Sunday, July 23, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Arguer with Ba'al: Gideon"

Judges 6:25-32

That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull and a second bull seven years old. Break down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah that is beside it. 26 Build an altar to the Lord your God in the proper way on top of this high ground. Then take the second bull and offer it as an entirely burned offering with the wood of the Asherah that you cut down.” 27 So Gideon took ten of his servants and did just as the Lord had told him. But because he was too afraid of his household and the townspeople to do it during the day, he did it at night. 28 When the townspeople got up early in the morning, there was the altar to Baal broken down, with the asherah image that had been beside it cut down, and the second bull offered on the newly built altar! 29 They asked each other, “Who did this?” They searched and investigated, and finally they concluded, “Gideon, Joash’s son, did this!” 30 The townspeople said to Joash, “Bring out your son for execution because he tore down the altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah that was beside it.” 31 But Joash replied to all who were lined up against him, “Will you make Baal’s complaint for him? Will you come to his rescue? Anyone who argues for him will be killed before morning. If he is a god, let him argue for himself, because it was his altar that was torn down.” 32 So on that day Gideon became known as Jerubbaal, meaning, “Let Baal argue with him,” because he tore down his altar. (Common English Bible)

“Heroes, Not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Three

I don’t know what to say.

Words don’t suffice.

I’m moved and honored.

My heart is very much still there.

I love you.

Thank you.

And the post ended with an emoji of a bee, the town’s symbol.

The pop star’s words on Instagram echoed out across both a city and the world as the English city of Manchester moved to make Ariana Grande an honorary citizen in recognition of the compassion, charity, and solidarity that she showed to the city after the terrorist attack upon her concert hosted there earlier this year.

The news was largely well-received, again indicative of the place that Ariana Grande has earned in the hearts of a great many people who may not even have previously been fans of her music. And in so doing, Ariana has become a bit like other people who end up honorary citizens of a foreign town or land—like Winston Churchill becoming an honorary citizen of the United States. There is this odd mixture of otherness and community and common humanity in the recognition that someone not from whence you came nonetheless belongs with you, as a part of you. And such is the case for a judge we hear about today—the complex, sometimes fickle figure of Gideon.

This is a new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and last week we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak, and today we get to hear from one of the most complicated figures in the book of Judges: Gideon, whose name you may associate with the Bible-distributing evangelism group The Gideons, but who has a much deeper backstory.

Gideon fits the mold of a number of other Biblical heroes, especially Moses, in appearing quite unimpressive the first time the Lord  (or an angel of the Lord, for both of these leaders) appears to commission them for their divine callings. Gideon really cuts an almost comically pathetic figure in the beginning of Judges 6, not unlike Moses pleading, “Oh Lord, please just send someone else” in response to God’s majestic “Who gave speech to mortals?” soliloquy in the middle of Exodus 4.

But God knows that Gideon is capable of so much more, just as God knew that Moses was capable of so much more. The similarities between the two men do not end there, as both of them also possess non-Israelite names, yet act to lead the Israelites from foreign oppression. The name Moses is Egyptian in its origins (and Moses was, of course, adopted by the Egyptian royal family after being set adrift by his mother in a desperate bid to save his life when the Pharaoh ordered all male Hebrew infants killed). Gideon’s other name—Jerubbaal—by contrast, is Phoenician in its roots (Ba’al is a Phoenician pagan deity), but that’s not all, as Hebrew Bible John J. Collins lists off:

We are told in 7:1 that he was also known as Jerubbaal (meaning “Ba’al will contend”). This would seem to indicate that he was at one time a Ba’al worshiper. His sons are still known in chapter 9 as the sons of Jerubbaal, and the people of Shechem are said to revert to the worship of Ba’al-berit, Ba’al of the covenant, after Gideon’s death. After the defeats of the Midianites, Gideon collects precious metals from his soldiers and constructs an idol, which he erects in his hometown, “so that Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.” (8:27) None of this suggests that Gideon was a devout Yahwist by Deuteronomistic standards.

So…Gideon is not the tenacious, always-faithful stalwart that a Moses or a Joshua or an Ehud or a Deborah all were. He ends up creating an idol of his own. But in this moment towards the end of Judges 6, he demonstrates what he is capable of for a people who may not be entirely his people in terms of a shared religious kinship, but who are is people in terms of being neighbors, fellow citizens of the same twelve tribes, and who are in real need of his help now.

While Gideon’s Phoenician name, Jerubbaal, as Collins notes, literally means “Ba’al will contend,” but based on its appearance in this verse, I have come to think of that name as also acknowledging that Gideon can argue right back to the Ba’als of this world, just as he does in dismantling Ba’al’s altar, and even as we may do, even if we have at one time or another in our lives been influenced or even corrupted by them. After all—none of us is wholly pure. Let the one without sin cast the first stone, says the Lord, and He can say that knowing that He is indeed the only one without sin.

So in spite of our sins, may we too contend with the Ba’als, the false gods, of our own world. Let us argue with them. Let us break down the false god of violence the way that Ariana Grande and her fans and the citizens of Manchester did. Let us contend with, and argue with, the false god of greed and corruption when we see its ugly head reared in our leaders and our government. Let us break down the false gods of prejudice and hatred and all manner of things that separate us from God and from each other, just as Gideon broke from Ba’al and broke Ba’al’s own altar that had been erected.

For it is that separation from each other that, say, the terrorists in Manchester originally sought.

It ought not, however, ever be what they find from us.

Joash, Gideon’s father, offers perhaps the best indictment of those temptations from those Ba’als—if they are gods, they ought to be able to speak to us, but such temptations like conspicuous wealth are dead in both material and spiritual terms…and the dead do not speak.

The Ba’als, the false gods of our lives, want what is worst for us, not what is best. Yet they tempt us, and tempt us again, until we begin to think that we want what they can offer. We begin to see their way as the best way. And Gideon was, as Collins said, eventually hardly immune to such persuasion.

Being a judge, as we’ll fast see as we move from the ideal judges like Deborah and Othniel to the truly and spectacularly flawed judges like Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson, does not come with it a requirement to be a wholly upstanding moral specimen.

Perhaps that should make us wonder if we ought not demand higher standards from our leaders, that they not worship false gods, be they greed or wealth or selfishness—because, truthfully, we should demand more, and expect more than what Gideon/Jerubbaal was always able to proffer.

But it should also reassure us, that God does not always demand ready-made saints straight off the assembly line in order for us to serve a calling. And more to the point, God does not demand ready-made saints who look and sound exactly like us to serve those callings. Gideon was cut from a slightly different cloth, and did not immediately impress in the beginning of Judges 6. But in the end, it mattered not. Gideon had risen to the occasion, and it made him one of Israel’s own.

Ariana Grande was not from Manchester, or from England. But in the end, it mattered not. Faced with a terrorist attack at her concert, that killed her fans, she rose to the occasion to respond. And to Manchester, it made her one of their own.

Can we see in another who might otherwise be so different from us—the refugee or the immigrant, the trafficked slave or the exploited sweatshop worker—that they, too, are one of our own, and, far more importantly, one of God’s own?

Can we contend with our own Ba’als thusly? If so, perhaps we can take Gideon’s Phoenician moniker to heart—that Ba’al may well want to argue with us, but we can argue right back, and argue on behalf of a God who does indeed call us and make us one of God’s own.

So it has ever been in God’s quest against the false gods that tempt us with promises of wealth and material splendor.

So we may one day respond rightly to that God who calls us anew to the truth of love and mercy.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 23, 2017

Original image courtesy of NPR

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