A slight disclaimer: What follows is the basic text (minus the occasional digressions) of a sermon that I preached at Comox United Church, Comox, B.C. on February 13, 2022. It is not an essay. It is written to be spoken and in a manner that reflects my preaching style, which I suspect might be described as “informal.” Nor does it have the full assortment of citations, acknowledgements, and footnotes normally (and quite reasonably) expected in a more formal work. Please forgive the grammatical peculiarities!
I had coffee with some clergy colleagues recently and during the inevitable shop talk that took place, the subject of preaching and deciding on the choice of themes and scripture readings bubbled up, as they sometimes do. Yeah, we’re an exciting bunch—if you want, I’ll see if I can finagle an invitation for you next time. Most of my Sunday morning history as both a member of a congregation and as a preacher has been using some form of lectionary, that system of reading through the Biblical story in a way that flows with the church seasons and festivals. Lectionaries have been used in the Christian Church and within Judaism for centuries, in part because they’re helpful in covering many of the main themes of the Biblical story, but also because they require churches (and preachers in particular), to embrace the discipline of reading and reflecting on uncomfortable texts, passages that, given our druthers, we might otherwise try and avoid. Your mileage may vary, but I find that there are a goodly number of those in the Bible.
I continue to find Sunday-morning-use of a lectionary life-giving, but I’ve also found that it useful to put it aside occasionally, for at least a couple of reasons. The first is that a local church might benefit from some occasional thematic preaching or doctrinal focus, or some event may demand (a crisis, perhaps) a different Bible reading than the one initially planned, which solves the problem of trying to shoehorn in a subject into an unsuspecting and ill-fitting Scripture reading that just happens to be the one for that Sunday. The other reason is that most lectionaries designed for Sunday worship will inevitably miss out some good stuff, especially the material found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. For example, you’ll hear most of the 4 Gospels in the one we typically use—the Revised Common Lectionary—but only about 20% of the rest of the Bible. And so, this morning, I chose to have read the otherwise-lost story of Gideon. There’s only one reference to Judges in our 3-year cycle of readings—a mere 7 verses about the Prophet Deborah and that’s it. The stories of Jephthah and Samson just disappear.
To be fair, I can see why the Book of Judges might not have been a crowd favourite when the Biblical boffins were putting together the lectionary we use, its subject matter is challenging, perhaps a bit violent for sensitive souls like us. But its overarching message—that God’s people are too readily influenced by the surrounding culture—well, that does seem to work today, at least it does at my house.
I know in some parts of the Church there’s a well-reasoned theological view that God’s power is limited, which, amongst other things, does provide a least a partial answer to the especially thorny question of why a good and all powerful God doesn’t intervene in suffering the way I’d like God to do. I’m not wanting to use this time to offer a critique of that view, other than to say that I think it may create some other ones. After all, if Elohim, the Biblical Hebrew name meaning “Creator, Mighty and Strong,” the One who created all things out of nothing isn’t up to the job (and here’s another Biblical name for God, El Shaddai—that is God Almighty) if that God isn’t able to do the task at hand, then someone’s going to have to take up the slack and I guess that means you and me. Really, what could possibly go wrong there, right?
It’s now better than 40 years ago now that a friend in the faith gave me a copy of J.B. Phillips’ book, Your God is Too Small, and I still think this is a usefully provocative title. It’s stuck with me and kept me wondering about the ways that my understanding of God too limiting because I know that the real-world effects of putting limits on God can be substantial. As another author I’ve benefited from reading noted,
When human beings shrink God, they pray without faith, worship without awe, serve without joy, suffer without hope, and the result is a life of stagnation and fear, a loss of vision, an inability to persevere and see it through.1
My perception is that’s true. Then again, the God I meet in Scripture seems rather different, though to be fair, the irony is that God chooses to become weak to save us. As Paul described Jesus in Philippians 2:
… who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.2
The scandal of it all: our Creator loves us so much as to die for us. But that’s another sermon for another Sunday.
Then again, as the Biblical story reveals, sometimes God comes in strength … and we see that when we read The Book of Judges chapters 6 and 7. Here’s the back story to Judges: it’s the constant refrain of Israel being in trouble (again!) and regularly being subject to the oppression of the various “ites” who surround them, tribes like the Ammonites and more. This time it’s Midianites turn at trying to dominate the people of Israel. As they usually do, Israel asks for God’s help … and God raises up a Denzel-Washington-Equalizer-style character to clean the Midianite clocks. No, that’s not true at all It’s more of a Don Knotts kind of character (yes, I know I’m dating myself in that reference!) but God chooses the highly unlikely Gideon. At the beginning of Judges chapter 6, we read that Israel had again done evil in God’s sight and the consequence was being put under Midian’s thumb. We learn that Israel would plant crops and just when they were ready for harvest, the Midianites would rush in like Revenue-Canada at the end of April and scoop up the produce! (Yes, I’m joking. It’s a pure pleasure to pay taxes) The author of Judges describes the Midianites as being like locust descending upon Israel, arriving in massive numbers, and leaving nothing behind for the people. They cried out to God, and God replies rather petulantly, but accurately, with words to the effect of, “We’ve been here before, haven’t we? And you never listen!” We’re then introduced to Gideon who is threshing wheat in a winepress—which is, in reality, a hole in the ground—and he’s doing that so he can hide from the gaze of the Midianites. To be clear: our Gideon’s no hero, and he’s by no means thriving—he’s living through a terrible time and is someone just trying to survive.
While our situation is by no means the dire one described in Judges, I do find some sense of kinship with Gideon’s situation. By that I mean, mainline Protestantism in the west has been in decline for a good while now—some of that’s our own doing and some of it’s not—but we’re very much in uncharted territory, and the effects of the pandemic have only made our situation more precarious. Some might describe it as feeling like they’re under siege. It’s just a tough time for churches and I heard that at the clergy-coffee-klatch, too. But into Israel’s misery God appears and calls out a champion: Gideon!
In Judges 6:12 the angel grandly announces to Gideon: “God’s with you, O mighty warrior!” and Gideon’s looking around wildly, wondering who the heck the angel’s talking to. This isn’t mighty warrior territory, angel. In fact, Gideon says, “If God’s with us, why are we living this hellish existence?” The angel, seemingly oblivious to Gideon’s complaint and reading from a prepared script says, in verse 14: “I’m commissioning you to go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian.” Gideon replies, incredulous: “Me? Deliver Israel? My clan’s the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh, and to top that off, I’m the family weakling.” No, he’s not buying it. “Me save Israel? My clan’s the weakest and I’m the weakest in my clan.” You see, Gideon’s self-image isn’t flattering, but on the other hand, God sees someone else. No, he’s not someone who’s got the qualities of a hero, not some version of “The Rock” with impressive credentials (for that matter, is The Rock even The Rock? … but I digress). The vast majority of us aren’t like that—but God does view Gideon as someone God can work with.
And here’s the thing: as best as we can see, Gideon’s by no means an especially gifted or talented individual with all the raw “stuff” that seems to destine someone for greatness. Not at all, though as it turns out, God’s got something far better that talent, smarts, or ability. It’s right there in verse 16 where we read that God will be with Gideon. For me that text holds within it an echo of Ephesians 3:20: “God can do abundantly more than we can ask or imagine.” Not just more … but abundantly more, but a whole heap of a lot of a big bunch of “more.” God was with Gideon and that’s always enough.
We heard in verse 25 that Gideon’s instructed to tear down a fertility pole dedicated to the Phoenician goddess Astarte and an altar built to Baal (to make matters more complicated, something actually built by Gideon’s father!).In the Hebrew Scriptures the worship or Astarte was always understood as bad, but siding with Baal was horrendous because Baal demanded child sacrifice. Not good. In obedience to God’s command, Gideon and 10 servants tear down the altar and pole at night, very much to the neighbour’s chagrin. If were were to have kept reading in Judges we’d discover that the neighbours started calling for Gideon’s blood, but his father’s defense of his lad was intriguing. He said that if Baals got a problem with Gideon, and Baal’s such a power house, then let Baal do his own dirty work. And, lo and behold … the crowd dispersed.
I encourage you to keep reading this story, because it’s fascinating, and more than a little amusing. You’ll see that Gideon, buoyed by his success—or more accurately, God’s success—is quite energized—got a real spring in his step. Gideon’s new faith in God gets some legs and we read then in chapter 6 verse 34 that, “the spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon,” which initially sounds rather promising, right? … except that then quickly Gideon gets cold feet, saying: in verse 36, “If this is right, if you are using me to save Israel as you’ve said …” his “ifs” suggesingt just a touch of doubt, perhaps? He says, “If this is right, if you’re using me to save Israel as you’ve said, then how about this? I’m putting a fleece of wool on the threshing floor, and if dew is on the fleece only, but the floor’s dry, then I know that you’ll use me to save Israel.” Seem like a deal?
To be charitable, this request does suggest that our Gideon has a little bit more maturing to do in his faith, especially in light of Gideon’s demand that God do this twice—but by the end of chapter 6, God comes through. Then in chapter 7 we begin with Gideon assembling an army and he manages to recruit a force of some 32,000, which sounds impressive until you discover that the Midianites have a force numbering some 135,000. So, God comes to Gideon and tells him he’s got some number problems ... and you can imagine Gideon nodding in agreement, even going on about the challenge of being outnumbered 4 to 1, except … what does God say? God says in verse 3 of chapter 7 that he’s actually got way too many troops and that he needs to send home any who are afraid. Hmmm. Let’s think this through: 4 to 1. Do you think many were afraid? You bet there were! This is why we read that 22,000 immediately looked at their watches, said, “My gosh, Vern—look at the time! Got to get home for the Superbowl …” and then they headed off back home, shifting the odds to 13 to 1. But even then, in verse 4, God says Gideon’s far over the limit. God says, “Gideon, here’s what I want you to do: take the gang down to the water and I’ll help you make some more cuts ...” and the way God does that is by getting Gideon to pay attention to how the soldiers drink from the stream. Those who drink the water by lapping it up like dogs were “in” and all the others were to hit the road. Why on earth God chose this method isn’t made clear in the text—but one thing I do know is that comparing anyone to a dog in the Bible’s rarely ever considered a compliment. We generally have some affection for dogs in our culture today—but in Biblical times, dogs were considered disposable, an irritant, unclean even which is why Gentiles get referred to as “dogs.” I wonder, if just maybe, just maybe those who lapped up the water—some 300 of them—were some version of social losers, were the guys who were more likely to injure themselves in the fighting than do much damage to the Midianites.
This is now the picture: Gideon’s commanding a force of 300 misfits and the odds are now utterly absurd: 450 to 1. We’re told in verse 12 that the Midianites are spread out on the plain like a swarm of locust. You’ve probably already picked up on the point of this whole exercise, by now. There is no possible way for Gideon’s side to win through using their gifts, through talents, through their fighting ability, through their military genius, or even their raw courage. Those elements that would normally be aids and requirements for victory are just not on. Any triumph to be had will only be achieved through a work of God because there’s no possible way this little group of 300 could do it. On the other hand, a victory would make clear to the people of Israel that their God wasn’t too small—that their God would be revealed to be gloriously surprising and strong and faithful. But just in case there was any inkling of doubt about whose victory this was going to be, God ices the cake. Get this: the soldiers were divided into 3 companies and the weapons they carried were a trumpet, and a torch inside an empty jar. I want you to try and imagine the pre-attack conversation. “Let me get this right, Gideon—we’re going to crush the enemy with our impressive trumpet-playing and what … a light show? Good plan—can’t fail.” Yet, when those 300 of the least-likely soldiers blew their trumpets and broke the jars and yelled out, “A sword for God and for Gideon!” we read in verse 22 that the Midianites were routed and Israel was set free from their oppressors.
I’ve noticed this: when I take the time to look carefully, it seems that most of those we suppose to be the “stars” of the Biblical story are usually women and men who struggle with fear, and who were prone to assuming a God who wasn’t especially capable. Think for a second about the disciples that Jesus’ chose. They’re not really the likeliest choices to start a movement. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with the most improbable people to move the plot along. That’s probably why it seems that the most commonly repeated command in the Bible is, “Fear not”—“Don’t be afraid.” God says, “Don’t be afraid” ... why? Because we’re usually afraid! At least we are if we’ve been paying attention.
God also says “Don’t be afraid” to remind us that God is indeed with us and our God’s up to the task. Big things getting done through ordinary people is very much God’s specialty.
I’ve been known to worry—I’m betting you might as well. Being afraid, being anxious is a pretty common experience for many of us—heck, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I worry. I’ve realized that I’m only contracted to work here half-time but in I think about this place full-time. I confess to you that my history is one of—more often than not—struggling against being overwhelmed by all the stuff I think that only I can solve. There are times when that can seem crushing to me and yet, when I stop and really listen,mlisten to that still small voice, to what God’s saying through my family and through my friends and my colleagues, when I pay some attention to that plot of this oddly encouraging story we call the Bible, it’s not unusual for me to hear, “It’s okay—I’ll get you through this.” It’s happened to me within the last month—"I can’t do it, God … but if you’re with me …” I don’t know every situation here, but I know this much: there’s probably all sorts of things going on in your life that seem out of your control, and that’s perhaps even more so in this strange and troubling time we’re living through. But here’s a great truth—God’s enough. Our God really is enough. Our God’s enough for you and me individually, and God’s enough for the common mission of Comox United Church. There’s probably some version of Midianites in your personal life—and there’s some version of the Midianites in the collective Comox United life. It’s there for individuals, for families, and it’s surely present for churches and denominations peeking out of our subterranean pandemic winepresses. The God I’m getting to know knows about your worries, knows about your kids, parents, grandkids, your marriage, your job, about your health, your wealth, and lost dreams. God knows and we don’t need to be afraid. We have no reason to lose hope. I don’t know if we are the weakest and the least, but we have a big and important task in front of us, one that our community needs us to be successful at. But don’t be daunted. God always supplies for what God wants done. Just know what God wants done and God will be with us. Thanks be to God. Let us pray ….
God, we thank you for the future you have planned for us together. We pray that you will continue to bless our common work in the visioning process and that you will further clarify where you are calling us to be. Grant us courage, grant us wisdom, grant us strength, and be at the centre of our fellowship. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
1 John Ortberg
2 Philippians 2:6-7