Monday, January 31, 2011

the immaturity of celebrity culture

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
1 Corinthians 1:27-29

When Christians create their own celebrity culture and celebrate it, they are showing intense immaturity. That is the analysis of Paul. The Corinthian church was rife with this divisive celebration of celebrity. And it is the first thing that the apostle Paul chose to rebuke in them.

Why is celebrity culture not in alignment with the mission of the church? It is because we are meant to celebrate only one Person: Jesus Christ. All the rest of us are expendable in that great worship of Jesus! To follow human leaders at the expense of following Jesus is to invite a form of idolatry into our lives. Paul was being made into a celebrity, and he never even asked for it! Calvin was right to observe that the human heart is an idol-making factory. The Corinthian church was so rife with this celebrity idolatry that the divisions began to hurt the church. Paul rebuked it.

Celebrity culture runs counter to God's plan. God does not need "great men". He chooses weak, foolish, lowly, and despised people to work through, and He always will. But we Christians find celebrity to be somehow comforting. American evangelical culture is probably worse about it than they ever were in Corinth! I had to take a course my freshman year in Bible College with the pretentious title: "Great Men - Great Revivals". And we hardly ever opened our Bibles in that course. It was all about a survey of evangelists throughout 200 years of evangelical culture. It was a who's who of celebrity idolatry. And we are still at it... just look at the evangelical penchant for marketing. It is all about a name.

I think when we make a big deal about people God has gifted to teach and to lead, we run the risk of boasting before God. And that is counter-productive to the goals of the kingdom. How about instead just making a big deal about the message of the gospel that those teachers have been given to preach! It is time to let Jesus be the only celebrity in the church. But we have to humbly admit that there is not anything in anyone else worth making a big deal about.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Friday, January 28, 2011

epilogue: everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 21:25

This two sentence epilogue is a telling statement of a desperate society. The lack of leadership led to a shortage of commitment. The people struggled to follow God. And self-determination led to chaos. This was spiritual and social meltdown. The two went together hand and glove.

Simple and scary observations come to mind when reflecting on this. My culture increasingly places its highest value on individual choice and freedom. These are not bad values, in the proper context, but they have been idolized. Now people think that there are no moral norms. And by moral, they mean primarily personal standards regarding spiritual and sensual behaviors. The theory is that as long as nobody "gets hurt" physically, anything goes. But the outcome is social and personal chaos.

I know. I have seen it more than I can count. It is devastating. I have counseled people who cannot trust anyone because they have been so betrayed by everyone whom they thought they loved, or whom they thought loved them because they based that "love" on a physical relationship. Our world cannot tell you that their is a noble part of love that transcends the sexual dimension. We have let naturalism and science be the priests that tell us all that we should do. And it has led us to a false idolatry that has left our hearts empty and unfulfilled.

This epilogue of the Book of Judges could well be the epitaph of post-modernism. It is where we are right now without God.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Thursday, January 27, 2011

seeking God in tragedy

And the people of Israel went up and wept before the LORD until the evening. And they inquired of the LORD, "Shall we again draw near to fight against our brothers, the people of Benjamin?" And the LORD said, "Go up against them."
Judges 20:23

This is the account of a civil war in Israel. The tribe of Benjamin chooses to fight for autonomy by refusing to give up a gang of "worthless men" (rapists and thugs), to a national delegation. Thus they were opposed to the justice of God's law. The nation is ready to do what it takes, but reluctant to go to war over this matter. Benjamin has a reputation as a tribe of fierce warriors. This was not going to be an easy fight.

One very good thing occurred in this tragedy. The leaders seriously inquired of the Lord. They went to God with fasting and weeping at every step. When the initial skirmishes led to large defeats, it would have been very easy to lick wounds and go home. Instead, they kept coming with humility before God. He kept assuring them that commitment to the justice of the Law was going to be rewarded.

There was eventual "success", but as in all civil war, it came at great cost for both sides. The tribe of Benjamin was nearly wiped out. Israel suffered high casualties as well. This was a very tragic and violent struggle. But in the end, Israel's commitment to God prevailed. What is interesting is that the chronicler of this battle in Judges is compelled to emphasize the valor of both sides of the struggle. Even though the Benjamites were wrong, they were very brave in the defense of their cause. That shows us that some level of healing had already taken place by the time the book of Judges was written. Seeking the Lord had even brought healing to the nation after a gory civil war.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

total breakdown

And all who saw it said, "Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak."
Judges 19:30

This is a difficult passage to read. The social fabric of Israel had deteriorated to such a point that God's design for the nation was impossible to see. The Israelites were living like Canaanites. Here is how the society looked. 1) Polygamy was not looked down upon. 2) a lack of hospitality to strangers was experienced... unheard of even today in the Middle East. 3) complete abandon to any sexual impulse marked at least one city: Gibeah. 4) The sexual abuse and murder of a young woman in the city square goes without legal recourse in that same city.

When one man seeks justice for this tragedy, he resorts to macabre horror tactics to get the attention of the leaders throughout Israel. He ships body parts of the murder victim to each tribe in Israel, hoping the shock value will unite the tribes against the Benjamites who murdered her. It is really a dark story... not the kind of thing that ever made a flannelgraph lesson in Sunday School.

The end of the book of Judges shows the total unraveling of civility. It is no accident that this unraveling begins with a tale of idolatry. When we abandon God for our own ends, we will find darkness. It is inevitable. Human nature is such that if left without God's guidance and commitment it will follow the dark dictates of selfish desire. We have seen it even today. The 20th century was the deadliest century in terms of wars and human destruction. And science, which claimed to be a light for humanity, was a major reason why. God was abandoned in worship of technology. Naturalism and evolutionism made the abandonment of moral standards easier. In return we got mass murdering philosophies such as genocide, eugenics, fascism, communism, and relativistic moralism. The reality is that we are no better now in the 21st century. Our darkness is just more individualized and fractured... with postmodern philosophy leaving fragments of the 20th century philosophies around like unexploded bombs, waiting for individuals or splinter groups to tinker with and set off an explosion.

We are not better without God. That is the sad observation of my society. And for the most part our world knows it is not better. It just refuses to acknowledge that there is a spiritual source to this problem.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

the rapid spread of false faith

And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land.
Judges 18:30

The story of Micah's false religion takes an unusual turn in chapter 18. The tribe of Dan is still wandering through the Promised Land, looking for a settling inheritance to claim. Five spies are sent out to scout a possible place of attack. They happen through the the hill country of Ephraim and encounter Micah and his priest. After inquiring of him, they meet with successfully spying out Laish as a city to claim as their own.

The spies lead the Danite army back to attack Laish, and on the return journey, stop by Micah's shrine and successfully plunder the priest, the idol Micah has made, and convince the priest to come work for them. After sacking Laish and rebuilding it as their new home, they install the priest as the tribal worship leader. It is only at that point that we discover the identity of this yet unnamed priest.

Both Micah and the tribe of Dan had scored a major name in their false religion draft! The very grandson of Moses was their priestly leader! The faithlessness of the people was so widespread that within a generation of being in the Promised Land, even the family of Moses was not only caught up in in, but was actually leading a form of false religion. By serving as a priest, Jonathan was disobedient to God's Law. By worshipping an idol, the Danites were breaking the covenant. By setting up their own rival priesthood, form of religion, and place of sacrifice, they were disobeying the God of Israel. False faith had become commonplace.

The lesson that I see here is that apostasy can quickly obliterate the truth. When everyone did what was right in their own eyes, the absolute standards God had made in His Word were easily discarded. They kept to some forms of the old truth. They still "inquired of the Lord". They still had some form of identity with the worship of Yahweh. But they refused to obey Him fully. They wanted to mold God into something comfortable. They created a designer religion, drafted a celebrity leader, and quickly broke faith with the covenant made with God in the Law.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Monday, January 24, 2011

a classic path to apostasy

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 17:6

This telling little verse reiterates four different times in the book of Judges when Israel's deterioration is attributed to a lack of leadership. This verse tells me what an autonomous worldview gives a society. Individual choice and absolute "freedom" prevailed, even under repeated oppression by the Canaanites around Israel. The book of Judges ends with the religious and moral entropy that resulted from people doing what each person thought was right.

Judges 17 tells the story of Micah. He is a thief and a liar. But somehow, when he confessed to robbing his own mother (!) his mother was so taken with his confession that she devotes the returned sum of silver (which was a very large amount) to the creation of an idol. Micah immediately sets up shop with a competing religious system. He hires a Levite to come serve as his "priest", which in his mind lends God's legitimacy to his idolatry, and begins profiting from his idolatry. He is so twisted in his thinking that he actually attributes the levite's willingness to serve as priest as a blessing from God (Judges 17:13).

Our society has magnified individual choice. We are taught to be self-made men, to value personal rights, and to think things through for ourselves. Not everything about those values is wrong... if we do them from a framework where obedience to a Holy God guides them. But when a Christian worldview does not provide safeguards, you end up with something very like the situation here in Judges. Sinners tend to make sinful personal choices. Selfishness marks our self-made values. Left alone, without any input from God, we will create moral chaos, and we are so spiritually stupid, we may not even realize it! That is what happened to Micah. He made of his sin an idol. He saw the idol and the religious system he personally created around it as part of the provision of God Himself.

The sad thing is that Micah had probably convinced himself that his idol was a representation of Yahweh. In his view, he WAS worshipping God. But he had no category of holiness by which to gauge his life except his own experience. That is what happens when we don't have the Word of God help frame our worldview. It is a classic path to apostasy.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Thursday, January 20, 2011

selfishness can make you uncaring

When Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart, she sent and called the lords of the Philistines, saying, "Come up again, for he has told me all his heart." Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her and brought the money in their hands.
Judges 16:18

Samson's undoing was his selfish pursuit of sex. Every run-in that he has with the Philistines, he has in the sexual pursuit of a Philistine woman. It began with the woman he wanted for his wife. It moved on to a relationship with an unnamed prostitute in Gaza. It culminated in his "relationship" with Delilah whose was instructed by Philistine officials to seduce Samson. The enemy knew his weakness and created the means to cater to his selfishness.

Three times Samson toys with Delilah. Three times he wakes up in her bedroom and fights off the attacking Philistines. He had to realize that her pestering of him to know the secret of his strength was a trap. But he fell for the bait every time. His selfishness led to carelessness and then to not caring about it at all. It is at this last stage that he experienced failure in complete humiliation. He told Delilah all about his Nazirite vows. Though his spiritual unravelling began well before that, it finalized with that revelation to her. He obviously did not care about his relationship with God at all. It was all about his relationship with this woman who gave him the pleasures he craved.

And every Sunday School kid knows the outcome of this story. Delilah calls in the barber while Samson sleeps. His head is shaved. The Philistines subdue him, blind him. and sentence him to a life of manual slavery. He gets to do the work of a draft donkey... grinding grain at the prison mill. It is at this point that repentance of a sort comes upon Samson. He talks to God (rather than listening to himself) for the first time in his life. God answers his prayer and in his last act, Samson delivers Israel from more Philistines in his death than he ever did in life.

Samson is a warning against the self-driven agenda. We live in a culture where the "good life" and personal desires are the drive for almost anyone. But the biblical worldview warns us that such thinking ends in personal tragedy, as evidenced in Samson. God wanted to do so much with him. I believe that Samson had so much untapped spiritual potential because of his selfishness. In the end, it was better for him to be a spectacularly selfish dead national hero than a living judge playing around with the Philistines.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

pound of flesh

Then 3,000 men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam, and said to Samson, "Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?" And he said to them, "As they did to me, so have I done to them."
Judges 15:11

Samson has become a revenge machine. His story is reading like a contemporary action movie. He has become the antihero. His rage burns against the Philistines. The cycle just grows in intensity in this chapter.

At the beginning of the chapter, he decides to reconcile with his estranged wife and father-in-law. He finds that in his absence, his father-in-law has given his wife to the best man at his wedding. He is so enraged that he burns down all the standing grain of the city... going from angry killer to pyromaniac. The Philistines respond by interrogating Samson's in-laws and burning his wife and father-in-law at the stake. Samson's rage burns on when he then evidently goes into the town and by sheer physical strength kills many men.

He then literally goes off to live in a cave and sulk. Brute strength and survivalist skills now mark Samson's lifestyle. He is on the edge... the outlaw who always has something to prove. And now he is making his own people uncomfortable. Three thousand men of Judah come to Samson's cave and demand that he let them hand him over to the Philistine army. He agrees, knowing full well this will be his next opportunity for revenge.

His answer to the Judahites is telling. He is only doing to his enemies what he thinks has been their treatment of him. He is living for retaliation. It is consuming him. But even this rage is being used by God to deliver Israel from oppression. Samson is handed over to a thousand soldier contingent. And he quickly dispatches every one of them with the jawbone of a dead donkey! He must have been quite the fighter!

The end of chapter fifteen finds Samson sulking in the desert, complaining to God and finding God supplying his need supernaturally. God is using this selfish, childish brute for His own sovereign purpose. Even though Samson is always looking for his pound of flesh, the emotional and spiritual toll it takes on him is painful to watch. He is a warning on the dangers of revenge thinking.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

getting what we want at all costs

But his father and mother said to him, "Is there not a woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?" But Samson said to his father, "Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes."
Judges 14:3

The promise held in the story of Samson quickly degenerates into the story of selfishness and dishonoring of God that marked his life. It was remarkable that God would use him despite himself. The story of Samson is the story of God's sovereign work even in our sinful choices.

Samson was infatuated with a Philistine woman. He begged his parents to arrange the marriage knowing full well that it was in violation of the Law. But God sovereignly worked this into His plan of delivering Israel. The fact that God was already with Samson was evident in this story. First in the killing of the lion with his bare hands, secondly in the solo assault he took on Ashkelon in which he took out thirty men just to settle a bet. Samson was not a the kind of guy you wanted against you!

The Philistine oppressors saw the great strength of this young man. And God was getting him noticed, ultimately to save Israel and to draw glory to Himself. But the Philistines were not the only victims of destruction. Samson was decaying even as God was using him... just like the carcass of the lion that God providentially turned into a beehive. Out of the rotting core of Samson's ambivalence, God was showing His sweet saving power.

Samson would be driven by the very thing we see in his first recorded speech to his parents. He would always want something for himself at any cost. And disobeying God became casual in that pursuit. It would only be at the end of his life that he saw the tragedy of his selfish pursuits. I wonder what his story might have been like with a little self-control, humility, and worship in his heart.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Monday, January 17, 2011

reward of relationship

And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the LORD blessed him. And the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.
Judges 13:24-25

Samson's story is one of great promise. When we read of his birth, there are only two biblical narratives that are similar. And they are stories of high spiritual achievement. Samson's story reads a lot like the one to come with Samuel. It also reads a lot like the nativity narrative of Jesus Himself. Samson's parents were promised a son. They were asked to treat him as a Nazirite from the womb. They were told he would be a deliverer of Israel. This was a rare child. He is the only one of the judges announced by God before he is even born.

And there is such promise at the beginning of his story. His parents are obedient to God and worshipful. They follow the Lord's instructions completely. They are in awe that God came to visit them. God accepts their sacrifice to Him. And the young man Samson is blessed by God. The Spirit of the Lord works and begins to stir in him. This all looks good.

Samson's is a biography focused on the need for obedience to God. And it starts with a clear reward for that obedience. The Spirit of God is working in the young man who will be a deliverer for Israel. God is blessing him. Respect for God's call and command are clearly there for his parents, and at least as a young man, for him as well.

It is worth noting that God blesses obedience to Him. That principle still holds for us today. It is not so much physical blessing as it is the blessing of relationship and the presence of His Holy Spirit. With that great truth, what more could we really want?

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

divisive infighting

And when I saw that you would not save me, I took my life in my hand and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?
Judges 12:3

Jephthah's rule as a judge in Israel degenerated into civil war and internal strife. It is sad to see. The Ephraimite tribe is upset that they played no role in Jephthah's major battle. They attack his primarily Gileadite army and over the course of the battle, Jephthah's men capture and kill (seemingly one by one - see Judges 12:5-6) 42,000 men of the tribe of Ephraim.

This was a tragedy because Israel could not really afford to lose that many fighting men. It was an atrocity because it became a kind of ethnic cleansing among God's people. Ephraimites were sorted out by their dialect and killed on the spot. It was actually kind of gruesome.

But when people do not seek the Lord and forge out on their own skills and power alone, this sort of thing is inevitable. From a pure military standpoint, I am sure that Jephthah thought this strategy was the best for preserving the nation and his rule. But from a personal and spiritual standpoint, Israel was still being destroyed. This time it came from within.

My observation is that the worst things can happen to the testimony of God's people from within their midst. We don't need to have enemies from the outside attacking us to fail. We can be victimized by infighting just as easily. We should always guard our peace by staying close to Christ and to our brothers and sisters in Christ. The beauty and the power are too precious to lose through infighting.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

God will use what He gets

So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand.
Judges 11:32

The story of Jephthah is one of the anti-hero. Jephthah did not have a great past. He was born from his father's illicit affair with a prostitute (Judges 11:1). He was driven from his home town by his own half-brothers and became something like a contemporary gang leader or drug cartel crime boss (11:2-3). Evidently he developed some sort of reputation for violence and control because when his hometown falls under the oppression of the Ammonites, they come back to him to ask him to lead Israel against their enemies (Judges 11:4-11).

He is not known for spiritual depth. He invokes the name of God in his "negotiations" with gentile armies, but does not seem to have any personal stake in the God of Israel. He uses God to taunt the armies of his enemies and does not really take much thought other than to rehearse the history of Israel in the conquest, facts he does rightly attribute to God.

He is best known for a rash attempt at piety... foolishly vowing to sacrifice to God whatever "greets" him when he returns from battle. The tragedy of the vow was that his only daughter came out to meet him after the victory. And Jephthah kept his "bargain" by eventually offering her as a sacrifice. The text gives no details, but there is no reason not to accept the fact that he killed her on an altar in the name of the God of Israel. The practice is not accepted as "right". This is further commentary on the dark spiritual state of Jephthah, whose pagan sacrifice is offered to Yahweh without question or comment in the text of the story, but with remorse on the part of Jephthah.

The weird thing is that God used Jephthah to deliver Israel. At one point (11:29), God's Holy Spirit "comes upon" him (a feature of a few leaders in the Book of Judges) and supernaturally enables him to march aggressively against Israel's foes, thus bringing the victory. Sometimes God just uses "what He gets" to bring glory to Himself. That much is clear from the story of Jephthah. There was no reason an illegitimate outlaw should become a general and judge, but God, in His mercy, used what was available out of commitment to the grace of His covenant-keeping nature.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Monday, January 10, 2011

God... with sarcasm

Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.
Judges 10:13-14

The Old Testament shows us a covenant-keeping and merciful God. He is in relationship with Israel. He loves them and provides for them. But He is also deserted by them and forgotten by them. In this context the text lets us know that Israel has forsaken God and followed idols. It specifically lists seven particular gods that the people of Israel began to worship instead of God. This was more than a distraction, it was an all out cultural revolution in which God was completely abandoned. They replaced Him with pretty much anything else that might have come along! They wanted to be so much like the gentiles around them that they adopted virtually any religious influence and loved every idol they saw.

This wholesale abandonment led to them being repressed by the very cultures they had become enamored with. They eventually realized the folly of their sin and cried out to God. His first response is stinging with more than a hint of sarcasm. My paraphrase: "What? You talkin' to me? You got loads of other gods... let one of them fix it!" Of course this is a teaching moment. God used His disappointment and sarcasm to get their attention. He did send them another deliverer. His grace was there, in time... but not without the prophetic edge of His angry words leaving them in fear of Him.

We forget this side of God. He is a person. He is the ultimate intelligence. It is very insulting when we replace what should be our sole worship of Him with anything else. He has pure emotion. God feels disappointment, anger, and to a degree insult. And He expresses and knows these feelings in a holy manner we cannot begin to fully understand. He will respond with words that may humble us so that in our humility we might properly align ourselves with His power, glory, and holiness. From there we can begin to worship Him again.

This instance makes me re-examine the way I view God. When I see God through His sarcasm, I take notice. I re-evaluate the limited way in which I tend to view Him. It purges me of anemic views of deity and calls me into a real and honest respect. I am probably an odd duck in that category, but because I am "gifted" with sarcasm (often imperfectly expressed) I know what is at its heart. And if I know it (even with sin in me) how much more does it say coming from a Holy God. I'm thinking it means a lot when God does not mince words.

God is a gracious and merciful. Those are the outstanding features of the gospel. Frankly, we would have no hope and no faith without those facts. But God is also holy, pure, just, and an intelligence and wisdom beyond my scope of comprehension. To snub Him is more than a social miscue or an intellectual choice. It is to offend the greatest and only perfect mind. It is why Hell exists. But thankfully, it is also why grace in Christ Jesus is freely offered! God's sarcasm is not played for laughs. It is displayed to show His holiness. Wildly enough, His grace is displayed so that we might know true joy! And that brings more than chuckle. That brings happiness and contentment in Christ forever!

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Friday, January 7, 2011

justice done

Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers.
Judges 9:56

When I read the story of Abimelech and how God judged his ruthless leadership, I wonder if we really understand God's method of just retribution. After all, Abimelech was a leader of Israel. God used this ruthless dictator to keep Canaanites at bay, even though he also abused the people of Israel. That would eventually lead to God taking care of the sinful deeds Abimelech committed.

In the end, God brought him down with the well-timed toss of a stone by a woman. God judged his sin. He brought justice. It was not particularly pretty.

There is a lot of talk today about social justice being a major work of the church. I am not opposed to good works flowing from the gospel, in fact, I am all for it when the gospel is preached. But let's not forget that justice in God's work involves judging sin. That really means that God is the performer of justice. We cannot judge sins. He will settle wrongs. He will "return the evil", as this passage says, with His prevailing will. Vengeance is His, and that is part of justice.

In fact, when I read ALL of scripture, particularly the Old Testament, the retributive justice theme seems very prevalent. And it is solely the work of God, not man. God may use man, like the stone the woman threw from the tower, but it will clearly be God Who gets the credit for the justice done.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Thursday, January 6, 2011

exhausted, yet pursuing

And Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed over, he and the 300 men who were with him, exhausted yet pursuing.
Judges 8:4

I have always been impressed with this simple statement in the story of Gideon. Gideon's elite little "army" of 300 has startled the Midianite camp, watched as the enemy in disarray attacked each other, seen Midianite kings captured by Israel, and now is in hot pursuit of two remaining Midianite leaders. They are tired, but will not give up until the task God has given them is complete.

I can identify with weariness. I think we all can. We live our lives at such a frenetic pace these days that burnout is always on the edge of any day. At least that is the way I feel, and I see it a lot when I minister to and with people. God made the Sabbath for rest. He took a break from His work. We are poor at developing rest margin, and there are times when we can't. The result is weariness.

But when we are operating under God's instructions and power, He can strengthen us to pursue the work, even in our tired state. Gideon did not get a fair shake when he was tired. Two Israelite cities, Succoth and Penuel, refused to provision his exhausted troops. But he went on still in pursuit of two pagan kings. God led his army to capture them, and then, upon the return journey, Gideon stopped to issue discipline to those faithless towns that ignored the need of his men. (Judges 8:13-17)

There are seasons in service were we may not get a fair shake. God did not promise easy service for the kingdom. We still carry a yoke and a burden. Jesus just lightens it. It is still work. And even without our own tendencies to overextend things, it can get tiring. There is always ministry to do. There are always people to reach. There is always an urgency to the gospel that compels us. And sometimes the ministry is such that we must pursue while weary. It is during those times that God will provide the strength needed to move forward! I thank God that He does so.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

paring down for a purpose

The LORD said to Gideon, "The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, 'My own hand has saved me.'"
Judges 7:2

God does the opposite of what we expect. This battle with the Midianites was intimidating. Yet, Israel was prepared to take them on. Thirty-two thousand men showed up at Gideon's call to arms. That was impressive. But God was not impressed with it. In fact, He wanted fewer volunteers. God wanted the outcome to clearly be divine salvation. And Israel would be tempted to claim a military and not a spiritual victory.

So God pared down the ranks. Gideon made one simple request: Anyone who was fearful could head back home. Two-thirds of his army quit right then. But God still thought that 10,000 were too many. God pared down the troops to an elite force of 300. And that group of 300 were going to take on the innumerable mob of Midianites so large that their encampment filled an entire valley.

God got the outcome He purposes. Those 300 men defeated the Midianites using nothing but torches and shouts. God clearly delivered Israel. Gideon just obediently and faithfully followed this unorthodox battle strategy because God had helped him to learn trust. And what looked like a certain suicide mission became a walloping of the enemy!

I wonder how Church Growth gurus preach this passage. It does not fit the American sensibility of the franchised box church of 3,000+ members. We always think bigger is better, that bigger gets the job done and is the measure of success. Could we be forgetting that the measure of success is really faith in God? That is the big lesson from Gideon's story. He faltered in trusting God from the beginning, and God led him the opposite way so that eventually all that Gideon could do was recklessly trust God in a plan that seemed irrational from human standards. That is where the victory is found... with God... letting him pare down our pride so that we are left with Him. He is all we need for success and joy!

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

leadership in the rough

Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, "The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor."
Judges 6:11-12

God is going to chisel away at Gideon and make him the leader He wants him to be. I have always found it funny that God called Gideon a "mighty man of valor" when He met him hiding out from the Midianites. These hardly seems to be a brave man at the moment. Like the rest of Israel, he is in survival mode, just trying to fly under the radar of Midianite oppression. But God sees something more.

Israel has begun a return to God after seven years of this experience. The text says that they had cried out to God (even though later in the text they seem to have hedged their bets with Baal and Asherah as well) and God heard them. He sent a prophet to prepare them for their deliverance as they acknowledged their sin. Now, Gideon was being prepared to lead the military campaign that would deliver the nation.

Gideon is a man full of uncertainties. He knows he has talked to God and eventually is very afraid at the significance of that. But then he confirms God's call on him not once, but twice, as if he struggled to really believe that God had spoke to him at the sacrificial altar. He does become a much more confident leader than Barak was under Deborah. But he still has much growth to achieve before the battle can be waged.

God chooses to use frail men. And God would whittle away at Gideon's confidence still more until his capacity to trust would be ready to be used by God. In the end, it will be very clear that God answered Israel's cry for help. Gideon would be a leader whose very leadership experience would be defined and known as God's work, not his own. And this insecure wheat-thresher was about to find this all out. How great of God to use us in all our insecurities, faith weaknesses, and slowness to believe! God finds people "in the rough" and chisels at them until they become someone who clearly had a work of God done in, through, and by them.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Monday, January 3, 2011

lessons from the music of triumph

To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the righteous triumphs of the LORD, the righteous triumphs of his villagers in Israel. Then down to the gates marched the people of the LORD.
Judges 5:11

The song of Deborah is a rare moment of art and joyful celebration in the book of Judges. After the defeat of Sisera, Deborah and Barak led the nation while it was still assembled for battle into a worship service of wild celebration. They wanted the people to rejoice in the victory that God had given them.

This Hebrew poem begins with an invitation to bless the Lord, and then gives a description of the conflict from God's point of view. God marched to Edom. God shook the ground and the mountains trembled before Him as He marched to war for Israel.

Then the battle poem is rooted in historical events as the events of oppression are described. It is clear that the normal life of villagers in Israel was awful... that is until God rose up Deborah to help lead the nation out of spiritual poverty and into renewed commitment. And Deborah is thankful that God raised up civil and military commanders who would be used to defeat the oppression.

From there an epic description of the battle is put to song. The Canaanite kings are defeated and the humiliating fate of Sisera at the hands of a woman is celebrated in song. The poem ends with a particularly humiliating bit of poetry about Sisera's mother waiting for her boy to return home. Her mommy's boy died at the hands of a woman who served him curdled milk! The irony and mockery are quite evident. The Israelites are rubbing it in because God has delivered them.

In terms of application of this lengthy bit of poetry stuck in the middle of a book that chronicles military battles and spiritual failure, I offer this: God's rescues are always worth celebrating. And we can look back on events from the viewpoint of His work in our lives and celebrate the moments when clearly His providence has led us. That is the theatre being put on in this passage. And it serves a great purpose. The chapter ends with a generation at peace with God and themselves. For forty years Israel was able to return to "normal". God had granted victory. And the turning point came when He used two women in unforeseen ways to deliver His people. God gets the glory. We get the benefits of giving Him that praise.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13