I have a confession to make, one that I feel no shame in divulging: There is an unimpeachable seat in my heart for 'underdogs'. We know the type. Outwardly unimpressive. Overlooked. Resilient. Gritty. They're the ones who fight tooth and nail to accomplish the very thing that others claim to be beyond their reach. Growing up my hero was Rocky... yeah, the "Yo Adrian!" Rocky. I have all the films on VHS and DVD, a Rocky T-shirt, a Rocky talking figurine, a SOTHPAW license plate (bonus points if you know what that is!), and a framed poster from the first film which says "His whole life was a million-to-one shot." Oh... I forgot one, I named my dog Rocky and still attempt to convince my wife that Rocky would be a great name for a child! Confessions aside, there's a genuine reason why this fictional Philadelphian means so much to me: He fought. For everything that mattered to him. When I first introduced the idea of #Xealots it was under the premise that Christ himself has called us to a life filled with passion and that our deepest, truest, and most God-honoring passions are discovered through knowing him and and realized through abiding in Him. With that in mind it's time to look at a young man who was both a xealot and underdog. Hopefully we can learn a few things along the way.
In the name of all that is holy, please get one of these for yourself and mount it somewhere visible.
When we first encounter Gideon there is a notable discontinuity between what ought to have been and his present reality. Judges 6 opens the narrative by explaining that the Israelites have broken faith with God and began to worship a number of false deities from the surrounding regions. In response God gave the Israelites over to the Midianites who oppressed them so severely they were described as a swarm of locusts that have devoured a land. Israel's only recourse was to cry to God for help. Due to his loving faithfulness God offers a response of his own:
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.’ But you have not listened to me.”
Shall we compare what is with what should have been?
It's smack dab in the midst of this unenviable plight that we find the young Gideon hiding in a winepress threshing his wheat. Suffice it to say, threshing grain is lengthy, tiring work. Moreover, it's the type of labor that requires a space large enough for air current to help the chaff separate from the actual wheat. Winepresses, being essentially large holes in the ground, are pretty much the worst place for this to be done! This is literally a pathetic situation: a fearful, dejected, disenchanted young man hiding in a hole. And yet this is the very place in which we're introduced to him and where the angel of the Lord delivers an unlikely [or perhaps very likely in God's economy] message, "“The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor.” (Judges 6:12).
One can almost taste the skepticism in the air as Gideon replies, “Please, my lord, 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...how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” (Judges 6:13-15)
A colloquial retelling might read something like this:
GOD??!! WHERE IS GOD??!! Where was he when our families were attacked? When my friends were killed? Where was God when all this went wrong??? When was he when we fled our homes and ran into caves?
MIGHTY WARRIOR??!! You gotta be kidding - > I come from the smallest tribe, my clan is the weakest clan in the smallest tribe, and I’m the least in my family, that comes from the weakest clan, in the smallest tribe. You are way, way off!
I'm sure many of us are familiar enough with the tale of Gideon to know what transpires later in the story. Over the next few posts we'll look at different aspects of his journey, highlighting lessons to be learned along the way. But for today let's simply highlight one small but significant element: the power of life giving words.
Words of Life
It's not without reason the Bible tells us that, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21). We all bear the scars of hurtful, spiteful, ill-timed, and perhaps even flippant words spoken to us. Whoever first said, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" must have either had a small vocabulary or a faint grasp on the power of the tongue. The very power of words is made manifest in the impact they have upon us and how frequently we seem to recite and relive what we've said or heard (be it good or bad) on any given day. The good news is that as damaging as some words might be, others have the potential to be truly life giving. Gideon, in the midst of deep pain, received such words; words that would later go on to define how he would be remembered. These words of life called him to embrace his present discontinuity with hope that God would yet be at his side. Without jumping too far ahead I should say that Gideon did in fact heed those words, and it's a good thing since now he stands as a worthy example for us. There are two things I'd like to point out regarding words of life and accessing them for ourselves:
1. We must first be honest about our current state.
2. We must choose to feed upon words of life.
Words of life called him to embrace his present discontinuity with hope that God would yet be at his side.
Be honest about your current state.
God is big enough for your doubt. Let that sink in a bit. It is telling that Gideon's gut-level response to the angel's message was not one of instantaneous joy and unbridled enthusiasm. This is no Disney melodrama and here you'll find no hero's dilemma couched in a fanciful song. Gideon's response was raw, unfiltered, frank, and above all honest. And God can always work with honesty. John 21 recounts the restoration of Peter after he failed to stay faithful to his mater during his arrest and subsequent death. Three times Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love me?" and to each question Peter replies, "Yes, I love you?" A key insight of this exchange is lost in the english translation.
The first two times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him the word αγαπαω [aga•pao] is used. Agapao is a verb form of what we'd translate as "unconditional" or "covenantal" love. It's the kind of love that stays committed NO MATTER WHAT. Your husband loses his job, you stay with him. Your wife becomes paralyzed, you stay with her. Your daughter falls into drug addition, you stand along side her. Agapao is the deep kind of love with no strings attached and does not keep a ledger of rights and wrongs. However, Peter did not reply back with agapao, but with φιλεω [phi•leo]. Phileo describes the kind of love that friends or companions have. Think Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. This is a love of exchange, one of merit, one whose fire can burn bright or dim depending upon the status of the relationship. Peter couldn't agape Jesus but he could phileo him. The power of this intense moment comes in Jesus' own response to what Peter was capable of. On the third and final question Jesus meets Peter at his level and asks, "Do you phileo me?" In essence Jesus met Peter at the place of his honesty. He embraced Peter by what he was capable of at the time. Honesty with God opens the cracks and crevices of our very souls to his indwelling.
Feed on life giving words.
The Scriptures, especially the Psalms, speak of the importance of meditating on the Word of God as a means of personal and spiritual growth. The psalmist writes, "I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word." (Psalm 119: 15-16). Interestingly, there is a profound linguistic tie with the word meditate and the word chew. As early as the 1500s the Latin word ruminare (from where we get ruminate) was a synonym for meditate. Rumination is what cows do with cud. A cow can take well over 800 bites of grass per hour, initiating a complicated digestion process that occurs throughout the bovines four, YES FOUR, stomaches. At a certain point the partially digested grass is regurgitated as cud allowing the cow to continue breaking down the vegetation thereby absorbing as much of the nutrients as possible.
I myself am a notoriously fast eater. My wife marvels at the fact that I can be nearly finished with my plate before she has completing seasoning hers. Her biggest complaint (and a legitimate one at that) is that I haven't taken the time to appreciate the goodness of what I've eaten nor maximized the absorption of its nutrients. I don't think I'm far off in assuming this is a common danger in our "feeding" on God's word. We go for the quick and easy and then we're off. But if we took TIME, if we CHEWED, if we truly meditated on God's word which is, "alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12) we would experience the true transformative power it has for us. And this is what I believe happened with Gideon. A word of life was spoken to him and he chose to allow it to fill his head and heart. In so doing it informed his subsequent actions and led him out of the bleak discontinuity he found himself in.
Perhaps it's time we embrace the discontinuity of life. The Gospels paint a vivid picture of the hope to be found in coming to know the One who truly knows us. Yet we so often find the painted picture does not always depict our present realities. This is no cause for alarm or dismay. It's an opportunity. An opportunity for honesty with God; about our fears, regrets, and apprehensions. And moreover it's an opportunity to return to the words of life, to allow them to fill our souls to such a degree that when we are called "mighty warriors" we take the first steps into a daring future. Allow me to leave you with one final bit of encouragement, a song that speaks to me every time I hear it. One that is both a word of life and drives me to the One who is life.
Comments, questions, thoughts? The comment section below is for you. As always please pass this along if you found it helpful and meaningful.
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