In between various other kinds of work all week, I’ve scrolled past a vast number of hot takes about Joe Rogan, without really having the time to click on any of them, and then the piece by Megan Basham about Francis Collins and Ed Stetzer and all those people. I would quote from it, but it’s buried in all my tabs and I can’t go searching about on this cold frigid morning, or I’ll never get back here.
What I liked so much—and do like about everything online right now—is that fear, in every time and place and circumstance, is the basic ingredient of being human. There are other elements, of course, like love and trying to find enough to eat of the right thing, but fear is right up there. And, lest anyone think the fears of this moment are “unprecedented,” one need only saunter over the Bible to see that that’s not true. There are always pressing and terrible storms and tempests and troubles that threaten to destroy the happy peace we know is just over the horizon. We aren’t in some sort of new time where the dilemmas we are facing have never been faced before.
It’s important to acknowledge this—that fear is a thing—because the other ingredient of being human is that fear is a good and useful tool to get people to do what you want. I’ve started calling this “catastrophizing” in my own head, as I’ve tried not to do it to other people all week. It’s where you yourself are anxious and afraid, and you want other people also to be afraid, not only for the companionship and comfort of a common fear, but because one way to cope with dread and terror is to do something about it. Or rather, to get someone else to do something that relieves your own distress. But to motivate someone who doesn’t seem like they are afraid, you have to point out the shortness of the hour, and the strength of the enemy. If you don’t do something Right Now, you have to say, every bad thing will happen! Do you want people to die? Do you want to die!? Then hop to it!
This is not an irrational thing to do, for the most part, because time does press on. It is a limited commodity. And, there are so many terrors out there. But the companionship of fear, the catastrophizing, as I said, that’s not new. And, truly, when you get around to the question of God, fear is a thing to be faced. But, and really, every Christian knows this to one degree or another, God reorients and intensifies our fear, not so that it will produce panicked and terrified action, but so that it will produce rest.
All that to say, the lections are so good this morning, beginning with that notorious and comforting coward, Gideon, who is—and this is my favorite bit—beating out his wheat in a winepress “to hide it from the Midianites.” While he’s doing that, “the angel of the LORD,” who later is just called “The LORD” comes to him and by way of getting his attention, and this is also brilliant, calls out: “O mighty man of valor.”
Just as an aside, I have been told by some that there is no place for sarcasm in the Christian life. In the age of having the proper tone, there is no place for the cutting remark, for the sort of humor that points out the absurdity of the situation, for the mot juste that cuts through hypocrisy and hubris. If that’s true, this angel of the LORD should probably find some other term of address. While some might try to say that he is “aspirational” in his call of Gideon, I think he’s being funny—at the expense of Gideon.
But Gideon doesn’t have time to notice the nuances of divine rhetoric and, in the time-tested manner of most human creatures confronted by their God, sets out to place blame where blame is due. This might also be called “arguing”:
Please, my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
Of course, heretofore, the biblical text has made it clear that the LORD isn’t the one who has done any forsaking, it has been the people whom God did bring up out of Egypt who were so eager to make peace with every other god, who wanted all the good things of this life without having to grapple with the Being who brought it forth by the power of his Word. That’s always the bit that gets lost. Why would God let this happen? we wail, rushing always into the arms of false and pathetic gods and all the hubristic dreams that go along with their worship. When we are then unhappy and miserable, we figure it is God who is to blame, and not we ourselves. Still, God comes to save his people, even though they don’t deserve it, but still with the sarcasm:
And the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?”
Gideon, sensible creature, is not having any of it:
And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”
I mean, having a small family shouldn’t necessarily keep one from valorous action. But maybe Gideon is a very short person, and failed in all the classes at school that were meant to build strength and courage. Certainly I did. Moreover, this is so often my question when I discover that God wants me to do something appalling, like talk to a stranger, or leave my house in ten below weather, or be wholeheartedly obedient to the commands of scripture. Please, Lord, I’m pretty sure what you’re asking of me is impossible because I am weak. This is the first time Gideon says anything sensible—Please, I Can’t.
Of course you can’t. Incidentally, it’s the thing I wish a lot of people would say when they do feel anxious. People in the upper echelons of power, and people in the dust of the earth. When confronted with some command or task or problem that is so huge, so unsolvable, so grievous, the temptation, as we have noted, is to spread fear in every direction through the compression of time together with instructions—Do this! Quick! The Midianites are coming! Whereas what one ought to do is bow one’s head in prayer and simply say, “Please, Lord, how can I?”
And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”
I mean, it should be enough when God says, “I will be with you.” That’s when you sit down in relief and happy trust and eat a sensible breakfast of fresh fish and a warm baguette and probably some butter. God is in charge. God knows about the Midianites. God knows about your loneliness and anxiety. God knows about all the wickedness of everyone. God will be with you. But you are probably like Gideon, and so that is probably not enough for you:
And he said to him, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you.”
This, you probably remember, is the first of many “signs” that Gideon is going to require, the more famous of which involves a fleece a lot of morning dew. We can’t get that far at this early hour, or we will be late for church. The LORD promises to stay until Gideon gets back:
So Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour. The meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the terebinth and presented them. And the angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them.” And he did so. 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 his sight. Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.” Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and called it, The Lord Is Peace. To this day it still stands at Ophrah, which belongs to the Abiezrites.
And in this way, we discover that the Angel of the LORD was really the LORD himself, who came personally to Gideon, to commission and strengthen him for the task ahead. Gideon will go on fussing, and God will go on making it abundantly clear that it isn’t Gideon who is doing any of the saving of Israel. As one untimely born, he is not the person who accomplishes the works of God, which are so far outside of human ability that it should be clear that it is God who raises the dead, who tramples down death (I mean, I’m wandering over to the epistle here), who, by his grace, empowers you to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near. The companionship is of Jesus himself (see for yourself in the gospel) who comes to you in the midst of your frustration and trouble, your wakeful failures, whatever it is, and provides what you need to get through the day. Fish, perhaps, or an absence of terror. He does it by displaying his own divine and creative power, over against your paltry and pathetic attempts to fix the universe. When you see who he is, you are meant to be afraid, to fall down on your face and admit that you are not God. When you do that, you aren’t losing anything, other than the control you didn’t have anyway, you are radically trusting the One who made you and who takes care of you.
So, when important people come along to tell you that you must panic or everyone will die, what you might do instead is sit down at your table—if you have one—spread your weak hands out before the Lord, who is there with you, and say, “I can’t even. Please help me.” And the Lord will bring the companionable peace of his own righteousness to that very hour, to strengthen you for whatever impossible task he has for you. And he himself will do it. And you will, in fear and wonder, be relieved. See you in church!