THE TRUE NATURE OF SOCIAL CHANGE

A minister was walking down the street when he came to a group of about a dozen boys between the ages of 10 and 12. The boys were gathered around an old dog. Concerned that the boys were hurting the animal, the minister went over and asked, ‘What are you doing with that dog?’

One of the boys replied, ‘This dog is just an old stray. We all want him, but only one of us can take him home. So we’ve decided whichever one of us can tell the biggest lie gets to keep the dog.’ The minister was disturbed. ‘You boys shouldn’t have a contest telling lies.’ Don’t you boys know it’s a sin to lie?’ Then he launched into a 10-minute sermon about lying. The minister ended his speech with, ‘When I was your age, I never told a lie.’

There was dead silence for about a minute and just as the minister was beginning to think he’d gotten through to them, the smallest boy gave a deep sigh and said, ‘All right, give him the dog.’ All of us can understand that little boy’s assessment. Sin is something that is common to the human race.[i]

What’s true about us individually is also magnified collectively. We can bemoan the moral direction of our society. We can cringe as we see national calamities affected by sinful values. But what is the answer to the effects of moral deterioration upon a nation? God begins by addressing each of us as individuals. We want transformation to happen apart from God bringing about real change within each human heart. We are looking for major collective changes, while God is looking at changing individual lives, which ultimately brings about collective change. What I’m saying is that the answer is found in each of our lives being personally addressed by God. The problem ultimately is not ‘out there,’ but ‘in here,’ our innermost being that needs transformation.   

In Judges 6, we find that Israel had just experienced forty years of peace and prosperity, as they had turned from sin and were serving God, but then a new generation arises that does not understand the danger of compromise. They begin to conform to the nations living with them in the promised land. They become Canaanized or what we would call, ‘spiritually compromised.’ The Bible calls this worldliness. It puts us at odds with God.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.[ii]

What is James saying here? That when we embrace the values of a society that is defying and denying God’s values, we will find ourselves fighting against God. The results are pain and suffering, which is ultimately the effects of sin in our lives. Here in Judges we read of a new oppressor arriving on the scene. The writer gives us insight into why this has happened. A new cycle of sin has taken Israel captive and the consequence is a new oppressor.

The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites.[iii]

So can the sin cycle be destroyed in a person’s life, or even more amazingly in the life of a nation? Here in the book of Judges, there are four things we need to understand in helping us escape the oppression of sin’s bondage both personally and collectively as a society.

THE FIRST THING WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND IS THE PAIN THAT SIN CAUSES

Ultimately to reject God’s ways brings about sorrow and losses in our lives. We often are in denial about the problem but, simply put, we must take responsibility for our actions. Blaming is one of those things that keep us from dealing with personal and social issues. It is always someone else’s fault for what is happening in our lives. The only problem with being the victim is that we never get free. We must stop shifting the blame and start taking personal responsibility for our situation. When we have been victimized, the need to exercise forgiveness is critical in order to move on. We all need to be forgiven by God and others, and once we experience this we realize the power that forgiveness brings.

We need to realize that our sin not only impacts our life, but also those around us. You might be asking, what is sin? Sin as defined by the Bible is simply not bringing glory to God. However, this may seem too vague for some, but it is also defined as a transgression of God’s law, or anything that is not demonstrating trust in God, or knowing what is right and not doing it. All of these things bring pain and sorrow into our life and others’.

It is true that we rarely change unless it hurts enough that we don’t have a choice. Often pain is the tool that forces us to acknowledge that we cannot continue in our present course of action. So sin’s consequences lead to misery and bondage. Addiction is the fruit or result of sin. Freedom comes as we walk with God living in His ways. Notice the expression of how God handles our sin. He gives us over to the consequences of them.   

In the book of Romans we read the downward cycle of sin. While they were turning from God to false idols and sinful behavior, we read God’s response.

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.[iv]

God gives us over to sin and to sin’s consequences in our lives. This is actually a grace to get our attention on the destructive nature of our actions. We see this demonstrated in this Old Testament narrative of Gideon. 

The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites.

Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in the mountain clefts, caves and strongholds.[v]

Rebellion from God’s ways led to oppression by the Midianites over the Israelites.

Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country.

Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help.[vi]

The pressure caused them to look up. It generally takes crisis to get our attention. We generally only call out to God when things get bad enough that that’s all there is left to do. I don’t believe we need to spend a lot of time here because most of us have had this experience in our life at some point. Here in our text it states that they were reduced to finding shelter when invaded in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Though they could not always protect their crops or livestock, they tried to find refuge when they were invaded. There were moments when the speed of the invasion caught them off guard. There were those who lost their lives. We read in chapter eight that some of Gideon’s own siblings were killed as a result of these raids. 

Then he asked Zebah and Zalmunna, ‘What kind of men did you kill at Tabor? Men like you, they answered, each one with the bearing of a prince.

Gideon replied, ‘Those were my brothers, the sons of my own mother.[vii]   

Gideon knew the pain and suffering coming as are result of the nation’s sin. He was directly affected by it.

THE SECOND THING WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND IS THE PROPHETIC MESSAGE THAT GOD SENDS TO CHALLENGE HIS PEOPLE

It is one thing to know we have a problem and are experiencing pain; it is quite another thing to accept our personal responsibility for our contribution to that problem. As we shall see from Gideon’s response to the angel, anger and doubt about God’s love and concern were evident. The people did not see how their sin was the actual problem. After God appeared to Gideon described here as the ‘angel of the Lord,’ Gideon’s response is to ask where God has been.

‘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 fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?  But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian.[viii]

We can see from Gideon’s response that he believes God has abandoned His people. He does not yet understand that the real problem is with the behavior of the people.            

Gary Inrig insightfully points out that in the previous instances where God has rescued His people out of the consequences of their sin, there seems to be no understanding by the people why they find themselves in the predicaments that they are in.

Until now, every time God’s people had called to Him, He had sent a judge, a deliverer, to change their condition. Not this time. God sent a prophet because His people needed repentance more than they needed relief.[ix]

In other words, before the deliverance came, they needed to understand why they were in the mess they were in. There seemed to be a great spiritual ignorance.

When the Israelites cried out to the LORD because of Midian, 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.

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.

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 did not listen to me.’[x]

            How often do we blame our problems and painful situations on others? Or even worse, we blame the consequences of our sin on God? Here the prophet was telling them that it was their disobedience that was causing their pain.

When we look around our nation today, we often blame others for the condition it is in. Things will only begin to change when we start addressing the things in our own lives that are displeasing to God.

THE THIRD THING WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND IS THE PEOPLE GOD CHOOSES TO USE IN LEADING US

Often God brings people into our lives to help us address issues in our soul. They are certainly not perfect people, but fellow strugglers. They are also engaged in the battle within their own soul. The first thing I notice is that the people God chooses to lead are those who are dealing with the problem in the best way they know how. Here we find Gideon busy threshing wheat in a wine press.  He was making the best of a bad situation. He was trying to conceal his activities from the invaders in order to care for his family.

1. It was to this kind of person who was concerned about what was going on and was doing what he could that God appeared to. 

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.

When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, ‘The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.[xi]

As I was reading this text the other day, it struck me that the angel of the Lord had sat down and was watching Gideon while he was threshing in the winepress. It seems to me that Gideon was not aware of that presence with Him. This speaks to me of God’s presence with us in our troubles. He has not abandoned us, though we may feel that God is far from us. The reality is that He is with us. Notice the angel now appears to Gideon and speaks a fascinating message.

2.  God’s calling begins by calling us something that we may not believe about ourselves and therefore are living beneath what God has in mind for us.

Gideon was hiding in the winepress threshing wheat, he certainly seemed to be the furthest thing from being a mighty warrior. Many people feel unworthy or inadequate to actually do what God is challenging them to do. How many people will try to have their act together before they really serve God? The reality is that God comes to us in our weakness and sin and calls us to Himself. It is only as we acknowledged our need for God and receive what He provides for us that we can ever succeed with what God is calling us to.

It is significant to note how the apostle Paul explains how God’s grace is a gift. Our salvation is a gift from God and from that reality comes a transformation of life that produces good which God prepared in advance for us to accomplish.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – Not by works, so that no one can boast.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.[xii]

3. Then we are to go in the strength or resources that we have. 

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?’[xiii]

Though we may feel inadequate for the task that we are called to do, God’s enabling grace is there for us. There are so many parallels to Gideon’s call and Moses’ call. They both made excuses, they both receive signs from God, and they were both told that God Himself would go before them. 

‘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 answered, I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites leaving none alive.[xiv]

Old Testament commentator, Cheryl Brown points out:

The Lord’s commission works together with human compassion and awareness of need. But it is one thing to point out a need and another to meet that need. Gideon was not eager to get involved, partly because of his self-doubt and partly because of the magnitude of the task.[xv]

4. We need to destroy the idols in our lives in order to allow God to have His way in us.   

This is an act of obedience even it means we become a non-conformist. That is the hardest part from most people, when we begin to walk out of step with what society values. 

That same night the LORD said to him, ‘Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.

Then build a proper kind of altar to the LORD your God on top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.[xvi]

The NIV has a footnote that states that this bull was the full grown one rather than the second one.  How many know that bulls are the costliest ingredient in a herd? Is there some significance of age? Seven years of oppression are about to come to an end with the sacrifice of this seven year old bull. One thing we can say is that sin is costly and the price to be reconciled to God and restored is costly. It cost God, the Father, the death of His Son. That is the offering that we must come to the Father with. 

Notice the risk involved. Gideon knew that there would be hostility toward his actions.

The people of the town demanded of Joash, ‘Bring out your son. He must die, because he has broken down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.’[xvii]

Why do the idols need to be destroyed? Michael Wilcock points out:

…if they trust one set of worldly forces to give them prosperity, they can hardly be surprised if another set takes it away. So God ordains that those whose hearts are set on the Canaanite gods of peace, plenty, and comfort shall regularly suffer the Midianite scourges of strife, deprivation, and misery. But all the same the punishment is an evil, and even so he is using it to teach his people hard lessons, the Lord is at the same time calling Gideon to rise and oppose it.[xviii]

What is it that we long for but peace, plenty and comfort, but we too often look for these ingredients in what society is offering rather than look to God to meet our needs. That is the nature of idolatry, looking to other things in the place of God. Our trust in idols means that we forfeit God’s grace.

5. We also must also go public with our private calling.

I concur with Gary Inrig:

Private commitment must produce public discipleship. Christ-followers must identify themselves publicly and radically with the Lord Jesus in a way from which there is no turning back. With that comes the assurance that, having crossed the line, God will pour His power into our lives.[xix]

THE FINAL THING WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND IS THE POWER GOD USES TO ENABLE PEOPLE TO SUCCEED

The answer to every situation is the very presence of God. That’s how we can handle the challenges in life that are beyond us. What God was calling Gideon to do was beyond his abilities. That is certainly true for us, and apart from God we will fail. 

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him.[xx]

The literal Hebrew of this text states that ‘the Spirit of the LORD clothed himself with Gideon.’ The Holy Spirit came upon Gideon. It is the same idea that we read in the gospel of Luke when the Holy Spirit was to endue or clothed the disciples with power for the task they were commissioned to. This was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. This is the same power that we need to receive in order to fulfill God’s calling on our lives.  We need the actual Presence of God! That is how the cycle of sin is broken in our lives according to the apostle Paul and God purposes will be fulfilled through us. It is the presence and power of God to bring deliverance in our lives of addiction. It is God’s presence that empowers us to accomplish His purposes in and through our lives. It is as we are yielding to God’s Spirit in our lives that we can overcome the challenges within our own sinful nature.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.[xxi]

The apostle Paul not only declares the power available to break the sin cycle, but he also describes for us how that can be reality.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.[xxii]          

            We are challenged to set our minds on things above and to take captive our thoughts and make them obedient to God’s word.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it.

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live,

If by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body.[xxiii]

We are responsible in the power of God’s Spirit to obey God’s word. We are to put to death those things that are not of God. We are instead to obey God’s word, and that can only be accomplish by yielding to God’s Spirit within our lives.

This societal problem, this personal problem that Gideon was addressing is also a picture of the battle that we must engage in. It is a battle that is often fought within our own souls. The road to victory is taking personal responsibility without blaming others. It is accepting God’s assessment of our soul’s condition and accepting God’s provision: His presence, His sacrifice on our behalf and then allowing the power of His Spirit to break away from the influences that are keeping us trapped and creating new patterns in our lives. The true nature of social change is changed lives, changing lives. May we, like the apostle Paul, echo this profound sentiment. While many believers today are striving to bring about societal changes through human means, let us be reminded of this profound reality. When the gospel is proclaimed and experienced, profound transformation happens in individual lives, which in turn impacts others. It becomes a concentric circle of influence affecting social change and the potential for real transformation. We are often tempted to move away from the simplicity of the gospel, the good news about Jesus. However, apart from the gospel you only have superficial and temporal changes occurring. Let us echo the words of the apostle Paul in relationship to the value of the gospel.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.[xxiv]

It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that changes individuals and societies. May we have a renewed experience of God’s presence like Isaiah had in the temple where he had a vision of God and activated him in a new manner toward bringing God’s message to the nation (cf. Isaiah 6).

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[i]     Unknown.

[ii]     James 4:4, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.

[iii]    Judges 6:1.

[iv]    Romans 1:22-24.

[v]     Judges 6:1-2.

[vi]    Judges 6:3, 6.

[vii]   Judges 8:18-19.

[viii]   Judges 6:13.

[ix]    Gary Inrig, Hearts of Iron Feet of Clay, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Discovery House Publishers, 2005), 94.

[x]     Judges 6:7-10.

[xi]    Judges 6:11-12.

[xii]   Ephesians 2:8-10.

[xiii]   Judges 6:14.

[xiv]   Judges 6:15-16.

[xv]   Cheryl Brown, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000), 186.

[xvi]   Judges 6:25-26.

[xvii] Judges 6:30.

[xviii] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Judges, The Bible Speaks Today, (Downers Grove, Il: Inter Varsity Press, 1992), 81.

[xix]   Gary Inrig, Hearts of Iron Feet of Clay,107.

[xx]   Judges 6:34.

[xxi]   Galatians 5:16.

[xxii] Romans 8:5.

[xxiii] Romans 8:12-13.

[xxiv] Romans 1:16.

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