“Caught in the Reign”
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
October 20, 2019
On the same day that the Israelites were finally going to cross into the Promised Land—on the very same day that would culminate 40 years of wandering—Moses had them climb a mountain instead. Two mountains, in fact. You can read all about this in Deuteronomy 26 but, right before the people cross the Jordan River into their homeland, Moses had half of them climb Mt. Ebal and half of them climb Mt. Gerazim. On Mt. Ebal, they heard the curses that disobedience would bring. But, on its sister mountain, Mt. Gerazim, they heard only blessings: the blessings that God would pile onto the people. Only after they’d heard these did they end their wandering and enter the Promised Land.
By this time in the book of Judges, it is several generations later and we could use a blessing. Gideon’s judgeship, which started off fairly well, has ended in violence. Now his illegitimate son Abimelech has taken Gideon’s place by killing all of his rivals. Only one other son, Jotham, survives. So Jotham climbs Mt. Gerazim and we remember this mountain and its former role. We also know we could really stand to hear a blessing from Jotham as he stands on the blessing mountain. What we get is a fable instead.
The trees, you see, desire a king. They want someone they can see and touch to rule over them like every other nation they know. As Abimelech quite literally usurps the throne, Jotham warns the people of what they are going to get in a king. Not a mighty oak, not a fruitful vine. No, they are going to get the bramble. You see, God did not want his people to be like everyone else and be ruled by earthly kings. He wanted them to trust him alone and to be at peace under his shade, not out longing for what everyone else had. But there is something in us that wants to be ruled. Standing on the mountain of God’s blessings, Jotham reminds them—reminds us all—there are consequences to trusting our lives to earthly kings.
It reminds me of my brother’s mother-in-law Mary Angela. She told me once about how busy she was back when she was a young mother because she had joined up with a presidential campaign. She canvassed for him and she worked the phones. She did all that because she had a handful of priorities she was certain that, with this guy as her leader, would be solved. She was sure, that with him, all would be put right. Of course, she ends her story, he became President and very little changed around her priorities. “From then on,” she said, “I started thinking differently about leaders.”
It wasn’t a problem that Mary Angela became politically active. It wasn’t a problem that she got excited about a candidate. It was a problem when she started to think he was powerful enough to fix everything. It was a problem because, at the end of the day, she’d forgotten that he was just a human being like all of us are. And we human beings don’t tend to provide much shade, nor should we be the ones allowed too much sway over the rest of the trees.
Jotham’s fable is a tale of leadership. In part, it tells us that there are better and worse leaders. But, more to the heart of it, the fable points to our misguided desire to be ruled by others. “Who is the ruler of your life?” is the major question of the book of Judges. Last week, we were reminded that our things should not be allowed to rule our lives. And this week, we are reminded of its twin: we should not allow leaders to rule over our lives either. Leadership is important, yes, but Jotham reminds us that even the best of human leadership is going to be spotty.
How many times have you walked into the voting booth or into a boss’ office or into the headquarters of your company and thought, “I wonder if all the oak trees were busy.” I’ll tell you, you’ve never once thought it because we never teach this fable! But now you will. You will catch yourself thinking it all the time because human leadership is spotty.
Of course, Jotham’s tree fable is all very timely because News Flash: we are in election season: campaigns are ramping up and candidates are lining up. Does this fable tell us not to care, not to participate? Not at all. Go out, and choose a favorite. Be impressed by their platform, join in their vision, hold them to high standards. All of that is good and appropriate.
But just don’t let them rule your life. First of all, if you let them rule your life you will be disappointed because they cannot be more than what they are—an earthly leader. But, more important, to allow them to rule over you, to allow them to take priority in your life, to let them fill up your mental and emotional space—that is a betrayal of the core of our faith. For it is not because of THEIR blessings you are able to stand.
The first creedal statement we have as Christians—the very first affirmation we spoke, and also the simplest, is that “Jesus is Lord.” This statement is found repeated in several New Testament letters and was part of the earliest Christian worship services. It makes up the core of what we believe. Jesus is Lord. He is the Ruler over us. Others can lead us or engage us or teach us. But only Jesus reigns over us. To focus our lives on someone else, anyone else, is to get caught in the wrong reign.
This is hard to do. For it is easy to fill our lives with what we can see and touch. We fill so much of ourselves with leadership we love and even with leadership we hate; and either way we have allowed them to become little lords over us. All the while we can miss the mountain of blessings upon which we stand. After all our years, we reach our faith’s home, we cross into that land, only once we recognize what ground lies just beneath us.
That all we have and are and ever will be is because of our Lord—the mountain of blessings he has piled before us is overwhelming and he is the One we follow. He is the One we give allegiance to. He is the one who reigns over us. It is such an irony that Jotham stands on the mountain of God’s blessings to tell about trees so desperate for a lord they can touch and see while the very ground they stand upon only exists because of God’s good grace. It is so ironic. It is so ironic when we do it too.
Who is the ruler of your life? It is the question at the core of this book of the Bible. It is THE question at the core of our lives. Who do you allow to hold sway over you? Who fills your head and heart, your energy and your time? Is it the Lord? Or have you gotten caught in another reign? Amen.