Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gideon

Judges 6:11–27, 36–40
When Gideon is introduced to us he is described by God’s messenger as a ‘mighty warrior’ who is going to deliver Israel from oppression by the people of Midian. This isn’t a statement of fact; it’s a prophecy. It’s what Gideon is meant to become, what he could become if he trusted in God. But for now he is the very essence of timidity. He’s hiding in a wine press so that he can thresh some wheat and keep it concealed from the enemy. He’s not  a leader; he’s the very opposite of a man of action.
The hallmark of Gideon is that he’s ‘too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do [as the Lord has told him] by day,’ so ‘he does it by night.’ The Lord tells him not to fear but he goes on being afraid. He’s a very ordinary hero.
Normally, holy people put their trust in God, but Gideon is famous for ‘laying a fleece’, that is for demanding a sign that he really can rely on God’s power. What’s less well remembered is that he demands not one sign, but two, what one commentator has called ’pushing his luck’! He reminds us of Moses, another holy man who demanded signs from God.
It’s this sense of inadequacy, that seems to make Gideon and Moses the right sort of people to serve the Lord. He doesn’t choose the swaggering sort of leader. He chooses people who are unsure of themselves, who have doubts. And later on Gideon’s army is whittled down from 32,000 to 300 men who brandish trumpets and torches rather than conventional weapons, and win their victory by sowing panic in the enemy camp rather than by confronting them head on. It’s not an action movie outcome.
If the 32,000 soldiers assembled by Gideon had been allowed to attack the Midianites in open battle Israel would have taken the credit away from God, saying, ‘We did it ourselves.’ So instead the manner of the victory makes clear that it belongs to the Lord and the unlikely strategy that he’s instructed Gideon to follow.
But the victory that Gideon is inspired to lead in is not the end of his story. Sadly he turns from being someone who was once a reluctant leader into someone who now feels that he might be able to establish a royal line. He wasn’t a natural leader himself but he begins to imagine that his own children might be born leaders.
Things start to go wrong on the eve of the original attack when Gideon instructs his men to blow their trumpets around the whole camp and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon!’ Why, ‘And for Gideon’? The man who was once hiding from the enemy has already come a long way.
Although he goes on to be the judge of Israel for forty years, and must therefore be counted a success in political terms, he does some very cruel things, such as forcing people who had disobeyed him to lie down under a covering of thorns and briars so that his army can trample on them.
One commentator says that there are only brief glimpses in the Book of Judges of Gideon the statesman, acting wisely and generously, and these - coupled with his military victory - prompt the people of Israel to ask him to become their king. At the time he reminds them that ‘the Lord is their king’. But this proves to be the highpoint of his career as a judge, and perhaps it also marks the moment when the rot sets in, because he realises that a sort of royal kingship, as God’s chosen representatives, is now within his family’s grasp.
He asks the people to collect the gold they have captured and melt it down to make an ephod - a sort of chasuble or ornate outer garment worn by priests when they’re offering sacrifices. There’s nothing wrong in principle about making a golden ephod, presumably as a way of saying thank you to God for the victory he’s given to Israel, except that arguably splashing out on fancy gold garments is not the right way to please Him.
However, Judges says that the ephod is put on display in Gideon’s home town and the people come and worship it. Perhaps Gideon puts it on himself sometimes and begins to act like a priestly king - interceding between God and his people. The writers of Judges certainly think he’s taken a step too far.
We’ve already seen troubling echoes in Gideon’s story of the earlier example of the prophet Moses. There are also echoes here of the story of Moses’ brother Aaron, who got the people of Israel to donate pieces of gold jewellery so that he could make a golden calf. The calf was probably meant to be the footstool for God’s throne, the holy place where his feet touched the earth, and it was intended to be the centrepiece of a ‘festival to the Lord’. But it too gets the thumbs down from the writers of the Old Testament.
Whether or not he tries his hand at being a priest, Gideon certainly starts to act a bit like a king in other ways. He calls one of his children, or his son gets the nickname, ‘My father is king.’ Hubris - excessive pride or overweening self-confidence - seems to be getting to work here on Gideon and his family.
What does his story tell us about the expectations we place on our leaders today? There’s plenty of evidence - in the lives of leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron - that once in power hubris got to work on them too. They soon began to think their judgement was always right and that things would always turn out for the best with them at the helm. All of them were proved wrong and we’re still living with the consequences. So that suggests we should be praying hard for our political leaders today, as they steer us towards choppy and uncharted waters.
Is there a warning here for us, too, when we find ourselves playing a leadership role, as ministers, church leaders, parents, managers, team leaders or just old hands at the game? Do we manage to keep a proper sense of perspective? Do we remember our weaknesses and susceptibilities, our character flaws as well as our strengths? Can other people set us straight when we wander off the right track, or are we like the proverbial Yorkshire person, whom you can always tell but whom you can’t tell very much?
What does Gideon’s story tell us about the grace of God and how does it change the way we think about our own vocation from God? Does it remind us of our need to trust God and to rely constantly on his help in all the challenges we face - large or small, extraordinary or everyday?
One commentator says that in the Book of Judges the people of God demonstrate a persistent vulnerability to sin and a chronic lack of faithfulness. They seem incapable of anything other than brief episodes of keeping their covenant with God.
What warning does that have for us about our capacity to live out our own calling in faith and love - both as individuals and as the Church? We mustn’t kid ourselves. It’s surely a good thing that we confess our sins each day, and together each week, and renew our covenant each year.

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