"You Mighty Man of Valour"
This is part 1 of a 3-part series of sermons that follow the story of Gideon, one of the judges of Israel.
To understand the story of Gideon, it’s important to have some context. The book of Judges describes the period in Israel’s history after the children of Israel had been led out of slavery under the leadership of Moses, and had settled the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. For the next several centuries after Joshua’s death, the twelve tribes of Israel were led by judges whom the Lord appointed, who would liberate Israel from their enemies, settle disputes, and ensure that justice was done - but who did not rule over the people as kings.
If the children of Israel had kept Jehovah’s law, this would have been a period of peace and stability. But they did not consistently obey the Lord; instead, a pattern emerged, a cycle that repeated itself over and over again. First, the people would disobey God. As a result, they would be defeated by an enemy. They would cry out for help, and the Lord would raise a judge to save them. After learning their lesson, for a time, they would obey; but after the judge’s death, inevitably they would backslide, and the cycle would start again.
It is after this had already occurred several times that the story of Gideon begins, as recounted in the sixth chapter of the book of Judges. The chapter begins as so many in the book of Judges do:
“Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of Jehovah” (Judges 6:1). The consequence of their evil, as always, was that they were conquered by an enemy; in this case, by the people of Midian, who would come down in raiding parties every time the children of Israel grew crops or bred livestock and take everything, leaving the Israelites hungry and poor. As a result, the children of Israel lived in a constant state of fear, hiding themselves in dens and caves of the mountains. When we first hear of Gideon, we find him threshing wheat in a winepress, trying to hide what little he has from the Midianites.
Let’s pause here and take a step back and ask a big question: what does all of this have to do with life here and now? In the New Church, we are taught that every part of the Lord’s Word describes an eternal spiritual reality. Everything in this story of Gideon represents something in our own spiritual lives.
According to the teachings of the New Church, the specific enemies that defeated Israel reflected the specific evils they had fallen into; so if we understand what Midian represents, we can understand what kind of spiritual state this story is all about. According to the book, Secrets of Heaven, the Midianites represented “truth which was not truth, because there was no good of life [attached to it]” (Secrets of Heaven 5955) - that is, a knowledge of truth divorced from any application to life. In particular, the Midianites are said represent a state where “the delight of pleasures,” rather than goodness of life, is regarded as the goal (Secrets of Heaven 7602). We're attacked and defeated by the Midianites, then, when we might know the truth, but we don’t particularly care about learning or applying it because we’re more concerned about just doing what feels good.
There’s an exercise you can do that may help you identify the Midianites in yourself. Listen to this statement, and pay attention to your response to it. Here’s the statement:
“I will set aside a significant amount of time every day to read the Lord’s Word and seriously reflect on how I can practically live by what it teaches me.”
Now, pay attention, and see if there is a part of yourself where your reaction to that statement is, “Ugh,” where that feels tedious and boring. That’s Midian.
Maybe for some of you, that response isn’t there at all. Maybe for others, you recognise it as being there, but also recognise part of yourself where you long for that time set aside. And maybe for some of you your reaction is, “What do you mean, the part of myself where my reaction is ‘ugh.’ That’s all of me!” If that’s you - you may have a Midianite problem.
And here’s the problem with the Midianites, which most of us have probably experienced. When we’re living exclusively for the sake of worldly things - food, pleasure, fun, entertainment, video games, TV, recreation, socialising, parties, etc. - even though we enjoy ourselves, after a while we realise there’s part of us that wishes there were something more, that even feels like it’s starving. Life starts to feel meaningless and flat. Those Midianites - that living for the sake of pleasure - are plundering the part of you that yearns for a life of depth and meaning.
￼But there is hope, because there is something in us that is represented by Gideon, too. As the story begins, Gideon is doing what he can with the little bit he has, threshing wheat in the winepress. That’s a picture of the part of us, that even when we’ve become obsessed with worldly things, is still trying to do a little bit to live by God’s Word. There’s power there - but it might not feel like it, and Gideon doesn’t know it yet.
While Gideon was there threshing wheat, suddenly the angel of Jehovah appeared to him. This angel was a manifestation of God Himself. And his first words to Gideon were shocking: “Jehovah is with you, you mighty man of valour!” Both parts of that statement were shocking: Gideon - hiding out in a winepress - certainly didn’t feel life a mighty man of valour. And it certainly didn’t feel like Jehovah was with him. If Jehovah was with him, why were things so bad? He said to the angel, “If Jehovah is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not Jehovah bring us up from Egypt?’
When we’re in states where we’ve gotten totally wrapped up in worldly things, we might have similar feelings. When we hear the Lord say in His Word, “I am with you always,” our response might be pretty similar to Gideon’s. Really? Because it sure doesn’t feel like it. In these states, it’s difficult to believe that there’s anything beyond the physical world, let alone the kind of powerful, loving, personal God that we’ve heard people talk about and maybe even have a dim memory of experiencing ourselves. If the Lord is with us, why does it feel like He is so completely absent as to be non-existent?
We might expect here a note of reassurance from the angel, some comforting explanation of why God feels absent. But that’s not what Gideon was given. Instead, Jehovah said something even more startling: “Go in this power of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?” Not, “Don’t worry, I will save you.” No. “You, Gideon - you’re going to save Israel, because I’ve told you to. Go, do it.”
Gideon protests, as we all probably would: “Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my thousand are the poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.” As we might say, “Really Lord? I’m nobody! I think you’ve got the wrong guy.” There’s truth in Gideon’s confession, and it’s important. Any of us who have tried and failed to make a change in our lives know how weak we are of ourselves. Acknowledging that weakness is the first step toward asking for the Lord’s power in place of our own. And as Jehovah reveals, it is because of His power that Gideon will be able to succeed; he said to Gideon, “Surely I will be with you.”
But even having said this, He continued to focus on Gideon’s part; he said, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat the Midianites as one man.” It’s still Gideon doing it. And this “you” here in Hebrew is singular - not “you, the Israelites” shall defeat the Midianites. No, “you, Gideon.” You personally. Because of My presence with you, yes - but you’re still the one who is going to do it.
Gideon cannot believe it, and he challenges the angel to prove he is who he says he is. And we’ll see several more times that Gideon is faltering and uncertain, in constant need of reassurance that he can do this. And it seems that maybe his responses, although they contain a healthy humility, also contain an unhealthy element of fear and avoidance. In some ways, it seems like Gideon’s doing everything he can to get out of the job he’s been called to do. He’d asked where the God was who’d performed miracles in Egypt, and quite possibly he was expecting a miraculous, instantaneous salvation from the Midianites. Instead, it turns out that he himself is going to have to work hard for it. It might not be exactly the rescue he’d had in mind.
The same thing can be true for us in our path of regeneration or rebirth. It really is true that the Lord does everything for us, that all power comes from Him. But that’s not how we experience it, especially not at first. Even if intellectually we’ve been taught that everything good we do is from God, we’re not really going to get what that means until we’ve done a fair amount of fighting that feels like work we’re doing from our own power. Gideon wants a miracle, and he does get several of them, but only with his own participation - miracles that still require him to act.
The first miracle - the confirmation that he has been speaking with God - occurs when he brings food to his guest. He brings out a young goat as an offering, along with unleavened bread and broth. He puts them down on a rock. According to the teachings of the New Church, these things represent the ingredients we need to recognise that God really is present, even when He feels absent. That rock represents God’s Word, the truth. The young goat represents innocence, a willingness to simply do what God says. And the unleavened bread represents a desire for goodness.
So what does this all mean in the context of oppression by Midian? Well, think of those states of mind, where it seems like God is absent. The first thing we’re called to do is to make a humble, innocent decision - I’m going to start following God even if I don’t feel like He’s real. I’ll try to build my life on the rock - laying down that sacrifice before the Lord. And in making that decision, we might notice a shift in ourselves. This is something different from the life of pleasure that we’ve been living. Maybe there is a different kind of life, where we experience power beyond our own. That’s represented by the angel reaching out that staff. And maybe there is a deeper kind of love than the surface-level interactions we’ve been having. That love is represented by the fire from heaven consuming the offering.
Now here’s the thing - even though it was blindingly obvious in the story as it happened, it might not be so obvious to us that we really have caught a glimpse of God. We’ll think maybe we saw something, and maybe we didn’t. Even Gideon, who did see this miracle, asked again later for another confirmation. The state of mind represented by the Midianite oppression is murky and unclear - that’s why we see so many images of caves and darkness and night throughout the story. We're not going to be sure of ourselves until those Midianites are gone. Until then, we’re going to be wavering and in the dark.
But even in the dark, Gideon did go through with what he was called to do. The first thing he was called to do was to tear down the idols of his father’s household, effectively declaring war on the false god that had led to their enslavement by Midian. And this is the first step in taking up arms against the spiritual Midianites that beset us now - to make a commitment to shape our lives around what the Lord calls us to in His Word, to make a commitment to living for more than our own pleasure, to look at concrete steps we can take to bring our lives more into alignment with what the Lord wants us to do. It’s a commitment to do that daily work, to say, “I will set aside time every day to read the Lord’s Word and seriously reflect on how I can practically live by what it teaches me.” It is a commitment to reject behaviour that is forbidden in the Word. If we’ve never done this, it can be a scary thing, since we don’t really know what we’re doing. Do I have to become one of those religious people? Do I have to go to church every Sunday? Do I have to be serious all the time? And yet, despite the fact that we can’t see clearly, we know we have to do something.
Above all, here’s what we can’t do: we can’t sit idly by and hope for inspiration, to hope that a sudden bolt of divine intervention will shake us out of our pleasure-seeking sedation. That’s not the way it works: we have to do the hard work of compelling ourselves before we start to experience the presence of the Lord. It was only after Gideon - at night, confusedly, fumblingly, of his own power - knocked down his father’s idol that the spirit of God came over him. Self-compulsion doesn’t feel like it brings freedom, and it doesn’t feel like it brings the presence of God - but after we’ve done it, in hindsight, we recognise that this is exactly what it does. Listen to this passage from Secrets of Heaven:
They who have compelled themselves to resist what is evil and false - although at first they supposed that this was from themselves or from their own power, but were afterwards enlightened to see that their effort was from the Lord, even to the least of all the particulars of the effort - these in the other life cannot be led by evil spirits, but are among the happy. Thus we may see that a person ought to compel himself to do what is good and to speak what is true. (Secrets of Heaven 1937)
This dynamic is summed up in the Lord’s own words: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The abiding in the Word, the discipleship comes first; the sight of truth, the sense of freedom, only comes afterward.
This is only the beginning of the story, though. Gideon has a success. When we make that commitment to topple the false God of pleasure, to live for something more, we can feel a sense of accomplishment, a new clear-sightedness - we know who the enemy is, and we are ready to go into battle against it. Gideon blows the trumpet and rallies the tribes around him. And yet - things are still not entirely clear. Gideon still asks for another sign, which the Lord graciously grants, the sign of the fleece. Even after that initial sense of progress, we will start to feel unsure of ourselves again, and the Lord understands that - and He asks us to trust that if we keep following, He’ll keep giving us signs that He’s there. Making that commitment to a spiritually-focused life does not mean the battle is won; but it does mean that there is a battle, that we recognise two sides within us now, that there is more than Midian. We will strive against Baal, and Baal against us. We’ll do that by compelling ourselves away from evil and toward goodness.
But that is starting to get ahead of ourselves - that is the battle, the story for next week. For this week, if nothing else, take away this: you have great power when the Lord is with you, and the Lord is with you. Act from your power which He gives you. Don’t wait for Him to flow in and take over your life - start doing what He says, and give Him a good vessel to work with. Compel yourself to set aside time to focus on spiritual things. Commit yourself to entering that spiritual battlefield, to toppling the false gods you’ve set up. Know that you will stumble, and things will not always be clear. But know this: you are a mighty man or woman of valour, because the Lord is with you. Go now, in this your power, and overcome the enemy.