by Gord Penner
Change is inevitable! It is all around us, in our family, our churches, and in our country. In times of change, how can we ensure that the changes we make are healthy and aligned with the will of God?
Three Old Testament stories help us recognize keys to healthy change: Joshua, Jephthah, and Esther.
Joshua: Remember God is Faithful!
The transition in leadership from Moses to Joshua was a time of crisis. Imagine following a successful leader like Moses. His was a tough act to follow, to say the least! “For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all of Israel” (Deut. 34:12).
The Lord assured Joshua of His continued presence, just as He had been with Moses. The changes ahead were monumental and unnerving. The Lord admonished him, “Be strong and courageous!” Sometimes change is thrust upon us; sometimes we look for it because the old ways are not working anymore. But knowing how God has been faithful in the past can help us to move forward with confidence.
The change in leadership came at a crucial time. Israel was moving from wilderness wandering into a land with walled cities. They needed to shift their victim mentality from the days in Egypt to heirs of the promised land, one which God said He would give to them. Their hope rested in His promises for their future.
At a personal level, we also need to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness. We need to recall God’s protection and direction in our past. These stories help to prepare our children for adult responsibilities and decisions as they leave our “nest.” They help us to be strong and courageous. The Lord’s faithfulness does not change. Joshua and his generation were successful in taking the land.
Jephthah: Choose Scripture Over Relevance
However, after Joshua died, “another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what He had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals” (Judges 2:10-11). How was it possible to forget God so quickly? Very simple. By failing to pass on the faith and knowledge of God to their children, the next generation did not know Him.
As the people forgot God, they continued their downhill spiral throughout Judges until the end of the book states that “everyone did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Jephthah was one judge who led during this dark period of Israel’s history. His story illustrates the result of anchoring change to well-intentioned enthusiasm rather than God’s Word. As the Ammonites rose to attack Israel, Jephthah mustered an army and went on the attack.
Before going, he made a vow to win God’s favour: “If you [God] give the Ammonites into my hands whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). After Israel’s victory, Jephthah’s daughter ran out of the house to welcome her victorious father. Jephthah kept his vow and sacrificed her. Tragic!
Jephthah should have known from the Torah that God forbids human sacrifice. Israel had been told, “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods” (Deut. 12:29-31, emphasis added).
Jephthah‘s enthusiasm trumped faithfulness to Scripture and the result was costly.
What do we learn from the story of Jephthah? Change can be motivated with a desire to be “relevant.” But when relevance is disconnected from a correct understanding of Scripture, we end up looking like “the world” and become like salt that has lost its flavour, good enough to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matt. 5:13).
Healthy change takes place when the Word provides a solid foundation for how God wants us to live as a distinct society in the world. Healthy change must be anchored on a clear understanding of the Word.
Esther: Place Others Above Self-Interest
Esther’s story provides a third key to healthy change. When the Jews returned from Babylonian exile, some remained in Persia, including Esther and her cousin Mordecai. When Queen Vashti refused King Xerxes’ demand to attend a feast, she was deposed and Esther won a beauty contest to become her replacement. Esther followed Mordecai’s advice to keep her Jewish heritage a secret.
One of Xerxes’ officials named Haman suffered from low self-esteem, which is shown by his request to the king to issue an edict that everyone bow down to him. Mordecai refused, and this irritated Haman. Mordecai explained that as a Jew he would not bow down to any mere human. This further incensed Haman and he devised a plan that would kill not only Mordecai, but all the Jews in the country. He drew up an edict and the king signed it.
When the Jews heard of this new law they were appalled and they fasted and mourned. Mordecai, through servants, made Esther aware of the crisis. She replied that she could not enter the king’s presence without his invitation. To do could result in death. Esther’s loyalty was put to the test. What cost was she personally willing to risk for the sake of her people? Here is her dilemma: if she approaches the king, she risks death. If she does not plead for her people, they will be killed.
Mordecai advised her: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house that you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14).
Esther chose the needs of her people above her own. Esther survived and not only were the Jews are spared, but “many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them” (Esther 8:17).
We all come to defining moments in our lives. Maybe not as dramatic as Esther’s, but ones that are very important in God’s plan. We are given a choice how we will respond.
Joshua teaches us to move forward with confidence, based on God’s faithfulness in our past.
Jephthah illustrates the result of forsaking a biblical foundation in order to pursue relevance. Esther teaches us the value of seeking wise, godly mentors and committing to fervent prayer in times of change. Sacrificing self-interest for the sake of the community is key to furthering God’s mission, and may result in growth we might never have imagined.
So long as we live, we will keep changing. We need to ensure that the change is healthy. Change that is connected to our past and anchored in God’s Word. To do this, we must have a faith that lays aside personal preferences to advance the kingdom of God—in our own lives, in our churches, and in our conference.
Gord Penner (Ridgewood), BRS, MDiv, ThM, is an ordained EMC minister who serves as a professor of Old Testament studies at Steinbach Bible College. This article is his own summary of the three messages he presented during the 2017 EMC Convention.