I felt so good about Sunday’s sermon that I considered giving it on a Sunday other than the 4th of July weekend.
But then I realized that God knows what he is doing, and that he would ensure those who needed the message the most would experience with clarity.
So I prayed that a) people would actually show up (which they did, in much better numbers than any July 4th weekend before) and that b) I would remember what I had prepared (that prayed was answered as well).
So here it is, the first of two weeks that we’ll spend on the Gideon cycle of stories from the book of Judges in the Crash Test Dummies.
I described it to a friend in advance as “a 12 step meeting disguised as a sermon” which helps explain the recovery language saturating the bottom line:
God refuses to enable but he is eager to empower.
I know you all. Mostly. And I know that most of you are going to get what I’m going to talk about. And for some of you, you’ll get it because you watch Dr. Phil. For others, it’s because you watch TV dramas that deal in artful, powerful ways with what I’m going to talk about. And then for a lot of you, you will know what I’m talking about because you are in the middle of living it. Both as a someone who lives this way and as someone who pays the price of allowing someone else to live this way.
Here it is: the phenomenon whereby people enable, allow, support, underwrite the misbehavior of others. This is classic in the recovery world. It’s called enabling and in the language of addiction and recovery it makes the non-addict a co-dependent with the addict. Their problem becomes your problems. Addicts manipulate enablers into thinking the addiction is really their fault. But enabling, while it includes addictive behavior, actually goes far beyond it. It’s the parents who keep giving an allowance to their 21 year old son, knowing he uses it for Rx pills. It’s the husband who covers up his wife’s drinking, extracting promises of “never again!” . . . . yet never leaving, never acting on any consequences. It’s the wife who endures lie after lie after lie and affair after affair, believing every pitiful apology and then enduring every new agony.
It the abuser who makes his victim actually believe they deserve abuse. And the victim buys it. It’s the single friend who keeps taking in her single friend who makes no attempt to restore order to her own life. It’s the boss at work who tolerates, who disciplines, who manages around, but who never releases an unqualified or underperforming employee. It’s focused on but not limited to addiction stuff, it’s all around, and it all happens when we enable (allow, tolerate, underwrite!) behavior that harms us.
And, subconsciously or not, it’s the kind of expectation that many of us bring to our conception of and connection with God. We long for a God who will enable us. I say that because I see that in the book of Judges, the story of Gideon, who we’re going to discover is much more than just the guy who gives you your hotel bibles. By way of reminder, Judges is the biblical book we’re using to explore Crash Test Dummies, that odd phenomena by which we do the same dumb things over and over and over again. And that essentially what the book of Judges is: a vicious, descending cycle of foolishness & sin taking place from about 1400 – 1100 BC and all leading to the climactic last line of 21:25:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes
Well, along the way to that depressing conclusion, one of the Judges/Deliverers who appears in the book is the man Gideon, who we know from hotel room bibles & nowhere else. His story is actually much more layered & interesting than a guy with his name on a bible cover. Look at how it all starts in 6:1:
The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites.
You know what is so great? Judges 6 follows Judges ___ ? Right! 5! And Judges 5 is all about the great victory & celebration of Debra, another earthly deliverer. And yet after the euphoria of that song, the next thing we read is the despair of 6:1. It goes to show you that we almost always handle adversity better than prosperity because prosperity makes us trust ourselves. We feel we can make our own rules since we have forged our own success. Which is what the Jews do in the lawless, ungovernable era we’re talking about. Look at 6:2-5:
2 Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. 3 Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 4 They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. 5 They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it.
You know what is interesting about that? The Midianites were nomads and the Israelites were settlers. Yet in response to Israel’s sin – which was ALWAYS IDOLATRY, always the Lord AMONG the gods instead of the Lord ALONE above all gods – he reverses the roles. See that? After the invasion (Valhalla I am coming!) the Israelites have to scramble to find temporary (nomadic) shelter in the mountains, caves, & strongholds, while the Midianites become the plantation farmers! It’s total role reversal! And I also love the way the narrator exaggerates the problems (countless camels, swarms of locusts) – a perfect way to turn drama into melodrama. Characteristic of who? Ah, people who want you to enable them! And 6:6 summarizes the Israelite response to the role reversal: 6 Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.
Now: if you’ve been reading or listening to Judges (like the first audience), you know the pattern when the people cry out like this: God immediately sends a deliverer. A judge. To this point in the story, there has been Othniel, Ehud, & Deborah. The ppl sin, the ppl get oppressed, the ppl cry out, and BAM! God sends a deliverer. Only here it changes; look at 6:7-10a:
When the Israelites cried out to the Lord because of Midian, 8 he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 9 I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’
Ah! A prophet – I love this – who is both unnamed AND who does not predict the future! Tells them of the past! All that God had done in delivering them from slavery, the how and they why, the main requirement for them to stay in favor (no idolatry) and them BOOM in 6:10b:
But you have not listened to me.
Mic drop. And in that delay is everything you need to know. If God had delivered the ppl immediately following their outcry, what would he have been doing? ENABLING! 4th time! So here he says “No no no no. Why should I answer THIS PRAYER when you never acted on the LAST ONE I answered?” God was so with the people that he had to depart from them. He was so for them he had to be temporarily against them. In order to help them he first had to hurt them. Yep. God here refuses to be co-dependent. He will not let Israel’s problem become his problem.
And every parent, spouse, sibling, friend who DIDN’T BAIL OUT, who DIDN’T RESCUE, who DIDN’T LOAN MONEY, who DIDN’T TOLERATE POOR WORK PERFORMANCE knows exactly what God was going through when he sent a history lesson instead of an answered prayer.
So in the aftermath of that rebuke & reminder, God calls Gideon. Look where Gideon is in 6:11:
11 The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites.
He’s hiding, not in his hotel room reading his own bible, but working under cover because he is scared of the Midianites. So what happens next is some of the greatest, wittiest back & forth dialog in Scripture. Look at 6:12:
12 When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
That’s a bible Laugh Line! He’s cowering, hiding, sniveling & the Lord’s messenger calls him Mighty Warrior! Then, as if to prove the irony, look at 6:13:
13 “Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
“Please sir… (British accent). And two questions there in v. 13: WHY? WHERE? Why is this happening to us; why are we nomads & Midianites settlers? Where are all the cool things you used to do? Man, oh man, what great questions. Ones you have asked. Why did you let me get in this mess, this marriage, this jail cell and Where are all those cool parting the Red Sea & rising from the dead miracles you used to do. We’ve ALL ASKED THOSE.
But I think the Lord realizes something (cuz he’s smart): some people ask questions not because they want answers but because they want attention. They want control. So if God here were to answer Gideon, he’d been enabling him! And the rest of Israel! So he says simply in 6:14:
14 The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?”
Whoa! You have resources within you, Gid, you have strength. I don’t need to give you an answer. I need to give you an assignment. You know what God does here? I love it. He doesn’t enable. He empowers. And Gideon … like us … like so many, tries to make God his co-dependent again in 6:15:
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.”
The Lord settles the argument once more in 6:16:
16 The Lord answered, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites, leaving none alive.”
Go, do this shocking-to-us thing of ridding the land of the Midianites (the comparison is ISIS – we’d realize we can’t tame it or co-exist with it; as awful as it sounds, it needs to be eliminated). Take the shock effect out, however, and what God is about is clear: God refuses to enable but he is eager to empower.
Yes! He will not allow, underwrite, tolerate your continued misbehavior but he for darn sure will fuel, accelerate, and mobilize your ministry! The delay to Israel’s outcry means everything! The non-answer to Gideon’s question means everything more! The assignment caps the deal. God is so secure! He will not be manipulated. Which means I have to ask you: we talk a lot about a living relationship with Jesus Christ here, but do you have a manipulative one? The kind that you only call on when you are in a fix? Do you ask him to help you in your dilemmas without repenting of what it was that got you in the dilemma in the first place? Help me! And God, sometimes with a delay and sometimes with a struggle, has to answer: I gots to hurt you first. It’s when he says, “Stop waiting for the next answered prayer and start acting on the last one.” God refuses to enable but he is eager to empower.
And I so love 6:14. You already have the resources. I believe that so much that there have been times when I haven’t prayed for people. Gulp! I am so mean! No . . . they were using prayer requests as a camouflage for the fact that they weren’t willing to access the prayers that had already been answered and resources already given. Nope, you got this; stop delaying with prayer and start working with your answers. Along the same line . . . GULP! . . . I’ve even stopped counseling ppl before because the longer they hold on to me (or any counselor), the more they’re being held back from true, genuine, authentic healing & wholeness. God doesn’t want to enable, prolong, either bad behavior OR spiritual dependency; he wants to empower an army of inviters.
It’s so much like Peter Cartwright, Methodist preacher in the 1800s. And one Sunday as he was preparing to preaching, his elders came in & said, “President Andrew Jackson is here today. Don’t say anything to upset him! The President is here!” So a bit later that morning, after the praise & worship & sermon bumper video, Cartwright stood up & said, “I’ve been told President AJ is here. I’ve also been advised to temper my remarks so as not to offend. Well, here goes: Andrew Jackson will die & go to hell just like everyone else if he does not repent & believe the Gospel.” Doh! And in response, AJ asked him to dinner. God refuses to enable but he is eager to empower.
So what are you empowered to? For Gideon, it was defeating the Midianites, which he does, though as we will see next week his ultimate legacy is more in keeping with the whole downward trend of Judges. But what is the call & direction of your empowering?
Is God testing your faithfulness with that which is small in order to prepare you to accomplish that which is large?
Is he empowering you simply for sobriety? Is this finally THE TALK that gets you to stop manipulating the people you should love the most and get instead into a program of recovery?
Or on the other hand, is he empowering you to stop enabling? That you know you are making possible the behavior in others that is slowly but surely killing you? Their problems are your problems? Hey – they don’t grow out of it. They don’t just get better. One more chance doesn’t work. It takes the pain of withdrawal – like God did! – to force the freedom of awareness.
Or is he empowering you to break the cycle in which you were raised. Yeah, you might have been raised in anger & dysfunction, but now you’re given the gift of raising the next generation in faith and in love. And you can only break those deeply entrenched cycles when you are empowered by the chain breaker himself.
And here’s something he is empowering all of us who call GS home to: inviting. We don’t say it enough, but here goes: the invited are to become inviters. All. It takes all people to invite all people and a lot of you are co-dependent w/ this church in that you let a just a few carry the inviting load for the many. Well, what about if we all did so? And we’ve got a tool to put in your hands (BTH cards with the two sites on them). God refuses to enable but he is eager to empower.