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Monday, December 7, 2020

Epochs of Israel - The Judges

Christmas is the celebration of the long-awaited birth of the Messiah.  The Jewish people 2,000 years ago yearned for the Messiah to come save them from their oppression.  God intended Israel to be His chosen people to represent Him to the whole world.  Unfortunately, Israel broke their covenant with God again and again leading to their downfall and disgrace.  The Kingdom of God did not stand because the citizens of Israel were unfaithful to God.  Foreign empires took over Israel and subjected God’s people to foreign rule.  Yet God promised to send a Messiah to save them from the consequences of their sin and restore the Kingdom of God on earth. 

In this message series, we are getting an overview of 4 major periods in Israel’s history—4 epochs—that led to Israel’s downfall and their deep longing for God’s Messiah.  As we go through, I hope you will recognize some of Israel’s story in your own life.  For we are also waiting for the Messiah to come.  Jesus, the Messiah, came as a baby born in a manger 2,000 years ago.  However, Jesus promised he would return in the clouds to finally establish God's Kingdom on Earth.  And so as we prepare for Christmas, we prepare for the second coming of Christ. 

In my church this Sunday, we reviewed the history of Israel with this responsive reading. 

Pastor:  The Lord our God is mighty to save! He rescued Israel from Egyptian Empire. 

People:  Through 10 plagues, God judged Egypt’s idols and proved they were nothing. 

Pastor:  At Mount Sinai, God made a sacred covenant with Israel.

People:  The Lord gave 10 commandments and the Law about how to live and worship.

Pastor:  The Lord led Israel to Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. He appointed Joshua to lead Israel in battle.

People:  The Lord fought for Israel.  They defeated the kings of Canaan and took possession of the land.

 Pastor:  The Lord granted land to all 12 tribes of Israel.

People:  Every family and clan had their own place to live in peace.

Pastor:  Joshua warned Israel, “Do not become like the Canaanites they had conquered or worship their gods,

People:  Or else the God of Israel will visit the same judgment on you that fell upon the Canaanites.”

Pastor:  The people promised to be faithful and settled in the Promised Land,

People:  But they did not completely drive out the Canaanites.

 All:  And so the second Epoch of Israel begins—The Epoch of the Judges.

Judges 2:1-3
The angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said to the Israelites, “I brought you out of Egypt into this land that I swore to give your ancestors, and I said I would never break my covenant with you. For your part, you were not to make any covenants with the people living in this land; instead, you were to destroy their altars. But you disobeyed my command. Why did you do this? So now I declare that I will no longer drive out the people living in your land. They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a constant temptation to you.”

The Epoch of the Judges
The epoch of judges last about 350 years, from the death of Joshua until the death of Samuel.

During this time, Israel did not have a central government.  Israel functioned as a loose confederation of 12 tribes who believed God was their king.  

The term judge in the Bible can be misleading to the modern reader. We think of a judge as a person who hears a legal case in court.  That is not the kind of judge the Bible means in the book of Judges.  A judge in ancient Israel was a tribal leader God chose to consolidate tribal support.  Since there was not a king unite the Israelites into one army, God would raise an important tribal leader to consolidate support to tackle a national threat when it arose.

Although all the Canaanite kings had been defeated, there were still Canaanites living in the land and God was willing to welcome the remaining Canaanites into His Kingdom if they would convert.  God even gave stipulations in His Law about how to treat foreigners like the Canaanites fairly.

Exodus 12:48, “If there are foreigners living among you who want to celebrate the Lord’s Passover, let all their males be circumcised. Only then may they celebrate the Passover with you like any native-born Israelite. But no uncircumcised male may ever eat the Passover meal."

Leviticus 19:33-34, “Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Several famous people in Israel were not native-born Israelites.  Caleb was one of only two peole God allowed to survive all the way from the Exodus out of Egypt to the entrance into the Promised Land.  One was Joshua.  The other was Caleb.  Caleb was not a native born Israelite.  Caleb was a Kenezzite. 

Rahab was a Canaanite convert from Jericho. She’s the great-grandmother of King David and one of only 5 women listed in the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah.

God is gracious and willing to welcome all the table in His Kingdom.  God doesn’t care about your nationality or ethnicity.  What God cares about is your heart.  If you leave behind your idols and false gods and repent of your sinful behavior, God welcomes you.  God welcomed any Canaanite who rejected Canaan and turned to Israel. 

God's plan was for the Israelites to take over Canaan little-by-little—allowing time and space to win the hearts and minds of the Canaanites.  God’s hope was those who were willing would repent and turn to God.  The Israelites were supposed to represent the light of God to the heathen Canaanites (and to all the world). If Israel had done their job and worshiped God faithfully, they could have converted all Canaan into one glorious Kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, God’s vision was corrupted.  Once the Israelites entered the land and got a little peace and prosperity, they got comfortable and lazy.  Instead of “driving out” Canaanite religion, the began to mix their religion with Canaan’s.  And so they diluted pure faith in God with false gods and idols.

The Cycle of Judges
Throughout the Epoch of the Judges, we see a cyclical, downward spiral of morality in Israel.
First, Israel will be living in peace and prosperity, which leads to complacency.  Second, Israel will sin and compromise their faith in God and worship the gods of the Canaanites.  Third, Israel will experience great distress from foreign oppression. Next, Israel will cry out to God for help.  Finally, God will raise up a judge to deliver Israel leading them back into a period of peace and prosperity.  And Israel went around and around this cycle throughout the Book of Judges.  

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a cycle.  It’s a downward spiral (look wanted being flushed down a toilet). Each cycle of sin, destress, crying out, and salvation leaves Israel in greater darkness.  So by the end of the book of Judges, the Israelites are so morally depraved, one can hardly tell a difference between them and the Canaanites they replaced.  Even the judges listed in at end of the book are not very good people.  For example, the last judge Samson, is incredibly strong, but he's not a good person.  He's an idiot who gets drunk and sleeps with the wrong women and goes on murderous rages.  Apparently, Israel has fallen so far into darkness by the end of the Epoch of the Judges that Samson is all God has left to work with o save Israel. 

Implications for Us
Well, so what? What does this have to do with us today?  One great lesson from Judges is the danger of syncretism.  Syncretism is the blending together of different religions.  Syncretism is rampant in America today.  It is so pervasive, most people don’t even recognize syncretism when they see it.  

One example is the "Coexist" movement.  Perhaps you have seen the bumper stickers some people put on their cars that incorporate the religious symbols of the all the major world religions and world-views to spell the word "coexist".  It's a nice gesture on the surface.  People of different religions have been fighting and killing each other for thousands of years.  I'm sure it saddens God greatly and we do all need to earn how to live together in peace.  

However there is a notion among many people in America that is very prevalent and very misguided.  Many people believe all the major world religions are really just different ways of saying the same thing.  One cliché you may hear is "All religions lead to Heaven, they just take you there by a different road."  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Christianity is fundamentally different from all the other major world religions--Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and even Judaism.  There may be some things in common, but only on the surface.  If you dig even a little bit deeper, the similarities evaporate.  Other world religions don't even have the same concept of Heaven as the Bible; how can they lead to the same place?

The only way for the different religions to be considered similar is if you practice them in an extremely shallow way.  Don't dig very deep at all.  Don't seek to be very devout in your religion and you may do fine.  But if you seek to truly give yourself to your faith, you will find it leads you to very different views about the world, about God, about the afterlife, and about how we should live and why than other religions.  (For a much deeper examination of the essential differences between Christianity and other world religions, I highly recommend the author Ravi Zachariah who has written several great and easily understandable books on the topic.

Another way syncretism shows up in our culture is our extreme emphasis on tolerance.  We are a very diverse culture and so our society doesn't tolerate anyone who isn't tolerant.  It's almost as if you aren't allowed to claim that your views are right and someone else's are wrong.  To do so is deemed intolerant and it is almost a cardinal sin in America today.  

God calls us to be kind and respectful of people with whom we disagree, but God also strictly forbids us to compromise our faith and values.  The dilution of our faith is offensive to God and destroys our relationship with Him.   

In order to avoid diluting authentic faith in the One True God, we have to know what that authentic faith is.  Unfortunately, we are so synchronistic we have a really hard time telling the difference between authentic Christian faith and the popularized religion of the world around us.  Just as an example, ask the average person what it means to be a Christian.  They may say it is following a bunch of rules and if you are good enough, God will reward you with heaven.  That's the popular, syncretistic image of Heaven and it is an absolutely contradiction to biblical Christian faith.  Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly teaches, "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it."

So we often have to start with a keen examination of what we believe and how we live to see if it is tre Christianity.  Thankfully, God has preserved for us perfectly true, unadulterated Christianity in the Holy Bible.  Right here in the sacred, unchanging pages of God’s Word are the principles by which we need to live.  Every Christian in our community has incredible access to this Book.  But how many will open the pages to learn the right way to live?  It is so much easier to learn from the world around us and follow a popular religion that takes a little bit of this and little bit of that throws it all into a blender to make a sweet, synchronistic religion that’s easy to swallow, but doesn’t really require much of you and isn’t really the Lord’s perfect plan for you; and it has no power to save you or change your life.

During the Epoch of the Judges, God was to be Israel’s King.  They were to faithfully obey Him.  But whenever life got easy, they forgot about God.  Judges 17:6 says, “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” 

The writer of Judges is doing something sneaky that you might miss if you aren't paying attention.  You see, Israel didn't have a king.  We already said that. No man served as the king because God was supposed to be Israel's King.  So when the writer says, "In those days, Israel had no king..." he is really saying two things.  Israel had no king and they didn't really accept God as their king either.  "All the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes."

In our day, for most people, God is not really our King either.   Most people just do whatever seems right in their own eyes.  When life is pretty good, we forget about God.  I mean, who wants a king telling them what to do and how to live?  Not most people in America.  It’s only when troubles come (cancer, unemployment, the COVID-19 pandemic) that people tend to turn to God—just like in the days of the Judges in Israel.  And when we cry out, God hears our cries and comes to rescue.  

But here’s the thing people do realize.  Every cycle of sin, distress, and repentance is a downward spiral that leaves you more and more broken and worse off than before.  What we really need is true repentance where we surrender unconditionally to God through Jesus Christ. 

Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24).  This is not a half-hearted endeavor.  This is complete surrender.  It is laying down your life so that God can give you a new one.  And when we do, God will give us a new heart and eternal life.  He will fill us with His Holy Spirit and right His Law upon our hearts. 

Won’t you turn to Jesus today and let him save you?  Not just from your current situation, but from you entire broken, sinful life.  In doing so, you allow god to begin a brand new epoch in your life—the epoch of eternal life as a citizen in the Kingdom of God.

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