I want to share a story with you that isn’t originally mine, it comes from the Children’s Minister I served alongside for the last few years in my previous life. She talked about how, in her home growing up, there was a specific chair in the house where she and her brother were sent for “time out” when they misbehaved. Now around this chair there was something, I cannot remember if it was a shelf or a cabinet or closet or what, but there was some kind of storage space that you could only really see and access from the chair. And so she started, during the times she was not in trouble, hiding pieces of candy in the “time out” area so that they’d be there when she got sent there next. Walk through that logic with me if you will. Instead of thinking about what she had done and how she could avoid doing things that might lead to punishment in the future, she felt the best use of her time was to devise a way to make the punishment more bearable. She made the connection in her sermon, and I agree with her, that that’s a pretty good representation of the human condition. She assumes she’s going to get in trouble again so she deals with the results, not the cause. It brings to mind Paul’s words in Romans, “the things I do aren’t the things I want to do, and I don’t do the things I know I should.” It’s a pattern, it’s a cycle, one that ignores the root causes and comes to recognize failure and punishment as facts of life.
We see that kind pattern play out over and over in the book of Judges. Last week we looked at the beginning of the book of Joshua, which records the process by which the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan and established their residence there, but what Judges shows us is that the conquest wasn’t complete. Other folks still lived in the land and that was a constant issue for the Israelites. When things were going well for them they had a tendency to begin to ignore the Lord. That’s not an uncommon situation, when things are going well we all have a tendency to forget the times that weren’t as great. We have a tendency to only see what we did to get to that place and forget the help we got, we have a tendency to being to lean on our own abilities and see our triumphs as ours alone. CS Lewis talked about that this way, he said that “Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.” When things are going well we can forget that we still need God in our lives. The Israelites had a tendency to fall in to that trap and when they did they had a nasty habit of starting to turn to the gods of their neighbors and embracing idols, and when that happened the text says that God would allow an enemy to rise up and defeat them. The people would cry out to God, God would hear and forgive them and raise up a judge to save them and defeat their enemies. That would lead to a time of peace and prosperity and the whole cycle would begin again.
Gideon was one of those judges during one of those times. We’re going to look three scenes of Gideon’s life this morning, we only read one so I hope you’ll take the time to go back and read all of Judges 6, 7, and 8, and maybe even into 9 which deals with Gideon’s son, to get the full story.
Our text this morning picks up in one of those low points for the people of Israel. They’re facing a threat from the nomadic raiders of the East, the Midianites and Amalekites who would come in and destroy their homes and farms, steal their crops, basically wreak havoc. It was so bad that the people were living in caves because if you built a house there was a good chance it wouldn’t stay standing. It was so bad when we meet Gideon he is threshing wheat inside of a winepress to avoid being seen and harassed. Now if you don’t know anything about threshing wheat and don’t get why that matters, don’t worry, I’m here for you. You’ve heard the expression “separating wheat from chafe?” The important part of wheat is heavier than chafe, the useless part of the wheat stalk. If you threshed outside the wind did most of the work for you. The wheat would fall to the ground, the chafe would blow away, the jobs done. Gideon is so afraid that he’s doing it inside, making the work harder.
The angel of the Lord appears to Gideon and says that the Lord is with him, an Gideon makes an incredibly honest question: “if the Lord is with us, why did all of this happen to us?” Why has God abandoned us? Why is God letting all of these things happen? Gideon’s not the first person to ask this kind of question in scripture and he’s not going to be the last, either in scripture or in history. That’s a common refrain for us when things go wrong or don’t make sense. I would be surprised if there’s anyone here who hasn’t asked that question or at least thought it. It comes up in scripture over and over again, “Why does God let things go on this way?” The answer we see in scripture varies, sometimes the sins of the people are presented as the cause of suffering, sometimes God is shown to use temporary evil to bring on a greater good like in the story of Joseph, sometimes, like the example of Job, evil is a mystery without any rational reasoning or explanation. Here thought, God gives a different response to Gideon: “Go and save Israel, am I not sending you.” God seems to say to Gideon, “if you don’t like it go and do something about it.” It is easy to complain about evil from afar. It is easy to lament the injustice in the world, the violence in the world, the despair in the world, what God says to Gideon in this moment is that just recognizing these things and complaining about them isn’t enough. The strength of the Christian community, when it has done things right in history, has been the power of witness. The power of presenting alternatives to the way things are and challenging people to imagine how things could be. Richard Hayes is the Dean of Duke Divinity, he wrote a book in the early 90’s that deals with using scripture and witness to face modern moral dilemmas, and one of the issues he takes up is abortion. He quotes a Virginian (my mother would be so proud) named William Durland who said this about the issue:
“God calls us to be our own people and our own community – to witness to the world’s scandal, to love and bind up those harmed by its values. If the energy now being poured into attempts to affect Supreme Court decisions were dedicated to establishing viable alternatives to abortion and substantive support and long range care for victimized women, “unwanted” children, and families struggling with poverty, mental illness, and domestic violence, perhaps we would begin to see Christian community being born in our midst – a light to the nations and a sure refuge for these needy ones.”
Hiding in the wine press complaining about how bad things are doesn’t do anyone any good. Gideon shows that there are times when we have to be the answer to our own questions of where is God by living out our call as God’s people.
We’ve spent these last few weeks talking about “unlikely” heroes, I hope it hasn’t been lost on us how unlikely or how surprising some of these folks are. And Gideon is a great example of that, he’s called to lead the people against their enemies and he’s a little bit of coward. He’s hiding when we first meet him, his first act as a judge is to tear down an idol that his father built for Baal, he does that at night so no one will see him. He doesn’t have a ton of confidence, he questions his call because he’s from the smallest clan in the tribe and the least prestigious family in the clan and he’s the least important member of the family, he doesn’t look the part of a leader or have a pedigree for leadership. If you think about famous leaders, appearances matter. When we’re introduced to Saul in scripture the author goes to great lengths to describe his height and how handsome he is. One of the reasons George Washington was chosen to lead the Continental Army was because he was taller than the average colonist and he looked inspiring on a horse. Gideon doesn’t look or act the part of leader at first, and that doesn’t immediately change after his call. He constantly asks God for signs, constantly demands confirmation before he’ll take any kind of step. That’s a good reminder I think that our lives are always works in progress. We don’t immediately change or become all that we should be or hope to be because we sense a call from God. Faith develops over time. The most famous moment of Gideon’s life is when, before his battle with the Midianites, God tells him that the army he’s gathered is too big and trims it down. God chooses a weak and unlikely leader and gives him a small and weak army. It’s a reminder that all success depends on God. God’s ability to use weakness is well documented in scripture perhaps most beautifully in words Paul records “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It is from God, not from any human ability or achievement, that victory comes, whether it is Gideon’s victory in battle or our ultimate victory over death, it all comes from the same source.
Gideon, in a lot of ways, shows the course of Israel’s story over his life. He begins the story timid, weak, and afraid, completely reliant on God’s guidance and faithful to where God leads him. Over the course of his story he becomes much bolder and stronger as a leader but relies on God less and less, and in chapter eight of Judges he builds an idol and even sets himself up as some kind of pseudo king, a title his son will eventually go ahead and claim. The end of Gideon’s story brings us back to where we started, I think. We all face a tension in our lives between seeking faithfulness to God while also constantly being pulled by other loyalties and commitments. We all want to put candy in our time out spot for the next time we’re there. We struggle to bring down the altars in our lives and shed our allegiances to other things. We’re all Gideon. We’re all Israel. We’re all Paul crying out over the things we do that seem to divide who we are and who we want to be. And yet God still calls us, unlikely and unworthy as we are. God still forgives us and redeems us, unfaithful as we are. And God still leads us and guides us and shapes us, and is still willing to respond to our cries of where is God and what is God doing with the response “am I not sending you?”