Consider the WaterSermon passage: (Judges 20:18-48) Spoken on: September 21, 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
Sermon on Judges 20:18-48
An American writer once told this story, “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
The point of this story is that the most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Our perspectives are so natural to us that we often fail to notice them. Like water to a fish, you seldom think about it even though you may be immersed in it. We assume our perspectives are true, and we take that for granted. As we go through this sermon series on Judges, we have intentionally looked into some of these realities and reflected on them. These realities include basic human instincts like fear and greed, and also the nature of our relationship with God. For these moments of introspection, I am immensely thankful. Sometimes, we just blindly go about our lives, day in day out. Even coming to church is a routine affair. Taken in this sense, we are really no different from the people living in those times of Judges. We are just doing what we think is right. Like them, it is hard for us to realize the water we are swimming in. But this awareness of the water is the most fundamental reflection that we must do on a regular basis, and it is my topic for today.
In today’s passage, we read about a civil war in Israel. The tribe of Benjamin is fighting against the other 11 tribes. The highlights of the story are two moments of clarity, one for each side of the battle. Each moment describes how they see the water they are swimming in, and realized what is truly going on. I wish to discuss these two moments, and think about their implications for us when we consider our own water.
For the Israelites, their moment of clarity happened when they asked God for the third time, the question: “Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin our brother, or not?” Why do I say that this is a moment of clarity? Let me explain. As Pastor Wilson highlighted last week, the Israelites came out as one man, rose as one man and united as one man. They were a single force of personal justice determined to destroy evil. “What about this awful crime that was committed among you? Now surrender those wicked men of Gibeah so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel.” To them, it was a non-debatable matter as the testimony of the Levite showed them the evil that was committed. No hesitation was needed. It was not a question of why, only a matter of how.
This was clear in their first question to God. “Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites?” The need for a battle was never in doubt. They just wanted God to rubber-stamp their decision by deciding who went first. God played along in deciding that Judah should go first. The reason was most likely because the dead concubine was from Judah, and so Judah had the best reason to start the fight. Anyway, it didn’t really matter. It was 400,000 against 26,000. The victory was confirmed no matter who went first. And things certainly seemed that way until they shockingly lost in the first battle. 22,000 Israelites were killed with no casualties reported for the Benjamites.
Shaken by their unexpected defeat, the Israelites seemed to have grasped the reality of what they were doing. Weeping, they asked God “shall we go up again to battle against the Benjamites, our brothers?” This attitude was a marked improvement because they now acknowledged the Benjamites as their brothers. But we should not mistake their question to God as genuinely asking for a yes or no. We know that they had made up their minds before asking God as they had already taken up their battle positions. God continued to play along and this led to their second defeat with 18,000 casualties.
This is why we see the two words “or not” in their third question “Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin our brother, or not?” as truly significant. These words mean that that they are equally willing to stop this fight if it is not the will of God. It is no coincidence that before approaching God again, they offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings (also known as peace offerings) instead of taking up their battle positions. After two heavy defeats, they had come to understand that all their previous assumptions of the righteousness of their cause were misplaced. There are 3 reasons for the offerings. One, they have finally come to realize that their covenant relationship with God was in doubt. Why else would God send them into defeat the previous 2 times? Secondly, this broken relationship has to do with God’s anger at their decision to attack their own brother. This was why they needed offerings to make peace with God for their actions, and to absolve their sins of breaking peace with the Benjamites, their brothers. Thirdly, they have finally realized that the wickedness of the Gibeah was not just a Benjamite issue, but an issue with the whole of Israel. These offerings were crucial in acknowledging their own guilt as part of the community that let such evil happen.
This is the real moment of clarity. In their rage against the Benjamites as an agent of justice, they perceived their own innocence as an authority in judging their own brother. Never once did they question their own role in the entire tragedy or their prudence in attacking their own brother in this manner. They were doing as they saw fit. After two defeats, they finally recognized the water they were swimming in. They finally realized that they were attacking one of their own brothers, with whom they shared equal responsibility as a community for the death of the concubine. The offerings and the serious doubt of whether to continue the mission was a fitting response to their realization of what they were doing. The reality had been totally lost on them until that point.
Today, I wish that we also consider the water more often. It is no coincidence that Christians are often perceived as self-righteous. The reason is that our natural response to something we see as wrong is a quick judgment and a strong action to put things right. This is especially harsh if we perceive that we have strength in numbers or in moral superiority. And yet we often wonder why we fail to get people to see their folly and repent accordingly. Haven’t we received our answer from God to “go up against them?” Why did we fail? Now, I do not disagree that we are often correct in spotting a sin. But in charging in to cast out the evil, have you considered the water? The reality is that you might be destroying your brother when you are aiming for the sin. In doing that, I ask 3 questions related to the offerings of the Israelites. What is your relationship with God? Is it broken when you are vengeful against your own brother? And how much you do share in your brother’s sin? Perhaps you need to do your own offerings before charging against your brother.
Matthew 7: 1"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
In Jesus’ teaching, it is not saying that we cannot judge. But we must do that having first considered the water. Search yourself first and check your presuppositions. In the end you may still have to confront your brother in sin, just as God sent the Israelites into victory the third time. But this time, you have taken the plank out of your eye, and see clearly what you are doing. You are still doing the same action to remove the speck, but I think being mindful of the entire picture will make the results different. In the end, the Israelites almost destroyed the entire tribe of Benjamin. But in the way they later mourned their loss and tried to make amends so that the tribe survives, I believe this earlier moment of clarity had a lot to do with it. In considering the water, I believe our results in reconciling a sinful brother will also be similar.
The other moment of clarity in today’s passage comes from the Benjamites. This moment of clarity is described twice in the story because the narrator was playing up the tragic point of the story. In verse 34 “The fighting was so heavy that the Benjamites did not realize how near disaster was.” 36 “Then the Benjamites saw that they were beaten” And then again in verse 41 “Then the men of Israel turned on them, and the men of Benjamin were terrified, because they realize that disaster had come upon them.” The narrator skillfully captured this transitive moment of ignorance to horrid realization of the Benjamites twice. The moment of clarity for the Benjamites is especially impactful to us because we the readers have already been told by the narrator the inevitability of defeat of the Benjamites.
The pain has always been that we know about their inevitable death. When God promised victory to the Israelites “Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands”, we know. When the narrator describes how the Israelites set up the ambush, and how the initial casualties successfully lured out the Benjamites, we know. When the Benjamites were oblivious to the danger, and saying “we are defeating them as before”, we know. And so when the moment comes, and the Benjamites finally came to the sickening realization that they were going to die, it hits us hard because we share in their moment of horror. That was the moment the Benjamites saw the water they were swimming in. They saw at that moment the reality that we know all along: that they were all going to die.
Let us imagine what it is like to be a Benjamite then, especially the 700 who were left-handed and could sling a stone perfectly. You can kill any enemy in a distance. And even if one manages to get close to you, they are killed instantly because they did not expect the strike from the left hand. Whether near or far, no enemy survives. Basically, you feel invincible and can overcome anything by your skill. When the other tribes threatened and are making demands, you feel bound to defend your honor. What an insult this is! I can handle my own affairs. Nobody can force me to do anything, and anyone who tries can die trying. What is this? 20 against one? My grandma can do better. 22,000 dead in the first battle. Now you know my strength. 18,000 dead in the second battle. Now you know my power.
In the third battle, look, they are running away so early. We are defeating them as before. We are defeating them as in the first battle. We are... wait a minute, we are surrounded. And our base the city Gibeah has burnt up in smoke. This is not possible. I am going to lose. I am going to die. How is this possible? I am invincible. I never expected to die. Except, it is not so unexpected, is it? We the readers know and see the water that they were swimming in. The reality of the inevitable death has always been there but they have never realized it until that moment. And we can really sense their terror when they come face to face with that reality for the first time. That day the tribe of Benjamin was wiped out except for 600 men.
The reality of inevitable death is also true for us. No one lives forever. No one knows for sure what may befall us the next day. But we often swim in this water without realizing it because we feel like we can live forever. Today, in considering this water, I am not getting all of us to be morbid or paranoid. But knowing that our life on earth does not go on forever does let us put many things into perspective. We can be less foolhardy about being right all the time in conflicts. We can be less cocksure in thinking that we can overcome anybody who disagrees with us. We can also be less hotheaded in defending every cause. In a world which trumpets might makes right, the reality of inevitable death reminds us, that we are not so mighty after all.
The reality of our wrongfully perceived righteousness and the reality of our inevitable death are only two of the many perspectives that we live with everyday. We can continue our lives day in day out, oblivious to these perspectives that we take for granted. But in reminding ourselves to consider the water, I hope we can look into our assumptions more often. In living our lives more mindful of why we do what we do, I hope we can free ourselves from always doing what we see fit. We also remember the water that is the reality of God, and we can live according to his will.