August 30, 2015

Gideon's Victory

God called Gideon from hiding in the wine press and threshing wheat there in secret to being the leader of the resistance forces of Israel. Gideon asked God for signs so that he could be sure that he was really understanding God’s call because it seemed so dramatic and so impossible.
God calls us from our secure places and sends us out to tell the Good News of God’s grace and love. We might ask ‘who me?’ or say ‘I’m not the right one, I don’t have the right credentials’. God doesn’t see as we do, and God knows that ‘with God all things are possible’.
Gideon, with his 300 men, reduced by God from the 30,000 he started with, is told to “Get up, attack the camp; for I have given it into your hand.” Because God knows Gideon’s fears, he gives him one last assurance, “go down to the camp with your servant Purah; and you shall hear what they say, and afterwards your hands shall be strengthened to attack the camp.” (Judges 7:9-11)
Gideon needed this reassurance probably since when he saw the enemy armies “the Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the east lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore.” (Judges 7:12) Surprisingly, despite their huge numbers, the soldiers of Midian are afraid of Gideon. “When Gideon arrived, there was a man telling a dream to his comrade; and he said, ‘I had a dream, and in it a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came to the tent, and struck it so that it fell; it turned upside down, and the tent collapsed.’ And his comrade answered, ‘This is no other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, a man of Israel; into his hand God has given Midian and all the army.’” (Judges 7:13-14)
After hearing the dream of the soldier in the Midianite camp, Gideon understands that God is with him and with his 300 men.This dream gives Gideon all the courage he needs and he conceives an unorthodox battle plan that involves dividing his already small force into 3 companies. It works! Because Gideon trusted God's power, the small army defeated the big one. 
When Gideon heard the telling of the dream and its interpretation, he worshiped; and he returned to the camp of Israel, and said, ‘Get up; for the Lord has given the army of Midian into your hand.’ After he divided the three hundred men into three companies, and put trumpets into the hands of all of them, and empty jars, with torches inside the jars, he said to them, ‘Look at me, and do the same; when I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then you also blow the trumpets around the whole camp, and shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!” ’ So Gideon and the hundred who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. So the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars, holding in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow; and they cried, ‘A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!’ Every man stood in his place all around the camp, and all the men in camp ran; they cried out and fled. When they blew the three hundred trumpets, the Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow and against all the army; and the army fled as far as Beth-shittah towards Zererah, as far as the border of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath.” (Judges 7: 15-22)
With only 300, Gideon is able to free Israel from the rule of Midian. He goes on to become the leader of Israel (Judges 8:22), “and the land had rest 40 years in the days of Gideon.” (Judges 8:28)
From what secure place is God trying to call you?

Is there a ministry that you feel drawn to, or something God might be asking you to step out in faith and do? 
Can you trust God to be with you in whatever you are doing?

August 23, 2015

Gideon's Army

Last time, we saw that Gideon had decided to act against the Midianite armies. He had been assured time and again by God that he really was the one called to free Israel from their oppressors. I know that I often want assurance that I’m doing what God wants me to do. Thomas Merton takes a different approach in his well-known prayer:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
And God does not leave us to face anything alone. God did not leave Gideon alone either. However, God did trim Gideon’s army down to what must have seemed a pitiful group. “Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the troops that were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp of Midian was north of them, below the hill of Moreh, in the valley. The Lord said to Gideon, ‘The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, “My own hand has delivered me.” Now therefore proclaim this in the hearing of the troops, “Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.” ’ Thus Gideon sifted them out; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained. Then the Lord said to Gideon, ‘The troops are still too many; take them down to the water and I will sift them out for you there. When I say, “This one shall go with you”, he shall go with you; and when I say, “This one shall not go with you”, he shall not go.’ So he brought the troops down to the water; and the Lord said to Gideon, ‘All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side.’ The number of those that lapped was three hundred; but all the rest of the troops knelt down to drink water. Then the Lord said to Gideon, ‘With the three hundred that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hand. Let all the others go to their homes.’ So he took the jars of the troops from their hands, and their trumpets; and he sent all the rest of Israel back to their own tents, but retained the three hundred. The camp of Midian was below him in the valley.
So, Gideon is left with 300 men, out of the 30,000 original volunteers. That’s a pretty drastic cut in forces. Have you ever been trying to do some ministry and it just seems like there are less and less people willing to help? Sometimes that means that the ministry has run its course, but sometimes it can be that God is working more powerfully through the few than would be possible through many more. 
I think that we sometimes think we need lots of resources-money, manpower, support, equipment, etc. to accomplish anything grand. In truth, it is often the small endeavors that end up making the most difference. Recently there was a story on the news about an 8 year old girl who wanted to raise $8000 for her birthday to give to a hospital. When word got out she raised thousands more, including an anonymous gift of $50,000. She didn’t set out to do that, she just wanted to say thanks to the hospital which saved her life. Consider the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. It was a boy with 5 loaves and 2 fish who provided that food. And Gideon, with his 300 men against the massed forces of Midian, with the Amalekites and ‘the people of the East’.
None of these people doubted that what they had was enough, because they were willing to trust God. With Merton they were willing to openly pray, "Therefore will I trust you will never leave me."
What would happen if we had the faith of the boy with his lunch or Gideon with his 300 and were willing to say ‘here I am use me’?
Could praying Merton’s prayer change the way we view our life and ministry, as we know that “ I will not fear, for you are ever with me”?
Next time we’ll conclude our look at Gideon and see what happened when he acted on God’s promise.

August 16, 2015

Gideon's Doubts

In the past couple of weeks, we have seen Gideon meeting the angel of the Lord and being ordered to act for God. Last week we saw Gideon mightily tearing down the altar of Baal and building a new one to the Living God. In similar fashion-sometimes in grand and sometimes in small ways-we are called to respond to the call of God on our lives.
Now we come to one of the most familiar parts of the story of Gideon-where he asks God for confirmation of his mission. Not once, but twice, Gideon asks for affirmation from God. At first, it looks like all is well. “All the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east came together, and crossing the Jordan they encamped in the Valley of Jezreel. But the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him. He sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, and they too were called out to follow him. He also sent messengers to Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they went up to meet them.” (Judges 6:33-35)
It looks like Gideon is going to act like the mighty warrior God called him to be. However, then Gideon said to God, ‘In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.’ And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, ‘Do not let your anger burn against me, let me speak one more time; let me, please, make trial with the fleece just once more; let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.’ And God did so that night. It was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.” (Judges 6:36-40)

Perhaps because he saw the massed armies of Midian and the Amalekites, he got frightened and had to ask God for reassurance. I can relate to that. Sometimes it feels like we are being asked to step off a cliff when there is some new ministry in front of us that we don’t feel capable of doing. It can feel a lot like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade when he has to decide to take the leap from the lions head into what looks like empty space. Only after we take the step do we realize that God is underneath us, and has been all along!
So Gideon asks God to make the fleece wet and the ground dry and the next night reverses the request. Both times God answers his prayer, so he is left with no way out of acting on the courage given when “spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him.”

Have you ever asked God for a sign? Maybe not a visible sign, but just a little assurance that you are taking the right step.
What does it take for you to respond to the call of the Spirit and step ‘off the lion’s head’ or ‘sound the trumpet’? 

Next time we find God doing the testing of Gideon’s army and winnowing it down to a tiny force!

August 9, 2015

Gideon's Action

Last time we saw how God called Gideon out of the winepress to be a ‘mighty warrior’. Despite his initial doubts, Gideon responds. In Judges 6:25-27, he hears God’s directions, “’Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that belongs to your father, and cut down the sacred pole that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, in proper order; then take the second bull, and offer it as a burnt-offering with the wood of the sacred pole that you shall cut down.’ So Gideon took ten of his servants, and did as the Lord had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do it by day, he did it by night.”
In one night Gideon tears down the pagan altar and builds a new altar to the Living God. He then sacrifices his father’s bull on the altar. I hear faint echoes in this story of the actions of Francis of Assisi who sold the cloth from his father’s business to help the poor of Assisi. In both cases these young men acted under God’s direction rather than by the precepts of the law of the land and of family.
We can imagine the consternation of the people of Ophrah when they found the altar of Baal was broken down, and the sacred pole beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar that had been built. So they said to one another, ‘Who has done this?’ After searching and inquiring, they were told, ‘Gideon son of Joash did it.’ Then the townspeople said to Joash, ‘Bring out your son, so that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Baal and cut down the sacred pole beside it.’ But Joash said to all who were arrayed against him, ‘Will you contend for Baal? Or will you defend his cause? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down.’ (Judges 6:28-31)
I think we have to give Gideon’s father some big credit here. It’s his altar that was destroyed, and his ‘second bull’ that was sacrificed. However, he doesn’t let the people kill his son. Instead he suggests ‘If [Baal] is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down.’ Later on Elijah says something similar when taunting the priests of Baal during the contest about whether Baal or God was real. (I Kings 18:20-40)
Gideon acted to reinstate the altar of God in the midst of the people of Ophrah. He acted because believed God asked him to take action and he trusted in God’s presence with him. His courage inspired his father to defend him. Sometimes we can hesitate to stand up for what we know is right because we are afraid of ‘what the neighbors will think or say’. Gideon’s actions could be called reckless and foolhardy, but they definitely got the people’s attention.
Francis of Assisi also acted in what his father and the people of Assisi thought was a rash and reckless way. When he was brought before the leaders of Assisi, he stood his ground, even to the point of stripping off his clothing because he would keep nothing given him by his earthly father. That action both shocked and inspired the clergy and people of the area. The images we see of Francis piously talking to the birds cover up the really counter-cultural (and counter established church) actions he took in following God’s call to ‘rebuild my church’. His message calling for a return to the simplicity of God's love was in conflict with the power structure of the church of his day.
In this image from a Bible story book, circa 1950s, we see Gideon and his servants tearing down the altar and sacred grove. It is clearly not an easy task. Confronting what needs to be changed is never easy. Gideon acted mightily to address the pagan influences in Israel and brought about change. Francis, too responded to God and brought about revival. Francis heard God say ‘rebuild my church’. Gideon’s call was “deliver Israel from the hand of Midian”. Both men were gifted by God for their mission. Both were given courage to act and step out in faith. Both stepped out of their comfort zone to do something totally unexpected and life changing.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what are the Baal altars in our lives? What are we clinging to that keeps us from responding to God fully?
Are you being called to do something that will build up the Kingdom of God? Is it something you are hesitating to act on because you are unsure, or because you fear what ‘someone’ might say?
Go in strength, mighty one of valor. God is with you. 

August 2, 2015

Gideon's Call

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Gideon, one of the mighty men mentioned in the Old Testament. Gideon is probably best known for his ‘casting the fleece’ to see if God really meant what God was saying. And…I’ll get to that in a couple of weeks. However, when we first meet Gideon in the Book of Judges (Chapter 6, verse 11) he is hiding in a wine press threshing grain (not what we might consider the actions of a hero). This was a large hole in the ground lined with bricks, where the grapes were crushed and the juice drained into a hole where it was collected. It would certainly have been deep enough to conceal Gideon and his grain from the prying eyes of the neighbors.
A bit of history from earlier in Chapter 6 tells us that “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian for seven years… the Israelites provided for themselves hiding-places in the mountains, caves and strongholds…[the Midianites] would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the land, as far as the neighborhood of Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel, and no sheep or ox or donkey… Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian; and the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help.” (Judges 6:1-10)
In response to the prayers for help, we hear that “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.” We know that Gideon is the son of a man named Joash. The Abiezrites are descended from Joseph (Jacob’s son). We don’t know how old Gideon is, or anything about his looks or the rest of his family or whether they were rich or poor. From an author’s standpoint, there are a lot of details missing. Even the location of the town of Ophrah is lost to the mists of time. Most archeologists think it’s in the area about 15-20 miles SW of the Sea of Galilee not far from Jezreel.
Perhaps the important thing is that Gideon is taking action. He has found some grain, perhaps growing wild, and is pounding it to provide food for his family. To get the grains of wheat to release from the stem, ancient people used a flail. This was a simply handle with one or more pieces of wood attached at one end by a cord so that it would flip back and forth. (As an aside, the flail is also one of the symbols of Pharaoh’s royalty, along with a crook.)
Gideon, hiding in the wine press with his pile of grain, gets the surprise of his life. “The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, ‘The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.’” Not the typical greeting for a, presumably, young man. Gideon does not appear to be shocked by the appearance. Instead, he starts a theological discussion. “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.”
Rather than getting angry with the presumption of Gideon, “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.’” This really isn’t an answer to all the questions Gideon has asked, but a call to action. Gideon clearly doesn’t think he’s the right choice for this job. He continues to argue with the angel “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” Even after reassurance from the Lord, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them,” Gideon begs for a further sign. “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.” The angel promises to stay.
Gideon prepares a feast with 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…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.”
Only now does “Gideon [perceive] that it was the angel of the Lord; and…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.”
As I’ve been studying the story of Gideon, I wonder what this part of the saga says to me and to all of us in our Christian walk. I can certainly relate to Gideon’s doubts about his abilities to do God’s bidding. Like Gideon, and many other heroes of the faith, I can come up with numerous reasons why I’m not the ‘right’ one for the job of…teaching Sunday School, writing a book, joining a ministry, taking on leadership, or whatever it might be.

I admire Gideon for being a man of action. He is making the best of a bad situation when we meet him. He has found grain and is working to make it usable for the family. Gideon may be hiding in a wine press, but he is doing something and not jsut complaining about the problems. He is also a very careful man. Not one to fly off the handle and go chasing a mirage, he seeks to confirm that this really is God telling him to do something seemingly crazy. 
I think it is reassuring that the Lord doesn’t get angry with Gideon for all his questions and his need for confirmation that the message is authentic. We’ll see that, much like me, Gideon is always wanting more and more assurances that God is with him and really asking him to do what God says. God honors the requests for signs and does not get angry at what we might call doubts. Perhaps we can imagine a rather wry smile on God’s face as he convinces Gideon (and us) that it really is God who is asking us to step out in faith. 
God promises Gideon "I will be with you" and we have the same promise "Lo I am with you always" (Matthew28:20). When God asks us to do something, God will be with us throughout. 
This part of the story tells me that when we take action, God will honor that and then ask us to take further steps of faith. Gideon shows that he is willing to take a stand against the Midianites, even if it a hidden rebellion. God takes that initial stand against the oppression and tells Gideon that he can ‘deliver Israel from the hand of Midian’.
Are you working in secret because you are afraid of...being misunderstood, or judged, or laughed at...? 
Where is God taking your words and/or actions and calling you into further ministry?
Is God calling you to be a 'mighty (woman or man) warrior'?