Thursday 17 November 2011

The reluctant hero (Judges 6)

A familiar situation

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 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. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help.
Judges 6:1-6

Again. That is how the chapter begins, with a scenario we have encountered before in the book of Judges. The Israelites fall into sin - again - and God “gave them into the hands” of their enemies. Again. This time, it’s the Midianites, a foreign nation so powerful and oppressive that “it was impossible to count the men and their camels” (verse 5).

The Midianite strategy was to attack the Israelite nation’s food source, coordinating their strikes with the harvest season to destroy every trace of vegetation or plant life in the land. Even the livestock was not spared, “they... did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys”.

Driven to starvation (“Midian so impoverished the Israelites” - verse 6), the people of God turn back to the LORD calling for his divine help. God answers but in a very unexpected way.

When the Israelites cried to the LORD because of Midian, he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I snatched you from the power of Egypt and from the hand of all your oppressors. I drove them from before you and gave you their land. I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”
Judges 6:7-10

Imagine your mum reminding you to take an umbrella with you before leaving the house. “Forecast says there’s going to be heavy rain today. Don’t forget.” “Yes, ma,” you say, “I know. I’m a big boy now.” But you do forget to take your umbrella so after school you call your Ma on the phone, “Please pick me up, it’s raining!” “OK,” she says. She turns up in the car and gives you a lift home.

Next day. “Remember your umbrella!” goes Ma. “I know, I know!” you say. But you forget. So you call Ma and she drives over and picks you up again. This goes on every day for a whole week. You call. She answers. She drives you home.

Except one day you make the usual call home and Ma doesn’t say, “Sure, I’ll be right over.” Instead, she begins to nag. “I told you to pack your umbrella but you never listen do you? You always ignore what I’m saying to you!” Then she puts down the phone. No word on picking you up. No solution on how you’re going to get home in the pouring rain. She just cuts you off mid-conversation.

That’s essentially what God does by sending the prophet to Israel.

I saved you from slavery in Egypt. I gave you this land. I told you not to chase after other false gods. But you have not listened to me. That’s what God says.

That is all that God says. No word of help. Just the rebuke of an angry and annoyed parent. But of course, God does send help. He raises up a judge named Gideon.

You are the one

The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.”

“But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian.”

The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”
Judges 6:11-14

Gideon’s name in Hebrew means “hacker”. Today, a hacker is a term for a computing super-geek who breaks into a complex computer system bypassing all its layers of security and protection. Every Hollywood spy movie must have the hacker - the skinny, socially-inept teenager who hacks into a high-security government facility server, accessing blueprints, unlocking doors and controlling CCTV cameras, all from a laptop in his bedroom while guzzling copious amounts of Diet Coke.

Gideon had a strong, impressive name, something close to “Terminator”. The angel of God even calls him a “mighty warrior”. Verse 12: “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” God tells Gideon, “Go… and save Israel out of Midian’s hand”!

It’s like Morpheus confronting Neo saying, “You’re the One!” but Neo’s thinking “I am no one”. He works in a cubicle. He’s just trying to get through the day without his boss firing him from his mediocre middle-management job. But one day the mysterious Morpheus appears in an overcoat, black sunglasses and leather pants too tight for a man his age, saying, “You are going to save the world”?

When we first meet Gideon in verse 11, he was “threshing wheat in a winepress”. It is saying that Gideon was afraid. He was hiding. A winepress is a space dug into rock for crushing grapes. Gideon was hiding out in this winepress – out of view of the Midianites – in order to thresh wheat: a process of separating the kernels from the stalk by beating the heads of wheat and letting the winds blow away the chaff. A winepress was not an ideal place to do this but Gideon didn’t want to attract any attention from the Midianite armies. Threshing wheat in a winepress is akin to barbequing steaks in your bathroom to hide the smoke.

Gideon wasn’t brave. Gideon wasn’t strong. But the first thing Gideon questioned was not his own strength or confidence, but God’s presence with Israel. “If the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders our fathers told us about?”

Gideon had been brought up in the knowledge of God. He knew about the rescue from Egypt. He even knew enough to recognise that Israel’s current problem with the Midianites was actually God’s judgement on them. But Gideon had never seen God’s “wonders” first-hand. Furthermore, it’s ironic that Gideon talks about the previous generation who taught him about these wonders – “our fathers”. As we will soon find out, Gideon’s own dad had abandoned God. In fact, the whole village was worshipping a foreign god set up in his own back yard. Gideon was alone in his faith, the very faith his fathers had taught him, the very faith his fathers had left behind.

But God speaks to Gideon directly. God gives Gideon a personal assurance of his presence. “The LORD is with you” (verse 12). “Am I not sending you?” (verse 14).

This is God’s personal, unmistakeable, powerful promise of his presence with Gideon. As the following verses will demonstrate, God continues to assure Gideon of his presence, in spite of this young man’s doubts and brazenness.

I will be here

“But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The LORD answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.” Gideon replied, “If now I have found favour in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me. Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you.”

And the LORD said, “I will wait until you return.”
Judges 6:15-18

“Give me a sign,” says Gideon, “that it is really you.” It is a bold request to ask of God, not least because God had already given him his word of promise. “I will be with you,” God says yet again in verse 16.

Still, we must not ignore the massive task God has put ahead of our hero. “How can I save Israel?” he says. God wants Gideon to face an army so vast, the Midianite forces, that verse 5 describes them as “impossible to count”. I mean, what if God turned up one day while you were doing your laundry and said to you, “Go and attack France! Gather up the students of your college, call your supervisors, porters and cleaning ladies. Assemble them and march down to Dover.” You would say, “My college is the least impressive and poorest of all the colleges in Cambridge – Queens’ - and I only managed to scrape through last year with a third class in my Tripos!”

God answers Gideon, “I will be with you.” One plus God is the majority.

Even so, Gideon is unsure. So he asks God for a sign – a sign of God’s favour; a sign of God’s presence. “Please do not go away until I come back and bring my offering and set it before you,” he says.

Gideon went in, prepared a young goat, and from an ephah of flour he made bread without yeast. Putting the meat in a basket and its broth in a pot, he brought them out and offered them to him under the oak.
Judges 6:19

Gideon rushes to the kitchen and pulls out whatever he can find. Turns out he’s not a bad cook. He even bakes his own bread (without yeast, of course, from what he could recall from those stories he learned as a kid in Sunday School about the Exodus). The star dish is the goat stew he whips up. Yummy! Jamie Oliver would be proud.

He is trying his best to impress God. Yet, it in his mind, this really is just a fancy meal. When he addresses the angel as, “Lord,” in verse 15, the NIV footnotes makes clear, that this is akin to saying, “Sir”. He is being courteous. Polite. As far as Gideon is concerned, this is just another man – distinguished and important he may be – but just another man. This “offering” Gideon painstakingly serves up is, in his mind, nothing more than dinner.

So what this visitor tells Gideon to do next must have surprised him. “Pour out the broth,” he says. Empty out the contents of the pot full of yummy delicious stew!

The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened bread, place them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And Gideon did so. With the tip of the staff that was in his hand, the angel of the LORD touched the meat and the unleavened bread. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread. And the angel of the LORD disappeared. When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the LORD, he exclaimed, “Ah, Sovereign LORD! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!”

But the LORD said to him, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.” So Gideon built an altar to the LORD there and called it The LORD is Peace. To this day it stands in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
Judges 6:20-24

Gideon realises that he was dealing with an angel sent from God and he freaks out. Gideon essentially thinks he is going to die but God reassures him one more time, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.”

Notice that God reassures Gideon time and time again about his presence. When he first meets him threshing wheat in the winepress, “The LORD is with you” (verse 12). When Gideon questions his own ability, “I will be with you” (verse 16). Even when Gideon runs off to the kitchen to re-enact his favourite episode from Masterchef, “I will wait until you return.”

And here, even after the angel has left, when Gideon thinks he is about to die, God voice comes down from heaven to calm his nerves. “Peace! Do not be afraid.” In answer to our prayers for blessing, comfort, confidence or love, God’s greatest promise to us is that of himself. “I will be with you,” he says to young Gideon.

Gideon responds with thankfulness and worship. He “built an altar … and called it The LORD is Peace,” as a reminder that God had met him there, accepted his offering and given Gideon the promise of his presence and peace.

However, things weren’t going to stay peaceful for long.

Spring cleaning

That same night the LORD said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. Then build a proper kind of altar to the LORD your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.”

So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the LORD told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the men of the town, he did it at night rather than in the daytime.
Judges 6:25-27

Baal was the local pagan god of the Canaanites. Asherah was the female counterpart to Baal, symbolising fertility and blessing. The heart of the problem was not the Midianite forces which oppressed Israel and destroyed their food supplies. The issue was idolatry. Israel had turned away from God to worship idols. This is what verse 1 was referring to when we read, “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD”.

Notice as well that God tells Gideon to tear down “your father’s altar”. These idols had been set up prominently in Gideon’s dad’s own backyard! This same dad who taught Gideon all about what God did in the Exodus, rescuing Israel and bringing them to the Promise Land.

Gideon’s dad is like a Christian who still calls himself a believer – he still goes to church every Sunday - but keeps a giant statue of Buddha in his back garden next to the lavish koi pond where he parks his Mercedes every day. God tells Gideon, “Take your dad’s prized Mercedes and pull down that idol, destroying it completely. Then take apart your dad’s Mercedes and built a cross in that same place – out of Mercedes parts!”

“Build a proper kind of altar to the LORD your God … using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering,” God says to Gideon, giving him instructions to “recycle” the idol into parts for a “proper altar” to God. Gideon obeyed God, but did this at night, “because he was afraid of his and the men of his town.”

It looks like he had reason to be afraid.

In the morning when the men of the town got up, there was Baal’s altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar! They asked each other, “Who did this?” When they carefully investigated, they were told, “Gideon son of Joash did it.”

The men of the town demanded of Joash, “Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.”

But Joash replied to the hostile crowd around him, “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.” So that day they called Gideon “Jerub-Baal,” saying, “Let Baal contend with him,” because he broke down Baal’s altar.
Judges 6:28-32

The townspeople turn up at Joash’s front door, armed with pitchforks and torches ready to lynch Gideon for his sacrilegious act of vandalism. “He must die, because he has broken down Ball’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.”

But Joash defends his son. That’s simply amazing! He speaks to this “hostile crowd” and begins to mock the very pagan gods he had been worshipping up till now. “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning!” If Baal really were a god, he would defend himself and not allow his own altar to be torn down by a puny kid.

All this from a former Baal worshipper - possibly even, a Baal priest - since the altar was in Joash’s own backyard. Furthermore, Gideon had trashed the Merc – I mean, the bull – in order to build another altar – a proper altar to God. Joash should have been hopping mad at his son. You would have expected Joash to be leading the mob, not confronting them. But it’s obvious, isn’t it, that Joash now recognises how foolish it is to try to defend an idol, how much more foolish then, to worship one? “Let Baal contend with him,” that’s what they said of Gideon from that day onwards, giving him the new name, “Jerub-Baal”. Meaning: Let Baal deal with this kid. As if, he could.

Earlier on, Gideon was protesting before God that he was the “least” in his family. Yet what we see here is God using the youngest and most insignificant member of this family to turn the head of that household back in repentance towards God. Because of Gideon’s faithfulness, his own dad finds renewed faith and trust in the LORD.

And what we see next is God using Gideon to bring the whole people of God back to himself.

Now all the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples joined forces and crossed over the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him. He sent messengers throughout Manasseh, calling them to arms, and also into Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, so that they too went up to meet them.
Judges 6:33-35

It’s the scene of a great battle! The enemy nations have banded together to attack Israel. But God empowers Gideon by his Spirit. He blows a trumpet summoning all his clan to follow him. Remember, these are the very same people who were out to kill him just a few verses before. But not they follow Gideon into battle. Not just them, but also the clans of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali.

So, not just the tiny college that is Queens’ College – but Trinity, John’s and King’s team up behind you, gathering at the ferries ready to cross over to Calais. You have numbers. You have the Spirit of God. Everyone’s ready for battle.

But instead of marching on, Gideon stops. He stops to check with God, one more time, just to be sure. “Aiya! Tim Kai Leh?” his soldiers must have been thinking of their brave general.

Just checking

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.
Judges 6:36-39

The story of Gideon and his fleece has become proverbial of our pursuit to know God’s will for our lives. Countless pastors and missionaries have shared their personal “fleece” stories about God confirming a difficult decision ahead of them by miraculous means. There have also been countless preachers who say Gideon is behaving irresponsibly by testing God yet again instead of trusting in his word.

The amazing thing to note is not simply Gideon’s boldness in testing God again and again, but rather God’s patience and graciousness in responding to this young boy’s doubts, again and again.

In the first test, Gideon asks God to make the fleece wet and the ground dry, laying the fleece on the threshing floor. He wakes up the next morning to find the fleece wet with dew - so wet that he is able to squeeze out a bowl of water.

Someone in my bible study group suggested that maybe Gideon wasn’t too bright - that it wouldn’t have been too difficult for God to just pour a glass of water on the fleece to make it wet. That’s why Gideon asked for the reverse to happen instead; for the ground to be wet but the fleece to stay dry (I’ll leave you to decide for yourself if that idea has any merit, haha!). The second test was much trickier. The wool fleece would naturally absorb any moisture from its surroundings. Yet that night, God did as Gideon asked, “Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered in dew” (verse 39).

Notice how Gideon addresses God so very cautiously with his second request. “Do not be angry with me.” Gideon knows he is asking for a lot. In fact, the word he uses is “test” - “Allow me one more test with the fleece,” Gideon says in verse 39 - something which God explicitly forbade in the Law of Moses (see Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not test the LORD your God”, as well as Hebrews 3:7). When Israel tested God, God punished them with death.

But God, in turn, was also asking much of Gideon. Gideon was chosen to lead the nation into battle. Gideon was chosen to save Israel out of the hands of the powerful Midianite forces. Gideon was chosen to turn his people back to God.

And what we have seen throughout this chapter is God being gracious and patient with Gideon, time and time again. No rebuke. Not even a word of warning. Just constant reassurances and reminders of God’s peace. And God’s presence.

“I will be with you.”

Knowing God’s will

Should we test God the way Gideon did? From this passage alone, I think we can neither commend Gideon’s behaviour in testing God, nor can we even condemn his actions in seeking God’s will.

In the Chinese Church, the two biggest issues people struggle with most, again and again, are marriage and work. “God, is this person the one?” “God, is this job the one?” And you get all kinds of prayer requests in this regard - For God to open one door and close all others; For God to do a miracle and point them in the right direction.

Yet sometimes I wonder if God is giving us the same answer he gave Gideon when he was in doubt of God’s will. I wonder if God’s answer to you in your deepest moments of uncertainty, in that crisis of faith, or in that difficult situation that seems so precarious is simply this:

“I will be with you.”

In response to our prayers for blessing, comfort and knowledge, God’s greatest answer is to give us himself. He does that supremely through his Son, Jesus Christ. That is the what Christmas, which we will be celebrating in just a few weeks, is all about, isn’t it? That in Jesus, God came to be with us. That in Jesus, God became like one of us.

The bible tells us that Jesus shared in our humanity; he was like us in every way. He was human. He got tired. He was tempted. He felt pain and deep anguish. Yet he never sinned. All throughout his earthly life, Jesus walked with his heavenly Father in perfect obedience and love.

And just before going to his death on the cross, the bible tells us of how Jesus was in a garden praying to God. There in the garden called Gethsemane, he sought the will of his Father.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Luke 22:42-44

Jesus did not want to go to the cross. The cross meant death - not just physical death; spiritual death. Death that meant separation from God. Jesus who had existed in eternal love and fellowship with his heavenly Father was about to bear the full weight of punishment for the sins of the world. At the cross, he would cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So great was his anguish that drops of blood trickled down his brow. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” Jesus did not want to go to the cross. He prayed that he might not have to go to the cross. And as an angel descended from heaven to strengthen him, he prayed all the more earnestly pleading with his heavenly Father.

Yet Jesus also prayed that his Father’s will be done. And on the cross, Jesus the Son of God obeyed his heavenly Father. Willingly. At the cross, God’s will was seen and done. Next time you want to know God’s will for your life? Look to the cross. Look to Jesus. That’s God’s will for your life and mine. It’s Jesus.

Peter puts it like this:

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
1 Peter 3:18

In Jesus, God was with us. In Jesus, God was like us. And in Jesus, God is for us. Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins to bring us to God.

He walked where I walked
He stood where I stand
He felt what I feel
He understands.
He knows my frailty
Shared my humanity
Tempted in every way
Yet without sin

God with us!
So close to us
God with us
(“God with us”, Don Moen)

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