Swimming Upstream

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 27 October, we heard the second installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book.  Our scriptures included Judges 6:25-32 and Romans 5:1-8

OnlineDating1You’ve seen the ads for the online dating sites, I know.  Eharmony.  Match.com.  Christian Mingle… They are exploding.  In fact, let me ask you to guess what percentage of marriages since 2008 began online.  According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, that figure is almost 35%.  Doesn’t that sound like an incredible number?

Let me tell you the story of one of those marriages.  When I conducted the ceremony for Alex and Chris a couple of years ago, we did all of the usual pre-marital stuff.  And, like usual, I indicated that they should feel free to call me if they ever wanted a little coaching.

Not long ago, I met with this couple.  It turns out that Chris had left a laptop at home, and needed to forward a couple of emails.  No problem.  A quick call to Alex, who went into the email program, clicked “forward”, and the story was over…until Alex glanced through Chris’ inbox and noticed six or ten messages – all unread – from the online dating service that had brought them together.  Each of these messages had as the subject line, “Somebody is waiting to meet you!”

Alex mentioned it to Chris at dinner that night, and she explained that she had never closed her account.  Her profile was still considered “active”.  Then she said, “What’s the big deal?  We’re married, right?  What difference does it make if I don’t close that account?”  And that’s when they came to see me.

OK, not really.  I mean, nobody has ever come to me with that situation.  But I bet that each of us sees something like it every day.  Listen:

Two weeks ago, we started to hear the story of Gideon, a young man who met God, was called by God, believed God, built an altar to God, and worshiped God.  Sounds like a good day, right?  Yay for Gideon.  “But wait,” as the late night advertisers say, “There’s more!”  Let’s look at Judges 6:

That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Ba′al which your father has, and cut down the Ashe′rah that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order; then take the second bull, and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Ashe′rah which you shall cut down.” (6:25-26)

Gideon’s name means “the Hacker”, as in “the chopper”.  It is the same word that is used in the Old Testament to refer to places where someone has “hacked” or “hewed” or “broken down” a shrine.  Here, the Lord calls him to live into that name.

BaalI want to remind you of the problem that Gideon faced: God had called his people to live in the land and to worship him alone, but the people wouldn’t listen. Time and time again, year after year, they worshiped the other gods.  Two of the most popular dieties were Baal and Asherah.  Baal was a figure usually represented as a bull or as a man with lightning bolts in his hand, and he was the god of fertility and therefore power and strength.  His female companion was Asherah, who was worshiped at shrines that included tall poles.  Worship of these so-called gods often involved ritual prostitution and was rampant in Gideon’s time.

God shows up in Gideon’s life and reminds him of the first two commandments – that God alone is God and that people should not construct idols to worship.  A couple of weeks ago, we read where Gideon promised to worship God, and God alone.  Here, God is saying, essentially, “Look, if that’s the case, then you can’t worship them, too.  If you’re married to me, shut down your dating profile on those other sites!  And, to Gideon’s credit, he does just that. Again, from Judges 6:

So Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the Lord had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night. (6:27)

asherah-poleHe gets his team together and he does as he is instructed.  Oh, sure, he chooses to do so under the cover of darkness – after all, the Baals and the Asherah are still pretty darn popular, and he is afraid of what might happen if and when his vandalism is discovered.

I want to pause for a few moments and consider what Gideon does here, because I think that it has special significance to us this morning.  Gideon does what he is told to do, even if he is scared out of his skin to do it.  To put it another way, Gideon does it that night.  He doesn’t wait until he “feels like” doing it. He acts towards God’s best for him even when he is unsure as to what will happen next.

This morning we observe “Preschool Sunday” in Crafton Heights.  As such, it’s a good day for us to remember that an essential task of parenting is to teach children how to do the things that they don’t really want to do.

When we get these little bundles of joy, there’s no sense of anyone having any control over any of them.  They sleep, cry, and poop at the most inopportune times.  And nobody blames them, because, hey, they’re just babies.  Not too many two month olds make a lot of decisions.

But somewhere down the line, these babies have to learn that it’s a good idea to brush their teeth, or to finish their homework, or to close up the computer and get to bed – even if they don’t want to.  Good parents help their children to learn these things so that later in life, like when it’s time to go to work, or to bite your tongue instead of yelling at the neighbor, or to pay the rent bill – the kids will be good at doing what they don’t want to do.

It’s the same in our faith development.  Sometimes we have to learn that worship and discipleship is not, fundamentally, about me.  We come to worship and we seek to grow in our ability to follow Jesus because we believe that loving God and serving our neighbor is important.  Sometimes, we choose to act in small ways, like when we park a little further from the door so that someone who needs it more can park close; or when we go ahead and sing songs that we don’t really like all that much because we know that they mean something to the folks who sit in front of us.

Sometimes, we have to grow in our faith by doing things that are a little harder, like when we decide not to repeat the rumor we just heard, even though it is really, really juicy.  Or maybe we decide that it’s ok to part with a percentage of our income because we are so grateful for all that we have received already.

And every now and then, we opt to do something that we really would rather not.  Maybe you’ve taken on leadership of a project that was pretty intimidating, but your friends here thought that you had the right gifts to make it happen.  I know that some of you have risked your self by volunteering time you weren’t sure you had or trying something new.  In any case, it’s not easy to choose to do something that you don’t necessarily want to do, but if we are going to grow in faith, we need to learn how to do that.

So Gideon musters up his courage and he pulls down the altars to Baal and the Asherah pole.  Then he goes ahead and makes a statement by sacrificing a bull – the symbol for power and strength – at the altar to God that he has built out of the rubble from the idols he’s demolished.  What happens next?

When the men of the town rose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Ba′al was broken down, and the Ashe′rah beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered upon the altar which had been built. And they said to one another, “Who has done this thing?” And after they had made search and inquired, they said, “Gideon the son of Jo′ash has done this thing.” Then the men of the town said to Jo′ash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Ba′al and cut down the Ashe′rah beside it.” But Jo′ash said to all who were arrayed against him, “Will you contend for Ba′al? 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.” Therefore on that day he was called Jerubba′al, that is to say, “Let Ba′al contend against him,” because he pulled down his altar. (6:28-32)

gideonAltarThe local CSI team gets involved, and although they were sworn to secrecy, one of the servants lets it slide that it was Gideon who did this.  I find it interesting that Gideon’s father, who lost his second-best bull in the protest, didn’t defend his son.  Rather, he points to the recently hacked-down idol and says, “Look, if he really is as powerful as you say he is, let him stand up for himself.” Of course, there is no reply from the pile of sticks and stones, and at the end of the day we have a story of a young man who responds to God’s call by acting faithfully even when he is afraid and by doing what was right even when it scared the pants off of him.

And I wonder this morning…do you have any idea what that is like?  When is the last time you woke up with a sense of, “You know, I need to _________.”  Or, “I think I really should _______.”  But then you thought about it for a bit and said, “No way.  How can I do that?”

Have you ever at the sense that you have met God, that you have seen God’s hand at work, and that maybe even, in some way, you’ve built an altar to God and worshiped God…but there’s still that other god, that secret love, that hidden hunger that is still hanging around in the back yard?

Is there something in your life, or in our world, that you need to stand up to?  Something that you need to confront and say, “Look, this is simply not God’s best and I need to do something about.

Maybe you need to simply get off the dime and do something that you know you need to do, even if you don’t really want to do it.

For example, maybe there’s a family member with whom you need to have a conversation that could lead to resolution of a long-standing problem, or reconciliation after a deep wound has been festering.  Wow, do I hate doing that.  But if you don’t, who will?

Or maybe you have been thinking about a practice or a habit that is preventing you from being the person that God is calling you to be.  Are you wasting a lot of time on the internet? Are you throwing a lot of your life away binge drinking or getting high? Do you know the secret shame of hiding from reality in the cesspool of pornography?  Are you obsessed with getting each retirement account statement and counting every single penny?  You see?  Is there something that is standing in the way of you being the best you God intends that needs to be torn down and burnt up?

I don’t know where all of you are this morning.  Heck, on some days, I’m not quite sure where I am.  But if you can identify with Gideon and his need to go against the flow, to stand up for something that is worth standing up for even if it may cost you; if you know what it’s like to have to tear down an old idol even if it brings you secret pleasure, then let me give you three reminders.

Remember that God is already moving toward you.  You are far from alone in this thing!  In our previous reading from Judges, we’ve seen that God appears to Gideon, and then he calls Gideon and equips Gideon – all before he asks Gideon to make the sacrifice and tear down the idols.  In our passage from Romans, we heard that it was while we were still sinning that Christ died for us.  Jesus didn’t say he’d come and check in on us once we got our acts together and got our lives straightened out a bit.  He didn’t say to call him once we got rid of whatever it was that was fascinating, amusing, or killing us.  He said that he was here before we even knew it.  While we were still a mess – he called to us.  And he calls today.

Remember that you can’t do this alone.  I know –boy, do I know – from personal experience that it’s easy to feel like nobody understands where you are or what you are doing.  It’s easy to think that nobody cares.  It’s easy to be embarrassed or ashamed, and think, “There is no way that I can stand in front of that man and tell him what I’m thinking right now.”  Yes there is.  If you are serious about wanting to change your life, or tear down some idols, or give up some nasty distraction, I think that sharing it with a couple of friends is about the only way to do so.  Gideon told ten friends what he was doing.  You might need to bring two or three friends into your life and ask for their help.  You have a pastor.  Maybe you need a therapist.  You are not alone, and if you pretend that you are alone, you will fail.

And remember that at some point, you’re going to have to quit talking and start doing.  Yes, it’s frightening.  Of course it is hard.  And you will probably not make unimpeded, straight-line, forward progress from here until the day you die.  Big deal.  What can you do now?  Change your calendar.  Adapt your behavior.  Act like someone who is moving in a different direction.

The Good News is that God does not expect us to be perfect.  God knows that we have and will make some whopper mistakes.  The Better News is that God does not expect us to remain where we are, any more than we expect our children to stay in preschool for seven or ten years.  Like Gideon, you can grow into the person that you are meant to be, one scary night at a time, with the help of the Body of Christ and in the Grace of God.  You are where you are.  But you do not need to stay there.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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