What do William Shatner, Chester Karras, and the Old Testament figure of Jephthah have in common?
Yesterday’s sermon spills those beans.
Drawing from chapters 10 and 11 of Judges, the “Deja Vu All Over Again” sermon landed at this bottom line:
God doesn’t want to negotiate. He wants to liberate.
(Speaking of Judges 10 and 11, you’ll need to pull out your bible to read along with this one. Due to time constraints I was unable to insert text into post.)
Remember William Shatner, the Capn Kirk of the Starship Enterprise? Well, his career got a major re-boot in those Priceline commercials as he was the greatest character ever: The Negotiator. Here’s my favorite: PLAY YouTube.
And, secretly, most of us want to do at least some version of that. The Karate Chop AND the expert negotiating! Lord, it’s probably in my blood somewhere because my dad taught Contracts at SMU Law for 31 yrs. What is contracts? The art of negotiation! People love that stuff. You remember the glossy ads in airline mags for Karras Negotiating Seminars? (AV) This is all why some of you in this room are going to play the Trump Card in Nov – because you think he’ll negotiate better trade deals w/ China than the ones we now have. On the more persona level, it’s why you like getting a good deal on your car (“let me take this to my manager . . . ouch! This may cost me my job but”), why others like to negotiate your compensation (even happens in church!), why others negotiate tough deals on your house, and, sadly how some of you have even had to negotiate through your divorce. There’s a back & forth, a give & take, a sense of timing, and, frankly, many of us think we’re pretty good at it. You’ve got bargaining chips & you like to use them.
And as we move to week 4 of CTD, in a message called Déjà Vu All Over Again, zeroing in on the character of Jephthah (REPEAT with me), it’s all about negotiation. Now: if you’re new in this series (or you’re not new but newly paying attn.), here’s where we are: Judges takes place approximately 1400-1100 BC, it is a book of patterned history in which ungoverned and ungovernable Israel keeps doing the same dumb things over and over again. They fall into deep collective sin, they get punished, they cry out to God, he sends them a deliverer (a Judge), and they get better. Until they start the same cycle all over again. Each section of the book really is like déjà vu all over again!
So look at 10:6a, where Jephthah’s story begins: READ. See! DVAOA! Then look at 10:6b-9: READ. Now: this is very interesting. The nature and the detail of Israel’s sin is much more comprehensive than elsewhere in Judges. And specifically, it mentions SEVEN gods & clans/gods. Seven is the number of what? Completion! Perfection! It’s like they were being COMPLETELY, PERFECTLY disobedient! What they were doing would be like if one Sunday I preached from the Koran. Or we set up a palm reading. Or a special horoscope Sunday. And then a Buddhist service. As if it was Jesus Among here instead of Jesus Alone. And Israel was worshipping the Lord AMONG – and in Judges 10, they were doing it “better” & more comprehensively than ever before. And so look at the corresponding severity of the punishment in 10:8: SHATTERED. Well, after 18 long years of this look what happens in 10:10-14: READ. I LOVE that! It’s like “weren’t we just here? (yes) Didn’t we do this before? (many times) Isn’t this déjà vu all over again? (absolutely) Well, I’m done with that. Go let the gods you’ve been calling on liberate you. Some of you have been on the receiving end OR the giving end of this . . . alcohol, drugs, gambling & you or someone in your life asked for help ONE TOO MANY TIMES and someone who finally got in Al Anon decided to stop being CODA w/ you and said, “you got yourself into the mess. Let the alcohol get you out.” It seemed cruel at the time but it was actually essential. What we have here is an emotionally secure God, one who will NOT be a co-dependent enabler with his people.
But then the people do their own version of KARATE CHOP NEGOTIATOR in 10:15-16a: READ. I was holding it for a friend . . . I’ll promise I’ll never . . . if You, then I . . . And, shockingly, it works! Look at 10:16b: READ. Now in the English it LOOKS LIKE mercy but in the original language, it more conveys FRUSTRATION. Almost, “I know this is probably not going to end well, but I will give you one more chance. And THEN I’ll wipe my hands of this mess.” Likely having little confidence that they ppl will keep up their end of the bargain. Because throughout this and other negotiation, the ppl have only wanted God when they needed God. Of course, they’re not the first & they’re not the last. They have a knack for turning repentance into deal making.
And it appears to give them some traction. Because God apparently moves into action and arranges yet another military deliverer for them, this one named Jephthah. But we see from his intro in 11:1 that this is a different kind of cat: READ. How’s that for the first line of a resume? Things descend from there in 11:2-3: READ, which means he is disinherited & as a result decides to head up a gang. Hebrew Bloods, maybe? Now, we know that family abandonment in the 21st C makes kids vulnerable to gangs, and Jephthah simply proves that’s nothing new. But look what happens next in his story: READ 11:4-7. See that? NEGOTIATION! The same people who disinherited him now need his protection, they know he’s got some gang/warrior skills, and they start the bargaining. Why should I is his very logical reply. Why should I help those who exiled me? Answer: BECAUSE. Which is not much of an answer.
So Jephthah wisely and shrewdly decides to drive a hard bargain. In 11:6 they ask him to be “commander”; he negotiates his way by v. 9 & 10 to being “head.” Bravo! Karate chop! So, ensconsed as military leader, God uses him to win back Jewish territory from those who had “shattered” them (remember that word) and then . . . and then . . . IN THE MIDST OF GREAT SUCCESS, WITH MORE WINNING ALL BUT GUARANTEED, Jephthah KEEPS NEGOTIATING. He asks for what he already has. Only look at WHO he negotiates with and WHAT he offers in 11:30-31: READ. Uh oh. Manipulating God. If you, then I, which is NEVER, NOT ONCE a good way of relating to your Father. It’s almost like asking God for an answer and then deciding what the answer is. If you, then I.
Heh. Jephthah is not alone in that, is he? He is just more obvious than we are! But so many of us are on that spectrum of If you save my life, I’ll never miss church again; if you rescue my marriage, I’ll start tithing; if you demolish these urges and make me straight, I’ll become a missionary; if you heal my child, then I’ll join a LifeGroup & maybe even a ServeTeam! If you if you if you . . . then I then I then I. And notice that in this particular negotiation . . . God does not answer back. His silence in what happens next is pretty deafening.
Because the victory gets granted – and those of you who have been through actual war know how antiseptic the descriptions in 11:33 really are. And then in 11:34 is the story’s big uh-oh: READ. He has made a vow, a negotiated promise and what?! Who?! His daughter! Who is doing what Israelite women did – they went out to greet soldiers who return victoriously. Look at Jephthah’s realization and reply in 11:35: READ
Which is actually WRONG. Jephthah refused the Lord with other gods – remember those seven gods they’d been worshipping! – gods who actually would allow child sacrifice & hold you to an obscene vow. But not the Lord. See, when you misunderstand God as one who negotiates, you misunderstand a whole lot else about him as well. And look at 11:36-40: READ. Now: did he slay her? Or was the punishment that she be a perpetual virgin? We don’t know for sure, though MOST READERS have thought thru the years that he did in fact sacrifice her. (And if he did slay her, why did God not intervene like he did with Isaac??) One thing we know is that when God is silent in a narrative like this, it’s a pretty good indication that he is leaving ppl to their own devices; allowing them to reap their own consequences.
And don’t you see? Jephthah COULD HAVE HAD a great legacy! Winning warrior! But no! Just like with Gideon, he undermined his own success and leaves a legacy & reputation that is decidedly mixed. The patterns repeat! Déjà vu all over again. All headed towards everyone doing right in their own eyes. In Jephthah’s case, he is chained by his heritage (remember mom?), shackled by his disinheritance, and burdened by his ignorance of the character of God. He’s made it through life via shrewd negotiation and fatally attempts the same thing with God. And, oh, when we negotiate as a default the people closest to us pay the price. Here it is, GS, all you eager to stop being CTDs: God doesn’t want to negotiate. He wants to liberate.
Yes! He didn’t want to make deals with J! He wanted to deliver him! Liberate him from his past, from his rage, from his ignorance & Jepthah, as a CTD can’t quite. He’s got so much scar tissue from life that he thinks God is just one more (God!) and one more person with whom he can drive a hard bargain.
Someone here needs to be liberated from alcohol and you keep promising If you, then I. No! How about Because You, I Am. Because you are holy, I am serene! I’ll stop asking you to help me drink responsibly – BECAUSE WE ALL KNOW I CAN’T! – but I am basing my healing on your character, not my performance! Someone else needs to be liberated from a lifetime pattern of dishonesty. You lie & get in to stuff and then you lie to get out of stuff. If you, then I. No! Because you are Truth, I am now truthful! His character, not your performance! Someone else needs to be liberated from a lifetime of casual faith. If you make it convenient, then I’ll go to church. If the music’s good, the sermon’s interesting, the ppl are pretty, then I . . . No! Because you are the Great I AM, I am a worshipper! Why? Because REFRAIN.
And here’s a dirty little secret. He can’t really liberate you until he first dominates you. When you want him only when you need him, you’ll find you need him all the time because you keep tripping you up. When you confuse repentance with negotiation, God might just leave you to your own devices. It will be déjà vu all over again and like Jephthah the results won’t be pretty. What I’m talking about is like the guy who sold his house to another guy who couldn’t quite afford it. So he sold it for less than full price with one caveat: he kept ownership of one small nail protruding over the front door. NBD.
After a few years, the old owner wanted the house back but the new owner was unwilling. So the first owner went out, found carcass of a dead dog & hung it from the nail he still owned. As you might imagine, it wasn’t long until the house was uninhabitable & new owner was forced to sell back to old owner. All because of – wait for it, negotiation – and one small nail.
What’s the one nail you are holding on to? What do you falsely think is YOURS to use in negotiating with God? Oh lay it down. Let him dominate. Only when he dominates can he truly emancipate. Because I want the legacies of the ppl of this church to be free of ambiguity and full of holiness. No more CTDs. No more déjà vu all over again. No more Jephtahs. REFRAIN.