Sermon 09-07-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 5: Gideon”

September 17, 2014

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The people of Israel were committing idolatry at the beginning of today’s scripture. It’s not that they stopped believing in the one true God, Yahweh, but that they were adding other gods to the mix—in case Yahweh wasn’t enough for them.

Are we so different from them? We may not bend our knee and worship idols the way ancient Israel did, but we commit idolatry whenever we look to some person or thing to meet our deepest needs. What are the warning signs of this kind of idolatry? What can we do to prevent it?

In Jesus Christ, God gives us everything we need to prevent this kind of idolatry, as this sermon makes clear.

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

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Did you hear the news? This Tuesday, Auburn graduate and Apple Computer CEO Tim Cook will announce the first entirely new product of his tenure as Steve Jobs’s successor: the product is the iWatch. Well, we don’t know for sure what it’ll be called, but we know for sure it will be a smartwatch, a powerful computer that you wear on your wrist.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook

One consumer technology consultant who’s seen it told the New York Times last week: “I believe it’s going to be historic.”

And I believe I’m going to need an iWatch. But let me explain: as many of you know, I’ve recently rededicated myself to working out, getting “swole,” and at least getting in kind of shape necessary to be an American Ninja Warrior. Why are you laughing? I’m serious. And insiders say that this new iWatch will leave exercise-related products from FitBit and Nike in the dust. It will track all your footsteps, monitor your vital signs, yell at you when you reach for that extra piece of key lime pie. The new iWatch has everything an American Ninja Warrior could want.

O.K., maybe I don’t really need an iWatch, but five or six years ago I didn’t think I needed an iPhone, either—and now that’s become an indispensable part of my life.

When the iPhone came out, some sarcastic writer nicknamed it the “Jesus phone,” because of the devotion that its early owners showed to it. The Jesus phone… Almost as if they worshiped it. Almost as if it were a god who could fulfill their deepest wants and desires. To me, calling it a “Jesus phone” is deeply insightful.

I read something very convicting recently: it was article on a Christian website talking about how reading the Bible used to be a much more important part of an average Christian’s life than it is now. The author said that we’d keep a Bible on the night stand and it would be the first thing we reach for every morning. “Now,” the writer said, “most Christians are far more likely to reach for their smartphones when they wake up in the morning.”

And I felt very convicted because I do that! In part because my smartphone is also my alarm clock. But still… You know what I mean. Until I read that article—which, of course I read on my smartphone—I had never even questioned the wisdom of waking up and spending the first few minutes of the morning reading blogs, checking last night’s scores, checking Facebook and Twitter and email.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those activities in and of themselves, but should it be the first thing we look at in the morning? Shouldn’t my first thought in the morning be, “Thank you, Lord, for another day of life to love and serve you”?

 

young-billy-grahamI was listening recently to a Billy Graham that he preached in 1962, and he asked, rhetorically, “How many of us Americans spend more time watching TV each day than we spend reading God’s Word?” And I wanted to raise my hand… I spend more time doing a lot of things each day than I spend reading God’s Word—or at least I would if I weren’t preparing a sermon each week.

So whether it’s our addiction to television 50 years ago or our addiction to smartphones today, technology has a way of crowding God out of our lives. It’s not that we don’t still believe in God, but we make a place in our lives and in our hearts for so many other things that aren’t God but that take the place of God! This is nothing less than a kind of idolatry! And this is precisely what the people of Israel are doing in today’s scripture. It’s not that they’ve stopped following God altogether. We learn later on that Gideon’s own family had a shrine in their backyard dedicated to Baal and a goddess named Asherah. And this was true for the rest of Israel, too: they didn’t exactly stop worshiping Yahweh, the one true God, but they added other gods to the mix—just in case Yahweh couldn’t get the job done.

In a way this is what we do, too. We believe in God… but we’re tempted to add other gods to our lives because we don’t quite trust that God will give us everything we need.

The 15th-century French Reformer John Calvin put it well when he said, “The human heart is a factory of idols… Everyone of us is, from his mother’s womb, expert in inventing them.” Again, it doesn’t matter what these idols are: we can make an idol out of a significant other—a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse. We can make an idol out of our lack of a significant other: we can imagine that if only we met the person of our dreams, then we’d be truly happy. We can make an idol out of sex—and as a result even many Christians think there’s nothing at all wrong with internet pornography or premarital sex.

We can make an idol out of our jobs, and imagine that achieving material success will make us happy. We can make an idol out of money and the things it can buy—imagining that making enough money to pay for a new house, a new car, a new vacation, or the latest and greatest gadget will make us happy.

We could make an idol out of our favorite sports team. Since it’s college football season, I don’t mind re-telling you the story—or heck, my kids will happily retell the story—of the time that I got so upset about my team, Georgia Tech, losing at the last minute to that school in Athens that so many people around here love, that I literally kicked the couch in frustration. What kind of mess was my life in, spiritually speaking, that I would do something like that? I was clearly placing far too much importance on college football.

By the way, I mentioned last week that God often uses suffering to bring us closer to him. At this rate, as a Georgia Tech fan, soon I’ll be up there with the Pope in terms of holiness. But haven’t we all heard of some wives becoming football widows this time of year? Sports can become an idol.

We can make an idol even out of our children. Mothers and fathers are often guilty of living through their kids’ sporting events, or musical achievements, or academic success.

You get the point, I hope: We’re very good at creating and worshiping idols. And by idol I mean any person, thing, or achievement that we imagine will make us happy… apart from God.

Like I said, our situation is not so different from the Israelites mentioned at the beginning of today’s scripture. Except maybe a little worse when you think about it. Because it’s often hard for us to identify idols these days. It’s not like any of us are literally bowing down to an image of wood or bronze or gold… Idols were easier to spot back then. Today, the devil has this way of taking potentially good things and twisting them around until they become an idol.

I’m sure that some of you enjoy watching sermons by Joel Osteen. Last week, Osteen’s wife, Victoria, was in the news for some remarks she made during a recent worship service at America’s largest church. She said, “I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we are happy.”

joel-victoria-osteenThese remarks were widely scorned and lampooned by theologians and pastors like me. I think her remarks would have been perfectly fine if she had said, “When we obey God, we’re not doing it only for God. We’re also doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.” Just a small change would have avoided the fuss, as far as I’m concerned.

But some of her critics went too far in the other direction: they were practically saying that there’s something wrong with being happy—or that God doesn’t really care whether we’re happy or not. I disagree. Following Jesus Christ, worshiping and serving the Lord, ought to make us happy—or at least happier than we would be if we weren’t following Jesus. Have you ever heard a Christian give a testimony in which he or she said, “I gave my life to Christ… And now I’m miserable”? No. It ought to make us happy. Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount talking about principles for being happy: for example, in the New Testament, Paul talks about how we should “rejoice in the Lord” not just some of the time but always. To rejoice is to be intensely happy.

God wants us to be happy—he created us to be deeply happy—and frankly our only shot at true and lasting happiness comes through him.

So I want to highlight three principles from today’s text that will help us avoid idolatry and instead enable us to trust in our Lord for true and lasting happiness.

First, we need to immerse ourselves in God’s Word and stay in God’s Word. Every day. Please notice at the beginning of today’s text, the people of Israel cried out to God because they wanted God to take action—to do something to get rid of these Midianites. And what’s the first thing God does? Does he call Gideon to lead the Israelite army in victory? No. The first thing he does is send a preacher to go preach to these people—and remind them of who God is and who they are as his people, and all that he’s done for them to save them in the past. Look at verses 7 through 10. The people needed to hear the Word of God. And so do we! We need to remember what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s so much better than anything the world has to offer!

Are you reading the Bible? Are you studying the Bible? If not, take a Disciple Bible study. Come to my Bible study beginning next Wednesday on the Letter to the Romans. I want you to fall in love with God, or fall back in love with God, and the best way to do that is through God’s Word.

Second, we need to remember that the Lord is always with us—always—no matter how things look. Gideon tells the angel of the Lord: “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?’” In other words, Gideon wants to know, “Where are all the miracles? I’ve heard about what God did long ago, in the past, when he delivered us from captivity in Egypt, but where is God right now?”

Gideon sounds like any skeptic! Honestly, in atheist Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, he talks about how, if God exists, he must be very lazy, because the only sign of a miracle was what happened at the beginning of the universe, after which God just sort of let the world run on its own, according to the laws of physics. And even many Christians believe that God set the world in motion like a clockmaker winding a clock, and then he stepped back and let it run on its own. Occasionally God will intervene from on high to work a miracle or two

Don’t believe it it for a moment: The Bible says that in God we “live and move and have our being.” God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Each heartbeat you enjoy is a gift from God. Each breath you take is a gift from God. God gives you life and energy at every moment. God is always at work through the tiniest details of your life—whether we know it or not!

Notice the irony in Gideon’s words: even as he’s complaining to the angel of the Lord that there’s no sign of God anywhere because he doesn’t see any miracles, he doesn’t even realize he’s talking to an angel. Because as far as he knew, this angel looked just like any normal human being. Throughout the Bible, that’s the way angels look! Remember what Hebrews says: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Have you had any encounters with angels lately? You might have! How would you know?

My point is, God and his angels usually go about their work in a quiet and invisible way—in a behind-the-scenes sort of way. In a way that we can easily miss. It was true then, and it’s true now! But God is here, and God is at work. Though thick and thin. Through good and bad.

Third, we need to remember that the Lord alone gives us everything we need to flourish in this world. Consider Gideon. The angel greeted him as a “mighty warrior,” but he was anything but. After all, the angel finds Gideon hiding down in a winepress, winnowing wheat, to avoid being seen by the Midianites. You winnow wheat out in the open, preferably on top of a mountain, where you let the wind blow the chaff away. But he was afraid to do that! In and of himself, Gideon was no “mighty warrior.” He was cautious and timid and  fearful—which is why he kept on asking for signs from God to reassure him before he took action.

Yet he was successful in the mission God gave him. Why? Because in verse 34 we’re told that the “Lord’s spirit came over Gideon.”

Gideon complains about not seeing any miracles. The miracle is that this cowardly man has the courage and strength to do something he wouldn’t otherwise do. That, my friends, is a miracle. And it’s a miracle available to each one of us!

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.

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UGA running back Todd Gurley is a mighty warrior. He’s possibly the best player in all of college football and might even win the Heisman if he keeps doing what he did last week over Clemson.

Two years ago, he was a freshman sensation who won SEC Freshman of the Week after his breakout performance in his team’s victory over Tennessee.

And how did Gurley celebrate this victory, this award, and this recognition? The very next day, he got baptized at his church in Athens. He got baptized because he understood that winning a victory on a football field, as with winning a victory on a field of battle, pales in comparison to the victory that Jesus Christ won for us through his death on the cross and his resurrection. Talk about mighty warrior. Christ is the mightiest of them all: in his life he withstood the worst temptations that Satan could send his way; in his suffering and death on the cross he withstood not only the pain of physical torture but the pain of hell—which is separation from God—all because of our sins; and in his resurrection he conquered death itself. And he did this for you and me!

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