The Revolution Is Here: Tear Down Your Idols
by Rev. Chris Rice
As we attempt to discern the times we’re living in, the book of Judges in the Bible offers us a story about a man “whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (Heb. 11:34, NRSV). Gideon was called by God on the day he was trying to hide out in a winepress to thresh his wheat, to keep it from being stolen from the Midianites. Israel at this time was an oppressed people. They were disunited. Any of the food they grew was taken from them by the sword. Their worship of the Lord was melded together with a worship of neighboring idols, and their sense of self was confused and forgotten. Like his people, Gideon was just trying to survive. When the people cried out to the Lord to deliver them, he didn’t get the memo that he was their man. So when he got the visit from an angel, “We can almost hear him say, “Who me? You got the wrong guy.”
Gideon has some lessons for us today. Just a few weeks ago shots rang out in a neighborhood not far from here. A young man of color only 18 years old named Michael Brown lay slain in the street for four hours, his blood soaking the ground around him. His father wore a cardboard sign that day, quickly scrawled so the world would hear: “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son.” In the days that followed hundreds of people have marched in vigil every day and night, crying out for justice. The scenes of a militarized police force shooting tear gas and smoke, and of counter threats by some and Molotov cocktails and broken bottles thrown back have left us all feeling angry, tired, and sad.
The question we must begin to ask ourselves is, “Where do we go from here?” In the weeks to come, as the media turns to some other concern and the Grand Jury in St Louis County decides whether or not to bring charges against the white man responsible, how do we make sense of this senseless violence? It’s not as though we face an army of invaders who steal all our wheat to starve us. What does “winning the battle” against racism, brutality, and income inequality look like in our own time? What does God have to say to us? Gideon was the right person in God’s eyes, and what God did for this unlikely hero has many lessons for us. Let’s go to God in prayer now.
“Heavenly Father, we are angry by the injustice in our community. Our own public servant, tasked to serve and protect our people, has instead killed one of our youth. This has happened time and time again. As a nation we don’t seem to know what to say about it. But we cry out to you God for mercy. We pray for an end to the militarism in our society. We pray for deliverance from the fetishism of weapons. Our people of color are more often homeless, more often suffer violence at the hands of authority, and live in systemic poverty. This is not your will. Lord, lead us out of this darkness into your light. Open your Word up to us and grant us wisdom so that we might speak the truth in love and rise unshackled as new people to your glory. Destroy every stronghold, every argument, and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God. We seek to obey Christ and take every thought captive to him. (2 Cor. 10:3-6) Teach us to wage battle your way! In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.”
Gideon was a man like us. He was a product of a society that couldn’t make up its mind about God. But as he haltingly gave himself to his calling, he became what the angel of the Lord called him. Judges 6:12 says, the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” God knew who Gideon was even before Gideon knew. Do you know who you are at this time? Do you hear God calling you? What is the name he has given you? Are you a mighty warrior? Don’t answer too quickly. Instead listen to Gideon’s honest reply.
Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.(vs. 13). Since before 1776 America has never had a shortage of words about God. But we have to be honest along with Gideon and ask whether God is truly with us. Where are all his wonderful deeds now that we read about in the Bible? Where is God when all this has happened to us? Has God abandoned us?
The angel’s reply to Gideon is not an apologetic for God’s existence or his favor. Instead he seems to say that the answer lies within Gideon’s call itself. He has the might. He is commissioned. “Then the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” (vs. 14) Gideon was a man fully acquainted with his own weaknesses. And when we think about men like Abraham, Moses, Saul, and Isaiah, we know that God has favor for those people who know their limitations. He can use that. “Gideon responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” Then he said to him, “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay until you return.” (vs. 16-8)”
This was only the first sign Gideon asks of the Lord, so that he could be assured of God’s favor. We see in Gideon’s story that every time Gideon inquires of the Lord, he is met with a patience response. God had no problem being questioned. So long as Gideon did what the Lord said. The strongest man or woman is someone who realizes their limitations and goes to God to fill up what is lacking in their character. God is our source of strength. But in order to receive from the Lord we have to be willing to tear down our idols.
Before Gideon could deliver Israel he had to obey God and destroy the family idol. This was no small task. According to Judges 6:25-32, Gideon was told to take his father’s bull and pull down the idol to Baal and then cut down the sacred pole next to it. This sacred site belonged to his father. He needed ten men to do it. He was afraid to do it during the day, so he did it at night. And when the towns people saw what was done they all came to Joash, Gideon’s father and demanded that he surrender his son to be killed. Instead Joash reasons with them and asks why the baal can’t take care of himself. This sounded reasonable to the people, so they leave Gideon alone.
Gideon on this day became known as Jerub-baal which meant “let baal contend with him”. The people no doubt figured that this man’s fight with baal would clearly end in failure. He was marked for death. But the Bible uses the name with pride and honor, because this man of ruined reputation proved that baal was the weak god that couldn’t defend its own honor. Gideon’s act of obedience, destroying the idols of his family and people caused the people to question themselves and their allegiance.
Once we acknowledge the call of God on our lives and accept that we are who He says we are, we are called to dismantle the idols that our people serve. Now the problem with that here in our country is that no one wants to acknowledge that they serve any idols. The only authority recognized is the authority of the individual. Reality is what he or she makes of it. This is actually the effect of the ultimate slavery, which is the tyranny of the self. Acknowledging no other authorities outside of oneself is a delusion. The first idol is in fact the self. “No one can tell me what to do.” We were created social creatures. To accept your limits in this world, that maybe you aren’t omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, is the only way to find peace. There are boundaries to my authority everywhere.
But there are other idols besides self-worship here in America. Guns are a huge idol. The way many read the Second Amendment in this country is that possession of a firearm is a duty. Ownership is the responsibility. That’s an idol. That sort of entitlement is dangerous. Can you imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, “Arm one another as I have armed you. Buy each other a new firearm every year as a token of my affection.” No. I can’t. Another idol is the god of the consumer price index. Most people don’t even pretend to know how it works. We just know that spending money is one of the most patriotic things we can do in this country.
Quietly, unsuspectingly, the wealthy in this country have grown richer than ever before, and the poor are left unprotected legally, unable to keep up with the cost of living, and without real health coverage to stay alive. This is the effect of our nation’s worship of wealth. Jesus used the Aramaic word mammon to describe it in Matthew 6:24 and in Luke 16:9, 11, 13. Mammon cannot be served alongside God. It must be thrown down. Jesus demonstrated a way of life for his disciples that involved work, worship, and love for one another. There was no time for a life of leisure and entertainment. There was no time for falling asleep. He taught them to stay awake and live expectantly for his return.
So what are the idols in your life that God is calling you to throw down? What are the societal idols you are called to dismantle? I’ve listed a few, but I want you to take some time and really think about this. There’s no way you can destroy idols alone. Gideon was called of God and he had help. Even his father, who owned the idol, helped him. The important thing is to challenge assumptions.
Many people have this idol called nicotine. They’ve been smoking since they were children and they keep thinking, “I’ll just get down to one a day and then I won’t need it anymore.” And it never happens. Surely God is strong enough for you to win the battle against nicotine craving one day at a time, right? So do it in his power!
One of my idols that I don’t like to talk about is food. I love to snack right before bedtime. Somehow I think that I’ll work off all these extra calories the next morning at the “Y”. But I’m not losing any weight, and the compulsion has stayed the same. I justify it to myself by thinking, “Well there are worse addictions.” But that doesn’t change the fact that I know God is dealing with me about it. I’m called to stop munching before bedtime.
God cares about our whole person, body and spirit. We are meant to live completely for His glory. The problem for God’s people in the book of Judges is that they wanted to acknowledge God and the baal at the same time. They didn’t want to be oppressed by the surrounding peoples of Midian and Philistia, but they wanted to link the local culture and worship to their own. The problem with treating religion like a smorgasbord, adding a little of this or that to your plate, was that God acknowledged no other gods. The people didn’t understand that their desire to pick and choose was itself a rebellion from God and an idolatry.
The work that God wants to do here in our country does not involve simply acknowledging that injustices occur. Anyone can do that. God wants to remake us completely as people. He wants us to be people of justice, people of love, and people of peace! We don’t need reform, we need a complete dismantling of the idol-system and a love revolution! In order to be people like Jerubbaal, we have to be known for our struggle. A family relative from out of state called recently to see if we were ok because of the unrest on the TV. She said to me on the phone, “I just know you’re dad is one of those kinds of people who would be in the thick of that.” I assured her that we were ok, but to keep praying. But if “ok” means not struggling to tear down idols, then no we’re not ok. Yes we are contending with the baals of this age.
God called Gideon to wage a particular war in his time. Judges 7:12 says, “The Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the east lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore.” Judges 6:34: “But the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him.” The Abiezrites were the name of the people Gideon belonged to, members of the tribe of Manasseh. The tribes of Asher, Zebulan and Naphtali also sent troops. Ephraim was called out later and they too fought.
As Gideon had told the Lord earlier, he was the least of his tribe. Israel was a divided people that hadn’t been serving the Lord. There were twelve tribes and only a handful are mentioned as fighting here. Again and again in the book of Judges it says, “each one did what seemed right in his own eyes.” Even so Gideon is gathering together who he can and getting ready for war. But the Lord says, “The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, “My own hand has delivered me.’ Now therefore proclaim this in the hearing of the troops, “Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.’ “Thus Gideon sifted them out; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained.” (Judges 7:2-3)
What can we learn from this? How does this even make sense? Why would God put his Spirit on Gideon to win a mighty battle and then send the men home? God cannot share his glory with any man or woman. The Lord understands that we make idols of the work of our hands. We form personality cults of people. When we’re losing we want to blame God, but when we win a battle we want to take all the credit and receive all the glory.
For this reason, it is important to remember that with spiritual battles God often times rallies us to attention, not to use physical force but to hear that the battle belongs to Him and not to us. It is important to show up in solidarity, but also to accept when we’re not called to be there in person. We can do so much more for God on our knees than in person when that’s what he calls us to do. Henri Nouwen said, “No minister can save anyone. We can only offer ourselves as guides to fearful people. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely in this guidance that the first signs of hope become visible.” Every day I learn in new ways the truth of that statement.
Though Gideon was called by God to be a mighty warrior, God made it clear that the battle belonged to the Lord. When the time came to do battle, the Lord won the victory with just a veritable handful of people. No one could brag that they owned the victory. We see how he did it in Judges 7:19-22:
“So Gideon and the hundred who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. So the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars, holding in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow; and they cried, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” Every man stood in his place all around the camp, and all the men in camp ran; they cried out and fled. When they blew the three hundred trumpets, the Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow and against all the army; and the army fled…”
After this the people Israel went after their enemies and collected spoils of war and the heads of kings. In reading about it I wish we could say that the battle set Israel on the path of return to the Lord, knowledge of who He is, and continued peace. But sadly, this is not what we find in Judges 8. Gideon starts to “settle scores” with his own people who wouldn’t provide for his men. He goes from visionary coward to bloodthirsty victor himself. And when the people try to make him their own king, he asks them only for some of the gold as spoils of war. (Judges 8:23-24)
From this gold he fashions an ephod. Now we know from the Exodus that an ephod was a vestment worn by a priest that contained the Urim and the Thumim, which were used for discerning the will of the Lord. Gideon made his own ephod and placed it in his hometown. We’re told that with it “Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.” (8:27) How, we might ask, could Gideon make up his own religion this way after he so clearly was used of God?
It is so very easy for us from this vantage point in history to judge Gideon and think of ourselves as smarter. Israel during the time of the Judges, seems to have so melded together worship of the Lord and worship of baal that it would not have seemed strange to them to ascribe divinity to an ephod.
We humans were created for wonder. We marvel at what we see and experience. That’s a good thing. But we are also very prone to confuse what we have and what we can make with ultimate concerns. The One True God who created us, the God of Israel, warns us in his Word that He alone deserves our worship. Gideon’s waywardness is to some extent the story of every sinner called to serve. The Apostle John’s final admonition at the back of the New Testament is, “Little Children keep yourselves from idols.”
God is faithful. He will teach us true humility one day at a time as we are willing. We must remember that with every great work he gives us to do, whether we even understand it to be great at the time or not, we are simply meant to live to His glory and not our own.