JUDGES 17 & 18


DECEMBER 7, 2008



            I’m told that the vista from the top of Sulphur Mountain, just outside the town of Banff, is one of the most picturesque in the Canadian Rockies.  A gondola takes you to the top of the mountain where you stand looking at peak after peak, stretching off into the distance in a virtual sea of mountains.  When the sun is shining, and the snow is glistening, it is a breathtaking scene.

            On top of the mountain stands a house as well as a flock of about thirty mountain sheep.  They have become very tame and have taken to begging handouts from tourists.  They love anything salty, and that is the problem.  Those sheep are actually starving to death on a diet of peanuts, potato chips, popcorn, hamburger, licorice, and even salty plastic bags.  As a result, the flock has neglected its normal grass diet, and consequently, the animals are losing weight and the females no longer produce high quality milk to nourish their lambs.  One of the park wardens said, “Sheep develop a taste for this kind of junk.  I wish people would realize their ‘kindness’ amounts to cruelty.”

            In other words, these sheep have become junk-food junkies, but it’s not only four-legged sheep who have this problem.  Some of God’s spiritual sheep have become spiritual junk-food junkies.  And what is spiritual junk-food?  Well, as we continue our advent sermon series, “The Bethlehem Chronicles,” where we are exploring events and people associated with the city of Jesus’ birth, we are going to consider three types of spiritual junk-food.[1]

            The first type is self-made religion.  Chapter 17:1-6:


            There was a man in the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah.  He said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver that were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and even spoke it in my hearing - that silver is in my possession; I took it; but now I will return it to you.”  And his mother said, “May my son be blessed by the Lord!”  Then he returned the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother; and his mother said, “I consecrate the silver to the Lord from my hand and my son, to make an idol of cast metal.”  So when he returned the money to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver, and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into an idol of cast metal; and it was in the house of Micah.  This man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod, (that’s a priestly apron) and teraphim (those are little household gods carved from wood or fashioned from stone) and installed one of his sons, who became his priest.  In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.


            Note three things about Micah.   First, he was a thief.  He ripped off eleven hundred pieces of silver from his mother, and note, it was not guilt that convinced him to give back the money it was fear.  His mother had put a curse on the thief, and he wanted the curse removed.  Second, he blatantly broke the second commandment.  He made an idol and worshipped it.  Third, he established a false priesthood.  He went so far as to install his own son as a priest over his shrine.

            In other words, Micah set about making his own religion, and note the editorial comment in verse six.  You know the Bible does not hesitate in making moral judgments and note the comment: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”

            Could we say the same about our own day?  Are people doing what is right in their own eyes?  Well, consider the following.  Gallup pollsters asked Americans if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “There are few moral absolutes: what is right varies from situation to situation.”  Sixty-nine percent of those polls agreed with that statement.  The Barna Research group discovered that sixty-three percent of Christians in America believe there is not such thing as absolute truth.

            And I’m sure you have heard someone say, “It does not matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.”   I’m sure you have heard someone say, “Do whatever you want as long as you do not hurt anyone.”  Or how about the lyrics of the song, “How could it be wrong when it feels so right?”

            Are we doing what is right in our own eyes?  And what if there is an absolute standard?  What if there is a plumb line?  Lloyd C. Douglas, author of The Robe and other novels, lived in a boarding house when he was a university student.  A retired music teacher lived on the first floor.  The music teacher was homebound, a shut-in, and every morning Douglas would come down the stairs, open the old man’s door, and ask, “Well, what’s the good news?”  The retired music teacher would then pick up his tuning fork, tap it on the side of his wheelchair, and say, “That’s a middle C!  It was middle C yesterday; it will be middle C tomorrow; it will be middle C a thousand years from now.  The tenor sings flat, the piano across the hall is out of tune, but, my friend, that is middle C!”

            The music teacher had discovered a constant reality on which he could depend, an unchanging truth to which he could cling.  As Christians Jesus Christ is our tuning fork, our middle C in a cacophonous world of competing truths.  His pitch defines reality and sets every other note in its proper place.  I like the way the theologian Karl Barth put it.  He said, “Fundamentally there are only two approaches to knowing God - one that begins with humans or one that begins with God.”  Micah’s problem was that his faith practice originated with himself, not God. 

            Another type of spiritual junk-food is self-seeking service.  Let’s continue with the story, Judges 17:7-13.


            Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah (here’s our Bethlehem Chronicles connection) of the clan of Judah.  He was a Levite residing there.  This man left the town of Bethlehem in Judah, to live wherever he could find a place.  He came to the house of Micah in the hill country of Ephraim to carry on his work.  Micah said to him, “From where do you come?”  He replied, “I am a Levite of Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to live wherever I can find a place.”  Then Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, a set of clothes, and your living.”  The Levite agreed to stay with the man; and the young man became to him like one of his sons.  So Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah.  Then Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest.”


            I hesitate to badmouth the clergy, I know you do as well, but I have three problems with this Levite from Bethlehem.  Number one, he left Bethlehem looking for something better.  Levites were not supposed to do that.  Levites were assigned to particular geographic areas.  Apparently, the Bethlehemites constituted a poor parish, and he thought he could do better elsewhere, so he left the area to which he had been assigned.  My second problem with this guy has to do with the fact that he had no problem tending to Micah’s idolatrous shrine.  I recall Jimmy Bakker’s interview with Barbara Walters a number of years ago.  He said, “I don’t know what happened.  I got so caught up in the money, that I lost my moral compass.  I did things contrary to the gospel.”  So did the Levite.  And the third thing I have against this guy comes from the next chapter.  Turn to it.  Chapter 18.  Before we read it, however, let me set the scene.  One of the tribes of Israel, the tribe of Dan, was looking for a place to call their own.  So they sent out five spies to check out places to live.  While the spies were sneaking around the countryside, they heard about Micah’s shrine, and after seeing it, the spies came back at a later time to steal the idol and keep it for themselves.  When they came back, however, they ran into the Levite from Bethlehem, and listen to what this poor excuse for a clergy person does ... chapter 18, verse 18 ...


            When the men went into Micah’s house and took the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim, the priest said to them, “What are you doing?”  They said to him, “Keep quiet!  Put your hand over your mouth, and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest.  Is it better for you to be a priest in this house of one person, or to be a priest to a tribe and a clan of Israel?”  Then the priest accepted the offer.  He took the ephod, the teraphim, and the idol, and went along with the people.


            We Christians have two primary symbols.  The cross, a symbol of sacrifice, and the towel, a symbol of service.  This priest had neither.  He gives Bethlehem a bad name.  In fact, given his character the people of Bethlehem were probably glad he left town. 

            We are tempted to think that the way to get ahead is to watch out for number one - to do those things that help us climb the ladder.  But that’s spiritual junk-food.  Real spiritual food is the way of sacrifice and service, not the way of opportunism.

            Let me recommend a great devotional book to you.  It’s titled Jesus in Blue Jeans.  The author Laurie Beth Jones tells of a man she met in Flint, Michigan on one of her speaking engagements.  She writes,


            A man I met in Flint, Michigan said, “I know you talk a lot in your seminars about self-image.  You want to know how I see myself?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied.  “I see myself as that donkey tied to a tree in Jerusalem, just waiting for the Lord to have need of him.”  This man had volunteered to drive me back to the airport and on a cold and snowy day, as we were driving his car the phone rang.  It was the church pastor.  “Sure, Rev,” he said, “I’ll drop by some groceries off to her on the way home.  An elderly lady in our church can’t get out today,” he explained.


                        What a contrast to the Levite from Bethlehem.

            The last type of spiritual junk-food is easy living.  Judges 18:1 ...


            In those days there was no king in Israel.  And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking for itself a territory to live in; for until then no territory among the tribes of Israel had been allotted to them.  So the Danites sent five valiant men from the wholde number of their clan, from Zorah and Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to explore it ... skipping to verse 7 ... and when they came to Laish, they observed the people who were there living securely, after the manner of the Sidonians quiet and unsuspecting, lacking nothing on earth, and possessing wealth.  Furthermore, they were far from the Sidonians and had not dealing with Aram.  (In other words, these people were easy pickings.)  When they came to their kinsmen at Zorah and Eshtaol, they said to them, “What do you report?”  They said, “Come, let us go up against them; for we have seen the land, and it is very good.  Will you do nothing?  Do not be slow to go, but enter in and possess the land.  When you go, you will come to an unsuspecting people.  The land is broad - God has indeed given it into your hands - a place where there is not lack of anything on earth.


            In other words, the Danites took the easy way out.  They were supposed to fight the Philistines, but they did not want to do that.  And it was not because the Danites were pacifists or peaceniks.  No, they did not want to fight the Philistines because the Philistines were tough, nasty and ornery.  So they turned their attention to a city far to the north, a quiet little area colonized by some Phoenicians who were isolated from their allies.  After all why fight the Philistines when we can blitz Laish?  The tribe of Dan chose the path of least resistance.

            And let me tell you the rest of the story.  Years later in the book of I Chronicles when the list of tribes and families of Israel are given, the tribe of Dan is totally ignored.  The reason?  They had vanished into obscurity, probably due to their intermarriage with the Philistines, the people they had refused to fight.  The easy way led to disaster.

            Folks, a life of ease is spiritual junk-food.  Listen how one person put it:


            As strange as it may seem, habitual well-being is not advantageous to a species.  An existence without challenge takes its toll on virtually every living thing.  Just look at flabby animals in the zoo, for example.  Food is delivered to them every day, and they need to do nothing but lie around and yawn.  Or consider a tree planted in the rain forest.  Because water is readily available, it does not have to extend its root system more than a few feet below the surface.  Consequently, it is often poorly anchored and can be toppled by a minor windstorm.  But a mesquite tree planted in a hostile and arid land must send its roots down thirty feet or more in search of water.  Not even a gale can blow it over.  Its unfriendly habitat actually contributes to stability and vigor.[2]


            Biologists call this the “adversity principle” and in these tough economic times let me remind you of the words of the Apostle Paul, “We ... boast in our suffering knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope doesn’t disappoint us”  (Romans 5:3-4). In other words, no spiritual junk food for the Apostle Paul.






[1] Inrig, Gary, Hearts of Iron, Feet of Clay, (Moody Press, Chicago, 1979), p. 268ff. 

[2] Dobson, James, When God Doesn’t Make Sense, (Wheaton IL: Tyndale House, 1993), p. 8,9.