A few years ago I had professional meetings in San Antonio, Texas, and my wife accompanied me there because she was interested in seeing the river walk and a few details like that. And in some off time, when I either wasn't in the meetings, or I skipped a couple, we went to tour a major historic site in American history. And a lot of us will know that rallying cry, Remember the what? Alamo. And of interest to me was how, first of all, the Alamo was kind of a magnet for some of the more colorful American characters.
Davy Crockett, Sam Bowie, were all there at the Alamo. And then Santana's armies approached and some wanted to fall back and others wanted to hold that seemingly insignificant little mission, And the debate raged in the compound, and finally, one of the leaders with, I forget, the heel of his booth or a stick, he drew a line across the sand of the floor of that compound, and he made a call. For those who would not retreat, to cross the line and take their stand.
Sam Bowie was carried across the line on a bed, he was so sick. But retreat was not an option, for in their mind there were some things that were more important than life itself. And retreat was not an option. And they were willing to suffer for something so valuable, so great, that it superseded self-interest.
We have Bible examples of men who did that in the spiritual realm as well. Daniel and his three friends risked their lives to take a stand over God's instruction on food. Daniel’s three friends took a stand not to bow down to an idol. How easy it would have been to bend over and tie your sandal lace. I'm not really praying to an idol, I just don't want to offend anybody. But they took a stand and faced a fiery furnace. Joseph who had no legal right to say no to a mistress, said no because he feared God more than man. Hebrew midwives drew a line, fearing God more than Pharaoh, because sometimes there is something bigger than me that demands my commitment and my loyalty, and there is a line in the sand that I must cross never to retreat behind again.
We talk about this in my ethics class. And today, many of our young people are raised never having had to stand the test of faith. Never having to have stood out and be different and count the cost. And I start to talk to them about morality and that ethics ultimately boils down to that which is non-negotiable. If it’s a moral issue you don't negotiate it. Right!? Either you decided you're not going to molest a child or it’s negotiable ground right? You're going to lie on your vitae or you're not going to lie. And morality boils down to, at the bottom end, what is it in my life that is so important that I don't budge on this issue, because it's a moral issue. And even the most relativist, postmodernist person still has something absolute that they won't budge from. And after we discuss this briefly, I ask my students to pull out a piece of paper and to take some time in the quietness of a classroom to think about and jot down what are some of my key non-negotiables. And you can hear a pin drop. And some people you can see writing with purpose, but many sit there struggling, the brow furrowed, because they've never had to think about that question before in their life. What is it that’s so important to me that I will take my stand and not cross the line? In fact, Joy was recently victimized by that little quiz. A few of these kids as I watch, I fear they're going to set the fire alarms off cause they’re about to start smoking out of their head trying to come up with an answer.
Have you ever thought about that for which you might make such a stand? The story in our scripture reading this morning is about a man who took such a stand. Israel was arrayed in battle. The story does not tell us at what point of David’s kingship this happens. And somehow, for some reason, this author felt compelled to tell us that they had not only lined up for battle but it was in a lentil field. And as the battle engaged, it says that the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines. Ready to lick their wounds and fight another day, their personal safety and life were more important. Let's see if we can escape and save our skin and come back another day when we're better equipped. But one man didn't retreat. His name is Shama. His name derives from a Hebrew verb that means to be devastated, or deserted, or appalled. And I find it interesting that the man whose name means to be deserted was himself deserted on the field of battle. But something about that retreat did not agree with this deserted one. Something about ceding ground to the heathen was too much for him to consider. Maybe he thought of how God had delivered Israel in the past and assumed that God would act again. Maybe he was repulsed by the thought of God’s name being defamed by gloating Philistines after they had won the battle. But something about the situation made him decide that living in retreat was not worth the cost. It was better to die defending the lentils than to live in the luxury of retreat. Something made him forget self and be consumed with a cause higher, mightier, and nobler than his own self-interest.
Oh I love those words that captivate me. Particularly in my translation it says, “But he took his stand in the middle of the field.” There's a vigor and a power to this man who takes a stand when all around him is in chaos. The Hebrew literally says he stationed himself in the middle of the lentil field. And he literally snatched up, he delivered and fought.
But it was not the fact that Shama took a stand that made the difference. It was the fact that God gave victory, which tells me that there was something about Shama’s stand that was related to his faith in God and by taking a stand it was a catalyst that unleashed the power of God and brought courage to his fellows and turned the tide of a battle and a retreat into a triumph. I will retreat no further. I will die or be victorious and like those famous words when Apollo 13 was stranded in the sky and the attempt to rescue started, the engineers were exhorted, failure is not an option. And for Shama, failure was not an option. And so he took his stand in the confidence that God was in charge and it was better to stand for something than die for nothing. And like Esther, if I perish I perish, there are things more important than my own safety and self-interest.
This story is a microcosm of Israel's spiritual experience as well. An experience especially recorded in the Judges. If we go to the book of Judges, the book opens by telling us that Israel began to conquer the land but failed to drive out the Canaanites. And the result of failing to drive out the Canaanites was that those Canaanites now became a snare that tempted them into idolatry.
And this is a metaphor for Christian life, because each one of us in our character and nature have Philistines that want to fight against God's character and God's law in our life. And God calls us to drive those Philistines out of our character and out of our life. And if we stop engaging in that conflict, those Philistines in our character will come back to bite us and overcome us. We must stay engaged in the process, and so Israel enters an experience like this and their spiritual retreat and they come under the oppression of their enemies and then God would raise up a judge who would elevate the standard and they would be delivered for a season and drive out people, but then they didn't stay engaged in the process and they would sink back. And up and down, and it's kind of even like this until we get to the story of Gideon. And after Gideon's great victory, the people want to make Gideon king, there in the eighth chapter of Judges. And Gideon's response is, “I will not rule over you. God is the ruler of Israel.”
It’s too bad that after he took that stand, Gideon retreated. For he makes an ephod which becomes a snare to he and his house-hold, because it became an idol that they worshipped. And then it tells us that Gideon had something like 70 sons. Now folks, how does a man have 70 sons? How does a man have 70 sons?? More than one wife, right? See, Gideon takes a harem to himself and starts acting like a king. And this launches the second half of the book of Judges, were Gideon’s son Abimelech, which means “My Father is King”, Gideon apparently changed his mind.
And this begins the second half of Judges where we start to see attempts to make kings over Israel, that will eventually culminate in Samuel and Saul. And the pattern starts to do like this. And four times in this second half of Judges, the indictment is, "in those days there was no king in Israel." Because God was supposed to be King, but why was there no king in Israel? It was because every man was doing what? Twice it tells us. Every man was doing what was right in his own eyes. Folks, pluralism and post-modernism is nothing new under the sun. It was rampant in the days of the Judges. Every man was doing what was right in his own eyes. It's my business. Don't bother me. Don't mess with me. God was no long in charge of His people.
And the result is it culminates in this awful, gory, nasty story in the 19th chapter of Judges, and I invite you to turn there. And one of those four indictments starts this chapter in verse one. "In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim. Who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah, and his concubine played the harlot with him, and went away from him to her father's house at Bethlehem in Judah and stayed there for four months."
We have here the introduction of a sad story . Things have gotten so bad that it's even corrupting the spiritual leadership of Israel. Cause what’s a concubine? A concubine was almost never a first wife. You had your full and legal wife who was kind of on this level with you, and then there was a concubine who was little more than a high-class slave with whom you could have sexual privileges. Somebody you had a more this kind of relationship with. Very often, basically an outlet for extra lustful desires. So the fact that we have a Levite who has taken a concubine is suggesting the probability that this man is a polygamist. One of the religious leaders of Israel. Furthermore, his own concubine commits adultery against him, and things are so morally relative that no one does anything about it, except she goes home to live with daddy for four months.
Now some translators try to argue that this meant she simply became angry because they had a quarrel. But I spent about an hour and a half last night looking up every use of the verb ‘xanah’, and outside of this text, it is always playing the harlot, so I have a hard time suddenly saying this one text jumps out of character. The point is that the moral retreat and corruption had infused the spiritual leadership of Israel and the family. That's how bad things were getting.
Then it gets worse. He goes down to get her. Apparently he either had enough sense of God's grace or maybe he was filled with cheap grace, that we can whitewash over this little problem, but he goes to get her, and after a few days down there with her father he collects her and they head home. But they have to make an overnight stop in Gibeah, and this is where the story gets ugly.
They go into town and it’s a Sodom-like story. And just as the angels found no lodging except with Lot, so even more so, the Benjaminites don't think anybody in. The bed and breakfast seems to be closed. And finally a foreigner from Ephraim, the Levites home territory now, says come in with me. And so they go in, and they're “making merry in the house", and just like the story of Sodom, the men of Benjamin surround the house and they demand the old man who owns the house to take this Levite and hand him over for malicious sexual activity that the Bible calls an abomination. And the old man, not unlike Lot, calls out to the door and says, “Look, I’ve got a virgin daughter and this man's got a concubine. Why don't you do this naturally instead of unnaturally. We'll give them to you?" But there was a hesitation, and nobody is acting. The Benjaminites reject the offer, and so the Levite takes matters into his own hands, opens the door, shoves his concubine out the door and locks it behind her. And unspeakable things happen to her that night. And the rest of the folk in the house appear to sleep through it. And he gets up in the morning and he opens the door and she’s lying on the doorstep with her hands on the threshold as if she's trying to pull herself in. And such a sensitive clergyman, he says, “It's time to get up, we've got to go.” And he gets no response. Because the abuse has killed her. And so he loads her up on his donkey, carts her home, and I don't know what they did to this woman but it must have left some kind of distinctive evidence on her body. And he cuts that body up in pieces and sends the evidence out to Israel, and Israel is corrupt enough to know what these nasty markings mean.
How many today, in the name of their own comfort and peace, push family members and children out the spiritual door to be had and abused by the television, the DVD, the Internet, the iPod. Exposed to unspeakable things that we would never dream of doing ourselves, but we watch it all the time on the cathode ray tube or LCD. And in that process we and our children get inculcated and infused with a postmodern relativist thinking that simply says, the only virtue is to be tolerant and nonjudgmental and be careful not to offend anybody.
Surveys are now showing that the majority of North American Seventh-day Adventist college students are postmodernist in their worldview. They do not believe in biblical authority. They do not believe that there are absolute rights and absolute wrongs, just don’t offend anybody. And we’ve pushed them out the door into unrestricted access to worldly entertainment, etc., etc., and then we wonder why on Sabbath morning, we say, “It's time to get up”, and they are as responsive as this woman was to the Levite. And how many of them clutched at the threshold of the door looking for something better while we made ourselves comfortable and did not hear their cry?
The message was loud and clear, that in the Judges, the people of God had retreated so far that they had become like Sodom and Gomorrah. Maybe even worse. When compromise enters the people of God, we sometimes get worse than the heathen. I think of First Corinthians, chapter 5, where Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthian church, and he says the kind of incest going on in this church is worse, even pagans don't tolerate this. And you're arrogant.
And folks, that was a letter read in the presence of the whole church with the children present. And we live in an age where evil has permeated the people of God to unspeakable levels. In the last couple of years, at least two pastors in the Southern Union have lost their job for molesting children. And if it's happening at the pastoral level folks, what's happening undercover in the membership? You follow me? It's a serious issue. Substance abuse, etc., etc., but oh we don't want to talk about these things from the pulpit because we might offend some delicate ears. Yet this story about this Levite and his concubine was read in the synagogue on about a two to three year cycle and those children heard that story several times before they became adults, and it was commented on by the speaker of the day. And likewise, those passages in Leviticus 18 and 20 that tell you that the grandfather should not uncover the nakedness of the granddaughter, and the father of the daughter, and the uncle of the niece, etc. etc. was read in the public, in the synagogue. Because that might be the only way those children get to know that something wrong is happening to them if we don't talk about it any other way. And so the children heard these verses read from the Bible, and if something was happening to them, could you imagine them going to their grandfather and saying, “Uncle so-and-so is doing this to me and Moses said we shouldn't do this.” Right? Yeah!
I'd like to suggest to you folks that the religion of Christ is not for the fastidious. It calls us to confront those evils in our midst that are especially odious and damaging to people. It calls us to care enough about the other's well-being to believe in something and stand for it. Today our church is wracked with divorce, abused children, spousal abuse, substance abuse, and we can't talk about it because we're afraid of offending somebody?? I fear that our morality is little different from that of the world. And possibly, if we look at the cabinet with the DVDs and the shelf full of books, we may discover that a lot of the professed people of God are little if any better than Sodom and Gomorrah.
Is there no Shama to take a stand in the lentils and check the spiritual retreat so rampant in the people of God? Why then do we have this gory and awful story in the Bible? It suggests to me that when the people of God are in retreat, that God will allow things to get so bad that even sin calloused saints with scarred consciences finally will respond and take a moral stand. And that's what happened there in the 19th chapter of Judges, when the people of God saw what happened to this woman, they finally said enough. And they rose up and held a judgment and there was a civil war that punished Benjamin for sinking to such an evil. To try to right the ship. God will allow the church to become Sodom-like if that is what it takes to arouse His people to personal responsibility and action. And when that happens, someone will say, “Enough”, and stand up and be counted for something. Folks, if we don't stand for something we’ll fall for anything. And the story of Shama closes by saying, the Lord wrought a great victory. The power was not in him taking his stand in the middle of that lentil field. The power was that he took his stand trusting that his God would take care of him one way or another regardless of what happened to him. And it was God, not Shama, who brought the victory. One person with God can change the course of the congregation. One person with God can change the course of a denomination. Who is ready to be the one?
Ahab and Jezebel were just as corrupt as the conditions of Judges 19. Murdering a man to get his property. Encouraging religions that emphasized cultic prostitution. And on and on it goes. Israel was again in a Sodom and Gomorrah like condition. But one man was vexed and was praying to God. One man was called to face the enemy and check the spiritual retreat. One man was called to empty himself and adopt a cause of greater value than his own safety, comfort and life. One man was called to take his stand in the lentils for God and to turn the tide and terminate the retreat to Sodom. One man stood against 450 prophets of Baal. One man stood against 400 priests of Asherah. And we come to the story of that one man in First Kings 18, and in verse 21 Elijah came near to all the people after complaining that they've got 450 and I’m here. He says Elijah came near to all the people and he said, "How long will you hover over two branches?" The image is one of a bird coming in to roost and she can’t determine, or he, I don’t care the gender of the bird, which branch, and he flutters, oh, oh, I can't decide which one I want to sit on; oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, and he just can't figure out where he wants to settle down, and he keeps fluttering and hovering, and back and forth; and he says that's what Israel is doing with their spiritual life. Afraid to take a stand and be counted clearly on one side. How long you going to do it he asks. If Yahweh is God, follow after him. If Baal is god, walk after him.
Indecision is often a precipitator of moral decline and retreat. And if he can just get them to make a decision to be committed to something. Make your colors clear, and do it responsibly, moral clarity would begin to return. And then he says there in verse 22, “I, even I only remain, a prophet of the Lord." Elijah was a remnant. A one man remnant who felt all alone in his faithfulness to God and what he wouldn’t find out for a couple more days was that there were 7000 others who felt just like him. And it is a shame, but very often even in the church, those who are committed to the moral high ground often feel lonely, like there's no one else in the church who has the same commitment. Sad testimony. Sad testimony.
But Elijah took his stand in the lentils. They tried to kill him but they couldn't. And the result was God had a great victory that led to a great revival among the people of God. Today I watch waves of worldliness washing over my church. And as a theologian I am seeing an explosion of the winds of doctrine until I think we're almost in hurricane season. With ever greater vigor. As modern society mesmerizes us with temptations and entertainment that undermine the values of Christ and indoctrinate us with moral indecisiveness, I worry for the future. And the church seems to languish in lackadaisical, Laodicean, languidness. It's time for someone to take a stand. To be definite in who you are and what you believe. To give a clear sound to the trumpet and to stop sending mixed messages, because frankly I think, a lot of these college students have watched us send mixed messages. We say don't. Save it for marriage, and then we divorce and remarry and treat the whole sexual and marriage commitment as if it’s a convenience, instead of a sacred institution. We say don’t and we waffle over here, and the message we send is, truly there are no absolute standards of right and wrong. We say so with our mouth, but with our practice we preach moral relativism, and our children have gotten the message. It's time to do some deep thinking about what those non-negotiables are that we need to take a stand on. That we can be people of moral clarity in a morally perverse world. It's time to take our stand in the lentils.
Two weeks ago tomorrow, I was at the opening of some scholarly meetings in Mexico, and my good friend and colleague Derek Morris was giving the devotional. And I have been wrestling about this message to preach to you today. Exactly how I was going to go about it. And he read something he captured from the Internet, and I’d like to close on this, because it is a statement of that commitment to a clear, undiluted commitment to Christ. And it's called the Fellowship Of The Unashamed.
I am part of the Fellowship of the Unashamed. I have Holy Spirit power. The die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of His. (Capital H.) I won't look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past has been redeemed, my presence makes sense, and my future is secure. I am finished and done with low living, walking by sight, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tame visions, mundane talking, chintzy giving, and dwarfed goals. I no longer need preeminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don't have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by Presence, lean by faith, love by patience, live by prayer, and labor by power. My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven. My road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions few. (He's standing in the lentils.) My Guide reliable, my mission clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, diluted, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of adversity, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity or meander in the maze of mediocrity. I won't give up, shut up, let up, or slow down until I’ve preached up, prayed up, paid up, stored up, and stayed up for the cause of Christ. I am a disciple of Christ. I must go till He comes, give till I drop, preach all I know, and work till He stops. And when He comes to get us all, He'll have no problem recognizing me because my colors are clear.
It's time to stand in the lentils.
Let’s sing closing hymn, Stand Up Stand Up For Jesus.
Hymn of Praise: #7, The Lord In Zion Reigneth Scripture: 2 Samuel 23:8-12 Hymn of Response: #618, Stand Up! Stand Up For Jesus!
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Sermon at McDonald Road transcribed by Steve Foster 4/19/08