Ancient Stories Week One: "The (Very) Reluctant Hero"

This Sunday we'll begin a brand new sermon series that will begin our church's journey through the Old Testament.  We'll be encountering some of the great characters in Scripture along the way---characters that undoubtedly dominated many a Sunday school class for some of us church-y types.

I'd like to think that this sermon series is kind of a "Sunday School Remixed," sort of thing.  We're going to be going over some familiar ground for many of our church members but hopefully we'll all learn some things that surprise us when we do.  And if you are tuning in and you don't have much of a history with the Bible---you will definitely get the chance to learn more than you bargained for if we do this right...

Part One of this first series in our study is centered on the story of Gideon and is entitled: "Ancient Stories: The (Very) Reluctant Hero."  This story comes right out of Judges chapters 6 & Judges chapter 7

In the first lines of chapter 6 of the book of Judges we read this... "The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord... and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites."

This is shorthand for declaring that the Israelites turned away from worshipping Yahweh alone and began worshipping other gods from the surrounding Canaanite tribes.  They were breaking pretty much every one of the first four of the ten basic commandments that were part of their covenant with God.  And so God made good on His covenantal promise to allow them to suffer the consequences of breaking their end of the covenant.

Enter the Midianites a nomadic tribe of warriors who seem to make their living on raiding and ravaging other tribes, but mostly the tribes of Israel at this point in history.  The author of Judges clearly sees a connection with the faithlessness of the people of Israel and the calamities that befall them at the hands of ruthless enemies.

The Midianites rode camels into battle, which would have been unheard of in this part of the world at this point in history.  Galloping camels with warriors mounted on them would have been terrifying for tribal people who fought almost exclusively on foot.  These camels would have been weapons of mass destruction.  If you've ever smelled a camel---you know why.

 When all else fails the people of Israel finally call out to God for help.  It seems that they had tried every other god that they could think of and then suddenly remembered that they once believed that there was a God above all those other gods, a God that they once worshipped exclusively.

Funny, how the more things change the more they stay the same...  how many times in our own lives do we try to solve our problems and troubles all on our own only to find ourselves turning to God as a last resort.

God sent the people of Israel a prophet---not to tell them what to do, but to tell them that they had screwed up and to remind them why they were in such trouble.  We don't know the prophet's name, but we do have the prophet's message.  He tells them again of the story of God's redemption of the people of Israel from slavery and of his faithfulness as they wandered in the wilderness.

I love this.  The story gets told once more and the people are reminded of who they are and who God is but the next chapter of the story hasn't been written---it's left open ended without a resolution.  The prophet just sort of stops at the end of a chapter leaving the people hanging on a cliff.

So God goes to find them a champion---someone to lead the people of God against their oppressors.  And true to form, God finds the worst person in the world.  He finds Gideon, a fearful fellow who, when we are introduced to him, is threshing grain in secret, hiding in a winepress for fear that if the Midianites find him threshing grain they will come and steal it.

God sends an angel to encounter Gideon and upon appearing to him, the angel declares to Gideon, "The Lord is with you 'mighty warrior!'" I am sure that this puzzled Gideon on a whole bunch of levels.  He probably didn't feel very mighty at the moment since he was hiding and threshing grain---two sort of not-mighty things to be doing.

Gideon responds to the stranger's words---seemingly unaware at this moment that the angel is an angel---"Okay so if the Lord is with me as you say, then why are all of these bad things to happening to me and the people around me?  Where are all the signs and wonders of old?  Where are the miraculous interventions of yore?  Where is God in the middle of our mess?"  Or something to that effect.

These are words that are not unfamiliar to you and I.  We say similar things when we feel the absence of God in the world, and in our lives.  "The world is messed up... there are so many people lined up against me...  I can't believe that God is allowing these things to happen..."

Then the angel tells Gideon that God has called him to deliver the people of Israel from the hands of the Midianites.  He's being called to do the impossible: to be a hero, to go into battle and to risk life and limb.

Gideon responds by giving all kinds of excuses as to why this is not a very good idea at all.  "My clan is the weakest in all of Manasseh," he tells the angel, " and I am the smallest pimple on the butt of the most worthless clan in Israel."  That's my translation.  In other words, Gideon tells the angel, "I am the last person in the world that God would pick to do anything that matters."

By now Gideon is starting to understand that this stranger is a divine messenger, but he doesn't want that to be true.  The mission that he is being divinely ordained to do is one that he doesn't want.

Then God responds to his excuses and this is the key verse for us in our study of this story.  "Go in the strength that you have," God tells him.  "and save Israel out of Midian's hand.  AM I NOT SENDING YOU?" 

Here's the thing.  When God calls us to a task, God doesn't want to hear our excuses and reasons why it's a bad idea.  God knows our shortcomings.  God knows that we are probably not the best choice.  What God wants us to do is to trust that he knows what he's doing, and to "go in the strength" that we have.

God doesn't call the qualified.  God qualifies the called.

So naturally Gideon wants to test whether the message the angel is giving to him is a message from God so he offers up a serious test.

"If this is really from God," he declares to the angel, "then when I get done preparing some dinner and come back, you'll still be here."  I think this is kind of interesting, actually.  It seems like a pretty lame test for God, but I think what Gideon was doing was sort of proving to himself that he didn't dream the whole thing.  When he returns with some food, the angel touches it with a staff and it burns up in a flash, assuring Gideon that this is indeed a divine moment.

Then God tests Gideon, which seems fair.  He tells him, "God cut down the asherah pole at your father's house, destroy the pagan altar next to it and create an altar to me in it's place."  Gideon knew that this was a task that could very well get him killed, but he does it.  In the middle of the night he sneaks to his father's house, tears down the asherah pole, which was an ancient sign and symbol of Baal worship, marking a cultic worship site.

When the people of the village wake up and realize what has happened they want to kill Gideon, but his father who appears to be a leader in the clan sticks up for him.  He basically states, "If Baal wants Gideon dead, then let him kill him.  Let Baal fight his own battles."

This moment in the story is very similar to an ancient Hebrew midrash (teaching) on the life of Abraham.  It seems that when Abraham was young he was asked to staff his father Terah's idol store--a store that sells wooden and possibly clay idols of pagan gods and goddesses.  I'm not making this up.  So he is sitting in the idol store and decides that they are all bogus so he destroys every single one of them except for one statue of Baal or the equivalent of Baal.  When Terah returns he is furious and demands to know what happened.  Abraham tells him that Baal got angry and destroyed all of the other idols.  "You know good and well that idols can't walk and talk!" Terah tells him.  "Then why do we worship them?" Abraham asks.

Here endeth the midrash.

So Gideon decides that if God is really wanting to go through with the whole fighting the Midianites thing that he needs a little more proof.  He lays out a fleece and asks God to make the ground wet with dew but keep the fleece dry.  When this happens he then asks that God make the fleece wet but the ground dry.  And God does.

All of this begs a pretty important question.  Is it okay to ask God for proof?  Does God get upset when we ask God to show us a sign or three that what God is asking us to do is actually what God is asking us to do?  I think that God shows unbelievable patience here in this story, which bodes well for those of us who struggle to find our way in moments like this.  But I do believe that God's will is revealed to those who seek it.  In Gideon's case, he was on the path to fulfilling what God had asked him to do---he was moving in the right direction, forward to where God seemed to be leading.

Gideon gathers his troops for the mission of taking out the Midianites and then counts his troops.  It's not exactly the best odds.  The Midianites are camped with 135,000 troops on the other side of Mt. Moreh near the plain of Jezreel.  Gideon only has 32,000 troops.

Which were apparently too many troops for God's liking.  He tells Gideon to let the troops know that if any of them are scared for their lives, they can return home.  And promptly 22,000 of them take off.  Nice.  "Hey anyone scared?  You're free to go."  Isn't that the way of the world, though?  Fear of the future always seems to separate the faithful from the fearful.

Now the odds against Gideon were 13-1.  And God didn't like those odds---they weren't wide enough yet.  When Gideon and his 10,000 troops camp at the Spring of Harod, God tells him to watch the men as they drank water.  The ones who dipped their hands in the water and "lapped it like a dog," were the kinds of men that God wanted Gideon to hang on to for the mission.  Everyone who knelt down and drank from the spring with their heads buried in the water would be sent home.

Only 300 men "lapped like a dog."  The Hebrew author probably included that phrase to demonstrate the feral nature of these soldiers.  These guys were the most ferocious, on-edge, hard core dudes in Israel.  And the odds against them were now 450-1, which God seemed to dig.  It's like God is saying, "Now this is more like it.  I like these odds."

Then Gideon equips each of these 300 men with a shofar horn, a clay pot, a torch and a sword.  In the middle of the night they surround the Midianite camp and at the appointed time they all rush the camp, blow their horns, smash their pots to show the lighted torches and they shout as one, "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon."  The combination of the blowing horns, smashed pots, wildly waving torches and the really cool slogans that they shout confuses the Midianites and makes them run like heck.

If you keep reading there's a whole bunch of warrior stuff that happens, including the beheading of the Midianite tribal leaders and a bunch of other gory-ness.  It was a huge victory---against all odds.

You might be thinking at this point---"Nice story, very cool... but how does this apply to me?"

Like I said earlier:  God doesn't call the qualified, he qualifies the called.  So what do you think God may be calling you to do?  What is your calling at this stage in your life?  Frederich Buechener once wrote that your calling in life is where the world's greatest needs and your deepest desires intersect.

Maybe you feel that God is calling you to do something difficult.  You feel like you are unqualified to make it happen.  You're too frail, not smart enough, too old, too young, too busy, too.... well, you can probably find an excuse.  Maybe you feel like the smallest pimple on the rear of the most worthless...

God doesn't seem to care about your qualifications.  In fact, he seems to prefer it when we have none.  "Go in the strength that you have..." he told Gideon.  "Am I not sending you?"

A few years ago I heard the story of Katie Davis, a high school student who went on a mission trip to Uganda after she graduated, and returned home with a burden: she felt like God was calling her to do something radical to respond to the great need she saw among the orphans of Uganda.

The radical thing that Katie felt called to do was to return to Uganda and to found an orphanage, sort of---but not like any orphanage she had ever seen. In this orphanage the kids would all be adopted... by her.

And so she did.  Fourteen little girls to be exact.

Katie gave up all thoughts of having a career.  She gave up on relationships with guys her own age.  She gave up her ideas of what a family looked like.  She gave up the dreams she had, for the dreams that she was given.

And the task was hard.  Impossible even.

But in 2011 she wrote a book that became a bestseller and through the proceeds of the book and the funds she raised touring to support the book she raised enough money to send 445 Ugandan kids to school, serve 300,000 meals to the needy in her area and help provide 1500 people with medical care.

Katie was a high school kid.  She was the last person she would have picked to run a mission organization.  She was the last person she would have picked to be a mother to fourteen little girls.

But in God's economy she was the first person he picked.

There is a calling, a need, a cause, a project, program or mission that needs you.  I know this because I know that every single one of us has a God-given purpose.  I also know that despite our objections, God has qualified us in our calling.

Are you ready?  Your calling may not be as radical as Katie's, but the world needs you to stand up, ask for proof, contend with God, tell Him why you aren't good enough and still keep moving in the direction you feel God is leading you.

God doesn't call the qualified... He qualifies the called.


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