The Bible Jesus knew: Promised Land
Judges 1.11-23; 21.25, Mark 12.1-12
I want to begin with a thought experiment, which I use with my Sixth Formers in their Ethics lessons.
Imagine, if you will, that you are going on holiday to a luxury hotel. You’ve booked it and are expecting to pay for it.
However, when you arrive, you are told by the concierge that your room bill has been paid. Not only that, but daily spa treatments have been booked for you, the mini bar is entirely at your disposal, free of charge and you’ve been upgraded to the Presidential Suite.
What do you do?
Do you accept this wonderful gift or do you refuse it? When you come to check out, do you pay the gift forward and settle the bill of someone who is coming to the hotel after you or do you just walk away?
Have a think about that and I’ll return to it in a few minutes.
Today we are returning to our sermon series entitled The Bible that Jesus Knew. This is a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with the Old Testament, the arc of its narrative and how it makes sense of the life of Jesus.
Let’s just recall what we heard a couple of weeks ago: previously in the sermon series...
Hugh started off by exploring the Book of Genesis, focussing on two themes in particular: creation and covenant; of how God created the world for good and of how we humans, hungry for power, bring about so much of the brokenness in our world. But God, being a God of goodness, makes a promise to restore all that has been broken.
Today, I want to pick up the theme of covenant and look at one particular aspect of it: the Promised Land. I want to do that by looking with you at the Book of Judges.
First off, let me put the book in context.
In Genesis, God made the covenant with Abraham and confirmed it to his son Isaac and then to Isaac’s son Jacob – it seems that God really meant it! Part of the covenant was the promise of a great land, a land of "milk and honey.”
We then hear about how their descendants, the Israelites, made the journey out of slavery to the Promised Land with Moses and then with Joshua.
The Book of Joshua tells us of how he led the Israelites into the Promised Land, where they were met with hostility from the Canaanites, whose culture was pretty questionable, to put it mildly: the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy tell us of moral corruption including sexual immorality and even child sacrifice. So, Joshua and the Israelites go into battle with the Canaanites.
I just want to spend a moment acknowledging the elephant in the room. The Books of Joshua and Judges, like other books in the Old Testament, raises some pretty challenging questions about God’s place in the violence exercised against different groups. This is important stuff to wrestle with and we could have a whole sermon series on this topic alone (perhaps we should!).
I don’t want to give easy or glib answers to this question of God’s place in the violence and if you would like to talk further with me about it, then please do. I will just say one thing: the Bible is a continual journey of human beings towards God, made perfect in the revelation of Christ: he is our pattern, the lens through which we see the world and in him we see no violence, only God’s love.
The Book of Joshua ends with the dividing up the land for the 12 tribes of Israel. Joshua then gives them a choice: be faithful to their side of the covenant with God and enjoy a life of blessing in the Land or turn away from God and behave like the Canaanites. You can guess which he would prefer! The Book of Joshua ends with an Eastenders style drum-thumping question: what will they do?
The Book of Judges gives the answer and it ain’t good!
The story picks up with Israel’s failure to deal with the Canaanites and so the Israelites end up living in close quarters with the them; they then end up adopting their dodgy practices. The whole book is best understood as a downward spiral towards the first civil war amongst the Israelites:
1. The Israelites sin;
2. They are oppressed by the Canaanites;
3. This leads them to repentance;
4. A judge is raised up to deliver them;
5. There is relative peace for a while;
6. The Israelites sin;
And so on…
The book takes its name from the "judges” or leaders who are raised up for deliverance of Israel, but they are all deeply flawed characters who fall foul of the downward spiral I have just described.
It is a dark tragedy, which provides a very sobering explanation of the human condition, and it is at this point that I want to pass over from Bible lecture to sermon!
How might the Book of Judges speak to us today? Well, Hugh spoke about covenant a couple of weeks ago, the promise made by God to his people and the message of the Bible is clear: God has been nothing less than completely faithful to that promise. But the point about a covenant is that it is, by definition, two-way. It requires faithfulness from the other party too: namely us.
At the beginning, I gave you a thought experiment. What did you decide to do? Did you enjoy the free hotel stay? Did you refuse it? Did you pay in forward? This experiment is, I think, a good analogy for our response to God’s gift, to God’s grace.
Too often, we receive the benefits of God’s faithfulness to those whom he created and loves – we enjoy living in the Promised Land – but we do not give God our faithfulness in return; instead, we allow ourselves to be drawn away from God by temptations in the world around us.
I’ve been reading a lot of Dietrich Bonheoffer recently, especially his book The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote it in 1937, having returned to Germany to dedicate his life to opposing Naziism.
He thought that the Church had lost its understanding of the price of living a life dedicated to God; that the faithful were all too willing to enjoy milk and honey - the benefits of the Promised Land - but not willing to respond in the only way we ought: to give our lives to God, in grateful thanks.
He called this Cheap Grace:
"Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite.”
Bonheoffer wanted the Church to recover a proper understanding of grace, what he called Costly Grace:
"Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘you were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”
This covenant, this grace, this Promised Land ought to provoke in us deep repentance that we needed God’s grace in the first place, profound gratitude that we have a King who, again and again, calls us back to himself and complete devotion, for this is the only proper response to a God who thought that his Son was not too high a price for our redemption.
I said earlier that the story in the Book of Joshua ends with a question: how will the Israelites respond to God’s faithfulness? Will they give their lives back to God in grateful thanks, or will they turn away in favour of a life lived for worldly passions? The story of the Book of Judges gives us the answer.
How will our story end?
What is your response to the thought experiment that the sermon sets?
The first sermon in this series said of the word 'covenant'- A covenant is a promise that is everlasting. We still use the word today in a church wedding - when the couple are invited to make a ‘covenant’ as they exchange their wedding vows. This covenant is a promise to stick with each other ‘for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’ until death. There are no clauses. No ‘so long as you…’. There’s no way out. This is an exchange of the very deepest and most solemn promises.' What does this say to you about God's commitment to his people today? How might we respond?
What do you think of the phrase 'Cheap grace'? Does that make sense in your own life? In the life of the church today?
How might you take on the 'Costly grace' described in the sermon? How would your life have to change if you lived in the light of the knowledge that our freedom cost Jesus his life?