Sermon: Grace Beyond Explanation

[This sermon was originally delivered on Sunday, November 22, 2015.]

Not every story in the Bible is worthy of imitation. Not every person, nor even every action of a genuine faithful person in the Bible, serves as an invitation to ‘go and do likewise.’

Except for God himself and God made flesh in Jesus Christ, even person in the Bible sins. Some of those sins are recorded as part of God’s word, which is trustworthy and true, even if all the people in it are not.

As we hear God’s word to us this morning, I want to give you permission to be troubled by what you hear. I want to give you permission to be disturbed. It is not an accident that this story is included in the Bible, and we come today trusting that God speaks to us even in the troubling parts.

The Word of the Lord comes to us this morning from Judges 11. The story takes place during the period of the Judges – a time when ‘everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ (Judges 21:25b). It is the story of Jephthah and his daughter.

Before we hear God’s word this morning, please pray with me:

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches:

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him. 

Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”

Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”

The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.”

Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me – will I really be your head?”

The elders of Gilead replied, “The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.

Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against me that you have attacked my country?”

The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.”

Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, saying:

“This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country.’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, but he refused. So Israel stayed in Kadesh.

Next they travelled through the wilderness, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was it border.

Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his troops and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.

Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and his whole army into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.

Now since the Lord, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess. Are you any better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel and fight with them? For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements, and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn’t you retake them during that time? I have not wronged you, but you have done me wrong by waging war against me. Let the Lord, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”

The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.

Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephath. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah in Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” 

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”

“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you have promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said, “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

From this come the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. 

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

[Deep Breath]

The more troubling the passage in the Bible, the greater our desire to explain it. As we hear Jephthah’s rash vow to offer to God ‘whatever’ comes out to meet him, we want an explanation. We want to understand at the same time we shudder. Even as we feel his grief and devastation as he finds his daughter running toward him with joy, we want some way to make sense of it all.

What did Jephthah really expect to have meet him?

Why make such a ridiculous vow in the first place? Was he trying to bribe God?

Would God really hold him to his word when it involved child sacrifice?

Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering?

For that matter, where is God in this whole story?

There is an important impulse behind these questions. The Christian faith is one of ‘faith seeking understanding.’ It is not afraid of questions, even difficult ones. We are right to search for ways of holding together our larger confessions of faith with the particularities we find in each story and verse. Explanation can be helpful. This challenging and arduous work can help shed light on the dim places in scripture. It can serve to put a passage into focus so that what should be clear is made clear to us.

For instance, it may be helpful to know that there is no way that God would have honored Jephthah’s vow if it included human sacrifice, since the vow goes against God’s own law. Twice in Leviticus (18:21, 20:2-5) and twice in Deuteronomy (12:31, 18:10), human sacrifice was clearly forbidden and considered an abomination against God.

It may also be helpful to know that historically there has been some disagreement on the translation of this passage, with a significant minority arguing that Jephthah’s vow should read: “[whatever meets me] will be the Lord’s or I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (v.31) This translation suggests that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter on an altar (something never explicitly stated in the passage), but committed her to perpetual service in the Tabernacle. The grief and mourning would then be for her never marrying and bearing a child to carry on the family line. She asks, “give me two month to roam the hills and weep with my friends because I will never marry.” (v.37)

All this is true and much of it is helpful. We could spend our whole time this morning searching and wrestling for clarity and understanding. We should not be afraid to ask questions and never hear me discouraging any of you from seeking to listen more carefully to God’s voice in Scripture.

And yet, for all the benefits that might have, there is also a danger. Our desire for an ‘explanation’ very easily leads into the temptation to ‘explain away’ the difficult places in this story. At the same time our faith seeks understanding, we should avoid easy answers that paint every character in the Bible as an unqualified hero.

There is very little to commend Jephthah for in this story. He is a judge, a leader of God’s people Israel during the time between the settling of the land and the crowning of the first king, Saul.

The very first thing we learn about him, in verse 1, is this: Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.

Sins of the parents visited upon the child, Jephthah is driven out of the family by his brothers, disowned and disinherited, presumably by the very elders of Gilead that a short while later seek his help.

Jephthah has baggage. He has been wounded and cast out. He gathers a group of scoundrels and makes a name for himself with the strength of his hands. Jephthah has a past filled with pain. We can almost hear it in his voice as he questions the elders of Gilead.

Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble? (v.7)

Even as they promise him leadership, his wounded heart needs them to confirm their promises.

Jephthah is deeply flawed, but he has faith in God. He repeats his vows before God, he knows the story, he even seeks God’s help.

Up to this point, Jephthah is someone we can sympathize with. Jephthah has wounds in his heart he did nothing to inflict, and some he did. He has family issues. He has faith mixed with fear. He longs for his people to be saved, even as he isn’t sure he always trusts them.

And God uses him. God uses Jephthah, beautiful and broken as he was. Jephthah, the son of the prostitute, Jephthah the gang leaders, Jephthah the outcast, that Jephthah is the one God uses as part of his grand project of redemption.

God works through the life of Jephthah. And if God can do that, then our past is no barrier to God. Our parent’s sins, the friends we used to have, or even the wounds we still carry do not disqualify us from God’s grace. For grace and calling are not a matter of qualification, they are a gift none of us deserve.

Grace is God telling a 75 year old man he would make him a great nation.

Grace is God calling an 80 year old stuttering shepherd to go back to land where he murdered a man and liberate God’s people from bondage.

Grace is God calling to a child in the night, “Samuel, Samuel,” and the child responding “Here I am.”

Grace is an angel telling a young woman she would carry the Savior of the world in her womb.

Grace is Jesus – his hands stretched out in healing to the sick, his hands stretched out in calling to fishermen and tax collectors, his hands stretched out and pierced for us and for our salvation.

Grace is God using Jephthah, the scoundrel son of a prostitute to rescue Israel.

Grace is God using you and me, drawing us into His great work of redemption for the sake of the whole world.

But the story is not over. The part that has you squirming in your seats and me pacing back and forth is intertwined with the story of deliverance.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (v.30)

‘Whatever’ comes out the door, he will dedicate to the Lord forever.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him, but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels. She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. (v.34)

He is at best a fool and at worst a monster. If, as some believe, that meant his daughter was committed to lifelong service in the tabernacle, then he is a fool. A fool whose rash promise cost his daughter her freedom and her future. But if that means he placed his daughters body on an altar and burned her, thinking he was keeping a promise that would honor God, then Jephthah is a monster.

I believe Jephthah was foolish in making his vow and sinful in carrying it through. He blew it. He sinned, stripped his daughter of her freedom or possibly her life. He has cut off his own line, his own inheritance and cut off her future, in one way or another. His mistake, but she paid the highest price. I struggle to put words to what he did. As I think of my own son…

Our explanations must avoid ‘explaining away,’ because we should not hide the horror of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter. For all the young girls and young boys wounded by the sins of their parents. For all the daughters and sons sacrificed on lesser altars or in the name of God.

Our passage tells us that Jephthah’s daughter was not forgotten. Every year, the young women of Israel remembered her. It is she who is commemorated in this story, not Jephthah. Flawed, broken Jephthah sins twice, in the vow and in its execution.

Is Jephthah now beyond grace?

Is this screw-up, this sin, so monumental that there is no going back?

Is repentance useless and forgiveness impossible?

Can we, after knowing God, walking with God, being used by God in his mission, find ourselves beyond forgiveness?

Can we sin so badly there is no going back?

The passage makes no comment either way. Jephthah is neither condemned nor exonerated. We might be left to wonder, except for this: in Hebrews 11, when listing the hall of faith, there is this curious line: And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah. (Hebrews 11:32)

…and Jephthah.

Somehow, Jephthah is listed among the faithful.

Is Jephthah beyond forgiveness?

The Spirit speaking through the book of Hebrews says ‘No.’

No. Even Jephthah is not beyond the reach of God’s grace. Even Jephthah’s sin is paid for on the cross. God uses Jephthah, even though he is flawed. God forgives Jephthah even though he sins, and sins greatly.

Jephthah was not beyond the grace of God. He was not too under-qualified, too wounded, too fearful, too reckless, or even too sinful.

And neither are we.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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