JUDGES 12:1-7

MAY 6, 2012


            Not everyone can frame a word the same way.  Some words are harder to pronounce than others, and almost everybody has at least one word which gives him or her trouble.   Someone in our adult Sunday School class has trouble saying “Nebuchadnezzar.”  So instead she just says, “Neb.”  Little children, just learning to speak, often have trouble making an "l" or an "r,” and sometimes that carries into adulthood.  Barbara Walters, after all, has a heck of a time with the letters “l & r.”   Wewee, she does!

            We, also, have a word pronunciation problem in the Book of Judges.  We will get to that in just a minute, but first a little background.  We turn to our third, and final, encounter with Israel’s judge Jephthah, and as we do the tribe of Ephraim is at it again.  You might remember how the tribe of Ephraim was a piece of work.  The tribe of Ephraim was the largest tribe in Israel, and they took great pride in being number one, and they resented anyone getting more glory than they, and we’ve heard their song before.  Remember it?  They sang it first to Gideon.  With Gideon they complained that they had not been properly invited to join the battle against the Moabites.  Well, this time, it’s not Gideon to whom they sing their song of complaint, it’s Jephthah, and it was not Moab threatening Israel, it was Ammon, but it is the same old song and the same old tribe of Ephraim.  The tribe of Ephraim blamed Jephthah for not including them in the army of Israel which was not the case at all.  Jephthah pointed out that he had tried to include them, but they had not responded, and unlike Gideon who was able to appease the Ephraimites, Jephthah could not, and the leaders of Ephraim threatened Jephthah saying, “We will burn your house down over you!”  Which was rubbing salt in a recent wound.  By that I  mean he had offered his daughter as a burnt offering, and the Ephraimites were threatening similar punishment in return.             

            Well, a battle then ensued between the forces of Israel under Jephthah and the men of Ephraim.   Ephraim was defeated and fled toward the Jordan River in an escape attempt.  On their retreat they come to the fords of the Jordan River.  To get home they must get to the other side, but since there are no bridges, some places are too wide to swim, others too deep to wade, they must go to a good crossing spot.  An order, however, has been given to all the Gileadites to slay any Ephraimite on the spot.  Naturally they go to the crossing places of the river to nab them.  Their problem is that they don't know how to tell the difference between a man from Ephraim and one of their own men.  They all looked the same, they all dressed the same. They faced a dilemma telling friend from foe.  Then the Gileadites remembered that the men of Ephraim had a brogue of their own, making some words distinct from any of the other tribes, and the word “shibboleth” was one of those words.

            Shibboleth meant either “an ear of corn” or “a stream or a river,” and given the context here it would have been “river,” and so when a man from Ephraim, fleeing for his life, was apprehended by a man from Gilead he would be asked: "Friend or foe?"  Naturally he would respond that he was a "friend."  Then came the big test:  "Then say 'Shibboleth,’” and no matter how hard he tried, no matter how he twisted his tongue, the best the men of Ephraim were able to manage was "Sibboleth" and they would be killed on the spot.

            Such a small difference, the difference between sounding an "h" or not sounding an “h,” yet, it meant life or death.  That small difference gave them away.  That leads me to our question for today.  What gives us away?  What identifies us as “Christian?”  After all, we look the same as non-Christians, we dress the same, we even work at the same jobs and live on the same blocks, so what tells on us?  Well, three things come to mind.

            First, what we talk about gives us away.  We humans talk.  It is our primary mode of communication.  Furthermore, we talk about all sorts of things.   We have that in common with non-Christians.  Both Christians and non-Christians talk about everything under the sun.  We talk about issues, about people, about feelings, about frustrations, about hopes.  Some of us talk much more than others, but we all talk.  We talk about important things like our families and our jobs, and we talk about not-so-important things like the number of calories in a slice of bread and who just got voted off Dancing with the Stars. 

              Speaking of talking about not so important matters, do you remember the man seeking a divorce?   He told the judge his wife was driving him crazy, that she talked all the time.  "She never stops talking," he complained.

            "What does she talk about?" inquired the judge. 

            The man replied, "You see, that's just it, your honor, she ain't said nothin' yet!"

            We talk about all sorts of things ... important things and not so important things.  We all talk, those in Christ and those outside of Christ, but as Christians shouldn’t there be a difference in what we talk about?  Shouldn’t there be some difference in what comes out of our mouths?

            I say that because sometimes what comes out of our mouths is not all that Christlike.  It’s gossipy, critical, judgmental, and condescending.  Sometimes it is grumbling and complaining.   As followers of Christ this is a major deal because it can spoil the whole climate of our lives.  It can take the joy out of our service and the unity out of our fellowship.  It can adversely affect life in the church and outside the church. 

            Wouldn’t it be great if our tongues could reflect more positively on Christ?  It was said of Jesus, "No one ever spoke like this man."  He spoke words of tenderness, "Come unto me and I will give you rest."  He spoke words of peace, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you."   He spoke words of hope, "In my Father's house are many mansions, I go to prepare a place for you."   He spoke words of forgiveness, "Father, forgive them."  When Jesus spoke, people saw God.  Whom do others see when we speak?

            What we talk about really does give us away.  

            Second, whatever is most important to us gives us away.  What are the priorities of our life?  Whatever they are they will give us away every time!

            Some people have as the goal of their life to making gobs of money.   Others are consumed with establishing a good reputation.  Some concentrate on fun and good times.  Others seek success in business.   Some concentrate on being a great spouse, or great parent, or great golfer.  Some also seek God.  That’s their number one priority, but remember this:  no matter what we say,  whatever is first in our lives is really our god. 

            Oddly enough, we never have to announce to anyone what our priorities are. Anyone who knows us at all already knows what is most important to us. No matter what we say, our children, our family, our friends all know if our business, our family, our church, or anything else is ahead of God in our lives.  We give ourselves away.

            A beautiful, true story is told of an incident in the life of Billy Sunday, the flaming evangelist of another generation.  He met a man in one of his meetings, liked the man, found him to be a truly dedicated Christian, and some months later wanted to contact him, only to realize he had forgotten the man's name. Billy Sunday remembered only the place from which he had come.  So Billy Sunday addressed a letter to him, and the envelope read only: "God's Man, Adrian, Michigan."  When the postmaster in Adrian, Michigan read it, he knew exactly which box to put it in!  Let me ask "If a letter should come to our postman, addressed simply: God's Man (or Woman), the name of our town, state, and zip code, would it occur to our postman to put the letter in your box?"

            What is most important to us gives us away.

            Finally, our unconscious reactions give us away.

            The late E. Stanley Jones, the 20th century Methodist missionary and theologian says that there is "such a thing as having such a sound experience of conversion to Jesus Christ that even your unconscious reactions are converted."  By "unconscious reactions" we mean those automatic, unthinking, unpremeditated actions.  If these are to be good reactions, it must be impelled from within.  Only the truly redemptive force of the Holy Spirit can do this for us.  Without his power we blow our tops, become quickly and easily angry, frustrated, upset, and nervous.  It is not that we ever intend to be un-Christian, it is just that we are inadequate of ourselves to be or do differently.

            Most Christians don't worry a lot about committing large, glaring, external sins such as robbing banks, committing adultery, killing someone, or stealing another's property.  But we might have trouble reacting as we should inwardly when everyday experiences of life pile up on us.  We might unconsciously, and without thinking, react in bad temper, with envy, jealousy, self-pity, anger, spite, hatefulness, or swearing.

            Years ago in our church in Florida some men were working at revitalizing the fellowship hall, and one of the men hit his thumb with a hammer.  He immediately reacted by saying, "Damn, damn, damn, damn," as well as a few other expletives.  Then seeing me, he quickly and repentantly said: "O preacher, please excuse me, it just happened so fast it came out before I had time to think."  I can understand that, can't you?  Haven't you reacted at times in a manner that, had you had time to think it through, you would have said or done things differently?

            One man said to another, as they contemplated some evil they wanted to do to a third man. "There is no use bothering him, every time you cut him all he does is bleed love."

            Don't we want to ask God to let our knowledge of him so permeate all of us, that even our unconscious reactions will be Christlike?  

            What gives us away?  Is it our speech?  Our priorities?  Our unconscious reactions?  Does our life say "Shibboleth" or "Sibboleth?"  It's another way of asking, "Does our life say ‘Jesus’"?  Or does it come out sounding like something else?