Saturday, May 6, 2017

Christian courage: our weakness, God's power (Judges 6:7-224,33-36 2 Timothy 1:6-9a)

I’m a bit of a Marvel movie junkie. DC I’m not to sure about, or the stuff put out by Sony because they had the rights, but the Marvel studios stuff is great… The Avengers, Guardians of the galaxy, Thor, iron man, captain America, ant man. I know it’s not deep engaging serious cinema… its blockbuster fantasy written to a formula: With cheesy one liners, moments of pathos, facing down overwhelming odds then snatching victory in the face of imminent defeat.  Moments of self-doubt and then hardened resolve. Moved to great feats by altruistic resolve and tempted by the corrupting allure of power. Pulp psychology character development moments interspersed with spectacular fast paced, special effect driven action scenes. The obligatory cameo by Comic book legend Stan Lee and that little something extra, the teaser scene at the end of the credits… to want to make you come back next time. I love it for entertainment and relaxation but not for my theology.

It is easy for us to contemplate biblical characters through that mythic lens and see them as super human or heroic figures, rather than ordinary people like you and I, that we can relate to, who God has called and given his Holy Spirit to enable and empower them. One of the people in the Old Testament that I think epitomises that is Gideon in the book of Judges; a very real human flawed person whom God uses to save his people. A man whom commentator Lawson Younger Jr says is characterised by fearfulness and reluctance but who God sees as a mighty warrior. A man who speaks to us of what Christian courage is; our weakness and God’s power.

Leading up to Pentecost this year we are looking at the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, how God has been with, spoke to and moved through his people Israel by the Spirit. It’s a whirlwind survey, moving from the Spirit hovering over the water in the creation narrative at the beginning of Genesis  to the Spirit being poured out on all the believers at Pentecost in fulfilment of the prophecy in Joel chapter 2.  It’s not exhaustive or comprehensive, but I hope it gives us insight to the working of the Holy Spirit then and how that changes with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what it means for us today.

The book of judges covers the period in Israel’s history between the conquest and settlement of the land God had promised to Abraham, to the establishment of a king in Israel. It talks of a cycle in Israel’s early history of Israel forgetting the covenant, and falling into worshipping the gods of nations around them, and God who is faithful to his covenant, doing what he said would happen and Israel is oppressed. Then the people will cry out to God and God would show mercy and sent them a deliverer, and Israel would come back to worshipping their God.That cycle continues again and again As a book it sets the scene as does all the Old Testament scriptures for the need of a saviour like Jesus Christ.

The Gideon story fit in that cycle. Israel has once again turned to worshipping the God’s of the people round them Ba’al and Asherah. These were fertility God’s who worshippers could manipulate to give a good harvest by pagan rituals and who did not demand the kind of just society that YHWH, called Israel to be.  The Midenites came and raided and terrorised Israel, they would wait for Israel to plant their crops and just as harvest time came they would swoop in from the desert and take the lot. They had a technological advantage which made them hard to combat… Camels. Camels allowed for swift mobility and the ability to strike out of the desert lands. They have just recently remasters Lawrence of Arabia and you can see that Bedouin tribes were able to use that kind of mobility in the desert to attack the Turks, where they least expected them.  In the face of this the people cry out to God. Unlike in previous cycles, God first sends a prophet who tells them why thing had gone wrong and calls them back to worship the Lord their God. But also we have God going to call Gideon to be the person he would raise up to defeat the Midenites.

The passage we read today is God’s calling of Gideon. Unlike other call narratives in judges, this one is in the form of a theophany: we have this mysterious figure turn up who as the story goes on Gideon realises is none other than the Lord himself. The word angel can mean a spiritual being, or simply a messenger, but in Ancient Near Eastern society the messenger from a king was treated as if that king himself was present and speaking, they were an extension of their rule and power. 

Lets face it Gideon would not be your natural first choice to be a military leader. We meet Gideon in a wine press threshing wheat.  A wine press was a pit in the ground used for treading on grapes to get wine. Gideon is threshing wheat there because he is hiding it from the Midenites. It was usually done on t a threshing floor which was out in the open and easily visible, and the Midenites would see the harvest being bought in and processed and sweep in and grab it. Gideon is afraid of them, but the Lord’s greeting is mighty warrior. Now Gideon may have justified to think God was saying mighty worrier.

 God tells Gideon he will save his people. Gideon gives a series of three reasons against that idea. The first is that while he knows the story of God bring his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness, he does not see God doing that sort of thing today. In fact Gideon and his family and village were syncretic in their worship, in the part of Judges 6 we didn’t read today it talks of his family have Asherah pole and an altar to Ba’al, that Gideon destroys. He says that he is the least in his family and his clan is the least in the least tribe of Israel, who am I to do such a thing.  He doubts what he has been told and so seeks a concrete sign, a reoccurring thing for Gideon.

Each time God’s response is the promise of his abiding presence, of his power being with Gideon, and finally in an act of burning up the offering that Gideon prepares with fire. Gideon finally get it that this is God speaking and so begins to obey, and act.

In our reading this morning we jumped to the forces of the midenites and all the people from the east with their wonderful hard to pronounce names getting together to  attack Israel, and Gideon who had learned to trust in God, is filled by the Spirit and blows a trumpet calling Israel to gether and go to war. In fact that are all arrive first class...  as you could say Israels army is Shofar driven... Sorry bad joke). In God’s presence he has found real courage. Of course, spoiler alert, Gideon does become a mighty warrior, he defeats an army of overwhelming numbers with just three hundred men. Not with superior weaponry or technological advantages but with the first example of psychological warfare, in the night they panic their enemies with trumpet blasts, lamps and shouting. And the sword of the Lord, a non-deplume for the Holy Spirit causes the midenites and their allies to think they are being attacked and fight each other and run away. It’s a victory that could only be God.

What does this have to say to us today? How does it connect to the Holy Spirit moving in our lives?

Three things.

Firstly, God still calls people like Gideon, people like you and I to be about bringing his salvation and Kingdom to his people and world. Jesus commissioned his followers to go into all the world and make disciples, to be his witness in Judea Samaria and to the ends of the earth. People like us, you and me, with our fears and our flaws and our reluctance and excuses and reasons why not, our demands, our wish for a concrete sign, our questions and doubts. One of teaching that has stopped many people experiencing the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and seeing God move is the same one Gideon had. But That’s all way back then not here and now. Like Gideon we’ve bought into the God’s of the people round us and we can’t think of God doing something beyond the natural world, moving in us by his spirit.

We can say who are we! How can we make a difference, I’m only one small voice. I’m from the wrong people, a small country. We forget Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians that God uses the weak things of this world to defeat the strong and God uses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise. The picture that comes to mind is a tired weary seamstress on her way home on the bus across Montgomery Alabama refused to give up her seat because of the segregation laws in that state, and Rosa Park was the spark of the civil rights movement. Her statue is in rotunda of the state building in Washing DC she is the only one seated. A elderly Maori women setting out with her grandchild in hand on a long walk to the capital, wellington, to call for the upholding of treaty land rights for her people, dame whina cooper. Others just want a spiritual experience and will go from this place to that place to seek it, and forget that the manifestation of God’s Spirit is for the manifesto of God’s Kingdom, witness, healing, salvation, peace , justice.

Secondly, like Gideon the power and ability to do the things we are called to do, comes not from who we are but God’s presence with us. What makes the great commission doable is Jesus promise to be with us till the end of the Age. What makes us able to witness to the risen Jesus Christ is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in all who believe. Peter is a great example of this, on the night that Jesus was betrayed he denied knowing Jesus three times, fifty odd days later there he is filled with the Holy Spirit speaking to a crowd of well over three thousand people with conviction and authority. When he is thrown in jail and told to shut up about this Jesus fellow, he and the other believers pray for the strength to carry on, and the place where they meet shakes. He is even willing to step across that barrier between Jew and Gentile, a huge revolutionary step.

In our New testament reading Paul writes to his young intern Timothy, who is in his first solo position in Ephesus, Timothy is timid by nature, unsure of himself and I know from personal experience daunted by the task before him, aware of his short comings and faults. You know I may just be projecting my own issue on Timothy there. Paul encourages him to fan into flame the gifts he has been given, to join paul in suffering and serving the gospel and encourages him by reminding him that God has given us a spirit of power, love and of self-control.’   Paul reminds him of God’s presence with him. Power, love and self-control together paint a great picture of the Spirit of Christ being with him, don’t they? Power without love and compassion can soon devolve into tyranny and oppression, we’ve sadly seen that in the history of the world and church. When it is used with Love and compassion as the focus, it is to see healing and wholeness and good for all. Self-control, a fruit of the Spirit’s work gives us the wisdom to know how to combine both.

Lastly, it is good to have hero’s of the faith people we admire from scripture and history and the world around us that inspire and motivate us. It’s even ok to like super hero’s and if you’ll excuse the play on words marvel at what they can do, but the call of God is not simply on our hero’s it is for the ‘here I am’s!’ the  ‘here we are’ ordinary people that God is calling to be his witnesses who he has placed his Holy Spirit upon his spirit of power love and self-control. Who with all our fears and doubts and failings and faults will be willing to hear God’s call and obey, knowing that God is with us and that makes all the difference, not just blowing our own trumpet, but to step out with Christian courage aware of our weakness and trusting in God’s powerful presence.

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