July 17, 2016

Patterns

I have been told on occasion that I have a habit-forming personality.  Personally I think this is totally preposterous.  I mean, sure I have to eat grapes in sets of two (then my mouth is better balanced), carefully nibble the shell of jelly beans before I eat the core (then the gooey insides don’t get stuck in my teeth so badly), I have to totally unpack from a trip as soon as I get home (then I don’t have to do it later), collect things obsessively when I buy part of a set until I have the whole thing (who wants an incomplete set of something anyway?), and generally get ready in the same order every morning (that way I don’t forget to do anything), but those hardly mean I have a habit-forming personality.  I mean, at least I’m not this bad.

I still rank As Good As It Gets as one of the funniest movies I’ve seen.  I won’t lie…it might be because it hits at least a little close to home.  The movie is about a guy (Jack Nicholson) with severe OCD who falls in love with his former waitress (Helen Hunt) and gradually tries to make himself better for her sake.  Throughout the first part of the movie, though, and to a lesser extent the second part, he has a number of different patterns in place in his life that generally make him pretty odious to everyone around him.

The truth is that whether you have a habit-forming personality like…me…or are more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of a person, you have established some patterns, some habits, over the course of your life.  Some of these habits are probably good while others of them may not be quite so good.  Whatever they are, though, they serve as the controlling narrative of your life.  If your life is exactly the way you want it right now, then you’ve got good habits in place.  You should do whatever it takes to maintain them.  But if you have even a few things that are not quite like you’d like them to be, at least part of the reason for that is going to be the habits you have set.

Ultimately, the only way you are going to be able to make meaningful changes to your life (if that is what you desire) will be to change your habits.  You may have all the willpower in the world, but willpower is powerless before a well-ingrained habit.  This is why you will sometimes see a professional athlete who wants to improve his game go through a timely, complicated, and expensive process of hiring a trainer to help him change a playing habit.  He can desire to make the improvement all he wants, but without changing the habit that lies behind it, it just isn’t going to happen.  The same goes for our lives.  We can want to make changes, but without changing our bad habits (or putting good habits in place in the beginning), we are going to continue down the path we are currently traveling.

Well, if you’ll remember, last week I told you that in rejecting the habits of their forebears after Joshua and his generation died, the Israelites set in place a pattern, a habit, if you will, that would bring them misery for several hundred years.  It ultimately would lead to their total downfall at the hands of the Babylonians about a millennium down the road.  And while we could put a lot of details into play describing the habit they were setting it really boils down to a simple idea: they wanted to do life on their own.  They didn’t want to live under the authority and commands of someone else—particularly someone they could not see and particularly someone who’s commands didn’t really resonate with the desires of their heart and particularly when those desires were being shaped by the exotic and externally attractive habits of their neighbors.  No, rather than following the God who had led them thus far on their journey, they wanted to go it alone.  They wanted to try life all on their own for a while now that they had settled into their new homes.

And just so we’re clear: settled doesn’t mean perfect.  If you’ve ever moved before you know that you were settled in long before every single box had been unpacked and before everything had been put where it belonged.  I’ll confess: there’s a closet under our stairs that goes really deep and some time ago we were digging around in it and found a box that hadn’t been unpacked from when we moved here from Denver…eight years ago!  No, things in the land weren’t perfect, but they were settled and for a people weary from journeying, settled can easily be construed as good enough.  And when we’ve hit the “good enough” mark, most of us are ready to call it quits.  We want to put down the rigors of the previous journey and just relax.  This is what Israel did…but it’s also what we do.  When we’ve been working through a challenging phase of life and finally hit a place where things seem settled, we want to let our hair down, forget about everything that came before, and just go it alone for a while.

But when we do this what we often don’t realize is that we are setting new patterns and habits in place that will go with us into our next place of life.  This is exactly what happened to Israel and as we continue our new series through the Book of Judges called Going It Alone this morning, I want to look more closely with you at the particular habit the people of Israel put in place.

Let’s start by looking at it in practice and then we’ll step back and get a bit of a behind-the-curtain look.  In Judges 3:7 we see this: “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.  They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth.  Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia.  And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years.”  After some amount of time, the people turned from the ways of the Lord and took up the religious practices of their neighbors.  This would have included wild, drunken parties, visits with “sacred” temple prostitutes, various blood rituals, along with more mundane practices like offering sacrifices to the various locally worshiped gods and goddesses.  They insisted on going it alone and so the Lord let them.

At some point in this foray into what they thought was independence, a foreign king attacked.  He is identified here as Cushan-rishathaim, the king of Mesopotamia.  Now, historians and archaeologists don’t know exactly who this is.  But from an analysis of his name and title, this probably was not some local warlord as will be the case later on in Judges.  This was an emperor reigning over a vast swath of territory that includes parts of what is now Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel—or in other words, most of the Middle East.  Now, how does a fledgling nation whose identity is still more tribal than national stand up to a power such as this?  Absent a powerful benefactor (like, say, God) they don’t.  Cushan-rishathaim conquered the land and made Israel a vassal state.  They were once again in the place they had left—owned by another more powerful nation.  What could they do but what their ancestors had done.

Verse 9: “But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.  The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel.  He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand.  And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim.  So the land had rest forty years.  Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died.”

The people cried out to the Lord and in contrast to what they deserved for leaving Him behind to go it alone, He came to their aid.  He empowered Othniel, the younger brother of Caleb, one of the two faithful spies Moses had originally sent into the land more than a generation before.  In other words, Othniel was one of the last of the generation who knew and served the Lord because they had seen what He had done for Israel.  It’s like God knew this was going to happen and had one more member of that faithful generation on reserve to lead the people back to Him when the time came.  Unwilling to give up on the people who had given up on Him because of His great love for them, God came to their rescue when they realized that going it alone was no way to go, and things were good again.  The people…settled again.

But you see, that was the problem wasn’t it?  That was the catalyst for the habit.  Indeed, look at v. 12: “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord.  He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amalekites, and went and defeated Israel.  And they took possession of the city of palms [that is, Jericho].  And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.”

Here we are again.  They tried to go it alone again.  They got settled, decided they didn’t really need God, and off they went.  And so in the course of history when another foreign ruler—this time it was a local warlord—came to power and decided to expand his territory into what these foreign invaders (Israel) had taken from his ancestors, there was again no one to help them.  What’s more, there were no more connections to the faithful past living among the people.

But God’s love just doesn’t quit.  And so when the people cried out again, “the Lord raised up for them a deliverer.”  This time his name was Ehud.  Ehud had none of the character or faithfulness of Othniel.  Those kinds of individuals were in short supply now.  He may have been chosen because he was just the kind of person nobody would expect God to pick.  He’s described as left-handed—which I appreciate—except for the fact that this probably meant he had lost the use of his right arm somehow.  This is particularly ironic given that his tribe, Benjamin, literally means “son of the right hand.”  He was a reject in every sense.  In other words, He was exactly the kind of person God usually chooses for something like this.  God used a crippled reject to take down the king of Moab.  And take him down he did.  The rest of his story is full of intrigue and deception and gore and humor—it’s like a Hollywood blockbuster.  You should all go home and read it and marvel that something like this is in the Bible (you’ll actually do that a lot in this series!).  Now, his deceptive methods probably weren’t what God would have preferred.  And while we don’t know anything about his leadership tenure other than that it was one of the longest of any of the judges, there’s a fair chance it wasn’t marked by anything like the spiritual revival that the people needed.  But, sometimes God gives us leaders who merely reflect our current state rather than calling us forward to a better one.  We’ll see this a lot over the next few weeks.  We see it rather clearly in that the next judge, Shamgar, whose name suggests he wasn’t even an Israelite, delivered them from the Philistines through the rather violent means of slaughtering 600 of them with an oxgoad.

So what is all this other than a fun set of stories that are hard to believe they are all found in the Bible?  This is the start of that pattern, that habit, that I’ve been telling you about.  It’s the pattern I outlined briefly for you last week: the people go it alone, they experience the consequences of this, God rescues them when they finally cry out to Him, and they go it alone again.  Over and over and over again this cycle repeats itself with the people falling a little further away each time.  The quality and character of the leaders God raises up to rescue them deteriorates at about the same pace.  As a result, each time they return they don’t come back quite as much as they did before until finally everybody is just doing whatever they want.  The nation is gripped by chaos.  And where did this chaos come from?  From the pattern.  Until they finally broke the habit, changed the pattern, it wouldn’t matter how much they hated the path they were on, they weren’t going to leave it.

But why?  Why did they fall into this kind of a habit in the first place?  Well, in what comes just before this in the text, we discover it was because they were determined to go it alone.  God was willing to help them and keep holding their hand if they were willing to receive it, but they just weren’t.  They set in place a pattern of disobedience, and like we saw last week, it had consequences.  And one of the consequences was that God let them go when they went.  He quit offering unsolicited help.  He left them on their own surrounded by the Canaanites they didn’t drive out in order to test their faithfulness to Him.  And because of their intention to go it alone they failed again and again.

Check this all out starting back in 2:16: “Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.  Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them.  They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so.  Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge.  For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.  But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them.  They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.  So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he said, ‘Because this people has transgressed my covenant that I commanded their fathers and have not obeyed my voice, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died, in order to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the Lord as their fathers did, or not.’”

The people of Israel established a habit of disobedience that led to nowhere but trouble.  My question for you in all of this is simple: what kind of patterns and habits are you setting in place in your own life?  Are you setting in place habits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?  Or are you setting in place habits that are more reflective of the works of the flesh—sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of rage, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, and things like these?  Now, we talk about these being character traits both positive and negative, but all a character trait is is a habit we’ve developed in our interactions with the world around us.  Responding with joy is a habit we develop.  Something bad happens and by spiritual muscle memory we smile, thinking about our security in God’s hands and rest in the lightness and sweetness of His kingdom.  Being patient is a habit.  Schedules or circumstances spin out of our control and into the hands of someone else and because we always do it, we enter a place of calmness and turn our thoughts toward the Lord.  Practicing self-control is a habit.  When we are presented with temptations of excess or indulge we instinctively say no.  At the same time, though, sexual immorality can be a habit—the highly addictive nature of pornography, for example, is well-documented.  Jealousy is a habit.  Someone gains something we don’t have and we automatically hate them for it and secretly want them to fail.  Envy is habitual.  When we see the blessings of others we desire them because that’s what we always do.  Inappropriate anger is a habit.  Whenever things don’t go our way our well-practiced instinct is to let rage bubble to the surface.  All habits.  Some habits that lead to pain and suffering.  Some habits that lead to righteousness and life.  Israel was in the grip of a habit that was leading them on a path of death.  Whether you realize it or not, you too are in the grip of a set of habits.  On what kind of path are they leading you?  My advice: take control of your habits and set habits of righteousness.  Establish a habit of righteousness.

Okay, but what does this actually look like?  I mean we can point to specific character traits, but while that’s good, it tends toward the abstract more so than something we can really get our minds around.  So how about this: Israel’s bad habit was wrapped up in how much they were willing to accommodate to their cultural environment.  God had told them way back in Deuteronomy not to mingle with the Canaanites and establish familial relationships and treaties because they would be led astray and that’s exactly what happened.  That’s natural.  We tend to look to minimize differences with family members so as to avoid conflicts even when those differences are large and significant.  When we have an emotional attachment to someone we find ways to either justify away or even take on ourselves behaviors or beliefs that are out of sync with what we have long been taught to believe is true.  Similarly, when we are in the minority when it comes to what we believe there is a natural tendency to move toward the majority—whether that is a majority of numbers or simply volume.

How all of this plays out is that, like Israel, the church today is faced with a very great temptation to accommodate with our culture which—and I think we can all agree on this—is moving with increasing urgency in a direction rather directly opposed to where the Scriptures would point us.  So then, which kind of pattern are we going to set both as a church and as individuals: standing apart and keeping God’s ways or going along with the cultural stream?  Accommodating—adjusting our beliefs to the things the culture declares to be right and true and using twisted interpretations of Scriptures to try and justify such adjustments away from historical orthodoxy—will always be celebrated by the broader culture.  Just look at the ways churches which come out publicly in favor of whatever the latest thing the culture has declared to be right and true are celebrated.  Those churches are hailed as courageous in standing against the flow of the others.  They’re heralded as bold and fresh and modern.  Their pastors get invited to appear on talk shows and even to the White House on occasion.  The problem is: accommodating is a pathway of diminishing returns.  The more we give in, the more we will be expected to give in.  Once we start going with our culture and letting it be our guide it will naturally expect us to keep up—even if only on the margins—all the way to the bottom.  The fact is, Scripture and life very often seem to diverge ahead of us.  If we set in place a habit of going with life at these forks, like Israel found, we will gradually be led away from following after the ways of God.  That path doesn’t end well.  Instead, we need to establish a habit of righteousness.

That’s the alternative here.  We stand apart and keep God’s ways.  Now, let me unpack that idea a bit because it could very easily be understood to mean something other than what I’m trying to say.  Standing apart doesn’t mean being stand-offish.  It doesn’t mean being a Jack Nicholson-type character from As Good As It Gets.  Oh sure, it can come off that way.  You remember the kids in school who stood out but in such a way that nobody liked them.  They were two or three levels of maturity below the rest of their classmates or they decided that the best way to get the attention they desired was to either stay in trouble or just irritate other kids all the time or they took up a hobby that people didn’t understand and they weren’t very kind in their ignorance or what have you.  You’ve heard about churches that everybody knew about but nobody really liked.  Take Westboro Baptist Church as exhibit A.  That’s how not to do this.  That not establishing a habit of righteousness, it’s establishing a habit of being a pain-in-the-neck.  God never called us to that.

Establishing a habit of righteousness looks different.  Just like there were those different kids that nobody liked, there were also some kids who were different but in such a way that everybody liked them.  Not just their circle of friends.  Everybody.  What’s more, they seemed to like everybody else too.  They were always kind, but never patronizing.  They were inclusive and contagiously so—they included people from different social groups that wouldn’t normal cross paths and they found themselves suddenly wanting to broaden their borders to include these different folks.  Everywhere these kids went the situation they walked into was automatically improved.  Their being different served to draw others to them.  I had a friend like this in high school named Joshua Walsh.  He was a senior when I was a freshman.  Joshua was an odd guy.  He had a pet rubber chicken named Carmelito that went with him everywhere.  On his last day of school he stood up on the table at lunch and sang Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to everybody.  He organized a band nerd revolt by getting all of us to rush to the front hall where all the “cool” people hung out after class one day thereby beating them there just to show that band nerds could be cool too.  He was weird.  And everybody liked him.  He was a mentor to me and I spent the rest of my time in high school trying to be just like him.  This is what it looks like when we as a church and when we as individuals establish a habit of godly righteousness.  We don’t look like the world around us at all.  We look better.  We look better because we’ve established better habits.  We don’t divide, we unite.  We don’t rush to judgment, we reflect deep and wide on issues before pronouncing them settled.  We don’t exclude, we include.  Yet we’re not wishy-washy, we know exactly what we believe and have great confidence in that.  We’ve established firm habits of justice, of peace, of joyfulness, of mercy, of humility, of gentleness, of love, of holiness…in a word…of righteousness.  Friends: this is a habit worth establishing.  Establish a habit of righteousness.

That’s exactly what Israel didn’t do and they paid for it over and over again.  They walked down a long, hard, and painful path because they didn’t have good habits.  Sure God was merciful and came to their rescue, but how much better to simply walk with Him in the first place?  Now, will the culture around us receive these habits of righteousness well?  No, it won’t.  And that’s made clear pretty much from start to finish in the Scriptures.  The world never treats God’s people well.  But that’s okay, because God does and He’s bigger.  If He came to the rescue of a people who were running from Him, how much faster do you think He’ll come to the aid of those who are running after Him?  Establish a habit of righteousness.  Walk in the pathway of Christ.  That road will always lead to life.