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To Win the Battle but Lose the War

Sermon passage: (Judges 11:12-28) Spoken on: May 18, 2009
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges

Tags: Judges

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About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Sermon on Judges 11:12-28

In the past week, something quite extraordinary happened. US President Barack Obama conceded a battle yet in doing so, he won a war. This is the time of the year when varsity students from all American universities are graduating. It is important to find a respectable commencement speaker for the occasion and naturally many universities invited the President to speak to them. President Obama accepted 3 invitations at Arizona State University (ASU), Notre Dame and the US Naval Academy. Soon, news began to spread that ASU would not be awarding Obama with an honorary degree, a customary tradition for commencement speakers. This of course stirred up controversy because such a snub of a sitting President was highly unusual. ASU then made matters worse when they stated their reasoning for their decision. According to their spokesperson, “His body of work is yet to come. It’s inappropriate to recognize him at this time.”

This led to a huge uproar among many Americans including many in the ASU community because the reasoning implied that Obama was not worthy enough to be awarded the degree. “His body of work is yet to come” could be interpreted as implying that this man who was President of the Harvard Law Review, then became a Senator and now the first African American President hasn’t achieved enough, a notion that was plainly ludicrous. Because of this, the ASU commencement event became a battle for Obama’s honor. How would Obama respond to this slight on all that he has accomplished so far? How would he defend himself in the fight to be treated with respect? How would he preserve the dignity of the President of the United States? The 60,000 gathered at the Sun Devil stadium and the American public watching the ceremony live on TV waited to hear what this man had to say. I will leave the story in suspense for the moment to contrast it with a historical flashback from the past.

Today’s passage is also about a speech. It is an ancient speech over a territorial dispute. By looking at its content, we can learn a lot about Jephthah's thought process and gain a better understanding of his personality and ideology. The scholarly consensus is that Jephthah’s address is a masterpiece in argumentation. I don’t do this often, but with your kind patience and my unbridled enthusiasm, I would like to go through the speech in detail before stating my conclusions.

Jephthah starts with a message to the Ammonite king which is literally translated as “What is between you and me?” What is [the issue] between you and me? This is a statement that questions their mutual relationship. Jephthah no doubts sees himself as an equal to this Ammonite king. In light of the past 18 years of oppression, this question is also accusatory in tone towards the acts of military aggression against his territory. Jephthah is demanding an explanation, king to king, for the personal infringement of his land. He is saying, “Between you and me, what is this thing that you are doing?”

The Ammonite king’s reply indicates that he understands Jephthah’s underlying question. And his defense is that this land belongs to him. Let us look at the map to see this area of contention. (*point out where is Ammon, the Arnon River, the Jabbok River and the Jordon River.) In a way, he is right because the land of Ammon is an amorphous region without distinct geographic boundaries between the desert to the east and the hills of Gilead in the west. According to him, when the Israelites who came from Egypt occupied this place, they had stolen his land and he now wants it back.

Jephthah’s speech presents 3 arguments. The first is a historical argument. When the Israelites wanted to travel to the land of Canaan from Egypt, they had to travel first through Edom and Moab. Despite their friendly request, they were rejected by the Edomites and the Moabites, and they had to bypass their land. Finally, they come to the land which was occupied by Sihon, king of the Amorites. Sihon and his army fought against the Israelites and lost, and that was how the land was taken. In short, Israel did not take the land from the Ammonites but from the Amorites. The second is a theological argument. All the ancient Near Easterners accepted that each nation had a patron deity whose primary duty was to provide them with their land. The God of Israel had given this land to Israel, while the Ammonites should just stick to what their God had given to them. The third part is a personal argument. When the Israelites took this land from the Amorites, the Moabite king Balak did not dare to fight or quarrel with them. He left them alone for 300 years. The Ammonite kings of the past did the same. Did the current Ammonite king think himself better than them? The implication was no, Jephthah did not think that the current Ammonite king was worthy of taking the land.

If you had the impression that Jephthah was trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute to avoid bloodshed, you are very wrong. In his speech, Jephthah was not trying to prevent a fight by successfully convincing the Ammonite king of his error of land ownership. This is obvious in the Ammonite king’s lack of response. Rather, this was a battle of egos, and Jephthah's speech had two aims: to insult the Ammonite king by showing him to be at fault, and to boost the legitimacy of his own quest against the Ammonites.

My verdict on Jephthah’s speech is that he won the battle but lost the war. In this battle of egos, Jephthah won convincingly. In the historical argument, Jephthah successfully proved that Israel had legitimately occupied the land when they came from Egypt. The land never belonged to the Ammonites in the first place. In the theological argument, since the God of Israel had successfully chased the Amorites out of this land, the Israelites had the right to take what their God had given them. In the personal argument, Jephthah successfully insulted the Ammonite king by comparing him unfavorably with kings of the past who had not tried to occupy the land. The Ammonite king lost his claim in the debate and hence remained speechless after that.

Jephthah may have won the battle, but he also lost the war. There are two key factors here we have to understand: firstly, what this war is about and secondly, what is Jephthah’s underlying message. What is this war about? This war began because of the unfaithfulness of the Israelites. It is God himself who sold them into the hands of the Ammonites. God in doing this is demonstrating a very important principle: Who does the land belong to? The answer is God. So Jephthah in his battle of words with the Ammonite king has missed out the person he must truly face: God who is ultimately responsible for their current plight and not the Ammonites. Secondly, Jephthah betrays his underlying message that the land now belongs to him. He tells the Ammonite king, “I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me.” This I think is the clearest indicator that Jephthah missed the plot. The issue is between God and the Israelites, not between Jephthah and the Ammonite king. Though God has given the land to the Israelites, he maintains control of the land. God alone decides who stays in it. God owns the land, not Jephthah. And so while Jephthah may have won the battle against the Ammonite king, he has lost the war due to his failure to use his leadership to bring about true reconciliation with God. His pride has blinded him from seeing the big picture. He is too eager to prove his new found status as the Israelite leader. He is daring the Ammonite king to knock the chip off his shoulder. In trying to prove himself better than the Ammonite king, he has shown himself as clueless that it is God that is the one he must engage.

Furthermore, he foolishly thinks that the territorial dispute is an argument about whether the land belongs to the Israelite God or the Ammonite god. But the reality is that Yahweh alone determines the boundaries of every nation. Deuteronomy 32:8 states, “When the most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the people according to the number of the sons of Israel.” Jephthah may have won the battle of egos against the Ammonite king but he lost the war when he thought the issue was all about him.

Similarly, Obama had to fight a battle for his honor. He has been denied a customary honorary degree and belittled by the verdict from the ASU administration that “his body of work is yet to come.” So what did he say in his commencement speech? He said, “In all seriousness, I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. I come to embrace it; to heartily concur; to affirm that one's title, even a title like President, says very little about how well one's life has been led - and that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve. And I want to say to you today, graduates, that despite having achieved a remarkable milestone, one that you and your families are rightfully proud of, you too cannot rest on your laurels. Your body of work is yet to come.”

Obama conceded the battle of his ego by agreeing with the notion that “his body of work is yet to come.” But in doing so, he won the war of winning the hearts of the American students and motivated them to contribute more to society. He said, “that is what building a body of work is all about - it's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up to a lasting legacy. It's about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star - because one thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished. It's cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, and give back, and contribute to the life of this nation. You may have set-backs, and you may have failures, but you're not done - not by a longshot.” In his speech, Obama conceded the battle but won the war. In being willing to humble himself, he spurred the listeners towards the greater good and to never give up. What a difference of vision between Obama and Jephthah. History will decide who will leave a more lasting legacy.

Brothers and sisters, this morning is a lesson on discourse. Words can be very powerful because they convey ideas, stir up passion and expose your being. In articulating your faith, be mindful of your objectives because that alone decides your approach. My fear is that sometimes when we are so caught up in the short-term battles, we lose sight of the goal of the long-term war. However, we cannot have the foresight to see far ahead without the vision of what we want the future to be. That vision is encapsulated in the knowledge of who we are now. Do you know who you are? We see clearly this morning the characters of Jephthah and Obama determined their concerns and that in turn was manifested in their decisions on what to say. One coveted the temporal pleasures of winning the battle of oneupmanship. The other set his prize as having the ultimate victory in the entire war. Their speeches could not be more different.

I wish to share some advice on how we can avoid winning the battle but losing the war in our communication of our Christian beliefs. The key lies in knowing who we are and who we serve. The Christian is one who is humble and meek. He does not need to prove himself to protect his ego because his worth is already assured as a child of God. Therefore the Christian has the generosity not to retaliate in shouting contests, and even has the magnanimity to respect and praise his enemies. The Christian must be willing to listen to criticisms and acknowledge that we have something to learn from them. My experience is that it is only when you show that you understand what they are saying, then they will start to listen to what you have to say. The Christian is also one who serves Christ. Jesus achieved his mission not with power or authority, but with love and sacrifice. This is our final objective, the thing we must never lose, certainly not for the sake of winning a short-term battle of words. Jesus is here to transform the world, and we serve this cause by letting people experience the kingdom of God. We are working towards a community of sharing and giving.

I have been engaging myself in this discourse for the last few years. I put myself through the rigors of understanding the scientific evidences of evolution. The body of knowledge is bigger than you think. I study the merits of sex education and how that actually leads to less abortions than an abstinence-only program. The complexity of the issue is bigger than you think. I read the testimonies of what homosexuals actually want. The reality of their world is bigger than you think. I learn the common objections that atheists have against Christianity, not to dispute them, but to help me present my views more clearly the next time. Their persuasive ability is bigger than you think. At the end of the day, I believe I have not won the battle only to lose the war when people say “Thank you for being Christlike instead of being a Christian.” It is sad because Christians in the west have been stereotyped as unscientific, anti-intellectualism, naive and discriminatory. These fundamentalists have won the battles for the past 8 years with activism and the spread of fear and ignorance. But they have lost the war in showing the beauty of Christianity. The cultural war has not fully come to Singapore, and I pray it never will. But if it does come to the time of discourse, I hope you present the Christianity of faith, hope and love. Faith that scientific truths is complementary with biblical truth, hope that humanity always chooses to cherish life, and love that brings out the God that died for sinners.