Waiting is a pain. In a queue that is shuffling along, at the front door waiting for your children to GET THEIR SHOES ON, in your kitchen for the kettle to boil, the microwave to ping (ours no longer pings, so you have to WATCH and wait . . . which seems to make it take twice as long).
Waiting for the cheese to melt on your toast, the phone to ring, an email to ping, . . . when I was younger I even spent a lot of time waiting for myself to grow (I was really short for ages, being mistaken once for a brand new year 7 at secondary school when I was – in fact – as I pointed out indignantly to the year 8 girls that where cooing and ahhing “are you lost little boy”, “do you know your form tutors name yet”, – I AM IN YEAR 11!) . . . anyway, waiting is a pain.
God’s people in the Old Testament spent a significant amount of time waiting and a significant amount of this was their own fault . . . they were “stiff necked” (Exodus 32:9), “forgetful” (Psalm 78: 40-43), “stubborn” (Nehemiah 9:16), . . . . pretty much like me. I have the MASSIVE benefit of scripture (with the stories of people as both cautionary tales and examples of incredible courage and sacrifice AND the narrative of God made flesh, our saviour Jesus Christ), the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – who IS the Spirit of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:17) . . . and yet STILL I am too often a numpty.
There is a cracking story in Judges and I used it recently in a family service. Its the story of Gideon. I only take the first bit of is sudden and unexpected encounter with the Angel of the Lord, but it was enough to be left totally gobsmacked at what GOD WILL DO . . . you know, despite Gideon. It is what I need to believe and realise God will and is doing, despite ME. Anyway, lets head to Judges chapter 6, reading from verse 11,
The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press to keep it from the Midianites . . .
Ok, lets stop there (I won’t do this for every verse, but a couple of things . . .!) Firstly, the Abiezrites – the word / name Abiezer means “Father of Help” or “My Father IS help” . . . I love that.
Secondly, Here is Israel, in a right mess, and here is this little guy Gideon, “threshing wheat in a wine press” hiding in a trench trying to keep the wheat hidden while he threshed it . . . this is where “help” was going to come from? This scared little man? Yeah, RIGHT.
When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
Ok then, this statement – in the natural, normal “things that are said” kind of way is LAUGHABLE. mighty warrior . . . ?! That’s like me being called a “son of the King” or someone saying I am “seated with Christ in heavenly places” or, you will do “greater things than these” . . . you know, it’s just, laughable . . . . um.
But then, we have a response from Gideon – this little guy has a BIG mouth! He isn’t shaken by who it is who is speaking (he maybe hasn’t grasped that from this initial introduction, but still, he seems pretty MIFFED as he answers),
Pardon Me, my lord – but, IF the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? WHERE are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, “Did the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?” But now the Lord has ABANDONED us into the hand of Midian.
Forgetting and yet not forgetting seems to be what is going on here. On the one hand, Gideon has remembered the stories of old, those passed down, what the ancestors had told the people . . . so clearly, some remembering is going on among the people. Yet, recent history – the more in the “lifetime of those still living kind of stuff” isn’t mentioned. This is so often part of the problem, not just then but now.
We can look back with rose tinted spectacles to a happier time. Why isn’t it like this now? forgetting that maybe our own behaviour, attitude, choices have put us where we are.
Then we have the reply,
But God faced him directly: “Go in this strength that is yours. Save Israel from Midian. Haven’t I just sent you?
Wow, God faced him directly – faced him! God. The language has suddenly changed, this is no longer ambiguously a messenger from the Lord, or even “the angel of the Lord . . . ” this, this is GOD.
Go He says, in the strength that is yours – this is not vague encouragement or a motivational pep talk. God is simply and clearly saying, you have what you need – go. Which links with that final statement, “Haven’t I sent you?” The challenge of reading scripture, especially those bits that quote God is, well, it is so hard to get a handle on the tone employed – was God exasperated, surprised, mildly irritated?
You can stick the emphasis in different places and it changes the meaning . . . “Haven’t I sent you?” or “Haven’t I sent you?” or even, “Haven’t I sent you?”
So, we have God facing this little man, we have God saying “Go” and we have God having to repeat himself . . . is this enough for Gideon? Nope,
Gideon said to him, “Me, my master? How and with what could I ever save Israel? Look at me. My clan’s the weakest in Manasseh and I’m the runt of the litter.”
Ok then, I gave a wow above when the passage indicates this is God . . . now I am double wowing – Gideon is basically saying, you have got it wrong God . . . how could I be this mighty warrior?
Three words stand out to me – “look at me”. I have two incredible daughters and from time to time they shout these words to me, they usually mean “hey, Dad, look at me I am about to jump from this sofa to the other sofa and it is miles and oh by the way in mid air I am going to attempt a somersault and if I pull it off it is just going to be so incredibly AWESOME and If I don’t land it well it is probably going to result in a trip to casualty but hey, Dad, LOOK at ME!” This is not the look at me that Gideon is talking about, he does not believe he is cool, he does not think who he is and what he does is amazing or worth noting . . . he is nothing, his “how?” and “what with?” add to that.
Gideon is maybe like us when we are called to do something, maybe we are not literally facing God – but, we have that response when asked to step up, do something, make a difference . . . “look at me.” Meaning, “you have got to be kidding me – have you seen this” (and we point to everything we are – how we look, what we consider our worst qualities, we might even suggest other people . . . Lord, have you considered so and so, they would be great for this!)
That phrase “look at me” can also be one of total devastation, we cannot believe or hope for anything good to come from our own thinking or actions . . . “look at me.” It is supposed to finish the argument, God has moved to be face to face – and Gideon has responded with basically a challenge – “ok, you have turned you gaze on me . . . but, have you really seen me God, have you really looked here – look at me.”
Then, another reply,
God said to him, “I’ll be with you. Believe me, you’ll defeat Midian as one man.”
“I’ll be with you”. Those words should blow apart our reserve, our sense of personal defeat, our thoughts about ourselves and who we are. I wonder if there was a pause in the conversation?
After Gideon had said, “look at me”, did God do that – stare intensely, up and down, drinking in all that Gideon was – truly seeing him and looking at him as nobody had ever done before? Then he said “I’ll be with you.” It is as if He says to Gideon, “Yes, I can see you Gideon, yes I have looked at you – now, you – you look at ME.”
It is a reminder of the times in the new testament when Jesus told his disciples, “I will be with you.” when they doubted, when they were afraid, when all they could see was trouble, pain, loss. Those words echo down through the ages to you and me, in our circumstances, in our calling, in our disappointments and personal shame, in our brokenness – and we need to take hold of them and believe them – at the best and at the worst of times. “I’ll be with you.”
BUT, we are not done yet in this conversation . . .
Gideon said, “If you’re serious about this, do me a favor: Give me a sign to back up what you’re telling me. Don’t leave until I come back and bring you my gift.”
Gideon is coming round to this. As we sometimes do, but he is going to make sure – so, he has an “if”. Alright God, I will do this . . . “if”. Have you ever set something up for God in this way? You know He is calling you to do something, be something, change something . . . but, you will just check first.
We can do this through “praying for confirmation”, which is a good thing to do . . . but, sometimes, we can “if” what we are being called to do into the realms of totally fantastic impossibility . . . for example, “Lord, I will do this thing, if a golden eagle flies down into my back garden and taps on the window to get my attention, nods three times, does the floss with its wings, and then flies away.” or “Lord, if three purple buses go past in the next 11 seconds I will do this thing you have called me to.” (we live on a bus route, but we know our local buses are not purple) . . . you get my drift.
The other thing here that Gideon asks God to do is to wait. “Don’t go anywhere . . . I will be right back.” Gideon basically puts God on hold at this point. This is incredible, what is he thinking? But it gets more incredible,
“I’ll wait till you get back.”
God says ok, and then waits there. Starts waiting for Gideon to get back. I don’t know if he sat down, drew in the dirt, started counting the leaves on the tree and then thought (hang on, I made that tree . . . I know how many leaves are on it!) . . . what did God do? He waited. Stunning.
It seems incredible as we go through Gideon’s story – but, how many times have we effectively said the same to God? “wait a minute?” . . . “Can you just hang on?” I don’t know if you have ever thought about the prodigal son in that way – there have been loads of different reflections on the parable that Jesus tells in Luke chapter 15, but for me, this is the most gobsmacking bit of the whole story,
“When he was still a long way off, His father saw him.”
This would only have been possible, as his son was a long way off, if the Father – every day, all day, had been out looking, out waiting, out watching for his son to return. It is not about His faith that his son would return – it is the longing and love of the Father that put him there (probably standing on his roof, day after day watching the horizon and waiting). It reminds me of the words Paul uses in Romans 5, (as the Message puts it),
Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.
That is the incredible love of God. “While we were of no use whatever to him”, just like Gideon (who is all the things he thinks about himself in some ways . . . ) There is waiting in all these stories, Gideon – where God waits for this little man, the least of his tribe and the least in his family to return with a gift . . . not something God needs, but for Gideon it matters and God, in his infinite grace and goodness waits. In the parable of the lost son in Luke 15, the love of the Father compels him to wait, waiting is key . . . and when he sees the son, the waiting is over! But he has waited for that moment. For us, for all humanity – Paul says “Christ arrives right on time” bringing good news and salvation. To arrive at the right time, there has been waiting – God’s timing, waiting to bring in his very self made flesh, the incarnation of God, coming after 400 years of waiting . . . between the Old Testament and the New Testament . . . we can look at that and think, man, how long God’s people had to wait . . . but, it wasn’t them who were waiting. It was God. So that the Christ could come at just the right time.
He is waiting still – this is the gratuitous bit of God’s grace, his amazing grace filled patience. There is waiting until Jesus returns, we have received the Holy Spirit – we are not to wait or tarry or hang about, we are to be urgent and diligent and constant in prayer and action, seeking to bring in God’s kingdom wherever and whenever we can . . . yes, even us, even with our “look at me” stuff and our “I’m no ready” stuff and our “but Lord, I haven’t seen a purple bus yet.”
He is with us, even to the end of the age. The Holy Spirit fills us and empowers us AND because of God’s outrageous grace and while He is waiting to return – we need to get on with all that God has given us to do.
Can we hear him saying those words to us today,
“Haven’t I sent you?” (think about what you have been called to do).
“I will be with you.” (think about who is with you as you are sent).
Maybe, we need to find a childlike faith and trust – the kind my daughters stun me with on a regular basis. God sees us totally when we think or say, “look at me.” and, in his outrageous gracious patience – He is waiting for us to step in to all that He has for us through Christ Jesus.