[A sermon on the Uniform Series text for June 11, which is also Trinity Sunday in the liturgical year.]
The text for the morning is Judges 6:11-18, the beginning of the story of Gideon’s call. Gideon lives in the time of the “judges,” and is one of the heroes who step in and restore some semblance of order and stability to the land of Israel when things are going badly, the people are doing evil in the sight of YHWH, and the land is being oppressed by enemies; the time period is the couple of hundred years or so after the initial entry into the promised land under the leadership of Joshua. The stories of the judges come from those early days of the land of Israel, and a lot of that time was … pretty desperate.
When this particular story begins, the Midianites, who judging from the Bible maps are people from what today would be Arabia, are making regular raids into the land of Israel. The Midianites come in very large numbers, with large numbers of camels, who are big, hungry animals; they eat up everything in sight, leaving the Israelites starving and in essence making them work for their deadbeat Midianite “guests.” It would be a little like having all your third cousins come from out of state, sleep on all your furniture, eat you out of house and home, and never offer to pay for gas or buy a bag of groceries – if, that is, your third cousins are also the kind of people who threaten you with guns and knives if you ask questions like when they’re thinking about going back home. To make matters worse, when the Israelites cry out to YHWH, who you might think would help with this situation, YHWH answers back something like: “You know, when I rescued you from Egypt, I told you everything would be great in the land IF you followed my instructions, and guess what, you haven’t followed my instructions even a little bit and you’ve been worshipping the gods of the Amorites, and this is exactly what I told you would happen if you did THAT,” and keeps on washing the dishes or making dinner or whatever else YHWH is busy with instead of rescuing the Israelites again – using the approach we parents sometimes call “consequences.”
Here, then, is where we pick up the story of Gideon, in Judges 6:11-18:
11/ Now the angel of YHWH came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. 12/ The angel of YHWH appeared to him and said to him, “YHWH is with you, you mighty warrior.” 13/ Gideon answered him, “But sir, if YHWH is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not YHWH bring us up from Egypt?’ But now YHWH has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14/ Then YHWH turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” 15/ He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” 16/ YHWH said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” 17/ Then he said to him, “If now I have found favor with you then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. 18/ Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” And he said “I will stay until you return.”
There is a story told by another religious leader, the Buddha, which is sometimes called the story of “the jewel hidden in the robe.” There was a man who had a rich and powerful friend. One evening, the rich man was entertaining his friend at dinner, and realized that he wanted to give his friend a gift – a wish-fulfilling jewel, that would satisfy any desire. His friend, however, after eating and drinking, dozed off and fell fast asleep; just then, to make matters worse, the rich man received an urgent message calling him away immediately on important state business. So the benefactor hit on a plan: he took the wish-fulfilling jewel, and sewed it into the hem of his friend’s cloak, so he would have it with him all the time.
Later the man woke up, and went off to his home – none the wiser; over time, what with one thing and another, he fell on hard times, and then on harder times, and then into grinding poverty, and suffered many hardships. Finally his benefactor caught up with his friend again, and was shocked to see his desperate condition. “But I gave you the wish-fulfilling jewel, you have it with you … you don’t have to live this way!” He showed him where he had sewn the jewel into his robe, showed him he had had the means of alleviating his hardship and suffering with him all the time … but because he hadn’t known it, he hadn’t realized he was actually rich, richer than his wildest dreams, and could accomplish anything he set out to accomplish; he had had the power to pursue a better life with him all along.
Something similar, it seems, is going on in the story of Gideon. Not identical, but similar. Our first clue is that the angel of YHWH greets Gideon, who’s hiding, threshing out wheat at the bottom of a winepress because the people of Israel are facing such desperate times due to the Midianite raids, with the greeting “YHWH is with you, you mighty warrior.” Mighty warrior? Yes. “With you?” God is with you? Yes.
What could the angel be saying? What would it mean, “with you”? Well, what would it mean if we used that kind of language ourselves? That might be one good place to start.
Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t mean all that much … it’s part of a purely formal greeting, maybe all it means is that this is the time we say those words, like “The Lord be with you” “And also with you” – we might not really think about it meaning anything, we just know it’s time to start the worship service! And that might be what Gideon thought it meant when this man … who we know is an angel of YHWH, because the Bible tells us so, but we can’t quite tell whether Gideon knows it yet … when this man greets him in this way.
But other times, when we use the language of someone being “with us,” it definitely does mean something more than that, or is supposed to. The main thing it means, it seems, is about presence; if someone is with us, they are in our presence and we are in their presence, we can see them and they can see us, maybe we can talk to them and they can talk to us, we can communicate. When we arrange rides to some event, we work out who is going with whom … that is, who is going together in Mom’s car and who is going together in Dad’s, who will be riding together, in each other’s presence. When we make arrangements for vacations, we work out who is rooming with whom, who will be sharing a room. When we show up at a party or a restaurant or the grocery store and we say “I’m with them” we mean we will all be sitting or standing or paying together. Being with means being together.
But sometimes we say “with” when we can’t possibly mean physical presence. When I used to drop my daughter off at daycare, when she was really little, I used to say I would put kisses in her pockets. I would kiss my fingers and tuck those little kisses down into the pockets of her overalls, and tell her, “That way those kisses will be with you.” Because, the point was, I couldn’t be with her physically, she couldn’t see me, she couldn’t talk to me, but she could remember me, and she could know that I cared about her, and know that I’d be picking her up at the end of the day. We say the same thing about our friends and family when we are separated by long distances; when our children go away to college; when our parents move to another state; even when people die – we say “we’re with you in spirit.” That’s a different kind of “with” – the “with” that has to do with relationship, with history, memory, ongoing caring, and influence … when someone is “with us” in spirit, their choices and ideas and person continue to matter to us, affect us, influence us, whether or not their physical presence and communication are with us in a more tangible way.
And then on the other hand, there is the kind of “I’m with you” that means something like “I’m on your side,” “I’ll help you,” “I’ll support you,” I’ve got your back,” that kind of “with” – I’m one of the people you can count on to get things done, make things happen, and pursue your project. So that kind of “with” is almost an intensification of presence, it’s active and effective and involved and cooperating.
From what we know about the ancient Israelites, when they said “with,” like “YHWH is with you,” they had all those same meanings in mind, too. So I think we’re on the same page with the angel of YHWH and Gideon here. And I think that helps explain why Gideon would say what he says next – namely, “well, the way things are going these days it doesn’t really seem like God is all that with us, if you know what I mean.”
Gideon here simply points out the obvious, which he may think this person under the oak tree is ignoring: hey, what happened to the YHWH who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt with signs and wonders and a mighty hand? When was the last time we saw the mighty hand of YHWH working in favor of the Israelites around here? If God is with us, why am I threshing wheat at the bottom of a winepress to hide the harvest from the marauding Midianites? He’s polite about his objection, but it’s a real objection.
And I think it’s worth pointing out that in the context of this passage, and this story, Gideon becomes a leader of Israel and a warrior and deliverer precisely because he raises this real, practical objection.
The ancient rabbis pointed out that Gideon’s objections have a lot to do with seeking to defend Israel and to find some way, however small, to commend Israel once again to God; some point, some argument, that would create some basis for a restored relationship between Israel and God. They tell a story about Gideon looking back to YHWH’s liberation in Egypt and saying, well, YHWH liberated Israel then, and if it was because they deserved it at all, then that merit could apply to this generation, too – God could liberate us for their sakes. And if they didn’t deserve it, if God just liberated Israel then because God wanted to do it, then again, we could appeal to God to do the same for us, for the same reason. Either way, according to the rabbis, Gideon is struggling to find a reason to appeal to God for the deliverance of the Israelites. This is a meritorious act on Gideon’s part, a heroic act. It helps explain why the angel of YHWH seeks him out by the winepress. Gideon’s desire to deliver Israel makes him someone after God’s own heart, because the deliverance of Israel is, ultimately, what God also desires.
In this story, Gideon’s being able to see the way things actually are, not being content with pious platitudes, but seeking the real benefits of the relationship with the God of Israel, this is not rude or offensive, this is a good thing, this is the reason God shows up … because that perception that God’s being with us is supposed to mean something real already represents a turning toward God, an orientation (a willingness, a desire) to expect something real from God.
And God’s response, in turn, is to turn towards Gideon. Because as often happens in these stories, when the angel of YHWH shows up, can YHWH be far behind? The angel is a vehicle of communication; but YHWH is the presence of that communication, the divine that comes with and in that message. And what God says to Gideon now is: OK, then, deliver Israel in this might of yours – because the might is there, this expectation that the God of Israel is a liberator is a source of might – you’ve got the job.
Now sometimes, when someone is with us, it complicates things for us. Demands, expectations, challenges come with that “with”. When we’re alone, we can daydream. When we’re with someone, especially someone who expects us to put our money where our mouth is, someone who’s watching to see if we walk our talk, we might actually have to do something! Gideon shows another side of his character here; he might not feel entirely up to this job that he’s just been commissioned for; he makes a couple of excuses – “my clan isn’t strong, and I’m just the youngest” … we today might say something like “I don’t know whether I really have the qualifications … the training … the aptitude … the support system in place … the time available” What we might really be saying is something like oh wow, this is going to be a lot of work; this is going to change my life, this could demanding, and I would have so much to learn, and I might make mistakes or might even fail … we can see the negative possibilities so clearly …
Because after all, we know our world, the world we live in. We know how it is with projects; we know a bold project, a project that needs doing, a challenging project, comes with possibility but also with risk and maybe even danger and difficulty. We’d be naïve to ignore the ways it could go wrong. And our reasonable rational selves might hesitate to trust our sense – if we have it, because we don’t always – that somehow this task or project is … somehow pre-approved. So I feel most of us will be able to relate to Gideon here.
But in the conversation God has with Gideon, God actually tells Gideon that the project is pre-approved. God says: I’ll be with you, and you’ll succeed. That “with” again, and it seems to be that actively involved “with” we spoke of earlier. Gideon had questioned whether God was really with Israel, and now God is saying yes, Gideon, I’ll be with you, and you’ll be leading Israel, so, I’ll be with Israel, and yes, you are going to see the results of a might that comes from God’s being with you, that way.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I think … I imagine … that I would enjoy having a conversation like that with God. At least, I say that now. I think … I imagine … that I would like to hear from God that I have a job, and get a job description, and be told that God is going to be with me, and it’s going to work out super great. I think I would like that. But the Bible suggests that the folks who’ve actually had these conversations have mostly not enjoyed them that much, and have hesitated to sign on the dotted line, so to speak. So I take that seriously. And I can see how it might depend on the job; because if it were a really really hard job, a job like the one facing Gideon, I think I can imagine feeling very much like Gideon seems to feel – like I’m a little sorry I made such a big stink about this earlier, because now it’s going to be a lot harder to back down and out of this …
At this point, we learn that Gideon is someone who needs to have some extra reassurance. We’ll keep learning this about Gideon. God seems to be aware of that, and does not seem to mind providing this extra reassurance to Gideon, either. This time, Gideon says – OK, let’s just see if you can stay with me in a normal way, let’s start with that. I’ll go prepare an offering, and I’ll come back here. So if you’ll stay with me that long, I’ll have something to go on here …
And God says “I’ll be right here till you get back.” That is: I’m with you. I mean it.
Gideon’s story goes on for a couple more chapters, and Gideon does go on to receive several additional reassurances from God, and to deliver Israel from the hand of the Midianites, just as God promised here at the very beginning. One implication of this may be that, if God tells us something, we really can rely on it. That is, when God tells us God’s with us, it means something.
The thing is … God has told us that. Today is the day in the church year that we celebrate Jesus’ saying to his disciples “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) It’s also the day that we remember that before that he said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (One of those crazy big jobs …) And this “with”ness of Jesus might be similar to, if not identical to, that wish-fulfilling jewel sewn into the hem of the man’s cloak. It’s there, with us … but do we know it, and what do we do with it?
With that in mind, how do our stories compare to Gideon’s? Do we ourselves ever question whether God is really with us – because if so, why is all “this” – whatever “this” is – happening? Is there anything we can learn, for ourselves and our stories, from the story of Gideon?
One thing I think we may learn is that God – even when God is doing “consequences,” as God was doing with the Israelites and the Midianites – is open to our honest forthright communication. If we ask “what is this ‘with’ about right now, when my husband is sick, my child is experimenting with drugs, my job is not as secure as I thought it was …” then God is, maybe paradoxically, even more with us for that conversation than if we keep on trying to pretend that everything is OK and we’re coping. Real communication is part of real “with”ness. For that matter, it’s already God’s “with”ness that inspires and underwrites this desire we have to experience the reality of God’s presence. When we are asking the question of whether God is with us, when we’re wanting to share God’s presence, that’s already a manifestation of God’s presence in our lives, calling us on to something fuller and deeper.
That desire is already a source of “might” – it was the source of Gideon’s might, that desire for something honest and real in the relationship with God – and it is the starting point for more. Because in the end it is God’s “with” us that empowers us to rise to the tasks God give us or calls us to take on.
So let’s trust that God really is with us … let’s celebrate this reassurance given to us by Jesus … and let’s remember that there is nothing wrong with wanting and asking to see it, to feel it, to know it from our experience. As Gideon reminds us, in fact, that is a form of turning to God that God has been known to approve and reward in the past.
Let’s continue to say “God be with you!” – and let’s expect it to mean something real and practical … and even if that turns out to mean we will also have to feel unequal to the task at hand, it will be worth it … if Gideon is anything to go by.