Straight Lines

Read Judges 17 to start.

We’ll get back to the story of Micah from mount Ephraim in a few minutes, but first, I’m going to talk about my backyard. I know, I know, it’s January, and there’s a foot of snow covering it, but I want to talk about that yard to start this morning. Most everyone here has been to my house I think, if not when it was my house then at some point over the past 30 years. So you’ve seen my backyard, even if you aren’t all that familiar with the back part of it. It’s a double lot, which is great for the kids to play in, but it takes a while to mow it all. The back portion, the area behind the row of pine trees, we call it the back forty, although it’s not even half of an acre, there’s really nothing back there apart from a little area where the kids attempted to plant a garden, a big bush at the back, and a whole lot of grass. I haven’t specifically gone out there with a tape and measured it, but it’s a lot of walking back and forth and back and forth when you mow it.

I mowed it several times last summer, and Laura has mowed it probably as many times. It’s rather monotonous mowing it, you don’t have to worry about navigating around obstacles and it’s pretty much level so there’s no slope to contend with. The mind tends to wander when you mow back there. The only thing you need to worry about is keeping a straight line. That can actually be somewhat of a challenge at times. There are not a lot of good reference points to go by, no buildings or hedges or fences. Keeping it straight and looking good isn’t as easy as I would like.

Thankfully, no one really goes to the back forty all that much, apart from the kids, so it’s not like anyone is going to notice or care that it might not be mowed as well as it could be, or, frankly, as often as it should be. And for about half of the year, I don’t have to worry about mowing it at all, the grass has stopped for the year, or hasn’t started yet in the spring, or there’s snow covering it.

When I do have to mow, most of the time I will mow and just try to keep it even with the previous swath of cut grass, and that usually looks pretty good while I’m doing it. I might think that I’m doing a good job. When I look at it afterwards though, maybe even after a few trips back and forth, between the bumps and dips at times it seems impossible to keep that line. Sometimes I will take a look back at what I’ve mowed and shake my head, and instead of precision row upon row, it looks more like I was inspired by a three month chart of the stock market. It doesn’t look like I’ve been trying at all. And if I’m mowing in the evening, trying to get it finished before the sun goes down, then it looks even worse.

What does my lawn have to do with that story of Micah of mount Ephraim we read from Judges chapter 17? The lawn itself, not much, but the mowing of it does. When I mow my lawn, I want to do a good job. I try to do a good job, and generally I think I have done a good job. Maybe not my absolute best, but a decent job at least. But more often than not, when I look back at what I have actually done, the result is pretty bad. Upon review, the lines are frequently not straight at all.

This man Micah is not a well known Bible character, certainly not with modern readers. If you pick any of the other characters in the book of Judges who has at least an entire chapter in which they are featured, Micah is the least familiar one of the bunch. Gideon, Samson, Deborah and Barak, Jephthah or Ehud, all of those are better known. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone preach a sermon taken from this chapter, apart from perhaps a reference to verse 6. Micah was not a judge, far from it, but he was a man who thought he was doing okay. He thought that he was following God and serving Him correctly, that he was improving and progressing. The chapter ends with Micah saying “Now know I that the LORD will do me good.” He was confident that he was doing the right thing, that he was following a proper path.

Where this confidence came from, though, is hard for us to see. Let’s look at what we learn about Micah in the chapter, and specifically at what he did. He stole money from his mother, and we’re not talking pocket change, 1100 shekels is a considerable sum of money, especially when you consider that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery for a mere 20 pieces of silver. This was easily the equivalent of thousands of dollars. He restored the money at some point after he knew that his mother realized it was gone and was upset about it, but some of the silver was used to make an idol. And that wasn’t his only idol, he had a house of gods the chapter tells us, with a graven image, a molten image, and a teraphim, or a household idol, and an ephod, or a priestly garment. One imagines a collection of idols, arranged in his own little household shrine. He attempted to turn one of his sons into a priest, and then hired a sojourning Levite to be his personal priest.

Does this sound like someone who was doing a bang-up job of following God? In that brief recap alone you can count three or four violations of the Ten Commandments, specifically stealing, making graven images, having other gods, and I’m pretty sure that stealing from your mom runs contrary to honouring your mother and father. As far as consecrating his son to be a priest, obviously that is not how the priesthood was intended to work, and Micah surely knew that, because when the opportunity came along he hired a Levite be the priest instead. If you’ve ever looked at any of what we are told in the books of Moses about how the priesthood was to be structured, there is nothing in there about having your own family priest, and certainly nothing about paying a wage to priests, they were to be sustained by tithing and from some of the offerings, not by room and board, with a suit and a small stipend thrown in.

I don’t think that anyone reading this chapter would look at Micah’s deeds and say that he was someone who was doing well. He either didn’t know what the law said, or he didn’t particularly care to follow it all that closely. His interpretation of how he should behave and what it would take for God to be pleased with him was far from the mark, and that is obvious to us.

Why was it not obvious to Micah, though? He thought he was doing well. Financially, he was doing well, it is clear he was a prosperous man, between the sums of money mentioned in the early verses, one does not invest hundreds of silver shekels into making idols if one does not have enough money to put food on the table. Given the fact he was able to hire his own priest, Micah had some money to spare. Socially, if we looked at the next chapter, we would see that he was hospitable and respected by his neighbours. Spiritually, he obviously wanted to worship Jehovah, or he would not have bothered to have a priest, nor an ephod.

We might be critical of his actions, and with good reason, but Micah was not some low-life. So far as we know, he was not a criminal, not a drunk, not a violent or a profane or an immoral person. In all likelihood he was someone that the people around looked up to as an upstanding citizen and a leader of the community.

We read this chapter, we look at Micah’s actions, and we comment on just how fallen and corrupted things must have been in Israel at that time. And to be sure, things were not particularly good in Israel, as was the case throughout the book of Judges. How does someone with so many defects reach the point where they think that they are fine, that they have done well and that God will be pleased? Verse 6 of the chapter gives us some insight into that. 6 In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

Micah was doing what he thought was right. He stole from his mother, but he gave it back, so that’s all okay. He had idols, but he was worshipping the God of heaven, so that must be alright. He had his own priest, but switched up with a new priest who was from the tribe of Levi, which was the correct tribe, so that’s an improvement. He thought things were all tickety-boo. And compared to the people around him, perhaps he was doing at least as well if not better than most. But that didn’t mean he was doing well. It did not mean that his path was straight and true.

In those days there was no king in Israel. There was no one there to put their foot down and say “This is right, this is wrong.” Not that kings are the be all and end all of truth and excellence, if you look at history for every great king there has been at least one terrible king, and probably two or three mediocre ones. Israel did poorly during the time of the judges without kings, and they didn’t do all that much better in the centuries afterwards when they did have kings. But king or no king, whenever man does what he thinks is right in his own eyes, the result is a whole bunch of wrong.

When we look at the people around us, when we look at the mistakes they have made, it’s easy to think we are doing well by comparison. Of course, we don’t look at our own shortcomings when we do this. No doubt there are those who look at us, and see our flaws and think they are light years ahead. When you compare yourself against an imperfect standard, it’s easy to see yourself in a better light. In fact, it’s impossible to measure up correctly.

You need a standard against which to measure anything. We’re all familiar with rulers and scales and measuring tapes; we use them all the time to measure weights and short distances. We trust that those devices are accurate. One time at work we discovered that a ruler we were using was actually about 1% off. That might not sound like much, that’s one millimetre off when you measure something that’s supposed to be 100 millimetres. That might be small, but let’s take an item that is 450 millimetres, if that’s out 1%, that’s four and a half millimetres. If that part is used to build a piece of equipment that is supposed to fit on a rack designed to take something that’s exactly 450 mm wide, a common rackmount size, well, you shouldn’t count on it fitting properly. That actually happened to us at work some years ago.

Yeah, we threw out that ruler. It didn’t measure up to the standard, and was therefore never going to provide accurate results.

Everything needs to be measured against a standard, or it won’t be correct. It might be close, it might be able to pass as good enough, at least for a time, but it won’t be right. It won’t be true.

There are two things that are essential in order to meet a standard. The first is knowledge of the standard. The second is willingness to follow it.

Micah of Judges chapter 17, he was definitely lacking at least one of those areas. I would suggest probably both. He had at least some knowledge of right way to follow God, in that he hired a Levite to be his priest, but if that was the limit of what he knew, then his understanding fell far short. He obviously cared somewhat about God, as the comment from verse 13 suggests. Mind you, he may well have been more interested in what God could do for him rather than anything he could do for God. Now I know that the Lord will do me good, he said. That sounds to me like he figured that God would bless him because he was doing, at least in his own mind, something right.

God is not a vending machine. He does not want us to put in enough money and press the right buttons in order to get a Diet Coke. Micah may well have had that sort of idea. After all, he invested money in making idols, and as misguided as that was, he seemed to believe that having an image or three upon which to direct his worship of the Lord was a reasonable plan. He had an ephod made, he hired a priest, all in an effort to incur favour with God, it seems. You might suggest that this was an attempt to atone for past sins, and certainly, regret for sin and seeking to make things right is a good idea, but we have nothing in the passage to suggest that Micah expressed any remorse toward God. The only instance of apology and redress we see from him in this chapter is in the first few verses when he returns the stolen silver to his mother. There is nothing further to indicate that he thought he had done anything else wrong. In fact, he was probably quite sure that having all these idols and images was a grand idea, and not a flagrant violation of God’s commandments.

In those days there was no king in Israel, every man did that which was right in his own eyes. Micah felt quite certain that he was on the right path. He did not see any need for correction, he did not see any reason to repent. Why repent if you are doing okay? Why fix something if it’s not broken?

The whole point of the book of Judges is to illustrate that things were deeply broken. If we read the next chapter, which I will not do this morning, it’s much longer than chapter 17, but in that chapter we see that Micah had some visitors drop by, five men from the tribe of Dan, on their way to scout for new territory in which to live. They spent the night under Micah’s roof, and while they were there they met the Levite, and no doubt saw the collection of idols. Later, after a successful scouting mission, they came that way again, only this time with a large band of armed men, and they took Micah’s idols, and convinced the Levite to come with them, because being priest to a whole tribe was far more prestigious than being simply the priest for one household.

As you can imagine, Micah was not happy about this, he didn’t want to lose his idols and his priest, but there was nothing he could really do about it. He protested, but the men of Dan basically told him to shut up or someone might get upset and he would come to harm. They went on their way, and Micah was left with nothing.

Such is the way when everyone does what is right in their own eyes. Micah thought he had a good situation, thought God would be pleased and would bless him, but he was wrong. The Levite thought he had a good situation, but when a better opportunity came along, he didn’t hesitate. And the men of Dan helped themselves to Micah’s belongings, because they could, and they perhaps had the same misguided ideas of serving God. When people do what they want, what they think is right, a lot of people suffer the consequences.

We live in a world today where almost everyone does what they think is right in their own eyes. Sure, we have laws and rules that forbid certain behaviours, or at least penalize them, but a lot of that is simply to make it so that we don’t go out and actively cause significant harm. Once you decide as a society that violent crimes are not okay, that’s probably a good thing, but it still leaves a whole lot of latitude for deciding what is right and wrong in the eye of the individual. And so many people do whatever they please, so long as it doesn’t violate the law of the land, or at least so long as they don’t get caught.

And you know what? In the midst of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes, we see lots of people think that they are doing just fine. I’m not going to say everyone does, because there are many who feel that they are damaged and lost and without hope, even if they put up a facade that says otherwise. Christ came to save sinners, not the righteous to repentance, and so those who know that they are in a mess, while there are sadly many who will not believe, it’s easy to say “I need help. I need someone to save me” when you recognize that you are lost. But when you think that you are doing okay, when you think that you are on the right path, and maybe you aren’t perfect, but you are good enough, well, then why would you need a saviour? Those who look at the path they walk and say “Nothing to worry about here,” those people are not going to readily turn to the Lord.

I say those people, as if I’m referring to some group of people who are outside and separate from you and me, but we cannot exclude ourselves from that category, or excuse ourselves for having that sort of mindset. Being in the church hardly means that you are following God in a proper manner. After all, if you look at Micah again, he hired his own priest, that sounds pretty churchy to me, but his behaviour was far from being on the mark. There are a tremendous number of people who go to church on Sunday morning, thinking that they are doing the right thing and that God will be happy with them and will bless them, when really they aren’t following God at all.

You know what? This applies to believers as well. Those of us who have trusted Christ as our Saviour, we are not immune from the trap of doing what is right in our own eyes. And we are just as likely, perhaps even more likely, to look at the world around us and decide that we are doing much better, so we shouldn’t be terribly concerned with how straight a line we are walking. We know that we are saved from the penalty of sin, and while we rejoice in that, we sometimes forget to pay attention to our path. When we stop and take a look, when we take a long hard look at our recent walk, and this is January, a month where many people look to improve on the results of the past year, when we stop and evaluate we may find that what we see is not flattering. When we compare ourselves to the standard, we may well be lacking.

This standard, God’s standard, is available to us. We have God’s Word readily at hand, and that is both the standard to follow, and the key to following the standard. I know of no better passage to express this than Psalm 119, let’s turn there and read the first ten verses.

1 Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD. 2 Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart. 3 They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways. 4 Thou hast commanded us to keep thy precepts diligently. 5 O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes! 6 Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments. 7 I will praise thee with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned thy righteous judgments. 8 I will keep thy statutes: O forsake me not utterly. 9 Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. 10 With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments.

Verse 10 makes me think of a hymn in our black hymnbook, “Come Thou Fount”. Number 10 I believe it is. There’s a line in that hymn, prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. How inclined we are to wander off the path, to go our own way, instead of going God’s way? Even when we want to follow, even when we wish to keep to the straight and narrow, so easily we go astray. In fact, even when we think we are doing well, when we believe we are on the right track, when we trust to our own understanding, our own judgement, or when we are looking at the people around us for our meter stick, our results are inconsistent at best. More often, they look no better than my cutting of the backyard, with jigs and jags and unexplained curves left and right, not to mention the occasional outright miss. We wander from the path even when we are seeking to follow. If we look to ourselves for direction, we will soon be hopelessly off-course.

Micah from mount Ephraim, he probably had a poor understanding of what God’s standards were. Whether this was from lack of knowledge or wilful ignorance we cannot say, but Micah thought God would be pleased with him, even though we can easily surmise from the chapter that he had done nothing to merit this. We might chuckle at his errors and his poor judgement, but remember this: Micah did not have access to the complete word of God. We do. We think he should have known better, well, no doubt he should have. But we should know better, much, much better, given the greater light and greater opportunity we have. We have no excuse.

This morning I’m not going to tell you that you can be perfect if only you read God’s word and seek to follow what it says. None of us will be perfect, not in this life. But we can all do better. No one here can honestly say “I have no room for improvement.”

There is no better way, really, there is no other way to follow God than to read His word and apply it to your life. The objective of this is not to be like Micah, who said “Now the Lord will do me good.” We do not need to rack up a certain number of good deeds in order for God to bless us. Much as God is not a vending machine, He is also not a loyalty program. God wants good things for us, but He isn’t waiting for us to accumulate sufficient goodness points before He’ll bestow particular blessings upon us. He doesn’t want us to be good enough, we’ll never be good enough to earn God’s grace or merit His mercy. That has already been paid for through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Following God is wise because it leads to the best results. Much as eating healthy food in the proper amount and getting sufficient sleep and exercise will generally lead to improvement of your health, following the path that God has laid out for us in His word, living our lives according to the example that Christ gave us as illustrated in the gospels, that will bring us greater joy and satisfaction in the long term than any of the passing pleasures of this world ever could.

We can choose to go our own way, to follow our own judgement and do as we think is right in our own eyes. I think we all know what the results will look like. Or we can choose to fill our hearts and minds with the word of God and to live as He would have us live. That may not be easy, and it may not be popular, but when we look back on the path we have walked, it will look much closer to a straight line.