Oct. 15th, 2017 A Few Good Men…and Women
Judges 2: 8-19, Judges 7: 1-15
Today we continue The Story, where we are journeying with Scripture- from the beginning of God’s beautiful creation to the glorious vision of God making all things new. We pick up today in the Book of Judges, which signals a new season for the people called Israel. For years they had been searching for the Promised Land, grasping for the life God had for them, trying hard to believe that Moses, and then Joshua, would lead them well. And now they have it. They are in the land of Promise, living in the very place God said he would give them…but even after receiving God’s gift, that old story of sin and disobedience just won’t go away.
Times have changed for the Israelites. A generation of faithful leaders and followers has died, leaving a serious spiritual void in the community. Moses is dead. Joshua is dead. And it seems as if there are few, if any, who are paying attention to God. The Scriptures tells us that a new generation has risen, but this new generation seems to remember nothing about the old days…nothing about the escape from Egypt, nothing about Moses and Joshua leading them into battle, and nothing about God’s role in any of this. It’s as if they are back in Egypt, where no one remembered they ways in which Joseph had rescued the world from severe famine, where no one remembered the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It’s that old story of God-forgetfulness all over again, a story that keeps repeating like a bad country song.
We probably don’t care to admit it, but this is a common spiritual struggle. We find ourselves paying faithful attention to God’s work for a season, and then, for whatever reason, the sheen wears off and the intensity of our commitment begins to lessen. Maybe it’s because once we set foot in the Promised Land, or once we achieve what we thought was the goal, we begin to rest on our laurels. Ryan Benson was the first contestant to win the popular dramatic weight-loss show The Biggest Loser. As a contestant in 2004, Benson’s first weigh-in listed him as 330 pounds. He went on to lose a stunning 122 pounds, with his final weigh-in listing him at 208 pounds. But in an interview this past summer, Benson admitted that he was now heavier than ever before. Why? He slipped back into old habits real quick. In a sense, he had stepped foot into the Promised Land and had achieved his goal…but he wasn’t inwardly transformed.
We need to know when we are prone to God-forgetfulness, especially in a world that changes as quickly as the blink of an eye. For the Israelites, life had changed, and over time, the world was changing around them. And little by little, they picked up new habits and left behind old ones, and it affected their spiritual awareness. It doesn’t take rocket science to see how this plays our in our culture. We get hungry for Jesus, then life gets busy, and we say yes to another job and another commitment, then we don’t worship for a month, or pick up our Bibles for two months, and then all of a sudden we sit up one day and ask, “Where did God go?” Because that’s how it feels. It feels like putting back on the weight we worked so hard to lose. It feels like putting chains on again, even after we’ve been set free. And it’s hard to take. Gideon’s question makes a lot of sense to us: If God is with us, why is all this stuff happening? It’s like the old footprints poem. We see one set of footprints and ask, “Why did God abandon me? Why is God making me do this alone?” But the truth is that God has never moved from God’s position. He’s never been absent, and he’s been there all along, it’s just that He doesn’t push his way into our plans. He waits for us to cry out.
Now, to be clear, not all of our suffering and struggle can be traced back to a lack of our faithfulness, but much of it can. And very clearly Scripture indicates that Israel’s physical condition is somehow tied to their spiritual condition. Because of their God-forgetfulness, they “did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord,” and it led to “great distress.” And if this was our story, we would probably, “let them cry, because they’ve created a mess for themselves!” But again, this is God’s story, and not ours. And for reasons only God truly knows, his compassion overrides whatever anger or regret he experiences and time and again steps in to save the day. Just like in Egypt, God hears the cries of those who have forgotten him, and he sees the mess they’ve created and instead of simply letting them die and drown in their mistakes (or ours), he goes into rescue mode.
I had a chance to meet some real-life rescuers on Saturday when we celebrated the work of our area first responders. Some of them even attend our churches. And I learned a lot about the nature of God by talking with these men and women who fight fires, answer police calls, and show up in our driveways with an ambulance. They don’t have the luxury of sifting through phone calls to see which ones are more “worthy” of rescue than others. They don’t have the time to ask if a fire was caused by carelessness or if a 911 call is truly life threatening. And there is certainly frustration on their part when they work so hard to save lives, only to see those same lives harmed in the same fashion down the road. But their job is to hear the cries and answer the calls and go. If there are questions, they’re asked later. I think that’s a beautiful picture of the nature of God, who hears the cry of the innocent newborn and who hears the cry of the addict and rescues the same way. When we cry out, God hears and God rescues…even if we’ve been forgetful. So I wonder where you’re crying out? Maybe it’s for a marriage that’s struggling…or a job that’s not working out…or for a child whom you can’t seem to help. When you cry out, God will rescues. But the way God rescues us, however, is interesting.
There’s old saying that goes, “God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.” And that’s indicative of the way God rescues. He uses ordinary people who are willing to stand out in a monotonous, God-forgetful culture, and equips them to get the job down. Now, what stands out about these people, and in this case, the judges, is not their superpowers or their more-than-human skills and talents; it’s their willingness to be put on God’s path. What stands out, above everything else, is their attentiveness to God. In the Book of Judges, we read about God raising up people like Ehud, Gideon, Samson and Deborah- and they are far from perfect people. In fact, most of them have some pretty serious flaws. But what they do have is attentiveness to God. In a spiritually complacent world, they are spiritually alive, and that’s what God seems to look for. And if you were to ask me, I think that’s the work of the church. We are called to be the people, who in our spiritually complacent world, pay attention to God. We are among those who cry out and need rescued, but we’re also among those who need to proclaim to the world: “I know it’s dark, I know it’s dreary, and I know it doesn’t make sense, but God is here, God is active and God is on the move. So let me ask you: Where are you spiritually complacent? And where are you spiritually attentive? Are you more likely to ask Where is God or Where is God in the midst of this moment? Those are two different ways to live out faith.
Gideon was a man who had to learn the difference between those two narratives. And I think his story is meant to speak into ours. When he was first called by God to rescue the people, he was certain he was the wrong choice. Listen to these words: “Why has all this happened to us…The Lord has abandoned us (Do yo see how easily even God’s people can become forgetful?)…How can I be the one to save Israel? My clan is the weakest…and I am the least in my family.” At this point in the story, it’s clear that God needs to help Gideon see the big picture. Gideon’s family and people are suffering, oppressed by a group of people called the Midianites. And Gideon is slowly losing hope, slowly succumbing to the fake news of the day. He’s not a man of deep faith; he’s fearful. He’s not a man full of hope; he’s timid. He’s not a man of confidence; he has significant doubts the job can be done. And into that hopelessness, God speaks five words that have the power to breathe new life into any situation: “I will be with you.” And over time, Gideon allows that promise the carry him and God’s people forward. Even when God causes Gideon’s army to be dwindled down to embarrassing numbers, Gideon needs nothing else, because his faith was restored. All because of five words that change the story.
Centuries later those five words will be embodied in a baby. And born into the midst of a hopeless people, surrounded not by Midianities but by Romans, and pushed to the margins of society, will be a child that some refer to as Emmanuel, which means God is with us. And those words will change the course of history. I know many find yourselves in a spiritual battle today, and there seems to be no way forward. Your marriage is falling apart, your loved ones are just barely hanging on, your children are moving away, your employer know longer needs you, your community is being flooded with drugs…and you wonder sometimes aloud and oftentimes quietly within your heart, “Where is God?” And this answer is this: He is with you. When John Wesley was lying on his deathbed, suffering and preparing to let go, he looked up at those caring for him and found the energy to say, “The best of all, God is with us.” And I have a feeling those words became strength and vision for those who loved him most.
In this world, we will have suffering, challenges and struggles. There’s no other way around it. But let me leave you with this. It’s both a challenge to keep and a hope to hold on to, from 1 Corinthians 4: Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. May we be people who fix our eyes on what is unseen allow those five simple words to transform us: I will be with you. Amen.