Sermon for 01-22-12: “In Good Faith, Part 3: Doing God’s Will”

Our sermon series on the challenges to faithful living, “In Good Faith,” continues this week by looking at Gideon, no one’s favorite Bible hero. If the future of Israel rested on the shoulders of this weak and waffling man, then Israel was in trouble. The good news, as the scripture makes clear, is that the success of Gideon’s mission didn’t depend on him; it depended on God.

In the same way, our success—in life, in ministry, in mission—depends not on us, but on God. As I say in this sermon, God gives each one us the power to “be the miracle that this world needs.”

How is God calling you to be that miracle?

Sermon Text: Judges 6:1-27, 33-40

The following is my original manuscript.

I’m not trying to shamelessly pander to high school students in the congregation when I say that I dislike the SAT. Do any of you dislike the SAT? At least I dislike the SAT that was around when I had to take it—I know they’ve reconfigured it a few times since then, and I’m sure it’s better than it used to be. But the premise behind the original SAT was that it was a way of testing not what a student has learned in school, but what a student is capable of learning. Thus the original name of the SAT was the Scholastic Aptitude Test. A test for “aptitude” is supposed to measure one’s natural ability. And if it measured natural ability, then it wasn’t a test you could do anything to prepare for. At least that was the propaganda.

That was what my teachers told me when I was a junior in high school. You can’t study for it, so all you should do is just get a good night’s sleep before the exam. And because I was a little lazy and didn’t want to study for the SAT, I liked that idea!

No one told me at the time about a man named Stanley Kaplan. He started a tutoring business in the 1930s. He first heard of the SAT in 1948, and he was too dumb to know that there was a test that you couldn’t study for. He didn’t believe it. And he made a nice living proving my high school teachers and the creators of the SAT wrong. Of course you can study for the SAT in order to improve your score!

My point is that as much as we might want to, it’s hard to measure something called “aptitude”; it’s hard to measure one’s natural ability; it’s hard to measure potential. But if you could measure aptitude, natural ability, and potential as they relate to doing God’s will, accomplishing something for God’s kingdom—a spiritual SAT, if you will—then this very unlikely Bible hero named Gideon would score very low on such a test. When you compare him to Bible heroes like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, David, Esther, and Daniel—well, he really doesn’t seem to have much going for him at all.

How did the Israelites get in this situation—that their hopes for the future would rest on the shoulders of such a weak and waffling young man as Gideon?

A little bit of history… After 40 years of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, Moses dies and Joshua succeeds him. He leads the Israelites across the Jordan into the land of Canaan—the Promised Land. And under Joshua’s leadership the twelve tribes eventually take possession of the land, but they’re still surrounded by neighbors, indigenous people, who worship foreign gods, especially Baal. And despite the success of their God—the one true God, Yahweh—to free them from slavery in Egypt and lead them into the Promised Land, the Israelites are constantly tempted to worship Baal.

At the end of the Book of Joshua, Joshua tells the Israelites that they’re going to have to decide today who they’re going to serve—foreign gods like Baal, or the one true God. He and his family are going to serve the Lord. But know this, Joshua warns: God is a “jealous God.” If you decide to serve the Lord and later leave him to serve foreign gods, you’re going to suffer serious consequences. And in the Book of Judges we see Israel suffer these consequences time and again. They commit idolatry. God punishes them by sending foreign armies to conquer and rule over them. The people repent and cry out to God. Then God shows mercy by raising up a “judge”—literally a bringer of justice, a military and religious leader. The judge defeats the enemy, restores Israel, and brings peace, at least for a time. And this cycle repeats itself throughout the book. But beginning with Gideon, it’s clear that things are getting worse. Idolatry is worse than ever. Something has to be done. And, as always, God continues to be faithful to his covenant; he continues to be merciful; he continues to rescue his people from their sins.

In today’s scripture we learn that Gideon’s hometown is under the control of a foreign power known as Midian. They’ve conquered Israel and replaced the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Baal. The people in Gideon’s town, including Gideon, seem to have given up on God entirely. The angel of the Lord tells Gideon, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior!”–which seems like a joke. I can’t help but admire the honesty of Gideon’s response: “With all due respect, my Lord, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his amazing works that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Didn’t the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has abandoned us and allowed Midian to overpower us.”

In other words, Gideon says, “I’ve heard all about how God did all these amazing and miraculous things in the past, but what good is that now? We sure could use a miracle now!”

Maybe some of you can relate to Gideon’s frustration?

I grew up in a Christian tradition that strongly emphasized the importance of the testimony. A testimony is your story of how God has been active in your life. When I was going through the ordination process, I had to tell my story, my testimony—of how I became a Christian, what it’s meant to me, and how I knew God was calling me into ministry. I like testimonies, and I would love to hear your testimony of faith sometime.

When I was college, I heard a testimony from a young man who said he had struggled for years to find his soulmate, the person with whom he would spend the rest of his life. He prayed that God would help him find that person. He said he finally just “turned it over to God” and stopped worrying about it, trusting that God would show him that person in God’s good timing. And then one day, out of the blue, he met her, the woman of his dreams. It was love at first sight. And he just knew she was the answer to his prayers. He told a friend, moments after meeting this woman, “I’m going to marry her.” And he did! And of course they lived happily ever after—I hope. That was like 25 years ago!

Anyway, I was quite impressed by this testimony, and I told my friend Brian, who had been unlucky in love himself. He was very lonely. I shared this person’s testimony and said, “Brian, you know, you just gotta ‘turn it over to God,’ like this person did, stop worrying about it, and God will show you the woman you’re supposed to marry.” And I’ll never forget Brian’s response. He looked at me and said, “Oh, what a bunch of baloney!” Only he didn’t say “baloney.” But you get the idea. I do believe that God answered this person’s prayer by showing him his future wife. But, let’s face it, sometimes, when we hear about what God has done in someone else’s life, it just kind of makes us envious. “It’s all well and good that God has done that for you, but what about me? I need God to do something about my situation. I need God to change the way things are for me. I need God to work a miracle in my life.” That’s what Gideon is feeling.

And God tells Gideon in so many words: “You want me to do something? Great! I’m going to do something. And I’m going to do something through you. You want things to change? Great! I’m going to change things. And you’re going to be my agent of change. You want a miracle? Great! I’m going to work a miracle. In fact, you’re going to be the miracle!

And Gideon answers, “Well, hold on! Not so fast! I have a number of perfectly good reasons why I shouldn’t be the one to answer this call.” You know that when God calls you to do something there are always any number of perfectly good reasons why that isn’t such a good idea.

I’ve heard preachers say that we pray not in order to change God but in order for God to change us. I think that’s mostly true. Oftentimes, for example, when we pray for God to heal someone, he might show us how we can play a role in that person’s healing. When we pray for peace in the world, God can show us what we can do to be a peacemaker. When we pray for world hunger, God can show us what we can do to feed the hungry. When we pray for the salvation of a friend of ours, God can give us opportunities to share our faith. Prayer changes us, inspires us, motivates us to take action. You need a miracle? Sometimes God calls you to be that miracle!

God wants Gideon to be the miracle that Gideon is praying for. “So, Gideon, you want me to rescue the people from the Midianites? Good news! Your prayer has been answered. I’ll do it. And I’m going to start by having you go tear down that altar to Baal where you and your townspeople worship.” Gideon had a hard time believing that God wanted him to be the miracle.

And maybe you have a hard time believing that you can be a miracle, too.

But why? This church is in the miracle business. Didn’t you know that? It’s true! It happens all the time. When you help to love someone into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ, you are the miracle that this world needs! When you not only feed the homeless on Pine Street and provide material things but also show them God’s love, you are the miracle that this world needs. When you sacrifice vacation time and money go to places like Honduras and do unglamorous work like building latrines—as some of you will be doing in a couple of weeks—you are the miracle that this world needs.

Pray it with me: “God, make me the miracle that this world needs.” Again: “God, make me the miracle that this world needs.”

I know what some of you are thinking: These so-called miracles you mention… They’re not exactly Moses’ parting the Red Sea… These are little things that anyone could do.” And I see what you mean. But what kind of spectacular miracle do you see Gideon performing in today’s scripture? In the middle of the night, when no one is looking, Gideon musters what little courage he has, creeps into the sanctuary, and destroys this altar to Baal, hoping no one finds out he did it. Gideon was very successful at doing God’s will, but no single thing he did was all that miraculous.

It’s true that when we love and serve God and neighbor, the things we do are often little things that anyone can do. But why are we doing it? This is where the miracle comes in.

In verse 34 we’re told that the “Lord’s spirit came over Gideon.” Only that’s not literally what the verse says. The verse literally says, “The Lord’s spirit clothed itself in Gideon.” In other words, the Holy Spirit was wearing Gideon as his clothes. Think about that! Isn’t that an awesome image? You can’t see the Holy Spirit at work. The Spirit is invisible. All anyone can see is Gideon taking baby steps toward becoming the “mighty warrior” that the angel tells him that he is. Only it’s not so much this weak and waffling person named Gideon doing these things. See, it is really God taking control of Gideon, doing what Gideon, left to his own devices, would never do for himself. The miracle is that this cowardly man—whom we first see hiding in a wine press out of fear of being discovered by his enemies—this same man now has the courage to do something he wouldn’t otherwise do.

That, my friends, is the miracle. You may not even know how the Holy Spirit is working through you, but he is!

When you face an obstacle in your life that seems insurmountable, you might be tempted to think, “I can’t do anything about that!” You can’t? The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.

You might think, “I can’t solve this problem.” You can’t? The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.

You might think, “I can’t be successful in doing what Jesus wants me to do because of this set of circumstances beyond my control.” You can’t? The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to artificially inflate your self-esteem. See… That voice of self-doubt that always tells you that you can’t… it may be exactly right sometimes. You can’t… But God can! Maybe you don’t have the aptitude, the natural ability, the potential to be a mighty warrior conquering all enemies, seen and unseen, in your life. You can’t. But God can!

Maybe you just don’t have it in you to answer God’s call…

But, brothers and sisters, if you’ve given your life to Jesus Christ through faith and baptism, what you do have in you is the Holy Spirit, and he can be the mighty warrior for you. You can’t. But God can. Amen.

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