Here We Grow Again

Statistically, January 1 is less likely to occur on a Monday than on other days.  Why? I have no idea.  But that means that we don’t have the chance to end the year in worship on 12/31.  In 2017, we did just that, and thought about the nature of time, and what it means for us to be creatures who are called to inhabit time, but who may also live beyond time.  Scriptures for the morning included Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and Luke 13:6-9.   

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the media player below.

Don’t answer this out loud, but think for a moment… What is your first thought upon awakening on a typical day? Not that groggy, in and out, half asleep stuff, but the first moment that your YOU is present… what fills your mind?

I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect that most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum… there are occasions when we find ourselves sighing, resignedly, “Well, here we go… another day in paradise… Same stuff, different day…” And there are, presumably, some people in the room who wake up delighted with the prospect of spending another day circling the sun, full of hope and purpose for the hours that lay ahead… “A whole new world…”

Or do you even think about those kinds of things? How important is time to you? Do you need to know what day, what hour, what minute it is? Are you always early, or chronically late? Do you feel as though you have to be doing something – you have to be productive all the time?

And how do you see yourself in the midst of time? I have a hunch that many, if not most of you, see yourselves as following a certain chronology… That could be a daily thing (“Hmmmm, well, I have to be to work by four, so that means that I’ve got to finish the shopping by three…”), or it could be expanded into a longer view (“Yep, I’d better purchase that 2018 fishing license now…” or “Yikes, it’s time to clean those carpets again…”).

I’m walking around the edges of this relationship that you and I have with time at what I perceive to be an opportune moment. My hunch is that there are not as many times in the rhythm of our lives when we are as apt to say something like, “Oh, we always do such and such…” as we are around the holidays. We always buy a real tree… Grandma always makes the gravy and the stuffing… she always visits the cemetery on Christmas Eve…

Oh really? Are those things that, in fact, always happen?

I could say that I always spend time with my brother and sister around Christmas. And, in a way, that’s true. I mean, photos don’t lie, right? Here we are – late December back in ’63, and then again on Friday evening of this week… Yet is this the same thing? In what ways is this “always”? I mean, how many people are there in those photos? Are there three people on the screen? Or six? Obviously, the good-looking kid on the right is me. Or was me. But is the child the same me?

I mean, you think about this kind of stuff long enough and your head starts to hurt, doesn’t it?

I suspect that a part of the conundrum that we experience when we seek to think about and relate to the passing of time is the fact that we are, in some ways, bound to the passing of minutes, hours, days, and weeks. And yet in some very important ways, we are designed to transcend that.

British theologian and writer C.S. Lewis put it this way in his classic book The Screwtape Letters:

Humans are amphibians…half spirit and half animal…as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation–the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.[1]

This inbetweenness – sometimes feeling lost in eternity and other times feeling gripped by the moment was captured in an old Far Side cartoon by Gary Larsen:

We are, each of us, always, in both places. We are near to eternity, and we are stuck having to remember that garbage collection is delayed a day this week due to the holiday. And that is precisely why we sometimes find ourselves singing “A Whole New World” even while we’re muttering “same stuff, different day” under our breath. In some way, both are true. There are things that we have always done, but the we who have done them are different every single time, aren’t we?

I not only use time, keep time, spend time, save time, waste time… I am affected by time. I live within time. I am shaped by time. And, in some way, I am called to shape the times in which I live.

I’m preaching all this, of course, because today is the first time in eleven years that New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday. In our culture, we think a lot about time on December 31. We look back at the year that has past, and we anticipate what is to come. Some of you, no doubt, are hard at work crafting your list of New Year’s Resolutions…

Are we, waiting and watching for the beginning of another year, different than we were last year?

Well, yes and no.

How do you view time? A casual reading of Ecclesiastes might lead you to the conclusion that time is circular: we do this, and then we do this, and then this, and lo and behold we find ourselves back to the beginning again. It really is just the same stuff on a different day…

You’d be hard pressed to prove different by looking at our church calendar: there’s advent, then Epiphany, ordinary time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, ordinary time, and Advent… It does seem as though it is circular.

Yet when we remember that we are always moving, always changing, and always being given the opportunity to grow, we confess that time is not merely circular, but rather, it has a structure and a movement that may bring us around to similar places, but not the same place. I like to think of the rhythm of the year like those ramps at Heinz Field or any other stadium. They are built in a circle, and as you get closer to the nosebleed seats, you’ll find that you have several opportunities to be looking North, East, South, or West… but when you get to “that” spot again, your vantage point is a little different because you are thirty feet higher than you were the last time around.

Ecclesiastes does say that the seasons come, and go, and repeat… but a careful reading will also indicate that they are not the same – because we are not the same. The landscape, and our perspective on it, changes as we mature and, well, encounter more and more seasons.

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Which brings me to December 31 and the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. Allow me to make several brief observations about these verses as we worship together for the last time in 2017.

First, let us note that in all likelihood, the central figure in this story – the landowner – is supposed to remind us of God the Father. And what do we note about this landowner? His main business is the vineyard. That’s the way that he describes his property. And yet growing in this vineyard is a fig tree. The figs are not this man’s main interest. They are a hobby. They, for some reason, occasion his interest or even his delight. He doesn’t need the figs. He wants them. He is eager for them.

The landowner’s central concern is, of course, fruit. He is not interested in the fig tree for the sake of the lumber or shade or the quality of leaves it may or may not provide. No, he looks at it and he wants to know if it is bearing fruit. If it is, in fact, doing that which fig trees ought to do. Is it blessing him or others? Is it bringing forth richness and nutrition and, well, delight? At this point in the story, of course, it is not.

And yet there is a profound sense of patience, and hope, or at least tolerance on the part of the landowner. His servant – whom I would identify as the Christ-figure in this parable – has an eye to the future and an awareness of the fact that things can and do change. The gardener convinces the landowner to care more about the tree, and to invest it with the special attention and other conditions that are likely to result in the appearance of some fruit. Interestingly, the verb that the gardener uses when beseeching the landowner is the Greek word aphes. In our translation here, it is rendered “let the tree have another year”. Aphes – “leave it be; let it alone…” – is also translated as “forgive”. In fact, the One who told this story, Jesus, would use that same word on the day that he was killed – and he looked up to his Father and said, “Father, aphes – forgive; let them alone – they don’t know what they’re doing. Give me time here…”

Here’s my point: somehow, against all odds, you and I have survived another year. That is to say, we’ve lived through 2017 (so far!) and we’re still speaking to each other. We got out of bed this morning – maybe singing, maybe mumbling. We’ve got today. We are not the same people as we were 365 days ago, and yet many of us are in the same place… What are we supposed to do with that?

In 1999, Annie Dillard thought about the significance of the changing of a millennium and wound up writing a wonderful book entitled For the Time Being. In it, she challenges us to consider who we are as creatures who can only exist in and through time. Listen:

Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is? —our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations, our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other….

There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God…. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture. Purity’s time is always now.[2]

I think that the point is this, and simply this: thanks be to the grace of the landowner and the love of the gardener, we have everything we need. As we stand on the brink of 2018, we are able to do that for which we have been created: we can bear fruit in the place we’ve been planted and the season we’ve been given. Let us, therefore live and move in these days as those who are interested in producing fruit of love, grace, hope, and peace. It’s who you are. It’s why you are. Thanks be to God, it’s the reason you’re here and now. Amen.

[1] MacMillan publishing (1942, chapter 8).

[2] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999) pp. 30, 88-89.

What a Waste of Time

Thoughts on Worship and the Sabbath and wondering why in the world we have such a hard time with these concepts.  This message was preached on October 26, 2014 at the Crafton Heights church and was rooted in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23 – 3:6.  

Bill_Gates_III_20080123_068William Henry “Bill” Gates is a rich man. His estimated wealth, some $82  billion, equals the annual GDP of Ecuador, and maybe twice as much as that of Croatia. By this rather unique measuring stick, the founder of Microsoft is worth two Latvias, a Cyprus and four or five Malawis. Not bad for a college dropout.

But not only is he rich, he is generous, and you may have heard about the fact that he is on a mission to give away his money before he dies. He better get cracking, though, because even though he’s given away about $35 billion, he keeps getting richer.

I was thinking about Bill Gates as I prepared for this morning’s message because of something he once said that really jolted me: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[1]

There it is, church. The man who has more dollar bills in the history of dollar bills has called you out, and said that you’re wasting your time here this morning.

And I’m here to tell you that I agree with him 100%. Worship is a total waste of time, and one of the most inefficient things you could ever do with yourself.

And I’m glad to be doing that with you, beloved.

What are we doing here? What’s the point of all this, anyway? We’re here to worship, I know. But what does that mean?

Worship comes from an Old English word ‘weorthscipe’, which to be honest I’m not really sure how to pronounce because it has a couple of letters in it that no longer exist. That word means ‘condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown’, and came to be understood as a ‘sense of reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being’ about 800 years ago.[2]

We have come to this point in time at this place on the globe in order to testify to the worthiness, dignity, glory, and honor of God. And maybe you know that when we come to worship, the world itself changes (or at least it should).

Here’s what I’m getting at: a few minutes ago, the beautiful Lindsay Frick stood in front of you and led you in a “call to worship”. In that formal language, Lindsay invited you to leave your work and your hobbies behind. She gave you permission – nay, she commanded you – to forget your laundry, your shopping list, the grubs that are destroying your grass. If we are doing it right, I think that means that we’ve turned off our cell phones and put away our watches.

We’ve entered into a different space: a ‘sanctuary’. Here, the seats are designed, not for comfort, but to focus your attention on the center and the front of the room, while being curved so that you can keep an eye on each other, too. There are windows to provide light and ventilation, but they are tinted so as to reduce the distraction that whatever lies on the other side might bring.

We have entered into a different time: it is the ‘service of worship’. We use a different calendar in here than we do outside: look at your bulletin, and you’ll see that we are in the 30th week of “ordinary time”, which started, not on January 1, but on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, of course, is the season of the year in which the church remembers the intrusion of the Creator into the Creation.

Likewise, our very understanding of ourselves has changed. We are no longer primarily neighbors, teachers, students, retirees, employees, or gardeners. You, together, have been constituted as a congregation. That is to say that you are pilgrims. People who are on the way from where they used to be and heading to where they ought to be; people who are growing from what was into who they were created to be.

Lindsay spoke a call to worship, and if we do it right, then time, space, and your understanding of self has changed. We are different people in a new time and a sacred space. Well done, Lindsay! You didn’t know you had that kind of authority, did you?

Think about it. In Genesis, we learn that we are creatures. There was God, and God alone. And then God made. We dare not confuse the Creator with the creature.

And we are not merely creatures, but creatures who have been placed in time. Do you remember how the story of creation is told? In DAYS. Seven of them, to be exact. Our lives are measured in hours and days and months and years.

And we are not only creatures of time, but creatures who have been given space. Where does the story begin? In a garden. A specific place that is ours.

So when we, the creatures of time and space, set out to recognize the worthiness, dignity, glory, and honor that characterizes God, we do so by entering into this new and different time and space.

I bring this up because this is one of the biggest problems I have with the people who say, “You know, Pastor, I don’t have to come to church to worship. I can worship God on the golf course, or at the lake, or as I run.” No, you can’t.

Sunrise at Raystown Lake, PA

Sunrise at Raystown Lake, PA

Look. If you know anything about me at all, you will understand that I have experienced the presence, majesty, beauty and power of God in the solitude of a mountain lake, laying awake at night on the Sahara Desert, watching the flight of a lilac-breasted roller, or bringing in an incredible trout. I get it. I have known God there.

But I have not worshipped God there.

Consider this: I have experienced great joy in my relationship with Sharon McCoy Carver since we were in the 9th grade together at Hanby Jr. High. We have been in many places and celebrated our love together in lots of ways.

But I only got married at 2:30 pm on Sunday May 30, 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1120 Darley Road Wilmington DE 19703. We do not confuse the reality of being married with the act of becoming married. We do not confuse appreciation of or closeness to God with the communal worship of God.

Our worship is an intentional act by the community – never alone – in a specific place while engaged in specific actions. I do not think that a human being can worship alone – we need the community for that. Worship is a part of the rhythm of creation and the order for which we were born, and we can only do it together.

Unfortunately, we are not very good at understanding this rhythm. We find it easy to forget the intentions for which we are born. One way that I know this is true is because we have neglected the idea of Sabbath.

That’s an old word, of course, and incredibly churchy. Feel free to roll your eyes now if you’d like.

Noon - Rest From Work, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Noon – Rest From Work, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

You heard it in Deuteronomy, where we were commanded to observe, remember, and keep one day in seven. No work for your or your servants. No commerce. No production.

Yeah, we’re not very good at remembering, keeping, or observing that kind of stuff, are we?

And I know a lot of you, like me, often hear a lot of talk by people who wish that we’d “get back to basics” and pay more attention to the Ten Commandments. “All this country needs is to get back to the Ten Commandments,” they say. Well, it seems to me that they’re really talking about six or seven of them – many of the folks I hear talking about that are really concerned about who their neighbor is sleeping around with or which political party is lying to us than they are about actually keeping the Sabbath or avoiding covetousness. Christians in America today steamroll the fourth commandment flatter than a pancake at Pamela’s restaurant, and we feel proud about doing so.

We do not stop. We do not rest. We go and go and go.

Why? Because we are good and decent people. We’re not lazy. We are recognizing the truth of what Bill Gates has told us – that rest is not efficient and a total waste of time. And time is money. And we want more money. And so we cannot rest. We have to do more. We have to be more.

Hey, hey, hey, Pastor. That’s not fair! I’m not greedy! It’s not about money! I have a lot to do. Important stuff to do. People are counting on me to get it done. Do you know what would happen if I stopped ________? I mean, I get it, Dave. It must be nice to be you, in control of your own time, managing your own calendar, going fishing whenever you feel like it, but my life isn’t like that. I have to ___________.

Look, it’s not my commandment. I am not giving it to you; I am with you in sitting under it. And from where I sit, it seems as though the command to keep, observe, and remember the Sabbath and to worship is all about trust. We come into this special place and enter this special time and we stop doing anything important. We stop and we rest, and we dare to believe that the world will continue to turn without us. We rest, and in so doing proclaim that God, not us, is in control. We keep Sabbath because we are creatures, not the Creator.

But HOW? What does that look like in 2014?

I’m not entirely sure. And let me clear about the fact that I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I’m having a hard enough time speaking for me right now to presume to speak for you. But this is what I know: if you flinch when you hear me say that Sunday ought to be set aside for worship and rest, then you should probably be asking God, “Lord, what needs to change in my life? And how can I change it?”

People who keep Sabbath well are people who are able to do their homework on Friday or Saturday. People who choose to shop on Tuesday or Friday. People who can turn off their email and resist the temptation to buy or sell on the Lord’s Day. We all have the same 168 hours this week. The 4th commandment reminds us that God seems to care about how we use them. You heard that commandment a few moments ago that talked about your manservant and your maidservant, and you thought, “Hey, that’s not me! I don’t have any servants.” Really? What do you call the people who will bring you your food at the Olive Garden today, or the folks who check you out at the Giant Eagle? They are your servants.

But what about work? What if you have to work on Sunday? I think the first question would be, “Why?” Why do you have to work on Sunday?   I know some people who have to work weekends because it’s a second job for them and the family. They need that money to put food on the table. They need that money to educate their children. Or maybe they’ve got jobs that require them to work on Sundays. If that’s the case, then that’s the case.

But I know a whole lot more people who choose to work on Sunday because they’ve got a credit card payment due. People who need to work on Sunday because their cable bill is too high, or their third car needs a new set of tires. And if I am neglecting the Lord on this Sabbath in order to keep my satellite dish payments current, then maybe my priorities are a little out of whack.

Look, I could talk all day about this, but if I did, that would probably be ruining any idea of Sabbath for all of us. Do I have it all figured out? Not by a long shot. But this much I know: the fourth commandment is given to us because God loves us and desires that we might know life in all of its fullness. And we are prone to accepting less than God’s best because we are seduced by a world that wants to tell us that nothing makes us complete and that we are still enslaved in the “kingdom of thingdom.”

The way to get out of this is to waste what the world treasures. In a few weeks, we’ll be talking about money, and how the only way to control its power in our lives is to give it away – to do something utterly wasteful with it like giving it to the church. But that’s a few weeks. Today, I want to encourage you to waste time. To stop producing and enjoy who God is, and how God is, and who and how God is for you.

The Man With the Withered Hand, James Tissot, 1896

The Man With the Withered Hand, James Tissot, 1896

The Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus used the Sabbath to restore and to feed.

What if he still does that? I mean, what if by showing up here we are putting ourselves in a place and time where what is withered in our own lives might be revitalized? What if in rest, trust, and obedience the muscles that we thought were long-dead, or the faith that we’ve set aside, or the power in which we’ve become afraid to believe – what if those things could be reactivated, much as the man’s arm was in the story you heard a few moments ago?

Bill Gates is right. There are a thousand ways to use this hour more efficiently. But Jesus is righter: it’s not about efficiency. It’s about knowing who we are, and whose we are. Observe. Remember. Keep this day as your time to join with the other pilgrims in pointing to God’s glory. And as you do so, know that you are observed, remembered, and kept eternally. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1]http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/billgates102601.html#iRi20ixrK5UvYPu7.99

[2] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=worship

What’s in YOUR Hands?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 3 November, we heard the third installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book.  Our scriptures included Judges 6:33 – 7:23 (below) and  Psalm 33:12-22

vikingI can’t imagine that anyone savvy to the internet isn’t familiar with the series of Capital One advertisements featuring the tagline, “What’s in Your Wallet?”  Whether it’s with Vikings or secret agents or sports stars, actor Alec Baldwin assures us that as long as we use his preferred credit card, we’ll get what we want, when we want it.

How will you get what you want or need, when you want or need it?  That’s the question that faced Gideon in the book of Judges.  He, along with all the other Israelites, were sick and tired of the Midianites coming in and emptying the pantry every harvest time.  The Israelites were primarily agriculturists, growing wheat and barley on their small farms in and around their settled villages.  Yet every fall, the nomads from Midian would swoop across the border and devour the harvest, thus impoverishing God’s people.Ruth gleaning

You’ve heard it before in Judges.  The people cry out to God, swearing, “God, you’ve gotta save us!  If you do, we’ll follow you from now on.  Really!  We mean it!”

God appears to Gideon and says, “Yes – I will.  I will deliver the Midianites into your hands.”   And if you were here a couple of weeks ago, you’ll remember that Gideon asks God for a little ID, and God ignites the offering that Gideon has set out.  So we’re good, right?  “Not so fast, God,” says Gideon.

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. (Judges 6:36-40 NIV)

Gideon and the Miracle of the Dew, Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574)

Gideon and the Miracle of the Dew, Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574)

So here we see God, who has already demonstrated his purpose and intentions to Gideon, giving him a second and a third proof that he is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do.

Have you ever done something like that?  Offered a little prayer… “Um, God, if you really want me to do such-and-such, well, you’ll have to give me a sign.”  If I should ask that girl out, then let the next car I see be red.  If you want me to call my sick friend, then let the next sound I hear be a telephone.  If you think I should increase my giving to the church, Lord, then let the Pirates make the playoffs this year.  Look, I’m not suggesting this as a strategy, but let’s not limit the Lord, OK?  In this case, however, God gives Gideon the grace of two more signs that he is not alone, and that he will have victory.

Gideon believes God, and rounds up 32,000 friends to go out and face the Midianite army that contains, if we can trust Judges 8:10, 135,000 soldiers.  You don’t like those odds, but hey, God is on our side, right? Only there’s one problem:

Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained. (Judges 7:1-3 NIV)

Yep, there’s a problem.  Gideon has too many soldiers.  If the Israelites won the battle, they’d be tempted to think that they were “all that” and had just skunked the enemy in their own strength.  So God instructs Gideon to allow anyone who’s nervous about the battle to leave.  That cuts the army by two-thirds, but it turns out there’s a problem: that’s still too many men for the people to know that it’s really God’s hand at work here.

But the Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.”

So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.

The Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.” So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. (Judges 7:4-8, NIV)

Okie-dokie, God.  We get you now.  We’re down to 300 men.  We’ve lost 99% of our soldiers.  If we win now, we’ll know that it’s you.  Hoo-boy, will we know. I have a hunch that if Gideon had given the fellows a second shot at that “is anyone here nervous?” question, he’d have lost some of the 300 who remained at this point.  But finally, they are ready for combat, right?

Not quite:

Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” Judges 7:9-11a NIV)

I like how God says, “if you are afraid”.  Do you remember Gideon? Hiding in his basement threshing wheat?  Explaining to God how he couldn’t possibly be the one to deliver Israel because he was too weak.  And God says, “if you are afraid to attack”?  That sounds like God doesn’t know Gideon very well.  You and I know that Gideon was afraid:

So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.

Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”

His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.” (Judges 7:11b-14 NIV)

When I first read this, I thought, “Seriously, Gideon?  It’s not enough for God to show up in your basement and promise you, and prove it.  Then, for two nights out on the back porch, you get a sign. Now, this knuckle-headed Midianite buck-private says something and you all of a sudden believe what God is telling you?  Get real, Gideon.”

But then I thought, “How many times has something sunk in on the fourth, fifth, or tenth time I’ve heard it?”  You know what that’s like: someone tells you something, or you read about it, and it doesn’t register…until one day, something just “clicks” and it all makes sense.  Beloved, let me encourage you to be unfailing in your willingness to continue to speak words of encouragement and truth to the people around you.  You can’t be sure when they will actually hear them.  It may be that someone is so scarred and so afraid that they simply won’t be able to hear you the first time you speak to them about love, forgiveness, grace, and hope.  Make that a refrain of your life, so that when the time is right, you will be heard – because you’ll still be saying it!

At any rate, Gideon finally, finally believes, and we get to the thrilling conclusion of today’s reading:

When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshiped. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands.” Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside.

“Watch me,” he told them. “Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’”

Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard. They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled.

When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled to Beth Shittah toward Zererah as far as the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath. Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites. (Judges 7:15-33)

Wow!  A group of 300 men routs an army nearly 500 times its size!  Gideon’s army wins – without actually fighting.  The night was divided into three watches.  So when Gideon’s men showed up all around the camp and blew their trumpets and shone their lights, there were about 1/3 of the enemy standing guard, there were 1/3 walking back to their tents, and 1/3 asleep. Imagine what it would be like to hear that there was an attack, be awakened, and find an armed man coming into your tent.  It must have been that before they realized what was happening, the Midianites were slaying each other.

Did you notice how Gideon’s men won?  By simply standing there.  They held their torches and blew their trumpets, and the Midianites beat themselves.  It ought to be clear to anyone and everyone that this is God’s victory, right?  Seeing a squad of 300 men defeat an army of well over 100,000 – that’s a miracle on a par with the crossing of the Red Sea or the feeding of 5000 people with a couple of loaves of bread.

ShofarExcept…except did you see what Mr. Scaredy-pants did back there when he was instructing his men?  After God had given him four signs that God would win the victory, Gideon put his own name in the headlines.  “Look, fellas, when you shout out, remember to say, ‘This is for the Lord…and Gideon!”  I’m here to tell you that this means trouble – but we’ll consider that another day.  I’d like to focus today on the fact that here, in this moment, God’s people are victorious.

How? By trusting in God.  And how did they trust?  Look at what this group did: they had to release the things that they usually carry – things like swords or spears and shields.  And then they were free pick up…well, they pick up what God tells them to pick up.

They pick up a trumpet.  Literally, a shofar.  An instrument made from a ram’s horn.  It’s the same trumpet that God said should be blown to announce the year of Jubilee; the same trumpet that would herald the forgiveness of sin; the same trumpet that would declare the Day of the Lord.

littlebuglerDo you remember all those old western movies? Who plays the bugle?  The skinny guy, the kid, the wounded guy…the one who is too weak, too weary to actually fight.  The bugler doesn’t do anything…except to announce the arrival of a power that is far greater than he.  Nobody in the history of buglers has ever been afraid of the bugler.  We fear and respect the one that the bugler announces and summons, don’t we?  We fear and respect the power that those notes represent.  God’s people picked up bugles.

The other thing that they picked up was a torch.  A means by which they could see and, more importantly, be seen.  A light that pierces the darkness and reveals what is really true.  The presence of God!

What’s in your hands this morning?  As I’ve suggested, an ancient Israeli soldier would probably be clinging to his spear or sword and a shield.  A weapon for attack and something to defend himself against attack.  I bet that you don’t have either of those things today.

But hold up your cell phone.  And hold up your wallet.  I bet that if for some reason we needed either of those things today, you could put your hands on yours inside 15 seconds.  What does that say about us?

Gollum_iPrecious5-734388This cell phone is, for many of us, the way that we stay in contact.  It reminds us that we are somebody.  We get texts.  We update our status.  I heard on the radio this morning that the average college student checks his or her facebook status 20 times an hour.  We use that phone, don’t we?  We need that phone. The phones we carry are precious indeed.

And our wallets?  They contain our ID.  We use them to prove we are who we say we are.  We use them to gratify our needs, or to complain about why we have so many needs.  My wallet contains either a wad of cash reminding me how powerful I am, or it contains a couple of bucks reminding me what a loser I am because I’m so broke.  Either way, we are tempted to use our wallets as measuring sticks.

I’m no Gideon, but I’m here to invite you to lay down, to profane, if you will, the things that you don’t want to let go of.  If you turn off your cell phone, are you still you?  If your last status update didn’t get twelve “likes”, do you still have friends?  If you can’t reply instantly to that pile of email that came in while you were listening to the sermon…do you matter?  Beloved, don’t allow any piece of technology to control what you do.  Turn it off, every now and then.  Take a Sabbath.  Listen to the people who are with you now.  Be present to The One who is always present to you.

And what about that wallet?  Can you loosen up the grip that money and materialism has on you?  You can, you know.  You can profane the power of money and stuff in your life by simply wanting less and giving more.  Refuse to allow your net worth to define your true worth.

fire_torchListen, if you loosen up your grip on your cell phone and your wallet every now and then, you’ll have a hand free to pick up a torch or a trumpet.  If you refuse to allow those external devices to dictate your identity, then you can have access to the Power that not only saved the day for Gideon and his friends, but who paved the way for the ultimate act of grace and strength in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  If you can open up your hand and grab a torch, you’ll be able to see into the darkness far more clearly.  You’ll grow into a life in which there is no reason to hide in the darkness.

What’s in your hands?  You know the answer to that.  But what should be there?