However You Want It

This past Sunday we continued in our series, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm. In this fourth part we looked at a story that’s hard, not because of something God does, but because of how utterly depraved we are. What do we do with a disturbing story that ends in a hopeless place like this? Keep reading to find out.

However You Want It

Film makers are creative folks.  They are artists.  Some of them cross the line over into being artistes.  Usually those are the ones who give us films that nobody goes to see unless they consider themselves fellow artistes.  The rest of us just like movies.  But, because they are generally artists, they are creative.  They don’t like making the same movie over and over and over again if they can help it.  But, when the culture likes a certain type of movie—superhero movies at the moment—they have to make the films that will attract the dollars that will allow them to make more movies.  Occasionally though, someone will get an idea that goes well outside the box of the norm while still within the general parameters of what people will pay to see. 

This has happened recently with a movie called Brightburn.  By a quick show of hands, who plans to see this movie, but hasn’t yet?  Okay, I just wanted to be sure because I’m about to spoil the plot for you.  You’re welcome.  Brightburn, the latest offering from James Gunn, the writer/director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, opens the door on what I suspect will be an entirely new genre of superhero movie: superhero horror movies.  In this case, what Brightburn offers is a take on the superhero origin story.  A young couple wants to have a baby, sees a mysterious spaceship crash in a nearby field, finds a baby inside, and begins to raise the boy as their own son, keeping his interstellar origins a secret.  Sounds familiar?  That’s Superman’s origin story.  But this time, instead of the child growing honest and true and with a natural sense of caring about others, the story takes a much darker turn.  As his powers begin to develop and grow the boy turns out to be a sociopath who uses them, first to torment, and then to murder anyone who crosses his path including, ultimately, his own parents.  The movie ends with a news report of a superpowered young boy going on killing sprees across major world cities.  

There’s no happy ending here.  The film takes the normal storytelling sequence of hopelessness to hope and turns it on its head.  It begins with hope—a young couple unexpectedly adopting a child when they were desperate to, but unable, to have one on their own—and ends in a place that is utterly hopeless—a superpowered sociopath going on a killing spree that no one can stop.  I’ve got to be honest: I’ve followed the recent development and path of this movie because I’m a comics nerd.  There haven’t been too many films in the genre I haven’t at least wanted to see.  I don’t want to see Brightburn.  There’s just something about a film that is utterly hopeless in its tone and outlook that repels me.  Critical acclaim aside, given its weak box office returns, I don’t think I’m alone in this either.  We have a natural longing for hope.  It’s inherent to our creation.  Nearly all of our stories close with a note of some kind of hope.  Even when they don’t—like Avengers: Infinity War—the most successful ones only work because the audience knows there is hope on the horizon.  We don’t know what to do with a story that is just hopeless.  Those are hard stories. 

Well, as it just so happens, we are in a season of hard stories.  This morning we are in part four of our series, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm.  The whole idea of this series has been that there are some stories in the Bible that are hard to the point of being uncomfortable.  We don’t know what to do with them.  So far in this series, we have looked at stories that are hard because God has done or commanded something that seemed jarringly out of sorts with what we understood of His character.  These have included God’s commanding Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering, the Flood, and the shocking deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu when they offered “unauthorized fire” to Him before the people.  The reason these kinds of stories are in the Bible, the reason they are worth examining in the first place is that they teach us lessons in a context that is primed for maximum impact. 

This morning we are going to look at a story that is hard in another way.  Our story this morning is hard, not because of anything God does, but because of what the people in it do.  The story we are going to look at this morning is one of the most graphic, uncomfortable stories in the whole of the Scriptures.  I remember watching a movie one time that was about a group of people fighting an attempt to ban some library books.  One of the arguments a woman on the anti-banning side made was that the library was keeping on its shelves a book that included a sequence of rape, murder, dismemberment, attempted sodomy, and the like.  When the pro-banning side demanded to know what this book was, she told them it was the Bible.  She was talking about this story.  It starts out bad, gets worse, gets even worse, and then ends, like Brightburn does, on a note of utter hopelessness.  Do I have you all ready to hear it? 

You can find this story in an ancient document that details the history of the people of Israel from just after they got all settled in the Promised Land to just before the era of the monarchy began.  The people were led by a series of men and women called judges during this season and their title gives the document the name by which we know it.  Our story actually occupies the entire last quarter of Judges.  Judges is probably the darkest book in the entire Bible.  It answers the question: What happens when people live however they please?  As it does, it follows a downwardly spiraling, repeating pattern: The people of Israel turn from God; they get conquered by a neighboring nation; the people cry out to God for relief and rescue; God sends a leader to do just that; the people remain faithful during the lifetime of the leader, but eventually turn away from God again, starting the pattern from the beginning.  And each time they start over, they are in a worse place than when they started.  By the time our story begins they are in a dark place indeed.  What I’d like to do is to just tell you this story this morning and then we’ll talk about what on earth we are supposed to do with it. 

Our story picks up in Judges 17 just after the death of Samson.  It starts like this: “There was a man from the hill country of Ephraim named Micah.  He said to his mother, ‘The 1,100 pieces of silver taken from you, and that I heard you place a curse on—here’s the silver; I took it.’  Then his mother said, ‘My son, may you be blessed by the Lord!’” 

Got all that?  Our story begins with a guy named Micah who has stolen a huge sum of silver from his own mother, and only confesses it when she has spoken a curse on whomever had taken it.  The mom here speaks the Lord’s blessing on her son, not because she wasn’t upset he stole the money from her, but because while she may have been furious with him, she didn’t want him to fall victim to her curse. 

In what follows, she takes the additional step of consecrating the silver to the Lord on her son’s behalf.  And if things seemed a little off in that first sequence, here is where the cracks really begin to show.  The mom dedicates the silver to the Lord and then promptly gives some of it to a silversmith to make an idol out of it to represent the Lord in her son’s house (where she probably lived).  So, she gave it to God, but then used it to make an idol which was something God was incredibly explicit about the people not doing.  You see, at this point in Israel’s history, the people were essentially pursuing the choose-your-own-adventure religion of their pagan neighbors.  They went with what worked, not with what was right.  Or perhaps to put that another way: They determined what was right by what worked.  You worshiped and honored gods based on which part of the natural world they controlled.  In other words, things weren’t okay in the nation of Israel. 

Well, from here, things just get weird.  Micah basically uses this idol to construct his own religion.  When a young Levite priest from Bethlehem (yes, that Bethlehem) wanders by his house, he hires him to be his own personal priest.  The Levite quickly reveals the nation’s training system for priests is completely broken by accepting the offer.  The scene closes with Micah feeling confident in the Lord’s blessing because he has a Levite as his priest.  In his own personal religion. 

Meanwhile, the tribe of Dan had never really taken the steps necessary to get settled in their new home.  There was no national leader—a king—and so each tribe was still essentially fending for themselves.  Dan hadn’t done this very well.  So, they send some scouts out to search for a new home.  Along the way, they run into this young Levite who was serving as Micah’s personal priest.  From his accent they recognize him as from the same region they were from, and stop to talk.  The conversation ends in Judges 18:5 like this: “Then they said to him, ‘Please inquire of God for us to determine if we will have a successful journey.’”  Without bothering to actually consult the Lord, the Levite assures them of His blessing and they go on their way. 

The scouts soon find the city of Laish and decide it would be a great home.  So, they go back to round up the troops to go and kill everyone in the city and make it their new home.  Sounds like a great plan, right?  On their way back through the region where the original scouts encountered Micah’s young Levite, the group stops and essentially kidnaps him along with the idol and the shrine elements Micah had created, to be their priest instead of his.  Micah tries to protest, but it doesn’t really work out.  Look at v. 22: “After they were some distance from Micah’s house, the men who were in the houses near it were mustered and caught up with the Danites.  They called to the Danites, who turned to face them, and said to Micah, ‘What’s the matter with you that you mustered the men?’  He said, ‘You took the gods I had made and the priest, and went away.  What do I have left?  How can you say to me, “What’s the matter with you?”’  The Danites said to him, ‘Don’t raise your voice against us, or angry men will attack you, and you and your family will lose your lives.’  The Danites went on their way, and Micah turned to go back home, because he saw that they were stronger than he was.” 

The Danites go on their way, slaughter the population of Laish, and burn the city to the ground.  They then rebuild their own city in its place and install the Levite—whose name turns out to be Jonathan, because this is apparently a family story of mine—with his idol as their priest.  He and his family would serve there for generations to come; a permanent idolatrous fixture in the nation. 

That brings us to chapter 19 where things get even worse.  This part of the story starts in the same region—the remote hills of Ephraim—where we began the last part of the story.  And it begins with a Levite priest who is connected to Bethlehem (still that Bethlehem).   This Levite has acquired a slave girl whom he has elevated to the status of a second (or third or fourth) wife.  Their situation wasn’t ideal and the problems you might expect from such an arrangement soon reared their head.  Judges 19:2 either says that she was unfaithful to him or else got angry with him.  The Hebrew isn’t totally clear, but whatever exactly happened between the two, the result was that she left him for her father’s house.  After a time, the Levite went to get her.  Can you imagine how awkward that meeting was?  Her father seems to have a good relationship with the Levite, but for the sake of his daughter tries to keep him at his home for as long as possible.  Eventually, the man announces they are leaving to go home.  This is where the wheels fall off the whole thing. 

The Levite leaves with his party fairly late in the day and they can’t travel very far.  They get as far as Jebus, the capital of the Jebusites which David would later conquer and change its name to Jerusalem, and the Levite’s servant begs his master to stay there for the evening.  He responds in 19:12: “We will not stop at a foreign city where there are no Israelites.  Let’s move on to [the Benjaminite town of] Gibeah.  Come on…let’s try to reach one of these places and spend the night in Gibeah or Ramah.”  In other words, he arrogantly judges the non-Israelites and refuses to even chance their hospitality in favor of what he assumes will be the guaranteed hospitality of his own countrymen.  His assumption quickly proves false. 

The men of Gibeah ignore the little party waiting in the city square for someone, anyone, to invite them into his home for the evening which was a basic hospitality expectation in that day.  They wait in vain.  Finally, an old drifter who was originally from the same region as the Levite comes into the square, notices his troupe, and says, “Where are you going, and where do you come from?”  At this point, the Levite’s frustration is apparent.  Verse 18: “He answered him, ‘We’re traveling from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote hill country of Ephraim, where I am from.  I went to Bethlehem in Judah, and now I’m going to the house of the Lord.  No one has taken me into his home, although there’s straw and feed for the donkeys, and I have bread and wine for me, my concubine, and the servant with us.  There is nothing we lack.’”  Can you hear his mood?  We’re from out of town.  I’m just going home.  I’m a priest, for goodness’ sake.  We’re not going to be any kind of a burden on anyone’s pocketbook for our stay.  And not a single person has extended to me the basic hospitality of offering us a place to stay. 

Now, the next sequence of things happens really quickly and is graphic enough that I don’t want to linger too long on it.  Let’s just hit the high points.  While the Levite and his party are at the home of his host—verse 19:22 now—“While they were enjoying themselves, all of a sudden, wicked men of the city surrounded the house and beat on the door.  They said to the old man who was the owner of the house, ‘Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him!’”  This demand was more about power and conquest of a foreigner than it was any kind of twisted pleasure, but in this replay of the awful sequence that unfolded with Abraham’s nephew Lot and his angelic visitors the night before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed in Genesis 19, we are faced with just how far off the moral wagon the people of Israel had fallen. 

And if that was the only thing that happened it would be bad enough.  But it’s not.  The mob persists until the host offers to give them his own daughter as a substitute for his guest, which tells us quite a bit by itself.  Finally, though, the Levite opens the door, shoves his concubine into their depraved hands, and quickly slams it shut.  The mob rapes and assaults her all throughout the night.  When morning comes, she has collapsed on the doorstep of the house with her hands reaching up toward the door as if for help.  Her husband goes to leave—apparently without planning to bringing her along—and trips over her lifeless body.  He callously calls her to come on and only then realizes that she has died from the abuse he subjected her to the night before.  He straps her on his donkey, takes her body home, and saws it up into 12 pieces that he sends to each of the tribes of Israel as if to say, “This is how bad things have gotten, folks.” 

The nation assembles, declares war on the tribe of Benjamin, and things continue to fall apart from there.  After two failed attempts, they finally succeed in destroying Gibeah along with the nearly all the rest of the tribe.  When the dust settles and they realize what they’ve done, they’re shocked and brokenhearted.  Not wanting to lose the entire tribe, they start looking for a plan to help them repopulate after the massacre that also allows them to get around the oath they’ve all made to not give their daughters in marriage to anyone from the tribe of Benjamin (which just goes to remind us that making promises while angry is never a good idea).  They finally decide the best plan is for the remaining 600 men of Benjamin to hide out in the woods near an upcoming festival where a whole bunch of young women from a city that didn’t participate in the civil war will be dancing and celebrating the festival.  When the coast looks clear, they’ll run out of the woods, kidnap a wife, and take her home.  Then everyone will live happily ever after.  Or something like that.  The story finally ends in 21:24 on this rather dark note: “At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance.  In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” 

Does your spirit feel crushed under the weight of the chaos here yet?  This story is awful.  It starts with theft and idolatry, goes to unjust warfare and kidnapping, devolves to a lack of hospitality, mob violence, rape, murder, dismemberment, civil war, and more kidnapping.  There’s not a single redeeming part of it.  Not one.  As I said a bit ago, it goes from bad to worse, to even worse, and finishes terrible.  The question that’s almost screaming in our faces at this point is this one: What are we supposed to do with this?  What are we supposed to learn from something like this?  I mean, there is obviously one bad example after another, but what’s the point?  Why just drag us down to the depths of the pit and leave us there?  It’s because often, until we get to the bottom and stop to look around, we don’t really see the ugliness of sin in its inglorious splendor.  We see it in Judges.  There’s simply no question that what we are seeing here isn’t good.  More than that, it’s evil.  That’s not a word we like using much today.  It isn’t popular.  But sometimes—more often than we realize—it is the right word.  What we are seeing here is evil and its aftermath.  The question this realization pushes us to ask is this one: How did they get here?  How did a people fall this far?  The final statement of the narrative gives us the answer: Everyone did as they saw fit. 

The people of Israel had fallen to a place where everyone was living however they saw fit.  Stay with me here for a minute.  Isn’t that where our culture is going?  Isn’t that where our culture just nearly is?  We are told we should be able to define every part of our world—every single part of it, inside and out—however it is that we want to define it, and nobody should be able to tell us otherwise.  This, we are told, is the key to the kind of freedom we most want.  And we are fed a constant stream of images guaranteeing us of not simply the harmlessness of this approach to life, but the positive benefits of it. 

The problem is that this approach to life operates on a key assumption which, if it turns out not to be right, undermines its entire argument.  This assumption is the basic goodness of all people.  If that’s true, if people are basically good in their moral center, then we can live however we please and not worry about the consequences.  After all, as Christian apologist Os Guinness argues, freedom requires virtue to be sustained.  So then, is it true?  Unfortunately, the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming it’s hard to believe anyone can make such an argument and maintain any kind of philosophical credibility.  This story alone demonstrates how broken we are when left to our own devices.  And the problem isn’t solely that we pursue what is evil on occasion.  The problem is that we pursue what is evil, find ourselves unsatisfied with that, and so pursue more and more and even more until chaos has completely taken over.  Here’s the real takeaway from this story (and because I love you and want you to remember it, I made it rhyme): When we live as we see fit, nothing good will come of it.  When we live as we see fit, nothing good will come of it. 

Israel did as they pleased and nearly tore themselves to pieces.  When the dust finally settled and they realized what they had done, it was almost too late to go back and rebuild.  What we find here in this hard story at the end of Judges is a cautionary tale.  It’s a loud reminder that when we live as we see fit, nothing good will come of it.  But still, that temptation is potent, isn’t it?  When living as God has directed gets difficult, our natural instinct is to take the lead and go as we see fit.  In our culture we’ve done that with marriage, haven’t we?  And I’m not talking about gay marriage right now.  Back in the 60s, Christian across the country were silent or even supportive when no-fault divorce laws were being passed in state after state, making marriage much easier to escape than it had been before.  We wanted to live our own way and there wasn’t going to be any harm done.  In fact, this was going to be a good thing.  It would be good for the couples and good for the kids too.  The results?  Chaos.  Fatherlessness exploded.  Orphans multiplied.  Poverty increased.  Welfare rolls expanded.  Unwanted children, multiple marriages, children with more “parents” than they can keep up with, relationships that are “complicated,” abuse, and that’s only some of the list. 

We have treated life like it is casual and of little value.  The result?  Suicide is on the rise.  A growing embrace of assisted suicide—in Maine most recently—is badly undercutting our message to at-risk teenagers that life is precious.  We turn to opioids to dull the pain we are feeling and when that isn’t enough, we seek a more permanent fix—assuming our addiction doesn’t do the job first.  We are in the midst of an intense, wildly duplicitous clash of worldviews on the issue of abortion.  We can’t meaningfully offer care and compassion and support to women who have experienced the tragedy of miscarriage because to do so gives too much credibility to the position that a human baby is what is in the womb and that undercuts arguments for abortion.  The position that killing babies in the womb shouldn’t be morally or legally acceptable has recently been criticized by no less than a presidential candidate as equivalent to anti-Semitism or racism.  On a bit grander of a scale, the world-wide embrace of abortion, particularly in southeast Asia, has resulted in a gender imbalance to the tune of over 160 million missing girls in the world because so many cultures value boys more highly than girls. 

We have embraced sex as both totally casual, but also entirely defining of our identity resulting in pain and confusion and all kinds of physical and social maladies.  And the worst part for the church is that we think we can get by simply judging the world and overlooking ourselves.  The truth is that judging the world is God’s job, not ours.  But, we have enough problems with abusing sex and tolerating sexual sin by confessing Christians that we don’t even need to think about the world’s behavior until we get our own house in order.  Paul’s advice to believers on the matter of sexual sinners in the church community couldn’t have been clearer: If they aren’t repentant, we shouldn’t even associate with them.  Ouch!

We have ignored Jesus’ admonition that we cannot worship both God and money with the consequence of a whole parade of lives wrecked by a relentless pursuit of stuff.  We are up past our eyeballs in debt both personally and as a nation.  We continue to mortgage our future and neither political party has the courage to honestly address and try to tackle the problem—and we don’t really want them to anyway.  That bill will eventually come due and it won’t be pretty when it does.  Should we go on?  When we live as we see fit, nothing good will come of it.  When we live as we see fit, nothing good will come of it. 

But that can’t be it, right?  The story just can’t end with this total lack of hope.  Can it?  Well, this part of the story of the Scriptures does, but mercifully, it’s not the end of the story.  When we live as we see fit, nothing good will come of it.  That’s true.  But, while we are living as we see fit, God is still working in the background—and sometimes the foreground—to steer His world to the end that will bring Him the most glory and all those who are willing to receive it the most joy.  You see, while all of this chaos was unfolding in Israel, in the land of one of their pagan neighbors—a place where the Levite wouldn’t have stopped for the night and where God wasn’t even supposed to be—a young woman was embracing faithfulness in a way that would change the world.  This young Moabite woman named Ruth and her mother-in-law would soon return to the mess of a nation we’ve just been talking about, to the very town where so much of the chaos of our story originated: Bethlehem.  Here, right in the heart of so much of the sinful chaos and misery from the people living however they saw fit, God began growing the seeds of redemption just a little bit further than they had been before.  This faithful young woman—who was faithful when there was every reason in the world for her to live as she saw fit—would marry a righteous man named Boaz.  Together that would have a son named Obed.  Obed would grow and have a son of his own named Jesse.  Jesse had seven sons.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the youngest of them?  His name was David.  David would become the greatest king of Israel who set the tribe and later nation of Judah on a path that, though they wouldn’t always follow well, would lead eventually as it wound down through the centuries of human history to the birth of a baby boy whose parents—at an angel’s direction—would name Jesus. 

We know Jesus, but we perhaps forget that a major advancement of God’s plans to bring Him into the world would unfold at the very same time the people were living however they saw fit and reaping the bitter fruits of this tragic path.  When we live as we see fit, nothing good will come of it.  But even when we do, God is still working for our good.  Hope is on the horizon.  Life is waiting in the wings.  We need only be willing to make the change to work with Him rather than against Him.  If you’ve been living as you see fit, nothing good will come of it.  But if you’ll change to live as He knows best, He’s big enough to bring hope and joy and peace to your life that will be sweeter than any you’ve ever known otherwise.  Let’s live together.  

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