This sermon is by James Choung of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. You are also invited to visit James’ blog at http://www.jameschoung.net/.
In trying to discern what to talk about, I went to your website and found your vision statement: "Live out our callings... We come together as a witnessing community to declare the grace and reflect the glory of God among the campus community and to serve the world around us with an attitude of sacrificial (agape) love." Dream with God: what are some of the dreams you have for this fellowship? In your wildest dreams, what would this fellowship look like?
Someone dreamed for me in the summer of ’97. I found myself in the mountain range that separated Kazakhstan from China. It was a beautiful day: the snow-capped mountain peaks and white brushstrokes of clouds were painted on a canvas of blue summer sky. The breathtaking scenery would’ve been captivating if I weren’t in my swimming trunks, standing on a ledge which jutted out from the foothills about 30 feet above the mountain lake. I was doing my best not to look terrified.
My Kazak roommate was egging me on: "Let’s go." I shook my head.
"What are you, American Chicken?" I took that cue to dance around on the ledge, wings flapping and "bucah-ing." He looked at me, and ran to the edge and jumped, and I saw him plummet into the water. It sure looked fun... to him. Still, there was still something quite terrifying about the whole thing.
I stood at the top, with everyone else’s eyes on me. Should I go? Should I jump? I had a lot of questions: Was it safe? Was the water deep enough? You have to overcome some of your most basic natural instincts to jump off a mountain ledge. Was this worth it? Should I climb back down the mountainside? It seemed too daunting to overcome.
We hear his call, and yet we feel more like "American Chickens" than faithful witnesses. We look around at our classmates, our co-workers, our neighbors, and fully realize that God’s call for us to be his witnesses and his teachers seems daunting, particularly in a highly secular bastion of rationality. (It really seems like the academy is behind the times: when the world around them is becoming more and more spiritual, the university runs the risk of becoming even more irrelevant to society at large. Who seem to be the intolerant ones now?) The costs seem to high, and even if we start, we might mess it up. Should we jump? Was it safe? We have to overcome our most basic natural social instincts to talk about Jesus. God’s mission to "make students (disciples)" is crazy; it scares us. We don’t want to look stupid or ridiculous. We don’t want to seem archaic and antiquated. We don’t want to see like rigid Christians, so we ignore the possible needs around us. God’s mission sounds great, but actually engaging God’s mission in this world is very daunting.
Is there anything that can help us? When we’re looking over the rock, is there anything that can coax us into taking that plunge? Are there words of encouragement or other things that we need to hear to start jumping into God’s mission? What is it? How should we respond?
Set up: in a winepress...
If you have your Bibles, open them to Judges 6:11-16. In our passage, we’ll meet a man named Gideon. His country has been ransacked by a group of foreign marauders, who have come in and camped their tents, ravaged their crops, feasted on their cattle and have plagued the citizens of the land. Because of these marauders, Gideon’s countrymen have fled to the hills, hiding out in caves. These were desperate times.
Read Judges 6:11-16. In these desperate times, what was Gideon doing? He was threshing wheat in a winepress. Do we have any expert wheat threshers in the room? Threshing was a process where the inedible covering (chaff) was separated from the edible insides (grain). They didn’t have the modern machinery we have today, so they would take their cut wheat to a threshing floor out in the open field, usually made out of dirt or stone. On this floor, they would beat the wheat with a stick, or have cattle trod over it, so that the chaff would come off the grain. The wind from the open field would then carry the chaff away.
But, look at the way Gideon is doing it. Because he didn’t want the Midianites to notice anything, he found himself in a winepress, which was usually a square or circular pit dug out of rock, where people would tread on grapes with their feet. It was in this pit, away from the view of the marauders, that Gideon was attempting to thresh his wheat. But, the wind wouldn’t find itself in that pit, so Gideon’s attempts would be slow, if successful at all. He was in hiding, and there was great futility in the way he was going about his work. He was just doing what he could in the midst of the circumstances, but with very little effect. He was trying to get by, and even that wasn’t working.
He’s looking over the rock and being called an American Chicken. Fear has gripped his heart, and looking at his circumstances, it’s no wonder. He has every right to be scared. He’s probably already been burned quite a few times. Perhaps he tried to stand up before, or seen others who did, only to get clobbered. Perhaps his own insecurities are his own prison, and he just wants to get by, surviving yet another day.
It’s in the middle of this fear that God meets us. He doesn’t leave us in that place of futility. Read Judges 6:11-12. He doesn’t want us to stay in that fear. He doesn’t wait for Gideon to come out of the winepress and meet Him at the threshing floor, but he meets him where he is. God comes down, and meets us in that dark place, and then God doesn’t take the opportunity to let him know he really thinks about Gideon. The anger of the Lord doesn’t call him a loser, a nerd or a coward, nor does he go through a list of Gideon’s faults. Instead, God does something completely different: he identifies Gideon and calls him a "mighty warrior."
Now, Gideon doesn’t feel anything like a mighty warrior, far from it. He responds like any one of us would in the dumps, if we heard something like that. After God’s call on his life to take on the Midianites, Gideon responds later in verse 15 with "how can I do this thing? My clan is the weakest in my tribe, and I’m the least in my family." He’s basically saying that he doesn’t have what it takes. He knows that he isn’t that guy -- he’s in the winepress. How would we respond if God called us a "mighty warrior?" I think we would respond in the same way.
We’ve heard some lies throughout our lives, and those lies have kept us impotent. A student of mine back in Boston was sexually abused when she was a child. When she looked in the mirror and thought about herself, she felt that her name was "undesirable" and "unloved." Imagine walking through life with these monikers, placed in our very psyche. We all hear a name, given to us by our culture, our society, even by people who are supposed to love us. We hear names like "not man enough," "ugly," "insecure," "boring," "amount to nothing" and we take them in and they become our names.
But God renames Gideon, creates a new identity. He does this all the time with the people he loves: with Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many), with Jacob (deceiver) to Israel (he struggles with God.) Gideon is renamed -- mighty warrior. And if God names him, that’s what He’ll be. God knows us inside and out, and his name means more than the bad names around us -- even ones told to us by our parents, spouses and families. We need to stop listening to those lies that tell us that we cannot do these things, because we’re too dumb or too smart, too fat or too thin, too young or too old, too poor or too rich.
And the reason why we can slough off these names have nothing to do with our own delusions; it’s because of what Jesus has already done on the cross. He died for our sins so that we can have a relationship with God; God no longer sees us as evil or bad or too fill-in-the-blank... he sees us as pure. He doesn’t see our evil any longer, because our sins have been taken from us. And in God’s grace, we can receive our new name to fulfill the vision God has on our lives. God’s mission and call in our lives will be given with a great understanding of who we are by Our Creator, so let’s leave that up to him. The question is: who are you? What’s your name?
A friend of mine, inspired by a John Eldridge book, asked God for his name. For Eldridge, he heard that he was Henry V and Maximus. I guess that’s cool for him, but it’s not really a name that I wanted. But, I still think it could be something powerful for us to know God’s true name for us. It’s who we are in His eyes. My friend heard, "servant of the poor" and with his wife is pursuing a ministry calling to Cambodia. For me, I wanted something powerful but clever. I didn’t want the name Braveheart or something like that. Perhaps something like Bond, James Bond or something. But, when I asked the Lord for my name, I heard, "Your name is James." And I really thought that was very boring. I mean, other people had some exotic names, and I merely got my name back.
But my mind clicked. James is the Romanized name for Jacob, which means "he who grasps the heel." Figuratively, it means "he deceives" or "he supplants, usurps or overthrows." He’s the guy that rebels against the ruler of the day, and starts a revolution. So, I heard, "James, one who overthrows." And I understand that my place on the planet is to continue in the revolution that Jesus has started and continue to see this New Kingdom Come, and overthrow whatever bastion the Enemy has set up. So when faced with your call, what is your name?
So, Gideon gets his name. But he blames God. He takes issue with God because he feels like he really hasn’t been around. What’s interesting is not necessarily Gideon’s response. That seems normal. Actually, what’s interesting is God’s response. God never really addresses the question. He tends to do this quite a bit. We wrestle with "why," and he often doesn’t answer that question. He does what he normally does in Scripture: Yes, there’s a problem. We don’t know who’s to blame or how we got here, but there’s a problem. But, Gideon, you’re the solution. Stop blaming and go in the strength that you have.
I think it would be easy to look around and blame others for the state of this community, for instance. We could look around and say that others are this or that, or I don’t really belong here because I don’t click with this person or that, or whatever excuses we want to make about this community. But, God has put this community on campus for a reason, and it seems that your vision statement points to a community that has a light. What would it take for you to take the bowl from covering the light? How would you remove the bowl so others could see? Stop blaming, but seek a way to be a part of the solution. If everyone turned around and started loving and caring and investing, instead of waiting for others to move, I think the fellowship would look even more different than it does now. Mighty Warriors, what will you do?
I will be with you
Now, in our passage today, Gideon was called to overthrow the Midianites. The country is completely scared of these guys, and God calls on one man’s leadership to help them overcome this oppression. How does our "mighty warrior" respond? Just like we thought he would, with wondering and questions: "How can I do such a thing? My family is the weakest in our tribe, and I’m the weakest in the family." I don’t have the authority nor the giftedness to do what you’re asking me to do, Lord. How in the world do you want me to accomplish this feat?
Yet, God doesn’t ask him to read up on the latest leadership journals. No, he didn’t go to the graduate school of Ancient Near Eastern warfare to accomplish his mission. He doesn’t give him the latest technology or the best trainers to accomplish the mission. He doesn’t do anything else accept to ask him to "Go in the strength that you have." Just go and do it. Start now. I used to drive a car with manual steering, and it’s much easier to turn the car when it’s moving. Start. You may find yourself preparing for something, but start. Get on the move. Go in the strength that you have, knowing that God has called you and won’t leave you without resources. OK, so go. But, Gideon hears this and again has some questions. But God offers something so much more. Though he tells us to "go in the strength that we have," He also offers something huge, something that we cannot hope to fulfill his mission without. He gives us his presence. He says that he will be with them. He offers himself as the main resource for all of these things. He only asks Gideon to step into His mission -- that he would be the answer to those problems.
As we follow God, He does not promise that we won’t have sickness, that we won’t have problems, that we won’t have failures, that we won’t have sorrow, that we won’t have physical death. No, none of these things are promised to us as we follow after God. The only thing that is promised is that whenever we go through these things, God is with us. He told Isaac that he would be with him. He told Jacob after wrestling with him that he would be with them. Moses was told that God would be with him when he was freeing the Israelites from Egypt’s hand. He told Joshua before he was going to take the Promised land that he would be with him. In Isaiah and Jeremiah, we’re told not to fear because he will be with us. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God will comfort us. God doesn’t keep himself at arm’s-length, but draws near to every situation that you’re going through. And Jesus said it himself, that God would be with us, to the very ends of the age. God will be with us. God will be with us. If there’s anything that we have for sure, is that God will be with us. And as it says in Romans 8, if God is with us, who can be against us?
So, go in the strength that you have, and go and make students of Jesus. You may think it’s impossible in the upper bastions of academia, but it’s not. Here in your own backyard, the International Christian Fellowship is ministering to graduate students.
In the Fall, a Taiwanese international student invited his lab partner "John" to come to the International Christian Fellowship. John grew up in rural China, and is a member of the Communist party, thus a proclaimed atheist. But, he kept coming to Friday night meetings, week after week, curious about the Christian faith.
After many weeks with the fellowship, John attended a retreat on Catalina Island for International Students. He had many conversations with the retreat’s speaker, and by the end of the retreat, he had given his life to Jesus.
Since then, he’s been a changed man. He invited his unbelieving friends to hear his testimony, resolved prior conflicts he had with other international students in the fellowship, and a few weeks ago, served the poor in Mexico. Before, he was often sarcastic and taunting. But now, he is eager to serve.
But, the best part about his story is this: he was encouraged to tell his family about his conversion, and when he did, he found out that his parents had become believers a year before, but were afraid to tell their Communist son! God not only reunited himself with John, but also reunited John with his family back in China!
Not everyone we talk to about Jesus becomes a Christian. I had a three-hour spiritual conversation with a Native American who believes in the Red Path on the plane last week. We went back and forth about our theologies, and walked away with a respect for each other and another pleasant conversation under our belt. But, what can we do? We can only be faithful to his call. We can only go, and hope that God moves. We merely weave the basket to catch the rain, but the rain will come when it pleases.
We know that God has called us to his mission. We know that he has given us a new identity in Christ, that He has a name for us. We know that his presence is with us, and now he merely asks that we go in the strength that we have. We must go. We have to answer the call. Why? Because there is no other hope for the world. If the Christian community cannot address the spiritual and physical needs of the people of La Jolla, San Diego, Mexico and the world, then there is no hope for the world. If the Christian community are truly the bearers of hope, then if we don’t heed the call to "go in the strength that we have," then hope will truly be lost. The Christian community is the only hope for this world; if we are not acting out into it, then our world will be doomed for sure! It’s time that the Church woke up, and spread the hope that we have in Jesus.
To end, I have a couple of questions. First, what is the name that our Lord will give us? And second, what is the Lord asking you to do this day? You have been putting something off for a long time because it’s felt so daunting. But, if you do not try to go in the strength that you have, then nothing will get done. It’s the same result as failing, if you do nothing. So why not try and risk succeeding, than having no chance to succeed at all? What are we called to go in our own strength to do, yet know that God is with us?