Monday, 7 November 2011

Evensong sermon: Reluctant disciples

3rd Sunday before Advent 11

“You did not choose me but I chose you,” said Jesus in the Gospel of John. He’s speaking to his disciples on the night before he is killed. He says this in the context of some pretty gloomy predictions about his own future – laying down one’s life features prominently. It is clear to him, and surely must be to the disciples too, that the opposition against him is mounting, and that there can only be trouble ahead. So being chosen as those who will take his message out into the world probably doesn’t feel like a huge privilege. These disciples are not likely to be feeling they have won the lottery – but Jesus is clear that they not only will do this, but that God will equip and strengthen them to do so, and the truth was that the early Christians made extraordinary sacrifices and showed extreme courage in sticking to their message in the face of persecution. Somehow they recognised the truth of Jesus words – you did not choose me, but I chose you. This was what they were born for, despite its challenges, and they couldn’t just walk away from it. I am sure they were sometimes frightened and reluctant, but they answered the call.

Gideon, whose story we heard in the Old Testament would have recognised their feelings. He was a man who had also been called and couldn’t quite believe it. In fact he has to be one of the most ambivalent servants of God in the Bible. He’s an engagingly flawed, person – not a stereotypical storybook hero – someone like us, or like those first disciples, in other words, and it seems to me that his story can still speak to those of us who feel like reluctant disciples today.

Gideon is an unlikely hero from the start. His story is set in the time of the Judges, not long after the Israelites have entered the Promised Land after their wandering in the wilderness. At this point Israel had no kings – it was ruled over by a combination of military leaders like Joshua and Samson and wise men and women, like Samuel and Deborah. At the time the story starts though, Israel seems to be leaderless and in trouble. An enemy tribe, the Midianites, are attacking repeatedly, destroying the Israelite crops in order to drive them out of the land, and then moving in with their own livestock. Many of the population are deserting their farms and taking refuge in caves and mountain strongholds. There seems to be no one with the skill and courage to lead Israel, no hero to call on, and what is still a fledgling nation looks as if it could be snuffed out before it really gets established. The people cry out to God, who they have been neglecting, says the story. And God acts. “Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites.” The storyteller makes it clear – Gideon is not a man who is itching to fight. Nothing could be further from his mind.  All he wants to do is hide what he has, and lie low, hoping the Midianites won’t notice him or his wheat. So you can imagine how he feels when an angel shows up. The angel greets him by announcing: “The Lord is with you, Mighty warrior.” I can just imagine Gideon looking around wondering who he is talking to – “mighty warrior”? It doesn’t sound like him.

He tries a diversionary question. “But sir, if the Lord is with us (which is not quite what the angel said ) why then has all this happened to us?” Gideon reminds the angel of how God rescued them from Egypt, which the angel probably knows already…”but now God has deserted us,” says Gideon. There’s no point crying over spilt milk, says Gideon. We’ve just got to be pragmatic about it all.

The angel doesn’t seem to be listening though. Here’s his reply. “Go in this might of yours, and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian: I hereby commission you.”

Gideon answers politely, though one senses it’s through gritted teeth. “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family…” “But I will be with you” says God to him… and that is the key.

Gideon’s still not convinced. He’s still looking for a loophole. He sets God some tests, which is a bit cheeky of him. First he lays a fleece on the ground and asks God to make the fleece wet, but the ground dry. When God does that, he asks for it to happen the other way round. Patiently, God does that too. In the end Gideon gives in and agrees to lead the people of Israel against the Midianites. His countrymen flock to him, apparently keen to follow his lead.

And that is where the passage we heard comes in. Gideon now has a huge army, but it will be no good if he ends up believing that they will win the battle for him, or that they are doing this in their own strength. This isn’t about military might, it is about trust in God, about looking to God in times of trouble. In the passage we heard tonight God whittles his army down to a bare minimum. He tells Gideon to send home anyone who is afraid, which turns out to be slightly over half of them. Then he sends home any who, asked to drink from the river put their heads down to it to lap like dogs – no good soldier would do this- how will you see danger coming if you do this. Finally Gideon has just three hundred …and yet, the mission is successful.

We are not called to deliver Israel from the Midianites, nor are we likely to be called, like the early Christians to face death for our faith. But I am sure we can all identify with both Gideon and the first disciples feelings in these situations. We are all sometimes faced with situations where we know we are in over our heads, that more is being asked of us than we can possibly give. That may come in the face of illness or personal setbacks, of family trouble or trouble at work, or simply the cares and worries of life. “I can’t do this,” we say to ourselves, and we may well be right. Gideon was quite right at the beginning to look askance when the angel called him a mighty warrior. Of course he wasn’t a mighty warrior, he was a rather terrified, farmhand with not an ounce of strategic sense or courage. But he was in the hands of a mighty God, who was capable of bringing out of Gideon strength he did not know he possessed. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” says St Paul.  (Phil. 4.13) It’s not about God miraculously delivering us from trouble, but about God being with us in the midst of it. That is seen most clearly in Jesus himself, who faces death for us and with us, laying down his own life for those he loves. Jesus does not ask more of us than he asks of himself.

And the comforting thing about Gideon’s story, if we are feeling daunted, is that the God we meet in it is endlessly patient. He knows that in the end someone must confront the Midianites. Nothing will be gained by running to the hills and hiding – you can’t hide forever.  But God understands that Gideon is scared, and that is all right. God understands that he needs the constant reassurance of God’s presence, and that is all right too. The same is true for us as we face our own Midianite hordes whatever or whoever they may be. God does not expect us to cope alone, but comes to us where we are and stays with us to get us through.

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