Watch the video first… (war eagle!)
Now, I realize we probably don’t have many Auburn fans in the room this morning, but, after watching that video, I have one question for you: do you think going to an Auburn football game – being in the stands, watching this video on a massive HD display, surrounded by 87k fans screaming in unison, flags, banners, cheerleaders, the band, an eagle circling the stadium, maybe fireworks, smoke machines – is this worship? Would you describe going to the Super Bowl to watch your favorite team compete as an experience that’s similar to what we’re doing here this morning in the “worship service”?
How about this? Not trying to make any political statements here, but is attending a presidential inauguration an act of worship? They follow a strict ritual, play music, great speeches from world-renowned leaders are heard, all the most important, powerful people are there, and thousands of others brave the rain and cold just to catch a glimpse. Is this worship?
How do you know you’re worshiping? Does it depend on the place? If you’re at church, does that mean you’re worshiping? Can we worship at home? So, there’s a place everyone in this room has been before, but you’ve never gone there to “worship.” I’m going to read something now that describes this particular place, but the description intentionally blurs the location. So, as you listen, close your eyes, see the place in your mind’s eye, and try to figure out where you are:
One might say that this religious building has a winding labyrinth for contemplation, alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints. As we wander the labyrinth in contemplation, preparing to enter one of the chapels, we’ll be struck by the rich iconography that lines the walls and interior spaces. Unlike the flattened depictions of saints one might find in stained-glass windows, here is an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb… As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within the chapel – invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see. We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms… after time spent focused and searching in what the faithful call “the racks,” with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar, which is the consummation of worship. While acolytes and other worship assistants have helped us navigate our experience, behind the altar is the priest who presides over the consummating transaction… We don’t leave this transformative experience with just good feelings or pious generalities, but rather with something concrete and tangible, with newly minted relics… And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season. Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel… to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel.
Any guesses? What’s being described here? Where are you “worshiping”? Need some hints? Those garbed, 3D “icons” you contemplated? They’re called manikins. That “chapel”? It was J. Crew. Your “relic”? Skinny jeans. The “priest” was your cashier who received your credit card “sacrifice” at the checkout “altar” where digital signals flowed like pleasing incense through the wires to fill the nostrils of the great “gods” of Visa. You’re at the mall and you’re worshiping. Did you realize it?
It’s all worship: football games, presidential inaugurations, shopping. The list of “worshipful” activities and “places of worship” is infinitely long because we’re always worshiping – all day, every day.
Why all this talk about worship? Last week we looked at the first episode in the story of Gideon found in the book of Judges. We saw how Israel, God’s chosen people, was in this state of transition, of twilight, an in-between time. They were stuck in this cycle of unfaithfulness to the promise they had made to God and God was raising up judge after judge to save them from their enemies. Gideon was one of these judges – a deliverer – who God was calling to save Israel. God had to take special measure to get through to Gideon and eventually Gideon got the message loud and clear. How did Gideon respond? WORSHIP. He built an altar and named it “The Lord is Peace.” Last week we learned that the first step, the foundational step towards the all-encompassing, comprehensive peace that the Israelites called shalom is to worship the God is who Peace. If we long for peaceful community – well-being, justice, security, wholeness, healing – we begin by worshiping the God-who-is-Peace.
We left Gideon in Judges 6:24, so let’s pick up where we left off and read just a bit more in the story:
The message I want to bear witness to this morning from the life of Gideon is simple:
Let’s go back to the text and break this down a little.
Worshiping the God-who-is-Peace is costly. When Gideon finally realized that he was talking to God, he had to come to terms with the fact that GOD had just commissioned HIM to be a judge, a deliverer of Israel. Now, we may be excited if God called us to do that, right? Don’t we all want that sense of God-given purpose and mission in life? And wouldn’t we love the assurance of this kind of personal encounter? Maybe so. I know I wouldn’t mind. But I’m not so sure Gideon was as excited about his commissioning as you and I might be because, as it turns out, Gideon and his family are… a bit pre-occupied. They’re Israelites but they’re kinda “on a break” from Yahweh, the God of Israel, and have started seeing another god. His name is Baal and he has a cool friend named Asherah. The text is pretty clear: Gideon’s family OWNS the altar to Baal, who is basically the most well-known pagan god in the Old Testament. When Israel rebels from God and turns to idolatry, it seems like they always turn to Baal.
So, when Gideon hears this call from Yahweh, the true God of Israel, and then builds this altar and names it “The Lord is Peace,” he’s actually making a pretty significant decision because he’s changing his allegiance away from Baal back to Yahweh, the God of Israel. He recognizes that if Yahweh is the God-who-is-Peace, then every other “god” is a false god of chaos, violence, confusion, destruction, and death.
But, as significant as that decision was for Gideon, it was only the first step. It’s one thing to build an altar to Yahweh, but it looks kinda silly when that altar is actually just down the street from the Baal altar, you know, the one you and your family OWN. The first step of worshiping God leads Gideon to a second step: tearing down the Baal altar. What does this mean for Gideon? It means confronting his father. He not only has to dismantle the Baal altar and chop down the Asherah pole, but he also has to build a new altar to Yahweh on top of the ruins of the Baal altar and then sacrifice his father’s prized bull using the wood from the Asherah pole as fuel for the flames. Destroying the Baal altar is going to have serious consequences: as the text goes on to tell, this is not just a personal family shrine – it’s being used by the whole community. Gideon is deconstructing the community’s source of security, comfort, and hope. But it’s not just the community’s idol, or his family’s idol – it’s his idol too.
For Gideon, the cost of worshiping the one, true God-who-is-Peace is experienced in a confrontation with false gods that is simultaneously personal and social, public and private.
But Gideon goes through with it; he’s afraid but he does it anyway. As he feared, the townspeople are super-pissed. They want Gideon dead, but he survives and he even gets some unexpected help from his father. What happens next? Well, in brief summary form, Gideon delivers Israel from the Midianites, this people that were oppressing Israel because of their idolatry. So, Gideon worships the true God, tears down the idols, defeats the enemies, and delivers Israel. Sounds good right? What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s skip ahead and pick up the story in Judges 8:22-28. This is just after Gideon has returned from his successful military conquest of the Midianites:
There’s tons of irony here. One detail about Gideon’s conquest over Midian that I didn’t mention before is that God made a very specific, very intentional effort to ensure that there would be no way the Israelites could miss the fact that it was God who was delivering them – not Gideon. But what do the people tell Gideon? “for YOU have delivered us from out of the hand of Midian.” Not surprisingly, they miss the point. This episode is already off to a bad start. But Gideon sets ‘em straight: “Nope, there is no king but God. Sorry folks.” Unfortunately, he keeps talking… Earlier we said that our worship of the one, true God-who-is-Peace is costly because it’s continuously challenged by our appetite for easy, cheap, imitation gods who make promises of peace that don’t last; that actually lead us, and all creation, towards death. We talked about the costly part already. Let’s look at part 2: the continuous challenge we face from our appetite for the easy gods, the “Baals,” that lead us toward death.
Gideon says one thing – “I won’t be your king. Only God is king!” – but then he does another. His actions speak louder than his words. He passes the offering plate and asks for gold and then makes an ephod. Now, what on earth is an ephod? It’s this apron-like garment that was to be worn only by the high priest. It was highly symbolic of God’s presence. It was worn only in a ritual, sacrificial context and it was considered to be one of the holiest objects that the priest wore. Where there’s an ephod, you should find a priest.
Now, the text doesn’t come out and say why Gideon made the ephod, but it does tell us the result: “all Israel prostituted themselves [to the ephod]” and “IT became a snare to Gideon and his family.” Judges chapter 2 uses this same imagery – prostitution and a “snare” – to describe Israel’s cyclical abandonment of God and return to idolatry. The connection is clear and its confirmed by what happens a few verses later: “As soon as Gideon died, the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals.” When Gideon makes this ephod, it’s like he’s saying, “I won’t be your king but I’m gonna be my own priest.” He refuses to be a leader but then takes a leadership role that brings Israel right back to worshiping false gods.
Gideon may have pulled Israel out from under the oppressive hand of Midian but he couldn’t break the hold of Baal on their hearts. He couldn’t break Baal’s hold on his own heart.
Idols don’t just go away. You have to dismantle them and then build a new altar to God on top of it. But even then, they return.
It’s like whack-a-mole… Gideon was, once again, oblivious to his own appetite, and the appetite of his community, for worshiping these cheap, easy, imitation gods that make false promises of peace that really just lead to death.
And, when I say “death,” I really mean that in a literal sense. This week marked the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.
Nearly 140,000 lives in Hiroshima and another 70,000 in Nagasaki were lost in an instant. A Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, wrote that “Baal persists in human history… [history is] the story of the confrontation between Yahweh and Baal.” The destructive power of idolatry, on both sides of the war, was burned into his memory. We’d do well not to forget.
Like Gideon, we are a people who declare that God – the God of Israel, of Jesus Christ – is the one true God-who-is-Peace.
But our worship of God – our annunciation – rings hollow without corresponding denunciation. When we build an altar to worship God, God calls us to complete our act of worship by tearing down our altars to Baal, by denounce our false gods. This is a painful process. It is costly because we too often build our lives on these easy, false promises. We don’t like tearing down idols; we usually get really upset just by being told that we have idols! But we do.
I began this sermon talking about football, presidential inaugurations, and shopping for a reason. These “rituals” embody our idols: entertainment, national might, and consumerism.
Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, calls them money, sex, and power. Brennan Manning, another great author who wrote The Ragamuffin Gospel, describes them as security, pleasure, and power.
These idols, and probably others too, manifest themselves differently in all of our lives. We experience them in different ways. They present unique obstacles to our exclusive worship of the one true God-who-is-Peace. They lead us, by different paths, into brokenness that disrupts our relationships and disorders our community. These false gods are buried deep inside our hearts, competing for our love, enticing us with images of the “good life” that don’t last. They’re hard to detect and even harder to remove; like Gideon, they keep popping up and leading us away from God. Are you aware of your idols? What are the altars in our hearts?
We’re always worshiping. The question Gideon’s story calls us to answer is “who?” Not just between the hours of 10a and noon on Sunday morning; everyday, all day. If we say “Yahweh, the God of Israel, of Jesus Christ,” then we have one more step to take: tearing down our idols so that, in everything we do, in all our relationships, throughout our community and in the deepest places of our hearts, God is worshiped and peace, the shalom of God’s kingdom, breaks in.
Now, is money, or sex, or power always an idol? No. Is Auburn football inherently idolatrous? Possibly – and Cam Newton is most likely divine. These are our blind spots; the major weaknesses of our day where we are most prone to idolatry. But again, maybe you struggle with a different set of idols. The point is that we all have idols and we have more of them in common than we are sometimes willing to admit.
In spite of our unfaithfulness, we still have hope. The last verse we read says “the land had rest for forty years in the days of Gideon.” Even in spite of Gideon’s flaws, his struggle with his idols, God still used him to deliver Israel and bring rest to the land. One commentator I read sums up the matter well, so I’ll close with this: “The repeated cycle of deliverances in the book of Judges portrays a God whose essential will is to forgive and give life… Such grace is indeed free, but… it is not cheap. It demanded of Israel, and it demands of us, our souls, our lives, our all – in short, it demands that we worship and serve God alone.”
 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 21-22.
 Kosuke Koyama, Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai (1984), 38-39, 215.
 J. Clinton McCann, Judges (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), 25.