The “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” Sermon Rewind

As with most preachers, I had a dilemma on Sunday: preach the planned sermon or, in light of Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, do something much different and focus on this national moment.

I ended up doing some of both.  After our Crash Test Dummies bumper played, I pointed out that we as a nation are in crash test dummy mode, doing the same dumb things over and over and over.  And then I let people know that so much of what riles us up these days is the fact that we listen to the loudest voices speaking — left and right.  How about we instead hear the One voice who has spoken?  Finally, I reminded them that the blood flowing inside divides us; the blood lovingly applied unites us.  Jesus’ blood.  It’s a compelling thought when you are sitting in a church with 40 different nations represented.  We concluded that time with an eye-opening, hand-raising prayer of praise.  For real.

Then it was time for the sermon proper, which featured a number of ad libs connecting Gideon’s story to ours.

The bottom line remained the same:  When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does.


Maybe you’ve heard of the guy who hit another guy’s parked car in a crowded parking lot. (Perhaps some of you have done that.)  The “hitter” promptly got out of his car, leaned over the “victim” car and began to write a note.  It said, “Everyone looking at me right now thinks I’m leaving my name, insurance info, and phone number.  I am not.  Good luck.”  


 Well, sir.  For the sake of appearances, in order to look good, he ends up taking some of what doesn’t belong to him.  Some of that guys paint, plastic, and insurance policy.  Protects his own reputation while emptying the other guy’s pockets.  Gaining at the expense of another, and doing so in the sneakiest of ways.  You’ve probably done that at some level at one time or another.  Taken credit for stuff that you didn’t even do; for ideas that worked in spite of you and not because of you.  Oh, Lord, we do these videos here at church and y’all love them and you’ll tell me how great they are and I’m like “Ah, shucks, it was nothing.  Just doing it for the Lord!”  Except I’m not doing it all!  It really IS nothing because nothing is what I contributed to it.  


 Or at work you get some credit for a project and yet the lions share of the work was by the one who is both underestimated and overlooked.  At school, someone else does the study and you get the benefit.  Even in marriages & homes I know some o fyou take credit for stuff you didn’t do; you’re able to look good even when you’ve done bad and you could say it’s just part of survival, it’s simply the way life goes.


 And it’s the way it’s been going for quite a long time.  Last week we met Gideon, who, other than Samson, is the best-known of these not-very-well-known judges.  Gideon doesn’t have Delilah like Samson does, but he does have a bible in almost every hotel in the USA.  We when first met Gideon – and for a lot of you, this was last week – he is both tentative and halting before the Lord in 6:15: 


“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”


By the time his story winds up in Judges 8, however, that demeanor has changed.  It’s like he’s had a personality transplant.  His increased confidence at the end of his story is primarily due to the ways the Lord had used him to secure a series of military victories for the children of Israel.  Now, tucked in the stories of those wins is this in 7:2:


The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’


Don’t boast, don’t falsely take credit from something you didn’t do; don’t make yourself look good at my (God’s) expense.  


All that prepares the way for the closing scene of what they often call the Gideon cycle.  Look at 8:22:


The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.”


Note that wording:  You, Gideon, have saved us from Midian.  Actually, he didn’t.  God has.  And remember the warning not to boast, not to rob God of his credit in 7:2?  We’re SUPPOSED to notice this effort and since 7:2 is in Gid’s story, we expect Gid’s answer to correct it.  Except it doesn’t and he doesn’t.  Look at 8:23:


But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.”


Now:  that looks noble.  It appears faithful.  He presents as humble.  But for all its looks, the important thing is what it overlooks:  he never corrects his countrymen’s assertion.  He makes himself look good by stealing some of what legitimately belongs to God.  


 Look what happens next in 8:24:


And he said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)


I love this!  Columbo (“One. More. Thing.”  And what is that one more thing?  Well, I don’t want to BE a king but I sure want to live like one.  I don’t want the pressure, but I do want the perks.  Not burden, all bling.  But notice what it is at the core: thievery.  Make himself look good while at the same time stealing from conquered peoples.  That’s what plunder is, after all:  stuff you steal from people you have run out of town.  And the answer to this one teeny tiny more thing is just classic in 8:25:  25 They answered, “We’ll be glad to give them.” So they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it. We’d LOVE to!  You’re a great leader, you’re my boss, I’ll do ANYTHING for you and do it with a smile!”  


So what happens next?  8:26 tells us:


The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels,[a] not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks.


A blanket of bling.  First he has stolen credit, now he’s stolen gold, and in the process he has kept his own hands clean.  It’s actually kind of masterful if appearances are what you are looking for.  

 Then, everything heads south in 8:27:


Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.


Now:  WHAT in the world is an ephod?  A new product from Apple?  Something you had for breakfast?  That thing you’re going to ride in to get to lunch?  What in the world is in ephod?  Well, most likely it is a priestly garment (AV) — like Liberace or Elvis used to wear — that in this case is so filled with gold it immediately turned into an idol even with Gideon present.    So now:  stolen credit from God, stolen bling from Midian, and it’s led to much, much worse – stolen glory & attention from God.  That which belonged to God has been given to an idol, which if you know anything at all from OT, is the one thing that makes God very, very angry.  Don’t know why they wanted to worship a gold lamee jacket, but they do!

 And look how the story races to its conclusion from there in 3:28-32. 

28 Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon’s lifetime, the land had peace forty years.

29 Jerub-Baal son of Joash went back home to live. 30 He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives. 31 His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelek. 32 Gideon son of Joash died at a good old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.


Uh-oh.  He takes to stealing women, including idol-worshippoing women.  Tuck that child’s name away – Abimelek, the only name mentioned there – because we’ll be coming back to it.  

 And now, Gideon’s epilog in 8:33-35:


No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. They set up Baal-Berith as their god 34 and did not remember the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. 35 They also failed to show any loyalty to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) in spite of all the good things he had done for them.


Whoa.  What a mixed bag.  What a military success.  What a religious failure. Military genius.  Religious poser.  If he didn’t have those hotel bibles and that nice organization, he’d be nothing. Do you see what he has lost in the progression through Judges 8?  His honor.  His reputation.  His legacy.  Everything important to him.  His progressive theft leads to an aggressive lost.  Here’s the Crash Test Dummy:  When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does.  Gideon took credit, plunder, glory – none of which belonged to him – and in return he lost respect integrity, and legacy.  He was so concerned with keeping up his appearances that he completely lost face!  The more he posed, the deeper he lost.  Who knew that God is the ultimate RE-PO man!  When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does. 


 My goodness, how true this is. Some of you know this all too well.  Somewhere in your past – and it could have been a quite recent past – you’ve taken a romantic partner who did not belong to you.  They call it adultery, don’t they?  And in the aftermath of taking that, you lost what did belong to you … spouse, kids, home, even church.  Others in my experience have even taken the innocence of people too young to know better and they ended up losing their freedom as a result.  Some of you have even taken safety from people on the road and what you’ve lost is the ability to drive legally.  And you do this often enough at work or in school and you’ll lose friends, you’ll lose respect, you may even lose that job.


 You know where this is so applicable?  With truth.  The whole phenomenon of idolatry here brings it home.  Because what is idolatry?  Exchanging the truth of God for a lie.  Worshipping a gold lame preacher jacket instead of the living God!  But in the relatively recent history of the church (last 120 years or so) people have taken bits and piece of the truth – STOLEN IT FROM SCRIPTURE AND FROM CHURCH – things like the Virgin Birth, the reality of heaven & hell, the literal return of Jesus, and, most famously, what Scripture teaches about sexual intimacy.  Professors, pastors, and teachers have through the years stolen what did not belong to them.  Because the truth – the truths of Scripture and the creeds – is on LOAN to us.  We are to hold it like a borrowed Stradivarius.  You be careful with this! God is saying.  This is the faith passed once for all to the saints!  And people have stolen bits and pieces from that precious tapestry that wasn’t theirs to begin with and what’s the result?  What do we lose?  Oh, just the church.  Every denom (PCUSA, ELCA, EC) with this approach absolutely hemhorrages.  Deservedly so. 


 My gosh, this is why it really bothers me when preachers say “my church.” Referring to the place they serve as “my church.”  Nope.  I try never to say that because it’s not.  I hope never to take what isn’t mine because I don’t want to lose what is.  This church, any leadership position in the kingdom, is here on load and I know how seriously God tasks me with faithful stewardship of it.  And I know my heart and how deceitful it is and how much like Gideon I value appearances .., so I know my own need for diligence.  When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does. 


 It’s all why the smallest of things have the greatest of impact.  Because tiny honesties AND minor deceptions both grow in momentum and in influence.  Makes me think of that engineer on the Boeing 747 who said the most satisfying moment of his life was when the first test flight launched.  And what did he engineer on that massive plane?  A switchbox about the size of a shoebox.  That small piece of that massive plane.  But would you want it to be less than excellent when you’re flying over the Atlantic?  So: are you honest in the small things?  In sharing credit?  In giving generously?  If you’re married, in guarding your heart against unfaithfulness?  If you’re a LifeGroup leader, are you faithful in study and prep so you don’t casually and unknowingly rob the Gospel of some of its greatest treasures?  When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does.  because the stakes are unspeakably high.


Because do you remember Abimelek?  The baby born of Gideon’s union with an idol-worshipping concubine?  You know what Abimelek means?  “My father is king.”  They named the boy, “My father is king.”  How did this entire story begin in 8:23: “I’m not going to be your king! That’s for God!”  Doh!  And you realize about Gideon: he has become the very thing he opposed.  He ends up being the very thing he started out railing against.  Early in his life he is an idol breaker.  Late he is an idol maker.  He goes from king avoider to king embracer.  All because in that gradual thievery the thing he lost the most was . . . himself.  You?  Have you become what you’d promised you’d never be?  Are you now what you used to oppose?  If so, I suspect it’s because for quite some time, you’ve been taking what is not yours.  When you take what doesn’t belong to you, you lose what does.