Sunday 15th April – 9am Worship
Sermon Series: Colourful Teaching
Bible Readings: Judges 6:1-6
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
The video we saw before is the classic Gideon story that we probably heard at Sunday School. Israelites scared of Midianites, they cry out to God, Angel comes to Gideon, Gideon’s not sure, army gathered, army cut in size, army cut in size again, they go with their trumpets and torches and the Midianites get so scared they ran away.
Today I want to go in a little deeper and explore a little more of the complexities of this story and how they might speak to us today. If you have your bibles here, we are following through Judges 6,7 and 8.
First some context. We are reading out the book of Judges which covers the part of Israelite history just after Exodus, wandering in the desert and Joshua leading them back into the promised land. Era of the judges covers about 170 years from 1220 BCE to the time that King Saul was anointed in 1050.
The underlying narrative in the book of Judges is the question of who will lead the nation of Israel. The people wanted a king – after all, all the other nations around them had kings, they wanted one too. But they were told they didn’t need a king because God was their king. We know that later God gives in and Israel has kings, such as Saul and David and Josiah etc – even though God is quite clear that the King idea will not work out well and the better idea is that God is their king.
So in the book of Judges instead of a king they had these judges, people that God will call into a position of authority for a period of time to lead the people. Most of the judges you may not even recognise their names such as Ehud, Tola, Elon and Abdon but a few are classic bible heroes such as Samson, Deborah, Samuel, Eli and of course Gideon.
Let’s here the first part of the story … Judges 6:1-6
The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. 2 Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. 3 Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 4 They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. 5 They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. 6 Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help
Did you notice that? The Israelites were so oppressed that they were living in caves and mountain clefts. They were so improvised that they cried out to the Lord for help. And God heard their cry and God set a plan in place to help.
And in verse 11 we get to the angel we saw in the video. Gideon is threshing wheat, not on the threshing floor but hiding in a winepress. He is so scared he is hiding in a winepress. And in verse 12 the angel comes and says,
“The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
Can you see the contrast here? He is scared and hiding, the angel calls him a mighty warrior. “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
One of the key ideas in the Old Testament is the idea of “remember”. The people of God are told to remember – remember the past, remember where you came from, remember where you are going, remember the might acts of God. And the interesting thing here is that Gideon … despite the oppression, the tough times and being scared witless … Gideon remembers. He tells the angel the story. “There’s this God of ancestors, who saved us from slavery in Egypt, and brought us to the promised land, … and now we are living in caves.”
It is not that Gideon has forgotten the story, he knows that he is part of this amazing story of God’s love and salvation … it is just that he is looking around and struggling to see it. He is struggling to see where it is true. He is hiding in a winepress. Where is this true? Gideon is asking for some sort of evidence, some sort of sign that God’s promises, that God’s grand story, is still true.
Have you ever felt like Gideon? Yeah, I know the story of God, I know that Jesus loves me, I know the power of the cross … I’m just not feeling it. I’m not seeing the evidence of it in my life. I’m looking around and it’s just not there.
Gideon reminds me a lot of Moses at the burning bush. The Angel is calling him to be part of God’s plan of salvation but Gideon is finding excuses. I’m a nobody – the smallest of the smallest – are you sure you have the right person? Then at the end of the debate he asks in verse 17, “If I have found favour in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really the Lord speaking”
Actually this is the first of 3 signs that Gideon asks. This one is the BBQing of his lunch on the rock. Later Gideon literally puts out a fleece before the Lord. He is so struggling with his doubts that this is God and that God’s plan will work that he needs signs to prove it – physical evidence that this is from God. Which God seems to have no problems giving to Gideon.
God asks Gideon to destroy a couple of idols and build an altar to God in their place … which Gideon does in the dark so nobody will know that it is him. But the apparently had a version of CSI back then and people work out it was Gideon and he gets the reputation as someone who might stand up to the Midianites … and people come and form an army.
That brings us to the other part of the video we watched earlier from Judges 7:1-8 where God cuts the size of the army from 30,000 to 300.
They key verse in that passage was verse 2. The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ God wanted to make sure that the people realise that it was God who saved, not their own strength. It is a trap we fall into, isn’t it? We ask God for help but then add, “it’s OK God, it looks like I’ve sorted it out myself.”
But with only 300 men the next part of the story is clearly the work of God. Gideon explains the plan in 7:17-18 … space yourself out around the ridge, and on the signal, hold up your torch, blow your trumpet and yell, “For the Lord and Gideon”. A little strange … I thought it was all about the Lord … but anyway the plan works. The Midianites get so scared that they largely wipe themselves out and the remainder run away.
So after all this … after a series of amazing signs of God’s power and God’s ability to save … what do the Israelites do? Do they praise God? Do they have a time of worship? No. In chapter 8:22 we read… The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.”
What??? What happened to God being their ruler, their king? What happened to the “only use 300 so that people will know it is through me that salvation came and not through your own strength”??? The people respond by asking Gideon to be their king. It seems that things are getting way off-track.
Gideon to his credit responds in verse 23, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” Gideon says that he won’t be their king but then goes on to acts like a king.
Verse 24 he asks for a portion of Gold from everyone’s share of the plunder … that is a very King-life things to do.
Then he uses this Gold to make a golden Ephron which is displayed in the town square … and verse 27 tells us that people came and worship it. That sounds like a thing a king would do.
Verse 30 tells us he has many wives, 70 sons & concubines. That is not normal … but is something that Kings back then did.
Gideon named one of his sons “Abimelech” which literally means “my father is King”. Kind of shows his cards on that one, a bit.
Gideon might have said that God was their king but he was certainly acting like a king. What is happening here? Isn’t Gideon supposed to be this great Old Testament hero? He gets into the Hebrews 11 lists of great people of faith and yet he got so far off track.
This story is not simple. It raises lots of questions. This story is messy. How do we take anything from this and apply it to our modern context?
I think we have time to look at two things really briefly.
Firstly, lets tackle this issue of asking God for signs. Gideon is doubting God’s ability to save and asks for not 1 but numerous signs – if this happens then I will take it as a yes.
Do we ask God for signs? Come on, be honest. I have. I remember back when I was 15, I really like this girl and I prayed to God for a sign … actually I was quite specific. I prayed that God would give me a physical picture of her, something I could hold onto … then I would know that this was the girl for me. That night as my father read the local paper, there sitting right there on the page he was reading was this … a picture of the girl. Now that was a pretty spectacular answer to my prayer.
So … is this the way that God works in our modern world? Does God really give signs to people who asks them?
If you think across the biblical narrative, you might notice that the asking for signs is actually frowned on. Jesus when asked by Satan in Luke 4 to “throw himself from the highest point of the temple” responses with the verse from Deuteronomy which says “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test”. In Matthew 12:38-39 when people ask Jesus for a sign, he strongly rebukes them for asking. When doubting Thomas wants to see physical proof that Jesus was alive, Jesus give it to him but responses, “blessed are those who believe without seeing”.
And yet at the same time, you would argue that half of Jesus ministry was his healing and miracles which were basically signs that he was Son of God. The gospel of John is written is such a way that the signs point people to Jesus and reveals that he is the one who has come to save us. And as I mentioned before … God had no problems giving Gideon the signs he needed.
What do we make of all this? Should we ask God for signs? Is our Christian belief about asking God for a series of yes / no questions … should I date this person? No. Should I take this job? YES. Should I volunteer to be the church Treasurer? Yes
I don’t think that life is a series of Yes / No questions but something much more complex, more messy. And signs from God are not simple but complex. This was not the girl for me and yet this picture was an important step in my faith development. It was not a simple yes or no answer but rather a more complex answer about trusting God with the things that I value deeply. Signs are not simple.
And I think that this is the whole point of the story of Gideon. It is a both simple yet complex & messy story.
Put simply … The Israelites were being pummelled by the Midianites and cried out to God for help. And God heard their cry and responded. God sets a course, a plan, a trajectory which is all about bringing freedom, hope, a future, a sense of peace and safety to the Israelites. That was the plan and he invited Gideon – the weakest person from the smallest clan – to be part of that. To align his trajectory up with God’s trajectory.
But then it gets messy as first Gideon’s doubts get in the way and later his pride gets in the way. They go from wanting God to be their king to making Gideon pseudo-king. At the beginning of story Gideon builds an altar so that people can remember who God is and at the end he builds an idol so people can remember who Gideon is.
God has a plan, a trajectory which is about bring hope and salvation and invited Gideon to be part of that … but at some point along that journey Gideon pulls away on his own tangent. And things get off-track. [If you read chapter 8 we see that after the surprise when the Midianites run away … Gideon chases them. It is not part of the plan and results in a number of diplomatic disputes and ultimately results in Gideon killing the Midian Kings by his own hand … it is pretty messy. It is like the trajectory of God’s plan and where Gideon was just moved further and further away.]
How did Gideon get it so wrong? I think that Gideon gets derailed around Chapter 7:9.
Just before they do their surprise attack Gideon overhears a couple of Midianites interpreting a dream one of them had. They Midianite soldier said … “This can mean nothing other than the sword of Gideon. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.” (7:14). I think this is the point where pride crept in. The seeds are sown into Gideon that some of the glory belongs to him. It is only a few verses later that Gideon gives the instructions to shout, “For the Lord and … for Gideon” … yes. For Gideon too.
I do find it interesting that before Gideon overhears that dream interpretation we read 7 times “The Lord said to Gideon” (and that doesn’t include the second-hand stuff via the angel”) but after verse 7 we don’t hard it again. Either God stops speaking to Gideon or more likely … Gideon stops listening … and things go off track.
Maybe pride … thinking we can do it all on our own … and not listening to God causes us to skew off from God’s trajectory???
Maybe this is the key to Gideon. To remember the story of God’s salvation, of God’s love. Gideon knew that story and God invited Gideon to step into that story, to become one with that trajectory. And God invites us to do the same. The great narrative of salvation, of restoration, of love continues – God is already doing it – and invites us to be part of that. To line up the trajectory of our lives with God’s trajectory. And it is hard because it is something that is spiritual … we can’t see it or touch it and we long for something concrete to hold onto … like a sign … or a real king to tell us what to do … but it not that simple. God is inviting us to step into the unknown and participate in the big story of his love and saving grace.
So … how are we going with that? Are we lined up with God’s plan, god’s trajectory … or are we a bit like Gideon and either through our doubts … or pride … or the fact that we have stopped listening … caused them to divert a little?
Maybe one of the most basic question that this story asks of us is what is might be one step … the next step … that might help you to be slightly more aligned to God trajectory? Is there anything that is pulling us away that needs to be addressed? What is one thing that you can do this week to draw you closer?
At the end of each of the three sermons in this series we are going to ask you two questions…
1) What about the story was new for you?
2) How does this story make you want to live differently?