The “F” Word

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 17 November, we heard the fourth and final installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book (in terms of the amount of ink that he gets, anyway).  Scriptures included Psalm 14 and Judges 8:22-35.

Hey, did you hear the latest? Apparently, a politician was discovered to have been saying one thing, but doing something else.  Can you believe that?131010_john_boehner_barack_obama_ap_605

No, I’m not talking about the recent debacle wherein some of the folks who said they opposed a government shut-down actually voted to continue it.

BushAnd I’m not talking about a generation ago where a leader invited us to read his lips about tax increases.

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale_1805_croppedI’m not even talking about the author of such amazingly powerful language such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” who in reality supported and practiced the buying and selling of human beings in chattel slavery.

Look, I know that I’ve left a lot of people out, and there are probably some folks who aren’t yet offended.  I’d give you more examples, but I only have 23 minutes…

I’m talking, of course, about this morning’s scripture reading and Gideon.

winepress-threshingWhen we first met Gideon, he was a man driven by FEAR.  Do you remember those days?  He was hiding out in the winepress, doing his best to thresh the wheat underground because he was afraid of the Midianite bullies who would come and take it.  He was afraid to move forward into God’s call, even when that call was reaffirmed on multiple occasions by miraculous signs.  Do you remember the fearful Gideon?

And then a couple of weeks ago, we spent some time getting to know Gideon as a man of FAITH.  Sure, he’d been nervous, but after the signs at the altar and with the fleece, he comes around to believing what he tells the people of Israel in the words of Judges 7:15 – “The LORD has given the host of Midian into your hand.”  And, in fact, we witnessed a great victory, didn’t we? Do you remember God’s people defeated a swarm of 135,000 with a force of only 300 men?Shofar

I would like to pause here, and note that after this amazing victory, Gideon stopped to worship the Lord.  I’d like to point out that when the Midianites were routed like this, Gideon liberated the Israelites to live in freedom and peace and that the justice of God prevailed.

I’d like to note those things, but unfortunately, I can’t, because they never happened.  The beginning of Judges 8, which was not included in our morning’s reading, contains an account of Gideon’s pursuit of the defeated enemy.  Remember, what’s the name of the book we’re studying?  Judges.  And what is a judge?  A bringer of justice, peace, and security.

Gideon leaves that role aside and winds up acting in arrogance and cruelty, with petty vindictiveness.  This man who was called by God to greatness and righteousness tortures some of his opponents and slaughters others.  In a particularly vile act, he tries to get his son – who is just a boy, and unable to lift or wield a sword – to murder two rivals in cold blood.

This would be a good time to review what we said when we began the series on Judges – that just as much as this volume is a collection of campfire stories about specific people and places, it’s also a story contrasting the reign and rule of God with the human tendency to be selfish, to grab and abuse power, and to create structures that diminish “the other” and inflate the self.  You may remember that I’m claiming that the most important verse in the whole book, repeated four times, is “in those days there was no King in Israel” – and so everyone did whatever he or she wanted to do.

This chapter of the Gideon story bears that out.  Things could have gone from bad to better, what with the Midianites being defeated and all that.  Justice and faithfulness could hold sway.

But what actually happens?  Once again, the Israelites and those in power among them fail to act like God.  They escape oppression only to become the oppressors. They are delivered from idol-worshipers only to act like pagans themselves.  I want to note one particularly sad fact about today’s reading: in verse 28 we read that after Gideon’s victory, “the land had rest for forty years”.  Here’s the bad news… That’s the last time that phrase appears in the book of Judges.  From here on out, there is no rest for the land, no peace, no Sabbath.  I’m telling you, hold onto your hats because it’s going to get worse.

Let’s look a little further at today’s reading.  The Israelites ask Gideon to be their king and rule over them.  Why?  Because, they tell him, “…for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.”

Now I would very much like to pause here and say point out that Gideon corrected the flawed theology of his fellow Israelites by pointing them to the truth that we have already considered from Judges 7:15, and telling that “the LORD has given the host of Midian into your hand.”

I’d like to do that, but of course, I can’t, because Gideon doesn’t come close to correcting them in that manner.  He gives them a kind of an “Aw, shucks guys, it was nothing…I’m just glad I could help the team out” kind of a speech.  And then, he does something curious.  He says, “You know, if you’d like to show your gratitude, maybe just one small gold earring per person.  Nothing big, not a lot of bling, you understand…but a token would be nice, and I’d sure appreciate it. I’m sure that the Mrs. (or, in Gideon’s case, the Mrs.-s plural!) would like that too.”

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Nicolas Poussin (1633)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Nicolas Poussin (1633)

Uh-Oh.  Do you remember the last time we were in a jam, and a really big army came against us, and we got through, and the leader asked for a token from us?  Like when Pharaoh’s army was swamped in the Red Sea and Moses’ brother Aaron collected a few of our trinkets and put together…the golden calf?  Yeah.  When we ministerial types start asking for a little something on the side, it doesn’t usually end up too well.  Be warned, folks.  This is not a good omen.

Here’s the deal: Gideon says all the right things.  “Oh, no!  Heavens! Your king is God, you silly little Israelites!  Not me.  No, no, no…I would not ever want that kind of a job.” That’s what he says… But let’s take a look at what he does:

He collects all those earrings and uses them to make an ephod.  I know what you’re thinking: “An ephod?  Really?  Come on Gideon, don’t you have three or four of them lying around already?  What would you want with an ephod…”

EphodAn ephod, of course, is a piece of religious apparel that was worn by the person who was called to be the High Priest.  It contained some sacred stones that were used to determine God’s will.  Exodus talks about the fact that these vestments were to be worn by the one charged with consulting God on matters of importance to the whole nation.

And here, Gideon makes an ephod and brings it to his hometown – short-circuiting the role of the High Priest.  In doing this, Gideon is essentially saying, “Sure, of course, God is King.  Not me.  I’m just his errand boy.  In fact, if you have any questions about what God wants from you, just come to me and I’ll make sure that you know what God is looking for…”

And Israel absolutely loves this idea.  We read that the nation “prostituted themselves” to this garment – they worshiped it.  The clothing became an object of worship – and note that this language is very similar to that which describes the ways that the Jews went after the false gods of Baal and Asherah.

So Gideon makes an ephod.  What else does he do?  Well, how many kids does he have? Seventy.  And how many wives does he have? “Many”.  Hmmmm.  Seventy sons, many wives and concubines…who has families that look like that? Kings do!

And lastly, Gideon names his son “Abimelech”. Granted, it’s not my favorite Biblical name.  I’ve never baptized one of those…but here’s the deal on that: “Abimelech” means “My father is the king.”

Do you see what’s going on here?  On the surface, Gideon is saying the right things: “Look, God is in control, not me.  I’m just his humble servant…is everything all right for you guys?”  Yet in manipulating the religion of the people, and establishing a dynasty, and naming his children, Gideon is doing the opposite.

This man of FEAR who grew into a man of FAITH has now devolved into a man of FOOLISHNESS.

The Hebrew word for “fool” is “Nabal”, and you heard about fools in the reading from the Psalm: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God…’”  And look, please, at the way that the fool’s heart is revealed “…they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.”

Foolishness, as defined by the Bible, is not primarily a problem of intellectual capacity or theological correctness.  The problem with a fool is what he does, not necessarily what he believes.

And Gideon, by this definition, is a fool.  He says all the right things – but he doesn’t act on any of that great theology.

It is tempting to stop here and walk around inside of Gideon’s story a little more.  I’d like to really consider the ways that Gideon blows it and plays the fool by acting like such a knucklehead around God and God’s people.

And if I were clever, I could go back to the beginning of this message and tie in a few more current politicians or cultural leaders and say, “Do you see how this one or that one is really screwing it up big time?  But hey, they are politicians… crooks… Democrats…  Whaddya gonna do?”

But I wouldn’t be much of a pastor if all I talked about was Gideon or failed religious leaders or Republicans.

I want to talk about you.

In what ways have you been delivered from fear into faith, only to start behaving as a fool?

You know all the right things to say: Jesus wants us to love the neighbors…God is in control, and will work it out…Grace is a gift from God, and I really need to share it…

But how often do I live as though “I am the boss of me!  Nobody, but nobody tells me what to do with my time, my money, my kids my energy my…mine…mine…”

Um, hello…

Doesn’t God get to tell you what to do with your time, money, kids, energy, and so on?

Every single day, we are tempted to live into our own rules – to tell stories in such a way so that the behavior that we have chosen is justified.  We claim the faith, but we act the fool – because we behave, time and time again, like Jesus is not who he said he was.  We, no less than Gideon and the ancient Israelites, live in a culture where there is no king, and everybody does what they want to do when they want to do it.  And if we have a little bit of doubt, we listen to the people who tell us what we want to hear so that our own prejudices and ignorances are bolstered.

A wise person, on the other hand, allows other viewpoints to be considered.  We’ve spoken of politicians this morning.  Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest President, achieved that prominence in part by surrounding himself with a cabinet comprised of intelligent people who disagreed with him in some key areas – a “team of rivals” who guarded him against the temptation to simply do whatever he wanted to do.

How do you know what to do with the time, money, kids, energy, and other things with which God entrusts you?  Who helps you to explore the core decisions of your life when it comes to school or child rearing or money and energy?  Do you have a community that comes alongside of you and helps you discern how best to move forward?

Or are you more likely to join Gideon and head out to the tabernacle you’ve built in your own backyard, strap on your own custom-made ephod, and do whatever the heck you want to do just because you can?

Beloved, if we are going to grow into the people God would have us be, I am sure it’s because we are willing to seek out wise counsel.  We are willing to pray with those whom we respect – some of whom might actually agree with us, while others might see things differently than do we.

The story of Gideon, at this point, is not an inspirational nugget designed to foster effective leadership practices at home and work.  It is a stark warning to a people who are too often in a hurry to play the fool by saying all the right things and somehow doing too many of the wrong things.

Beloved, let me encourage you this day to know and study God’s intentions.  That’s great.  But more than that, act towards those intentions.  Behave like someone who believes all the great stuff you believe.  Hold on to the promises, and act like they are true.

They are.  You can.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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