When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, I’m both good and bad at it. I’m really good at making them—and really bad at keeping them (badum-ching)!
As we turn the corner to 2021, with the pandemic still wreaking havoc in many families and communities, it can seem pointless to think about making resolutions or setting goals. While this time is indeed unusual, there is one resolution I find undeniably important regardless of circumstance. It’s found in the story of Gideon.
The story begins with Israel experiencing relentless abuse by the Midianites.
“Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 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. 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. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help” (Judges 6:3-6, NIV).
The old song tells us that “trouble don’t last always,” but it can last a long while. The writer of the story tells us that the abuse by the Midianites had lasted for seven years by the time we meet Gideon. Because the number seven in the Scriptures also signifies completeness, the writer could be telling us that Israel was completely crushed by their circumstance.
How deep does your own fear run when you think of letting go of something you might be holding too tightly?
We can learn a lot of lessons from this story, too many for one column. Whether it’s Gideon’s fleece or the defeat of the Midianites, most of us have heard a Sunday school lesson or two about Gideon. In this season of our own struggle, with our lives disrupted by something so far outside of our control, I want to call our attention to one specific instruction God gave to Gideon:
“Tear down your father’s altar to Baal” (v. 25).
Baal appears repeatedly in the Old Testament, as consistently as Lex Luther in a Superman story. Every time this happens, God makes clear to Israel that trusting Baal for their needs is a bad move. (Remember the defeat of the prophets of Baal by the prophet Elijah?) Nevertheless, in this story, where crisis reigns, Israel returns to Baal the way most of us return to that chocolate cake we swore we were going to stop eating.
A few things in the story can help us get an understanding of the way idols work in our own lives.
Idols live in plain sight. The statue of Baal was at Gideon’s father’s home. Imagine how often Gideon had seen it, how it gradually became a normal part of life. Idols are like that. At first, we play with our idols, but eventually, they own us and our behaviors. We cling to our money in a situation where we know that giving is best. Over time we grow comfortable refusing to respond to the needs around us. And soon, we believe we must fight for our right to hold onto our money, even though it all belongs to God. (I picked money, but you can pick power, food, time. What’s right in front of you that might already own you?)
Naming idols makes people angry. Gideon and his crew tore down Baal in the middle of the night. The people of his hometown wanted to kill Gideon for not keeping faith with Baal. I think this reaction is a good litmus test for naming an idol. How mad do you feel when someone points out what might be an idol in your life? How deep does your own fear run when you think of letting go of something you might be holding too tightly? The deeper the idol worship, the deeper the pain in tearing it down.
Tearing down idols reveals true leaders. It is fascinating to note that even after some wanted to kill Gideon, people still follow him into battle. Troubled times call for leaders willing to take risks, to make the unpopular move for the sake of God’s calling. If you change your personal habits or business practices because you are tearing down an idol, people might get angry, but they will also pay close attention. Eventually, they may even follow you to freedom.
It is no secret that we are in troubled times. The signs of our idolatry appear side by side in the news. The stock market soars, even as our neighbors can’t afford to buy food. The struggle for racial justice continues, even as the virus decimates communities of color more than anyone else. And while our situation clearly signifies the need for bold, compassionate leadership, the church fights within itself about worship services and masks. We’ve grown accustomed to the idols in our back yard, even as our neighbors’ suffering increases.
As we begin 2021, I believe we are being invited to tear down our idols. We can’t do this in our own strength. But remember, like Gideon, God goes with us wherever God sends us.