“Trust Issues” by Grant Glowiak. Sermon given on 2-19-2017 at The Union Church of Hinsdale, UCC.
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This morning’s scripture reading is from the book of Judges, chapter 6, verses 11-16. God brought the Israelites up out of slavery in Egypt but they have fallen away from God’s ways, so they are constantly under attack from rival ethnic groups. They are currently stuck in a cycle of God providing judges, or leaders, to save them but once they are saved they become complacent and return to worshipping idols. Currently, the Israelites are being persecuted by the Midianites and God is appointing Gideon to lead an uprising. The author writes:
Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” 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.”
This ends this morning’s reading from Judges.
If you aren’t familiar with the story of Gideon, don’t worry. Mike, Bromleigh and I all had to re read it since we could not remember what actually happens off the top of our heads. So, as Tina pointed out, in this story we find the Israelites being oppressed by the Midianites. However, we should remember that the character of God is intentionally letting this happen to teach the Israelites a lesson. Quick Disclaimer: This is the first of several issues we, as modern readers, will have to grapple with. I struggle with believing that God would intentionally let a group of people, any group of people, be intentionally oppressed just to teach them a lesson. However, that issue is a completely separate sermon or perhaps a sermon series, so for the sake of getting through this story I am going to treat this story as just that, a story. There are a few things that happen that I would consider red flags, like God promoting the slaughter of thousands of people which happens later. So, God, Gideon and everyone else I will treat as characters in the story, not necessarily representative of who God or anyone else actually is or was.
So, back to the story. Israel is under some really brutal oppression from the Midianites. God sends a prophet to explain the situation, which is essentially that God delivered them from slavery but then they worshipped the Amorite God so God, our God, is upset. The Lord then sends an angel, which is what we just heard in the reading. For those of you who may have spaced during that reading, confirmands, what happened was Gideon is secretly making flour because if he was found out the Midianites would steal his food. An angel comes to him and says “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior” That’s how I imagine angels sounding in my head. Feel free to imagine it any way you want. But that’s a pretty awesome opening line. If an angel came to me and said that I’d feel invincible.
So, our fearless leader, Gideon, responds by doing what? Complaining! He complains that God has abandoned his people. Complaining to an angel of the Lord seems, to me, to be a pretty gutsy move. I mean this is the same God, or character, who strikes people down for simply touching the ark of the covenant. This is the same God that killed all the first borns in Egypt not too long ago. Just to check-in, I’m treating God as a character in this story right now not what I actually believe about God or what God does. I’m operating within the world of the narrative.
So, the Angel then responds with “Go, in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you” How do you think Gideon responds? By further complaining about how powerless he is and how he couldn’t possibly do this. The Angel then reassures Gideon, for the second time, that God is with him.
So, the next part is action movie material. Gideon brings out some meat and bread as a sacrifice, or a thank you. And puts them on a rock. The Angel touches these with the end of his staff and boom, they go up in flames that come out of the rock! Awesome. And then the Angel vanishes into thin air.
So imagine being in this situation. You just witnessed potentially the coolest thing you’ve ever seen in your life. I would be walking around with a swagger like you’ve never seen. I am already pretty arrogant, I’m not gonna lie. Actually, now that I think about it, that is probably why I haven’t experienced anything like that myself from God. I would be insufferable.
Anyway, next the Lord tells Gideon to pull down the alter to Baal, a rival God, and the sacred pole and then use the wood to burn a bull as an offering to God, our God. So Gideon fulfills the Lord’s command full of newfound confidence. Just kidding, Gideon does fulfill the command but does it in the middle of the night because he’s scared of what his family and the rest of the town will do.
This fear, actually, is kinda well founded. Turns out in the morning the townsfolk want him killed. His daddy, however, argues that Baal can punish Gideon himself since a God should be able to do his own dirty work.
As is pretty evident at this point, Gideon is not exactly our polished, brave knight in shining armor. In fact, he’s been pretty disappointing so far. But nevertheless, he’s our guy! So, shortly after this the Midianites, as well as some other groups, are mobilizing their troops nearby. Can we rely on Gideon to lead the Israelites…? Sort of. As it says in the Bible “…the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” So, possession is a more reliable alternative here than waiting around for Gideon to his act together. Anyway, the now possessed Gideon rallies the troops from all over the region.
However, he’s still unsure of whether this is going to work out or not. So, he asks for another sign. He tells God that he’s going to lay a fleece of wool on the ground and when he wakes up in the morning if there is only dew on the fleece but the ground is dry then he’ll be ready to rock. God obliges this request. In fact, there’s enough dew on that fleece so when Gideon rings it out it fills a bowl of water. Clearly a concrete sign. Is this enough for Gideon? Of course not. He then says the next day if there’s only dew on the ground but the fleece is dry he’ll be ready to go. Again, God obliges. So, at this point Gideon really doesn’t have any excuses.
I have to believe at this point God has to be pretty fed up with Gideon. God has sent an angel who torched cake and meat with divine flame, probably had a hand in keeping him alive when he destroyed the alter, possesses him to mobilize the troops, and now performed two signs. I’m not terribly surprised that at this point God starts making demands on Gideon, this is after all a two way street.
God accurately predicts that if the army wins, the troops will claim victory based on their own power. We as humans love doing that. A personal example in my life was my opinion on affirmative action when I was in high school. I thought affirmative action was absolutely ridiculous. I worked for my grades from elementary school, through advanced classes in middle school and honors and AP classes at LT. The idea that someone else would get preferential admittance into a college I wanted to go to seemed to cheapen all my hard work. As many of you know, the expectations put on high schoolers in our neighborhoods are crazy. Hours and hours of homework, not to mention the sports and clubs and music programs that they have to devote time to in order to round out that ivy league worthy application. How could someone cut in line when I had worked so hard?
What I didn’t realize until I got to college and met some of the students who benefitted from this policy was all that I was blessed with. I didn’t work to live in Western Springs. I didn’t work to attend a high performing elementary, middle and high school. I didn’t work to live in a neighborhood in which I wasn’t scared for my personal safety walking home from school. Where drug dealers hang out on corners and gunshots ring out after dark. I realized just how many privileges I had, how lucky or blessed I was to grow up in such a supportive neighborhood where my church loved me, my parents read to me and my friends weren’t joining gangs. I know I routinely forget how much God has blessed me with power, and I would do better to step back and take that power seriously in order to make the world more like Jesus would want it.
But I digress. So God knows that the army will attribute the victory to their own doing so God tells Gideon to tell the troops that whoever is “fearful and trembling” may return home. Gideon’s army was originally 32,000 men. Now, he’s down to about 10,000.
Is God satisfied with this? Nah, army is still too big. So then God tells Gideon to tell all the guys to grab a drink from the river. 9, 700 of the guys kneel down and drink the water with their hands. 300 guys lap the water from the stream like a dogs does. You know what I’m talking about? Do you need me to demonstrate? You know what, nevermind I’m not gonna do that. So God is like, see those guys drinking water like dogs, I want those guys. I only need 300 dudes to pull this off. Keep in mind, the opposing army is described as laying along the valley as thick as locusts. We don’t really have locusts around here but every 17 years those cicadas descend on us so that’s the mental image I’m going with. Their number of camels are countless, compared to grains of sand on a beach. So yes, God, I think with just 300 guys who drink water like dogs there is no way anyone will ascribe the victory to anyone but you.
At this point I’d love to use a visual text from the movie 300 simply because I think that movie is, you guessed it, awesome but I couldn’t find a clip that isn’t super violent so we’ll just have to move on in our story.
So now Gideon’s got 300 guys, and the Lord, anticipating Gideon’s next move, just tells him that if he’s scared he should sneak down into the enemy camp and listen to the conversation around the camp fire. He does, and hears one soldier relay a dream that he had the previous night. You can read the story if you want the details, but another guy interprets this dream, and his interpretation is that Gideon’s army will be victorious thanks to God’s favor.
So this is apparently enough for Gideon so he splits his army into three companies and they engage in a surprise attack. They are victorious, and wind up pursuing the enemy and eventually taking back control of the region. Whoo Hoo! The good guys win! Gideon is victorious!
Unfortunately, this story appears in Judges. Judges, which Tina mentioned earlier, works in cycles. God provides, then we as humans fall away. We just finished the 12 part Bible curriculum in confirmation and over the course of the past several months Bromleigh and I have been asking the confirmands if they are noticing any themes. One theme that popped up, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that God has expectations and we as humans find favor when we do the right thing. However, we inevitably screw it up and do stupid stuff. However, when we realize we’ve done something stupid God is always willing to forgive us as long as we are trying to do the right thing moving forward. That’s kinda the plot of the entire Bible, in my opinion. Also, strangely enough, the plot of my life so far. It’s almost like that’s intentional…
Again, I digress. So our story this morning has to end with the people doing something stupid since the cycle has to restart. Unfortunately, despite Gideon saying that the Lord will rule over the people, Gideon makes a golden idol sort of thing from the gold they won in the war and the people sort of worshipped that. And after Gideon dies, the people fully relapse and worship Baal again.
However, I don’t think the final takeaway from this story should be “we inevitably screw up” I’d be a pretty bad preacher if that’s what I thought the message here is and I sent everyone forth this morning into the world with “don’t worry, you’ll for sure make a mistake again at some point in the future”
I think the message here is one of hope. Gideon asks over and over again for reassurance from God, and receives it. As far as protagonists go, he has an astounding lack of faith. And yet, God does not abandon him. And I’m sure God knows that we as humans will drop the ball at some point, but that doesn’t discourage God from intervening in the world to make it a better place or from being with us in both good times and bad.
Now, I don’t think killing thousands of people just because they are a rival ethnic group is God’s preferred method of intervening in the world today. I prefer to take this story as a metaphor. If you are worried at all about God not caring, God being ineffectual or God abandoning you, just look at Gideon. Gideon, in my opinion, is whiny, spineless, waffling and weak for much of this story. And yet God doesn’t abandon him.
Everybody in this room, in my opinion, is not any of those things.
Hope is hard. Faith is hard. Gideon comes up with every excuse he can not to do what God wants him to. That certainly sounds familiar to me. I make plenty of rationalizations for why I fail to do what God would want. I’m tired, I don’t have time, I’ll do it right next time, maybe when I’m older. And yet, even Gideon eventually rallies the troops and invades, with only 300 men no less. Even Gideon finally does get his act together, showing us that no one is unworthy of God’s love.
So, if Gideon is this flawed as the protagonist, imagine what God can do for you. You are not whiny, spineless, waffling or weak. You are a strong, caring loving person who, my guess, has not received many signs from God like divine flame or strategic dew placement. If you have, please find me after the service because I definitely want to hear about it. If you haven’t, you are still here this morning worshipping in faith anyway. That in itself is a great act of faith. You are not the foil in a story like Gideon, you are, or you can be, the knight in shining armor. You are here praising God and worshipping without incredible signs to prove God’s loyalty, which I have to believe is bonus points for the man upstairs.
God stayed faithful to Gideon despite his flaws, and God will stay faithful to you. I think it’s safe to say that we all sometimes feel like we might be leading 300 people against an army of thousands, but God made that work before. And God can and does do great things again, everyday. Faith and hope are not necessarily easy things. They take work. Gideon still had to fulfill his mission, which must have been a terrifying request. Even Gideon eventually walks by faith, and not by sight. But if Gideon can do it, if even Gideon can do it, I certainly think we can too. And for that, we can praise God. Amen.
May the God of peace, love and hope
comfort you when you hurt
Sustain you while you rest
And send you forth into the world
Full of hope
Doing works of justice and mercy
Knowing you are a beloved child of God
Just the way you are.