July 31, 2016

What Will You Leave Behind?

How do you want to be remembered?  What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind after you’ve left this place?  That’s a question that most folks wrestle with at some point in their lives.  It’s something that everybody thinks about whether they are a follower of Jesus or not.  In fact, for folks who aren’t Christians this is an even bigger deal because if there’s nothing after this life, then the legacy we leave behind is the closest thing to immortality there is.  And so for many, many people, the idea of their legacy is a really important one.  But, not only will we leave a legacy behind us, but we are also the heirs to someone else’s legacy.  Most of us are the way we are and have experienced the things we have experienced because of what someone else did before us.  It may have been your parents.  It may have been your grandparents.  It could have been someone else as well.  It could be that you’re doing the things you’re doing as a conscious effort to continue the legacy of one of these people.  It could be that you’re doing them as a conscious attempt to thwart it.

With the same thing in mind, let’s ask the question again: what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?  Are your kids going to live their lives a certain way because of the choices you’ve made and the patterns you’ve set, or are they going to do so in spite of or even in opposition to them?  Which is it going to be?  On top of even all of this, if you are a follow of Jesus, you need to answer the question of whether or not you are or have effectively passed on your faith to the next generation.  Your own parents and grandparents may have been saints, but that doesn’t mean your kids will be.  In fact, as we continue our series, Going It Alone, this morning, we are going to see that even God’s own great faithfulness in our lives is not enough to guarantee the faithfulness of the next generation if we do not consciously live it out ourselves.

This morning brings us to the fourth part of our journey through the book of Judges in our summer series, Going It Alone.  For this few weeks we are not simply journeying through this exciting little book, we are getting front row seats for a show unlike any ever set on a stage or put on a screen.  Judges is the incredible drama of what happens when a people whom God loves decides to try and live life apart from Him.  As we’ve seen so far: it doesn’t go very well.  Simply put, Judges offers us pretty incontrovertible proof that life is better when we live it God’s way.

In the first couple of chapters and as the people set out on their path of rebellion and disobedience we learned that disobedience always has consequences.  From there we saw that we can fall into a pattern of disobedience when we develop bad habits.  If we want to stay on the path of life that God calls us to walk, then we need to establish habits of righteousness.  Finally, last week we jumped straight into the thick of the book by looking at the story of Deborah and Barak.  We reflected on the call God places on our own lives and saw that if we refuse His call, He’ll call someone else.  But then, just as Barak discovered, the glory that He intended to share with us will be experienced by someone else as well.  His plans will still unfold, but we will miss out on their sweetest fruits.

Fittingly, the next story we are going to encounter in our journey brings us face to face with the question of what happens if we do say no to God’s call.  It forces us to ask what will be the consequences of a life marked by the faithless cowardice of someone like Barak.  The story of Barak ended with a note of victory: the Lord led the people in freeing themselves from the hand of Jabin, the king of Canaan.  The story of this next judge, though, takes us beyond the victory and shows us what happened next.  What we are going to see is that a legacy of faithlessness can wipe away the fruits of God’s faithfulness.

This judge’s name was Gideon, and his story begins in Judges 6.  It starts like every other story in the book does: “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…”  This time it was the Midianites whom God used get the people’s attention.  And under the oppression of the Midianites things were bad for Israel.  Really bad.  It got so bad that the people literally headed for the hills and abandoned their villages and towns.  They made dens up in the mountains and hid out there in hopes of eking out a meager existence until things changed.  The problem was, as we find in v. 3, that, “whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them.  They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey.  For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in.  And Israel was brought very low because of Midian.  And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord.”

But this time, instead of rushing to their aid as He had done before, God gave them the what for.  Check this out starting at v. 7: “When the people of Israel cried out to the Lord on account of the Midianites, the Lord sent a prophet to the people of Israel.  And he said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage.  And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land.  And I said to you, “I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.”  But you have not obeyed my voice.’”  In other words: I did all these great things for you and asked one thing: that you would do what I commanded.  But you haven’t done that.  So why should I help you now?

And yet ours is a God who is gracious even (and…kind of by definition…always) when we aren’t deserving of it.  So when the people cried out for help, just like He always did, God came to their aid.  He raised up yet another judge: Gideon.  God’s call to Gideon was direct and personal.  The text says that the angel of the Lord came to Gideon while he was threshing wheat.  But, as a note to how bad it was for Israel under the Midianites, he was threshing grain in a winepress.  Normally a threshing floor was up on the top of an open hill where the wind could effectively blow away the chaff.  Thanks to the Midianites, though, such activities only invited attack.  The people were having to do the same work down inside what was probably a pit carved into the rock of a mountain where there was no breeze to blow away the chaff meaning the work was a lot harder than it should have been.  Yet in this case hard work was preferable to no bread and so the people made do the best they could.

In any event, the angel (whom some interpreters think was the pre-incarnate Jesus, though we have no way of proving that), offers Gideon this incredible greeting: “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.”  Now, keep in mind that the angel was saying this to a guy who was threshing his grain in a pit so the bad guys didn’t see him and come steal it.  Doesn’t sound terribly valorous to me.  And then, as if to prove this point, Gideon—who doesn’t yet realize exactly who it is he’s talking to—launches into this whiney, back-and-forth conversation with the angel that is just sad.  Instead of responding with something bold or courageous, Gideon speaks out of his frustration and hopelessness.  Look at this in v. 13: “And Gideon said to him, ‘Please, sir, 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, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?”  But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.’”

What we get here is a very different perspective on the state of Israel than the author of the text presented just a few verses before.  At whose feet did the author lay the blame for where Israel was?  Israel’s.  It was their faithlessness that put them in such an awful place.  At whose feet did Gideon lay the blame, though?  God’s.  “Why’s God doing all this awful stuff to us if He’s supposedly ‘with us’?”  In other words, “We were going along, minding our own business, and God just smote us for no reason.  How are we supposed to trust in a God like that?”  Isn’t that how many of us respond to hard things going on in the world around us today?  We are very quick to lay the blame at God’s feet, but rarely consider whether or not our own unfaithfulness has been the critical factor in our current predicament.  There’s probably another sermon here, but that’ll be for another time.

The angel responds with a great deal more humility and patience than Gideon deserved.  It notes that God is doing something about the problems of the nation: He’s calling Gideon to save the people in “this might of yours.”  Gideon promptly responds from out of this might with a rousing, “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.’”  And just so we’re clear: this isn’t humility, it’s cowardice.  The man threshing grain in a pit isn’t secretly brave, he’s openly afraid.

The angel encourages Gideon a second time to which he responds by asking for a sign.  The angel agrees, it performs the sign, Gideon realizes who it is he’s been talking to the whole time, and he figures he’s toast.  God Himself reassures Gideon yet again and it seems like things are ready to roll.  Yet we can’t forget about what we’ve just seen.  Gideon responded to one of the clearest and most patient calls of God anybody in the whole of Scriptures received not with bold faithfulness, but with a fear-filled faithlessness.

He puts this fearful faithlessness on display once again almost immediately.  With his call from God finally successfully validated, you would think that Gideon would be ready to go.  After all, he had at least heard the stories about the grand deeds of God on behalf of His people in the past.  Wouldn’t that knowledge plus the assurance of this call to lead his people in victory over the Midianites be enough to inspire him to great and courageous boldness?  No.

Look at v. 25: “That night [meaning right after all this incredible stuff had happened to Gideon] the Lord said to him, ‘Take your father’s bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah [this would have been a wooden pole dedicated to a local fertility goddess] that is beside it, and built an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order.  Then take the second bull and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah that you shall cut down.’”

So here was Gideon’s chance to do something bold for God.  This was a kind of warm up act to leading the people in battle over the enemy that had been dominating them for so long.  And so naturally, with his call affirmed Gideon steps up to the plate, marches to the altar of Baal at high noon the next day, yanks it down, and then chops down the Asherah pole, hanks it into firewood, builds the altar to the Lord, and then in front of all the people offers his sacrifice and calls them to follow the Lord with him once again.  Yeah, no.  Verse 27: “So Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had told him.”  Ta-da!!!  Oh wait…there’s more: “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.”  The next day the men of the town responded just exactly like Gideon figured they would, but instead of standing up and facing them down himself, he lets his dad go out and handle them.

And then again when the Midianites threaten the people once more and Gideon actually follows through on God’s call and summons an army to stand against them he pulls his infamous fleece nonsense which God again actually goes along with.  He says in v. 36: “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor.  If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.”  God responds with a wet fleece and a dry floor the next morning.  Case closed.  Off to battle!  Nope.  Gideon asks for the reverse to happen the next night just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.  And at this point you have to be wondering whether there was anybody else in Israel whom God could have chosen to lead the people.  Gideon is a faithless coward.  Yet against all at least human reason, God keeps right on patiently encouraging him on to the task he wanted him to accomplish.  God was faithful over and over again…a faithfulness that Gideon refused to reciprocate just as often.

Finally then we get to the battle.  Gideon summons a huge army to get the job done.  God tells him it’s too big.  First he dismisses anyone who’s afraid.  Two-thirds of them hit the road.  But the group is still too big.  So he does this weird drinking test and whittles the army down to a group of 300.  And it’s with this tiny unit—1% of the original army—that God leads Gideon (after some proactive encouragement—He probably got tired of Gideon asking and so just beat him to the punch) in first terrifying and then decimating the army of Midian.  In other words, God faithfully did exactly what He had been saying He was going to do all along.

In the next chapter then we see Gideon continuing to clean house against the Midianites and a few others.  He even punishes a couple of Israelite towns who refused to aid his forces when they needed it.  The people reveal they want to make a king out of him and his family, which to his great credit he refuses.  But then he bafflingly creates a little idol which sets not only his family, but the whole of the people back on the path to trouble before he even had a chance to die.  And while his death marks the end of his direct involvement in the story, that’s not actually the end of it.

You see, while Gideon refused to let the people make an official king out of him, he lived like one nonetheless.  He had lots and lots of wives and from these wives had 70 sons along with an undisclosed number of daughters.  And because 70 wives apparently weren’t enough he had concubines—which were essentially sex slaves—too.   One of these concubines bore him a son named Abimelech (a name which means, “son of the king,” which is not a little hubristic and ironic).  In the next chapter we see that Abimelech was an ambitious monster.  From Judges 9:1: “Now Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal [which was Gideon’s nickname] went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother’s family, ‘Say in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, “Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?”  Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.’”  And here we thought only modern politicians could be that conniving!  He’s making a play to have himself made king.  But then in a move that is thankfully very much unlike modern politics, he goes and murders all but one of his 70 brothers.  With all the competition out of the way, his mom’s family gets together and names him the king of Israel.

What follows is a depressing scene in which we see the nation as a whole adopt this evil man as their leader in spite of a pretty strong warning from Gideon’s one remaining son to not do so.  The relationship between Abimelech and his mother’s tribe eventually falls apart and a civil war starts brewing between the two parties.  The whole thing ends when a woman drops a millstone out of her window onto Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull, and he dies at the hand of one of his soldiers who runs him through with his sword so that nobody would be able to say he was killed by a woman.  What a mess!  The final note on the chapter from the author is this: “Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers.  And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.”

Well, what are we to make of all this?  To answer that, look at what’s happened over the course of these four chapters.  The people ran off course yet again, God came to their aid yet again, but the judge He raised up to save the people left not a legacy of faithfulness, but of faithlessness.  And the simple truth is that a legacy of faithlessness can wipe away the fruits of God’s faithfulness.

Think for a minute about all the incredible things God has accomplished in your life.  Some of them may be big and obviously incredible while others might be more subtle, but no less critical to the shape your life has taken to this point.  Do you know what those mean for your own legacy?  The answer to that question depends a great deal on what you do with them; on how you live in light of them.  Because, a legacy of faithlessness can wipe away the fruits of God’s faithfulness.

Come back to the text with me to see what this is the case.  Think about everything God did for the people and even for just Gideon in this narrative.  Think of how patiently faithful He was in shepherding him toward the task to which he’d been called.  The angel waited while Gideon got the stuff to make a sacrifice.  God endured Gideon’s cowardice in tearing down the idols of Baal and Asherah.  He put up with the request for a wet fleece and then a dry fleece.  He gave Gideon a behind-the-scenes look at what He was doing to weaken the enemy’s resolve ahead of the battle.  He engineered an incredible defeat of a much more powerful enemy.  On and on the list goes.  His faithfulness throughout this season was astounding.  Now, of course we should expect no less from God, but that’s exactly the point!  God is unendingly faithful to His people…to us.  But if we respond with faithlessness as Gideon did it will all have been for naught.  Oh sure, God can work around that and call other people to accomplish His ends.  He does that here.  But imagine what God could or even would have done had Gideon left behind a legacy of faithfulness.  Instead he was faithless and God’s faithfulness was forgotten.  A legacy of faithlessness can wipe away the fruits of God’s faithfulness.

Now come on parents and grandparents, this one’s for you.  Do your kids serve the Lord?  And I don’t mean have they been baptized.  I think sometimes Christian parents urge their kids to get baptized before they’ve actually accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior and then hold on to the hope that the baptism will somehow be enough to cover them when they go on to live lives that do not demonstrate any of the fruits of the life of a follower of Jesus not to mention the fact that the kids themselves are led to believe that the baptism by itself was sufficient as well.  No, I meant that just as I said it: Do your kids serve the Lord?  Now, kids are responsible for their own choices when it comes to Christ and sometimes they choose to abandon the amply demonstrated and consistently applied faith of their parents.  That’s on them.  But sometimes they live the way they do because they haven’t witnessed a faithfulness in their parents that matches the faithfulness of God in the lives of their parents.  Come on folks: dragging your kids and grandkids to church isn’t enough.  Making them memorize the books of the Bible isn’t enough.  Even pushing them to get baptized isn’t enough.  They have to see the faith in you.  They have to have you teach them the faith.  Explain to them why you believe what you do (and if you can’t explain it then it’s on you to figure out how to explain so that you can) and how those beliefs compel your actions.  Live out your faith alongside of them.  Let them catch you often reading your Bible and praying.  Serve with them.  Teach them how to give sacrificially and then make sure you do so yourselves.  Make sure church isn’t just something you do once a week and at the dinner table.  Teach them to love the Lord, not merely to do what He says for the social benefits (because culturally speaking there aren’t many social benefits for it anymore).  Gideon was faithless in spite of all God actively did in and through his life.  So can we be.  A legacy of faithlessness can wipe away the fruits of God’s faithfulness.  But, a legacy of genuine faithfulness can solidify those blessings for generations to come.  Some of you are still enjoying the faithfulness of your forebears.  Make sure your kids and their kids and even their kids can do the same.