I Am Sending You (Judges 6:11-24)

The Messenger of the Lord came and sat under the oak tree in Ophrah that belonged to Joash from Abiezer’s family. Joash’s son Gideon was beating out wheat in a winepress to hide it from the Midianites. The Messenger of the Lord appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you, brave man.”

Gideon responded, “Excuse me, sir! But if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all the miracles our ancestors have told us about? Didn’t they say, ‘The Lord brought us out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and has handed us over to Midian.”

The Lord turned to him and said, “You will rescue Israel from Midian with the strength you have. I am sending you.”

Gideon said to him, “Excuse me, sir! How can I rescue Israel? Look at my whole family. It’s the weakest one in Manasseh. And me? I’m the least important member of my family.”

The Lord replied, “I will be with you. You will defeat Midian as if it were only one man.”

Gideon said to him, “If you find me acceptable, give me a sign that it is really you speaking to me. Don’t leave until I come back. I want to bring my gift and set it in front of you.”

“I will stay until you come back,” he said.

Then Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened bread made with 18 quarts of flour. He put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot. Then he went out and presented them to the Messenger of the Lord under the oak tree.

The Messenger of the Lord told him, “Take the meat and the unleavened bread, put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them.” Gideon did so. Then the Messenger of the Lord touched the meat and the bread with the tip of the staff that was in his hand. Fire flared up from the rock and burned the meat and the bread. Then the Messenger of the Lord disappeared. That’s when Gideon realized that this had been the Messenger of the Lord. So he said, “Lord God! I have seen the Messenger of the Lord face to face.”

The Lord said to him, “Calm down! Don’t be afraid. You will not die.” So Gideon built an altar there to the Lord. He called it The Lord Calms. To this day it is still in Ophrah, which belongs to Abiezer’s family. (God’s Word Translation)

Today’s story is familiar in more ways than one. It’s a typical interaction between the Lord and the individual. And it’s also the typical way people respond to God, even now in our contemporary world.

Notice how the interaction between the Lord and Gideon unfolds:

The message: The Lord is with you. You are brave.

The pushback: It doesn’t look like the Lord is with our people (and a purposeful ignoring of the bravery thing).

The message: The Lord is sending you (and a purposeful ignoring of the pushback).

The pushback: I’m too weak for that.

The message: The Lord is with you. You got this.

The pushback: It can’t be me. Give me sign.

The message: I will stay. I am with you.

The pushback: I am not acceptable. Here’s an offering.

The message: Chill, dude. You’re wound way too tight. I am with you. You got this.

The acceptance of the message: Here’s an altar to remind me that God is here, and God calms my fear.

Sound familiar? How many times have you had a similar sort of interaction with the Lord?

The message: “Don’t be afraid. The Lord is with you. You have everything you need.” (assurance and reassurance)

The pushback: “Huh!? If I had everything I need, why are my circumstances so hard? Every time I turn around, there’s another adversity staring me in the face!” (ignoring the presence of God)

The message: “Go and make disciples. Love God. Love your neighbor.” (ignoring the bunny trail)

The pushback: “I’m the least gifted person in the world to be doing that sort of ministry.” (goes off point)

The message: “I am with you always until the end of time.” (stays on point)

The pushback: “It can’t be me. Give me a sign.” (i.e. I can’t accept myself, so there’s no way that you do!)

The message: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” (a demonstration of the presence)

The pushback: “I’m not the acceptable person for this… Here, I’ll put something in the offering plate.” (having a hard time wrapping head and heart around God’s grace)

The message: “You are anxious and upset about a great many things. I am with you. You got this.” (still remains on point)

The acceptance of the message: “Here I am, Lord, a living sacrifice.” (now on the same page with the Lord)

Christian ministry is not the absence of doubt or fear; it is doing what the Lord calls us to do, despite the surrounding circumstances.

We are never promised anywhere in Holy Scripture that life will be a bowl of cherries, that somehow circumstances will always be smooth. Instead, we are continually reminded of the promise that God is with us.

It’s the presence of the Lord that makes all the difference. Our abilities, or lack thereof, have nothing to do with the equation. We are already in the image and likeness of God, created with the inner resources to do the will of God.

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have everything I need. (Psalm 23:1, GNT)

We have everything we need to live a life that pleases God. It was all given to us by God’s own power. (2 Peter 1:3, CEV)

You already have God’s acceptance; you don’t need to earn it.

“I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis. Those who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to.” (Acts 10:34-35, GNT)

When God promised Abraham and his descendants that the world would belong to him, he did so, not because Abraham obeyed the Law, but because he believed and was accepted as righteous by God. (Romans 4:13, GNT)

Honor God by accepting each other, as Christ has accepted you. (Romans 15:7, CEV)

There’s a lot we don’t know. Yet, what we do know is that God is with us and God has accepted us. And that’s all we need to hang our hat on.

Breakfast In the Liminal Space

Welcome, friends! John 21:1-19 is a story of Jesus and the disciples in the six weeks between Christ’s resurrection and ascension. It’s an awkward time for the disciples, as they try and come to grips with a new reality in which all the old rules have changed. Click the videos below and let’s help each other move into a new reality….

Pastor Tim Ehrhardt, John 21:1-19

Before us it is blessed, behind us it is blessed,
below us it is blessed, above us it is blessed,
around us it is blessed as we set out with Christ.
Our speech is blessed as we set out for God.
With beauty before us, with beauty behind us,
with beauty below us, with beauty above us,
with beauty around us, we set out for a holy place indeed. Amen. –A traditional Navajo blessing

John 21:1-19 – Breakfast in the Liminal Space

Miraculous Draught of Fishes by John Reilly, 1978

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So, they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” So, Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again, Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (New International Version)

The Miraculous Catch of Fish by Belgian artist Erik Tanghe

Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, it takes a bit of time to wrap both our heads and our hearts around a new reality. After all, if you’ve been used to operating a particular way for a long time, it can be hard to come around to embracing something different – even if that change is really good.

Good ol’ Peter, bless his heart, you’ve got to love him. The Lord Jesus is risen from death and he, along with some of the other disciple fishermen, are not quite up to speed on resurrection. Christ is alive, the disciples have already seen him on two separate occasions, yet they seem like a dog who has chased a rabbit and now don’t know what to do with it once they’ve surprisingly gotten it cornered.

So, Peter goes fishing. Yep, when all else seems upside-down and topsy-turvy, just go fishing. The problem is: Peter and the boys are going back to a life that doesn’t exist anymore. And that’s pretty much what we all tend to do when we are stuck in a liminal space (to be at the threshold of something new, but not quite there yet) caught in a situation of uncertainty without much of a clue what to do. We simply go back to what we’ve always done and hope we catch some fish.

But we can’t catch fish. It isn’t the same anymore. There’s a new reality. The resurrection of Jesus has completely upended the world. There is no going back to any sort of pre-resurrection days. All has changed. I’m not sure if the disciples believed they were going to catch any fish, or not. Seems they just had to go do something familiar.

Unbeknown to them, the rules changed. The old way of fishing won’t work, anymore. While they’re off trying to live from the familiar confines of the old life, Jesus shows up on shore. The disciples don’t realize its him. So, they don’t anticipate that when Jesus calls out and encourages them that they’ll end up with a nice haul of fish.

While the old life yields nothing, the new life with Christ brings abundance, blessing, and fellowship. After the big catch of fish, here are the disciples now eating breakfast with the King of Kings, yet they’re still scratching their heads. What’s going on? Who is it? Well, of course, it’s Jesus, but is it? What’s the plan? I’m so confused.

In the passage and through the journey from one reality to another – the place of familiarity to a place of a future we’ve never seen – there is both the shadow of doubt which makes everything feel so uncertain and the confidence of faith which keeps us going forward.

In this middle passage, this liminal space, there is a continual vacillating between doubt and faith. Rarely is there ever a black-and-white existence. Instead, it’s wise to become friends with the gray because most lessons we learn come while inhabiting this weird in-between space.

When the disciples encountered Christ in today’s Gospel story, it was an experience of Jesus in the middle – a six-week time between resurrection and ascension. It was also an experience of the disciples in the middle. There was no going back to a pre-resurrection time of walking and talking with Jesus as they had done before. And there is also no future where they can live in the past or pick up the fishing business just like before.

Although we have the advantage of knowing how the story shakes-out with Christ’s ascension, the giving of the Spirit, and a robustly bold group of disciples going out to change the world – the disciples cannot picture that future in their present liminal space on the beach.

This is why Jesus helps and coaxes Peter along with three consecutive questions – enabling this Rock of a disciple to move through his own liminal space to a new place of the bold and confident apostle that we find in the book of Acts.

We, too, inhabit a middle space. We are in-between the two advents of Christ. This truly is an awkward time in which we, along with disciples, experience a mix of belief and doubt because we are not yet at the end of the story.

So, a strange combination of worship and wondering exists in the here-and-now. Jesus did not chide the disciples for sometimes believing and sometimes not. And, what’s more, our Lord isn’t exasperated with us. That’s because one of the certainties for the Christian is that grace overcomes and overwhelms literally everything. Sitting down with Word and Meal creates a new space where we can begin to make sense of our sometimes very nonsensical lives.

Great God of Resurrection, help me to embrace both the meaning and the mystery of faith as I negotiate and interpret every situation in my life through the light of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

James 1:1-8 – How to Face Painful Trials

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

Greetings.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (New International Version)

Where do you turn when unwanted circumstances leave you wondering how to cope?

The Apostle James, no stranger to adversity and stressful situations, likened our position in hard situations as faith being on the witness stand, put to the test. Faith is being examined and cross-examined. And it must stand the test. 

Our attitude toward such trials, in all their varied forms, determines whether we will become upset, hard-hearted, and calloused, or, come through having our faith confirmed with newfound peace and joy.

James wrote to Jewish Christians who felt like fish out of water. They were part of the dispersion of believers from Jerusalem in the persecution against Stephen and the church (Acts 7). The dispersed believers were refugees – poor, in a foreign country, just trying to carve out an existence and live for Jesus the best they could under a lot of adversity. 

James exhorted the Christians to view their situation as an opportunity for their faith in Christ to develop and grow.

Rejoice in the midst of trials.

“Consider the adverse circumstances as joy? Are you smoking something?” we might wonder. Telling someone to consider their tough situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow. 

I’m not sure what the believers were thinking when they first heard this from James, but they might have thought the guy was crazy. These were people experiencing a lot of hard things. To tell hungry families with scant resources, wondering where their next meal is coming from, that they ought to consider their situation as pure joy may seem strange, even downright calloused. 

James, however, was looking to fortify the believers’ faith. Whenever we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing needed is to apply peroxide to the wound so there will be no infection from the injury. It might seem insensitive because peroxide applied to an open wound, frankly, hurts like hell. Yet it must happen. It’s a necessary part of healing. 

The Apostle cared enough about the people to tell them what they needed to hear, up front. Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their difficult situation, they would not make it. Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.

Suffering, in the form of spiritual peroxide, is necessary. To merely say what itching ears want to hear helps no one. Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life. God never promised that life would be or should be all cupcakes and unicorns. 

In fact, Christ promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time of it. It’s not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith, but of whenever you face trials.

The good news is that adversity can become our teacher. We can learn patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith. Spiritual growth only matures through the testing of faith through adversity.

Faith is not a neutral or static thing. Faith is active and dynamic. It’s always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith degenerates and becomes rancid. Eventually, gangrene sets in, and an amputation will happen. To avoid this, we need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.

It seems to me a great tragedy, for many Christians and faith communities, is that we can live a trivial, blasé, and superficial existence as believers in Jesus, and get away with it. Because we have the ability to be independent, self-sufficient, and hold our own, we don’t really need anybody, including God. We say we need God, then turn around and live our lives as if no divine being existed, at all. 

Too many folks are doing everything but exercising spiritual disciplines that would put them in touch with Jesus. To try and keep from getting hurt, church becomes optional; reading and reflecting on Scripture becomes our daily crumb instead of our daily bread; prayer becomes a hail Mary, only for times of desperation, and not as a means of connecting with Jesus; giving and serving becomes ancillary, done only if there is any discretionary time and money left over. 

The Christian life was not meant to be easy! It requires blood, sweat, and tears. Faith is challenging, and often hard. Yet, even within the pain, faith is incredibly invigorating and joyful.

Do not avoid trials.

We need perseverance. If we always bail out when things get hard, we will be immature. Only through endurance does the maturation process occur. Let your hard situation do its necessary work. Immature people avoid hard things and instead put their energy into keeping up appearances.

Conversely, the mature person spends energy standing the test and trial of faith. They understand that there must be pressure for spiritual maturity to occur.

Oyster pearls are valuable and expensive. They result from years of irritation. Natural pearls form when an irritant – usually a parasite – works its way into an oyster. As a defense mechanism, a fluid is used to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited until a beautiful pearl is formed.

God is looking to do something beautiful in our lives. So, if we constantly run away and do not deal with our hard situations, there will never be a pearl. It takes about ten years for a pearl to form in an oyster in the ocean.  Observing an oyster every day, you never notice any movement is happening. You only see the irritation.

In the Christian life, the consistent daily choices over a long period of time (perseverance) form the eventual beauty.

No one needs to go looking for trials. And, I might add, you don’t need to take upon yourself being someone else’s trial. There’s no such thing in the New Testament of anyone having the spiritual gift of irritation. The trials come from God, not people. Therefore, we are to let our faith develop and grow through the testing.

Yet, what if I am in the middle of something so hard that I just cannot see God’s perspective on it? What if there is seemingly nothing redemptive from this adversity?

Pray for wisdom in the trials.

Ask God for wisdom to see the situation from a different angle – of its positive good, and for what God is accomplishing in and through it. The truth is, God is developing within people a strong vibrant faith, if we allow it.

Growing up on the farm, we had apple trees on the property. My Dad had a shop in the garage with a big vice on the workbench. Vices and little boys were made for each other. My brother and I used to find all kinds of things to put in that vice and squeeze them until they broke, split, or exploded. 

Putting fresh apples in the vice was one of our favorites. The best were the strong juicy ones because we could get them to splatter everywhere. We hated the wormy apples. They were rotten inside and collapsed with only a little pressure.

God will, at times, put us in the divine vice – not because the Lord is mean or delights in our pain. God places us in situations of extreme pressure for fresh prayers to explode out of us to heaven.

If we are walking with God, we will be strong and juicy. However, if we have neglected God, then just a smidge of pressure will create a collapsing wormy mess. With no meaningful prayers, there is no meaningful wisdom for our circumstances.

Believe God is good no matter the trial.

God is not mean, but generous. The Lord gives with no questions asked, and without giving us a hard time about our situation. Yet, there is a condition….

We must believe – that God is good, answers prayer, and gives wisdom. Doubting God’s generosity and benevolence is a demonstration of a weak wormy faith. We may doubt a lot of things. Yet we are always to be secure in the knowledge that God has our best interests at heart. This is why there can be joy and perseverance, even when everything around us is going to hell.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through stubborn self-will, and never abandon the struggle but endure to the end. Help us never to choose the cheap way of avoiding or circumventing our trials but embrace the Via Dolorosa. May we never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown. Amen.