by: Denise Robinson
Judges 6:11-18; Rom. 12:1-2
The beginning of every new year seems to be filled with a mix of emotions: hope, determination to improve, unrest, dissatisfaction, a sense of uncertainty. Every year seems to bring something – economic issues, unemployment, war or violence, civil unrest, injustice. In 2020, we experienced all of that, and COVID as well. In my memory, I don’t think there’s a year we’ve wanted to get out of like 2020. But realistically – and without being pessimistic – will 2021 be any better? Hopefully, at least on the COVID front. But the truth is, and we all know it even if we don’t want to admit it, not right away and the outlook is mixed at best. So, what do we as Christians do? Is there an answer? Who has it?
Centuries ago, the nation of Israel was in a similar circumstance. The nation was suffering and it seemed as though God had removed God’s blessing. Their problem wasn’t a virus, it came from a nation of people known as the Midianites. But the result was poverty, pain, and isolation. In order to survive, the people of Israel – in families – hid out in caves in the hills, separating themselves from others. It was a form of social distancing before the term had ever been invented. And they lived this way, in these circumstances, for seven long years. Until God sent them a solution from an unlikely source – a man named Gideon.
When we first meet Gideon, he’s out in a field beating out wheat in a wine press. Those words don’t have much meaning for us today, but we need to understand what we are being told. Normally, in Gideon’s time, wheat was threshed by throwing it high up into the air. The wind would blow the chaff away and the wheat would fall to the ground. This was done over and over and over again until the chaff was all removed, leaving the wheat for flour in a pile. But because of Midianite raiding parties, this wasn’t possible. So, Gideon is using a wine press. Now with grapes and wine-making, you don’t want wind and you don’t want bare ground. Wine presses were located in pit dug down into the ground. The grapes could be stomped or pressed, and the wine collected in wood or stone boxes. But Gideon can be down in the press and be shielded from the dreaded Midianites.
Then, suddenly, an angel appears and greets Gideon calling him a “mighty warrior.” This had to have caught Gideon by surprise. First, he’s no warrior – he’s a farmer. Second, he views himself as anything but mighty. He’s afraid for his life and he’s in hiding. Next, the angel says, “The Lord is with you.” Now Gideon has questions. Nothing in Gideon’s life suggested that the Lord was with him. Gideon is clear in his response to the angel: “The Lord has abandoned us.” Gideon not only looked around him and saw death, pain, poverty, isolation, fear, and loss of faith – he was also experiencing it in his own life.
Next came a statement from the angel that had to have seemed laughable – “go and deliver Israel.” Gideon’s response was nothing if not honest: “Who, me?” Gideon saw himself as a small man in a pit trying to stay out of trouble in a world filled with trouble. He was from the tribe of Manasseh, the smallest of all the tribes. His family was the least of the families in the tribe and he was the youngest in his family. He was a nobody and he knew it. He had every reason to laugh and to be afraid. But God had a plan and God’s plan included Gideon. How would he respond? And what can we learn from Gideon’s response?
Lesson #1: God calls ordinary people. God hadn’t forgotten or abandoned Israel at all, but God needed someone to say “yes” in response to God’s call. We get the impression that God waited and did nothing for seven years – but I wonder. How many people did God try and call during those seven years? How many people ignored God or rejected the call?
Lesson #2: God sees the potential in us when we don’t see the potential in ourselves. How do you see yourself? Weak, incapable, too old or too young, fearful, inadequate. That’s not what God sees. He calls you – He calls each of us – “mighty warrior.” Without laughing.
Lesson #3: If God calls you, God will empower you. Even when you don’t feel like it and especially when you don’t feel like it. God has not abandoned us and God’s plan will succeed.
Lesson #4: We are not to be afraid. Gideon, after saying “yes” personally to God’s call, went out on an incredible recruiting spree and ended with up 32,000 volunteers to fight the Midianite army. It sounds like a lot until we read further and discover that the “Army of the East” numbered over 135,000. But then Gideon gave them all a pep talk and told all who were afraid to go home. 22,000 of his volunteers left; all of a sudden, he’s down to 10,000. The odds aren’t good, but at least he still has an army. Then God tells him to give the remaining 10,000 a test and send home those who failed the test. 9,700 failed! That left Gideon with just 300 men to fight a huge army. Impossible odds by all accounts, but the 300 prevailed.
Starting over, taking up a challenge, is unpredictable and it can be scary. But in truth, the Bible is one story after another of people starting over. The prophet Jeremiah had a tough job. He was a prophet at a time when people weren’t much interested in what God had to say. He was ignored, ridiculed, and thrown into prison. In spite of all of that, he kept delivering God’s message to the people. In one of the messages, God reminds the people, and us, of a promise: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” The prophet Isaiah didn’t have it much easier. In his day, the nation of Israel had splintered in half and both north and south were being harassed by foreign nations which would ultimately overcome them and take the people of Israel into captivity far from their homes. What was one of his messages from God? It’s found in Isa. 43:18-19: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
I think 2020 has often felt like we’re in a wilderness, or desert, or both. God promises to make a way. But to make that way, he looks to us. The sermon text for this morning comes from Romans 12:1-2 and Ephesians 4:23-24 (READ). Beginning new, starting over, is nothing less than a spiritual transformation that begins when our minds are renewed. Our thinking changes. We see ourselves as God sees us. Hello, you mighty warrior! Now get prepared to take on 2021!
There are two index cards in your bulletin and now is time to take them out. Before we can renew and transform, we need to forget the things of the old, the past. On this card, write “2020.” Now list the three things you most want to forget about 2020. Fold that card in half 1, 2, or 3 times and during Communion I invite you to come up and place the card on the altar rail. No one will look at it. I am going to take them home – without reading them – and burn them.
Now, on the second card write “2021.” On this card, I want you to list three places where you will look this year for signs of God’s promise. Gideon, Jeremiah, and Isaiah – and countless others – looked and heard and saw promising words from God in the worst of times. But they had to be open to listen. Take that card with you and put it somewhere that you will see it this year.