Preached on June 17, 2018 at PC Chestertown
I want to begin this morning by making a vow of my own: I promise that this text was not intentionally selected for Father’s Day…
Have you ever tried to make a deal with God? I’m as guilty as the next person because I definitely have. My negotiations started small…innocent even…
- God, if you will help me pass this test, I promise I’ll read my Bible more and I’ll pray every day.
- God, if you will help me get this job, I will do something good for someone else.
But as I grew older and as life became more complicated, my proposed deals started to become more serious and troubling…
- God, I promise that I will invest more fully in my relationship with you, if you would only keep this young, innocent girl alive.
- God, if you would heal this relationship, I will forgive those who have hurt me, who I am holding grudges against.
And the list go on, some vows very personal and risky and some seeming to me rather trivial. I always assumed that if everything worked out the way that I wanted it to, then God had taken me up on my offer and delivered. If things didn’t go my way, then God failed me. Yet, rarely have I ever considered whether or not I had held my end up the bargain; usually I forget all about it, unlike Jephthah.
Even though I know better, even though I know that making a deal with God is a ridiculous thing to do, I still catch myself silently negotiating my way through different situations. When I’m struggling to find the words to say, when I’m faced with a difficult decision to make, when I’m trying to write a sermon late on a Saturday night…
I try to make myself feel better by manipulating the wording of my request. I try to make it sound less like I’m bargaining with God and more like a simple, no-strings-attached, sensible request. Which still doesn’t sound good.
I can hear myself saying: “God is not a vending machine.” This is a point I drive home with each confirmation class when we study prayer. But as I also often remind them, I’m not perfect and I still sometimes hope that God will give me what I ask for because I’m a relatively good person and I try to be as faithful as any human can be.
I can’t say I’ve ever made a deal like Jephthah’s though. He is on his way to make war with the Ammonites. But before he takes action, he stops to talk with God:
“Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.’”
It’s interesting that Jephthah chooses to make this vow to God. At the beginning of our passage, the “Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah,” so God was already with him. And yet, Jephthah still felt it necessary to negotiate with God.
I see two problems here; first, a lack of trust in God. We know that Jephthah has received God’s Spirit, and he seems to be aware of God’s presence as he speaks to God. Because God was with Jephthah, making a vow, asking God to conquer the Ammonites with the promise of a burnt offering, would have been unnecessary. It seems like Jephthah isn’t entirely sure that God will help him. So he makes a deal with God to show his intent; he’s very serious about this. And yet, his wording is careless and doesn’t indicate that he’s fully thought through the words he’s uttering.
The second problem is that Jephthah is actually acting in an unfaithful and idolatrous way. Maybe he just wanted to be sure that God would deliver the Ammonites into his hand, double checking. It wouldn’t be unusual to return thanks to God through a burnt offering. But offering a child? That was unheard of. In fact, Jephthah is actually mimicking practices of the Ammonites; they were known for offering children as burnt sacrifices to please the gods. This was an abomination to God’s people! And on top of that, Jephthah places the blame on his daughter.
The problem with Jephthah’s vow to God is that he doesn’t trust God enough to allow God to act. He is filled with doubt and he wants control; instead, he should be practicing faith and courage. Rather than embracing and trusting God’s Spirit within him, Jephthah attempts to bind God.
We could commend Jephthah for being faithful to his word, for keeping his promise, for doing his part, since God’s part was completed. But as far as I’m concerned, Jephthah’s words were spoken from a place of unfaithfulness, carelessness, and distrust.
I wonder if Jephthah really wanted to go to war against the Ammonites. Did he want a victory? He had to have known that a family member, someone he loved and cared about, would have been the first one to walk out of the doors of his house when he returned. Perhaps he wasn’t as courageous as he wanted others to believe, though he was an accomplished warrior. Perhaps he would rather die, than see someone he loved die, should he be victorious. Maybe his words were intentionally chosen, trying to cover up his fear.
Now we can’t talk about this vow without talking about the one Jephthah makes his vow to – God. There is no indication that God agrees to this deal. We know God is with him and we also know that the Lord delivered the Ammonites into his hand. So does that mean that God was pleased with Jephthah’s vow? That he wanted him to sacrifice a loved one as a burnt offering?
Why didn’t God stop Jephthah, like he stopped Abraham? One major difference between these two fathers is the initiator; God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, while Jephthah tells God that he will sacrifice someone. Once God sees that Abraham is faithful, that Abraham will do what God asks of him, God stops him from sacrificing Isaac and rewards his faithfulness.
But there is no divine intervention for Jephthah.
I can’t imagine that God was pleased with Jephthah sacrificing his daughter. In fact, I would guess that God mourned her death. Invoking God’s name doesn’t automatically make our words and our actions faithful and obedient. I’m not so sure God made a deal with Jephthah.
Now, I don’t think Jephthah’s intentions were evil. I do think that he should have stopped to consider how he understands, speaks to, and relates to God. Is God someone to negotiate with? Can God be influenced by our human, often sinful, desires? Would God ever want us to commit an injustice in God’s name?
Or is God someone we listen to? Someone we follow and obey? Can we have honest conversations with God, admitting our brokenness and fear and inadequacy? Instead of making sinful deals, can we ask God for what we need?
We should be mindful of how we understand who God is. We should be thoughtful about how we speak to God, how we pray – not that our words have to sound eloquent and well put together; rather, our words should indicate our reverence for God and our humility. We should be mindful of how we relate to God, seeking to be led, rather than seeking to influence or manipulate God.
You know, Jesus was a victim of unfaithfulness and idolatry. Jesus, like Jephthah’s daughter, was a victim of the careless, the power-hungry, the fearful. God may forgive our unfaithfulness, but God can’t stop it.
We are called to embrace the presence of God within us by fostering an awareness of God, listening to and for God when we are speaking and acting, and practicing faithfulness. As Christians, we are called to understand who God is, as best we can, and how we are to relate to God. This means that we recognize that our connection with God is through a relationship, not a series of deals and negotiations. It’s a covenant, not a bargain. It’s grounded in love, not fear. It’s knowing that God is with us, so we don’t need to do anything else.
The book of Judges is all about faithfulness to the covenant between God and humanity. Will Israel worship and serve God alone? Will we worship and serve God alone? Will we trust God to be God?
Let’s make deal. And the deal is this: don’t make deals with God. Don’t negotiate with God about the things you’ll say and do, with the expectation that God will do something in return for you. Instead, let’s make a covenant with God. Let’s invest in a relationship with God. Let’s view and treat God as the One who is sovereign and just. Let’s trust God enough to release our anxiety about doing something in return for God. Because God’s part is done; God’s love and mercy are eternal. There’s nothing left for us to bargain for. Amen.