayed there and refused to go any further.  That would have been crazy.  Do we need to make a list of all the things wrong with that idea?  We wouldn’t have been well-nourished, there was nowhere good to sleep, we were separated from the community we need to sustain us, we would have been forever short of our intended destination and all the joys that held for us, and on and on it goes.  Our command, if you will, was the Great Wolf Lodge.  Disobedience would have had consequences.  Disobedience always has consequences.

So it goes in our lives.  God has set you on a path.  Some of you know what that is in a fair amount of detail.  For others it is a little hazier.  But whether the specific destination is clear or not, the character expectations for the journey are crystal clear.  And character created by faithfulness is what will get you where you want to go.  If you disobey those commands, though—even in ways that seem entirely insignificant at the time—there will be consequences.  Disobedience always has consequences.  But—and here’s the good news—obedience does too.  What’s more, because of the gracious spirit of our God, those good consequences tend to come faster and can even erase the consequences of disobedience before they have a chance to take root.  So choose obedience.  Disobedience always has consequences.  They may not come quickly, but they will come.  They may not come until your kids or grandkids have to pay the bill, but why do that to them?  Over the next few weeks we’ll see how this played out for Israel.  Let’s learn their lessons so we don’t have to experience them for ourselves.