Union University Church
Sept 22, 2019
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In 1200 BCE, 1200 years before the birth of Christ, the people of Israel lived unsteadily in the Promised Land. They had entered under the leadership of Joshua, and eventually the twelve tribes had each settled in different areas of Canaan — modern day Israel — where they mingled with the Canaanites and constantly battled the threat of invaders on their borders, mostly a variety of ‘ites’ — the Hittites, the Moabites, the Amalekites. Even though the Israelites were spread out across the land, they continued to think of themselves as one people, members of the twelve tribes of Israel, but their organization was a loose one, based more on a shared ethnic and religious identity than a national one. Saul wouldn’t unite Israel under his rule for another hundred years, and so until there was a king to lead them, in times of crisis God would choose a temporary leader to gather the people and ride against the enemy and when that person had accomplished the task, he or she would return to their farming, or their vineyard, or their village to resume their old life, their brief moment of fame recorded for posterity in the the book of Judges.
In Judges, Chapter 6, it is Gideon’s turn to step into the limelight. Every year for the past seven years the Midianites have ridden up from the deserts to the southeast just as the Israelites were gathering their harvest and stolen the fruits of the people’s labor, slaughtered their sheep and goats, and carried off their grain on fierce looking camels. It was the camels more than anything that frightened the Israelites. For a man on foot with only a spear or sword to stand unwavering before a warrior mounted on a charging beast twice a man’s height required a brave heart indeed, yet camels or no, it was clear after seven years of raids and devastation that something needed to be done; and so the Lord called Gideon to lead the Israelites in battle against the Midianite raiders. Gideon gathered men from four different tribes of Israel, 32,000 in number, and sounding the trumpet before them led them to Jezreel where the Midianites were spread out in camps throughout the valley. Gideon stood on a hill overlooking the valley filled with the enemy, listening to the clanking of swords and the braying of camels, and it is no wonder that he turned away for a moment to pray, “Lord, if you really want me to go to battle, give me a sign.”
Give me a sign, Lord. Gideon faced an uncertain future and he wanted the assurance of a sign that he was making the right choice, that things would turn out okay, that God was with him in this enterprise. We can understand Gideon’s desire because he was not the first to seek a sign from God, nor would he be the last. When the people followed Moses into the wilderness, they asked for signs that this crazy exodus was really God’s idea and not just Moses’ megalomania. When the crowd pressed around Jesus trying to decide whether to trust his radical teaching, they demanded that he prove himself with signs. And how often do we, when facing a difficult decision or an uncertain future, look for signs that will indicate the direction God wants us to take or assure us that our decision has the backing of divine desire?
At the same time, we are uneasy about the use of signs as a means of divine communication because it smacks of tea leaves and oracles, and doesn’t align itself well with our more scientific world view. What do we do with this whole issue of signs?
When I was in junior high, I was trying to decide whether to attend a weekend youth retreat hosted by my church. This doesn’t sound like a major decision but as a very shy 12 year old, the thought of two whole days with strangers was very intimidating and yet at the same time, the planned activities sounded like a lot of fun and I knew it would give me the opportunity to make new friends. Torn between going or staying home, I decided to turn my struggle over to God. I prayed, “God, if you think I should go, send me a sign;” and then just to make sure we would be clear, I specified the sign I would be looking for: “If you think I should go, God,” I prayed, “make it snow tomorrow.” The next morning, as soon as I woke up, I looked out my window to find out God’s decision, and I saw a few pitiful flakes drifting down, the kind of snowflakes you get on a bleak November morning before the sun warms the day, flakes you have to squint to even see. I can still remember staring out my window debating whether a dozen anorexic flakes counted as snow, and why, if this was indeed the sought after sign, God couldn’t have managed a more substantial snowfall to clear up my doubts. Perhaps God, I thought, didn’t want to change major weather patterns just to satisfy my need for a sign. Maybe God had chosen this more subtle method of communication as a way of giving me a private sign without causing a premature freeze or hazardous driving. Or maybe, I thought uncomfortably, God was hesitant to manipulate the weather or bend the laws of physics over something as silly as a youth retreat. Maybe God reserved signs for more important matters like whether to go to battle against hordes of Midianites.
I ended up going on that retreat, not because I decided God wanted me to but because my parents made me go, and at age 12, parents have a lot more pull than God, but I can still remember my emotional distress over the decision and the mixed results of my attempt to turn over the responsibility for that decision to God. I am sure that many of you can relate similar experiences when you asked for signs from God but then wondered whether the “sign” you thought you might have received was really a communication from God or just a coincidence of circumstance. Even Gideon was unsure about the trustworthiness of signs. He said, “God, if you want me to go to battle, make this fleece wet with dew and the ground around it dry.” When it was, Gideon still hesitated: what if he went to war and hundreds of men died because he interpreted a mere coincidence of events as a sign from God? So he double-checked the communication: “This time God, make the ground wet and the fleece dry.”
The Bible tells us that Gideon’s sign from God was so clear that he could not ignore it, but most of the time, we pray for a sign and see tiny specks of snow and wonder if that is God talking to us or mere coincidence. Does God speak to us in signs?
In the television series, “Friends,” one of the characters, Phoebe Buffay, was abandoned as a child by her father and in one episode, when she discovers that her father is not only alive but living within a day’s drive, she debates whether to seek him out. As the group of friends share supper together, Phoebe tells the others, “I keep getting signs telling me to go see my father. Like when I was walking over here and I passed a buffet… which is my father’s last name [Buffay]. And they were serving franks which is his first name minus the s at the end. And there was a rotisserie with spinning chicken… and I chickened out the last time when I tried to meet him. So I mean coincidences? I don’t think so.”
As the group pauses to consider this, one says, “Who wants the last hamburger?” at which point Phoebe throws up her hands and says, “Oh, alright, that’s it, now I have to go see him!”
“Why?” they ask in confusion. Phoebe replies, “Hamburger? McDonald’s? Old MacDonald had a farm? My dad is a pharm…acist?” and rolls her eyes as if any doofus would see this as an obvious sign from God.
What actually is obvious is that Phoebe’s claim to be looking for a sign to help her decide whether to see her father is clearly in fact a desire to find divine confirmation of a plan she has already decided to carry out.
The story tells us that Gideon seeks a sign from God to help him decide whether to go to battle with the Midianites, but he seeks that sign only after he has already assembled 32,000 warriors from among the tribes of Israel. As he is putzing around checking fleece for moisture, there are 32,000 Israelite men armed and ready to fight waiting for him. Is he really going to go outside and say to them, “Oh, never mind. Sorry I made you leave your farms and your families and marched you all this way to Jezreel but the fleece is dry so we’re calling it off?” I don’t doubt that Gideon was nervous about the coming battle and wanted some divine reassurance, but I also suspect that he knew in his heart that the Midianites had to go, and that he was the one who had to lead his people in this crisis. He didn’t really need a sign from God because he already knew in his heart what God wanted from him. The fleece was just a way of confirming what was already in him.
That long ago day when I was 12, when I sought a sign from God, I knew already that my parents wanted me to go. I had sought a sign simply to make me feel better about what I knew was coming, hoping that divine confirmation would bolster my flagging spirit. If God did have a sign for me that day, it was probably that any 12 year old who would spend so much time dissecting the theological implications of signs was destined for ministry.
The conclusion to my theological reflections that day and since, is that I don’t believe that God changes the laws of physics or manipulates the weather in order to tell us what God desires for us because God has already told us all we need to know. God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses telling us that these are the words that should shape our lives. The prophets set forth God’s desires for us: “What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” And Jesus demonstrated God’s will in his love for the people, in his dedication to those in need, and his willingness to go all the way to the cross for our salvation. “Love God and love your neighbor,” he said. “There are no commandments greater than these.”
When we confront a difficult decision, and ask God to send us a sign, what we are in fact doing is entering intentionally into a mode of deep listening. When we say we are looking for signs, what we are really doing is turning our minds earnestly to all that we know about God’s desires for us and all that we have learned about the way God wants us to act in the world. As we watch for external signs, we are at the same time internally reviewing the biblical stories of courage and sacrifice. We are envisioning Christ’s cross in our minds. We are tuning our attention to the urgings of our hearts, and as we listen intently to all of that and focus ourselves entirely on the question of God’s will for us, suddenly everything will seem to be talking to us. That conversation that would have had no meaning for us yesterday and that was completely unnoticed or quickly forgotten, today would trigger deeper introspection. Chance words, fleeting sights, coincidental events stir associations that would not have been there for us before because now they reinforce feelings that we have begun to recognize as being present in us. God has already planted God’s will for us within our hearts, and signs are just the things that catch our attention because they confirm what we already know to be there. I mean, think about it, if you pray, “God, send me a sign to tell me if I should help my neighbor in their need,” isn’t the fact that you are praying that prayer a sign that God has already called you? Do you really need fleece?
Gideon didn’t need signs. He had already heard the cries of his people oppressed by the terrorism of the Midianites. He had already gathered the tribes to him. He had already come to the mountaintop to overlook the valley where the battle would be fought. He knew he was called. The fleece was just a last minute delaying tactic while he gathered the courage to do what he knew he was there to do.
When God needs you, God doesn’t require snowflakes, fleece, or any other kind of supernatural sign to tell you what it is that God want of you. God has already given you that call in the stories of scripture, in the commands of Christ, in the words of worship, in the assurances of faithful community, and in the promptings of your heart. Seeking signs is usually just a delaying tactic while we gather the courage to do what we already know God wants us to do.
So put away the fleece and just do it.