Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Partial Victories

Judges 2:1-15 and 6:1-16

 Judges begins with the death of Joshua and the leaders of Israel who came into the Promised Land with him.  We are now two generations removed from God’s great acts of deliverance as he brought his people out of Egypt.  Memories are fading.  

 We also learn at the beginning of Judges that the Israelites have not completed the conquest of the Promised Land.  We find long lists of all the various tribes that are still in the Land and all the cities that have not been taken.  

 Why the failure?  If God promised to help them drive out these nations, why have they not completed the task?  

 Maybe it was fatigue.  They’ve just grown tired of the effort.  Or maybe they’ve lost focus and forgot what they were supposed to do.  Or maybe they lost faith in God’s power to do what he promised.  Some of the people in the land were stronger than others.  One of the areas they never subdued was the land of the Philistines, down on the coastal plain.  Those people had iron chariots that they could use on the flat ground.  Better just to stay in the hills and leave well enough alone, they might have figured.  

 But in their failure to finish the job, not only have they negated God’s promise, but they have also left themselves a source of temptation.  The Canaanite people and their altars, their sacred places, the high places and the sacred groves, are still there to tempt them.  God wanted his people to live free from these temptations so that they would have the best possible chance to stay faithful to him.  But by their own lack of trust, they have multiplied their temptations.  

 And now they’ve begun to have relationships with the Canaanites.  They’ve entered into contracts and treaties and business deals with them.  They’ve begun to intermarry with them.  Having close relationships with people who do not share our basic beliefs and values is always a risky proposition.  Yes, there is the opportunity to influence them in godly ways, but it seems more often we are tempted in ungodly ways.  And so they begin to worship the gods of the Canaanites, Baal and Asherah. 

 Baal was the Canaanite god of rain and storms and also strength and fertility.  He was represented by a bull, a symbol of strength and fertility.  He had many local manifestations, hence the Bible often refers to “the Baals.”  Asherah was his lover.  She was the Canaanite goddess of love and war, and also a goddess of fertility.  She was

worshipped in sacred groves, and where there were no sacred groves, they would erect Asherah poles to represent trees.  

 Both of these gods were worshipped with what is called “cult prostitution.”  Their temples employed “sacred prostitutes.”  The belief was that the gods of fertility were best worshipped by “human fertility.”  

 These gods were appealing to the Israelites.  They offered prosperity:  rain and fertile fields and flocks.  They offered security through strength.  And they were amoral gods.  They made no moral demands on people.  They didn’t expect any kind of holiness of life.  And of course, they were also popular with their neighbors.

 The failure of the Israelites to complete the victory over the Canaanites set up an inevitable spiritual defeat.  They were surrounded by temptation because they had failed to remove it.  I would argue that the whole theme of the Book of Judges is that partial victory in the struggle with sin is the same thing as inevitable defeat. 

 The book is defined by cycles.  The people forget God and worship idols.  So God removes his hand of protection and allows them to be oppressed.  Eventually, they repent and turn back to God and cry out for his help.  God answers and delivers them.  And for a time, they stay with God, but as each generation fails to pass on faith in God to the next, they once again forget God.

 When God did deliver them from foreign oppression, he did it through the judges.  These were leaders, chosen by God, to keep them free from oppression.  But they weren’t kings, and they had no right of succession.  

 Gideon was the fourth of these judges raised up by God, so several generations after Joshua’s death.  And I think his life illustrates the spiritual state of Israel.  

 In his generation, it was the Midianites who were oppressing Israel.  These were the descendants of Abraham through his third wife, Keturah.  They were the people among whom Moses took refuge.  But they have turned against Israel.  They, and their allies, the Amalekites, have invaded the land of Israel.    

 When the angel of the Lord finds Gideon, he is threshing wheat in a winepress.  Threshing was done on the tops of hills, because you needed wind to do it right.  Threshing was the process of separating grain from chaff, and you needed the wind to

blow the chaff away.  But out of fear of the Midianites, Gideon is forced to do it in a winepress, a hole dug in the ground for pressing grapes.  Not a very effective place.

 The angel tells Gideon he has been chosen to lead the people against their enemies, but, like so many others, Gideon is not eager for the job.  “Who am I?  I’m the least of my family, and my family is the least among my clan!”  

 So Gideon asks for a sign.  And God gives him one.  And then God tells him to tear down his father’s altar to Baal and his Asherah pole.  Apparently, his father was some kind of a local leader, because his family shrine is also the local town shrine.  Gideon does it, but he’s still rather timid.  He does it by night.

 Sometimes being faithful to God means taking a stand against people we are close to, even our own community or family.  And taking a stand for God can be risky.  They threaten to kill whoever tore down the altar.  But in the end, the people decide that if Baal is upset about his altar, then he can do something about it himself.  

 Now that Gideon has made a stand and begun to recall people to God, God tells him it’s time to go out against the armies of Midian.  But once again, he’s still afraid.  He asks for a sign.  And God gives it to him.  Then he asks for another, and God answers again.  And finally, he goes out to do what God asked.

 But first, he has too many men.  He has 32,000 men to go up against an army of 135,000.  Not good odds, but maybe good enough that someone might think Gideon is just a good strategist.  So God tells him to get rid of some soldiers.  And God whittles his numbers down to just 300 men.  

 They come against the Midianites, and Gideon tells them that at the signal, they should all shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon.”  Maybe this is the first sign of trouble.  Gideon claims a part of the victory.  He’s becoming bolder, but also prouder.  

 The army of Midian is thrown into chaos.  They flee, and Gideon pursues.  He asks for help.  And the people of Ephraim ask, “Why didn’t you ask earlier?”  and Gideon gives a very wise an diplomatic answer.  But then when Gideon asks for help from Succoth and Peniel, they refuse.  They are, perhaps, afraid to help him.  And instead of being wise and diplomatic, Gideon threatens to kill them, which he does.  

 After the Midianites are defeated, the people offer to make Gideon their king.  And he refuses, saying, “The Lord will rule over you!”  Well, that’s good!  But then

Gideon asks for gold from the victory, and uses it to make a golden ephod.  An ephod was a priestly garment, used in divination, attempting to learn about the future through some magical means.  Apparently, Gideon thought he’d become pretty good at predicting the outcome of events.  And eventually, this golden ephod became an idol that was worshipped.  Gideon has gone from being an idol-breaker to an idol-maker.  

 And then there’s the matter of his wives.  He has a lot of them, and a concubine, a mistress, as well.  That didn’t work out well.  His son by his mistress, after his death, murders 69 of his other sons, starts a civil war, and just generally makes a mess.

 Gideon started out timid and afraid to trust God.  He became bold, but also arrogant.  And while he won a great military victory (with God’s help!), he also lost some great spiritual battles in his life.  He started to lust after wealth and many women.  His partial victory led to his inevitable defeat.  

 We’ve all won some spiritual battles in our lives.  And we all have some unfought spiritual battles in our lives.  What sins have persisted in our lives, waiting for the opportunity to surface?  

The three that tripped up Gideon are probably pretty common:  Pride, and the lust for wealth or pleasure.  Those sins seem to persist in the lives of many people.  A lot has changed in the 3000 years since Gideon, but the sins that persist in our lives and wait for the opportunity to trip us up have not changed.  

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome the sins in our lives.  But if we let them linger, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

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