Hervey Bay Presbyterian Church

Advent: The Long Road to Bethlehem (1)

Bible Readings

  • Luke 1:26-38
  • Judges 13:1-24

Introduction

In Stay of Execution, Stewart Alsop, an apathetic Christian, discussed what it was like to live with incurable leukaemia. 

There was a period in which the disease was temporarily arrested. During this time, he discussed some variables with his physician. Finally, Alsop said, “There is one variable you keep leaving out.” “What’s that?” “God,” he said.

The doctor and the patient smiled. Alsop continued, “I don’t really believe in God, or at least I don’t think I do, and I doubt if my doctor does; but I think we both had in the back of our minds the irrational notion that God might have something to do with what happened all the same.”

Maybe this illustration describes the time in Israel before Samson was born.  God became an irrational notion in the back of their minds.

And maybe it also describes the general notion among Christians:  they attend churches, they expect to get married in churches, and to be buried with a church service, they attend the signing of Christmas carols, and might attend the odd Easter Service—all because God became an irrational notion in the back of their minds.

Spiritual life for many people only means to have their names on some membership roll.  Worship services are a good tradition, keeping one out of mischief on a Sunday because who knows, one can never completely discount the notion of God.  For some unbelievers praying to God in times of distress and discomfort becomes the last straw they hang on to—one never knows, maybe there is a god!

Does this describe your spiritual life? A “maybe” or “a just-in-case” relationship with God with no meaningful or effectual content to what you believe? No vitality, no living hope, no real substance, just a breathless, run-of-the-mill and bleached-out going through the motions, just in case God might be there, who knows?

It’s worse if this becomes the picture of a denomination, or even more deplorable if it describes the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

These might be the symptoms; but what is the underlying disease?

The church became an undesired social institution

Israel of the Old Testament is the church of God under the pre-Christ dispensation, and certain truths stare us straight in the eye.  

God redeemed Israel to be his treasured possession.  Once redeemed from the Egyptian bondage, God promised to make true to them his covenant promises.  This is the story recorded in the Scriptures.  Moses reminded the people:  

The land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end. (Deuteronomy 11:11–12, NIV)

The Lord gave them this assurance:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land. (Exodus 23:25–30, NIV)

Israel had to conquer the Land of Promise. It was the place where they had to make known the great Name of God by living as priests to the Lord, a nation of witness to the greatness of God’s Name.  This is God’s promise to them:  

… the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and stronger than you. Every place where you set your foot will be yours… No one will be able to stand against you. The Lord your God, as He promised you, will put the terror and fear of you on the whole land, wherever you go. (Deuteronomy 11:22–25, NIV)

Listen to this undertaking of the Lord:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:5–6, NIV)

There were stipulations attached: they had to follow the Lord’s command: 

When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. (Numbers 33:51–53, NIV)

Why?

“ … if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them. ” (Numbers 33:55–56, NIV)

Well, God’s people of old were extraordinarily blessed.  They received a land with large, flourishing cities they did not build,  houses filled with all kinds of good things they did not provide, wells they did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves they did not plant (Deuteronomy 6:10–12, NIV).

But what happened?  How successful were they in taking possession of the land?  

When Israel became strong, they pressed the Canaanites into forced labour but never drove them out completely. … the Canaanites continued to live there among them. … Zebulun subjected the Canaanites into to forced labour… The Asherites lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land because they did not drive them out. Neither did Naphtali drive out … the Naphtalites too lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land, and those … became forced labourers for them. 

Judges 2 helps us to complete the picture:

They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshipped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. (Judges 2:12–14, TNIV)

Another perspective from the Bible:

Yet you have disobeyed me. I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you. (Judges 2:1–3, TNIV)

How did it play out in history?  This takes us to Judges 13.

The Amorites confined the Danites [the parents of Samson were of the tribe of Dan] to the hill country, not allowing them to come down into the plain. (Judges 1:28–34, TNIV)

But before we continue, let’s make some application to the church of today.  Is it true that the Christian church in Australia is losing ground?  That’s undoubtedly what the statistics show!  But how does it stack up against the promise and command of the risen Christ who said, 

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20, NIV)

There are obvious parallels with the church of today and the church of the Old Testament, isn’t it?  The death-nail is to make compromises with the world. It happens when the church walks away from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, watering it down, in an attempt to become more popular.  The war-cry is to become seeker-sensitive.  And the more we reach into the world, the more the world reach into the church.  Instead of being counter-cultural, we have become a cultural assimilating cultural body.  Our witness is watered down, our message has become stale and meaningless, the Bible is neglected in some worship services, church language and demeanour,  even worship music, is hardly any different from what the world has on offer.  We do these things to not be an offence, while it is exactly our calling is not to please the world, but to worship God.

The status quo is the new normal 

Judges 13 sketches the church of God at a low watermark.  Something like a refrain runs through the book of Judges every time a new judge is announced: “The Israelites did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord…” But this phrase is missing when the angel of the Lord appeared to Samson’s mother.  

With other judges, the people cried to the Lord for help, but not at the time when Samson’s birth was announced.   For forty years those whom Israel was supposed to dispossess, became the oppressors.  And it seems Israel got used to the situation.  They took the role is servants in the land which God gave them to possess and to reign for God’s glory.  

It got so low, that our chapter in Judges paints a picture of God’s own people not even knowing what His real name was.  The writer of the book used God covenant name JHWH, but Samson’s mother uses a generic term for God, “a man of God” or ”a godlike man”.  Her husband used another name, ‘Adonaj.  Maybe for longer than they had been married, there was no messenger of God.  It is only much later that they understood that it was indeed God who appeared to them.

The status quo of not knowing God became the new normal.  Not knowing Him also meant not knowing his will for them.  Even worse, not knowing Him, indicated that they have lost hope on salvation and freedom from oppression. Being dispossessed and living in bondage became normal.

This is a very sad state of affairs for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ:  if we don’t know and serve Him as Lord and Saviour, we will accept the lowest denominator as the standard.  The life of the church becomes stale, colourless, with no vitality, no living hope, no real substance, just a breathless, run-of-the-mill and bleached-out.  Churchgoers are going through the motions, just in case God might be there, who knows? And while the world laughs and scoffs, we take it as normal.

And just don’t rock the boat to upset the world!  When Samson began to terrorise the Philistines in an attempt to set his people free, of his own people rebuked him:  

Three thousand men from Judah said to Samson, “Don’t you realise that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?” He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.” (Judges 15:11, NIV)

It might be that the true man or woman of God who takes Christ on his word is considered to be the enemy of the very people who are supposed to be God’s conquering army under the banner of Christ.  

Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, our Canaan is the lost world to be conquered with the Gospel of Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  The church of God needs to be like a marching, invading army.  

Our series for advent goes under the heading, “The long road to Bethlehem”.  Samson was not the ultimate deliverer; he just “began” to deliver (Judges 13:5).  The final Deliverer was born in Bethlehem many years after that.  His deliverance was comprehensive and definitive.  In His Name, we should march forward, uncompromised.  The minute we become worldly, we lose, and God only becomes an irrational notion in the back of their minds.  But, He then becomes our enemy.  

Let’s fall at the feet of Christ and witness Him to the fallen world around us with undivided loyalty.

Amen.

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