First Congregational Church
May 1, 2015
Sixth Sunday after Easter
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In honor of spring, why is the letter A like a flower? A: A bee (B) comes after it! What do you get when you pour hot water down a rabbit hole? A: A hot cross bunny. What does the Easter Rabbit get for making a basket? A: Two points just like everybody! Four high school boys afflicted with spring fever skipped morning classes. After lunch they reported to the teacher that they had a flat tire. Much to their relief she smiled and said, "Well, you missed a test today so take seats apart from one another and take out a piece of paper." Still smiling, she waited for them to sit down. Then she said: "First Question: Which tire was flat?”
The other day, I had a fortune cookie. So I opened the message, and at first scan, I thought it read, “The strengths of your character will bring you senility.” Comprehending that this was bordering on one of my new “fears,” after a re-read, I discovered that the word was “serenity.” The strengths of your character will bring you serenity.
I’ve been working on a character trait I’m trying to strengthen - seeking to understand rather than assume. So the other day I asked someone close to my age if they knew what it meant to fleece God. When the person said no, I “understood” that I would need to “assume” that not everyone knows this adage.
My guess is that most of the time when we think about Moses leading all those people across the desert to the land of Canaan, we don’t think much beyond that, because Moses’ people were the “chosen ones,” and God promised that land to the Hebrew people. I’m guessing that we rarely think about the Canaanite people who lived there, who called that land home and were simply trying to feed families and live life.
Over the course of time, there were skirmishes between the Hebrew and Canaanite people, and one of those times happened when a woman - mind you - a prophet/judge named Deborah lead a counterattack against the Canaanites. This was somewhere in the vicinity of the 12th century BC - or CE, which is the new term - Christian Era - for that time around Jesus’ birth. And there was peace for 40 years.
Then there were seven years of war with the Canaanites again and a new prophet/judge was ruling over the people, a guy named Gideon - who had personal trust issues. Gideon - despite direct dialogue with God, so the Bible tells us - couldn’t believe that God would have Gideon lead another counterattack against the Canaanites.
So Gideon told God - didn’t ask - but told God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised - then just to make sure, I’ll place a wool fleece on the threshing floor out in the barn. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that’s what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.
But remember, Gideon had this issue about trust , so he said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” 40 That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. (Judges 6:36-40) You can read about the rest of that story in the book of Judges, chapter 7. The only problem with that whole ordeal is that back in the Hebrew book of law - Deuteronomy, long before the time of the judges, it says explicitly that we humans are not to “test” God. If God says something, then we should do it, trusting that it will work as God has planned.
Except we get to this morning’s scripture passage. It’s the continuation of last week’s passage that saw Jesus ascending back into heaven. Now that he was gone, the work of spreading word about Christ was left to the apostles - the teachers of students about the One Teacher.
As Judy makes her way front, I’ll fill in a little detail that may catch some ears. Near the beginning of the passage, it mentions a Sabbath day’s walk. That was the distance of about 5/8’s of a mile - as far as one could walk on a Sabbath before the walk became work - which is still an effective rule for Orthodox Jewish peoples.
Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.”
(With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akelda’ma, that is, Field of Blood.)
“For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms: “‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, “‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”
So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsab’bas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.
Thank you, Judy. Aside from the rather graphic end of Judas’ life, this passage is also interesting because it describes the work of the apostles as being done by both men and women. In fact, throughout the book of Acts, there are numerous mentions of women working without differentiation from men in spreading the gospel.
But the part that stuck in my craw at first reading was the part near the end of the passage. I get picking two people and having a vote. According to the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry website, “Casting lots was a method used by the Jews of the Old Testament and by the Christian disciples prior to Pentecost to determine the will of God. Lots could be sticks with markings, stones with symbols, etc., that were thrown into a small area and then the result was interpreted.”
So in other words, if the fleece was wet, they would choose Barsabbas and if it was dry they would choose Matthias. But didn’t it say way back in Deuteronomy not to “test” or fleece God as we say these days? Couldn’t they have had two baskets and each voter would add their stick or stone to the basket representing their choice of replacement? Better yet, they could have done it the proper way - with a baseball bat and hand over fisting it until the winner was the one who got the knob of the bat.
Knowing what God wants is important, and I think deep down, most all of us really want to do what is right and important. But shooting dice for the kind of toothpaste we should buy just doesn’t seem right.
If they hadn’t prayed and simply voted, then that would make sense - at least to me. But to pray that God would make God’s choice through an interpretation of a random roll of the dice seems pretty flimsy. But I/we view this whole event through 21st century eyes.
And, too, if we are asking God to guide us, then we have to finish the request by trusting that God will see us to the end. Much as we’d like it to be different, we are not God and don’t - can’t - know everything. And we are called to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. (Mt 22:36-40). Still, there are times when we really need an answer - or think we do.
Richard Jensen from workingpreacher.org reminds us that “We can pray and pray for God's specific will to be revealed to us, but few of us will have our prayers answered. So, as Martin Luther advised, we will have to choose boldly our path. We don't often know for certain which is the right path. We choose, knowing that God's forgiving love will sustain us in the midst of life’s many decisions.”
In Romans (8:28) God tell us that, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God..." God is at work in the midst of our decisions - which doesn’t give us permission to be willy-nilly about decisions in our lives.
In a sense, this passage from Romans tells us that God is always working to make the best out of our decisions. Our bad decisions do not separate us from God. As people claimed by Jesus Christ and committed to Jesus Christ, we choose, we decide, and we act.
We act in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. So do we need to fleece God in making decisions? Absolutely not. Do we need to use outside opinions and our best judgement, and our minds to make decisions? You bettcha. Do we need to pray about our decisions? Absolutely! So let us do just that.
Gracious God, you know - even more than we - how many decisions face us each day. And you know, too, how much we want to do what is right and what you want us to do. So you also know that sometimes we get stuck in decisions. Help us know, with great depth, the answers to the questions that are really important. And help us to make wise decisions based on the best information we have at the moment, even when those decisions come by wild ways. Thank you, for those times when you’ve lead us and we were totally unaware. And thank you for the strength, courage and patience of being able to carry through when the decisions are hard. We are grateful that you have given us all that we need in the world of decisions in our hearts and in our minds. Help us to use them - all of them - for your glory. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.