Madden NFL 18: Greatest of All Time? When ESPN NFL2K5 Ruled the World (Matthew 13:43-46)

The year was 2004. Long before Madden and video game football were terms used interchangeably the way we use “Band-Aid” to describe all bandage products regardless of branding, the realm of gridiron greats was an open playing field. The 2K football series had existed for several years alongside EA Sports annual Madden offering and both sides seemed to have settled into a comfortable yet competitive status quo. Until 2K flipped the entire game on its ear and put Madden on notice in a way that has changed the gaming landscape around football as well as many other sports titles forever.

  To adequately understand what was about to occur, a brief historical diversion. 2K football was one of the last remaining remnants of Sega’s final console, the ill-fated Dreamcast. Each year Visual Concepts produced a quality sports title across most of the major sports franchises, but few people noticed because they were buried on the Dreamcast system. With the death of the Dreamcast the 2K sports games navigated over to the PlayStation and Xbox, continuing to release well-regarded titles that were mildly successful, but not enough to put significant pressure on the world’s leading developer of sports gaming, Electronic Arts.

   EA may have viewed this competition as unwelcome, but they didn’t make any major changes to their game engine or respond in a way that would indicate they viewed 2K sports as a legitimate threat. And then, it happened… the moment that altered it all. 2K snatched up the unbelievably available rights to the ESPN license, made massive overhauls to the presentation, graphics, and game play of their title, hired one of the most outspoken and well-known stars in the game in Terrell Owens to pose for the cover, and in the final coup de grace released their vastly superior title for the meager price of $19.99. The impact was immediate.

   While their competition released yet another tired, old, complacent football game for $49.99, 2K had suddenly trumped them in every department and released a game that featured such first-time occurrences such as a halftime show that showed your real in-game footage with commentary, first-person mode, actual ESPN music and personalities… and all for the price of a pizza and a 2-liter. This was the most immersive, realistic, and exciting football game that had ever been released and even non-sports fans were picking it up to try it due to the low price of entry. And EA realized very quickly that immediate action would be necessary to protect their empire from being erased by this unprecedented assault on their bread-and-butter.

   What did they do? If you are a student of gaming history then you already know the answer, but for those of you who may not what happened next was unthinkable… they BOUGHT the exclusive rights to make games based on NFL football. And just to keep 2K out of their honey pot in every conceivable way, they also purchased the rights to NCAA college football and even Arena League football. Seems a little bit like overkill, but after paying the NFL an exorbitant sum of money to be the exclusive developer of games based on professional football they were leaving nothing to chance. They left 2K games literally zero options, and after an ill-advised attempt at a football game that featured old retired players absent any of the licenses that would give their game credibility, 2K football died and Madden stood alone, once again, as not only the definitive game of football but also the ONLY game in town. They effectively excised their competition by making a massive commitment that seemed like a huge amount of money at the time, but they deemed the risk of being pushed out of their own comfortable position as being worth the investment and the results speak for themselves.

   What would have happened if EA didn’t step up and shut 2K out of the game? While conjecture is easy, the truth is as close as the other sports juggernaut series, NBA 2K. This series has easily eclipsed the rival basketball series produced by EA (NBA Live) and has consistently sold in the top 10 of total video game sales each year as a result of their excellence in-game development. It is not too hard of a stretch to imagine that this same scenario could have happened in the football gaming sector. If EA hadn’t acted with such an extreme decision, the gaming landscape could have shifted to eliminate Madden from the store shelves permanently. It took an incredibly expensive, seemingly desperate, but ultimately necessary move from EA to save their franchise and here we are over a decade later about to play the only licensed football game in town one more time.

   Now that’s what commitment looks like… EA put a ring on it as they understood that this was a relationship they could not afford to lose or even see diminsh. In my day to day walk with the Lord, I am challenged with realizing that I may have felt this way at my point of conversion and had the flames of that feeling fanned once again after a particularly moving sermon or service, but am I truly sold out for the Lord in this desperate of a manner? In Matthew 13:43-46 Jesus tells two short but significant parables to guide us in understanding how we should respond to His call to our lives.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

   In each of these settings the message could not be more clear, but it’s application can be a tad bit more difficult. Much like EA in our previous example, there must be a recognition that what is on the other side is worth giving up everything in order to possess it. EA forked over millions of dollars to the NFL and in the end they not only survived, but thrived. The investment seems paltry now compared to the payoff.
 
Likewise, we are in the position of the man looking at real estate or the merchant searching for the perfect pearl. Once we have found the truth and the reality of the life we are meant to live, we have a choice to make. The value of the prize is much higher than anything we could ever generate on our own. Even after my conversion as a believer, if you are anything like me you have wasted too much time in relationships and activities that leave us unfulfilled and often more damaged and worse for the wear. And in my case, it was my fault for expecting people, places and things to be able to fill a God-shaped hole inside me that nothing else could ever hope to come close to. But if you asked me to give up those things for something better at that time I would look at you like you were crazy. Like a child stubbornly clinging to a mold-covered teddy bear while being offered a shopping spree at the Build-A-Bear Workshop, for years I failed to recognize the value of the life being offered to me while over-estimating the worth of the life I was living.

   As believers, we must understand that our commitment to Christ requires 100% of ourselves… every thought, every desire, every possession. He can only deposit His free grace into an empty account. What He offers is priceless, with a mortal life directed by the Creator as He walks with us side by side followed by eternal life in the world to come. The very best this life offers is worthless by comparison. Sell out, and sell out fully. This is not a one time act of belief, but a commitment each and every day. But not only is it worth it, it is the only thing that is truly of worth both in this life and the life to come.

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Shattering the Facade: The Truth Behind Super Mario Bros. 2 (Romans 7:15-25, Romans 8:1-2)

As a self-proclaimed Nintendo fan-boy, it almost hurts to make this admission. I suppose I should have been able to figure it out on my own. Maybe I didn’t want to believe it, but deep down in my heart I knew. Like a mother hen gazing down at her newborn chicks and seeing that one of them is green, reptilian, and carries a mouthful of sharp teeth I likewise felt that something wasn’t quite right about this one. But I wanted to love it, I wanted to call it mine, and this crocodile became a member of the Nintendo family whether it belonged there or not.

   I suppose the first sign should have been when I jumped on an enemy’s head and it had no effect. That didn’t seem very “Mario-ish”. Or the lack of the standard power-ups that littered all of his other adventures. The absence of Bowser and his kin was a red flag. And if that wasn’t enough, the sudden obsession with throwing vegetables, something that never occurred to Mario in his previous or later adventures, just seemed out of place. And now I know why. It’s because the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we all know and love is in fact a LIE.

   Well, maybe a lie is a tad bit harsh. It is not what you think it is, that is for sure. Now for the history lesson. In 1988 Nintendo released the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we are all familiar with to a Western audience who was desperate for a new Mario adventure. But the truth is this was not Super Mario 2 at all. That title was released in the East and determined to be too difficult for a Western audience, so instead a game titled Doki Doki Panic was re-skinned with Mario and his friends and released as the next chapter in Mario’s saga. A simple google search will uncover the truth that the screenshot below reveals:

   The truth is the Super Mario Bros. 2 experience we received was another game entirely, which is why it never really felt quite right when compared to the other games in the series. Nintendo slapped Mario on the cover, replaced the main characters with Luigi, Peach, and Toad and hoped we would never know the difference. And for many of us, we may never have known until the harsh truth was presented to us. And while this was a harmless facade that most people have given very little thought to (and honestly the game is just fine even if it isn’t a TRUE Mario title), this brings me to the thought of the masks that we wear so we can continue providing the output we are counted on delivering without risking disappointment with what actually lies within.

   In my life I battle daily with the facade I have built to show the world versus the reality the exists inside me. I work feverishly to present the right face and demeanor at work, home, and in public so I can continue to provide for my family, meet their needs, and co-exist peacefully in society. But as it is written in Romans 7:15-19:


“15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.”

  There is a wealth to unpack in those few short verses, and when you realize that this is none other than the Apostle Paul himself sharing this it becomes even more critical to process this. Suffice to say, even after all of his missionary journeys around the known world preaching the Gospel Paul still found that he struggled each day to stifle the sinful desires that run contrary to the good that he truly desired to do. I don’t know if that speaks to you, but to a broken and frustrated sinner like me it helps knowing that the greatest preacher of all time was able to be honest and admit that he has something inside him that wants to do, say, and think things that he knows he shouldn’t.

   
Now you might be thinking at this point that this is not terribly helpful information. I mean, the whole point of this is to get rid of the mask and live boldly in freedom from sin, right? And it’s hard to do that when you are struggling in areas that nobody expects you to struggle in. Christian “pride” kicks in as we realize how others would judge us if we admit that we are struggling with an addiction, have issues dealing with anger, or have made mistakes that we carry with us deep inside so nobody else will find them.

   

   Fortunately, Paul never brings up a problem without also offering up a solution, typically from his personal experience. And as he goes on in his discourse with the Roman believers…

“21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.

   So what is the answer to the sin problem that plagues us all… sinful and holy, rich and poor, regardless of environment or upbringing? First, we must accept the reality of our situation. We can slap a picture of Mario on the cover of the box all day long, but the game inside is still Doki Doki Panic and anyone can see that now. We are all fighting to do what is right while we are internally driven towards particular weaknesses that threaten to bring us down. These are different for all of us, just as we each have different blood types and genetic data we also have spiritual challenges that operate under the surface that are as unique as our physical DNA. Let’s admit it as boldly as Paul does… I have a war inside me and it wants to win.  

   Now for my choice… I choose to accept that there is no condemnation for me for my past transgressions as well as for the truth of my current struggles because I am making the conscious choice each day to win this war by living according to the will of Christ, not my flesh. I do not have this ability inside me, and if I try to do it myself I am doomed to fail. But when the war for my mind, my heart, my body or my mouth is waged I can make the choice to call on Him for the strength I do not possess and claim victory for that battle. If you are disappointed that belief in Christ did not remove all of your sinful desires, you are not alone. And don’t for a moment believe your conversion was ineffective simply because the war inside you still exists. The war is the PROOF of the Spirit inside you. You would not be battling with sin if you had not chosen Christ. Sin does not battle those it already possesses. The existence of a fight proves the presence of the Spirit of God in your battle.

   Don’t be ashamed of your battle. And don’t photoshop a grinning picture of Mario on yourself as an attempt to convince yourself or others of a “normal” that does not actually exist. Inside me I am Doki Doki Panic all the time. I wish I was Mario… heck, I wouldn’t mind being Toad. But rather than try to look like a Mario title that I am not, I going to stick with my fight to engage with the Birdos and Mousers that dwell inside me. And if you have any leftover vegetables (otherwise known as prayers outside of the Mario realm) that I can throw at them, I’ll be happy to take them off your hands because our friendly neighborhood plumber is off to find his princess in another castle. But you and me and Jesus makes three, and that’s more than enough to beat this level.  

Delay of Game:  Ark Delayed, NCAA Derailed, and (almost) The End of the Summer Gaming Drought (1 Kings 17-18)

We are finally nearing the end of the dog days of summer, when the gaming drought lifts and we see out on the horizon the finish line for the highly anticipated titles that have been years in the making.  It seems like it has always been this way as each June, July, and August become a barren wasteland of new releases that ends with a bang as the annual Madden release signals the existence of rain clouds in the horizon.  Sure, sometimes a nice little indie title pops up to tide us over and occasionally a high-profile beta will run to keep us satisfied, but by and large the rule of thumb has been that the gaming industry hits the recess button about the time that the kids head home from school for the last time.

Sometimes you have a title like Ark: Survival Evolved, which should be out on shelves now but hit one final snag on its long ride home to completion. Or you have the tragic case of NCAA Football, which was long counted on to carry the month of July but is now forever mired with a licensing issue that does not appear to have a potential fix in sight in our lifetimes.  In each of these cases it is not a lack of desire for the title to exist or be completed, but rather the existence of unforeseen challenges and external battles that delay their launch or sometimes derail them permanently.  So as these heavy hitters either step back or go down for the count gamers around the world twiddle our trigger fingers and play through our back catalogue as we impatiently wait for something truly worth our time to emerge from what appears to be an inactive geyser.

The funny thing is that out here in the real world it feels like the great video game machine has ceased operations, yet behind the scenes in each developer’s cubicle the action is at a frenetic, break-neck pace as these days are anything but a summer vacation for them.  This is the most critical part of game development… the final steps to going gold.  The title has long since been set in stone, the voice acting work is completed, the marketing budget is being spent as we speak… as bugs are getting squashed and final multiplayer stress tests are being completed the last months of getting a game out on the shelf is the most challenging, frustrating, stressful, yet critical portion of the game’s journey.

What began as a gleam in the creator’s eye years prior is about to come to fruition, and not a single area in need of polish can be overlooked.  Companies literally rise and fall based on the success or failure of one software title these days, so a rough launch may not only be the end of one developer’s dream… every employee on the payroll is deeply connected to the need to put the very best version of their product out there for public consumption.  And while this process may be invisible and mildly frustrating to most of the video game purchasing public, those who are intimately attached to the long-term success of their game are pulling twenty hour days to insure everyone is satisfied with the final experience.

Waiting through interminable periods of time when nothing seems to be happening is a fairly unenjoyable process.  Having patience is much easier when there is a finish line you can point to or a pre-determined point you can press towards that represents relief.  And in 1 Kings 17 and 18 we find the story of an entirely different type of drought, and within this we will find  some interesting parallels that reflect on our ability to endure the barren plains and empty skies we all must endure at certain seasons in our lives.

If you want to find a person in the Old Testament who has done some stuff and seen some things, there are few that can hold a candle to the prophet Elijah.  These two chapters contain an amazing event that is worthy of its own separate column, but for today we will focus on the ending of the drought found in 1 Kings 18:41.  After years of zero rain, the prophet of God Elijah returned from his disappearance and proclaimed to the king that there was the sound of the abundance of rain.  And as the king went off to eat, Elijah prayed and  sent his servant out to survey the horizon for a sign of potential precipitation.  And… there was nothing there.  Not a cloud, bo change in the barometric pressure reading, not even a shadow indicating a potential cooling off of the sun… nothing externally showed any sign of this “abundance of rain” Elijah had just proclaimed.

If Elijah felt any panic he sure didn’t show it.  He sent his servant back to check again.  Again he returned with the news that there was no evidence of an answer to Elijah’s prayer.  He sent him a third, a fourth, a fifth… in total he sent his servant seven times to look for any indication that the promised rain was on its way.  Finally, on the seventh time the servant returned with this meager report… “There is a cloud the size of a man’s hand coming out of the sea”.  Have you ever prayed a prayer and when you finally saw an answer on it’s way it was so small and insignificant that there was simply no way it would be sufficient for your need?  Well, that’s what Elijah is looking at here.  He promised an outpouring and was looking at a speck.

Elijah, to his credit, was undeterred.  He knew an answer to prayer when he saw one, and he also knew firsthand how the Lord of little was the same Lord of much.  Elijah took the message of that tiny cloud to the king and informed him to “Ride like the wind, Bullseye”!  Well, your translation might have it recorded it a little more like, “Prepare your chariot and go down before the rain stops you”.  But I’m pretty sure that’s how it was said in the original Hebrew.  At any rate, Elijah saw the answer in its fullness before it had even fully arrived, and he responded in faith to it even when the answer tarried and its arrival lacked the overwhelming proof that you would like to see when making a report of this magnitude.

The answer to your prayers may seem like a dot in the distance, or perhaps they are not even visible yet, but as sure as EA will launch a new Madden game each August our Heavenly Father will always have a rain cloud that will show up for you right when it is needed most.  It may not be there the first time you look, the second time, or the fifth time, but it’s coming.  It may look like it’s the size of a man’s hand, but many times our answers to prayer will be delivered through the man-sized hands of others.  And much like the development cycle of your favorite game franchise, the silence you are hearing is not an indication that progress is not occurring.  To the contrary, the most critical work on the project and the final steps of the process are the portions that receive the least amount of fanfare and are accompanied by the least amount of updates.  If a developer is talking then they aren’t working, and if they are busy polishing those last touches on your next addiction then they probably aren’t updating their Twitter.

 

Take heart when you see an absence of clouds in the sky and don’t hear any sounds of thunder.  Elijah, in faith, heard the sound of the abundance of rain while looking at a cloudless sky.  And his faith was rewarded with the opening of the heavens and a refreshing outpouring that answered not only his prayer, but the prayers of the entire nation.  God does not delay our responses as an act of control or cruelty… the truth is there is more at stake in your situation than you are privy to, and a prayer answered at the wrong time is worse than an unanswered prayer.  There is a crucial difference in blessings and curses, and much of this has to do with timing.  Let’s look at one final example…

In 1 Samuel 8 we find the sad story of Samuel, the mighty prophet of God, being asked by the nation of Israel to appoint them a king.  To this point the Lord was their King and He would periodically appoint people to act on His behalf such as Moses, Samson, Deborah, and now Samuel.  But the people demanded a king, and in spite of Samuel’s stern warnings and the clearly stated will of God against this their prayers were answered.  The solution was Saul, a horribly flawed monarch who caused great distress to the country and if it had not been for God’s deliverance by the hand of David they would have re-entered a life of slavery, this time to the Philistines.  If they had only waited, David would have been the first king and would have spared them a great deal of problems.  So we see that a prayer answered in the wrong time can be worse than the situation we currently occupy, and while we may see a clear solution to our predicament, the Lord sees all of the spinning wheels and is determined not to release the response until the fullness of time has truly come.

I have many prayers lifted up right now, and many of them feel like their situation is already past the point of expiration.  But when the Lord says rain is in the forecast, you can take that to the bank.  He may not hit your desired street date, but you can be assured that small cloud on the horizon is the proof that the abundance of rain is coming.  Don’t lose hope… the absence of proof and the lack of audible confirmation is simply the sound of progress in a realm beyond our comprehension.  Ask a tomb that’s sat silent for three days what happens when it finally becomes time for the stone to move…

WWE 2K18, Gideon, and the World’s First Wrestling Entrance Theme Music: Learning to Hope (Judges 6-8, Hebrews 11:1)

Of all the guilty pleasures that exist in the world of entertainment, pro wrestling fills a unique niche with a popularity that has continued for decades.  This unique combination of athleticism, ballet, soap opera, and gymnastic violence has ebbed and flowed through mainstream America’s consciousness and this is mostly due to the larger than life personalities that occupy the squared circle.  And in the strength of these characters a video game iteration of WWE 2K is released every year, which is noteworthy considering how difficult it is to pull off an annualized version of any game these days.  Granted, like most sports games the differences from year to year are not tremendous, consisting mostly of roster changes and new story modes.  But I have to give credit where credit is due… this “sport” has demonstrated a staying power that is rare and is worthy of investigation.

Since wrestling matches have pre-determined outcomes (I apologize if that required a spoiler alert for some of you), the draw is less about the physical act of grappling and more about the characters and their presentation before, during, and after a match.  If you have watched    a match (on purpose or accidentally, I’m not judging), then you have seen one of their elaborate ring entrances.  First, the music hits, typically with a wailing guitar riff or an epic orchestral note.  The ring lights pulsate, the background of the gigantic screen at the stage changes to showcase epic moments of previous clashes by the performer, and as the pyrotechnics and fireworks erupt a chiseled figure will emerge from behind the curtain as the crowd either erupts in cheers or boos depending on their current status.  With all of this pomp and circumstance, even the least talented wrestler appears to be several steps above mere mortals thanks to the audio/visual cues presented.

I will confess to having spent some time playing a few wrestling titles over the years, from the original Pro Wrestling on the NES (Starman for the win!) through classics such as WCW/NWO Revenge as well as some serious stinkers like several of the Smackdown Vs. Raw titles prior to the 2K rebranding.  But no matter what the title and its features are, my very first steps have never been to lace up the boots as one of the pro wrestlers du jour who grace the cover of the game.  No, that’s weak sauce, my friend.  Instead, I would spend several hours in the “create a wrestler” mode in which I would craft a character in my own image, only a lot more talented and with muscles in places that I’m not even sure my actual body currently possesses.  And as I labored over each move, mannerism, and nose contour I saved the most important part for last… the entrance. Despite the fact that this had zero impact on my character’s in-ring prowess or physical capabilities, I knew that for my wrestler to be a success they needed to have the perfect walk, ring entry, music and pyro to set the stage for the upcoming destruction that I was certain to rain down on my next opponent.

In retrospect, it seems kind of silly.  The whole rationale for the “ring entrance” is to create a sense of intimidation for the opponent, similar to the tactics of animals in the wild who create loud bellows or roars and demonstrate their dominance through violently pawing the ground or other aggressive actions.  But since my opponent was an unfeeling, emotionless computer AI construct it was unlikely that my athletic displays combined with a driving rock anthem would have any impact on the game console’s approach to the match.  I am quite sure that regardless of my exquisitely choreographed routine, the computer character I was about to face was not impressed.  They probably didn’t even watch.

What you may be surprised by is the fact that elaborate ring entrances are nothing new.  As a matter of fact, the very first recorded ring entrance occurred thousands of years ago and was staged by none other than God Himself.  Surprised that the Lord of Glory has the capacity for showmanship and a flair for the dramatic?  You shouldn’t be… after all, where do you think we get it from?  Our Heavenly Father understands the importance of presentation, and I invite you to join me in Judges 6 as we dig a little deeper into the story of an underdog character who blazed a trail for people like you and me who could use a little help with our “conquerors” vibe.

The book of Judges stands out as one of the most colorful books of the Bible, with a roster of characters who seem like they belong in the world of wrestling.  You have the epic strongman Samson, the wily assassin Ehud, the ageless Caleb, the prophetess Deborah… and sandwiched between all of these titans we find the story of a passive rebel named Gideon who fails to enter the stage with a heroic theme and epic fanfare.  No, we find him in Judges 6:11 secretly processing wheat in a wine-press so he could hide it from the marauding Midianites who were currently raiding the fledging nation of Israel and taking all of their food.  And in a comical scene, an angel sent by God greets this man who was currently hiding from his enemies with the phrase, “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor!”  Either this is the case of God showing His sense of humor, or more likely it is another instance of Him calling the things that are not as if they already are.  Gideon was not currently showcasing courage and leadership, but over the next few chapters we will see what the Father saw hidden inside him.

The exchange between the angel and Gideon was refreshingly honest and direct.  Gideon pulled no punches as he brought the angel up to speed on the current Midianite predicament and his personal view that Israel had been forsaken by the Lord.  He had given up on hope and accepted the current reality of his situation as all that would ever exist, choosing to spend his energy on the best solutions he could devise to just keep food on the table one more day.  Ever been there?  I know I can seriously relate.  And when the angel tries to confirm the message, Gideon reminds them that he is the lowest member in the lowest family of a lowly tribe.  Gideon attempted to disqualify himself before phase one of the project even began, but the Lord was having none of it.  For his first mission, Gideon was tasked with tearing down the pagan altar to Baal that had been in use by the backslidden people of Israel.  Gideon did so, but once again in his own way… in verse 27 he tore down the altar, but he did it in the cover of  night for fear of what his family and his community would do if they caught him.  Let’s put some obedience points on his skill tree, but leave the courage points at zero for the moment.

If you have heard of “Gideon’s fleece” before, brace yourself because here it comes.  Before Gideon was prepared to engage with the vast multitudes of the Midianites, he sought the Lord once again to confirm His plan.  Gideon placed a wool fleece on the threshing floor, which is the place he should have been processing the wheat, and asked the Lord two separate times to make it wet and make it dry.  There is a significance to this… Gideon finally went to the location where he should have been in the first place and asked the Lord to show He was with Him.  And when Gideon stood in the place of obedience, the Lord met him there.  Now right now you might be saying, “This is all nice and exciting, and I’m very happy for Gideon.  Where is this wrestling theme music you promised?”  Fair enough,  let’s fast forward to Judges 7:16, where we find that the Lord has whittled the already out-numbered Israeli army down to just 300 men to take on the sprawling multitudes of Midianites.  But this story of “The 300” will finish with a much happier and more victorious ending, and as we catch up with Gideon he is readying the theatrics that will start the attack.

 

He places an empty pitcher with a torch inside of it into each soldier’s hands and equipped them with trumpets.  After splitting his men into three companies, he surrounded the Midianite camp at night and waited for the perfect moment. At the changing of the guard Gideon gave the signal and in a move that would make Stone Cold Steve Austin proud (shattered glass, anyone?) every soldier smashed their jars and the sky lit up with fire all around the camp amid the sound of breaking pottery.  Then the theme music hit as every man blew their trumpets and shouted, “The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!”  Not a great way to wake up if you are an enemy soldier, and a pretty impressive way to stage the battle to conceal your limited numbers and yet appear to have your adversaries surrounded. General Gideon obeyed the Lord, and the Lord put such a fear into the Midianites that they were killing each other in a panicked attempt to flee.  The victory was overwhelming, and the oppression of the Midianites was ended after this mighty battle waged by an underdog challenger, his small group of soldiers, and a mighty God who keeps His promises even when you are making bread in a juicer.

Confession time… I have a lot more in common with the Gideon who continually needed God’s reassurance that He was still with him than I have in common with the victorious leader who stood tall over his enemies at the end of his story.  And I believe I know why… unrewarded hope is one of the saddest and most painful emotions I have personally experienced.  I have prayed prayers that seem to hit an iron curtain in the heavens.  I have laid claim to miracles that never materialized.  I have trusted God to make a bad situation right, only to eat the bitter bread of shattered dreams when my hopeful visions were forced to face my stark and unchanging reality.  Gideon, I feel you, brother.  Pass the fleece, because I’m not sure if I am ready to hope again.

An angel of the Lord appearing to someone in the Bible typically had an overwhelmingly positive response, but Gideon had been defeated and living a shadow life for so long that even this supernatural event failed to impress him.  Accepting his lot in life as a person of no consequence in an existence spent in hiding, he had such a jaded worldview that despite the angels positive greeting and assurance of victory Gideon simply couldn’t bring himself to hope in a better outcome to his situation than the reality he had finally accepted.  Have you been there?  So beaten down by the day-to-day reality of a hopeless situation that even a light at the end of the tunnel fails to excite you because you are certain it’s just another freight train headed your way?  If so, we are on the same wavelength, my friend.

Hebrews 11:1 may be the definitive verse on hope.  It reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.  I’ve heard that verse so many times, memorized it in Sunday School, and got my gold star and a jolly rancher for the effort (watermelon flavored, in case you were wondering).  But putting it into practice can be much more difficult, and to truly understand it I had to break it down for myself and found that in the Greek this powerful verse is actually only nine words long and translates directly as:

“Now is moreover faith of things hoped for assurance of things the conviction not being seen”



I know that doesn’t read well… but if you bear with me we are going to unwrap this once and for all.  The Greek word translated as “faith” here is the word “pistis”, which may have a different interpretation than you may assume.  This is not blind faith or wishful thinking… this word refers to the faith that God places into us as redeemed believers (see Romans 12:3 for an example).  This is not some personally generated faith we manufacture.  This is something Divinely implanted into us, something heaven-born that confirms to us the existence of something not yet visible.

Here is the hard truth… most of my disappointment with God has come from times that I had faith for something to happen that He never actually promised.  Gideon became disillusioned with God and thought his people had been forsaken, when the truth was they had erected an altar and were in a state of idolatry.  They were the forsakers, not the forsaken and they had removed themselves from the protection He offered as a result.  He never promised them He would protect them while they were living in an open state of sinful rebellion.  And He was clear in the ten commandments that no other gods were to be served but Him. Once Gideon pulled down the altar to Baal deliverance could begin.

Much of my broken hopes are not founded in a true promise from the Lord, but in my broken interpretation of the Scriptures to best suit my situation at the time.  It’s easy to claim the provisions of God, but He promised us daily bread, not crab cakes.  He didn’t even provide His own Son with a permanent roof over his head, so as long as I am indoors as I lay my head down I am blessed.  He promised to supply all my needs… but His definition and mine are not always aligned.  The more I reflect on areas where I have experienced damaged faith or lost hope in God, the more I realize that I built expectations on Him that He never actually guaranteed.  His promises sound more like this…” In this world you will experience tribulation… both the house built on sand and the house built on the rock endured heavy storms….”  He promised challenges, battles, and daily warfare with an enemy bent on our destruction.

As we close this up, I take heart in the fact that Gideon was used by God to bring a great deliverance when it was the right time and done the right way.  His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts… His history is to deliver His children IN the fiery furnace and the lion’s den, rather than FROM them.  And our faith must be based on a true knowledge of what He has ACTUALLY promised us, rather than what we may have selfishly misappropriated to ourselves.  Armed with this new knowledge, it is easy to restore hope to even the most hopeless situation because the problem you are experiencing is not proof that the Lord does not see or care.  To the contrary… as Gideon found out God is simply allowing events to exist in our lives to propel us into a place of truly recognizing Him for who He is as well as who we truly are in Him.  Gideon saw a hopeless situation thanks to a God who had failed His people.  Gideon saw himself as a cowardly insignificant speck within his nation.  The truth was the nation was reaping what they had sown, God was continually there waiting for them to return in obedience, and Gideon truly was the mighty man of valor that the angel proclaimed he was.
Your situation, no matter how challenging it is, is meant to bring you closer to your true calling as well as into a deeper understanding of the true nature of God.  And you may think you have been defeated because the enemy just hit their finishing move and you are on your back looking up at the ring lights… but like all the best wrestling moments His theme music will hit right as you reach your most desperate point.  So don’t tap out yet… He has a history of making grand ring entrances that might seem too late but always turn out to be right on time.