God Comes Near
I love Judges 6. So, if you will turn in this chapter, I believe God has a very important message for us to hear today. As you’re turning, I want to make two quick announcements. Because so many of you had expressed interest to go on our last trip to Israel but were not able, I told you we were going to plan more trips. I did not plan on it being this soon, but the next one will be November 22 to December 1, 2022. That is, this year. I won’t explain all the reasons. Some are related to crowds, fewer crowds, better weather, getting the guide we wanted to get, but it’s very soon. And if you’re like most of us and need more time to plan financially, do not fear. We are planning more in future years so that we can have time to save up. This year, it’s $3600 per person, includes about everything. You can find out more information or register if you go to our website on the Need2Know or on the Church Center app.
Second, thanks to your weekly sacrificial giving, the elders were able to designate a large gift to Ukraine through Samaritan’s Purse. Samaritan’s Purse is helping refugees and civilian casualties who have been injured through praying over them, providing material support and medical care. They’ve set up an emergency field hospital with an operating room, an ICU, an ER, pharmacy. So, I know some of you are looking for other ways to help. We recommend … Some of our people have gone or are going through Samaritan’s Purse to help. Also, there are numerous other ministries we are partnering with who are on the ground, and we’ll let you know more about them in the future.
In his new book, Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t: The Beauty of Christian Theism, Gavin Ortlund begins with an interesting hypothetical question.
“Suppose Hamlet is searching for Shakespeare. He cannot find him in the way he might find other characters in the play, like Ophelia or Claudius. So where should he look? Hamlet’s knowledge of Shakespeare will be different than anything else in his life. On the one hand, finding Shakespeare will be very difficult. Shakespeare is very far removed; Hamlet has never encountered him. On the other hand, the knowledge of Shakespeare might also prove unavoidable. For in a deeper sense, Shakespeare is very close; Hamlet has never done anything but encounter him. As Hamlet’s creator, Shakespeare is at once beyond his every device and inside his every thought.”
That question, “Where should Hamlet look for Shakespeare,” seems to capture the tension many of us feel regarding God. In one sense, he feels very far removed. He’s beyond us. He’s not like us at all and so far above us, at times feels unknowable. And yet at the same time, he’s not only infinitely far from us, but he’s infinitely close to us. Hamlet has never done anything but encounter him. We have never done anything but encounter him. Every thought we think, every breath we breathe, every move we make is impossible to comprehend apart from him. He created us, breathed into our nostrils the breath of life. We have never done anything but encounter him.
But there are times when that seems really difficult to grasp, and Israel in Judges 6 is in one of those times. They’ve had forty years of rest, thanks to God’s use of Deborah waking up the people of God and his miraculous provision of freedom and victory. They know what it’s like to be at rest. And yet in Judges 6 (look at verse 1), once again they’re in bondage.
“The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.”
So, currently, Midian is overpowering Israel. Who are the Midianites? The Midianites are descendants of Keturah. Keturah is the woman Abraham married when Sarah died. They were a semi-nomadic people to the east of Israel, western Arabia. The Amalekites are descendants of Esau, and they, along with some people of the East, would form these massive raiding armies, traveling on camels so they could strike with blitzkrieg speed. They knew when harvest time was. So, they would let the Israelites do all the work, growing the crops, harvesting, bringing them in. And they would strike, and they would plunder, and they would leave Israel living in fear and destitution.
And so, we find Israel hiding, hiding. Verse 2,
“And the hand of Midian overpowered Israel, and because of Midian the people of Israel made for themselves the dens that are in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds.”
So, they weren’t even thinking of trying to defend their resources. They were just trying to save their lives, running into caves, dens, or bunkers, if you will. Verse 6,
“And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord.”
And those words, “very low” in the Hebrew, could be translated “small,” literally, “they became small,” or it has the idea of “shrivel up and hang low.”
Fear shrinks our souls. Our lives become smaller. We only feel safe when we’re in whatever kind of bunker we build that gives us some kind of false sense of security. And the bunker we build often becomes like a tomb we are encased in as our lives shrink. Israel cried out, and in response to their cry for help, verse 8, “the Lord sent a prophet.”
Now, just imagine what that feels like. OK, Lord, we’re starving. We need meat. We need vegetables. We could use some chariots of iron. We need some help here. And what does God send? A prophet who reminds them what got them into the mess, who preaches to them. “We don’t need a sermon! We need some carrots, maybe some camels!” Do you ever feel that God does that to you? “I need cash, not a devotional. That’s what I really need. Do you see how Judges does that? He’s pushing past what we think we need? “Yes,” God says, “That’s important. I take care of my people.”
But Israel, you don’t see your deepest need. You don’t get it. And so the prophet speaks what feels like a hard word in verses 8-10, but it’s also deeply personal. If you look at it, notice all the I’s. God is saying, “I led you out of slavery in Egypt. I delivered you from oppression. I gave you this land. You have not obeyed my voice.” See, for God, this is a relationship. This isn’t just “You need carrots and camels.” This is a relationship. I will take care of you, but you have disobeyed me. And then something unexpected happens. You would think, OK, God confronts them. There’s no real sign of repentance. He doesn’t promise to deliver them. End of story. They stay in oppression.
But the rest of the chapter, verses 11-40, is the description of God arguing with Gideon in order to convince him to be rescued. God is fighting Gideon to save him and the people of Israel. Let’s look at this. It comes in three scenes. And I love this! There are many of you today who are paralyzed by doubt. God brought you here to hear this message. It comes in three episodes.
Episode #1 — God comes, and Gideon wavers personally. By the way, in each episode, God is going to come and by “come,” I don’t mean he always leaves, but he keeps moving near. He keeps pressing past Gideon’s defenses. God comes, and Gideon wavers, doubts, defends, argues. So, episode 1 — God comes, and Gideon wavers personally. Verse 11,
“And the angel of the Lord came.”
And you’ll see the contrast. God coming within this episode; God keeps coming near him; Gideon keeps wavering. Verse 12,
“The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.”
God almost sounds like a motivational speaker there. Gideon, O mighty man of valor! Wait a second. He’s talking about Gideon, the one who is beating wheat in a winepress because he’s so scared of the Midianites — the “mighty man of valor.” So, Gideon’s not buying it. Verse 13,
“He said to him, ‘Please my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us?’”
Your promises sound like fairy tales. Our situation doesn’t match what you just said. So, verse 14. Notice how God keeps coming. He could have just said, “OK.”
“And the Lord turned to him and said, ‘Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?’”
Once again, Gideon responds. Verse 15,
“Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”
Now, it does seem like a bit of an exaggeration. We’re going to see a few verses later he has ten menservants that he can access. It doesn’t sound like the weakest. Manasseh is certainly a huge tribe. But that’s how Gideon feels. But then the Lord once again, verse 16,
“But I will be with you.”
Let that rest on you.
“But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”
Verse 17, once again, Gideon’s wavering.
“If now I found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me.”
So, God has promised his presence, his strength, and his victory. And Gideon doubts each one. So, Gideon prepared an offering — goat, unleavened cakes — puts them on a rock, pours broth on them. The Angel of the Lord touches them with the tip of his staff. Fire comes out of the rock, consumes the offering. Angel of the Lord disappears. Gideon is now terrified. He thinks he’s going to die. He just saw God. And so, the Lord, verse 23, says,
“Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.”
So, Gideon built an altar and called it “The Lord is peace,” “Yahweh is Shalom.” Episode #1.
Episode #2 — God comes and Gideon wavers relationally. God comes and Gideon wavers relationally. If you’ll look at verse 25,
“That night, the Lord said to him, ‘Gideon, tear down your father’s altar, the Asherah.”
What is God doing here? God is saying “I’m prepared to give you victory, and you haven’t even obeyed the first commandment.” What’s the first commandment?
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Super basic. And so, I want you to grab the bull. Get some help. Tear down the Baal altar. Cut down the Asherah. What is the Asherah? That is almost like a totem pole, but in this case, Asherah is the female deity of fertility. So, often it’s a rather shapely wooden pole. And so, cut that down, chop it up, tear down the Baal altar, build me an altar, kill the bull, put the bull on, put the wood from the Asherah under, burn the bull as an offering to me. In other words, you’re declaring Baal, Asherah out. We worship the Lord!
And here’s the most shocking thing. Gideon does it right away with pace. He goes, grabs ten menservants, they tear down the altar, build the new altar, cut down the Asherah, burn the bull. And you’re thinking, “Wow, this is Gideon 2.0! He heard God, he believed him, and he did it.” But then, lest we be too excited, the narrator throws in there verse 27, something he doesn’t want us to miss.
“But because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night.”
Oh. That’s why he did it so fast. He did it so fast because he was afraid if he waited till the next day, the men of the town and his family would be upset, and he would be in trouble. So, he did it the secret of the night. Once again, the narrator wants us to see Gideon is still wavering even though God has demonstrated his commitment to be with him.
And so, the next morning, his fears were realized. Townspeople woke up, saw that their gods had been torn down and their Asherah was up in smoke. And so, they conducted an investigation, identified Gideon as guilty, condemned him to die. Surprisingly his father, Joash stepped in, said “No” because Josh owned the property this was on. He said, “No, don’t kill him. Basically, let Baal kill him. If Baal is God, let Baal take care of my son.” And so they renamed him Jerubbaal, which means “let Baal contend against him.” So, that’s episode #2.
One more episode. God comes and Gideon wavers militarily. Did you see it expanding? First it was a lot of doubts, personal doubts that Gideon had — “But I’m weakest. My clan is small.” And then it gets into relational doubts about family and the community, doing it by night so no one would see. And now it’s into military doubts. It’s getting bigger. Verse 33,
“Now all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East came together, and they crossed the Jordan and encamped in the Valley of Jezreel.”
So, this army, like locusts in number, descended on the valley. This valley is known even today as the “breadbasket of Israel” because of its rich soil for farming.
Two weeks ago, I showed you this image that I took when we were there a month or so ago, and we are looking across. We’re on Megiddo, looking across the Valley of Jezreel. It’s kind of a cloudy day. But that’s Mount Tabor in the distance. So, keep that in mind, and now look at this map. And you can see we are seeing Megiddo in the lower left. Look across the valley. You can see Mount Tabor. The whole Valley of Jezreel is about 145 square miles. And you can tell why these Amalekites and Midianites and people of the East move in, set up camp because they can then each day plunder a different farm in this rich farming area.
But once again, in the midst of this crisis, God comes to Gideon. Look at verse 34,
“But the spirit of the Lord clothed Gideon.”
Now what does that mean, “clothed”? Was he naked before? No, it’s an idiom that means the Spirit of the Lord so overwhelmed, directed Gideon that he was able to do things that he previously would not have been able to do. And verse 34 tells us one of those things: when he blew the trumpet, his own clan, Abiezrites, who had just tried to kill him, gathered with him. And then they sent out word to Manassseh and many of the other tribes, and they actually came. That’s humanly unexplainable! But as a result of the filling of the Spirit of God, these are people who are cowering in caves one minute, who are responding to the trumpet call the next minute. And you just think, OK, Gideon must be flying high here.
No. Once again, he wavers. And this is the classic Gideon test. First night, he says to God, “Just so I can be sure … Gotta be certain … I want the fleece (which is a wool blanket) to be wet with dew and the ground to be dry. And the second night, I want the fleece to be dry and the ground to be wet.” So, for that to happen naturally, it would be a miracle. And God does it. And so Gideon is prepared for the battle, which we will look at next week.
But for this week, let’s pause and ask the question, how should we think about this? How should we think about the fact that God keeps moving near Gideon, and Gideon keeps questioning, doubting, and wavering? First of all, we should not think presumptively as if God owes to his people what he did for Gideon. God actually warns us against testing him. There are people throughout the Bible who are judged for doing exactly what Gideon did. So, why did God do it for Gideon? I’m not sure, but we do know for sure Judges 6 is not a commendation of fleeces. Do you know what I mean by fleece? It’s actually become a technique in some Christian circles “to put out a fleece” in order to discern whether God is in this or not.
Let me give you an example. I love my girlfriend. We’ve been dating for a long time. We both love Jesus. We love each other. We enjoy one another. Her family likes me. My family likes her. I’m ready to pull the trigger. I’m ready to buy the ring, but I just want to be certain. So, God, I’ll tell you what. Tonight if you will cause it to rain on her house … I live a mile and a half away … my house be dry. And then the next night you cause it to rain on my house, and her house be dry, then I will buy the ring. Then I will know for sure. Is that a good Christian way of making a decision? A few are like, “Sounds good to me.” No! God does not generally lead his people that way. I believe some people’s dependence on fleeces is just an excuse to trust God and make a decision. You’ve prayed for wisdom. You’ve sought wise counsel. All the biblical steps have been taken. Doggone it, buy the ring. What are you waiting for?
This story in Judges 6 should not be used as a model, but as a warning. When God keeps moving near you, saying, “I’m with you. Gideon, I’m with you.” And you keep saying, “It’s not enough, God. I like you and all, but I need more. You’re OK. I need something different.” What are we saying to God? “Your Word, God — eh! You lie a lot. So, I need something more than what you say in your Word.” This is extremely dangerous! And many of us live this way, and we wonder why we’re paralyzed by doubt.
Let me make two observations about this. First of all, we need God more than we need security. And I’ll explain what I mean. Remember the context. Israel has been hiding in caves. They are cave dwellers. Dens. Bunkers. But there’s no evidence of repentance. So, they’ll break their back digging holes in the mountains, but they won’t bend their knees in repentance. This is often how we are. We’re so stubborn! We have an idea — “God, if I’m going to worship you, I’ll tell you what I need.” And so, we flip it. Rather than God testing his people like a teacher testing the students, the students test the teacher. God, we’re going to test you. That’s what’s going to happen. And that is an extremely dangerous attitude to have. Why is it? Because often we do that because we feel insecure. But then in our tendency to try to find security in things that can’t provide it, we end up looking to things — circumstances, feelings, comfort foods, money, friends, opinions, arguments — all these things to try to cobble together enough security to feel confident about anything.
And we’re like the guy … Have you ever tried to rescue someone who’s drowning when you don’t have a life jacket either? It is a terrifying thing. I’ve been there with several, as a camp counselor and kids who didn’t swim who were going under, and you literally have to fight them to save them. You’re fighting their thrashing arms to rescue them. That’s what’s happening here. God is fighting Gideon’s defenses in order to save him. And he keeps saying, “I’m with you!”
And we do the same thing. God is fighting some of you to save you this morning, and because we want security more than we want God, we end up missing the God who is security. Because we want security more than we want God, we end up missing the God who is security.
I didn’t know Brian was going to open with Psalm 46.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear …”
And the Bible purposely gives crazy scenarios in order to say, “When your security is in God … worst case scenario, the ground under your feet disappears, everything in your country becomes unstable. Let’s say you go through a pandemic. Let’s say there’s political upheaval. Let’s say there are wars going on. Let’s say there are many things in your life you can’t control …”
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.”
“I am with you. I am with you.” Can you, just for a moment, taste a bit of the security that comes when God is your security? You cannot dig a cave deep enough to find security apart from him. And so, the fear we experience, which we’re all going to experience … Begin to see fear as an invitation to trust God, to relocate the source of my confidence to God. We need God more than we need security.
Second, we need God more than we need certainty. And this comes out very strong in the Gideon story. The craving for certainty is like an itch. The more you scratch it, the more it itches. It’s like porn. It promises to satisfy, but actually intensifies the craving. The more you get, the more you want, and it never ends. Certainty is like intellectual porn. The more you try to grasp, the more you crave. It is never satisfied. When each question gets answered … And by the way, I’m not condemning Gideon. I identify with Gideon. That’s why I love this chapter. Every answer from my brain raises ten new questions. It’s like a virus. It keeps morphing and multiplying. And please don’t, if you’re visiting … I know I’ve talked about this before for our people. But if you’re visiting, I am not at all minimizing the importance of asking good questions, seeking good answers, wrestling with hard things, and even within the community. Raise all the questions you want. I love good questions.
But what we’re talking about is when you turn these questions and this craving for certainty into a deity … really is what’s happening. You’re putting them above God. God, you’re OK, but I can’t really give my life to you until I get to the place where I’m absolutely certain. Well, tell me, when are you going to get there in this life? And so, what’s tragic about the Gideon story is you’ll see God keeps moving toward him, answering his questions. “I am with you. I am with you.” He does a sign, consumes an offering on a rock, experiences more uncertainty, does another sign. Battle is next week, but if you keep going on the Gideon story, you think, “Oh good! So, it really works. See, if God would do that for me, I would be like Gideon. I’d be ready to win the battle.”
The story doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end well for Gideon. Why? Because we need God more than we need certainty. And if we place certainty above humbling my heart under God, valuing, craving. God, your presence for me is better than any kind of certainty I could ever achieve. You are my security. You are my certainty.
And this is the good news, and it’s the same answer to the question we began with: where should Hamlet look for Shakespeare? For Hamlet to have a conscious relationship with Shakespeare, Shakespeare would have to do what? Write himself into the story. And Judges 6, I believe, is a preview of this. God presses past Gideon’s doubts and unfaithfulness and manifests himself to Gideon, I believe, as Father, Son, and Spirit in Judges 6.
You say, where do you see that? Well, in the English Bible, every time you see LORD in all caps, what Hebrew name is that? Yahweh, God’s covenant name. You’ll see it in verses 14, 16, 23, 25. God, the Father.
The Angel of the Lord appears in many verses — verse 11, 12, 20, which I believe … I don’t have time to defend this … but that many times, not all, many times when the Angel of the Lord appears, it is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. What’s pre-incarnate? Pre, before, he comes in the flesh in the new covenant, he appears. And I believe this is one of those examples.
So, you have Father, Son (verse 34) “The Spirit clothes Gideon” … Father, Son, Spirit. God is writing himself into the story. He is, and I know we don’t see this on full display until Jesus comes in John 1:14,
“God became flesh and dwelt among us,”
or Galatians 4:4,
“But when the fullness of time had come…”
That has the idea of this story unfolding, and then the author says, “It’s time” …
“God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent [Notice the trinity here] the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
Notice what he gives here. He doesn’t give a sign. He gives himself, pours his Spirit.
“Who cries, ‘Abba! Father!’ So, you are no longer a slave [to Midian; you’re no longer a slave to certainty or insecurity], but a son, [a daughter], an heir through God.”
I believe this morning God is calling us from the gods of our insecurity, uncertainties to him. And if we were to summarize what he wants us to hear in one phrase, it is, “I am with you. I am with you.” Do you realize how that changes everything? That when we really believe “I am with you,” we may still have thousands of questions. We may still need some carrots and could use some camels. But everything’s changed. God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying Abba! Father!
And for some of you this morning, God brought you here today, so for the first time, you can repent and believe that God is with us — Emmanuel — that God is not just out there like Shakespeare, who just writes something and is completely uninvolved or later dies. But God is with us. He moves toward us. He gives his Son for us, who pays for all of our doubts. When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t just die for your obvious sins. He died for your skepticism. He died for your questioning spirit. He died for your stubbornness. He died for your desire to cling to things that will never provide security and reject the one who will. He died for that, and he invites you now. Come to him! Put your faith in him! Turn from false security. Trust the one who is our refuge, a very present help in time of need, and he will give himself to you. He pours his Spirit into your hearts. and his Spirit cries out, “Abba! Father!”
So, for some of you today, first time doing that, cry out to him. And for others of us, we’ve grown crusty and lost the preciousness of his presence. We think we have more pressing needs, and God is reminding us of our deepest need. Let’s pray to him now. I would encourage you to stand. And for some of you, as we pray, if you’re believing the Lord, I would encourage you to hold your hands out just as a physical sign of saying … For those who are believing for the first time or for those of you who are saying, “Lord, I need a fresh awareness of your presence in my life. Fill me with your Spirit, who cries out ‘Abba! Father!’”
Father, thank you for using this passage, which was written so long ago, and in one sense is so different from us. But we see ourselves in Gideon. Lord, you have been so patient with me. My heart generates doubts faster than any answers could be provided. There’s a stubbornness inside of me that almost enjoys to argue. Forgive us, Lord! We repent of trying to find our identity or our security in some kind of fabricated certainty or superficial source of security. You’ve called us to live by faith, which means when you say something, we want to trust you, trust you more than we trust our ability to reason through things and come to a perfect conclusion. Your Word is the only true foundation for a stable life. Everything else is moving. Everything else will leave us like Gideon, wavering. And even when we think, “Oh Lord, if you would just answer this question or just show me this and prove this,” after a while, we learn it’s never just that.
And so, Father, we’re asking right now that you would pour out your Spirit, a sense of your presence with us. Some of us, we need that this morning. Many came in doubting, Lord, your intention. Oh, you might do something big for Gideon, or you might be with a missionary or maybe a worship leader, but not little old me. And we put up those same defenses like Gideon — “I’m the least. I’m the weakest.” And yet, Lord, you’re near the brokenhearted, the flickering flame you will not put out. Oh, God, pour out a sense of your presence as we repent of our false confidences and we put our faith in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Lord, we cannot make it through these times with all the instability and insecurities without becoming brittle or angry or reactive, ornery. We will not do that if we are not confident of your presence in our lives — a deeper confidence than feelings, a confidence that rests on your promises. So, we pray that there would be many today believing for the first time and many renewing that confidence through the power of your Spirit. We thank you in Jesus’ name. Amen.