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|Contents|||||Weeping at Bokhiym: Judges 2:1¬5|
It’s a great pleasure and privilege to be invited back to speak to you again. The subject I want to talk to you about tonight is Disappointment. Now, since I first began preparing this a little while ago, there’ve been all kinds of different situations in the country that cause people to feel Disappointed. We’ve had a general election, at which many have been Disappointed – and others not – and we’ve had sporting results that for many people both locally and further afield have been Disappointing. Quite apart from all the events and changes in our personal lives and community lives that don’t go as we would have preferred. Disappointment is a perennial part of human – and Christian – life, and we’re looking at it tonight, mainly from the two passages we have had read to us, but also drawing in some other parts of the Bible as we go along.
Now... so as not to build up any sort of false hope, I am not going to give you an answer to Disappointment tonight! You are not going to get “three steps for the amelioration of Disappointment and the restoration of Hope” or anything like that. What I hope we are going to do together is look at some of the causes and roots of the condition we call Disappointment, and how a Christian fellowship can respond.
In Tolkein’s book, Lord of the Rings, in a phrase that did not make it into the recent film series, one character says to another, “the deeds of Men will outlast us” to which the reply comes “and yet come to nothing in the end but might-have-beens”.
Disappointment arises from several different sources – it can come about because of our own actions, those of other people, the general fallenness of the world, or indeed the sovereign actions of God to thwart a plan that we had thought good. So, whether or not you are Disappointed is not an infallible test whether the thing you wanted was good or bad in itself.
The passage from Mark’s gospel shows us two of the disciples – in Matthew’s variation, accompanied by their mother – asking for a privileged position in glory. Now, I think that the context makes it clear that they had some idea that the road to this position would not be easy. Immediately before this episode, Mark relates one of Jesus’ prophecies of his own brutal humiliation and death, and Jesus is careful to make sure at the moment of asking that James and John are aware of the cost. So I don’t think they were looking for a kind of celestial get-rich-quick scheme, but were acutely aware that there was considerable risk involved. Their Disappointment did not, I think, arise from having a demand that was unreasonable on the face of it… it arose from Jesus saying “no”. There are other aspects of this that I want to come back to, but for the moment let’s move on to the passage from Judges.
Now, you perhaps remember from previous times I have been here, that this whole tribal portion of Old Testament history is one that I find fascinating, not just for its own intrinsic interest and variety, but because I see many areas of similarity between this era and church life today. So it is here. Leading up to tonight’s episode we have had the whole book of Joshua, describing a series of campaigns into different parts of the Promised Land – for the most part successful so long as the Israelite army employed cunning tactics and surprise moves rather than directly confronting enemy forces. But the last chapters of Joshua, and the first chapter of Judges, list the fortified towns and the other areas of the country that the Israelite had been unable to capture. All of that is just like the history of the church. We have had our times of success, of inroad into the world, but often we have had setbacks, and often we have left empty areas that once were Christian, and abandoned them for others to claim.
Back in Judges, and worse still – we understand from the context – the Israelites had not only failed to achieve military victory, but had started to accommodate themselves to the culture and religious habits of the land. It was normal in the ancient near east to interpret wars and battles in terms of conflict between the patron gods of each nation, so it would be natural for the Israelites to start to take on some of the religion of the people they were unable to defeat. The attitude is there, “if we can’t beat them, then their god must be worth something“. Into this situation comes the messenger of the LORD with this solemn message: “since you have done these things, I will not drive out the people currently living in the land.“
So here we have an example of another source of Disappointment – the Israelites had done certain things, and the angel of the LORD made it clear that their future in the land would be shaped accordingly. It was quite directly the cost and the consequence of their own choices, and they felt this acutely and intensely at Bokhiym – “they lifted up their voice and wept“. But we can’t leave this passage just there. As I’m sure you know, Judges can seem a demoralising book. There are short interludes of success, mostly early on in the book, but as a rule things go downhill from bad to worse. It’s not really that the actions of external enemies get worse – in fact, the most dangerous enemies are encountered earlier on in the book – but rather that the Israelites’ own conduct became more and more reprehensible. The refrain that we find with increasing frequency is “Israel had no king... everyone did as he saw fit“. So what happened here is that Israel as a collection of tribes and as an emergent nation embarked on a self-destructive journey. Their response to the Disappointing words they heard, as spelled out in the next few centuries of history, made it come true in perhaps the worst possible way.
You see, nothing in the words of the angel of the LORD actually compelled them to come to disaster. The LORD said to them that he would not drive out the occupants of the land, and that their gods would be a snare for them. This did not mean that the other nations would necessarily be in control, nor that the lure of these gods would inevitably have to entrap them. Sadly, the way that the Israelites lived out these words over the next few centuries led them into a pattern of self-destructive behaviour. The other nations did control them – though this was not inevitable – and the other gods were not just a snare but an actual trap – though they did not have to be. Why was this? Why did Israel fall into this repeating and disastrous pattern?
Well, again we have to take a step backwards and look at the roots of Disappointment, and for this we have to look at the beginning of all worldly problems, namely the account of the Fall in Genesis 3. If we look at the curses God speaks over the man and woman – we’re not going to worry about the serpent tonight – then this gives us insight into what is going to disappoint us perennially. For the man, his struggle in life is predicted to be around work – about his purpose in life. As he tries to produce fruit and fruitfulness, thorns and thistles will be mixed in with it. His labour will be difficult, and will never quite show the results he longs for. We are made in the image of a Maker, so our continual desire is to be creative makers in imitation of Him. But our little creations never quite come out the way we want. They are always imperfect; they don’t quite match the beautiful conception we set out with. As regards our everyday work, we may enjoy it or not – personally, I do like most parts of my own daily-bread work with computers – but there will inevitably be something about it that is frustrating, the thorns and thistles of your own particular occupation. I have found many things in a working life that are immensely frustrating and Disappointing, and I dare say most of us here would agree. So for men, in very large generalisation, Disappointment will be focused around the area of being productive or creative.
What about the woman? Well, the doom on Eve was in the area of family and community. Her child-bearing was to be more difficult, and I think we can extend this to include the whole spectrum of bringing up children. How many women have stood like Mary at the foot of the cross, a sword through their own heart as they see what happens to the child they birthed, nurtured, and then in due time released? Delight and satisfaction are fused in this world with pain and sorrow. How many women have felt profound Disappointment at poverty of relationships within their wider family, their community, their nation? For women, Disappointment will tend to arise over relational failures within groups of people, small or large. I find it interesting that many of the spontaneous peace-movements that have arisen in recent years – in Northern Ireland, in parts of Africa, and so on – have involved women at the centre. Sadly, the word of the LORD in Genesis is that while this world lasts, family and community relationships will always Disappoint, will always in some way fail to match the original conception. I want to emphasise again that these are broad generalisations – men can certainly feel intense Disappointment in relational matters, and women in the area of being productive and creative. I am not trying to fit men and women into traditional boxes, but to make broad statements about what it is to be masculine and feminine. Both are to be celebrated – both are absolutely crucial to build up a wholesome community.So men and women both face Disappointment, though often in different areas of life and experience. What does Disappointment do to people? Perhaps the best-known verse on this topic is Proverbs 13:12: “hope deferred makes the heart sick” as both King James and the NIV render it. The literal reading of the Hebrew here indicates that the thing waited for has been long-drawn-out, perhaps repeatedly removed. Even more to the point of tonight, the word we translate “sick” here has to do with weakness – so we could read this as “hope that is long denied weakens the heart”.
And that is exactly true. On a personal level, Disappointment tends to leave a person vulnerable, weak, whether to certain habits of mind, patterns of behaviour, or actual, external deeds. We often judge matters by the external appearance alone – the final deed – and in doing so overlook the longer-term damage of the distortion of a person’s inner world. So we can, perhaps, judge the alcoholic, the violent person, or the compulsive gambler more harshly than the person who is internally bitter, or constantly over-protective of their children, who tends towards the extremes of being aloof or excessively sociable. We judge by appearance, not inner reality.
Now, so far we’ve looked at a number of examples of Disappointment from the Bible, and we’ve seen that these can easily be echoed in our own personal experience, but we don’t seem to have come up with any sort of strategy for dealing with it! Let’s look again at James and John. Now, quite obviously this plan of theirs had enormous potential for causing resentment and conflict within the wider group of disciples. Indeed, Mark tells us that as soon as the others heard this, they became indignant, perhaps justifiably so. Something that for an individual person is simply Disappointing can easily become a source of friction and destruction in a wider group. In this light, Jesus’ actions are very illuminating. He takes the matter that had been brought to him privately, and allows it to be aired in the wider group context, which was its proper arena. Now, not everything should be given public hearing – there are many matters that quite correctly involve privacy or confidentiality – but this particular one was intrinsically a group issue. The two disciples should not have gone privately to Jesus to ask about this matter – though I guess we can all understand their reason for doing so – and had they raised the issue in the group I suspect they would have done so in a rather different manner – perhaps asking more general, less personal questions about what things discipleship would require in order to be close to Jesus in the afterlife. Jesus responds quite correctly, firstly by bringing in the whole group to deal with the matter together, and secondly by taking the opportunity to highlight the way of service, which I think we can guess was the real issue that had to be tackled. There is no suggestion in any of the gospels or letters that the disciples as a group held any grudges against James and John about this, once the group discussion had taken place.
So, the group context is the right one for airing issues of Disappointment in order that they don’t start to fester. What happened in Judges? Well, on the surface it looks good – all the tribes are gathered together at the place that afterwards was named after the collective grief-act, Bokhiym. They hear the bad news together, they respond in a group act of mourning and subsequent worship. But what happens afterwards? All through the book of Judges we see that this initial groupishness, this collective assembly to deal with things together, was eroded. Chapter 1 is full of joint activity, shared actions against this town or that town, mutual help and support, but by the time we get to chapters 4 and 5 they are helping each other only in war and crisis, and when we get to the end the whole society has splintered into separate factions. As tribes in the desert and in the new land they were supposed to keep their own particular identity, to delight in and practise their unique gifts, while working together in generous unity. Times like these steadily disappear as we go though the book. Joshua, Barak and Deborah, even Gideon called together groups of people of different sizes to act in concord. But Samson was so much of a loner that his own village handed him over to the enemy. Now my belief is that Israel fell into the self-destructive pattern that marks so much of Judges because she failed to deal with its collective Disappointment in the way that she was supposed to. The message was delivered to the tribes of Israel as a group, and it was in that context that their history should have been managed. Instead, as time went by each tribe moved more and more to handling things on its own. Things got worse instead of better.
I’d like briefly to contrast this with the Disappointment that King David felt when his desire to build a temple in Jerusalem for the LORD was refused. David has secured the land from its enemies, and now desires to build a temple. It should be said that David was behaving perfectly in keeping with Middle Eastern tradition – all over that region we find accounts of a king succeeding in battle and then building a temple to whichever god he thought had given him victory. So David was participating in an old custom – he has finally achieved victory, and now he’s going to honour God. Nathan’s first response is positive – “whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it” – but part of the ritual of temple building was to ensure that the god in question was favourably disposed to the plan. In this case the LORD makes it clear to Nathan that this was not the right time, and David was not the right man. What then? Nathan might have kept the message to himself, perhaps fearing a violent reception. But he didn’t, he took the message into the context it needed. David for his part immediately goes back in prayer to God and expresses gratitude. But it’s also clear that he did not keep this news between himself and God, but shared it more widely. He evidently told Solomon at some stage, and Solomon’s letter to Hiram of Tyre indicates that the foreign king also already knew. I think it’s fair to assume that David was careful not to keep this thing private, concealed, but rather to ensure that people knew.Keeping things in the light stops gossip, it stops speculation, it means that the possible sting in the tail is neutralised, it ensures that the person at the centre of the episode keeps proper perspective and does not get caught up in resentment and pride, is perhaps less prone to falling into sins linked with the original hope.
Now, within the church at large we have structures that are able to contain Disappointment. Our fellowships are often of a manageable size, and we have home groups and pastoral support networks that are – in theory, at least – good vehicles for supporting individuals, families, or indeed communities facing Disappointment. We have support groups varying in size from pairs and triplets upwards. My plea here is that we make use of them. They do not work in any automatic way without effort: they begin to work when people have the courage to confess their frailties to one another. I don’t think we can leave this subject without taking a look at the subject that imparts the deepest fear and anxiety in any human being – what happens to us in the hereafter? Is there a hope for the future or is it that long-denied thing that makes the heart sicken, weaken and die in the most final manner of all? In the heart of every human is the desire to know the answer to this question – what will happen to me? what lies outside the brief window of my present existence? I was reading a book recently, where the main character has forgotten his identity and is gradually piecing it together as he travels from place to place. The people he meets are aware – though he himself has forgotten – that he is in reality a person of importance, and one of them says this to him: “When I come asking water from your wells and shelter within your walls, will you let me in? It will be a colder night than this, and a long time from now...” That is what is at the heart of the human condition and search for eternal hope – father in heaven, lord of all the universe, will you let me in? will you give me shelter and sustenance when I am in most dreadful need?
Of course the Christian answer is a resounding “yes” – if you have taken in Jesus the Messiah under the conditions in which you met him on earth, in frailty and humanity, then in majesty and deity, in the hereafter, he will certainly take you in. But let's be sure that as Christians we understand just how deep is the abyss that is bridged by the Rock of Christ. When things are going well for us, in the times when our earthly hopes are being satisfied and we are enjoying life, it can become all to easy to lay hold of Jesus in one of his, as it were, secondary guises – Jesus the Friend, or Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Teacher and so on. All of these things are true, but they are secondary to his supreme and central identity as Jesus the Lamb of God, Jesus the great Bridge-Builder. Tolkein, who I quoted earlier, but this time in a quite different book, wrote of this, saying “there is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true... to reject it leads either to sadness or wrath”. How true.
That is the deepest level we’re going to get to tonight, that keystone hope of our lives that will lead either to a ruinously sickened heart or else to the tree of life and the healing of the nations. But we have also looked tonight at the smaller hopes and Disappointments of life. What should we do about them? If you are Disappointed, or your neighbour is, or your fellowship is … what should you be doing? How to stop your heart becoming weak, and your pattern of life falling into a downward, self-destructive spiral? Well, the key issue to my mind is to take the matter outside yourself into a wider context. If your Disappointment is recognised and meets with empathy in a wider group, you have the opportunity to strengthen your heart, an antidote to the sickness that threatens. This is an area where the church, with its diversity of structures, can help you to find your recognition group, inside or outside the immediate fellowship depending on the need for confidentiality. Then you will at least be building foundations for a future hope, even if at the time you are building them in darkness, uncertainty or pain.
Then ascended the messenger of Yahweh from Gilgal , to Bokhiym , saying, “I took you all out of Egypt and brought you in to the land, concerning which I had bound myself on oath to your fathers, saying, ‘Never will I annul my covenant with you, for ever. As for you, never cut yourselves in covenant to the dwellers of this land – their sacrificial places you should tear down.’ But you did not listen to my voice. What is this thing you have done? So then I said, ‘I will not drive them out before your face, so they will be to your sides, and their gods will be for you as a snare’.”
Then as he pronounced this, the messenger of Yahweh, these words to all the children of Yisra’el, so lifted up the people their voices, and they wept. Thus they proclaimed the name of that place “Bokhiym” , and sacrificed there to Yahweh.