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The Art of Intermission

Sermon passage: (Judges 12:8-15, Judges 10:1-5) Spoken on: June 8, 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 the Minor Judges 10:1-5; 12:8-15

The sermon series on Judges this year is proving to be very challenging for the speakers. There are moral ambiguities to grapple with and theological conundrums to solve. But the toughest one for me so far has to be today’s passage. The topic is on the art of intermission. Specifically, we are talking about narrative intermissions, breaks intentionally crafted into the sequential storytelling of the judges. To deliver a convincing message, I did a serious personal research into the subject matter of intermissions. I took frequent breaks preparing this sermon, coffee breaks, toilet breaks and tea breaks. I tried napping every now and then as long as I could squeeze one into my schedule. I am not one to brag, but I included siestas before and after meals in my daily routine to ensure the discipline in my intermissions. I had to painfully hand over my beloved housework to my wife just so I could rest some more at home. It’s for research! Let it be known that I am a person who practices what I preach. I even took a 4-day retreat to Johor Bahru last week just to understand what an extended intermission is like.

I am so dedicated to the task because this is exactly what the minor judges are about: narrative intermissions. I know 5 minutes into the sermon is when daydreaming begins, so with your permission, I would like to include two mental images to help us understand the concept better. The first imagery is that narrative intermissions are like staircase landings. A landing is a small platform that is built as part of the stairs between main floor levels. I googled long and hard for this technical term and then my wife tells me she knew it all along. A landing is typically used to allow stairs to change directions, or to allow the user a rest. There is another important purpose for building a landing. Building codes state that a flight of stairs shall not have a vertical rise greater than 12 feet (3658 mm) between floor levels or landings. So it is common to see landings between a long flight of stairs. Why? This is to reduce injury in the case of a fall and to make the stairs less intimidating. The landing is an important break before the person walking up or down the stairs continues on. Naturally, if the person is tumbling down, then the landing could be a life-saver.

The minor judges perform the same function here. So far, it is obvious that the topics in Judges are rather heavy going, like after a heavy Mexican meal of chili and beans. We were talking about war, oppression, power struggle, emotional baggage and last week, child sacrifice. Some church members have reflected to me that this sermon series on Judges has been rather gloomy. So I apologized and said that the knock-knock jokes only come later in the book. I do recognize that the issues like revenge and fear are rather dark. But thankfully, the writer of Judges has given us a break in the form of narrative intermissions with the use of the minor judges. Just like staircase landings, these narrative intermissions placed at the right locations provide an important function of breaking falls and giving a deserved rest. The description of the first minor judge Shamgar is only one short verse, giving a short break after the first two judges Othniel and Ehud. The passage on the next two minor judges Tola and Jair is slightly longer. This intermission happened after another two judges Deborah and Gideon, but more significantly after the tremulous reign of the evil Abimelech and the massacre at Shechem. The last intermission of three minor judges Ibzan, Elon and Abdon happened after the reign of the next judge Jephthah and the massacre of 42,000 Ephramites. It is no coincidence that these two blocks of minor judges were listed after two horrific civil wars. Nothing is more painful than the sight of fellow brothers killing one another. Therefore a rest is needed before the writer moves on to relate another epic tale.

However, let us be mindful that the writer in his brilliant planning of his narrative is also writing history. These intermissions were not just creative literary devices, but also actual moments of respite given by God. The Israelites enjoyed decades of peace under the judges like Othniel, Ehud and Gideon. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that the Israelites really abandoned their attachments to these fertility gods. After the death of these judges, the judgment and punishment of God should be immediate. Yet, we see that after moments of great sorrow, when the oppression comes not from the enemies but from one of their own, Abimelech and Jephthah, God extend his grace for moments of rest. This is the important role played by these minor judges. They give moments of peace just like a staircase landing interrupting a bad fall. The story continues to spiral downwards, but by the grace of God, the Israelites and the readers have a moment to catch their breath. You may think that Jubilee pastors are sinister people digging up all these horrors of humanity in Judges. No, we are not sinister, merely sadistic. But in the spirit of God’s grace, I offer this break also in my sermon today, to collect your thoughts and ready yourself, before we plunge on further in Judges from next week onwards.

The second imagery of narrative intermissions that I want to bring out is that of television advertisements. Television airtime is very expensive and hence advertisers are very cautious with their spending. A well executed commercial will hit the intended demographic group and link the product with the popularity of the TV program. You find toy commercials during cartoons and luxury car commercials during business programs. If you find yourself watching a lot of beer ads, chances are you have been watching too much soccer. Once, I was just thinking how silly an advertisement message was until I realized that advertisement was precisely targeting at me. If you end up with anti-aging cream commercials, celebrities endorsing detergents and other household products, make no mistake. You are watching an auntie program and the auntie is you. My point of this imagery is this: just by studying commercial breaks, I can learn a lot about the nature of the programs it is associated with.

The narrative intermission of the minor judges performs just like commercials in a TV program. They are subtle messages from the writer telling us things to look out for in the reading of the elaborate stories of the major judges. The minor judges are presented in a 1-2-3 manner to tell us two things. Firstly, the judges can be divided into 3 phases, and secondly, there is a downward progression of the quality of the judges from bad to worse. The first minor judge Shamgar is the typical warrior deliverer, like the era of Othniel, Ehud and Barak. But when we move on to next phase Tola and Jair, the nature of their salvation is less clear. Tola still performs some saving, but Jair seems more concerned about his area of influence. This dubious duo is a reflection of the dubious nature of Gideon-Jerub-Baal. The final trio of Ibzan, Elon and Abdon are not even warriors. They sound like tribal chiefs who gained their leadership through diplomacy. The reference of them riding on donkeys is a sign of they and their children living like kings. They become a timely reminder of the natures of Jephthah and Samson. These are self-absorbed individuals who only cared more about personal desires than the Israelites.

Just like good commercials, the details of the minor judges are also good for highlighting hot topics. The awkward agricultural weapon of Shamgar, an oxgoad which is basically a long stick, is contrasted with the assassination weapons of Ehud and Jael. The multiple children of Jair, Ibzan and Abdon related before and after Jephthah is an indictment of his rash act of sacrificing his only daughter. The cursory mention of how Ibzan gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in young women as wives from outside his clan is by no means accidental. Readers will later question the reckless way of how Samsom picks his wives. Finally, the last minor judge Abdon is buried in the hill country of the Amalekites. This is a tremendous irony. Whose land is this? Have the Israelites dropped to such a level of living that they are being absorbed into the people of the land? This hot topic of assimilation would carry on till the end of the book. Like good advertisements, we are sold on the agendas that the writer is trying to bring out in his main program: children, marriage and the issue of land-ownership. The art of narrative intermissions executed well will prepare the readers with a simple compare and contrast between characters.

With these two imageries of stairway landings and advertisements, I hope we have a better understanding of the art of narrative intermissions. The account of the minor judges offers a timely moment of rest after a disturbing scene of internal strife. Acting like trailers they let us reflect beforehand on the issues that we must face in the stories ahead. Today, I do not introduce more applications for you. But I would like this sermon to serve as an intermission. We have been going through many applications in the past sermons. We have looked into how power corrupted Gideon after his success of repelling the enemies. We have seen the dangers of playing politics when the Shechemites tried to double-cross Abimelech. We have explored the minefield of emotional baggage by looking into the troubled childhood of Jephthah. What has been your response? Have you examined the heart of darkness of humanity? Have you readied yourself for the difficulties of religious discourse? Have you practiced restraint in the pursuit of your goals? (*Simultaneous translation with sudden pause*) Has your life even changed one iota? We have been going through half a year of sermons after sermons, applications after applications. It is time to think what has changed. Has anything changed?

This is a pregnant pause. It is an intermission used in speeches to let something sink in. Next week, we are going to move on. But I want to give you a landing to make sure that you gather all that has happened so far. Like a timely commercial, I bring you a message from my sponsor, the word of God. This journey is about being honest with yourself, so that you can be honest with God. Let this time of intermission be a fruitful moment of reflection.