Grace grows in desolate places

by J. Philip Scranton

Genesis 15:13-16: "Then the LORD said to Abram, 'Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.'" (ESV)

God told Abram about the things that would happen to some of his descendants. Abram could be sure that God had the situation in control and was going to work through some difficult circumstances. But what he says about the Amorites has some curious implications. The Amorites were the descendants of Emor, a son of Canaan. They were Canaanites. The name Amorites means mountaineers, or mountain dwellers. They were a strong and defiant people.

Let's put a little different spin on this statement, and draw out some of the emphasis we might overlook. Let's restate it this way, "God said to Abram, your descendants will be servants in Egypt for 400 years, but they will come out of there enriched. This delay in coming to the land I promised to you will work out for the best though, because I don't want them to get here until the Canaanites are at their worst-their wickedness isn't ripe yet. I will bring your people to this land so it can become My axis mundi-My earthly headquarters. This land will be the source of blessing to the whole world like I promised it would be, but it isn't corrupt enough yet to be ready for My plan to start."

Why would God want to give the Canaanites time to continue in their wicked ways till they had become completely corrupt? This was going to be the center that would represent Him and His holiness to the whole world.

Why would God allow the world He created in Genesis 1:1 to become a completely vacant chaos in darkness before He began its restoration? It was the place where He would begin a new race in His image. Here is where He would put the race that would be used to bring His whole creation back to Himself. Why let such an important place become such a wreck?

I've heard a lot of preachers deliver sermons, and more than once I've heard them say that they were going to speak on their favorite passage from the Bible, or from a passage that was one of their favorites. This morning I'd like to speak to you about a passage in the Bible that I have hated for years. When I was a teenager I decided that I needed to read the Bible. And I did. There were a lot of passages that seemed strange to me, and there were a lot that I found boring. But when I came to the last three chapters of the book of Judges, I read a story that was so horrid and brutal and corrupt that I thought it shouldn't be in the Bible. I wanted to tear those pages out! I think I felt embarrassed for God that something as terrible as that story was in His book. Most of you know what story I mean. You probably don't like it either. I never really doubted that it was true, but I could hardly bear to read it.

I want to tell you that story this morning, but I will probably tell it differently than the way you read it. I think I will be telling it the way God means for us to read it. I'm going to tell it as a story about places.

The place is the land of Canaan. The time of the book of Judges was approximately from 1400 BC to 1100 BC. Joshua had led Israel into the land of the promise and led the tribes in warfare against the people native to the area. But the victories were not complete. The nations were not completely wiped out as per God's instruction. And since many of the Canaanites remained, it wasn't too long before the Israelites began inter-marrying with them. And thus they were drawn away from God into the worship of Canaanite gods, and into the fights and struggles the Canaanites had with each other and with foreign countries. And they began to fall apart as a nation, and sometimes they were even fighting among themselves. It was following God and worshipping Him that had held the nation together, and when those things diminished the nation began to crumble. The Israelites lacked the long term vigilance that was necessary to complete the work God gave them to do.

Our story begins in the hill country of Ephraim. That is the first place. There was a Levite who lived there. We are not told his name because the story only wants us to think of him as a Levite. This Levite was fairly well to do, and he obtained a concubine from Bethlehem. Bethlehem is the second place we want to remember. In time the Levite's concubine was unfaithful to him and she left him and went back to her father's house in Bethlehem.

After about 4 months the Levite decided to go find her and speak to her heart and bring her back. So he went to Bethlehem, and was well received by his father-in-law. They ate and drank and enjoyed themselves for 3 days. The Levite said he would leave the next day but the next day the father-in-law talked him into eating first and then they got to drinking, and finally he stayed another night. The next day started out the same, but instead of staying still another night, the Levite took his concubine and belongings and left later in the day.

The servant he had with him suggested they stop in a Jebusite city-probably the same as Jerusalem-but the Levite said he wouldn't stay in a city of foreigners. He would go on to an Israelite city. So they went on to Gibeah-that is the next place we want to remember-a city in the land of Benjamin, and stopped in the city square. No one offered them lodging for the night, even though in that day common courtesy required it. But just before dark a man coming in from his field invited them, and even pleaded with them to stay in his home. He also was from the hill country of Ephraim like the Levite.

A little while later a gang of hoodlums who lived in the city encircled the old man's house and demanded that he send out the Levite so they could have homosexual relations with him. The man refused, and in an effort to save themselves from being broken into, they pushed the concubine out. She was raped and abused all night, and as daylight came she crawled up to the house and died with her hands on the threshold.

The Levite came out in the morning and found her dead. He put his concubine on one of his donkeys and took her home. There he cut her body into 12 pieces and sent one piece to each of the 12 tribes of Israel with an explanation of what happened. All of Israel was astonished by this and sent troops to punish the men of Gibeah for this atrocity. Believe it or not, the Benjamites of Gibeah refused to give up the men who had brutalized and killed the woman. Instead they started a war with the rest of Israel.

In the first two battles the Benjamites had the upper hand. But in the third battle Israel got the victory. They killed most of the Benjamite soldiers, and they killed all the women and children of the city and then burned the city. 600 Benjamite soldiers escaped to a rocky fortress where they held out for four months. In the meantime Israel's army burned and destroyed all the Benjamite cities, killing everyone.

When the 600 soldiers of Benjamin were all that was left of the tribe, the rest of the tribes finally realized what they were doing and repented and declared peace before the tribe of Benjamin was completely wiped out. But Benjamin was now doomed to extinction. There were 600 men left from that tribe-no women-no children. To make matters worse, when the war first started the men of Israel all took an oath in the name of Yahweh that they would not give any of their daughters to Benjamin as wives. And they also took a second oath, that any portion of Israel that did not send soldiers to support the war against Benjamin would be put to death. So, how were they going to provide brides for the remaining Benjamite men, when they had bound themselves with oaths in the name of Yahweh not to give Benjamin any?

Here is the solution that the 11 tribes came up with to preserve Benjamin, and still maintain their oaths before God: (1) They took account and found the Jabesh-gilead had not sent anyone to support the war. Remember Jabesh-gilead. So they went to Jabesh-gilead and killed everyone except virgins who could be given to Benjamin for wives. The problem with this solution was that it only provided 400 wives. (2) In order to obtain the 200 wives still needed for Benjamin, they told the men of Benjamin that at the annual feast at Shiloh they could kidnap young maidens for wives, and they would intervene to prevent them from being punished for it. So, in common terms, they made kidnapping and rape an acceptable substitute for marriage.

Does it get any worse than this? Could Israel have fallen any lower? If this wasn't part of the Bible I would doubt its truth just because it is so far out there. And yet, how could someone even make up something like this? But this is like God waiting 400 years for the Canaanites to become more corrupt, and waiting until the earth had become a dead formless chaos before doing His work of creation. Here's the point: the seeds of grace are so resilient and powerful that they can grow in the most desolate places. And God wants us to know that and believe it and use it.

So we come to the end of the book of Judges, and we can't wait to turn the page. Things have to get better! And they do. But we find that God keeps us in these black dismal places where these unthinkably atrocious things happened.

We bypass the book of Ruth for the moment and pick up the narrative in 1 Samuel. It opens with an account about a man named Elkanah who was from the hill country of Ephraim-the same place the Levite was from. Elkanah's wife, Hannah, was barren. They went to the tabernacle at a yearly festival, and there she pleaded with God for a child, even promising that she would give the child back to God, if only she could bear one. She wept as she prayed, and Eli, the old priest, thought she must have been drunk. He rebuked her for her display of emotion, but she told him it all came from a heavily burdened heart. Time went by and Hannah gave birth to Samuel.

Do you remember how the story goes? Eli did not control his sons, and they were very wicked. They had sex with women who came to the tabernacle, and instead of taking part of the sacrificial meat by striking a fork in the pot of meat while it was boiling, they took large pieces of raw meat. This left much less for the people offering sacrifices, and the people came to despise bringing their offerings to the tabernacle. The tabernacle worship was corrupted and shamed. But Samuel grew up in the tabernacle and its service and became a judge of Israel when God eliminated Eli's house. Remember that Eli was a Levite. Samuel was one of the greatest leaders Israel ever had. Much greater than many of the kings. Grace grows in desolate places.

As we move along in 1 Samuel we find the family of Jesse living in Bethlehem (the book of Ruth we bypassed), the same place from which the concubine with the straying heart came, and the same place where Naomi's family tragedy took place. But there, among Jesse's sons we find David, the greatest of Israel's kings before Christ came. And David was a man after God's own heart. Grace grows in desolate places.

Also in the early chapters of Samuel we find Samuel anointing a young man named Saul to be the first king of Israel. Saul was the son of Kish, a man of valor-in other words an expert soldier and warrior-from Gibeah. Gibeah was the city where the Benjamites brutalized and killed the Levite's concubine. Kish and his son Saul were Benjamites. They were descended from the survivors of the war where Benjamin was nearly exterminated. The first king of Israel was a Benjamite. Grace grows in desolate places.

Saul, the new king of Israel, was somewhat reluctant to take authority and start ruling the nation. He was a young man, and Israel had never had a king before. But an emergency arose. Nahash, the king of the Ammonites had subdued the tribes of Gad and Reuben on the other side of the Jordan River, and he had gouged out all the right eyes of the men, incapacitating them for rebellion and warfare. But 7,000 men had fled to Jabesh-gilead, and were hiding out there, hoping that someone would deliver them. Nahash brought his army against the town and gave them 7 days to come out and surrender and give up their right eyes.

Young king Saul was working in the field with his family's cattle when word came to him about the problem of Jabesh-gilead-remember, this was the city that was wiped out except for the young virgins given as brides to the Benjamite warriors. The city was rebuilt since then by some of the Benjamite warriors and their bereaved wives. The Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard this news, and he took a pair of oxen, and cut them up into twelve pieces. These twelve pieces were sent to the twelve tribes of Israel with the message that anyone not responding to support Jabesh-gilead would suffer the same fate to their oxen. Remember the Levite and what he did with his concubine? Well, all Israel responded in unison like the 11 tribes had done before and came to the support of the people at Jabesh-gilead. Saul conquered the Ammonites and Israel was freed from the tyranny of Nahash. Grace grows in desolate places.

One final word: the concubine in the book of Judges died with her hands on the threshold of the door where she could have been safe. In the book of Samuel we read that the worthless sons of Eli were responsible for the ark of the covenant of God being captured by the Philistines. The Philistines took the ark and placed it in the temple of Dagon, next to the statue of Dagon. When they returned in the morning the statue of Dagon had fallen with its face to the ground before the ark. They set it back up. The next morning they came in and the statue had fallen again, and this time it had fallen on the threshold of the door and its hands and head were broken off. This time it was the god of the evil ones who died with his hands on the threshold. Even when Israel's symbol of God's presence was missing, God's grace was growing in desolate places.

Those were desolate places. But look around and tell me what you see. Political corruption is everywhere. And moral corruption and crime abound. How far do you have to look for a godly friend you can share your concerns with and pray with? South Carolina is a desolate place. This church stood tall and ordained Tom Sargent to go back to the prisons and jails of South Dakota-some more desolate places. Alabama where I came from is a desolate place. I don't think we have any non-desolate states. So that's bad news, and it's also good news. You know why it's bad news, but do you know why it's good news?

It's good news because you can plant the seeds of grace all around you. You won't get a harvest from every seed, but some will sprout and grow, and there is no place so desolate that they won't grow. So how do you plant them? First you plant them by being constant. Wishy washy gardeners never grow anything. But you also plant them by taking chances and sometimes even by doing the unexpected.

Lloyd Hibberd was pastor of Grace and Truth Chapel in Michigan for a number of years. One time a young man did some vandalism at the chapel and was caught. Lloyd talked with the police officer and they all agreed that if the young man would do some service and fix what was broken the charges would be dropped. Lloyd knew the young man and the family situation and he used the crime as a way to witness to the young man and plant some seeds of grace. I'm not saying that we should become a soft touch or someone who is easily taken advantage of. The Lord Jesus said we should be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But if you're going to plant seeds you have to get down in the dirt and get your hands dirty. And we need to be willing to give the time to cultivate those seeds.

When I was a pastor at a Baptist church in Illinois, I taught a young people's Sunday school class. It covered middle school/junior high grades. I was blessed to be with two girls in that class when they came to know Christ as their Savior. It was a wonderful experience, but it was not without difficulties. For a while I had difficulty trying to understand these girls and their actions. One was quiet - too quiet. The other would vary from average to manic, sometimes seemingly incapable of being quiet or sitting still. Though their symptoms were opposite, they both suffered from the same problem-both of them had a difficult home life.

If you've never experienced it, it is hard to realize how children can grow up blaming themselves for Mom and Dad's fighting and yelling. It's hard to realize how severely a parent's rough or cruel treatment can affect a child's opinion of themselves. It's hard to realize the life of a child with average intelligence who grows up with parents and step parents who probably didn't and couldn't have graduated from junior high school and who blame the world for their situation. Poverty, rejection by classmates at school, physical abuse, mental abuse and even sexual abuse are much more prevalent in our country today than we would like to admit.

So how do you plant the seeds of grace in the life of a person who thinks they are worthless? How do you plant the seeds of grace in the life of a person who thinks everyone can look right through them and see the scars of their past? You have to be willing to stand by them where they are. You need to assure them that God made them and God doesn't make any junk. They may need someone to tell them that not all the bad things that happened to them in their life were their fault. Let me tell you that a mother who came through these kinds of trials in childhood, and found God's grace, is a mother who is going to be sure that her children get a better start than she did. She's a person who will make a difference in her community.

I had a chance years later to talk to one of these girls-the one with what was probably the worst home situation. After marriage she and her husband were involved in their church, and she became the leader of the youth group. She was able to help a lot of young people with decisions in their lives. And her oldest son went to school to become a missionary. Grace grows in desolate places. Very often it is not those who enjoyed the best quality of life who become tomorrow's leaders, but those who overcome the greatest obstacles. Not many wise, not many powerful, not many noble, but God chooses the foolish, weak and contemptible, because he is going to disgrace the strength and wisdom and pride of this world. If you've been blessed with the grace of God, where are you planting your seeds?

We've seen and talked about a lot of desolate places, but there is one more desolate place we need to visit. Actually it has been hiding in the background in all these other desolate places.

Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" (AV) "The heart is crooked above all things, and it is mortally ill; who can know it?" (CV) "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (ESV)

Why did God want us to know that He would wait to start building the place of His capital city and temple on earth until the people who lived there were totally corrupt? Why did God give us a picture of creation that seems to have the starting point of total destruction? Why does the Bible contain a story from Israel's past that is so horrid we can hardly bear to read it? Perhaps it is because He wants us to know that He can truly change our hearts.

When the Bible speaks of our heart, it is not talking about the organ that pumps our blood. It is talking about the inner you. It's talking about the person living in your body-your mind-your desires and dreams-your motivations-your values and priorities. It's talking about the person in you that your friends and family cannot see-the one that only you know. The Bible says our heart is the most deceitful thing in the world. Sometimes we even deceive ourselves. And it is a heart that is diseased with a mortal sickness. Our heart is the most desolate place in us, but the seeds of God's grace can and will grow there and bring light and truth and love.

We've called this a story about places, desolate places, and there is a very fitting verse to close our thoughts. It's from the apostle Paul, and he was quoting from Hosea: "And in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people', there they will be called 'sons of the living God'." (Romans 9:26 ESV). God will have His throne in every heart. That is His purpose, and He will accomplish it. It matters not how dark and devious a heart may be. He has the piercing light and penetrating love that plants the seeds of His grace in the most desolate place.

© J.Philip Scranton
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