For August 4, at Blandford UMC and The Stand.
We live in troubling times. People hear about terrible things, and talk about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But the truth is that people have been worrying about the apocalyptic nature of their troubles for centuries. In fact, if we look back over the course of the Bible, we can see the historical wars waged, the challenges faced by God’s people, the horror that they faced from outside threats.
But in every Biblical vignette, a brave man or woman rose up to lead God’s people. In every situation, God found a way out for his people, regardless of what they were up against and what they had done to get there.
The book of Judges is full of those kinds of people. Full of godly men and women who stepped up, and stepped out on faith. And when we consider what they faced and how they chose to act, we may just learn something about ourselves and what God wants for us. (For the record, take a spin through Judges sometime, just to see some more of the interesting stories, like the story of Deborah and Jael.)
Years have passed since Moses led the people out of Egypt. A few more years, some good times, some bad times, and there are the Israelites “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord” again, worshipping foreign gods, and forgetting the God who had kept them safe before. So they were subjected to outside persecution by another group of people, the Midianites, who oppressed them, driving them into the mountains to hide in caves. The Midianites burned their crops, and killed anything Israelite they found, even the livestock. And the Israelites called out to the Lord for help.
And the angel of the Lord came to a young man named Gideon who was threshing wheat in his wine press rather than out in the open, so that he could do it in secret. He hadn’t grown up with the beliefs of what it meant to be God’s holy people; he’d lived under the oppression of the Midianites. But the angel says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
Gideon rolls through the stop sign of the angel’s compliment. No, he blows right past it to a startling accusation! “If the Lord is with us, why is this all happening to us?” Gideon asked. Gideon is NOT at all sold on this. He’s not doubting that it’s an angel, but he’s clearly skeptical of God’s overall good plan for his people. He’s only seen the pain and suffering of the recent past, and there’s no one to remind him of the overarching good that God has worked before.
Undeterred, the angel says, “go in strength and save the people, because God is sending you.”
Gideon channels his inner doubting Moses: “but I am the shortest, weakest guy from my very small family.” It’s like God showed up and told Gideon he could go and he said something like, “But I’m a Smurf, and not even the biggest one.”
The angel keeps trying: “I’ll be with you, and I’ll kill all of your enemies.”
Gideon’s response is to basically test God by challenging the angel to light an altar and the sacrifice on fire without any wood or flame. The angel complies and Gideon sees the first miracle of his illustrious conversation with God. So Gideon acknowledges that it’s the Lord who is talking to him, and the Lord starts sending him on missions, like a secret agent in training.
God tells Gideon to go and tear down two altars to idols, two altars set up to idols and to use these altars to burn a fire for God instead. Because he was afraid of his own family and the townspeople’s reaction, Gideon took ten of his servants and did it at night. The next day, it was all over the news, but stealthy Gideon… got caught. And the people wanted to drag him out into the street and kill him. But Gideon’s father shocked him by defending his son, and telling the people that if Baal really was a god, he could come out and defend himself.
So God sends Gideon to battle against the Midianites, and Gideon…. Demands another sign. He tells God that he’s going to put some fleece on the threshing floor overnight. If the fleece is wet from the dew but the ground is dry, then he’ll know what is supposed to happen.
So God did what Gideon asked. And Gideon said, “Don’t be angry… can we do that again? Make the fleece dry and the ground wet.”
And patient, grace-filled God did what Gideon asked. And finally, a few weeks after his call, Gideon went off to war. But God isn’t done with tests and challenges, even if Gideon is.
In Judges 7, God tells Gideon that he has too many men for the battle, because the Israelites will think that it was all their effort in routing the Midianites. God wants everyone to know that it was God who directed the battle, the God fought for his people Israel. So he puts Gideon up to thinning out his army.
First, he tells him to send anyone who is afraid home. And twenty-two thousand men leave. But God says the ten thousand who are left are too many.
So God tells Gideon to have the men drink from a stream. He tells Gideon to send home the men who drank on their knees, using a more cultured style to drink with cups or drinking without restraint.
So God announced to Gideon that he would take the three hundred men who were left to defeat the Midianites. He sends Gideon down the night before the battle to secretly listen to what the Midianites are saying, and he was awed by the number of men who were there to battle Israel.
But while he was there, he heard two Midianites discussing how the battle was already lost. And Gideon recognized that God was with him.
So Gideon divided the three hundred men into three groups, gave them trumpets and empty jars with torches inside, and led them to the edge of the camp. He instructed them to blow their trumpets, break open their jars to expose the lights, and shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”
When the trumpets blew, and the flames flared, the men of Midianite fell on each other in the confusion. Gideon’s men followed and pursued them, defeating their enemies thoroughly by the power of God’s promise and might.
So what can we take from this strange, twisted tale of God’s interaction with Gideon?
1- When we sin, there are consequences. When we repent, God hears us. Sometimes, we think that “sin” is just something that’s an annoyance, like God doesn’t really care. But the wonderfully awesome God of the universe can’t stand the impurity of our sins. God doesn’t walk away from us, but we walk away from God! Still, God’s love for us, God’s desire to be with us, is so great that God is yearning, hoping, eagerly awaiting our turning back to God. God is already ready to take us back before we’re ready to repent. God is forgiving us before we’re ready to admit that we’re wrong. That’s amazing grace.
2- God uses the weak, the marginalized, the cowardly for his glory. I love stories about broken people who get used by God for something great. Most of my superhero idols are broken: Batman and Superman are orphans; Aquaman is a rejected king; Daredevil is blind. But their weaknesses allow for their greatest strengths. And God uses Gideon in spite of his “smallness” of soul and size to show how great God was instead.
3- When God moves in a person’s life, others have to take notice like Gideon’s father. I know I’m a pastor and that some people think I have answers about life’s big questions. I know professionally people are looking to me, but I sometimes underplay that people who know me as just Jacob are looking at my life, too. Gideon’s dad didn’t set out looking for an example of faithful service to God, but when his son was bold in a situation he wasn’t, he could see what Gideon was accomplishing. He backed Gideon up, maybe even because Gideon was who he wanted to be.
4- There are right times and wrong times to challenge God. I think sometimes we think we can’t challenge God. We can’t ask hard questions in prayer or in Biblical discussions because we might make God mad. But the truth is that there are references to people throughout the Bible who took it straight to God with their hurts, their challenges, their doubts. It reminds me of the movie The Apostle where Robert Duvall is in his room screaming out the questions he has about God. Duvall’s character is a preacher but he’s lost sight of his message, and it’s through sharing what he really feels that he reconnects with what God wants for him.
5- God wants it to be clear that God is in control. Not us, and not our problems. Too often, we try to micromanage. We make lists, we set our five-year plans, we save funds for rainy days and make God the permissive power rather than the director of our lives. But for Gideon, it’s God who does the heavy lifting, who does the liberating. It’s God who frees his people, using Gideon. But it’s clear that it’s God who allows Gideon to be part of the process.
6- Victories in our lives don’t always go textbook. They’re never pretty, but they often prove to be amazing. Growing up, I had a habit of not “playing” until I had all of the figures just right. Sometimes, I would set up until it was time to clean up, never having really played with my toys. I wanted everything to be just perfect. But playing with Star Wars figures and overcoming obstacles rarely work out the way we think they will. Often, our help comes from people we don’t really want to owe, at times we have just about given up, and arrive without fanfare. God moves in mysterious ways.
Sure, we live in strange, troubling times. We live in a world where our beliefs, our values, our relationships are constantly being challenged. But regardless of what cave your comfort and security have been driven to, the great God of the universe still calls, on the weak, the cowardly, the small. God calls with the strength of the highest power, and the patience to handle our questions. God calls, so that people may be free, so that nations may be liberated, so that the world may know: our God reigns.
There is hope in that: God reigns. God holds the world in his hands. God has a plan for you and me, and it is a good plan, for our joy and wellbeing. Thanks be to God who loves us forever, and refuses to let us go. Amen.