Make the Impossible Possible (Judges 7:12-22)

The camp was huge. The Midianites, Amalekites, and other eastern nations covered the valley like a swarm of locusts. And it would be easier to count the grains of sand on a beach than to count their camels. Gideon overheard one enemy guard telling another, “I had a dream about a flat loaf of barley bread that came tumbling into our camp. It hit the headquarters tent, and the tent flipped over and fell to the ground.”

The other soldier answered, “Your dream must have been about Gideon, the Israelite commander. It means God will let him and his army defeat the Midianite army and everyone else in our camp.”

As soon as Gideon heard about the dream and what it meant, he bowed down to praise God. Then he went back to the Israelite camp and shouted, “Let’s go! The Lord is going to let us defeat the Midianite army.”

Gideon divided his little army into three groups of 100 men, and he gave each soldier a trumpet and a large clay jar with a burning torch inside. Gideon said, “When we get to the enemy camp, spread out and surround it. Then wait for me to blow a signal on my trumpet. As soon as you hear it, blow your trumpets and shout, ‘Fight for the Lord! Fight for Gideon!’ ”

Gideon and his group reached the edge of the enemy camp a few hours after dark, just after the new guards had come on duty. Gideon and his soldiers blew their trumpets and smashed the clay jars that were hiding the torches. The rest of Gideon’s soldiers blew the trumpets they were holding in their right hands. Then they smashed the jars and held the burning torches in their left hands. Everyone shouted, “Fight with your swords for the Lord and for Gideon!”

The enemy soldiers started yelling and tried to run away. Gideon’s troops stayed in their positions surrounding the camp and blew their trumpets again. As they did, the Lord made the enemy soldiers pull out their swords and start fighting each other.

The enemy army tried to escape from the camp. They ran to Acacia Tree Town, toward Zeredah, and as far as the edge of the land that belonged to the town of Abel-Meholah near Tabbath. (Contemporary English Version)

It took some doing, but Gideon finally got around to taking on the massive army of people.

For years, marauders from the East came and raided Israel. They ate crops and livestock, then destroyed anything that was left. The Israelites, of course, were miserable. Yet, what could they do? There were so many of them!

So, they begged God for help. (Judges 6:6-7)

And the Lord responded. God chose Gideon to be the agent of change.

But Gideon failed to see it. He just couldn’t wrap his pea brain and small heart around the fact that God was choosing him to lead the charge against this humungous mean-spirited ornery bandits.

It was as if Gideon was Barney Fife, being made Sheriff in the Old West town to try and stop the powerful thieves from making off with all their cattle and drinking all of the saloon’s whiskey.

So, it took a while for Gideon to envision what the Lord was doing. And, on top of it all, God went and whittled the Israelite army down to 300 men. That’s it. A few hundred townsfolk against an army that was too big to count.

Yet, Gideon, bless his doubtful and fearful heart, was handed one last piece of gracious information. He caught a conversation between two of the enemy about a dream; it emboldened him to listen and act. And the result was a miraculous victory in which the big bullies were driven from the valley – not because of Gideon’s superior faith or ability – but because the Lord made it possible through him.

And that is precisely how it still works today.

I’m a guy who likes his research; and I can study something to death before pulling the trigger. For me, knowledge is power; and I’ll gobble up every morsel of information I can get my hands on in order to feel a semblance of confidence and courage. But the real issue is trusting God and sensing the Lord’s presence. God is with me. And if God is with me, who can be against me? (Romans 8:31-39)

And I’m not the only one. We all have our ways of trying to feel better and make some sense of the nonsensical situations we get put into, such as:

  • Creating a detailed plan of everything that’s going to happen, accounting for every contingency possible. But God already has a plan. The real issue is: Will you accept it?
  • Making everyone around you happy. Giving, helping, serving. If you could just bake enough cookies for all those men, then everything will be okay, right!?… Wrong. God already loves you and has your back. If some people don’t like you, that’s not the end of the world.
  • Working harder than everyone else. Putting your nose to the grindstone and determining you’ll outwork the enemy. That might get some short term results, but it will only result in burnout. The victory isn’t up to you; it’s up to God.
  • Giving in and giving up. Meh. Why even try? They’re just going to beat up everyone and steal everything anyway. I’ll just tap into my spirit animal, Eeyore, and watch a bunch of British dark comedy on TV. Yet, that approach helped get you into the mess you’re in now. Pay attention to the Lord’s voice, not somebody else’s.
  • Retreating to the high ground. We just need to get away. Stay safe. Keep everyone protected by getting them out of harm’s way. However, anyone outside of God’s will is never safe. If the Lord says to take on something, that’s the safest place you can be.
  • Throwing a party. Hey, let’s try and make the best of it. Let’s eat and drink today, for tomorrow we die. It’s better to go out having fun than wasting away worrying about everything. Pass the chip dip, please. *Sigh* You’re the dip! Trying to put a positive spin on a terrible situation is a terrible solution that will have negative results.
  • Taking charge. If everyone will just listen to me and do what I tell them, we’ll get out of this mess. Reality check, my friend: Who put you in charge? The Lord is God; you are not him. Stop it! Start taking orders from God and follow the Lord.
  • Failing to take a side. Why all the conflict? Can’t we all just get along? Maybe if I take a nap it will all go away. I’m not even going to touch that one. Did you hear yourself?

Most of life is about calming ourselves long enough to hear the voice of the Lord speaking to us. And if we will just take a few deep breaths and follow through with what God tells us, it’s going to go a lot better than any of our contrived ways of coping.

God is with you. God loves you. God makes the impossible possible. Faith over fear. Calm over chaos. Armed with that understanding, you’ve already won.

Jacob’s Dream (Genesis 28:10-22)

Jacob’s Ladder by Darius Gilmont

Jacob left the town of Beersheba and started out for Haran. At sunset he stopped for the night and went to sleep, resting his head on a large rock. In a dream he saw a ladder that reached from earth to heaven, and God’s angels were going up and down on it.

The Lord was standing beside the ladder and said:

I am the Lord God who was worshiped by Abraham and Isaac. I will give to you and your family the land on which you are now sleeping. Your descendants will spread over the earth in all directions and will become as numerous as the specks of dust. Your family will be a blessing to all people. Wherever you go, I will watch over you, then later I will bring you back to this land. I won’t leave you—I will do all I have promised.

Jacob woke up suddenly and thought, “The Lord is in this place, and I didn’t even know it.” Then Jacob became frightened and said, “What a frightening place! It must be the house of God and the gateway to heaven.”

When Jacob got up early the next morning, he took the rock that he had used for a pillow and stood it up as a place of worship. Then he poured olive oil on the rock to dedicate it to God, and he named the place Bethel. Before that it had been named Luz.

Jacob solemnly promised God, “If you go with me and watch over me as I travel, and if you give me food and clothesand bring me safely home again, you will be my God. This rock will be your house, and I will give back to you a tenth of everything you give me.” (Contemporary English Version)

“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.

Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 10

Not all unconscious dreams are the same, any more than all conscious experiences are alike.

Some dreams are not much more than a thing which occurs while we’re sleeping; they’re akin to the tedious or pedantic things we do while awake. Yet, other dreams are loaded with symbolic significance and have complex patterns of organization and relating.

However, all dreams which we carry with us into conscious waking – no matter whether mundane or extraordinary – are telling us a similar message: “Hey! Pay attention to this!”

In other words, our unconscious brains are usually aware of what we need more than our conscious minds; and dreams become the vehicle by which our unconscious alerts our conscious selves of something we need to focus upon.

Jacob’s Ladder by Ben Avram

Jacob needed to pay attention to something that he was not consciously aware of. Before his dream, Jacob had left home at the behest of his aging father. Mom and Dad wanted Jacob to have a good wife, so they sent him off to a specific place to find one.

Now, mind you, Jacob was a mama’s boy; he stuck close to home and was attached to his mother. Off on his first outing away from familiar confines, Jacob would have been understandably anxious and fearful. Although he had the blessing of his parents, Jacob’s unconscious self knew he also needed the blessing of almighty God.

So, the Lord showed up in a dream. To Jacob’s credit, he paid attention by acknowledging the importance of the dream. Jacob also made the Lord a promise that he would give back a tenth of anything and everything he acquired because of God’s blessing.

I wonder: How many times do you and I fail to acknowledge that the Lord’s presence is in the very place we are? Maybe our dreams are trying to tell us something – that the God of all things, including dreams, is with us in our own particular place and situation.

It can be frightening to be in a new place or new situation that you’ve never been in before. Yet, there is no place any of us can go where God is not already there.

You have looked deep
into my heart, Lord,
    and you know all about me.
You know when I am resting
    or when I am working,
and from heaven
    you discover my thoughts.

You notice everything I do
    and everywhere I go.
Before I even speak a word,
    you know what I will say,
and with your powerful arm
you protect me
    from every side.
I can’t understand all of this!
Such wonderful knowledge
    is far above me.

Where could I go to escape
from your Spirit
    or from your sight?
If I were to climb up
to the highest heavens,
    you would be there.
If I were to dig down
to the world of the dead
    you would also be there.

Suppose I had wings
like the dawning day
    and flew across the ocean.
Even then your powerful arm
    would guide and protect me.
Or suppose I said, “I’ll hide
in the dark until night comes
    to cover me over.”
But you see in the dark
because daylight and dark
    are all the same to you. (Psalm 139:1-12, CEV)

The Lord is with you. Your dreams have already confirmed it.

O God, give me strength for this day, and not to turn coward in the face of difficulty or duty. Let me not lose faith in other people. Keep my heart pure and caring, free from all ingratitude or meanness. Open wide the eyes of my soul so that I may see the good in all things. Grant me today a new vision of your truth; and for tonight, may the Lord Jesus be in my dreams so that I might awake again and serve him in joy and gladness, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mary’s Song of Praise (Luke 1:46b-55)

The Magnificat, a woodcut by Sr. Mary Grace Thul

Mary said,

“My heart praises the Lord;
    my soul is glad because of God my Savior,
    for he has remembered me, his lowly servant!
From now on all people will call me happy,
    because of the great things the Mighty God has done for me.
His name is holy;
    from one generation to another
    he shows mercy to those who honor him.
He has stretched out his mighty arm
    and scattered the proud with all their plans.
He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors,
    and has come to the help of his servant Israel.
He has remembered to show mercy to Abraham
    and to all his descendants forever!” (Good News Translation)

It strikes me that Mary, instead of being full of worry and afraid of the future, and as an unmarried teen with child, is full of the Spirit and faith. Mary neither complained nor fretted for the nine months of her pregnancy; she praised God and was clear-headed about the grace shown to her.

Mary’s canticle gives us insight into the mystery of the incarnation: God chooses the weak, those of low esteem, and the powerless.

Mary was rather ordinary. She had no wealth. She possessed nothing which would cause anyone to pick her out of a crowd. Yet, she is the one chosen by God. And her wonderful response to grace demonstrated that there is so much more to any person than what we can see with our eyes and perceive through our earthly glasses of high positions and strength of personalities.

The mother of Jesus had the wisdom to discern that her situation typified the Lord’s egalitarian work of leveling the field. Mary’s pregnancy normalized the needs of all people. Her son, the Deliverer, would carry this understanding into his own life and ministry – declaring good news to the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for captives, telling those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

Mary’s is the kind of song that has been sung by people of faith throughout the ages. It’s not only a song of faith but a declaration of resistance, in defiance of all evil powers which ignore the poor, such as Mary.

It was not a completely new sort of song; it’s in harmony with songs that other faithful followers of the Lord have sung in past generations.

Moses and Miriam sang a song to the Lord of freedom from powerful Egyptian bondage and oppression:

“I will sing to the Lord, because he has won a glorious victory;
    he has thrown the horses and their riders into the sea.
The Lord is my strong defender;
    he is the one who has saved me.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
    my father’s God, and I will sing about his greatness.
The Lord is a warrior;
    the Lord is his name.” (Exodus 15:1-3, 21, GNT)

Hannah, unable to conceive and have children, endured a long stretch of affliction from her rival – that is, until the Lord stepped in and opened her womb:

“No one is holy like the Lord;
    there is none like him,
    no protector like our God.
Stop your loud boasting;
    silence your proud words.
For the Lord is a God who knows,
    and he judges all that people do.
The bows of strong soldiers are broken,
    but the weak grow strong.
The people who once were well fed
    now hire themselves out to get food,
    but the hungry are hungry no more.
The childless wife has borne seven children,
    but the mother of many is left with none.
The Lord kills and restores to life;
    he sends people to the world of the dead
    and brings them back again.
He makes some people poor and others rich;
    he humbles some and makes others great.
He lifts the poor from the dust
    and raises the needy from their misery.
He makes them companions of princes
    and puts them in places of honor.
The foundations of the earth belong to the Lord;
    on them he has built the world. (1 Samuel 2:2-8, GNT)

Stained glass window of Hannah offering her son Samuel to the Lord by Phil Watkins

The psalmist declares his song about the Lord who turns the tables on the unfortunate and brings them privilege:

He always keeps his promises;
    he judges in favor of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets prisoners free
    and gives sight to the blind.
He lifts those who have fallen;
    he loves his righteous people.
He protects the strangers who live in our land;
    he helps widows and orphans,
    but takes the wicked to their ruin. (Psalm 146:6b-9, GNT)

God’s people throughout history have faced oppression. And, when in the teeth of that adversity, they have sung God’s songs of resistance against the evil powers of this world.

Along with Holy Scripture, let us also in these days of Advent just before Christmas Day, sing our traditional songs of resistance, deliverance, and hope:

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”

By Charles Wesley

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear” (vs.3-4)

By Edmund Sears

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
shall come the time foretold
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world send back the song
which now the angels sing.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (vs.1, 4, 6)

By J.M. Neale

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.

O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

Christ came to stand against sin, death, and the power of the Devil.

God is full of grace, mercy, and power to the powerless and the needy. The Lord has our backs. Perhaps if we all, both individually and corporately, continually used our words to identify and declare the great things God has done we would realize the consistent blessing of the Lord. 

As we near the night of our Lord’s birth, take some time to reflect on the ways God has been good to you in this Advent season, and like Mary, offer praise for each act of mercy. Mary exhibited no helplessness but had her heart calibrated to detect the grace of God when it was present – and to resist the injustice of this world.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Shepherds’ Candle of Joy (Luke 2:8-20)

The Shepherds by Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese (1938-2009)

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (New International Version)

We Are Meant For Joy

The past 10-20 years have seen an explosion of understanding concerning the brain. Even though there is so much we still do not know, what we do know is that our brains cannot survive, let alone thrive, without emotions like joy. The frontal lobe of the brain monitors our emotional state, while the thalamus (the information center that regulates consciousness) helps determine how to express our feelings.

We feel joy in our bodies because of the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Both of these chemicals are associated with happiness (in fact, people with clinical depression often have lower levels of serotonin).

So, simple activities like going for a walk in nature, petting a dog or cat, kissing a loved one, standing and sitting in a worship service, and yes, even forcing yourself to smile, can help those neurotransmitters do their job and raise your mood.

Neurologists and scientists have also discovered that practices of mindfulness, silence, contemplation, and meditation stimulate the brain’s cortex and create a state of happiness, contentment, and joy. And those practices also enable individuals to become more self-aware, more aware of others and what is happening around them, as well as a heightened awareness of unseen realities, like God and angels.

God with Us

The way that God has wired us means that joy does not come from getting all the presents we want for Christmas or having everything go our way. Instead,  joy is the fruit of meaningful movement of the body and relational interactions with God and others. We do not need to look for joy in a store because joy comes being with God, God’s creation, and God’s people.

The good news of a Savior coming to this earth means God is coming to be with us. This is good news of great joy! We are loved because God is good, not because we are good. And because God is good, and we are a mess of humanity, there is joy that the Lord is coming to save us!

Seeing Shepherds by American painter Daniel Bonnell

The Shepherds

The reason Christ’s birth was good news of great joy to the shepherds is that they were shepherds.  Shepherds in the ancient world were generally looked on with contempt. In fact, the ancient Egyptians refused to eat with Jews because they were mostly shepherds (Genesis 46:31-34). 

  • Shepherds spent most of their time living with their sheep outdoors, to protect the flock. 
  • Shepherds were not dressed well, not culturally refined, and smelled like sheep poop. 
  • Shepherds also had the notoriety of being drinkers. Because they slept with the sheep, many shepherds would pass the time and deal with the chilly air by taking a nip of alcohol. We do not really know whether most shepherds were drunkards, or not; but we do know they had a bad reputation.

So, becoming a shepherd was not a profession any young person aspired to. Nobody took out a student loan to major in shepherding at the University of Jerusalem. King David started out as a shepherd. He was the runt in his family and got stuck with the job nobody else wanted. Out of all the persons and people-groups the heavenly angels could have come to announce the birth of Christ, it was shepherds.

Grace

The good news of great joy for all the people is truly a gospel of grace. The announcement to a bunch of stinky shepherds is profoundly significant and cannot be overstated. It is important because grace is being shown to the lowliest of society. A lowly Savior, born to a lowly family, and placed in a lowly feeding trough, came to reach the lowly, common, ordinary person.

To have this kind of attention from the sovereign almighty God is like the owner of a dog coming home at the end of the day. We, as the common, ordinary mutts of society, are beside ourselves with joy, feeling privileged to be in the same room as Jesus.

It is only the lowly and humble in heart who will see God and enjoy the Lord’s presence. That is because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. It is why the angels came to the shepherds and not the religious leaders. It is good news of great joy for all the people. The gospel is not limited to those who are the most educated, the wealthiest, or from the most prominent of families – it is for everyone.

Worry and Anxiety

Yet, many people still live their lives primarily in fear, worry, and anxiety, instead of joy, not getting the message of joy firmly pressed into their minds and hearts. Even though a Savior is born, we still experience the harshness of a world under the dominion of darkness.  We worry about constant disease, financial difficulties, and the daily stresses of life.  We fret about dealing with ornery people, hard circumstances, family members who go astray, and the little plastic things on our shoelaces coming off leaving the shoestrings frayed! 

Sometimes, we strain to see much joy. Jesus is the son of David, born in the town of David – both were anointed as kings but had to go through a lot of hardship before realizing their kingships. We live in the time between the two advents of Christ in which the kingdom is already here but not yet here. It is a time characterized by a weird mix of sinners and saints, despair and joy, adversity, and comfort.

Joy is not found in having every circumstance go our way and having everyone like us all the time. Joy comes from the gospel of grace, from God coming down and being with us.  Being in the presence of the Master makes all the difference. If joy comes from being with God in Christ, then cultivating and practicing the presence of Jesus in our daily lives is important.

Solitude and Silence

Another reason the angels came to the shepherds is that the shepherds were away from the growing crowd that was swelling in Bethlehem due to the Roman census. The shepherds were out in the sticks, by themselves, experiencing a silent night. And so, they were able to hear the message of God when it came.

Noise comes in various forms, both around us and within us. Sometimes we even create noise on the outside so that the noisy racing thoughts on the inside will get drowned. To be quiet is to be able to listen. To listen is to receive another’s voice. And receiving the voice of the angels, their message, and their praise to God, is the pathway to joy and the way out of unhappy inner noise.

Freedom

We need deliverance primarily from ourselves, from our own brokenness, and from unhealthy ways of coping with hard circumstances. There is far too much unhappiness in this world. For example:

  • One in every two-hundred teenage American girls cut themselves on a regular basis.
  • More than half of people in the United States with serious depression do not receive or will not get adequate help. 
  • Anxiety disorders affect nearly sixty million adults in the United States. 

The coming of Jesus into this world makes a difference. Christ’s incarnation means that God has come to meet the deepest needs of our lives. Our deliverance is realized by eagerly anticipating the Lord, spending time with him, and allowing his loving presence and compassionate voice to transform our hearts, changing us from the inside-out. 

Christianity is not a magic happy pill to swallow; it is a relationship with God that is to be cultivated and which grows over time.

Joy is relational. No amount of positive thinking, buying new stuff, or good situations will create it or sustain it. Christianity offers joy in Jesus – not a cheap sentimental happiness of having every prayer answered or each situation go our way – but the settled joy of God with us.

Neither worry nor fret. Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. In the town of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord. 

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would give him frankincense or gold.

Yet, what can I give him? I can give him my heart.