tested by God

So we are in the final week of this short sermon series. Over these few Sundays of summer we have been looking at call narratives in the Old Testament – these moments when God draws near to someone – encounters someone – these moments when God comes close to call someone to a particular task.

And one of the reasons we’ve been looking at these call narratives is because we want to reclaim the personal dimension of our faith. We want to develop a spirituality that engages us in a deeply personal way – a spirituality that doesn’t let us hold God at a distance. We want to be drawn into a life with God that implicates every dimension of our being.

So we have looked at the call narratives of Jeremiah and Isaiah and Moses – trying to re-imagine our own lives in terms of their very personal encounters with God. And then last week and this week we are looking at God’s call to Gideon. Last week we were reminded that in every meaningful relationship there is testing that goes on. Whether very intentionally or perhaps unconsciously, in every meaningful relationship we test one another – in friendship, in marriage, in family relationships. We test one another’s love, we test one another’s promises, we test one another’s faithfulness, we test one another’s character. Testing is a part of relationships.

And so it wasn’t surprising to hear last week that in the relationship between Gideon and God – which was itself a vital and meaningful relationship – in that relationship there was also testing going on. In the first place, this was a relationship in which Gideon tested God:

God, you say you are with us, but why are we suffering?

God, you say I will lead my people, but I am the runt of the litter.

And Gideon pushes the testing a little further. Gideon demands a very concrete sign from God – he demands a very concrete assurance that the one who has called him is really the living God. Gideon demands a sign of God’s strength and faithfulness. After all – he has been called to lead his people God against the Midianites – he wants to know more clearly the identity and nature of the God who calls him.

But this testing thing is a two-way street – not only does Gideon test God. In the next moment of the story, God also tests Gideon. At least that’s the way I would understand what’s happening in this part of Gideon’s story.

To understand God’s testing of Gideon – and that’s what we’re we’re exploring this morning – to understand God’s testing of Gideon, we have to back up just a little bit. We have to consider the wider context of the encounter between God and Gideon. Specifically, we have to see that it is a context of unfaithfulness and of forgetfulness on the part of God’s people.

In Judges chapter 6:8 we read that a prophet has come to the people of Israel – with this message. “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of slavery; and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out of your land; and I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God, you shall not pay reverence to the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not given heed to my voice.”

The message from God is a simple one.

I created you.

I have delivered you.

I have saved you.

I have helped you.

I am the God of covenant and creation.

All I have asked is that you be faithful to me – that you dwell with me in worship and prayer – that you live in the way of truth and goodness that I reveal. But no – you have turned your backs on me.

You have set up shrines to other gods in your homes.

You have trusted in gods that are not worthy of your trust.

You have sought the favour of Gods that can give you nothing.

You have not given heed to my voice.

That is the wider context of the encounter between Gideon and God. Gideon belongs to a people, to God’s own people – and that people has forgotten God. And what’s particularly important for us this morning is that this forgetfulness and this unfaithfulness has reached right into Gideon’s own home and family. In fact Gideon’s father, a leader among the people, has set up an altar to Ba’al – the storm God of the Canaanites. And Gideon’s father has set up a sacred pole – a symbol of the goddess Asherah, Ba’al’s consort.

Throughout the Hebrew bible there are many references to the god Ba’al and to the goddess Asherah – in fact for the people of Israel and Judah there is an almost constant temptation to adopt the religious practices and to adopt the gods of their neighbours. The perennial question is this: Will the covenant people of Yahweh allow their hearts and minds and imaginations to be captured by Yahweh – or will they will they follow the many gods of their neighbours.

This conflict – and then this unfaithfulenss has reached into Gideon’s own community. This conflict, and then this unfaithfulness has reached into Gideon’s own family. In the light of this, God comes to Gideon with a test.

Gideon – let me see if you’re ready to follow.

Gideon – let me see just how committed you are.

Beginning in verse 25 we read: “That night the Lord said to Gideon, ‘Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Ba’al that belongs to your father, and cut down the sacred pole that is beside it. And build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, in proper order; then take your father’s bull and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the sacred pole that you shall cut down’.”

Gideon is asked here to do something that is profoundly counter-cultural. Gideon is asked to do something that his family and his community will find offensive. Gideon is asked to set himself completely against the grain of his social context. Not only is he asked to tear down the altar and the pole, but he’s told to use the wood of the Asherah pole as firewood when he offers the bull as a sacrifice and worship to God. If he does this, he puts himself at great risk.

Deep within our human development and identity – there is a desire to fit in.

Deep within our human development and identity  – there is a desire to be just like the people around us. This desire to conform comes to expression differently in different cultures – but there remains an impulse deep within us to conform to what others around us say or believe or do. It’s a powerful force in the dynamics of human relationships.

And Gideon is being asked to resist all of the pressure of conformity that is brought to bear in his family and his society. He is asked to refuse the gods, and the religious practices, and the moral framework that are embraced by his family and his neighbours. He is asked to swim against the stream. He is asked to walk a path of non-conformity.

Just to look at this from a very different perspective this morning – and to get a reminder of just how difficult that path of non-conformity can be, we’re going to stop for a moment to watch a video clip. Here’s something a little different.

Every psychological theory or experiment has some limitations – but it’s evident that those who live around us have tremendous influence on what we say and do. And very often, if those around us are of one mind – if they all hold a particular view – we will find it very difficult to speak or act differently. We will sometimes go along with what they say or do, even if we think they are wrong. There is something in us that doesn’t want to be different – there is something in us that doesn’t want to risk the disapproval of others – something in us that doesn’t want to rock the boat.

God is asking Gideon to break out of the pattern of conformity that he’s been in. He’s asking Gideon to display courage and independence and faithfulness. And Gideon knows what’s at stake here – he knows that his own relationship to the God of creation and covenant is at stake here. But he also knows that his own social and physical wellbeing might be at stake. So much so that he is in fact afraid to do what has been asked of him. But we read these words in the text:

“So Gideon took ten of his servants, and did as the Lord had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do it by day, he did it by night.”

It’s an interesting and important exercise to try and translate God’s test of Gideon into our own lives. In what sense might God be testing us – challenging us – to break out of patterns of conformity so that we might be faithful to the God of creation and covenant. But as we think about this question of conformity, we want to do it so not in terms of moral ideas about what God wants – but in terms of the kingdom embodied in Jesus Christ.

Let me simply offer a couple of suggestions about patterns of conformity in which we might be locked – patterns of conformity from which the Holy Spirit might equip us to break out of.

Within our families – our immediate family or even our extended families – it sometimes happens that we develop antagonisms or hostilities toward another part of the family, or perhaps toward someone outside of the family. There was something that happened – something that was said – something that was done. And it won’t be forgotten, or forgiven. These things are sometimes unspoken within families, they are sometimes very clearly spoken about.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of forgiveness – not just some abstract forgiveness that lets me get on with my life you get on with your life. It is a gospel of forgiveness that reaches out toward reconciliation. It is a gospel that finds those who were once alienated, reaching out to each other, forgiving each other, and continuing together in a life of love and service.

To break out of such a pattern of conformity in our family – to break out of that pattern of judgment and non-forgiveness – it may be a hard thing to do. Your own family might react, badly. What are you doing – you want to go and talk with them? What, now you’re on their side? Like Gideon, we may be afraid or uncertain. We will need to trust that God is present, that Jesus’ way of forgiveness is the truly human way. It may be hard – breaking patterns of conformity generally takes courage and strength – but the God of covenant and creation can be trusted. His Spirit is at work in us and around us – revealing and making real the way of the risen Jesus.

There are so many examples we could give this morning – but perhaps we can give a second example that fits with the basic theme of this sermon series. It’s possible that in our families, or even in our church family, that there will be shared assumptions about what it means to be a Christian or to be spiritually alive. And once again, there can be pretty strong impulse toward conformity – this is what faith looks like here.

To get more specific, in our family or in our church family, there may be unspoken assumptions or rules about how we talk about faith. And perhaps language that expresses intimacy or closeness with God is excluded in our context. We don’t talk about God like that. We don’t talk to God like that, so personally. And in this situation also, there will be that inevitable pressure of conformity, even if it’s unintentional – pressure not to be different – to express faith like everyone else. And again, it will take courage and it will take grace to reach out toward other possibilities. If we have some sense that maybe our faith could be articulated differently, it will take courage to reach out to a new language and new practices in our spiritual life.

Gideon was tested by God – he was challenged to find courage for a new pattern of worship and spiritual life – he was challenged to be faithful to the God of creation and covenant.

It seems to me that the language of testing and challenge can be a good way to imagine and live our faith before God. God is testing us – God is challenging us –

are you prepared to go deeper,

will you reach toward greater faithfulness,

will you embody the kingdom of Jesus Christ in new ways.

The purpose of this testing isn’t to set us up for failure – or to remind us of our limitations. The purpose of this testing is to draw us deeper into a relationship of trust with the God who calls us in Christ. The purpose of this testing is that we would become more fully alive through encounter with God. This kind of testing will always be spiritually difficult – but it will also always be a gift.

Thanks be to God, through Christ our Lord. Amen

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