Sunday, July 30, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Cautionary Tale: Abimelech"

Judges 9:7-21

 When Jotham was told about this, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim. He raised his voice and called out, “Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, so that God may listen to you! 8 “Once the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’ 9 “But the olive tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my oil, which is how gods and humans are honored, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’ 10 “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be king over us!’ 11 “The fig tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’ 12 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and be king over us!’ 13 “But the vine replied to them, ‘Should I stop providing my wine that makes gods and humans happy, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’ 14 “Finally, all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be king over us!’ 15 “And the thornbush replied to the trees, ‘If you’re acting faithfully in anointing me king over you, come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the thornbush and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.’ 

16 “So now, if you acted faithfully and innocently when you made Abimelech king, and if you’ve done right by Jerubbaal and his household, and have treated him as his actions deserve— 17 my father fought for you and risked his life to rescue you from Midian’s power, 18 but today you’ve risen up against my father’s household, killed his seventy sons on a single stone, and made Abimelech, his female servant’s son, king over the leaders of Shechem, because he’s your relative— 19 so if you’ve acted faithfully and innocently toward Jerubbaal and his household today, then be happy with Abimelech and let him be happy with you. 20 But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech and burn up the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo and burn up Abimelech.”

21 Then Jotham ran away. He fled to Beer and stayed there for fear of his brother Abimelech. (Common English Bible)

“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Four

It would likely not have made huge news here in the States when it took place in 1905, and almost certainly is not a part of our collective consciousness now, but when Norway formally separated itself from Sweden, a remarkable thing happened: a country got to choose its own monarch.

Sweden, like many European countries, was (and is) a constitutional monarchy, and originally, the brand-new Norwegian government had offered their throne to one of the younger brothers of the King of Sweden, Oscar II, who turned down the offer. This offer was controversial in Norway as well, as republican (small ‘r’) members of the Norwegian parliament voted against having a monarchy, and a cabinet member even resigned over the possibility of having a monarch.

So when Norway approached its next candidate, Prince Carl of Denmark, Prince Carl came back with a remarkable nonnegotiable: he would only take the throne if the Norwegian people and their parliament both voted to institute a constitutional monarchy in a countrywide referendum. It wasn’t until after both the people and the parliament voted to call Prince Carl as their king by a nearly 80-20 margin that Prince Carl accepted the offer of the crown, becoming King Haakon VII and eventually leading the Norwegian resistance to Hitler as king and through his government-in-exile in England. He died nearly fifty-two years after accepting the crown a national hero for his leadership against Nazism in a time when not all European nations were able or willing to show such resolve.

This is not a story to weigh in favor of any monarchy in our present 21st century context, but to weigh in on the consideration and deliberation with which Haakon took the throne, doing so not because he wanted to, but because the democracy asked it of him—not entirely unlike the popular acclaim the judges of ancient Israel would ride into office upon…with one exception: Abimelech.

This is a new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and two weeks we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak. Last week we got to hear from one of the most complicated figures in the book of Judges—Gideon—and today we arrive at a judge who, unlike the first three, does not end up with any sort of good press from the Bible (even Gideon, despite his eventual idolatry, has his good moments in Scripture): Abimelech.

Abimelech, like the other judges we have met so far, came from a family of nobodies. Yet while Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon all rightly rode the popular acclaim of their neighbors to their mandate as judges, Abimelech tried to take his by the tip of the proverbial sword, as Yale’s Hebrew Bible scholar John J. Collins conveys:

Abimelech has no reservations about claiming the kingship, and he clears his path by murdering his seventy brothers, except for the youngest, Jotham, who escapes. Like Jephthah in Judges 11, Abimelech is of dishonorable birth; he is the son of a slave woman. Unlike Jephthah, or some other underprivileged figures in the Hebrew Bible, he is not asked to assume leadership but pursues it aggressively, even murderously.

If for no other reason than this, Abimelech stands apart from the other judges, and not at all in a positive fashion. In the violent ethos of the time, it is one thing to be bloodthirsty—after all, Samson, who we’ll spend three weeks on next month, became famous and celebrated among the Israelites for his various massacres of the Philistines—but it is entirely another to be bloodthirsty towards your own kin. Family, clan, and tribe were everything, which really is not so different than today. After all, we are far more apt to mourn those close to us who are lost to violence than those from foreign lands who are likewise lost to violence. And that is not a compliment.

Abimelech’s murderous treachery prompts, then, this parable of the different trees we heard today from his youngest brother, Jotham, and it serves as a cautionary tale to those who would rush headlong into kingship, no matter the human cost or price, but it likewise—and, honestly, even more so—serves as a cautionary tale to those who would make such a seeker of a crown their monarch to begin with.

All of the trees seek a ruler to crown, and go one by one through their lineup looking for one, and it is not until the thornbush—the brambles—that they find a sovereign, but as they quickly learn, simply crowning one a monarch does not imbue one with any innate goodness. That is the fundamental difference between earthen and heavenly kingship, the goodness that is innate in the latter but must be assiduously sought after in the former. It is why we honor Jesus as the one true king—only a Messiah can be this innately good.

The thornbush, simply, is not. And it does not take a Biblical Sherlock Holmes to realize that Abimelech is represented by the thornbush, and that his murderousness is represented by the fire the thornbush issues to destroy the famed and treasured cedars of Lebanon—which, as Jotham explains, in turn will be paid back in kind right back to Abimelech by the kings of the neighboring kingdoms.

Juxtapose, then, such impetuousness and selfish violence with the patience of someone who does not seek such power and authority without a mandate from the people—the Abimelech’s predecessors as judges, or Haakon VII, or even our own leaders today. Much as we like to complain about them, and as much as they often richly merit such complaint, they are democratically chosen.

Take that process one step further, then. Jesus, like the judges of old, like any good leader, awaits to be chosen by us. Jesus is not a guide for us in the mold of Abimelech. And while theologically speaking, taking the New Testament and shoving it directly into the Old is problematic, but in terms of using two different figures as moral examples, this is an important comparison that we can make.

So Jesus awaits our selection of Him to be our teacher and Messiah, to follow and learn from, to draw strength and life out of. Not because He needs the wait, but because a connection built on coercion or ruthlessness is not the connection to have with Him.

Abimelech, then, is a cautionary tale—one of many throughout the Bible—who offers us a foil of sorts with his evil. We ought to learn from his example. So far in our collective history, though, we seem to have not yet done so.

Think of the highly staged choice that Pontius Pilate posed to the temple authorities on Good Friday—he drags out Jesus, proclaims, “Behold the man!” and tells the Jewish leaders to choose between a nonviolent carpenter and a murderous rebel. The authorities, and the crowd that they incited, do not have the best interests of their people at heart. They choose wrongly. As too, repeatedly, time and again, have we.

Let us turn, then, from the ways and promises of Abimelech and those who would be him, lest in doing so we condemn ourselves to heartlessness, our neighbors to hatefulness, and God’s creation to lifelessness. Abimelech’s way cannot be our way, even as it has so often, horrifically and terribly often, been the world’s way.

And may we find anew in the presence of God as revealed by Jesus Christ the promise that there is indeed another way—one that we can follow, and should follow, towards life rather than deadness, towards love rather than hate, towards grace and mercy rather than revenge and retribution, and, ultimately, towards that goodness that is innate in God, and that keeps God as our true monarch.

Long live that one true God, and long may that one true God reign.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson

Longview, Washington 
July 30, 2017

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