testing…

If you have been in a meaningful relationship – which is all of us, of course – if you have been in a meaningful relationship, you know that there is a kind of testing that happens in relationships. Sometimes it happens very intentionally – sometimes it unconsciously, no doubt – but there is always a kind of testing that goes on in relationships.

In relationships between friends – we often test one another.

In relationships between spouses – we test one another.

In relationships between parents and children – we certainly test one another.

Again – sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes no doubt unconscious, but in either case, in every meaningful relationship there is testing that goes on.

Let me give a simple and classic example – of the testing that might go on between an adolescent and her parents. When that adolescent daughter comes home with three piercings when previously she had none – or when she comes home with hair in three shades of green when it was previously all naturally brown. In those situations there is some testing going on. Certainly she’s testing limits – which is not unusual for adolescents. But at the same time she is testing love.

“Mom and dad, will you love me, even when I push boundaries like this, even when I come home with 3 piercings.?”

“Mom and dad, do you love me enough to let me be who I want to be, even if it means hair in three shades of green?”

That’s a classic example of an adolescent testing of limits – but equally, it’s a testing of the parents’ love. Do you love me? Will you still love me, if? Are you with me, no matter what?

We all test one another from time to time. If you or I feel a little insecure in a relationship, we might seek an assurance of the other’s love for us. If we feel like the other person has changed or is changing, we might seek a sign that their love is as real as ever. We might seek these assurances by pushing boundaries a little bit, like that adolescent daughter – provoking a response. Or we might seek assurances by giving the other person very obvious hints that we need a tangible reminder of their love. “You know, you haven’t taken me out for dinner in a while. You know, you haven’t given me flowers in a while.” The subtext is: “You still love me?”

The testing that happens in our relationships is, of course, as complicated as relationships themselves – and that can be pretty complicated. This morning we can’t hope to describe this testing in a kind of a complete way. But we can still make that very general and simple point. In relationships that are in any sense meaningful, there is testing that goes on. We test one another.

And we can transfer this to our spiritual lives this morning. In the relationship between Gideon and God, there is some testing going on. The testing in their relationship, in fact, goes both ways. In the context of God’s call to Gideon, Gideon tests God – he demands a sign from God to see if God’s for real. And God tests Gideon – God lays out a challenge for Gideon to see if his love and commitment are for real. This week we are going to explore the first side of this testing – Gideon testing God. Next week we’ll take up the second part.

Perhaps a somewhat personal question as we move on this morning. Is our relationship with God a relationship we can even think about in terms of testing? You see, there has to be some degree intimacy and vitality in our relationship with God if the idea of testing is even going to make any sense to us. Expressed differently: If our experience of God is an experience of distance – a God out there removed from us – in that case, questions of trust and of presence and of faithfulness won’t really make sense for our spiritual lives. But if our spiritual life involves encounter with a God who draws near – if it is a personal  relationship, then the logic of testing will make sense to us.

So Gideon is going about his business – he is beating out then wheat in the harvesting season – a task common to the agricultural context in which he lives. It does happen to be going about his business in close proximity to what is considered a sacred or holy place in his time – he is right near the oak that grows near Ophrah. Nevertheless, he is going about his business, with no expectation that God will show up – but suddenly an angel of the Lord appears. And the angel says to him: “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

Now we can’t look at all the details of the conversation between Gideon and the angel, but that conversation gives evidence of a dynamic relationship.

For example, Gideon immediately challenges the angel’s assertion that God is with them: “Oh yes, if God is with us, then why all this suffering at the hands of the Medianites?”

Gideon also challenges the angel’s call for him to deliver Israel from the oppressors: “How can I deliver my people when I am the runt of the litter.”

Already here there is evidence of a kind of testing and challenging between Gideon and the angel. And that evidence of testing gives way to a direct demand for a sign. Gideon has been asked to lead his people against the Midianites. He’s been told that the Lord will be with him – but Gideon wants some deeper assurance of this call and of the Lord’s presence. Perhaps he also wants a more basic assurance that this is in fact an Angel of the Lord – not an imposter. Whatever it is exactly, Gideon asks for a sign – he wants some clear sign and statement so that he can trust this calling, and so that he can trust the one who calls. In verse 17, Gideon speaks: “If now I have found favour with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me.” The angel of the Lord assents: “Ok I’ll give you a sign.”

Gideon goes into his house, he prepares a meal – the angel waits. Gideon prepares a young goat, and some bread, and some broth. He finally brings all of it out to the angel – and he follows the angel’s instruction to lay the meal on a rock.

We read in verse 21: “Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes, and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the Lord vanished from sight.” Then Gideon perceived it was the angel of the Lord.

God, I’m not sure this is really you speaking – fire from the rock.

God, are you really calling me to this task – meat and bread consumed by flames.

God, can I trust your power – the angel disappears in the flicker of an eye.

In every relationship, there are questions of trust. There are moments when we seek some assurance of the other’s love – an assurance that she is really there with us and for us – an assurance that he isn’t dropping out of the relationship emotionally. So at some level is it any surprise that our relationship with God might be like this – is it any surprise that we might need, and long for, and ask for sign of God’s faithfulness and God’s presence and God’s love. That’s what Gideon seeks – an affirmation of God’s identity.

Have you ever sought such an assurance? Do you imagine God as close enough to you – is God real enough to you that seeking such a confirmation of God’s presence and love and leading makes sense? Is God real enough to you that you have some expectation of a response? Otherwise put: Is our relationship with God meaningful enough and dynamic enough and strong enough that it can bear a little testing?

God, are you there?

God, are you with me?

God, can I trust you?

God, how can I know?

Now I have to confess this morning that it is in some ways odd for me to be suggesting that we can or should test God – seeking a sign in this way. It’s odd because there’s a pretty strong tradition within scripture that we should not test God. In fact, in Deuteronomy chapter 6, it’s expressed pretty clearly: “Do not test the Lord your God, as you did at Massah.” Jesus himself quotes these words from Deuteronomy when he is tested by Satan in the wilderness. Satan tells Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the temple, reminding Jesus that God will send angels to save him. Jesus replies: “It is written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’.”

So we have to acknowledge some degree of ambiguity here as we think about the ways we might test God – or seek a sign from God. It’s possible that our testing of God might be done, not from in the context of intimacy with God, and faith in God – but from a fundamental or basic lack of trust.

In fact, just a few verses further along on in the narrative of Gideon, it seems like Gideon himself begins to reflect this lack of trust. We’ve seen that God gives Gideon this remarkable sign – through the angel of the Lord, the meal of goat meat and bread and soup is consumed by fire. The angel disappears in the twinkle of an eye.

But just a few verses later, when Gideon is asked to lead Israel against the Midianites – he asks for another sign – in fact, he doesn’t only ask for one more sign. He asks for two more signs.

You may remember this story. Gideon tells God that he will lay a fleece on the ground over night and tells God that over night the dew should fall only on the fleece. There should be no dew on the ground. And it is just as Gideon asks – God grants the sign.

But then Gideon very apologetically tells God that he wants to do it again. And this time tells God that he will lay a fleece on the ground over night but tells God that he wants the dew to fall on the floor only – and not on the fleece. And it is just as Gideon asks – God grants the sign.

At this point in the narrative, we might think that this is simply a continuance of the dynamic relationship between God and Gideon – that this is more of that faithful testing. But at the same time, it certainly begins to feel like the narrative is saying something else. Gideon is being portrayed here, perhaps, in a less than flattering light.

Gideon asks for a sign – and it is given.

Gideon asks for another sign – and it is given.

Gideon asks for another sign – and it is given.

It’s beginning to feel like Gideon simply doesn’t trust God. The narrative is no longer holding Gideon up as an example. Perhaps it’s here that Deuteronomy 6:16 comes into play. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

In our spiritual life, we may earnestly and faithfully seek signs from God – a sign of his love, a sign of his presence, a sign that this is the way God would have us go.

But there may also be times when our testing of God doesn’t reflect a relationship of intimacy and friendship with God. There may be times when we have in effect stepped out of the context of faith – and then demanded a sign. In that circumstance, our asking for a sign becomes disingenuous. We’ll become like Gideon. It won’t matter what sign God gives, it will never be enough for us.

Ok, I see that sign, but now show me this.

Ok, I see that, but now show me this.

When we have withdrawn emotionally and personally from a relationship, then testing the other isn’t an expression of faith and of intimacy – the testing isn’t in good faith in any sense. Seeking a sign from God is only something that can happen in the context of faith – in a context where we have some sense of God’s love and faithfulness and leading.

You’re likely familiar with that old joke. There is a severe flood, and a man has made his way onto the roof of his house. And along come some neighbours in a canoe, and they offer to take him along – he replies, “No, God will save me.” A little later, along comes someone in a power boat, offering to help – he replies, “No, God will save me.” And the flood gets a little worse, the water comes a bit higher, and along comes a helicopter, able to lift him off the roof. “No, God will save me.” Just a few minutes later he’s swept off the roof and he dies. And he appears in heaven before God, and asks, “Why didn’t you save me?” And of course God replies: “Well, I sent you the canoe, and you said no. And I sent you the powerboat, and you said no. And I sent you the helicopter, and you said no.”

We can adjust the meaning of the joke just a little bit in the context of our reflection this morning. There are some who test God, demanding more concrete signs of God’s presence and love. This testing of God might be expressed like this: “Well, if God is really there, let him prove it – show me the evidence.” But in this case there may be signs of God’s love and of Christ’s kingdom all around – but what is missing are the eyes of faith to see, to trust, to believe. God can only really be tested – can only be tested in good faith – from within the context of faith and love.

The God of creation and recreation is alive in our world – at work in our lives. The God of creation and recreation leads us into life that is new and challenging and beautiful through his son Jesus. The God of creation and recreation is so close to us through the moving of his Spirit.  We may at times need a sign from this God – a reminder we are a loved – a sign of leading – a word of comfort – an encouragement to continue on. May our eyes be open to the answer God gives.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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