Worthy Worker (Part Two)

Please read 2 Timothy 2:14-26 in your Bible.

Pastor at the Construction Site_v03 (1)Image by James Best, (C) 2020, https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

      I want to start by asking you to put on your thinking caps.  I’m going to read a variation of the classic “Trolley Problem” and ask you to record your response on your bulletin.

You are part of a seven man crew working on a section of railroad track.  You happen to be standing at a switch and notice that a out of control train barreling down the track. Directly ahead on the tracks are five of your coworkers who do not see the train that is headed straight for them. On a side track is one of your crewmates who has his back to the oncoming train.  There is no time to warn them as they’re all wearing noise-cancelling headphones.  If you pull the lever right next to you, the trolley will switch to the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the train to kill the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the train onto the side track where it will kill one person.

You have to decide in a split second what to do.  What is the right thing to do?  Write a one or two on a piece of paper.  We will come back to this situation later.

For now, we’ll complete our look at being a Worthy Worker by observing that discerning right from wrong and choosing to do right is very much at heart of our worthiness.  God finds people of true faith to be useful to Him in the work of expanding His Kingdom.  This passage tells us how.

Our aim is to be worthy workers.

  1. Two examples of unworthy workers. (16-19)

Be alert: evil can grow in a church just as it can anywhere.  In v. 16, Paul warned THOSE WHO INDULGE IN [GODLESS CHATTER] GROW MORE AND MORE UNGODLY.  GODLESS CHATTER feeds negativity and encourages divisive sins of the tongue like gossip, complaining, and back-biting.  As we said in part one, CHATTER may sound harmless, but it is not.  It results in greater ungodliness.

In v. 17, Paul wrote that UNGODLY TEACHING WILL SPREAD LIKE GANGRENE.  GANGRENE is a flesh-rotting disease (one form of which is fatal in 48 hours), so Paul could hardly have chosen a more repulsive image to describe the effect of UNGODLY TEACHING.  He identified two people who were among the UNGODLY in Timothy’s church: HYMANAEUS and PHILETUS.  Who were these people?

In 1 Timothy 1:20 Hymaneus was one of two people whom Paul HANDED OVER TO SATAN TO BE TAUGHT NOT TO BLASPHEME (Alexander was the other).  This probably meant they were put out of the church in Ephesus for serious errors in their teaching.  PHILETUS is not named in 1 Timothy 1:20, nor anywhere else in the Bible.   He apparently joined Hymaneus and Alexander in their error and suffered the same penalty.  Putting them out of the church is somewhat similar to the treatment for GANGRENE; surgical removal of the bad tissue, usually in the form of amputation.  For the survival of the body, the bad parts have to be cut off.

Their sin was to HAVE WANDERED AWAY FROM THE TRUTH.  The word WANDERED is an unfortunate choice for translation of the Greek word that means “missed the mark, deviated, or went astray.”  “Wandered” allows for an accidental deviation when Hymaneus and Philetus chose to believe an error, and worse, talked others into believing the same error.

Specifically, their false teaching was stating THAT THE RESURRECTION HAS ALREADY TAKEN PLACE.  Paul does not explain their false teaching, merely noting that it attacked the most central teaching of the Christian faith: resurrection.  (See 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, where Paul vigorously defends the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our personal resurrection, and the importance of these doctrines.)  What they did with this false teaching and how many people were taken in by it are details we are not meant to know.  It is sufficient for us to know that it was false and that it had a negative effect on the church in Ephesus.

The effect of their falsehood was to DESTROY THE FAITH OF SOME.  The word DESTROY can also be translated as “overturn.”  It meant that the false teaching had so affected some people that they ceased to believe the truth.  The health of the entire church was threatened, even though only SOME of the members fell in with Hymaneus and Philetus.

The good news is, though evil people and other circumstances can challenge our faith, the FOUNDATION God has set remains SOLID.  This FOUNDATION is the undeniable facts of God’s existence and His reward of those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6).

There are two promises of God’s protection of His people.  These promises are etched in the foundation like a cornerstone.

The first promise: THE LORD KNOWS THOSE WHO ARE HIS (Numbers 16:5).  God knows false teachers like Hymanaeus, Alexander, and Philetus.  While they may fool SOME of the people some of the time, they never fool God. God also knows everyone whose faith is real and based on the truth.  Remain faithful, and He will help you overcome and reward you when you do.

EVERYONE WHO CONFESSES THE NAME OF THE LORD MUST TURN FROM ALL WICKEDNESS. Here Paul paraphrased Numbers 16:26.  Though we do not do good in order to be saved, we do good in order to demonstrate our salvation, the change Jesus has made in our lives. A commitment to discipleship is part of the faith that saves.  As we learned again last week, turning away from wickedness is half of being a worthy worker.  The other half is pursuing good. Sometimes TURNING FROM ALL WICKEDNESS involves separating ourselves from people and sometimes it requires us to avoid places or circumstances that tempt us to do wrong.

  1. An illustration with household items. (20-21)

Paul contrasted two kinds of household items.  In order to understand the illustration, we must first see the LARGE HOUSE is as a symbol of the world in which we live.  In this world, people are either living for the Lord or not.  God made all of them, but not all of the people in the world are useful for God’s purposes. In many of our homes, we have one set of dishes for special occasions and another set for everyday use.  All the dishes are useful for serving food, but some of them are reserved for special uses.  The contrast between noble and ignoble ARTICLES (pots, bottles, pans, etc.) is a contrast of spiritual status and resulting usefulness to God.

The ones used for NOBLE PURPOSES are made of GOLD AND SILVER.  They are less numerous but more valuable in the sight of the Lord.  In the world, some people are “gold and silver” because they have faith and are obedient to God’s will.  Timothy is an example of a “noble article.”

The ones used for IGNOBLE purposes are made of WOOD AND CLAY.  These are common, worldly, and less valuable pieces.  They are not useful to God because they refuse faith and practice disobedience.  Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus are examples of “ignoble articles.”

Paul used similar imagery in Romans 9:21 = DOES NOT THE POTTER HAVE THE RIGHT TO MAKE OUT OF THE SAME LUMP OF CLAY SOME POTTERY FOR NOBLE PURPOSES AND SOME FOR COMMON USE?  The phrase THE SAME LUMP OF CLAY indicates that we share a common humanity.  Tragically, we do not share a common destiny.  As Jesus observed in Matthew 7:13-14, there will always be more people who do not refuse faith and service to the Lord.

Like a handy kitchen gadget, a follower of Jesus becomes a fit INSTRUMENT FOR NOBLE PURPOSES when he has, with God, cleansed himself from IGNOBLE PURPOSES.  NOBLE refers to doing what God has called you to do.  It is NOBLE to be obedient to God.  IGNOBLE refers to doing what you selfishly want to do, or what the world wants you to do; all kinds of disobedience.  Moreover, IGNOBLE refers to sinful acts because Paul wrote that the worthy worker must be CLEANSED of it before he is useful to the MASTER.

Having been cleansed, the worker is MADE HOLY and is thereby USEFUL TO THE MASTER AND PREPARED TO DO ANY GOOD WORK.  In this world household items never CLEANSE themselves (wouldn’t it be great to have dishes that washed themselves?!) and neither do people – not on their own, anyway.  God cleanses us from sin and its effects, but He waits for us to repent and ask His forgiveness.

This cleansing is part of what Paul means when he says we are to be MADE HOLY.  Moral purity is part of holiness and the other part is being set apart from worldly and ungodly things to spiritual maturity and godliness.

People who are MADE HOLY are then USEFUL to God, just as clean pots & pans are useful to a cook.  People who are MADE HOLY are PREPARED TO DO ANY GOOD WORK.  Truly good works begin with holiness.

Our aim is to be worthy workers.

      Let’s return to the train problem.  You may be interested to know that this is not merely an intellectual exercise, In 2003 Union Pacific dispatchers in Los Angeles, CA had to make a decision very much like this one.

Did you choose #1?  Five people are dead.

Did you choose #2?  Only one person is dead and you are among the 90% of people who made this choice when presented with this problem.

Did you make no choice or want to know more about the six people on the tracks before deciding?  Then five people are dead because you hesitated too long at the switch.  Not deciding is making a decision.

My point here is that everything you’ve done, every choice you’ve made, everything you believe goes into making that decision about the switch.  Life doesn’t always conveniently present us with choices that include a lot of time for research and weighing out values and deciding on priorities.

Spiritually maturing people will know God’s leading before the train starts barreling down the tracks.  They will have studied the word, been faithful in prayer, and experienced in good deeds.  In so doing, they will have replaced sinful instincts with godly ones and are better equipped to do, as Paul promised, every good work.

 

RESOURCES:

Zondervan Bible Commentary, Alan G. Nute

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, #11, Ralph Earle

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Walter Bauer.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

 

Worthy Worker (Part One)

Please read 2 Timothy 2:14-26 in your Bible.

Construction Minister_v03Image by James Best, (C) 2020,

https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

      First there was the refusal to shake hands.  Then there was the tearing of papers.  It was a rough morning in Mrs. Marple’s kindergarten class!  Say, what did you think I was talking about?!

Today we’re talking about being a “worthy worker;” a follower of Jesus who lives out the faith God has given.  Speaking of work: picture two factory workers talking. The woman says, “I can make the boss give me the day off.”

The man replies, “How would you do that?” The woman says, “Just wait and see.” She then hangs upside down from the ceiling.

The boss comes in and says, “What are you doing?” The woman replies, “I’m a light bulb.”

The boss then says, “You’ve been working so much that you’ve gone crazy. I think you need to take the day off.”

The man starts to follow her out and the boss says, “Where are you going?” The man says, “I’m going home, too. I can’t work in the dark.”

We’ve gotten pretty well acquainted with the church in Ephesus.  A young man named Timothy was the sole employee of that church and the Apostle Paul loved him so much he wrote Timothy a couple training manuals.  We’ll see this morning what the second manual says about the kind of workers of whom God approves. This ought to be a big concern to us, because one day we’ll stand before God for our biggest job performance review ever, and we REALLY want that promotion!

Our aim is to be worthy workers.

  1. V. 15 sets forth the goal for our daily life: being approved workers.

DO YOUR BEST proves some effort is required on our part.  The word means to “make haste, make every effort, be zealous or eager” to receive God’s approval.  God graciously supplies us with all we need to live holy and fruitful lives and He forgives us when we sin.  Our part is to exercise our will, to put for the effort, to make the right choices; to do our BEST.

Seek God’s approval by avoiding evil and pursuing good.  This requires CORRECTLY HANDLING THE WORD OF TRUTH.

Given the repeated emphasis on sins of the tongue, (QUARRELING, CHATTER, ARGUMENTS), Paul was evidently concerned about the church’s attention being diverted from approved doctrine to false teaching.

CORRECTLY HANDLING meant to plow a straight furrow, lay a direct road, or quarry a symmetrical stone.  It is handling God’s word in a straightforward way, letting it speak for itself, not trying to bend the word to fit one’s preferred meaning.  Indeed, the best use of the Bible is to use it at as close to the literal words on the page as possible.

Skeptics accuse the Bible of being unreliable as interpreters have bent it to support a variety of teachings.  We have to be careful to not give them evidence that is true.

A benefit of being approved is not having to be ASHAMED in this life and especially not on Judgment Day when all worker’s projects are tested (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).  It’s embarrassing to claim to understand God’s will and then be proven wrong.  It’s much, much worse to be judged as wrong by God on Judgment Day, when it’s too late to do anything about it.

  1. Worthy workers in God’s kingdom avoid evil and do good.

Paul supplied five examples of evils to be avoided. The first is QUARRELING mentioned in verses 14, 23, 24.  QUARRELING was condemned as being of NO VALUE.  It is like “empty calories” or “junk food,” it does nothing to sustain or improve life. It is worthless and wasteful.

Worse, it ONLY RUINS THOSE WHO LISTEN (often the innocent bystanders, not those arguing).  Disputes over words cause divisions which unsettle people, turning them away from God and turning them on one another.

There are two kinds of people who are prone to quarrel.  One kind is the Know-it-alls.  Because they refuse to concede there’s something they don’t know better than you, they will argue. The other kind is the Drama Queens who like to quarrel because it’s one way of creating some drama.  We see a great deal of QUARRELING on social media and in relation to Washington politics.

GODLESS CHATTER (16) is the second example of evil to be avoided.  Chatter can feel as if it is the least evil of all the sins of the tongue.  Sure it’s superficial and wastes time, but where’s the harm?

The Apostle Paul would allow none of that; he use the word GODLESS to characterize CHATTER properly: as evil.  To me, cable news networks and talk radio are two modern examples of chatter.  The Worthy Worker has no time to waste on typically sinful verbal fluff.

Third, Paul called on Timothy, a young man, to FLEE THE EVIL DESIRES OF YOUTH (22).  We might think of sensuality, impatience, arrogance, and self-centeredness as usual YOUTH sins.  I prefer to see this as Paul’s condemnation of immaturity.  Immaturity is understandable when you’re young, untrained, and inexperienced.  However, when you’re old enough and taught better and don’t do it, that’s a sin.  However you define the sins of youth, we are to FLEE from them.

The fourth example is strongly worded: DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH FOOLISH AND STUPID ARGUMENTS (24).  These inevitably lead to having the QUARRELS mentioned in verse fourteen. This reference to arguments makes me think of trying to prove whose football team is better, or comments left on websites that make letters to the editor look tame by comparison.

The fifth example to sins to NOT be RESENTFUL (24).  In our Adult Bible Study we’re finding out about the toxic nature of grudges and all forms of unresolved anger.  Resentment is a self-inflicted wound.  The person at whom we are needlessly angry is very likely to be unaware of their offense or care about it.  Why should we?

To complete the moral picture, God gave Paul five examples of good to be pursued.  The first is a set of four virtues found in verse twenty-two: PURSUE RIGHTEOUSNESS, FAITH, LOVE AND PEACE.  The word PURSUE means we’re not waiting for these virtues to fall out of the sky and hit us on the head like a cartoon anvil.  We must take an active role in cultivating them.

What challenged me this week was the commentator who pointed out that these virtues are exercised in relationships.  You can’t know that you have these virtues or develop them on your own.  We need the church and our families to do it.

The second example of pursuit-worthy virtue is to CALL ON THE LORD OUT OF A PURE HEART (22).  To CALL ON THE LORD is a reference to prayer.  As the Bible teaches, God hears the prayers of those who are PURE of HEART.  This is a moral state, but also refers to sincerity; single-mindedness.

The third virtue is kindness: BE KIND TO EVERYONE (24).  In recent national events we’ve seen that tolerance, patience, and gentleness can be in short supply. Isn’t this a place where the Church could show leadership in our culture?

Whatever one’s position in the church, home, or society, kindness is a virtue that is supposed to distinguish us from unbelievers.  I know how tempting it is to want to win arguments and votes, but the urge to win can never replace kindness.

The fourth virtue is to be ABLE TO TEACH (24). Some believers have a Spiritual Gift of teaching, but all believers are teachers.  All parents are teachers; that’s God’s plan.

Being ABLE TO TEACH requires first that we are learners.  We never want to be the “old dog” who refuses to learn “new tricks.”

Then we must develop our skill in teaching as we gain experience passing along what we know in all the virtuous ways we’ve discussed.  It’s no accident that teaching is listed between kindness and gentleness.

Fifth, GENTLY INSTRUCT those who OPPOSE you (25-26).  Gentleness is always appropriate, but is especially needed when instruction is given, and most of all, when instructing opponents.

Note the chain of reasoning. The HOPE motivating our offering instruction is that GOD WILL GRANT THEM REPENTANCE.  Then their REPENTANCE will lead them to a KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH.  The TRUTH will cause them to COME TO THEIR SENSES. (Literally, “return to soberness.”)  Becoming sensible, the opponents of faith will ESCAPE THE TRAP OF THE DEVIL, WHO HAS TAKEN THEM CAPTIVE TO DO HIS WILL.  It’s impossible to escape a trap when you refuse to recognize you’re in one.

Our aim is to be worthy workers.

      Today is “Church Vocations Sunday,” where we’re supposed to encourage people to consider careers in full-time Christian ministry.  As I am currently working on a letter of recommendation for a young lady who aspires to be a chaplain, we’ll call this a successful Church Vocations Sunday and expand the topic to do what Paul did; use work as a figurative way of explaining what it means to be a Christian.

So here we go: a Christian’s job description.

#1 – Show up for work.  The believer’s workplace is wherever there is someone who can be helped with an act of service or witness.  How many times do we fail to act on opportunities to talk about and demonstrate our faith?

#2 – Follow the boss’s instructions.  Our boss is God, the founder of the company.  He’s put instructions in our hearts and in the Bible, so no excuses.

#3 – Cooperate with your coworkers.  Whether they’re in management or on the floor, your fellow Christians deserve your very best love and treatment.

#4 – Wait patiently for pay day.  The best rewards for a job well done come after “retirement” from this company.  You can trust the Boss to keep track of your hours, but because He is generous, your envelope will contain something extra.

Show yourself to be a worthy worker!

RESOURCES:

Zondervan Bible Commentary, Alan G. Nute

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, #11, Ralph Earle

Bromance

Please read 1 Peter 1:13-25 in your favorite Bible.

Bromance_final (1)Image by James Best, (C) 2020, https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020.

The term “bromance” is modern slang for a close but non-sexual relationship between two men.  It’s a combination of the words “brother” and “romance.”  If you’re of a more seasoned generation, it may help you to think of Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

I was surprised by an internet article that argued against bromance, calling it a “fad.” Writing for ABC News, Brian Pobjie’s 2017 op ed piece flatly stated, “bromance spells disaster for men.”

He explained, “After all, being emotionally unavailable has worked for us for centuries; we were able to get so much done because we didn’t waste time having feelings.

“We were also happy — insofar as any man is capable of happiness — because without the confusion and angst of outwardly-expressed emotions, we never had to worry about whether we were feeling good or bad or worse than we should be.

“In particular, we didn’t have to worry about other men’s feelings, because as far as we knew they didn’t have any.

“We all know that this leads to only one thing: telling another man how you feel. And that leads to that man knowing how you feel. And how can you possibly go on from there?

Once another man knows how you feel, you might as well just leave the country.”

Do you think he was joking?

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-05-07/bromance-signals-decline-of-men/8501022

For our purposes, we might use “bromance” as a contemporary take on “brotherly love,” a term Peter used repeatedly in this letter as one standard for the fellowship God’s people are supposed to enjoy in Church.

CONTEXT: Peter wrote to churches across Asia Minor.  In this letter he had a lot to say about the quality of our life together in the local church.  Our passage this morning is a sample of his teaching on the subject of church relations.

Church life must be Christ-like.

  1. The Church is marked by purity. (22)

Intellectual agreement with the Christian faith is necessary, but by itself, it is not enough.  Being born again involves the whole person.  Real faith produces real change in individuals and churches.  One such change is purity, especially in contrast to the world.

We live pure lives because we want to obey God. We learn God’s standards and we want to please Him by keeping them.

Real purity is not just behaviors; it’s also an attitude, a world view.  Titus 1:5 gives us an example of this aspect of human behavior; TO THE PURE, ALL THINGS ARE PURE.  We betray our attitudes in our own words and deeds but also in the motives we attribute to others.  People who practice purity reveal the purity of their mindset by positivity; seeing good in others.

Because ethical choices are the ones we make ourselves, Peter wrote NOW THAT YOU HAVE PURIFIED YOURSELVES.  When we put this teaching together with other New Testament passages, we understand that purity is something we do in partnership with God.  Purity is a state of grace God gives, one which we must defend against worldly temptations and our own sinful appetites.  Purity is necessary for unity because it eliminates competition and a “win at all costs” attitude.

When we give into temptation and do not protect our purity by sinning, God offers us complete forgiveness if we repent.  Our purity is thereby restored by His gracious hand.

  1. The Church is marked by love. (22)

The words SO THAT connect the virtue of purity to the virtue of love.  Here we learn that purity is necessary for love to be sincere.  Love can be sincere if one’s motives for loving are pure.  Expressions of love that begin w/ evil or selfish motives are not sincere because the object is self, not the beloved.

Peter characterizes godly love in three ways.

It is SINCERE.  Pretending to love someone does not meet God’s standards.  Hypocrisy must never enter in.  Scripture condemns as sin deliberate falsehood in all its forms. Acting in loving ways to deceive someone is a vice, not a virtue.

It is brotherly.  The original language was actually gender neutral on this point, so modern translations who render it “brotherly and sisterly love” are not giving into “political correctness,” they are simply being more accurate.  This word refers to our church; our brothers and sisters in faith.  We tend to put a lot of attention on family at home, but in the Bible, our primary family is our church family.  Our brothers and sisters in faith deserve our best love.

Love comes DEEPLY, FROM THE HEART.  SINCERE LOVE is honest, which is a virtue.  But deep love goes further, arising from emotions and values that are central to our character.

Small talk and superficial acts of kindness come pretty easily; especially of the object of our love is someone that’s easy for us to love.  Surface-level love doesn’t require much of us and doesn’t risk much either.  On the other hand, deep love can be difficult and carries the emotional risks of exposure and rejection.  No wonder it doesn’t come naturally and is infrequent (especially between men).

  1. The Church is marked by eternality. (23-25)

One vice typical to human nature is impatience.  We prefer a quick fix to problems, immediate gratification, and instant everything.

What Peter makes clear in vs. 23-25 is that those who are BORN AGAIN are to be characterized by a view of eternity that determines our daily decisions.  Peter expresses this point in two ways.

First, those born again are NOT OF PERISHABLE SEED, BUT IMPERISHABLE.  Our life as believers must be dominated by God’s perspective, His big picture, eternal point of view.  When we were born into this world, we were given a PERISHABLE body, a life of limits.  When we are BORN AGAIN, we are given the promise of a new body, an eternal life.  Spiritual maturity is having our thinking and behaving more and more determined by a heavenly, eternal, perspective and less by an earthly, temporary one.

Second, this change from earthly to eternal is a life-long one.  It is only possible THROUGH THE LIVING AND ETERNAL WORD OF GOD.  The Bible is our most specific and accessible source of information about God.  We would not know what to believe or how to be saved apart from what the word tells us. Jesus is also referred to as the Word, so Peter may be making a reference to Jesus in this verse.  Both possibilities are equally true, for we need the Bible’s witness in order to know Jesus.  Following his teaching in v. 23, Peter makes use of the WORD OF GOD, quoting Isaiah 40:6-8 in vs. 24+25.

Church life must be Christ-like.

      I can’t approach the topic of brotherly love without mentioning Laurel and Hardy.  To me, they are an emblem of brotherhood.  When we had our sabbatical in England almost 30 years ago, we dedicated an afternoon to the small Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, the birthplace of Stan Laurel.

As I learned recently, there is an anecdote from their lives that proves their devotion to one another.  Their last performance together was on May 17, 1954.  Oliver Hardy had been stricken by a heart attack which ended his acting career.  He died three years later.  Though he survived Oliver Hardy by eight years, Stan Laurel refused all offers to appear on stage or screen without his partner.  In addition, throughout that time he kept writing new material for the comedy team as if they were still together.  That is an example of great dedication and friendship.

I offer Stan and Ollie as emblems of brotherly love because what made their comedy work was that their characters were polar opposites of one another.  Human nature is such that we tend to belittle or exclude others who are different from us.  Christ’s nature is just the opposite.  Remember how some people complained because Jesus included tax collectors and sinners in His circle?  Remember how He started a conversation with a Samaritan woman?

That’s how Christians are supposed to be, especially in our relationships with each other.  The love of Christ compels us to draw as wide a circle as possible, loving as many people as deeply as possible, opening the gates of heaven in our daily living.

 

RESOURCES:

Message #970

Idol Smashers #12

 “Idol Smashers” is a work of fiction set in the biblical era of the Judges.  Apart from persons mentioned in the Bible, it is entirely fiction and presented here in serial form strictly for the entertainment of my readers.  “Idol Smashers” is an original work, copyright Brett Best, 2011.

israelite soldiers

(Previously in “Idol Smashers,” the Israelite adventurers were betrayed and captured while in the Philistine city of Joppa.)

Day Four – Joppa

 

As it turned out, Barek had only to wait for Maaz to awaken to find out exactly what he thought about Barek’s surrender.

“You did WHAT?!” Maaz thundered.  Then he winced.  Then he coughed up some blood.  That bit of bluster cost him dearly in pain.  He shut his eyes until it subsided.  When he opened them again, he threw visual daggers at Barek.

At usual, the over-sized Israelite was unmoved.  At least on the exterior.

“There was no point in all of us ending up like you – or him,” Barek turned and gestured to the far wall of his cell.  There lay a body, partially covered with a sheet.

The sight sobered Maaz instantly.  When he tried to sit up, Barek restrained him.

“Do not exert yourself.  Joseph is in Abraham’s Bosom.  There’s nothing you or I can do for him now,” Barek said.  Grief had removed all animation from his face.

Angrily, Maaz batted away the giant hand and slowly sat up, holding his head the entire time.  He looked around the small room in which they were held.  Caleb, Micah, Samuel and Jezreel were looking back at him, each of them lying in a similar position.  All of them were bandaged, bloodied, bruised and broken in some way.

The room, presumably a dungeon cell, was not much wider than the men who were stretched out along its length.  A feeble, flickering illumination shone around the door.  The odors of human waste and blood assaulted Maaz’s nostrils.

His head throbbed and seeing nothing better to do at the moment, he lay back down again.  Maaz felt a little relief when Barek swabbed his head with a wet cloth.  The water had an odor all it’s own, but it felt cool on Maaz’s brow.

There was a long period of silence where the only sound was their own breathing and the cries or groans of other prisoners.

Suddenly, Micah’s eyes popped open and he turned to face Barek.  “Ruth!” he exclaimed.  “Did she…”

“No,” Barek answered quietly.  “She escaped.”

With a grateful sigh, Micah laid down on his back.  “That is good.  Then we have hope.”

Samuel coughed.  “Hope?  What hope is she?  A mere woman and a thief beside!”

“She will come for us, get us out of here,” Micah said flatly.

It was Maaz’s turn to be skeptical.  He snorted derisively.  “What foolish talk, brother.  She abandoned us, made good her escape.”

“No.  She will return with help.”

“What help?” Maaz argued, though the pain in his head bade him to silence.  “Who will she bring?  Ammihud?  He is short and fat and wounded!  Mattan?  We have seen his prowess in battle!”

“Mattan is no warrior,” Samuel said, agreeing.

“We made a mistake coming here,” Caleb said weakly.  His ribs ached, but he couldn’t remember getting hit in the ribs.  The whole scene in the stable was lost to his memory, somehow.  He only knew the aches at different places in his body.  “We have no weapons, no money for a bribe…Hopeless.”

The company fell silent.

Unable to think about anything else, Jezreel began a psalm of worship.  One by one, the men of Israel joined him in praising God.  In contrast to the desperate nature of their predicament, they availed themselves of an opportunity to thank the Lord of Life for their lives.

Before the psalm had been completely sung, the door to their cell banged suddenly and violently.  A face appeared in the upper slot of the door, a pair of feet behind the lower one.

“Do you SING?” a voice on the other side of the door shouted.  In Hebrew.

The men of Israel stopped and looked to the door.

The eyes peering back at them bore an expression of utter malice, but were otherwise dead.

“You people astound me.  The world will be a better place when you’re dead or enslaved.”

Barek stood and moved slowly to the door, never taking his eyes from those looking through the slot.  When he got close enough, he smacked the door with a mighty punch.

He grinned when the man on the other side flinched and jumped back.

The eyes reappeared and narrowed.

“You weren’t this feisty back in the stable,” the voice sneered.

The low ceiling of the cell prevented Barek from straightening up his full height, but his bearing was proud nonetheless.  He chose not to dignify that insult with a reply.

“Speechless before me,” the voice dripped with irony.  Then the man outside the door sighed.  “No matter.  I am the man you sought.  I am the Black Cat.”

At this, Maaz emitted a low growl and turned on his side to face the door.  Looking into the lively gray eyes of the Black Cat, he said, “Open that door and I will skin you, Cat.”

The Black Cat laughed at this futile display of bluster.

“You are too ridiculous,” he said lightly.  After a few moments, he added, “You must wonder why I’ve asked the king to spare your lives.  Well, that’s simple enough.  I want you to live until your precious tabernacle is destroyed.  I want to see the look on your faces when I give you the news that your Most Holy Place has been desecrated, then burned.”

Jezreel groaned.  The thought of the Sanctuary being lost to the Philistines was too much.

The Black Cat picked up on his reaction and seemed energized by it.  “Yes, I may even let you live until the day Israel marches to war against Moab.  We’re going to make them think the Moabites did it, you see.  I may even be so kind as to let you go on until the day we mount our attack against Israel.  With their forces thrown against Moab, Israel will be exposed and I will… ravage her.”

Tears flowed from Caleb’s eyes and Maaz pounded the floor in frustration.

“But not a moment longer than that!  I will lead the invasion alongside my king, and you will be dead before that happens.  I assure you of that.  By then, you will undoubtedly plead for death.”

“The LORD will deliver us from you, you filthy heathen!” Micah said with a vehemence that surprised both his brother-in-law and even himself.

“Now you’re being stupid.  Your god, deliver you, here within our borders?”

The Black Cat waited for a rebuttal.  When he got none, he sniffed dismissively.  “All this bluster.  I’d think you’d be more worried about how you’ll die.  Why don’t you ask me about that?”

Samuel rolled away, turning his back to their tormentor.  “Spare us,” he said with no small amount of irony.  Who knew the youth was capable of such subtlety?

This amused the Black Cat.  “No, I believe I will tell you.  It’s just too delicious.  You will be hung on ropes and dipped in garbage.  Then rats will be released to crawl down the ropes to eat the garbage – and you along with it.  That was my idea.  The king loved it, of course.  Will you be strangled before you’re eaten?  An interesting question.  In either case, your deaths will make a pretty effective demonstration of the futility and folly of opposing Philistia, the rightful rulers of Canaan!”

The Black Cat’s laugh was a very unpleasant thing to experience.

Day ? – Joppa

Barek’s eyes were glazed; he was either deep in thought or buried under the combined weight of despair, boredom and malnutrition.  Caleb could not tell which.  Time had become meaningless to all of them, with disorienting effect.  In the dungeon, without any sign of sun or moon, or regular meals there were none of the usual markers of the passing hours.  The men of God did not even know for certain what day it was.  Sleep came and went in fits and starts, but it brought neither rest nor solace.

Worry was a physical presence in their crowded cell and it harried all of them.  It nagged at each heart, the unspoken thought on each of their minds.  They knew time was passing.  They were all aware the danger to the tabernacle and to themselves had grown every time they awoke.  But, as everyone but Barek was recovering from the wounds suffered in the ambush back at the stable, falling and rising out of consciousness was the only way to know for certain that some time had passed.

Barek cared for them with tender hands but few words.  None of them felt much like speaking.  Failure dogged them when they were awake and aware.  Thoughts accused them, inflicted wounds of doubt that were no less severe than their physical ones.  In sleep, nightmares assailed them, Deborah and other accusing them of failure.

And the body of Joseph lay among them.  Stilled, discolored, and the source of a rising stench, the body was a weight on their souls.

Everything about this place was nightmarish, out of proportion, utterly alien.  But a strange apathy also gripped their hearts.  Where zeal or anger had previously burned and fueled their actions, a cloying sense of defeat smothered them like a wet cloth.  If they entertained any thoughts about escape, those thoughts soon disappeared under a tide-less wave of despair.

Their resignation was layered so deeply, that when their captors, even the Black Cat, came to taunt them, the men of Israel offered no reply, no resistance.  Eventually, the Philistines tired of their cruel sport and merely shoved bowls of gruel through the slot at the bottom of the door with half-hearted insults and no patience to wait for a reply that would not come.

Caleb slipped back to sleep while he looked on Barek’s pensive face.  Sleep was no refuge, but it was marginally better than wakefulness.

Day ? – Joppa

It was the clattering of the wooden gruel bowls that woke Caleb.  Barek was hastily sweeping them out of the way of the door, which was opening!

“Shhh!  Not so much noise,” said a dark-cloaked small figure that stepped around the door.  “Do you want to bring the whole place down on us?”

Hands reached out from beneath the folds of dirty black cloth and flipped back a concealing hood, revealing the face of Ammihud!

“You said we were to hurry,” Barek protested.

Ammihud sighed.  He turned his attention to Caleb and said, “Caleb, can you help Barek awaken the rest?  We have but a few breaths before someone comes down here and discovers the slain guards.  We must get everyone up and moving!”

But Caleb was too stunned.  To his benumbed mind, it seemed Ammihud was a dream, like the figments of the fevered nightmares he’d seen during their imprisonment.  He did not move, but stared at his comrade, wide-eyed.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Ammihud breathed.  “Are you not awake?  Must I do all myself?”

Caleb watched as the Barek and Ammihud figments set about waking the others.  Like him, they were stunned at the sudden appearance of their comrade and at the prospect of escape, a thing that had seemed so impossible when last they were aware of any sensation.

Maaz recovered more quickly than the rest, and he was indignant.  “How is it YOU, of all people, come to our rescue?”

Ruth stuck her head through the door.

“Because he had my help, that’s why!  Can’t you big strong men more any faster?!” she added in a garrulous tone.

This was too much.  Maaz’s yaw dropped open, agape at the sight of the beautiful thief.  He’d given up on her entirely, and now here she was, the instrument of their deliverance?  It was too much.  A groan escaped his lips.  “I will never forget this.  Nor live it down.”

Micah pushed past his brother-in-law and embraced Ruth, though the greeting was very improper.  His despair turned to delight at the sight of her pretty face.  With great relish, he turned back to Maaz and said, “I told you she’d come for us.”

“You are a bigger fool than I,” Maaz growled.

At last Caleb struggled to his feet.  “What day is it?” he asked Ammihud as he clapped him on the back.

“That’s why I’m trying to get you fools moving!  It’s nearly dawn of the Sabbath morning!”

Micah only just managed to clap a hand over Maaz’s mouth before he roared, “WHAT?!!”

“How can it..?” Jezreel said wearily.  “Have we passed only a few days in this place?  It felt like years.”

Samuel gathered himself up and drew a look of iron on his wearied, stubbled face.  “Then there is still hope.  We can yet triumph!”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Ammihud said, frustration evident on his face.  “We must leave this place and ride for Shiloh.  This no time for talk!  Only moving!”

Nodding silently, Maaz took Micah’s hand gently from his face.  Turning to Ruth, he said, “Lead the way.”

The men began to warily shoulder their way out the narrow doorway.  Caleb turned to see Barek bend low and pick up the stiff, inert body of Joseph.  “Hadn’t you better… leave him?  Hauling a body around will only slow us down.”

Barek hauled the cumbersome, unclean burden to his chest.  “We will not leave one of our own to a people and place such as this.  He will go with us and receive a hero’s burial.”

This was more words than Caleb had heard Barek string together in the entire time he’d know him.  And the determined look on the giant’s face silenced the reply in Caleb’s throat.  He merely nodded and patted Barek’s forearm.

Ducking, the giant and his burden were out the door and down the corridor to the right.

Caleb hesitated for a moment, he looked around the room that had been such a miserable place.  He called down a particularly virulent curse and shut the door.

Ruth lead the party of prisoners down narrow halls until they came to a stinking pit.  “Down here,” she said, but her voice sounded odd, as she was holding her nose.  “We’ve got to go down here.”

Before anyone could protest, Ammihud surged forward and added, “This is a refuse chute.  It leads to a dung pile, a dump on street level.  Mattan is waiting down there for us.”

“This is your escape plan?” Samuel protested.  “What about fighting our way out?  I want my family’s scimitar back!”

“You young hothead!” Micah snapped.  “We’ve no time to fight and the tabernacle to save!  We’ll take our escape and be thankful!”  Shoving Samuel toward the hole, he added, “You go first!”

Weary resignation crossed the youth’s face, making Samuel look older than his years.  Without any further comment, he sat on the floor, dropped his legs in the hole, and said, “The LORD be praised!”  Pushing off the floor, Samuel disappeared down the chute.

Barek lowered Joseph’s body and followed closely behind, trying not to let their comrade’s seemingly fragile body crash at the bottom.  He himself barely fit the opening.  It was a good thing the sides were slick with filth or he might’ve gotten stuck.

One by one, the Israelites dropped through the hole.  Ammihud went last, doing what he could to restore the metal grate before he fell the way down.  Given his considerable girth, he feared getting trapped in the stone chute, but slid down almost as quickly as the rest.

As promised, Mattan waited for them at the bottom.  But not only Mattan.  There was also a grizzled, bent, form of an old man dressed in rags and holding the reins of the donkey at the head of an empty cart.  He regarded the Israelite prisoners with one wary eye – the other eye was completely white, scarred and lifeless.

“Ah, masters.  The Almighty be praised,” Mattan said quietly.  “This is Arrut… an… associate of mine,” Mattan said, choosing his words with greater care than usual.  “He is the man who is known in Joppa as the ‘King of Muck.’  It has been his unhappy duty for these many years to be the one to cart the… refuse… from the city.  His familiar face will allow you to pass safely out the gates of the city.”

“How so?” Maaz asked, clearly suspicious and dreading the answer he supposed Mattan would give.

“Ah.  Well, it is… unpleasant, but necessary… for you to be covered with the refuse of this place.  You will lie face down on the cart and we will… cover you with the straw… and other things.  You will breathe through the slats of the cart’s bottom.  We will head for the dump… and once there, you will be… uncovered, and we will…”

Arrut spoke, interrupting Mattan’s instructions.  His voice was low and gravelly.  His speech was halting and his tongue Philistine.  What he said was, for all these reasons, incomprehensible to anyone but Mattan, who listened intently.

The merchant’s fat face took on an unhappy cast and he looked at Joseph’s body.  “He… Arrut, that is… says that if we put… the body, that is, on top, the soldiers are even less likely to stop and search the cart.”

Barek growled.

“He means no disrespect,” Mattan explained anxiously.  “I’ve paid him well, but he has no more desire to be caught at this than we do.”

Ammihud moved next to Barek and looked up at the giant’s eyes.  “Let it be so,” he said quietly.  “Please.”

Setting Joseph’s body gently down on the cobblestones, Barek climbed onto the wagon without a word.  He laid himself face down and found a place between the rough boards where his nose and mouth had room enough to breathe, more or less freely.

The cart was not over-large; the party had to alternate head and toes to find room for all of them to lie prone on the floor and find a breathing-space.  When it was done, the rest quickly piled on the straw and refuse.  The smell and the weight and the dust all challenged the prisoners to simply breathe.  But they did breathe, they inhaled lungs full of putrid air and exhaled in ragged gasps.

The old man muttered something else indecipherable.  Mattan bent to the bottom of the cart and said slowly, “He says, ‘Don’t be so noisy.’  The Holy One be with you, my masters.”

Mattan, Ammihud, and Ruth hurried out the narrow alleyway.  They retrieved their mounts and a string of goats Mattan had purchased at a king’s ransom to make their disguise as simple traders more convincing.  As she’d done on the way into Joppa, Ruth was there to distract the guards with her beautiful face.  Despite her masculine disguise, Ruth knew very well how to strike a pretty pose.  In fact, her life on the road had taught her how to play both masculine and feminine roles to effect.

The three of them passed through the gate with not much more notice than they had received going in.  They rode down the road at the relaxed pace appropriate for traders with a long journey ahead of them.  When the gate to the city was out of sight, they veered off the well-traveled road and turned south to circle around to the city’s massive dump.

As expected, when they arrived they found the poorest of the poor there, scavenging the city’s leftovers for scraps of food or clothing – anything useful.  The city’s lepers were also turned out here.  They managed to eke out a semblance of life until the dreaded disease took them away.

With a heavy heart at such a loss of revenue, Mattan turned the goats over to the wretched folk of the dump.  The animals would only slow the party down and… well… Mattan knew well that God looked favorably on those who were generous to the poor.  This group needed all the divine favor they could curry to succeed on this desperate day.

The people of the dump were elated and carried the goats off to their caves, a feast to prepare.  Their cheers and thanks had long died away as the trio of divine adventurers awaited Arrut and his dung wagon.

Finally they spied the “King of Muck” making his way on the hard-scrabbled path, coming toward them.  They were relieved to see Arrut’s cart was piled just as high now as it was when they’d parted company within Joppa!

Arrut mumbled something to Mattan and a small sack of what must be coins changed hands.  Mattan mentally tallied the cost of this little adventure, adding the bribe to the total.

Untying some leather thongs on the tongue of the wagon, Arrut stepped back suddenly as the cart tipped backward.  Straw, garbage and waste tumbled off the cart, revealing the men underneath.  Miraculously, all five of them still alive, though gasping for breath.  They were covered in filth, but alive and free!

Ammihud helped each man to their feet, but Ruth stayed on her donkey, fanning away the smell and covering her look of displeasure with a fold of her cloak.

“On your feet,” Ammihud said impatiently.  “We’ve got mounts hidden nearby, but we must hurry!  Remember the Tabernacle is in danger!   War may be already upon us!  We must move!”

Barek waved Ammihud off and searched amid the refuse for the body of Joseph, which he quickly retrieved.  Shouldering the burden, he said, “Now we can go.”

 

It seemed that Mattan, Ammihud, and Ruth had thought of nearly everything.  While they hurried their mounts, there was water for drinking and washing off at least some of the filth that covered the escapees.  There was food to eat and golden amulets that bore Deborah’s palm tree symbol.  These had been provided by the judge’s other servants, the ones Deborah had sent to Aphek with supplies and an urgent request for a report.

With the help of these men and Mattan’s connections in Joppa, the plan to free them had been forged.  Deborah’s men returned to report and to raise the level of wariness among those guarding the tabernacle.  It appeared that the plans of the enemy would be thwarted.

The only thing missing was a shroud for Joseph’s body.

But still, a feeling of dread hung over the party.  Without saying it in so many words, they were all convinced that the preparations to defend the tabernacle were for naught if they were not there to defend it.  It was clear that the Almighty had chosen them as His champions.  This sense of destiny somehow grew more real as they slipped Deborah’s amulets over their heads.  They had to hurry.

At Aphek they traded their tired donkeys for fresh horses.  Even Mattan insisted on riding with them.  Maaz openly suspected it was to see to the safe return of the horses he’d hired, but Mattan said only that he must “see it through.”

Barek had reluctantly conceded to allow the body of Joseph to be taken to Mattan’s house.  It had slowed them down enough on the trip from Joppa to Aphek, and no more delays could be broached.  “When we get to the tabernacle,” Barek said tiredly, “We cannot enter.  For we five are unclean, having been with the body.”

Micah glared at the big man.  “If I have to defile the tabernacle to save it, I will,” he vowed.  They mounted up and rode for a distance in silence.  Although Micah preferred things he could see, touch, taste; things he could control, the tabernacle was part of his nation’s identity.  He would sooner sacrifice a limb than let it be destroyed.  As usual, he was as good as his words.  Micah abruptly mounted and rode on ahead, not even looking back to see if the others were following.

Day Seven – Between Aphek and Shiloh

Dark clouds crept across the sky, as if the Almighty Himself judged this to be a dark day, a moment for evil to have its malicious way.  The clouds, however, bore no rain and nothing appeared to impede the progress of Deborah’s warriors until they neared Shiloh.  At the last crossroads before the road divided, the east branch leading to the tabernacle, a small party of men awaited people on the road.  When the nine riders approached, the five men stood.

“What’s this?” Maaz growled, speaking low enough to be heard only by Micah.

“Be on your guard, brother,” Micah replied.

“Hail, Jethro,” Mattan said, urging his mount between Maaz and Micah to take the lead.  He reigned his horse to a stop before the leader of the dismounted group.

“The LORD be with you, Mattan,” the man now known to them as Jethro replied.  “And to you all.  “Guardians of Israel!” he said, in greeting.  Jethro looked around the group as he spoke, making unseen assessments as he delivered a practiced message; “As I see from the amulets you wear, you are in service to Deborah, Judge over Israel.  The Lord told her that you will soon be His instruments against the Philistines.  He told His servants to bring you items that you will need for the remainder of this conflict.”

Jethro turned and gestured to a small cart that sat just off the road.  When the adventurers seemed wary, he added, “Come and receive these implements of judgment.”

Balek, of all people, was impatient.  “We don’t have time for presents,” he said.

Jethro did not answer, but went to the cart and loosed the covering.  Pulling it away, he said, “Not presents, large one, but armor and weapons.  You must go into battle prepared.”

Caleb was the first to dismount and attend to the cart.  He picked up and ran his fingers over leather armor that had been boiled to a stiff hardness and reinforced with metal scales and rings.

“Such fine workmanship,” he said admiringly.  Caleb quickly found a cuirass, gauntlets and helmet that fit him snugly and put them on, presumably to give Deborah’s men no chance to change their minds.  Sacred symbols had been tooled into the metal and leather, which Caleb supposed offered spiritual as well as physical protection.  “These are generous gifts,” Caleb practically purred.  He picked up a bow and quiver of arrows.  “Ha!” he shouted, fully equipped to make battle for the tabernacle.

The others wasted no further time dismounting and searching through the martial equipment.  Except for Barek.  “There will be none there in my size,” he muttered.

Micah threw him a helmet.  Laughing, he said, “I believe that will cover even your big head, Barek!”

Not yet convinced, Barek slowly fitted the leather helm on his head.  It fit easily.

“Just a helmet won’t do much good,” Barek said disconsolately, but he dismounted and moved to the cart.

Jethro eyed Ruth, who had already donned her masculine disguise.  “Are you Joseph?” he queried.  Jethro’s instructions were to provide arms for only seven of the eight men because Joseph eschewed any weapons save fist and foot.  But this little one, surely more a boy than a man, already had a helm and a sickle hung from his belt.

Ruth wanted none of this man’s scrutiny and recognized suspicion when she saw it.  “I need no more,” she growled in a gruff voice.  “Let’s hurry,” she added, and rode down the road to escape Jethro’s frankly curious gaze.

Jethro conferred with one of his fellows briefly in a whisper, then gave up on it.  When he turned back to the cart, he saw that the seven had sorted their equipment out.  Mattan, of course, was not provided for.  His presence in the rescue party might have surprised even Deborah.  Instead, Mattan looked on and silently calculated the value of all these implements of war.  A bounty of generosity indeed.

Maaz swung the great iron-shod goad tentatively.  “Not as good as mine, but it will do,” he said.

Deborah’s messengers helped the seven suit up, as most of them were not warriors and the way to don armor was not immediately clear to them.  With help, all of them were ready to go.  As the men of God mounted up, Jethro and his partners gathered their donkeys and mounted them.  “We are to accompany you and offer introductions to the captain of the guard.”

“Then ride on,” Ammihud said, “May Adonai go on before us!”

Jezreel started a travel psalm and the group felt their hearts rise, lifted on the wings of praise to their God.  Surely He strengthened their arms and girded them for battle!

Gifted, Graced, Growing

Please read Romans 12:1-8.

God's Gifts_final (2)

Image by James Best, (C) 2020,

https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

God gives us all we need to grow in His grace.

      We need to begin by sharing some alarming information.  But first, a reminder of the Bible’s teaching that we are in this together:

If one part [of the Body of Christ] suffers, every part suffers with it. 1 Corinthians 12:26,  “The world has become less tolerant and less safe for Christians. Based on current statistics, every day around the world …

  • 8 Christians are killed for their faith.
  • 23 Christians are raped or sexually harassed.
  • 25 Churches are targeted and attacked.
  • 10 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned for their faith.

Every week around the world …

  • 186 church buildings are attacked.
  • 276 Christian homes are burned or destroyed.

The total numbers reveal a more than a 1,000% increase in acts of persecution in 2019 over 2018.”

Violence Against Christians Surges; More Than 1,000% Increase in Attacks on Churches Since 2018

The point is this: the enemy is active and organized in its opposition to the truth of Jesus Christ. God created the church to be a body, a movement of people whose ambition is to shine the light of Jesus into a dark world.  We haven’t time to waste on lesser things.

CONTEXT – Bible teacher A.M. Hunter said there are two sides to the Gospel; the believing side and the “behaving side.”  A living faith is growing in knowing and doing.  Paul wrote a doxology (11:33-36) and then followed it up with a call to worship God by sacrifice.  In this way, Paul illustrated both the believing and behaving sides of faith.

  1. God gives gracious gifts.

One act of grace is God’s gift of revelation: it is gracious of God to reveal Himself to us.  In Romans 12:3, Paul reported that God gave him insight into the nature of humility and faith (3). This teaching came from God: FOR BY THE GRACE GIVEN ME I SAY TO EVERY ONE OF YOU.

The specific truth revealed on this occasion is found in the phrase, DO NOT THINK OF YOURSELF MORE HIGHLY THAN YOU OUGHT, for that is pride. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; pride is the opposite of faith!  As we learned in Bible Study recently, “EGO” is an acronym for “Edging God Out.” There is only room for one on the throne of our life; it must be God who sits there.

INSTEAD, Paul wrote, THINK OF YOURSELF WITH SOBER JUDGMENT, for that is humility.  Humility is an accurate self-understanding.  Faith allows us to see ourselves from God’s perspective and thereby to by humble.

Here’s a news flash!  We don’t create faith or even increase it: faith is something God gives us, as Paul wrote, IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE MEASURE OF FAITH GOD HAS GIVEN YOU.  Let me give you two New Testament examples of people who understood faith to be God’s gift.

– In Luke 17:5, Jesus’ disciples said to Him, “INCREASE OUR FAITH!”  There is no exertion of will to believe here, just a plea for more faith.

– In Mark 9:24 Jesus challenged the demoniac boy’s father to believe in order to see his son delivered.  In desperation the man cried out, “I DO BELIEVE! HELP ME OVERCOME MY UNBELIEF!”  He accurately understood faith to be something Jesus gives.

Part of humility is to avoid comparing ourselves with others.  Based on His knowledge of us, God gives each of us a MEASURE OF FAITH that is best for us.  We can pray for more faith, but we can’t create it, not with all the willpower in the world.

God created the Church for our benefit and gives abilities to serve in shared ministry (4-6).  We do not belong to ourselves, but to each other.  The problem is that pride gets in the way.  Pride feeds selfishness and is contrary to fellowship in the church.

Proud people try to support their pride by citing things like amount or length of service, education, or recognition, as if they are trying to work around grace. Any time someone has to build themselves up in a bid to get your attention you can be sure that it is pride – not love – that is at work in them.  Be wary of your own words.

A cure for pride is to think of one’s self WITH SOBER JUDGMENT. This requires a view of self that is informed by Scripture.

  1. God wants us to use His gifts.

Our best response to God’s grace is to worship Him (1). In the Old Testament, worship involved the sacrifice of animals to atone for one’s sin.  In the New Testament, worship still involves sacrifice, but not the killing of an animal, but the spiritual sacrifice of the worshiper, a LIVING SACRIFICE.

This is what Jesus meant when He said the greatest commandment is loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37).  The SACRIFICE of which Paul speaks is all of our personality must be poured into our life-long service to Christ.

Paul wrote that this kind of self-sacrifice is SPIRITUAL, “reasonable” or “true” worship.  This echoes Jesus’ teaching in John 4:24, that God the Father accepts worship that is spiritual and true.

God wants us to be transformed (2), growing in the faith He’s given.  One force opposing spiritual maturity is the devil or Satan.  He’s a liar, tempter and accuser, wielding distraction to achieve destruction.  Another force opposing spiritual maturity is the WORLD (aka “this age”).  The material world has a lot of influence because we temporarily live in it.  Part of the work of spiritual maturity is distancing ourselves from the world’s temptations and ties.

The institutions of this world want our loyalty and our resources.  The world wants conformity.  We’re to keep in line, not rock the boat, not defy their illusionary powers.  However, as God’s people, all we are and all we have belongs to God.  He calls us to transformation, becoming less worldly and more heavenly.  Our priority with our resources is using them to make Earth more heavenly.

The means of transformation Paul gives here is renewal of our minds.  Transformation is also something God gives, but there are things we can do to open our minds to renewal: prayer, study of God’s word, good works done in love, and obeying his commands.  The effect of this transformation is gaining wisdom to discern God’s will.  God’s will is always the best choice because it is GOOD, PERFECT, and PLEASING.

In general, we know that we are being transformed if selfishness is being replaced by godliness.  This is the spirit in which John the Baptist spoke of Jesus in John 3:30, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

God wants us to use our Spiritual Gifts (6-8).  We don’t have space to elaborate on the Gifts in this article.  It is enough for us to note that they are Gifts from God and therefore not a source of pride or competition in a church.  God gives as He wills, knowing up perfectly and working His will in us.

God gives us all we need to grow in His grace.

      I read this week that an egotist is someone who’s ME-DEEP in everything!  Part of God’s amazing grace is that He delivers us from a self-centered life.  He saves us from the burden of having to be right all the time.  He demonstrates forgiveness that renders perfectionism obsolete.  And on top of all that, He places us in a “forever family” that loves and supports us unconditionally.

When you think about it, the Bible has an awful lot to say against pride.  It has a lot to recommend depending on God rather than self.  All of that takes the pressure off and allows us to experience rest in Jesus Christ.

Here’s a practical experiment for you to try.  Whether you’re having a conversation in person, online, or on the phone, try to avoid first person pronouns.  Don’t use words like “I” and “me” and observe the conversation impartially.  When you don’t use those words, how often does the conversation turn to you?  Notice how much more you’ll have to listen and how much more responsive the other person becomes.  It’s a good feeling: you may want to make a habit of it!

 

RESOURCE:

Zondervan Bible Commentary, Romans, Leslie C. Allen.

Fearfully and Wonderfully

Please read Psalm 139:13-16 in your go-to version of the Holy Bible.

Sanctity of Human Life_finalImage by James Best, (C) 2020, https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

On January 13, 1984, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation designating January 22 as the first National Sanctity of Human Life Day. (January 22, 1973, was the day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion-on-demand in all 50 states.) People across the United States use the day to celebrate God’s gift of life, commemorate the many lives lost to abortion, and commit themselves to protecting human life.

https://www.lifemattersww.org/CHURCHES/Sanctity-of-Human-Life-Sunday

On Dec. 10, 2019, our South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem issued an Executive Proclamation, designating January, 2020 as “Sanctity of Human Life Month.”  I’ve read it and believe it is a well-written proclamation.

Personally, I have dear friends who are committed Christians on both side of the issue of abortion-on-demand and am able to love then all and listen to lots of viewpoints.  We are not here to debate abortion-on-demand, capital punishment, or any other single aspect of a pro-life perspective.  Instead, it is our task this morning to agree on the single most important basis of civilized life: the belief that all human life is sacred.  If we can’t all agree on that statement, we have no basis for trust and relationship, no basis for organizing in civilized ways.  Regardless of race, religion, or other beliefs, all members of the human family must recognize the right of all humans to live.  All other rights and freedoms begin with this essential principle.

In addition to that, let all Christians agree that the sacredness of human life is a principle affirmed everywhere in Scripture: from the creation of human life in Genesis to the redemption of human life in Revelation, God commands us to respect human life above all other parts of creation.

CONTEXT: Psalm 136 is King David’s celebration of God who knows us completely, yet loves us unconditionally.  Verses 13-16 are our focus this morning.  Here we find David saying God knows us intimately because He made us.  And He makes only good things.  In these verses we find a beautiful confirmation of the principle of the sacredness of human life.

Because we are God’s creation, human life is sacred.

  1. Human life is sacred because God is our Creator. (13)

Every verse in this section affirms this teaching. However, verses thirteen through sixteen direct our attention to the INMOST part of our BEING, the spiritual/emotional/intellectual facets of our personality.

The image of being KNIT by God expresses a beautiful sentiment.  A similar statement is made to the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1:5; The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Yet this is much more than sentiment.  God has plans for each life and assigns purposes to our days

  1. Human life is sacred because we are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image and likeness. (14)

The words FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY express our awe at the creative power of God. Though the psalm applies to all human beings, David wrote it from a very individual perspective.  He praised God out of gratitude for all God had done for him.  So great was David’s gratitude that he wrote ALL God’s WORKS ARE WONDERFUL.  All of creation prompts praise to the Creator.

This passage does not mention the Image of God, but it is so integral to our understanding of humanity and in the background of these affirmations, we must mention it here.  Found in Genesis 1:27, this phrase is not precisely defined in Scripture.  But it is clearly something(s) that distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and elevates us above it.

  1. Human life is sacred because God created each of us according to His plan. (15-16)

A developing child is invisible to the naked human eye, but fully known to God.  The words, MY FRAME literally means “my bone.” David used respectful metaphors for the womb: SECRET PLACE and DEPTHS OF THE EARTH.

In fact, God knows us so well He has plans for our future even before our birth.  YOUR BOOK probably refers to the Book of Life, a common Bible word picture of God’s list of His faithful people; those who will be saved.

God has a general plan and specific plans for every person.  In general, God wants every person to be saved and every person to do good works.  2 Peter 3:9 names God’s will for universal salvation: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  Ephesians 2:10 proves God’s plan for universal good works. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.  The facts that not all people are going to be saved and not all people are going to do good works is evidence of the fact that all of have free will.  God delegates a portion of His authority to us, allowing each to choose to love or reject Him.

God has specific purposes for each of our lives.  It is the task of a maturing believer to discover God’s will and obey it.

Because we are God’s creation, human life is sacred.

      Any culture that refuses to recognize all human life as sacred fails the first and most important test of a civilized society.  We have no basis for organizing in a productive way apart from this first commitment to life.

Let’s make this truth more personal, as David did when he wrote this song of praise.  God has a purpose (several) for your life.  It is not yours to waste on sin and selfishness.

We have an amazing capacity to waste time.  We repeat mistakes until they become bad habits.  We give in to bad habits until they become character flaws.  Moments stretch into days and days become years before we turn around.  Life is too precious to waste.  One way we can honor the sacredness of human life is not to waste a moment of our own.

 

RESOURCES:

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, Willem A. VanGemeren.

Idol Smashers #11

assassin

“Idol Smashers” is a work of fiction set in the biblical era of the Judges.  Apart from persons mentioned in the Bible, it is entirely fiction and presented here in serial form strictly for the entertainment of my readers.  “Idol Smashers” is an original work, copyright Brett Best, 2011.

(Previously in “Idol Smashers,” the group had no choice but to take Ruth with them.  They found the shop of the man who had constructed the idols at Heshonib.  His name was Kanab, and he was instantly suspicious of persons speaking Hebrew interested in that city.  When Kanab attempted to escape, he was instantly captured outside his shop and drug him away to a nearby stable.)

Day Three – Joppa

            When next he poured something on Kanab, Micah did not waste even the poor wine they’d purchased at the bazaar.  Instead, it was with water that Micah doused him.

“Utter not a warning, or cry aloud, on pain of your life,” Barek breathed into Kanab’s ear after he awoke with a start.  His massive hand was clenched over the Philistine’s mouth.  The giant’s grip was sufficiently tight to back up his threat.

Kanab’s eyes darted around the stable.  He saw six other figures huddled around him.  He flexed his hands, only to find they were bound behind him, his arms wrapped around a stout timber.  Though thoroughly evil, Kanab’s mind worked quickly.  He saw he was helpless and nodded as best he could with the giant man’s hand nearly crushing his jaw.

One of them stepped forward, holding the flickering light of an olive oil lamp in Kanab’s face.  The man’s face was also illuminated in the pool of light as he regarded Kanab.

“You can let him go,” the man said.  “He knows his life hangs by a thread.”

Kanab smelled wine but didn’t remember getting drunk.  He remembered a man and a woman in his shop.  They were Israelite spies!

Joseph saw Kanab’s eyes flicker with awareness.  He nodded at Barek, who slowly withdrew his hand and placed a cold dagger-point at Kanab’s throat instead.  Kanab’s eyes hardened and Joseph knew that this man would be hard to intimidate.  He decided to try to imbalance him rather than threaten him directly.

“By now the Black Cat is at your shop,” Joseph said evenly.  “How do you think he will interpret your absence and the signs of wine and broken shelves?”

Kanab said nothing, but he was clearly steeling himself against Joseph.

“Will he think you’ve gone off on another drunken binge?  Will he be angry because you have summoned him without cause?”

“Heh,” Kanab sputtered.  “You know nothing.  You grope in the darkness for pearls of truth but you will find only pebbles!”

In response to the defiant look on Kanab’s face, Joseph nodded to Barek, who increased the pressure of the sharp blade against Kanab’s exposed skin.  A trickle of blood flowed from the parted flesh.

“We know the Black Cat moves against the tabernacle of Israel!”  Joseph snarled.  He was pleased to see Kanab’s defiance fade as his eyes widened.  That had been a stab in the dark in more ways than one.

“Impossible!” Kanab started, then caught himself.  “You know nothing about the Cat.”

As planned, the others kept silent.  In the darkness of the stable adjoining the inn, only Kanab’s face and Joseph’s were well-illuminated.  Barek’s face was barely lit, but he maintained a fierce expression, his eyes devoted entirely to Kanab.

“I know he plans to move before the next Sabbath!” Joseph said in a rage that was not entirely a pretense.  That broke another piece of Kanab’s defiance away.  “The LORD has revealed to us your plans, idolater!  We have seen your deceit at Heshonib!”

A bit of worry crept into Kanab’s expression, then he considered something.

“If you know so much, why do you need me?”  Emboldened by his realization of Joseph’s bluff, Kanab pushed back.  “Why threaten me?  What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

Joseph pressed in so close that there was a danger the flame of the lamp would light Kanab’s turban or beard.

“We want your fellow conspirators.  We want the surviving Heshonibites.  You – will –  deliver them to us!”

“You know nothing.  You are bluffing.”  Kanab’s clever face was resolute again.  “I will tell you nothing.  Nothing.”

Kanab’s cheeks puffed only a bit before he blew out the lamp.

In the darkness, the other six heard the blows of the giant’s massive hands on Kanab’s body.  While Joseph felt his way back to the door to find a light, he heard the breath driven from Kanab’s lungs.  He heard the ribs break.  When the latch was finally in his hand, he heard the Philistine cry out in pain.

“Enough!  Mercy!”

 

Barek said nothing as they sat in a circle not far from the idol-maker.  Kanab was seated on the floor but leaning forward, held up only by the ropes the bound him to the beam.  Ruth reached out and put her hand on his.

“You did what you had to to do.”

The giant Israelite regarded Ruth with a blank stare for a few moments, then moved his hand away from Ruth and continued eating.

“I didn’t think he was gonna talk,” Caleb said, putting down his bowl.

“It wasn’t courage that stayed his voice,” Jezreel said, “but fear.  When his fear of Barek outweighed the fear of his fellows, he found his voice soon enough.”

For his part, Joseph was still a bit sickened by the interrogation.  This was a new and unwelcome experience for him.  He was familiar enough with violence; it was the way of the world, after all.  But violence against a bound foe with nothing more to be won than information, that was new.

“Let’s review what we found out,” he said.  “Heshonib was used as a staging area to prepare a covert force that would strike a target deep in Israel.  This force is to be disguised, probably as a caravan of Phoenecian merchants bound for Shiloh.  Once there, they will destroy the Tabernacle and all its contents.  They will leave clues to make it look like Moabites have committed this sacrilege and retreat into Moab.”

Maaz threw down his bowl in disgust.  “By means of this – cowardly artifice – they hope to cripple the worship of our God and also cause a war between Israel and Moab.  Then, when Israel’s strength is focused on her eastern border, the kings of Philistia will marshal their armies and attack on the west.  In fact, this strike team left Heshonib the very day the idols were destroyed.  It is likely that they are already in position to attack the tabernacle and destroy it.  Kanab’s idols were placed in the village to give the power of the Philistine gods Baal and Zebub to the strike force.”

“We don’t know where the invaders are now, Kanab wasn’t told that,” Caleb pointed out.

“But we know where they will be,” Ruth answered.

“We can’t chance them getting to the Tabernacle and causing any damage to the holy site,” Maaz countered, clearly frustrated.

“We have four days to find them,” Jezreel said, “and the LORD is with us.”

Before anyone could add anything more, the stable door parted slightly, and the stable boy slipped in.  He ran quickly into the circle of light.

“Masters,” he said quietly, his eyes wide with a fright.  “You paid me to tell you if someone came looking for you.  There is a man in the inn, asking after a man and woman seen with Kanab!”

Someone started pounding on the stable door.

 

“You were supposed to give us a warning, boy!” Maaz spat the words at the youth as if they were darts.  He rose to his feet, the stout ox-goad in his hands.

When the door flew open, Maaz was ready to meet any threat.  But no threat presented itself.  Instead, the doorway was vacant – no one was to be seen.

At Maaz’s side in the next heartbeat, his ax unslung, Micah wondered aloud, “What’s this?”

Cautiously, the head of the innkeeper appeared on one side of the door.  The rest of his stout, short frame slowly joined the head.

“P-pardon,” the head uttered in Hebrew.  “Some men from the – an unintelligible word or two in Philistine – are here for you.  Go you must.”

“P-please.”

Joseph sighed as he stood.  “I agree.  We want no trouble here in the middle of the enemy.”

“What about our prisoner”” Caleb hissed, striving to keep his voice low.  “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble here and have little to show for it!”

Barek got to his feet.  “I’ll carry him,” he volunteered resignedly.  Clearly the role of interrogator troubled his conscience.  Though he had no love lost for Kanab, treating any human being in the way they had treated the idol-maker went against the giant’s strict moral code.  They were simply too desperate for information about the Philistine plan.

Troubled by his own thoughts. Jezreel shared Barek’s offense.  So when worked at loosing Kanab’s bonds, he did so gently, determined to inflict no more injury on the man.

Jezreel had scarcely begun pulling at the knots when the side door of the stable burst open and dark-clad armed men sprinted through it.

Samuel immediately burst into action.  With a shout, he drew his scimitar and ran toward the first intruder.  Samuel had to step between the center post that supported the roof of the stable and their own wagon, but he went nimbly, without a misstep.

With sword raised over his head, the intruder charged at Samuel. In an instant, the distance between them was lost.  The man loosed his own war cry and swung his weapon at Samuel.  The young Israelite parried the sword stroke easily enough with his shield, but the intruder was nearly twice his size and the man followed the sword strike with a shoulder block that sent Samuel sprawling backward.

The youth flew several feet until Samuel’s head struck the wooden door of the cattle stall behind him.  His vision blurred and the wind was driven from him as another Philistine landed on top of him.  Part of Samuel’s mind observed his scimitar flying from his grasp and skittering across the straw-strewn floor.

This was more fierce combat than Samuel had ever known; panic welled up, distracting his already sundered awareness.  He saw a huge fist flying at his face and narrowly avoided it.  He pushed against his assailant’s seemingly immense weight, but to no avail.  Too late he saw the edge of the soldier’s shield rise toward him.  Samuel ben Abram felt as if his head must have surely been sundered by the edge of the round wooden shield, but darkness overtook him too quickly to be certain.

Whirling to his left, Maaz saw the men shouldering their way through the narrow side door.  “WE ARE BETRAYED!” he shouted.  Their cart stood between Maaz and his enemy.  In an instant, he was around it and confronted a Philistine attacker.  Battle was at hand and it was in the midst of battle that this divine warrior felt most keenly the presence of his Lord.

Maaz’s adversary was a man of considerable size himself.  He was also apparently a tested soldier, for the sight of the Israelite bearing down on him did not deter the man at all.  In fact, the opposite.  He raised both shield and sword and charged ahead.

When he reached Maaz, the intruder concealed a sword-thrust with his shield.  Maaz was not caught completely unaware by the tactic, but he only succeeded in parrying part of the blow; the sharp blade cut deeply across his left bicep.

The ox-goad swung and clattered harmlessly against the shield.  Anticipating this block, Maaz let the long stout wooden pole rise over the shield.  Then he pivoted, throwing his weight and full strength behind a strike that arced across three hundred sixty degrees until it impacted explosively against the Philistine’s left knee.  The joint broke with a loud crack!  With a cry of agony, the unbeliever went down.

Micah was on his brother-in-law’s heels, but had fought with him often enough to know to give the ox-goad a wide berth.  Micah and the third intruder through the side door faced each other more warily.  Neither man committed to a full-blown charge, but stepped cautiously, looking for signs of weakness, calculating a plan of attack.

Wearying quickly of the standoff, Micah brought his ax into an overhead strike while stepping into the intruder.  This strike was blocked by the Philistine’s shield, followed by a sword slash behind the shield.  Stepping nimbly back from the sword’s point, Micah grinned at his enemy.

“This will be fun,” he said with wild joy and drew his dagger with his left hand.

Maaz assumed his brother-in-law was holding his own when the other of the two main doors flew open.  Then inkeeper fled the melee to make room for two similarly-armed and garbed men who moved into the six-foot wide opening.

“SURRENDER OR DIE!” the one of them shouted in Hebrew.

Maaz described several circles in the air, executing a series of intricate steps, blocks and thrusts.  In his hands, the stout goad was a blur.

“I will do neither” Maaz growled, and then motioned for the hated Philistines to come and meet his goad.

Joseph whirled to see Samuel dashed to the ground by a black-clad soldier and then beaten with a shield edge as the two grappled on the floor.  He did not, however, wait to see the outcome of the melee, but instead ran to the younger man’s aid.

By the time he got there, the deciding blow had been landed, but Joseph summoned his own training and concentration, focusing it into a single blow.  His right heel impacted Samuel’s assailant beside his left ear.  It connected with such force that, in spite of the man’s size, his body spun around to try to stay connected with his head.

The big man turned two and a half times across the floor of the stable before coming to rest in a supine position, mostly covering Samuel’s scimitar.  He did not stir from that spot.

Realizing they were under attack, Jezreel stepped back from the post and left Kanab’s bonds tied. He paused a few heartbeats to calm himself, then sought out his staff and began singing a psalm of battle.  When he found it leaning against a nearby stall door, the psalmist walked deliberately to the place and picked it up.  Holding it aloft and thinking a quick prayer, he sung more loudly and rushed after Joseph toward the dark-clad men still rushing from the side door.

Time slowed for Caleb when he heard the noise of battle being joined.  He turned to his right to see Ruth concealing herself in the stall to his right.  He heard himself tell her to stay down.

Bending over to pick his bow up off the floor, Caleb straightened up and nocked an arrow as quickly as he could.  He stepped forward to look for a target and saw the boy who had come to warn them.  He told the boy to stay down.

Caleb saw Maaz in a melee in front of the main door and Micah locked in battle further away.  A black figure stormed through the doorway, and Caleb loosed his arrow.  The Philistine would not know in this life what hit him as Caleb’s shot pierced his right eye.  Then penetrating shot drove his already-dead body spinning to the ground.

Barek was struggling with himself when the sounds of the struggle in the stable finally penetrated his consciousness.  Like a man awakening from a dream, he tore his gaze from Kanab and looked up to see Caleb’s back.  He was loosing an arrow at an unseen target, then grunted with satisfaction.

Swiftly, the soldier’s mind took over the giant’s body and Barek reached for his immense sword.  It was in his hand and raised when he stepped up next to Caleb, who was reaching for another arrow.  Barek’s trained eye took in the situation in an instant.  He saw to his right and a half-dozen paces away that Maaz was engaged with two of the enemy and more were pouring through the wide-open stable doors.

Barek knew where he needed.  He paused a few seconds while Caleb loosed another shaft, then raced around him.  The big man’s strides ate up the distance between himself and his first target.

Joseph did not hesitate to appreciate the results of his well-aimed kick, but ran forward to the next foe.  Meeting a night-clad man almost at the feet of his prone comrade, Joseph launched a flurry of punches at the Philistine soldier.  What blows the man did not dodge, he blocked with his shield.  Joseph felt no pain from the blows that impacted on the wooden shield; his training and the red haze of combat kept him from the sensation.

Joseph saw the sword strike before the intruder attempted it and easily stepped out of the way.  He threw more punches and stepped into a kick.  A feint diverted his attention before the sword took Joseph’s leg out from under the kick.

He hit the ground hard.  Breath driven from him, agony from his stricken limb, Joseph struggled to get to his feet when the second blow struck him in his right side and knocked him down for good.

Jezreel watched in horror to see his fellow Israelite struck savagely by the Philistine’s sword strikes.  Enraged, the psalm fell from his lips but the staff in his hands did deadly work.  Intent on Joseph, the swordsman did not see Jezreel coming.  The psalmist’s staff caught him on the left temple.  The sickening sound of his skull shattering did not deter Jezreel nor stir his heart to any feeling except the righteous zeal for more battle.

As he watched the dead attacker fall in his peripheral vision, Jezreel was aware that another night-black figure rushed at him.  He barely had time to right his footing, put his staff in the ready position, and recommence the song when the Philistine fell on him.

Jezreel’s blow clattered off the man’s shield but did succeed in knocking it into the path of the man’s stabbing sword, making him deflect his own blow.  Jezreel managed to turn a second vicious blow at the cost of severing his staff.  The shield then swung around and over the sundered staff and caught Jezreel on the side of his head.  For a heartbeat or two he felt his feet leave the floor.  When he hit the stable wall behind him, the bricks did not yield, but Jezreel did.  To unconsciousness.

The Philistine who had loudly commanded surrender pretended not to be intimidated by Maaz’s bold reply.  The challenge of the Israelite’s summons was irresistible to one with a warrior’s heart.  After nodding to his companion to enter with him, the dark-clad pair stepped across the threshold, advancing on the tall Israelite.

Maaz waited them out, baiting the two intruders into rash action.  He was fearless, utterly convinced his God would deliver him.  So, when the commander’s companion, the one on the right, struck first, Maaz easily parried the sword strike with the butt of his goad, keeping the metal-shod tip pointed right at the commander.  The commander’s stabbing attack was more subtle than his companion’s but just as ineffective.

“My turn,” Maaz breathed, and jabbed a two-handed thrust of his polearm around the commander’s shield, bashing in his windpipe with the heavy metal tip.  Dropping both his sword and shield, the commander fell backward, clutching at his throat, desperate for air.

With a curse, the other black-garbed Philistine launched a series of slashing sword strikes, driving Maaz backward until he was up against their cart.  To be pinned thus was a disadvantage for a man trying to swing a reach weapon.  Even though it was behind him, the cart prevented some of the uses of his staff.  To purchase some room, Maaz swung savagely at his adversary.  The blow crashed against his opponent’s wooden shield.  It caused him no harm, but gave Maaz an opening to side-step to his left, away from the cart.

As he executed this maneuver, Maaz spared a momentary glance at the open doorway.  A third intruder pulled the commander out of the stable while a fourth entered, with more men behind him.

Of course, the possibility of retreat never even occurred to Maaz.

Both Micah and his night-clad opponent were fiercely enjoying squaring off against an opponent of mettle.  Leading with his shield, the intruder raised his sword and charged forward, putting his weight, muscle and hope into one overpowering strike.  Micah shifted his feet and his grip on his ax-haft.  Holding it loosely, he used the weight of the ax-head to direct the force of the blow away.

His attack carried the man to Micah’s right, across his path, so Micah struck at his relatively exposed right flank.  The tactic was sound, but the Philistine’s leather cuirass turned the blade in Micah’s hand and he dropped it.

Now he was angry – at himself and the Philistine.  Micah threw himself at his attacker, whose footing was still a little uncertain from the powerful attack he’d attempted.  The two sprawled on the floor and Micah resorted to punching the man with his now-freed left hand.

The Philistine struggled against the Israelite, the two of them rolling on the floor, each striking indifferent blows, the combatants too close to effectively wield the weapons they carried.  So the Philistine dropped his sword and shield and sought purchase with this hands around Micah’s throat.  Micah lost his axe when his hand smashed against the wall. Neither man was able to hurt the other, flailing limbs and armor getting in the way.

The two men were so intent on smashing or choking one another that Micah did not see the other intruder’s dark-colored form against the shadows of the stable’s uncertain lighting.  When the sword strike pierced his side, pain surged through him.  When he arced his back, the Philistine beneath him lashed out with a blow to Micah’s face that knocked him into darkness.

Barek had barely stepped over the wagon tongues and around the central timber when he was confronted by the Philistine who’d dispatched young Samuel.  Their swords clashed in mid-swing, but Barek’s sheer size gave him a slight edge over his smaller opponent, and Barek forced him to backstep.

The Philistine gave him no quarter however, and lithely stepped into a short sword-thrust that skittered off the side of Barek’s blade, then was knocked away by the guard on Barek’s sword hilt.  Barek turned the parry into a thrust that scraped the top of the intruder’s shield.  But the size and weight of the giant-sized weapon worked to it’s advantage as the point was driven home deep into the throat of the intruder.

With a choking sound, the man dropped to his knees.  Barek drove the sword home the rest of the way, nearly severing the man’s head.  Barek pulled his weapon free of the body before it hit the floor.

One of the intruders avoided the melee in the middle of the room as he searched the rest of the stable.  His eye came to rest on Caleb, standing twelve paces away, just after Caleb loosed an arrow at him.  The shaft was wide of the mark, however, and buried itself in the lintel of the door.

The Philistine launched himself at Caleb, closing the distance between the two of them, roaring something in his heathen tongue.  Watching the man rush toward him, Caleb knew there was no chance of getting off another shot, so he dropped the bow and grasped the handle of his dagger with his right hand.  When he got close enough, both hand and dagger flashed at the Philistine, but Caleb’s slash was premature and the warrior was in no danger.

Caleb was, however, in more danger than he knew.  The night-black warrior’s sword struck underneath Caleb’s slash, the blade sinking deeply into his right shoulder.  Caleb felt the dagger fly from his now-useless right arm.  When the Philistine shield-bashed his right side, the smaller Israelite went flying.  With a thud, Caleb landed bodily at the feet of Kanab, who was still bound to the post.

Struggling just to breathe, Caleb lay his head down on Kanab’s legs and was still.  He knew the fight was no longer his.

Maaz had no opportunity to make use of his unobstructed location when two intruders set upon him in concert.  The two warriors fought together flawlessly and Maaz’s ox-goad could simply not defend against two attackers flanking him.  Where the stout wooden staff flashed to defend against one slash, it simply could not defend against the other.  The point of the Philistine’s blade struck home between the overlapping layers of Maaz’s armor.

Forced to lean against his weapon to remain standing, Maaz folded under the assault of multiple stab and slash wounds.  The fierce Israelite did not surrender even to unconsciousness.  He merely lost his grip on the staff as the darkness claimed him.

Barek saw Maaz go down.  He raced at the nearest Philistine and with a divine oath and swung the massive blade with both hands.  He very nearly succeeded at hewing the man in half.

Confronted by the sight of the giant man and his deadly effect, the dead intruder’s partner hesitated, fixed by his horror.  The look of surprise remained on the man’s face when Barek separated his head from his shoulders.

In the next instant, two more black-armored figures raced through the doorway and set themselves upon Barek.  The big blade deflected both strikes before coming ’round again to draw blood on one attacker’s leg.

When a third soldier entered the fray and they had him surrounded.  Three more of the hated heathens poured through the stable door.  Within seconds, Barek was completely disadvantaged.  He looked around the stable quickly and saw none of his companions still standing.

With a savage motion that made his six assailants flinch, Barek buried his sword in the floor of the stable.  A weary sigh escaped his lips and a wary look crossed his face as he knelt and clasped his hands on the hilt of his sword.  Oddly, Barek’s mind was on Maaz, wondered what the herdsman would think of his surrendering.