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When God is not King

Sermon passage: (Judges 19:1-15) Spoken on: August 24, 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, 士师记

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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 19:1-15

"Three rabbis are having a discussion on a particular difficult moral conundrum. Rabbi #1 is taking a contrary position to Rabbis #2 and #3. Rabbi #1 is pretty sure he's right, but he seems unable to overcome the stubbornness of his two otherwise esteemed colleagues. So he turns to God. "God, it's a beautiful sunny day. Please let clouds form so that they can see that I am right." Suddenly clouds form out of the clear blue sky. But the other Rabbis are unimpressed. After all, clouds can form for all kinds of reasons. There's no reason to suppose that God is involved. So Rabbi #1 appeals again: "Oh God, let lightning strike that tree to prove that I am right." Sure enough, lightning strikes the tree, but, still, the other Rabbis are unimpressed: "Hey, we have clouds, so why shouldn't we expect lightning?" Finally, the Rabbi makes the Ultimate Appeal: "Oh God, please reveal yourself to us so that they may truly understand that I am right." And God descends from wherever he resides and the other Rabbi's have no doubt whatsoever that this is truly the one and only God. And God says, "He's RIGHT!"
And the other Rabbis look at each other and shout in unison: "Ok, now it's 2 to 2. So what?"

This is a joke that I once shared with the youth in my teachings on God’s laws. It functions as a joke because the punchline has a shock value that God’s voice only counts as 1 vote in an argument. But when you think about it, it isn’t really shocking. We live in a world today where individualism and personal rights are the predominant ideology. We believe that we have a say on what is right and wrong. So even if God were to appear personally and state his will, the response of many is likely to be, “So what, God? That’s just your opinion.” In today’s world, God’s will is merely one of the many considerations in our decision making. And this is the topic that I want to touch on today: the concept of God’s morality and its implication for us.

The situation in our story today is similar. The story begins in chapter 19 and ends in chapter 21 with the same phrase, “In those days, Israel had no king.” The implication is that “Everyone did as he saw fit.” So, it is not so much a matter of these people not being moral or religious. In a way, when we analyze their decision-making process, they were trying to be moral and religious. This was why Micah hired the Levite as his priest for his idols. And this was why the tribe of Dan inquired of God through the same priest before attacking Laish. But the problem is that, they were merely being moral or religious in their own subjective standards. Despite their intentions, their actions eventually had nothing to do with God’s actual wishes. They were their own judge of what is right. They were following their own wishes on how to worship God. Everyone did as he saw fit.

This is ultimately the blatant irony throughout the book of Judges: that despite living in a time of judges, there wasn’t really anyone responsible for discerning what was right and wrong. Everybody judged according to their own eyes. This is the implication from the repeated statement, “In those days, Israel had no king.” On the surface, this seemed to be referring to the lack of a monarchy political system. There was no king to enforce the laws. There was no official authority to work out a legal system to solve all injustices. But if you have been following the story from creation to the exodus to the conquest of Canaan, you will realize that you don’t need a monarchy to have a king: God is the king of Israel who is sovereign over all things. This should be a key concept for all Israelites because this was how God revealed himself to them. God is always in control and he is the implied king of Israel. This is also the message we see in the book of Daniel, after all the kings of Israel and Judah has fallen. Despite the destruction of the monarchy, God is still sovereign over all. God is always king over Israel and beyond. So when we read the statement, “In those days, Israel had no king”, our immediate response should be “What is going on? Why isn’t God the king?”

Today, as we come to the final stretch of the book of Judges, I think it is a fitting conclusion that we end with a story that is described as the most gruesome one in the entire bible. As we follow the story from judge to judge, we observe a downward spiral in terms of the spirituality of the Israelites. In ending with the statement, “In those days, Israel had no king”, it is almost as if it is saying that God is finally gone. And in the absence of God, this is what mankind can become. Take note that when I am referring to the godlessness of the people, I am not referring to the modern atheists. I am not saying that atheists are immoral or their behavior is anything like the horrible details described in the story. In today’s world, atheists, in taking ownership for morality themselves, have proved to be even more moral than many Christians I know. So this is nothing to do with modern atheism or people who believe in other religions. On the other hand, in moving further and further away from God, we do have a historical evidence of a people that eventually resulted in anarchy. Everybody just did whatever they thought was right. They did believe in the existence of God. But the way they exercised their faith was as if they themselves were God. This is true godlessness.

We observe this in our introduction into today’s story. The Levites are supposed to be the chosen spiritual leaders of the Israelites. They are set apart for the holy purpose of mediating between God and fellow Israelites. But there is nothing holy about the Levite we see in today’s story. The marriage to a concubine may suggest he already has another wife. The concubine then betrayed him and went back to her father’s house. The NIV translation is too strong in saying that she is unfaithful. A more unbiased description is that they had a quarrel. Judging from his actions later to win back this woman, we can conclude that he must have done something wrong to upset her. Was he unfaithful with yet another woman? Was he treating her really badly? Personally, I think it is the latter because of what happened later in the story. To say that this guy was a jerk is to put it way too lightly. This guy has serious issues in his perspective of women. Even after she left him, he took four months to think about winning her back. It was as if he expected her to come back by herself. That should be a shock to any marriage counselor.

But the biggest problem here isn’t just the moral laxity of the spiritual leadership as represented by this Levite or the mercenary Levite found in the previous story. The core topic here is the issue of hospitality. In the ancient days, there are 2 ways to check on the moral health of a community. The first is to see how they treat their widows and orphans. This is because in a patriarchal society where only the men can make a living, widows and orphans are the most vulnerable group economically. A moral and just society makes sure that they have a proper system to take care of them. The second is to check on how they treat strangers. This issue is about security. In a time where one’s protection is the community that he belongs to, a traveler in a foreign land is vulnerable to attacks from hostile people and other dangers. They could be robbed by bandits or simply killed because of xenophobic racist sentiments. A moral and just society makes sure that warmth and equal treatment is extended to strangers whenever reasonably possible. In the passage today, we see that the Israelites have failed the second moral check badly.
We know that the issue here is hospitality because the writer has included the Levite’s father-in-law as a foil in telling the story. In a way, the father-in-law’s actions of hospitality are almost exaggerated to the point of being comical to the reader. This is the father of a daughter who has been badly mistreated by her husband. Anybody who is such a jerk to my daughter is going to be thankful just staying alive. Yet, we are told that this father welcomed the Levite gladly and received him for three days. On the morning of the fourth day, he insisted that they eat and drink before leaving. That hospitality is so warm, it became too late to leave and he invited them to stay through the night again. On the morning of the fifth day, he again insisted that they eat and drink before leaving. Again this hospitality is so good, the breakfast lasted until it was almost evening. This guy’s hospitality is so good; he thinks he is opening Hotel California. “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” Once again, the Levite tries to leave but the father-in-law insists that they stay another night. The Levite, imagining the next day will play out the same way, insisted on leaving despite the lateness. This comical situation is the perfect plot device to set up the scenario where we can now examine the hospitality of the Israelites towards a stranger. We have observed what is proper hospitality towards someone you know, though it may have been demonstrated too perfectly. Now is the moment of truth to see if they can practice the same equality for someone they don’t know. The result is total failure. They stopped to spend the night in Gibeah in Benjamin. But as they sat in the city square, “no one took them into his home for the night.” This is especially disappointing because there are clear Israelite laws teaching about the proper treatment of strangers.

Ex 22:21 Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Ex 23:9 Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Lev 19:33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.

Lev19:34 But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

There are many more.

We see that this hospitality is not just a high moral standard. This value is also tied closely with the core identity of the Israelites. They were once strangers in the land of Egypt. They of all people must do this right because they should identify most closely with the insecurities of being a stranger. Yet in the passage today, we see that the Benjamites in Gibeah have failed this test miserably.

What is the conclusion to this? There is something very revealing in the exchange between the servant and the Levite. The servant suggested going to Jebus, the land of the Jebusites to spend the night. The Levite insisted on Gibeah or Ramah, because Jebus is an alien city, whose inhabitants are not Israelites. Underlying this exchange is an important assumption. The Israelite cities are supposed to be different from the Canaanite cities. That is the whole point of God setting up the kingdom of Israel in Canaan. They are supposed to be a beacon of light showing the will of God. The will of God is expressed by the laws that show true justice. But the Benjamites in failing this test of hospitality have done the exact reverse. They show the reality that Israelite cities are now no different from the Canaanite cities. Going to Gibeah is no better than going the Jebus, the land of the Jebusites.

Today, we also live in a time where there is no king. We also thankfully do not live in a theocracy where religion is mixed up in politics. But we don’t need a monarchy to know who is king. And we don’t need legislated laws to express the core of Christian ethics. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, has brought wonderful vision into this issue. Jesus will be the eternal king to all who profess to be his followers. And in the kingdom, it is not the letter of the law that allows us to find legal loopholes. It is the spirit of love and obedience. We mourn and empathize with the marginalized of the society. And we recognize that we are aliens and strangers in this world. That is not a call to become disengaged and always think about heaven. It is a timely reminder to always bring warmth and hospitality to the lonely, the lost and the unloved.

So brothers and sisters, is Jesus your king? Is his will just another opinion, a single vote in an argument? Or do you believe that his laws are an objective standard that will bring about true positive transformation for this world? Let us commit this morning to the vision of God. His will and moral standards to be our will and moral standards.