Sunday, June 3, 2012

Gideon - "When you feel inadequate..."

Imagine that we've entered a great stadium, mid-race, as thousands cheer us on.  One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down to encourage us as we jog around the track together. A young man comes down to the field and begins running alongside us. “I am Gideon.  Do you ever feel small and insignificant, unsure that you are up for the challenge that is before you?  What I learned was this: when you feel inadequate, take your eyes off yourself and trust the One who made you.

Gideon reminds us that he, like Deborah, lived in the period of the Judges …a time when the people were to look to God for leadership; but often failed to do so, plunging them into a cycle of oppression and suffering at the hands of their enemies.  Gideon was the fifth in a series of anointed, but fallible, leaders whom God raised up during a time when Midian was ravaging their land like locusts. The book of Judges tells us that Israel was reduced to hiding in mountains and caves to avoid the enemy threat, and when the angel of the LORD came to Gideon, he too was hiding out in a wine press where he was beating out wheat. Gideon recalls how shocked and skeptical he was at the angel’s greeting, “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior (6:12)!”  Gideon confides in us: I was cowering in a winepress, the youngest in my family from the smallest clan in my tribe (6:15): I was neither mighty, nor a warrior…which is why I say,

"When you feel inadequate, let God redefine you."  'I’m too short or too tall, or I’m too shy or too talkative, I’m not pretty enough or handsome enough or smart enough' we say.  Sadly, some of us already wear a false label. Here is my suggestion: Let God tell you the truth about yourself. “You may feel small but you are a mighty warrior in his eyes!”  Just as our children are named as a sign of our love for them long before they can understand that love…so we have been named by God that we might grow in the glory and grace of that name.    

I was at a high school volleyball tryout the other day with my eldest daughter. I was impressed by the way the coach organized the event. He had team members pair up with the freshmen girls who called them by name and then immediately started working with them on fundamentals.  What I thought was unique was that students were encouraged to join the team, regardless of their experience level.  They’re welcomed right where they are.  They’ve made the team before they’ve had a single workout.  That to me is a picture of God’s redeeming work in us…he welcomes us on the team right where we are.  Our job is to come ready to learn, but we do so already having been accepted.  Gideon learned the power of being renamed by God, and so can we.

As we round the first bend in the track, Gideon has another word for us: "When you feel inadequate, let the truth about God guide you."  When we feel negatively about ourselves, it is not only the truth about ourselves that we need to understand, but the truth about God.  What was the truth about God that was revealed to Gideon?  Briefly, four things…

     First, God is purposeful: When the angel said, “The Lord is with you, Mighty Warrior,” Gideon asked, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?”  Gideon had begun to think that God was abusive and cruel; one who enjoyed making life miserable for his people and so he asked God, why? Judges 6:1 explains that it is because “the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” that he gave them into the hand of Midian. There is a sense in which our feelings of inadequacy are absolutely justified…because we all fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  But the pain we feel when we disobey God’s commands does have a redemptive purpose…to awaken our conscience, and lead us back to him…as it did Gideon and the Israelites!  

Marvin Norwood who was accused of critically beating Bryan Stow at Dodger stadium was overhead saying to his mother on a cell phone, “Pretty sure I’m going down for it. Sorry.”  I wonder who he was apologizing to?  His mother? Bryan Stow?  God?  God’s purpose is to redeem this broken world, and that often begins when we say “Sorry” (not because God needs it, but because we do).

     Second, God is present in power.  When Gideon asks “If the Lord is with us, why all this suffering?” God does not give a lengthy theological explanation of suffering.  What he says is, “I will be with you” (16).  The Hebrew word is ’eh·yeh and it is often translated “I am, have been, or become.”  It’s the same word that God speaks to Moses when he asks “Who shall I say has sent me?”  ’Eh·yeh ’A·šer ’Eh·yeh (I am who I am) but perhaps better rendered in the functional/relational language of Hebrew thought: “I am with you ALL the time, in ALL situations [as I Am].”  

Some of us may have felt the absence of our parents or a loving family member at one point in time.  Gideon obviously felt like the runt in the family, perhaps the neglected younger son.   When we feel neglected we may assume that God will neglect us too.  Yet the reorienting truth of Scripture is that He will never forget us or forsake us: "Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for a child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would never forget you!” says the Lord (Isaiah 49:15).  And again, "If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up" (Psalm 27: 10).

     A third truth about God that Gideon learned was, God is patient.  Gideon is not quite convinced that he is talking to the LORD, so he says, “If I have now found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me” (17). So Gideon prepares a sit down dinner for the angel of God who rather than eating it, touches it with his staff as fire consumes it like a holy offering.  As if this wasn’t enough, Gideon later asks God to prove that he will deliver Midian into his hand by laying out a fleece of wool on the threshing floor, and asking God to let the fleece be wet and the threshing floor dry in the morning; which God does…only to be asked again by Gideon to reverse the miracle on the following day....

This story reminds me that God is incredibly patient with me, and is willing to persevere with me despite my anemic faith. That's not to say that it is wrong to ever look for a sign or confirmation of God’s presence.  I think it’s very human!  The other day I was at a choral concert at my daughters' middle school. and sitting a few rows in front of us was a family that we have come to know...a family that has suffered a terrible loss. That night, I was transported by several sacred anthems (in a public school, no less)…and one in particular, Ave Maria, moved me to tears as I thought of this beautiful catholic family.  I sensed from God that this was a word of comfort to them…a sign of his love. God is present…and he patiently assures of that fact…if only we have eyes to see.

     God is purposeful, God is present, God is patient, and finally God is peerless, having no equal. We recall that God wanted to teach his people to obey him and put him first, and so it is fitting that Gideon’s first task is to “pull down the altar of Baal that [belonged] to [his] father” (25)!   When the people discover Gideon did this, they want to kill him.  But his father sees the light: he courageously challenges them to step back and let Baal defend himself – which, of course, he does not!! I thought it was ironic that the Baal altar belonged to his own father!  It was his father who had taught him to worship these false gods.  What gods are we teaching our children to worship?   It’s an incredibly important question.

Families are tempted to worship all kinds of false gods today… but what these gods often have in common is that they ask us to (1) give up our worship together on Sunday, (2) forsake the family meal and prayer, and (3) neglect the giving of our time, talent, and treasure to God’s work. If we as parents hope to build self-esteem into our children, we must begin where Gideon’s father does…with the modeling of God-esteem!  

At this point Gideon’s eyes look down as we near the end of our lap.  He seems pained at something that he just remembered to tell us.  “I need to share one more thing with you…something important for which I am not proud.”  "When you feel inadequate, let the Spirit, and not your pain, rule in you," Gideon says. “You see, it was after “…the spirit of the Lord took possession of me; [that] I sounded the trumpet (33-34); that I went out to defeat Midian, that I became a mighty warriorBut sadly, my story does not end there.”  Gideon goes on to remind us of what happened after he defeated the Midianites…How, in Judges 8, we read that he returned to scourge the Israelite tribes in Succoth and kill the men of Penuel who refused to help him in the battle against Midian; and then how he treated the captured Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna.  

Gideon asks them an unexpected question: “What about the men you killed at Tabor?” he asks.  It turns out that these kings had been responsible for the death of Gideon’s brothers.  "As the Lord lives” says Gideon,  “…if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you.”  Then Gideon proceeds to kills Zebah and Zalmunna. It appears that Gideon was no longer motivated by obedience to God’s commands, but by personal revenge. He had some of the Spirit’s gifts, but not the Spirit’s fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness….and self-control.” 

As Gideon prepares to leave us, I imagine him saying these words“Please learn from my mistake, dear friends.  For as a boy I had great feelings of inadequacy and personal shame which God sought to heal…but rather than allowing his Spirit to rule in me to the very end; I allowed my pain, my anger and my resentment to rule in me instead.  Don’t do what I did… God was patient with me…but I did not show that same patience to others! But thank God for his mercy…for when they asked me to be King, I had learned enough to say this: “I will not rule over you…the LORD will rule over you” (Judges 8:23)!  Let us not allow fear and pain and shame to rule over us, but let us allow God to rule in us! Let the Mighty One remind you of who you are as you hear the words of David's greater Son who said, “You are the salt of the earth; and the light of the world!” (Matt. 5: 13-14). “You are forgiven!” (Matt. 9:2); “You are valuable” (Matt. 10:31); “You were lost, but now you are found!” (Luke 15: 31-32); “You are my friends!” (John 15: 14-15); Paul goes on to say, “You are more than a conqueror through him who loved us!” (Rom. 8:37); “You are God’s temple!” (1 Cor. 3:16); “You are uniquely gifted” (1 Cor. 12); “You are a holy, chosen people” (1 Peter 2:9)!  And now may the Spirit of the King, the pioneer and perfector of our faith who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, rule in you…as I pray he now rules in me.” 

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