On Thanksgiving weekend, my brothers and my sister were comparing notes about our children after dinner. We all have good children, and we really have no right to complain, but we're going through the normal things that parents go through with their children. As we compared notes about our joys and our struggles, my mother smiled and said, "You kids weren't so different yourselves." The joys and the headaches our kids are giving us are exactly the same joys and headaches that we gave our mother when we were kid.
We are looking at the book of Judges right now, and one of the reasons is that you and I aren't so different from the people that we're looking at. The theme of this series is, "What's wrong with the world?" Often we look around and blame all kinds of people and groups for what's wrong with the world: liberals or conservatives, secular humanists, lobby groups, feminists, non-feminists, capitalists, socialists – whoever. But Judges holds up the mirror and says, "The problem with the world is you." In the book of Judges, the greatest problem wasn't the Canaanites or the people who didn't believe in God. The greatest problem, to be frank, was staring back at them in the mirror. What is wrong with the world is us.
Today we get to one of the most detailed descriptions of oppression in the book of Judges. We read in the first verse that the people of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and then we read all the consequences of that disobedience. The Midianites overpowered them. The people of Israel fled to dens they made in the mountains and hid in caves. Every time they planted crops, the Midianites and Amalekites came and raided all of the produce. They would take everything, including the livestock. We read that these enemies were so numerous that they were like a plague of locusts that devoured absolutely everything. And verse 6 of chapter 6 says, "And Israel was brought very low because of Midian." They were made very small. They were experiencing the very opposite of what God had promised to them in the covenant. The oppression was so bad at this time that the prophet Isaiah mentioned it centuries later. This is one of the dark periods of Israel's history when everything was going wrong.
Do you ever look around and wonder why God's people aren't experiencing what he seems to have promised? God's people can get themselves into a real mess.
Someone close to me just resigned from the church where they were serving. I saw them a few months ago, and the pastor's wife lifted the sleeve of her blouse to show me a giant bruise. One of the people at the church who didn't like them had grabbed her in church after the service and left this bruise. All kinds of nasty things have been happening at that church, and I ask, "This is supposed to be the body of Christ?" We get ourselves into a real mess.
I've been reading a book lately about evangelical churches. The author writes convincingly of our call to be robust theologically, people who transcend the barriers of race, culture and social status. We should be a vibrant movement of churches that embody the kingdom of God, care for the poor, and that transform culture for the good of all people and the glory of God. But instead, the author says that many of us are living out an individualistic, consumeristic gospel. We have bought into "individualism and a consumer-oriented, homogeneous-unit-principled, safe-haven church where a family-friendly faith protects Christ's followers from those who think, look, and even sound different than they do." He goes on and talks about what someone else wrote about "pop psychology" replacing sound doctrine, as well as our preoccupation with "success, wonderful marriages and nice children," our fixation on "numerical growth and money," and our neglect of "the great social issues of the day, above all racism and the plight of the poor" (Consuming Jesus).
I read all of this and think, "This is the church?" Then we look at our own lives. Most of us, I think, long for God to really move, and for his power to be shown in our lives. But we're not experiencing it.
I don't mean to start on a negative note. However, when I read about God's people living in caves while the enemies of God thrive, I can relate. I wish I didn't, but I can.
We seem to be living less than what God promised. God's people can get into a real mess, and we're left wondering, "Why? Why aren't things the way they're supposed to be? Why aren't we experiencing God's power as we should?"
The Real Problem
Well, notice what happened when things got really bad in this passage, and the people cried out to God. Usually what happened in the cycle that repeats over and over again in the book of Judges is that when the people cried out to God, he sent them a deliverer. But not this time, at least not right away. This time, God sent them a prophet.
Why would God send a prophet instead of a deliverer? Because the reason they were living in fear in caves wasn't because of the power of the Midianites. The reason they were living in fear in caves is because they had forgotten the gospel. They had forgotten God's saving acts, and that the same God who saved his people in the past was still available to save them today. Read what the prophet said in verses 8 to 10:
This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out 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.
Why is Israel living in caves? Why have they been brought very low? Why are we today not experiencing what we should be? The problem isn't the Midianites. The problem is us. The problem is that we really don't believe the gospel – at least we don't believe it enough to transform us. We may believe it as a set of facts, but we're not living as if we really believed it. And as a result we've been brought very low, because we have forgotten the gospel.
In the rest of the chapter we have a case study of someone who personifies this, and it may surprise you who it is. Let me ask you what you think of when you hear the name Gideon. How many people think of Bibles? Gideon is definitely a household name for people who don't even know a lot about Old Testament history, because we have a group of people today who have named themselves in his honor.
For those of you who actually know the story of Gideon in the Old Testament, he is a good guy. He is one of the judges who delivers Israel when they were in this mess. He is listed in Hebrews 11 as one of the heroes of the faith. But you may not know that he is also the personification of a person who has forgotten the gospel, or who is at least left the gospel back in the history books. Virtually everything that we read about Gideon in this chapter highlights his lack of faith and his reluctance to follow God. He is an example of what the prophet has just said is wrong. In this chapter, Gideon is the personification of what's wrong with God's people. In this chapter, Gideon is just like us.
So we get to verse 11, where Gideon is beating his wheat in a winepress. If you know anything about how this was done, you know that you're supposed to do this in a wide-open space. But Gideon is doing it in a winepress. Why? He's scared. If he does this in a wide open area, he's afraid of what the Midianites will do to him.
Then an angel appears to this guy hiding in a winepress because he's scared, and the angel says, "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." There's a bit of irony here – this man hiding for safety is a mighty warrior? If so, Israel's in a lot of trouble.
Gideon responds by asking the question on everybody's mind. Why doesn't our faith and experience match? Verse 13:
"Pardon me, my lord," Gideon replied, "but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian."
In other words, Gideon asks the question that should be on all of our minds: Why are God's people in such a mess? Why, if the promises of God are true, and if God has acted so powerfully in the past – why are we in such a mess? It's interesting that the angel doesn't answer Gideon. For one thing, the prophet has already given the answer. Besides, Gideon is about to provide the answer himself through his own actions.
What happens next is that the angel calls him to be the deliverer. "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 6:14) And for the rest of the chapter, Gideon throws up reasons why God is wrong to use him, and doubt after doubt:
- In verse 15, he argues that he's from the wrong family, despite the fact that his family were probably aristocrats.
- In verse 17, he asks for a sign as proof that what the angel said is true. He wants to see evidence because he can't believe what the angel says is true without seeing proof.
- In verse 27, he pulls down the family idols, but he does it at night because he's afraid of all the townspeople.
- And at the end of the chapter, verses 36 to 40, he famously lays down a fleece. He gives God a test, and if God passes the test, then Gideon will obey and do what God said in the first place.
I still hear people talking about laying out a fleece like Gideon did. They say, "If God really wants me to do something, then he should make the phone ring at 8:42 p.m. or make somebody say these exact words, and then I'll know that God has spoken." They say, "Lord, if you want me to do missions work, then give me a sign," and then they open their newspaper and see an ad for Hawaii, and think that God is calling them as a missionary to Hawaii.
But Gideon's fleece isn't given as a positive example. Gideon wasn't asking for God's will. He already knew God's will; he just didn't want to obey it. He's stubbornly resisting doing what he knows he should be doing. The fleece isn't a model of how to find God's will; it's an example of hesitating to obey when we already know what we should be doing.
Why was Israel in such a mess? Because they were all like Gideon, and so are we – at least those of us who claim to believe the gospel. Gideon is an example of someone who knew what God had done in the past, who has memorized the Bible verses and knows all of the theology, but who has a hard time believing that God is at work right now. The gospel – God's saving acts – is a theory to him, but it has no relevance to today. It's only a theory. The reason we're in such a big mess today is that we've left the gospel in the history books.
It is possible to believe everything that the Bible teaches – every line. It's possible to sing worship songs and talk about how God saved us. It's possible to talk about God parting the sea, and about Jesus walking on water and calming the storm, about Peter being released from prison, about Jesus being raised from the dead. It's possible to believe all of that – and then live as if it wasn't true. We believe it in our heads as a set of facts, but like Gideon we don't believe it in our hearts.
When Gideon asks the question, "If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, 'Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?'" the answer is: when we forget the gospel, we lose our identities and act like everybody else. We also lose the resources to face our problems.
The same is true today. When we forget the gospel, or treat it like history, two things happen:
We lose our identities – One of the major themes of the book of Judges is that the God's people had become Canaanized. They became just like the neighboring nations, and nobody could tell the difference.
The same is true today. You've probably heard about all the studies of how our behaviors really aren't that different from the culture's. When we forget the gospel, we lose our identity and become just like everyone else around us. We believe the gospel, but it hasn't become personal for us yet. It's just history. It hasn't formed the basis of who we really are.
We all get our identities from something – from our jobs, our relationships, our power, our possessions. When we get our identities from any of these things – and they're good things – then we won't be any different from anybody else. But when we get our identity from the gospel, it will change us. Getting our identity from anything or anyone else will let us down, and we'll end up like everyone else. But when we see what Christ did for us, and when the gospel seeps into every area of our lives, it will truly change us.
When we forget the gospel, we also lose the resources to face our challenges – The people in Gideon's day had problems, and they had no idea how to handle them. We're the same. To paraphrase Andy Stanley:
Speaking from my limited view I feel like so much of our problem is that we are just scared to death. We're scared of their people, we're scared, we're scared, we're scared. The irony is we stand up and talk about Daniel in the lion's den but then we won't even confront our own situations. I think that dynamic alone is a big part of why the church is where it is. It's a fear of people. I don't know where that comes from…
So how do we handle this? We could respond by giving to-do lists – good advice on how to handle our problems, therapeutic tips, keys to relationships, and so on. But that really doesn't take the pressure off. It's still more stuff that we have to do. It turns us to ourselves to find the resources for our own struggles. If there's one thing that's clear from Gideon's day, it's that the people didn't have the resources for their problems within themselves, and neither do we.
But we don't need good advice. We need good news. When we remember what God has done – when Gideon remembers how God delivered Israel in the past, and when we remember what God accomplished through Christ for us – then we have all the resources we need to face whatever comes our way. It's why Paul could write: "God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32). It's why he could also write:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed….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. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18)
Could it be that we have forgotten the gospel? When we do this, we lose our identities and we also lose the resources to face our problems. But when we remember what God has done through Christ, we have an identity that can't be taken away, and we have every resource we need to face whatever comes our way.
Father, we confess that we are people of little or no faith. We're in a mess, and the reason is often because we've left the gospel in the history books. We don't live and act as if it's true today.
Thank you that you use people like Gideon, people with very little faith. Thank you that you took the disciples, to whom Jesus often said, "Oh you of little faith," and he used them to turn the world upside down.
Help us to bring the gospel out of the history books, to really grasp it, and to believe that the same God and gospel are just as powerful as ever before. We believe; help our unbelief.
As the apostle Paul prayed, may the eyes of our heart be enlightened so that we would know the hope to which you have called us, the riches of your glorious inheritance in your people, and your incredibly great power for us who believe – the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead.
Help us bring the gospel out of the history books, and experience its power today. We pray this in Jesus' name, Amen.