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Faith Seeking Understanding #12

Faith Seeking Understanding #12
Gideon: Man of the Cloth

Reading: Judges 6-7

Introduction: I suppose we should think of them as the original special forces unit or the original “few good men.” They were a fighting force of 300 selected from an amassed army of 32,000. They were given completely unconventional weapons with which to fight; they were led by a man who never did seem to get comfortable with his role as a leader. That’s the story of Gideon and his defeat of the Midianite Army that numbered in the thousands, with the sound not of canons and artillery shells but of trumpets and breaking jars. Yes, there was one other major component besides the terror and panic that led the Midianite army to do itself in. This victory was orchestrated by Yahweh, the God of Abraham and Moses and Joshua, the God of Israel—even when Israel struggled as a nation to recognize that fact.

It all seemed so simple a couple of centuries earlier when Joshua was about to dismiss the nation to take their places in God’s promised land. He stood before the anxious people and gave that marvelous speech that began with “Thus says the Lord: “‘When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant. Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’ Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God’” (Joshua 24:11-18).

But even then, Joshua seemed to know better. He knew even then that these people would not live long in the land before they actually forgot that Yahweh, the LORD, had delivered the land according to promise. So Joshua says to the people:

“‘You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.’ And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, we will serve the LORD!’ Then Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.’ And they said, ‘We are witnesses.’ He said, ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.’ The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the LORD. Joshua said to all the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances” (Joshua 24:19-28).

The next chapter in the history of Israel then unfolds in the book we know as Judges, and in the second chapter we learn that Joshua’s fears of rebellion against God and the peoples’ attachment to foreign Gods produce the results he predicted. Following the death of Joshua and the generation of people that served with him and remembered the stories and miraculous deeds of the LORD their God, we hear these words:

“another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress” (Judges 2:10-15).

It is that precise scene that is the prelude to God’s call of a farmer named Gideon to be a mighty warrior of that first special ops unit. Judges six begins with God’s punishment of Israel by delivering them over to the Midianites. The tribes both east and west of the Jordan are being terrorized by this enemy, to the point that they have fled their own land and are hiding out in caves. When they do stay on their land and plant crops, the Midianites steal their crops and their animals. So the people cry out to the God who once gave them this land, and the LORD hears their cries. And we meet Gideon.

I confess to you this morning, that this story is much better in my childhood memories than it was this week in my re-reading of the text. In my memory, Gideon is a man of faith who struggles a bit at the notion that God wants to lead him in unconventional warfare against the enemy army. So there is that whole fleece episode, where Gideon asks God to just show him a little sign that he really is going to fight for Israel. You remember: Gideon throws out the fleece and says, “If this fleece is wet with dew in the morning while all the ground is dry, then I’ll know you are with me.” The next morning that is exactly what he finds, so he tries it again in reverse. “God, I’ll know for sure if tomorrow morning the fleece is dry and the ground is wet with dew.” And God graciously illustrates his presence two mornings in a row. I love the story. It seems to give all of us permission from time to time to throw out a fleece to the Lord in search of a sign. There is that strange sequence when God tells Gideon he’s got too many men in his army. So Gideon asks all the men who are having some anxiety about war to go home. 22,000 take him up on the offer, but God says 10,000 is still too many. So they have this drinking contest down at the creek. The quest is to see which men lap the water like dogs and which ones go to their knees and dip the water out with their hands. The 300 that behave like dogs win the prize! Then Gideon proceeds to take those 300 men that have been culled out by God to win the victory against the Midianites.

I said I liked the story better in my memory because in my memory there are no other messy details about the life and faith of Gideon that don’t fit my nice mental image. The story begins with Gideon being confronted by an angel of the Lord while he is hiding from the Midianites. He’s managed to harvest some wheat that his family planted before the Midianites could take it and we’re told that an angel of the LORD appears to him while he is in the family winepress treading out not grapes but wheat. Gideon’s response to the angel is reminiscent of the response of Moses at the burning bush. He’s very hesitant to believe the angel’s words, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” Who wouldn’t be hesitant at those words from a stranger, I suppose. In the story this debate goes on a bit, and there is another one of those Old Testament instances when the voice that is speaking to Gideon shifts back and forth between this “angel” who clearly has appeared in human form, and the voice of the LORD.

Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” Then the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The LORD said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” Then he said to him, “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay until you return” (Judges 6:13-18).

Gideon then goes off and prepares a nice meal for his guest much like Abraham prepared a meal with the three messengers showed up at his place to announce the birth of Isaac. In the case of Gideon, however, Gideon wants a sign. The angel is quick to oblige. When Gideon brings the food back he sets it on a nearby rock. The angel points at it and fire comes out of the rock and consumes it all. Gideon realizes that he has been face to face with an angel and he is ready to worship.

But having built an altar to the LORD, we then discover that he lives beside a pagan worship site. In fact the altar to Baal and the sacred pole that represents the worship of the female goddess of fertility seem to be part of the worship life of Gideon’s family and the whole town in which he lives. So the LORD instructs him to tear them down. Here is where Gideon’s special ops work actually begins. Because he is afraid of his own townspeople, he and a few hand picked assistants destroy the worship place under the cover of darkness. When the town’s people get up the next day they are ready to kill the perpetrators of this crime. Only a speech by Gideon’s father stops the mob action. Everyone knows, however, that Gideon tore down the pagan worship site so they give him a new name to reflect his clandestine activity—Jerubaal, which means “Let Baal contend against him.”

Then comes a part in the story that I never realized before. The next paragraph in the text states that the Midianites then gathered themselves, apparently for battle, in the valley of Jezreel. Here’s the line I missed before: “But the Spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him. He sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, and they too were called out to follow him. He also sent messengers to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they went up to meet them” (Judges 6:34-35).

If you were here in this place this past Thursday evening to hear Jim Cymbala, you know that we prayed for God to fill us with his Spirit. Here is Gideon, filled with the Spirit of God, suddenly without fear as he summons the men from his own tribe and the surrounding tribes to follow him into battle. But it is immediately following this that the whole fleece episode takes place. Wouldn’t you have thought that a man who had witnessed the angel face to face and seen that sign of the fire consuming the food and heard the voice of the LORD and even been possessed by the Spirit of God not still need to throw out the fleece not once but twice?

Then there is the rest of the story. Yes, the LORD leads Gideon through the process of shrinking the army to the point that everyone will know that the LORD, not Gideon and his army, has whipped the Midianites. That night—Gideon seems to do better when he can’t be seen—the 300 men encircle the Midianite camp. But even then there is a detail I’ve often missed. When God gets everyone set for the mission he says to Gideon, “now, if you’re still afraid, sneak down to their camp and just listen to them talk.” So Gideon is afraid, and he goes down and overhears a conversation between two Midianites in which one has had a dream and he knows that the God of Israel is about to defeat them in battle. So finally, Gideon has enough reassurance to act. They blow their trumpets and break their jars, and ring the camp with torches and cry out, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon.”

Chaos breaks out in the Midianite camp. The enemy soldiers literally run over themselves. Those that escape flee back into their own lands, and suddenly Gideon feels like a great warrior as he goes chasing after them. The problem is, he has no supply train chasing after him to supply his troops with food and water. And when he asks some of his fellow Israelites along the way for supplies they refuse to help. In spite of that, Gideon does catch up with the enemy kings and eventually slays them both. But he also exacts judgment on the people who refused to offer assistance to his army, killing 77 leaders in one town, killing the men of the city in the other.

The Israelite people hear that their oppression under the Midianites is over and they offer to make Gideon their King. Gideon rightly refuses the offer, saying that the Lord has provided the victory. But he can’t just walk away. Gideon decides to take up a collection. He collects the jewelry and official clothing from the dead Midianites kings, but he also collects gold earrings from the Israelites. He then uses all of this jewelry to make an ephod—a sacred robe made from the 1700 shekels of gold. And he sets it up in his home town. Then we read these fateful words: “all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judges 8:27). Now wouldn’t you just rather not know that? Or the fact that the episode concludes with this note about Gideon having multiple wives and 70 sons, plus he had a concubine who lived in another town who bore him yet another son named Abimelech. I won’t go into the rest of that story!

Like I said earlier, I liked this story more before I read it. I like the idea that it’s okay for faithful people to throw out a fleece every now and then. I like the great victory of God over the Midianites with just 300 men with torches and the sound of trumpets and breaking pottery. I like that testimony of faith. I’m not sure what to make of not only our hero’s continued reluctance, but his inability to get enough signs of reassurance. Every sign from God seems to have such short-lived memory in Gideon’s life. Even his declaration that the Lord is the great deliverer and his ability to say “No” to the kingship offer is quickly followed by a return to the same kind of idolatry that plagued his people in the first place.

But then again, perhaps that’s the real reason this story and this person find their way in Hebrews eleven as stories of faith. We humans do seem to have short-term memories when it comes to the faithful activity of God. Even when we recognize God at work in our lives and circumstances, faithful activity yesterday often is followed by doubt tomorrow. There is a lesson here somewhere about being filled with Spirit and being witnesses to God’s steadfast love and his amazing Grace, and still being capable almost instantly of forgetting both his presence and our own identity.

Gideon calls us to remember this morning. Remember that faith decisions and literal signs of his presence are sufficient for the day but they must be affirmed again in our hearts and lives moment by moment, day by day. And even then if we are not humbly seeking our God, we can turn his blessings and gifts into idolatrous snares.

Let us continually pray for living memory of God’s steadfast love and enduring Grace in our lives. Perhaps today, rather than throwing out a fleece we need to remember the signs we already have received.

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, April 6, 2003

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