Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Sermon I Preached Today

I don’t know the Bible as well as I should. College Bible classes helped to rectify some of that, but I still felt scripturally inadequate when I came to seminary. I can’t give you a verse for every life situation, I usually only have a general idea about where you can find the important Bible stories and before my first semester at Truett, the only Old Testament stories that I really knew where the ones that get made into veggie tales movies. I didn’t love the Old Testament. If I’m going to be honest, I didn’t really love the Bible. It seemed….overly idealistic. And then I took Scriptures 1 with Dr. Ngan in the fall of 2006. We started in Genesis and ended in Kings and I came face to face with stories and characters I’d never even known about. Dr. Ngan was right – the Old Testament is full of sex and violence.” That class helped me to fall in love again with the Old Testament and even the Bible again because I realized how honest it is. These heroes of our Sunday school and Vacation Bible School memories are much more… messy than I remember. Adam shirked responsibility, Eve was ambitious to a fault, Abraham was a philanderer, Sarah was vindictive, Joseph was spoiled, Moses was a murderer, Samson was a failure who could only vindicate himself by dying and King David was a usurper, an adulterer and a really bad dad. I realized the Bible and its authors (both human and divine) had hidden nothing about its subjects. No one in the Old Testament is perfect…and that helps me to trust their stories so much more. Trust in the brutal honesty of God and his words.
So imagine my delight when last week I realized that the fist story I would be telling to the children during VBS would be the story of Gideon. The curriculum had boiled down Gideon’s story to the phrase “Be Obedient” – and that’s nice and partly true – but Gideon’s a little more complicated than that. Gideon’s story is smack dab in the middle of the Book of Judges, a book who’s theme could be summarized by the repeating refrain, “And the Israelites screwed it up even worse than before.” Gideon is a “judge” one of the women or men that God chooses to help Him clean up Israel’s terrible messes. In the beginning, the judges are pretty great and then they get progressively more…liable to screw up. Gideon sits right in the middle of the judges, pretty good, but obviously flawed. And that’s why I was delighted to share his story with our children – Gideon is proof-positive that God can work with anyone to achieve his purposes. And he has lots of them. Ours is a nosy God, an intrusive God, that doesn’t sit back and let creation spin on past Him. While the VBS curriculum was right, God does want us to “Be Obedient” like Gideon was, there is a greater lesson in this story: God knows your flaws and uses you anyway.
At the beginning of our story today, Gideon is threshing wheat in secret and an angel appears to him saying “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” Gideon’s response? Sarcasm. Just like us, the heroes of our scripture are prone to sarcastic rejoinders. And that’s okay. God knows you’re cynical.
And why shouldn’t we be cynical? Things rarely turn out like they should. Cops turn out crooked. Judges can be bought. CEO’s steal from their employees. We’re automatically covered with ‘hit-and-run’ insurance. And even ministers can’t always be trusted. This cynicism runs deep amongst us – it finds its way into commercials, advertisements, literature and even stand-up comedy. George Carlin just died, and though you may remember him only because he had an exceptional talent with curse words, in his later years his cynicism became even more pronounced. He said that “I think the human race has squandered its gift and this country has squandered its promise. I think people in America sold out very cheaply, for sneakers and cheeseburgers. And I don't think it's fixable."
Cynicism is an old human tendency. We see it here in our scriptures today. Gideon is suddenly in a conversation with a stranger (we know he’s an angel but Gideon doesn’t) who asserts that YHWH is with Him. And Gideon politely disagrees; let me translate for you what the scripture says. You can read the real words in verse 13: Right. God’s with us. That’s why I have to hide in this cave to thresh wheat cause if I didn’t the Midianites would find me, steal the wheat and kill me. That’s why my people are crushed and abused by these wandering Bedouin tribes who vastly outnumber us. That’s why this ‘promised’ land that ‘God’ gave us is filled with enemies and idolaters who hunt us down. That’s why we see no mighty acts like our forefathers did in Egypt. Sorry – but God isn’t with us. He’s abandoned us. Maybe Gideon has just forgotten that his people have slipped into idol worship and that they regularly disobey the covenant they swore to at Sinai. That doesn’t change the fact though that Gideon not only doesn’t feel like a ‘mighty warrior’ but he also has a hard time believing that God is actually with him.
I think we can all sympathize with Gideon. Too often, we’re hiding out in our own caves, looking out for enemies and disagreeing with those who would contend that God is with us. But the wonderful thing about God is that our cynicism isn’t a barrier to Him. He knows us. He knows that we see the clouds and not the silver lining. He knows that we assume the worst and belittle when the best happens. He knows us. And still wants us. Like he wanted Gideon. Like he wanted Moses. Like he wanted Abraham. All men who didn’t think they were right for the job. Who didn’t think the job was actually doable. God saw their cynicism and still reached his hand out to them, still offered them hope and change and grace. And God looks into your heart, sees the hard edges of disbelief and holds out his hand to you, offering you hope and change and grace and a place in his mighty Kingdom plans.
But we’re not just cynical. Just like Gideon, we have an inferiority complex. We surely aren’t big enough to do these great feats that God has planned for us. But that’s okay. God knows that you’re small.
Even though it’s surrounded by ocean, Florida still has it’s own struggles with water levels and the like. In fact, Lake Okeechobee has had water problems the last four years – it has suffered from drought the last two years and was damaged by successive hurricanes. The situation is so dire – it’s even affecting fishermen. I would personally rather watch paint dry than fish, but my husband’s family takes great joy in the sport so I guess I try very hard to care. It seems that longstanding rules about fish size have changed; it used to be that you could keep a bass that was shorter than 13 inches or longer than 18 – now you can only keep the 18in ones. It seems that the low water levels mean that the fish are too small to keep. 98% in fact. 98% of the bass are too small and so they can’t be used. That sounds like Gideon’s excuse.
Remember verse 15? The angel (who is now called the LORD) disagrees with Gideon’s denial of YHWH’s steadfastness “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" Gideon has an answer of course: "But Lord how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." What’s he talking about? Remember that there are 12 tribes in ancient Israel named after Jacob’s twelve sons. Manasseh wasn’t one of those 12 – he was the Egyptian born son of Joseph, but both he and his brother Ephraim are given land in Israel. Each of these tribes are broken up into clans and clans are usually made up of families. So what Gideon is actually saying is “I can’t save Israel! I’m the weakest member of the weakest family in the weakest clan in the whole tribe of Manasseh. You can’t get any smaller than me!” And his concern is legitimate – if he thinks he’s weak, then so does his family, and so does his clan and so will his tribe. How will he raise up an army to defeat Midian if everyone thinks he’s not up for the challenge? How will you?
Gideon protests that he’s too small for this job. He’s too weak. And these are old excuses. Too often we find reasons to not do God’s work – we’re not smart enough; we don’t know the Bible well enough; we don’t have enough money; we don’t have enough friends; we don’t know the right people; there isn’t enough time; we’re already stretched thin. God – you’ve got the wrong people. But the problem is – that he doesn’t. God knew Gideon before he told him to save Israel – God knew Gideon was the weakest member of the weakest family in the weakest clan in the whole tribe of Manasseh – and God didn’t care! God knows that you will never know enough, that you might never read the Bible enough, that you might never have enough money, time ..etc. And he calls you out anyway. He knows your limitations and still calls you to do miraculous things with and through him! Because he is sufficient for you. If he calls you to do great things (or even not-great things) he’ll be there in power.
It seems that the Lord manages to convince Gideon of his seriousness about routing the Midianites, but then Gideon’s real protest emerges: he’s afraid. He’s afraid of what it will mean to trust in God, to trust that YHWH will really be with him. He’s afraid to be let down. We’re afraid to be let down by God too. And that’s okay. God knows that you’re afraid.
Our everyday lives involve a lot of trust. We get in our cars and trust that other drivers will obey traffic laws. We get on the internet and trust that our passwords are really protected. We make copies of keys and trust that the technician isn’t making a copy for themselves. We get our mail and trust that our mail carriers aren’t sifting through and reading our letters. And yet, it’s still hard to trust people isn’t it? When you’re little, it’s hard to trust that your parents really have your best interest in mind when they ground you. When you’re in high school, it’s hard to trust that your teachers are really preparing you for the ‘real world.’ As a young adult, it’s hard to trust the opposite sex in matters of love and relationships. As an adult, it’s hard to trust that your children really will be watched over in daycare. And as an older adult, it’s hard to trust that your opinion won’t just be sifted aside by a younger generation. We don’t trust easily anymore, and that lack of trust even finds its way into our relationship with God.
This part of the story of Gideon is probably the most famous. Gideon, unsure that God really means what he says asks for a sign. Strike that – he asks for two. First the fleece has to be wet when the ground is dry and then the fleece has to be dry when the ground is wet. And both times, Gideon asks for a sign and it is given to him. He isn’t struck down, he isn’t chastised for disbelief, he isn’t swallowed up by the ground or devoured by poisonous serpents. God listens and gives him a sign without question. Because Gideon needed it. Gideon needed to know that God really was with him, that God wasn’t going to abandon him like he was afraid of. That God would guarantee the victory because Gideon wouldn’t be able to. Gideon is like a child in this way, eyes wide and full of fear and hope, trembling hands open to receive trust and not betrayal. “Don’t be angry with me” Gideon says. “Don’t be angry with me” we say as we take up Gideon’s pose.
Are you afraid like Gideon was? I’ll go first and say I have been and probably will be again. Sometimes the plans God has for us just seem to big or too scary or too shrouded in mystery. Sometimes God seems to distant, too uninvolved in our lives, relegated to past stories of our grandparents, a figure of legend rather than a present being. And God knows that we’re as afraid to trust the first time as the next; We seem to perpetually ask: will God always be faithful? Will God always keep his word? Will he really uphold me if I am obedient? Can I ask for a sign? And just like Gideon – we’ve been given a sign. Do you see it in here? There are actually several. A table at which we sit and partake in the body and blood of our God. A baptismal pool where we are raised from sin and into life. A cross – that cruel sign of death that forever more will be a sign of our salvation. And those who are next to you – reach out and touch them. They are a sign to you from God – I will always be faithful. I will always keep my word. I will uphold you. I am, as I ever have been, with you. Do not be afraid – I bring you tidings of great joy.
I like what Paul has to say in our New Testament reading today: "God’s grace is sufficient for you, for His power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.” God chooses to work with us not because we’re strong or fearless or powerful or clear-eyed. He chooses to work with us because…well I don’t know why. He just does. He knows we’re weak and that we screw things up given too much time and power. But he still chooses us to work with him, to stand for him, to be a sign of Him to those who need him. There’s a children’s song that we all know that I want you to sing with me “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.” Oh you little ones – God loves you. He knows you. He is strong enough for the both of you. When he calls you – despite your cynicism, your fear and your smallness of stature – trust him anyway.

1 comment:

The Reeves Family said...

Amazing job on Sunday!