I am Gideon-Jerub-Baal...but God is GodMarch 2, 2009, Speaker: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Judges 6:1-32) Part of the Judges series, preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service
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Sermon on Judges 6:1-32
In Judges, we have an honest portrayal of human nature, and God's response to his people. It may be messy, but it is much more valuable this way because it is closer to reality. Let this morning be an invitation for us to understand the intricate (and messy) relationship between God and humanity once again.
Today’s text is the start of a 2-month series on the legacy of the judge Gideon. We see that in the beginning of this story, the Israelites again did evil in the eyes of the Lord and once again God punished them with an oppression by foreigners. One might ask, “What? Again?!? What’s the matter with these people?” This is already the fourth time we are going through this same old story. The same old cycle. We started with Othniel, then Ehud, then Barak. That makes 3 stories that are almost the same. You know the baseball phrase, “three strikes and you are out!” Is the same cycle happening yet again? How many times does it take for these people to actually learn a lesson?
And it was not even a joyful ride. I can understand watching a good movie four times because it is exciting. But this situation is like watching a bad movie. It is painful and going through it once should be sufficient punishment. Some of you skeptics out there might be thinking, maybe it’s not that bad, after all, the author didn’t say very much about how bad it was the first three times. Maybe it’s like foot-reflexology, painful but tolerable.
Thankfully, and perhaps precisely because this is already the fourth time round, the author was far more descriptive about the level of oppression the Israelites were facing. This leaves little doubt that the seven years of Midianite oppression were absolutely horrible for the Israelites. These roving desert nations came with their camels and like a locust plague wiped out all the food and livestock. Their damage was so terrifying, the Israelites had to hide and live in caves to flee from them.
Now, if the repeated disobedience of the Israelites was puzzling, the actions of God were even more so. In our last sermon, we spoke of God being the true hero of Israel. One person asked me after the sermon: “Wasn’t it God who sent the punishment? Why did God have to be the hero to save them?” This is a good question. And frankly I was speechless as well. It seems reasonable for God to be punishing Israel for their breaking of the covenant. Yet, how can God save Israel time and time again? Thankfully, and perhaps precisely because this is already the fourth time round, the author has come to my rescue with an answer. God did send a prophet to them this time. But unlike Deborah, this time, he gave no deliverance. Instead, it was a stern rebuke.
This is my (hyperbolized) translation for verses 8-10: "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I saved you out of Egypt and slavery. On top of that I gave you a place to stay. I gave you clearly 1 simple instruction, 'I am the LORD your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites.' But did you listen? NO. Well, guess what? Big mistake."
My first response to God's reply in verses 8-10 was, “God, good job! FINALLY! You finally stuck to your guns. It’s about time you gave up on those losers. You know what? They are not worth it. They brought it upon themselves. It's time you got a hold of yourself, and stop giving in to Israel-the-slut. God, let me teach you something in Chinese: 朽木不可雕。” (It literally means: Do not use a rotten piece of wood for carving).
Naturally, I expected to read more verses describing God's further punishment of Israel. Instead, wait a minute; the following verses must be wrong. Hold on. Let me send a text message to God. God, I thought you were giving up on the Israelites? Why is it that you are calling yet another judge here to save Israel? And who is this Gideon? Let us take a closer look.
Gideon is what is known in modern literature as an ‘Antihero’. An antihero is a character whose values and goals are different from the usual hero’s. The standard hero is courageous, sacrifices for the greater good and pursues moral excellence. Yet, Gideon possesses all the flaws that will immediately discredit him as a hero. Firstly, his theology was poor. He was doubtful about the presence of God because of the oppression from the Midianites. While the prophet earlier clearly stated that the Israelites were suffering precisely because God was present and punishing their disobedience, here we see that Gideon was certainly no prophet. He was doubtful about God. I would agree that there is much suffering we do not understand in this world today, but this particular suffering was a clear-cut case to anyone who knew the laws in Deuteronomy. Secondly, contrary to the pronouncement “mighty warrior”, Gideon was actually a timid coward. He was hiding in a winepress to thresh his wheat. At that time, the winepress was an abandoned area because there were no longer any vineyards to harvest. And when God called him, he started to give excuses about his weaknesses. These excuses were all nonsense. Even in times of hardship such as this, his father still had a herd and he himself had at least ten servants. He gave excuses not because he was not humble, but because he was reluctant to sacrifice. Lastly, he asked for a sign to confirm his calling. While it may be a reasonable request given the size of his task, asking for a sign is an indication of his lack of faith. This issue of asking for a sign will be covered in further detail in next week’s sermon. Overall, the general first impression that we have of Gideon is certainly not good. He lacked a proper understanding of God and he was insecure about himself.
As we read on, Gideon was given the first assignment. He was to demolish the altar to Baal, cut down the Asherah pole, and sacrifice a bull on a new altar to God. Here we have concrete evidence that God's people, even Gideon and his family, had given up their faith and worshiped other idols. Needless to say, God's first task for Gideon was to destroy the idols and return to the worship of God. But Gideon's execution was a sad reflection of his character. While he completed the task, it was done with fear. It was done in secret and in the middle of the night. And because of the cowardice of the act, when it was discovered, the men of the town demanded to punish him. The father in order to save face and save his son, referred this matter to higher authority. If Baal were a god, he would be able to defend himself. And this was how Gideon got the name Jerub-Baal.
The name Jerub-Baal was living proof of Baal's impotence as long as Gideon was alive. But the reality was that Gideon now wore a Baal name, which was used with increasing frequency as the story went on.
IMPORTANT: The dual name of Gideon-Jerub-Baal is the main point I wish to drive home today. This is because the dual name is a sign of the dual nature of of the character: Gideon-Jerub-Baal.
On one hand, the name Gideon means hacker, which alludes to his action of hacking down the Baal altar and the Asherah pole. Like many of the judges before him, he was God's instrument against the enemies of Israel. On the other hand, the name Jerub-Baal alludes to his link to idolatry. He was doubtful of God's presence, he was timid in offering himself and he acted in fear of others. Despite the fact that he actually experienced God, when it was crunch time, he was more concerned about himself. He is Gideon, yet he is also Jerub-Baal. The two natures struggle within him in his actions.
It is at this point, in my honest reflection, that I realise I am "Gideon-Jerub-Baal". In the words of Paul in Romans 7 “15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do I do. 18b For I desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” Like Gideon-Jerub-Baal, I look at suffering and doubt God's presence. Like what God says to Gideon, God says to me, “Am I not sending you?” Like Gideon-Jerub-Baal, I have lots of excuses, perhaps even more pathetic than his. I am not ready, I am not good enough. I don't have time, I don't have money. My excuses are indeed lamer than Gideon-Jerub-Baal’s because I already know God's answer, “I will be with you”. (which is God blatantly hinting to Gideon: "it is not about you, it is I, God!") And like Gideon-Jerub-Baal, I yearn for signs. And even if I know what I must do, I do it in fear of others. I practice my faith in secret. Barely able to draw attention to myself and desperate for the cover of anonymity, I am Gideon-Jerub-Baal.
But there is an even greater confession to make. Gideon-Jerub-Baal is not just a lone character. He is representative of the general apostasy of the entire Israel. I have mocked the repeated disobedience of the Israelites at the beginning. But ultimately, it is self-mockery. Am I any better than them? No! How many times have I learnt my lessons only to repeat my mistakes again? How many times do I lust after the comforts of the fertility gods of wealth, fame and success? How many times do I intermarry with foreign ideologies in consumerism, capitalism and individualism? I am Gideon-Jerub-Baal. When I am oppressed by the negative forces of the world, I cry out to God. But it is false piety when I have forgotten about my covenant with God in the first place.
For this is the take-home message for today: I am Gideon-Jerub-Baal, but God is God. I am barely faithful and totally inadequate, but God never gives up. It doesn't make sense, and it isn't right. God isn't giving what the rotten wood deserves. Yet this is the reality we see in the text, God gives grace. God rescues even when the cry is half-hearted. God uses people even when the material is half-baked. I am Gideon-Jerub-Baal, but God is God. God is gracious and God remembers his covenant. Our faith is weak. We cry out “I believe, help my unbelief.” Yet, God sees the little we have and multiplies it with signs. God is so gracious to us that he comes in human flesh to show he is indeed with us. It was so in the past with angels; and it is so (to us) with the ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ.
Matthew 12:39: “He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
The death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate sign from God (to us).
I am Gideon-Jerub-Baal, but (thankfully) God is God.
6:1 The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. 2 And the hand of Midian overpowered Israel, and because of Midian the people of Israel made for themselves the dens that are in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds. 3 For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. 4 They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. 5 For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in. 6 And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord.
7 When the people of Israel cried out to the Lord on account of the Midianites, 8 the Lord sent a prophet to the people of Israel. And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage. 9 And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 And I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.”
11 Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. 12 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” 13 And Gideon said to him, “Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 And the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” 15 And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.” 16 And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” 17 And he said to him, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. 18 Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay till you return.”
19 So Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour. The meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the terebinth and presented them. 20 And the angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them.” And he did so. 21 Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes. And fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. And the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. 22 Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” 23 But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” 24 Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and called it, The Lord Is Peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites.
25 That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father's bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it 26 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 Asherah that you shall cut down.” 27 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.
28 When the men of the town rose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was broken down, and the Asherah beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar that had been built. 29 And they said to one another, “Who has done this thing?” And after they had searched and inquired, they said, “Gideon the son of Joash has done this thing.” 30 Then the men of the town said to Joash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has broken down the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah beside it.” 31 But Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you save him? 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 broken down.” 32 Therefore on that day Gideon was called Jerubbaal, that is to say, “Let Baal contend against him,” because he broke down his altar. (ESV)