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The Next Faithful Step: Gideon – The Weakest of the Least
20th Sunday After Pentecost – October 7, 2018 (World Communion Sunday)
Judges 6:1, 11-24
The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.
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.” 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.” So Gideon went into his house and prepared a kid, and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour; the meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the oak and presented them. The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the Lord; and Gideon said, “Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.” Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites.
A nice thing about a life where one forges a living by preaching is that it allows you to redeem the bad things that happen to you by turning them into sermons. This is the kind of week it has been.
This past week, I was the victim of identity theft. Many of you are aware of this, thinking to yourself “I know, pastor Doug. I received the email.” Allow me, then, to give you the backstory.
In early summer, members of our church staff began receiving emails purporting to be from me requesting help, which was easy enough to deal with. However, on Friday morning, I was driving to an appointment in Charlottesville when I received a text message from a church member who had received a suspicious email from me. Then, I received another text message. Next came the emails, the phone calls, the Facebook messages, and the voicemails. By the time I arrived at my appointment, the number of people who had reached out to me was in the double-digits.
What my digital doppelgänger was doing was emailing people in our congregation while purporting to be me, asking for assistance purchasing iTunes gift cards for a child suffering with cancer. According to these emails, I would have called you and asked for your assistance in person, but my phone was malfunctioning, and only then was I forced to resort to the more impersonal medium of digital communications.
Also, my imposter was kind enough to include scripture in these emails, which depending on how you look at it, was either a nice touch or an abomination unto the Lord who the Bible attests, shall not be mocked.
I learned a couple of things from this experience. The first is that you are wonderful, generous, trusting people who are always looking for ways to make a difference in God’s world on behalf of those who are in need. The second lesson is that the experience of having people mistake who you are is very, very weird. It is serendipitous that my personal case of (very) mistaken identity occurred during a week that I had dedicated to considering the story of an Old Testament military leader, judge, and prophet named Gideon, who had his own experience of what felt like mistaken identity.
The story of Gideon is found in chapters six through eight of the Old Testament Book of Judges. The setting of this story follows a familiar pattern for this period of Israel’s history; a pattern where God secures peace and prosperity for God’s people, only to have the people turn away and worship other gods. Gideon arrives on the scene after four decades of peace and prosperity following the prophet Deborah’s victory over the Canaan, the Midianites, Amalekites, and the other Bedouin people who had persecuted Israel for seven years.
Yet following this pattern, the Israelites, a people who had once again taken their peace and prosperity for granted, turned from YHWH, the God of Israel, committed idolatry, and worshipped a Canaanite fertility god named Baal, a persistent rival of Israel’s God. So God did what God does in these situations: give the Israelites over to their enemies.
It has been seven long years of Midianite oppression when God calls Gideon into service. The once-prosperous Israelites find themselves forced to reside in hideouts in the mountains, living in caves and forts. Each time they try to plant crops on which to live, the Midianites and the Amalaekites would swarm into the fields like an invasion of locusts and destroy everything, crops and livestock, all Israel had on which to live. The people of Israel were reduced to grinding, miserable poverty, and they cried out to God for help.
One day, Gideon is living in Ophrah (modern-day Palestine), and he has managed to procure some stalks of wheat that he has somehow kept hidden from the Midianites. He knows that it is far to risky to try to thresh the wheat out in open, for if he does, the Midianites will steal the crop like they always do, and then they will do who-knows-what to Gideon. So Gideon finds a long-dormant winepress and hides inside, hoping that he can thresh wheat there without attracting the notice of the Midianites.
This is what life has become for Gideon and his community: the land is occupied, any crops one manages to grow, or any livestock one manages to raise, will be destroyed by the Midianites all the way down to Gaza. The people cry out to God for help, and nothing happens. Gideon is undoubtedly sick with hunger and hoping to be fortunate enough to procure just a few grains of wheat to nourish him for one more day.
And this is when God shows up.
God appears through an angel sitting in the shade beneath an oak tree and says with what must have sounded to Gideon like baseless optimism “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior!”
Friends, this would be the moment that Gideon was convinced that his identity had been stolen.
“The Lord is with me? The Lord? Look around you. This is what God’s presence, God’s favor looks like? The Lord, indeed. Would this be the Lord who our parents and grandparents told us about, the miracle worker who rescued us from Egypt? I have news for you, sir, that Lord has sold us out to Midian. The ‘Lord is with me,’ indeed.”
And upon hearing this protest, the angel is silent, and the Lord speaks for himself, directly to Gideon, saying “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.”
And more often than not, this is how our God works. Gideon surveys the countryside, a once verdant and fertile land now in desolation. He leans against the inside of the winepress, probably directing these divine messengers to keep their voice down because he is still trying to hide from the Midianites. Gideon sees no evidence of anything God is talking about, the divine favor, the divine presence, the divine power, the miracles, none of it, and certainly not any measure of personal might.
“But sir,” says Gideon “how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”
“But I will be with you,” says God, “And you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”
In his book The Screwtape Letters, author C.S. Lewis imagines the devil saying to another demon “Be not deceived…our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our [God’s] will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” I believe there is a point of intersection between this sentiment and the story of the call and response of Gideon. Gideon had no evidence of God’s existence, presence, or favor, and yet somehow chooses to believe, to follow, to trust. Gideon’s arms are not strong. He does not come from a family that allows him to pull strings or name-drop. Everything is a desolation and has been for years with no end in sight, and still somehow Gideon chooses faith over doubt.
As Judges chapter six ends, Gideon asks for a sign, and he gets it. So, he does what any of us would do if confronted and called by God: he asks for another sign, and he gets it, which of course causes him to ask for a third sign that is the exact opposite of the second sign, and God gives him that one too.
What I love about the call story of Gideon, and why I chose it to open our “Next Faithful Step” sermon series is because of what Gideon’s “next faithful step” looks like. Gideon’s story is not a story of hearing from God on Monday that you are going to lead the defeat of the massive, innumerable, swarm-of-locusts-sized Midianite army and then going into battle on Tuesday. For Gideon, there are several much smaller steps in between.
After Gideon receives the first of his three signs, God gives him a much, much smaller task: “Gideon, in town, as you know, there is an altar to Baal, and beside it, there is a fertility pole which is a symbol of the goddess Asherah. I want you to go and tear down the altar and cut down the pole. Build an altar to me, and make an offering there.” So Gideon takes ten servants and sneaks out in the middle of the night and does just that, a little late-night divinely sanctioned vandalism.
It is only after a small victory that God leads Gideon to a great one.
Each January, you and I know that the gyms will be full of well-meaning individuals who made a vow for this to be the year they finally get into shape. These people are going to set their alarms for 5:00 a.m. and exercise before work every day of the week. Each January, diets begin, promises are made to turn away from bad habits. I am sure that at the beginning of the new year, attendance at our church’s AA meetings will increase. Even our worship attendance will see a bump.
And then comes February and March. Our previously-dormant muscles protest their new routines. Sometimes we find ourselves standing in front of an open refrigerator before we even realize we are doing it. The alarm goes off at 5:00 and we remember how difficult it can be to get out of a warm bed into a cold, dark room. We remember how busy we actually are. We renegotiate with ourselves: “Did I say every day? I think I heard that is bad for you. I think I should actually go to the gym every other day, which means not today.”
It is even true in our relationships. Romantic comedies have repeatedly told us stories of male leads who win back their love interest with grand gestures of wine and roses when what truly sustains a relationship tends to be much smaller, daily acts of compassion, kindness, and burden-sharing.
As someone who has observed spiritual health and spiritual disease in the people I have been charged to serve over the last two decades, I have discovered that our relationship with God is really no different. I have seen people with the very best of intentions, and I too have been a person with the very best of intentions to reinvent myself, to think and speak and live in ways that are wholesale better than I currently am, than we currently are. We regard our lives, we peek over the edge of the winepress and vow to stand up to our own personal Midianite army with courage and fortitude, only to discover just how great and entrenched that army really is, and before we know it, we feel defeated and we find ourselves back in the winepress, wondering how we could ever have been so foolish.
We wonder what God could ever have seen in us, and we wonder if it is all just identity theft, all a simple case of mistaken identity on the part of the divine.
I am not suggesting that our God has called us to a life of small thinking, a life devoid of ideals and transformation. Indeed, in Judges chapter eight, the Midianite army is destroyed, although not in the way Gideon was initially led to believe it would be. What I am saying is that most often our experiences of divine transformation are an evolutionary process, a series of small faithful steps that cumulatively take us to the next place God wishes for us to be. This is how God operates, and this is why God tells Gideon that God will be with him, because this victory, this redemption will not happen over night, but will happen day by day, faithful step after faithful step, as we learn to love the journey itself, refusing to be satisfied only by our arrival at a specific destination.
In an article for The New Yorker titled “Stepping Out,” writer David Sedaris tells of his experience wearing a Fitbit step counter, and how it led him to gradually grow in wellness as each day, he traipsed all over the English countryside, accumulating ten thousand steps, and then twelve, fifteen, twenty-thousand and so on. He writes about how with time, he slowly began to notice how his trousers became more comfortable and the return of the prominence of his cheekbones.
Yet what is more, his gradual journey enabled him to see and experience things he never would have otherwise: the calf being born in a neighboring field, the deer and pheasants. Eventually his walks enabled him to help pick up rubbish from the side of the roads and improve his small, rural community. What began as a desire to reach a personal milestone became a love for a journey that opened for him little discoveries that accumulated into personal and community transformation.
It is not uncommon for stewardship sermons to focus solely upon money and what our church could do if only we had more of it. The transformation we could bring to our community! The mountains we could cross with our life-changing programs and ministries and outreach! The problem with sermons like this, I am afraid, is that what they communicate to the congregation is that the real obstacle to congregational greatness is the congregation itself, a spurious notion that has at its heart a message antithetical to the gospel that in the economy of God, people are merely tools, simply means to an end.
Instead, I would like to suggest that each of us, and that we as a congregation, take the long view here, and that we truly regard our journey of discipleship as just that: a journey, and that we plan accordingly. Indeed, there will come a time to defeat the Midianite army, but indeed, there are many individual steps, signs, and wonders between here and there, and that what is most important is that we make this journey together.
What is the next faithful step that God is calling you to make, that God is calling me to make, that God is calling Reveille to make, and how would life look from that new vantage point? For Gideon, this journey began with asking some hard questions about himself (I am the weakest man of the weakest clan!) and continued with him learning to talk to God, which led him to tear down his idols, which led him to the next thing, and the next, and the next.
What is your next faithful step? What things in your life have become idols that need to be pulled down and replaced by God? What is one thing to add and one thing to take away? You next faithful step may be as simple as agreeing to begin and end each day with prayer for the first time in your life. Your next faithful step may be to use our GPS as a daily devotional, read the Bible (not the whole thing at once, but to make a daily journey of it). In regard to your generosity, it may be to attend worship one more time a month, participate in one more study a year, to give one percent more of your finances to God’s work at Reveille in 2019 than you did in 2018.
A faithful step that leads to another faithful step, one step at a time, one day at a time, one small victory at a time, one bit of God’s transformation of the world at a time.
If you read the end of the story of Gideon, you quickly learn that when the angel appeared beneath the oak tree at Orphah and proclaimed that Gideon was a “mighty warrior,” and Gideon said he wasn’t, Gideon was right. The Midianite army was destroyed, but not by Gideon and not by the men Gideon brought to the fight. The battle was won by God alone, God who convinced the Midianite army to attack one another and not the army of Israel. All God wanted was a courageous servant and a willing heart to take the next faithful step, so that the victory could belong to God’s people and the oppression and hardship could end.
On this World Communion Sunday, we still live in a world in need of transformation, a world that cries out for faithful servants and courageous and willing hearts to take that next step in faithfulness. That world needs God’s love, it needs God’s redemptive grace. Into this world, God has placed Reveille and sent each of us, one faithful step at a time, until all the world heals.
It is not mistaken identity. God knows who God wants, and this God has called you, me, and us in this life together.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.