It took me like an hour to find the right image. After all, how does the saying go? A picture’s worth a thousand words. Well, I wanted my thousand words to be worth something. And so, I came up with this. I made this picture the one, the one I’m using as the title slide for this series of sermons. Oh, and did I tell you the title?
Here it is along with the pic. I admit. It’s sounds a bit depressing, this title. “How did it come to this?” Though, I betcha a lot of you have been thinking that question or something like it in the craziness of these last months. Still, I didn’t want a depressing pic for what folks might see as a depressing title. So, this picture just felt right.
Why? Well, it shows what we’re going through. You see. It feels like right now, our world, our country is crossing to someplace new. But getting there looks a little scary, like we could pitch over the side if we don’t watch our step.
But this picture goes deeper than that for me. It reminds me of one of the scariest things I ever did, and one of the most amazing. In Zion National Park, you’ll find a trail to a place called Angel’s Landing. And taking that trail looks a bit like taking this bridge. What do I mean?
Here is a picture to give you an idea. If you don’t watch where you’re going on that walk, well, let’s just say, it won’t be a pretty picture. But if you take the trek, if you make the climb, well, at the top, you’ll see this. You’ll see a view so stunningly beautiful you’ll never forget being there, being in a place where it seems only angels could land, as you see this glimpse below of the summit of this magnificent walk.
And right now, if we make the right steps as a church, as people who follow Jesus, and yes, as a nation and a world, who know what sights God could have in store? But how do we get there? How do we get past the challenges of these days to that other side? To see that, you first need to see what can get in the way. You first need to understand what could lead us to fall off that bridge, to fall into the darkness below. And in this story, this frankly small, not very interesting, story, God shows you how often it’s in such places you can most easily fall off the edge. What do I mean? Here God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Sheesh, what a world we’re facing. You could catch a virus that might not affect you or might give you a horrible death. You have an election that feels like it could determine the fate of the entire world, at least the way some folks talk about it. And you have an economy that can look like it’s about to fall off a cliff. Yet, in the midst of all that, you and I are moving somewhere. In fact, we could very well be moving someplace good, even amazing. Yet it also feels that we could take steps that lead to a place that will not be good at all.
So how do you make sure you’re not taking the wrong steps? How do you and I make decisions that lead in the right directions not the wrong ones? In this story, a story of tragically wrong directions, God tells you. God warns you of the tragic consequences of a small world, and how you and I must do all that we can to avoid living there.
But hold on isn’t a small world a good thing? Sheesh, they even made it a ride at Disney World, right? It’s a small world, It’s a small world after all, It’s a small world after all. It’s a small, small world. So, how can that be bad?
Well, actually, in that famous ride, that small world actually feels kind of big. You have this wondrous, stunning variety of peoples and cultures, of different sights and sounds. No, I’m talking about a different sort of small world. I’m talking about the world you find in this story. And what world do you find here?
You find a world that centers on one small family, a world so small and insignificant, you can wonder why anybody thought it ever belonged in the most influential religious text in human history. Yet here it is.
I mean. What goes on here? This guy, Micah, steals a bunch of money from his mom. And then he hears his mom curse the person, whoever it was, who stole the money. He freaks out, decides he doesn’t want a mommy curse, and returns the money.
So then, she takes back the curse, and uses some of the money to make a silver idol for her son to keep in his house, where Micah makes one of his sons the priest. Then, Micah gets lucky. A homeless Levite comes to town, a person who’s actually qualified to be a priest. And Micah works a deal to get his own personal Levite. He even thinks. “How awesome. God is going to so bless me with my own personal priest!”
But that doesn’t happen. Just to give you the sequel. A bunch of folks from another Israelite tribe, the Danites, steal the idol and the priest to get God’s favor for them. Micah goes after them, and says, “Hey, that’s my priest.” The Danites basically say, “Go home dude before we kill you and your entire family.” So, Micah goes home, and the Danites go and slaughter a village and live there with their new priest and idol.
And that’s the sort of small world, I’m talking about. But what makes this world small? Everyone stays focused on themselves. Micah steals from his mom. But because he fears a curse, he returns it. In other words, it’s all about him. Mom kind of gives some of the returned money to God, but only so she can use it to make a shiny idol so God can give blessings to her family. Everywhere you look in this story, everyone is focused on one central question. What’s in it for me? The writer even gives you that as the explanation for the decisions people made. He tells you. All the people did what was right in their own eyes.
And when your world becomes like that, one focused on you, it leads to a world where awful things can and do happen. In fact, right after this story, the final story of this book called Judges comes. And in that story a woman gets brutalized and murdered. And that crime leads to the almost total genocide of an Israelite tribe. And that story and the book ends, with the same words you find in the middle of this story. “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
But you don’t need such a gruesome story to see how such small worlds lead to such evil consequences. No, a smaller story, one that the psychiatrist Scott Peck tells in his book People of the Lie shows you the same thing.
The story happened to Peck, early in the first year of his residency. The hospital had admitted a 15-year-old boy named Bobby with a diagnosis of depression. It was February. Less then ten months before, Bobby’s older brother, had killed himself with a 22 rifle. Soon after, Bobby began to spiral down. After Christmas, it got worse, until Bobby ended up in Peck’s office.
Peck could hardly get the boy to talk about anything. He kept picking at his skin, where he had gouged sores into his arms and hands. Finally struggling to find anything to talk about, he asked him what he got for Christmas. Bobby simply said. “Not much.” Peck dug deeper. Your parents must have gotten you something. What did they get you? Bobby said, “A gun.” Stunned, Peck asked, “What kind of gun?” A 22. “A 22 pistol?” Peck asked. No, Bobby replied, “A 22 rifle.” A shocked Peck said, “They gave you the same type of gun that your brother used to kill himself?” “No” Bobby replied. Peck relieved said, “Oh, I thought it was the same type of gun.” No, Bobby replied, “they gave me the same gun. They gave me the gun that belonged to my brother.”
When Peck met with the parents, they couldn’t understand how giving Bobby the gun that his brother used to kill himself was such a bad thing. Sure, Bobby wanted a tennis racket, but money doesn’t grow on trees. And they already had the gun. Why not just pass it on?
You see, when the world becomes only about you, you stop really seeing anyone else, even those closest to you. And when you stop seeing anyone else but you, well then, all sorts of awful things become possible. And as blinded as you are, you may not even see how awful they truly are. For in that small world, you have become smaller too. And in that small world, your God has gotten smaller too, a God as small as you are.
After all, Bobby’s parents went to church every Sunday. They held down good jobs, obeyed all the rules, yet they still lived in a world where making their son’s Christmas gift, the very gun that had killed his brother an ok thing. You see, because in that world, God just approves what you already believed anyway. And the same happens in this story in Judges.
After all, Micah’s mother makes an idol. But don’t get confused, she’s not making an idol of a false God. She’s making an idol of the God of Israel. She just wants a God she can handle and touch, a God she can buy, a God who will bless her choices not challenge them.
You see. When I quoted those words “All the people did what was right in their own eyes,” I didn’t give you the whole verse. No, another sentence came first. That sentence read “In those days, there was no king in Israel.” Therefore “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” And that sentence tells you something important.
The people had no higher authority, someone who could lead them beyond themselves, to something greater than their own interests or desires. Instead, everyone had become kings of their own tiny world, a world of me, myself and I. And that world had its own tiny God too, one focused on meeting their desires and nothing else.
Today, people get caught in those same tiny worlds. You see it in the controversy around masks. I don’t want to wear a mask because it impinges on my freedom. So, if I make you sick, it doesn’t matter to me. That’s your world, not mine. And in such a tiny world, you resist any higher authority that could call you to care for anything beyond you.
And you can create a God like that too, a God who holds the same convictions you do, who hates the same people you do, and approves the same as you do too. And if you’re thinking right now. “Oh, I know who he’s talking about.” Then, don’t you see? You’ve missed the point.
Every one of us can get caught up in our own small world with its own small god. We can all create a world where, it’s too easy to stop seeing and cherishing and valuing others, except those of course who we like or who agree with us.
But that’s not the real world or the real God, is it?
No, the real God created a world where everyone matters, a world big enough to hold us all with all our flaws and frailties, all our strengths and weaknesses. And into this big world, God came and became one of us. And in Jesus, this God reached out in love to everyone. He broke past every barrier that people had put to separate their tiny worlds, barriers between nations and races, barriers between women and men, barriers even between the so-called righteous and sinner. And in the end, this God died for us all, to save us all, from every one of our small and self-focused worlds, to bring us back into the world that does hold us all, into the kingdom of the One who saves us all.
And a God who can become small like that is a God bigger and more wondrous than any of us can even comprehend. A God that big, is bigger than any virus, any election, any prejudice or bigotry or division we create. A God like that shatters all our small worlds to bring us into the beauty and wonder of the real one.
And when God does that, it leads to amazing things. You see. On that climb up to Angel’s Landing, I didn’t go alone. For a week I had been traveling and camping on a bus with thirty other folks as different from each other as you could imagine. Yet over those days together, as barrier after barrier came down, God made my world so much larger. As wondrous as the view from the top was, what made it more wondrous was the new friends who helped get me there. And as we journey into this new world, God can make our differences lead to our greatest blessings. But we have to be open to let God enlarge our worlds enough to hold them. So, ask yourself? Are there places where your world has become small, too centered on you, your grievances, your convictions, your hardships? Then let that God break you free, break us all free, and lead us deeper into the bigness and beauty of the real world, the real world where this God lives, and where anything, anything is possible.