Isa. 41:9-13, Eph. 2:8-10
Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
© Andy Campbell, 7/10/2005
As we continue our series entitled “The Right Side of History”, we come to the second of the three moves God makes when freeing people from oppression. Last week, we talked about the first one: God recognizes suffering and reminds people of His faithfulness. We pointed out how in the story of the exodus from Israel, of Gideon leading Israel out from under Midianite oppression, and in the ministry of Jesus, God first recognized the oppression His people were enduring, and then God reminded them of how He’s been faithful in the past. The second move God makes, and the topic for today, is “God Prepares”. He prepares the people through which He will work, and He prepares the circumstances in which He will work.
Throughout Biblical and modern history, God has taken the time to prepare people for the things He asks them to do. Moses was living outside of Egypt when God called to him through the burning bush. Though he’d been raised in a palace, he was working in the desert as a shepherd. Moses had killed an Egyptian when he saw the man beating a slave. Fearing he would be caught and killed himself, Moses fled.
When Moses heard what God wanted him to do – be the person that demanded Pharaoh release his Israelite slaves – he balked. He assured God that he was not the man for the job. God’s response was that He would be with Moses the whole time. Moses then tried to tell God that the people wouldn’t believe him, that they would ask him to prove he’d spoken to God by telling them God’s name. God responded by telling Moses to tell them “I AM WHO I AM” was His name, “I AM” for short.
Then Moses worried that even with God’s name, the people wouldn’t believe him. So, God gave Moses the power to turn his staff into a snake and back again. If that weren’t enough, God also gave Moses the power to make his hand leprous and clean again, and then the power to turn water from the Nile into blood. Surely the people would believe that what Moses had to say was true if they saw him empowered to do such miracles.
That still wasn’t enough for Moses. He told God that he wasn’t a good public speaker. Some scholars have taken this to mean that Moses had a speech impediment, like a stutter perhaps. At this, God was getting a little impatient. He said not to worry about it, that He made his mouth and He’d make sure that everything came out smoothly. Moses’ response was, “Sorry, you’ll have to find someone else.” God said that He knew that Moses’ brother, Aaron, was an excellent speaker and he would make Aaron Moses’ mouthpiece. Moses had run out of excuses.
But he still was afraid that if he went back into Egypt, the people who were looking for him would find him and kill him. God had been working in the time that had lapsed since the day Moses had left Egypt. Moses had gotten married, had a few kids, and was getting the hang of the shepherd thing. In the meantime, the men who were searching for Moses had all died. In the book of Acts, Stephen says that Moses was 40 when he fled Egypt, and that it was 40 more years before God appeared to him in the burning bush. During that time, God was preparing the circumstances from which He would deliver the Israelites.
Gideon’s story is similar. For seven years, the Israelites had been hiding out in caves in the mountains, trying to eek out a living while the Midianites kept coming and stealing their crops and cattle. Gideon was beating some wheat in a winepress, to hide his actions from the Midianites. Then, one of God’s angels showed up. He said, “The Lord is with you, brave warrior”. Gideon, a bit perplexed, said, “Then why is all this happening to us? I mean, don’t you see me threshing wheat in a winepress of all places? Where are all those miracles that the Lord performed in Egypt? We sure could go for a good old fashioned plague about now. The Lord isn’t with us. He brought us out of Egypt and has abandoned us into the hands of the Midianites.”
The angel brushed the pessimism off and told Gideon that he is the one God is sending to deliver the Israelites out from under the oppression of the Midianites. Gideon said, “Wait. You have the wrong guy”. Sound familiar? “My family is the weakest one in our clan and I’m the scrawniest, weakest guy in my family!” Then the angel responded, “Even so, the Lord is with you and you’re going to beat the entire tribe of Midianites like you were beating up just one person.”
So Gideon, still skeptical at this point, tells the angel that he’s going to need some proof that the angel represents who he says he represents. Being a good host, Gideon tells the angel that he’ll be right back with an offering for him. So, he went and prepared him a meal and brought it back. The angel had him put the food on a rock and then made fire come up out of the rock and consume the food. Then, the angel disappeared all together. At this, Gideon freaked out a little. He thought that he was going to die because he’d seen God’s messenger face to face. God calmed him down and assured him that he wasn’t going to die.
But God did want to send him on a little mission in preparation for the big one yet to come. He told Gideon that He wanted him to go and tear down the altar that his father, Joash, had made to honor Baal and the wooden statue of the goddess Asherah. He was to use the torn down altar to build a new altar to God and then he was to chop up the statue to use as wood for a burnt offering. Then he was to go ahead and offer a bull as an offering. Gideon did all that, but he was too afraid to do it in broad daylight so he waited until night came.
The people of his town were mad! They wanted Joash to bring Gideon out so they could kill him. Joash told them to let Baal deal with Gideon, if Baal was really as powerful as they thought he was. Nothing happened. Meanwhile, the Midianites and their allies, the Amalekites, had crossed over into Israel’s turf and camped out in a valley close by. Since Gideon had accomplished his first task, the Spirit of the Lord descended upon him and he set about gathering his own troops.
Gideon, wanting to make sure he got this right, asked God to confirm that He was, indeed, going to use him to deliver Israel from Midian. He told God that he was going to leave a wool fleece outside overnight and if when he woke up there was dew on the fleece but all the ground around it was dry, he’d know that everything was still on. So, Gideon did that and guess what? Wet fleece, dry ground. Apologizing in advance, Gideon asked if God could do the opposite this time. When he woke up the next morning, wet ground, dry fleece.
That morning, Gideon got all his troops together, all 32,000 of them, and was ready to fight. But God said, “Hold on a minute. Gideon, you have too many people. If you go down there and defeat Midian with this many people, then you all will think that you did this yourself. I want you to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was me who did this. So, go tell them that whoever is scared and doesn’t want to fight can just go home.” Gideon did and 22,000 people left!
“That’s still too many,” God told Gideon, “Tell you what, have them go drink from the spring and I’ll tell you which ones to keep and which ones to dismiss.” Gideon had them all go get a drink and God told Gideon to only keep the ones who drank using their hands. The ones who got down on all fours and lapped at the water were sent home – some 9700 of them! Only 300 were left. “That’s more like it. I’ll use these 300 and everyone will know that it was Me who delivered the people from Midian,” God said.
Gideon must have been pretty nervous at this point. He was left with just one percent of what he originally started out with. No amount of preparation could prepare him for that! God, knowing this and wanting to confirm victory one more time, had Gideon sneak into the enemy’s camp that night and eavesdrop on some conversation. He heard this guy tell his friend about a weird dream he’d just had. He dreamed that this loaf of bread came rolling down a hill and ran into one of the tents. Instead of the tent stopping the loaf, the impact made the tent flip upside down and then fall flat on the ground. The friend interpreted that to mean that they were doomed to be beaten. That bolstered Gideon’s confidence and he went right back to the camp, woke the 300 up and said, “Let’s go. God has given the Midianites into our hands.”
Through some miracles and tests, God prepared Gideon and the surrounding circumstances for the deliverance of the Israelites from the oppression they suffered under the Midianites. God was also at work in the ministry of Jesus, preparing Him and the circumstances around Him for His crucifixion and resurrection, the deliverance of all humankind from the death penalty attached to sin.
Right from the beginning, Jesus was being prepared for His ministry. When His parents were returning to Nazareth after being in Jerusalem for the Passover when Jesus was 12, they noticed that He had gone missing. When the finally found Him back in Jerusalem, He was sitting in the temple listening to the teachers and asking them questions.
After His baptism by John, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days and was subjected to temptation by the devil. He didn’t eat anything and, naturally, became really hungry. So, the devil played first upon His physical needs. He tried to get Jesus to succumb to the hunger pangs and use His miraculous powers to turn stones into bread. Jesus’ response was that man doesn’t live on just bread, but on the very words of God. Next, the devil tried to appeal to His ego. He showed Him all the kingdoms in the world and offered them to Jesus if He would worship him. Again, Jesus fired back with scripture. He said that the commandments say only to worship God and only to serve Him. Trying to get Jesus to test His divinity, the devil dared Him to jump off the temple wall, quoting scripture and assuring Him that angels would swoop in to save Him. Jesus resisted saying that you’re not supposed to put God to menial tests.
The temptations Jesus faced were extreme and were to prepare Him for the types of temptations that He and his disciples might face over the following three years. Towards the climax of His ministry, as the stage was being set by God for His redemption of humankind, Jesus went up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John to pray. Bright light shone all around and Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with Jesus. Then the voice of God reiterated that Jesus is His Son whom He has chosen.
All that preparation was leading up to His crucifixion. Even in the garden of Gethsemane, only hours before He was to be crucified, He prayed for God to find another way. But God had prepared Him and He submitted to God’s will.
Even if we look at the civil rights movement, we can see God preparing people and places. The most poignant instance is the event that got the ball rolling, the Montgomery bus boycotts. When Rosa Parks refused to get out of her seat in the colored section so a white man could sit there, she was not doing something new. Others had been arrested before for doing the same thing. In fact, she had been arrested before. Yet God had prepared the circumstances so that this time, it would unite all the African-Americans on a single front in Montgomery.
Fourteen years earlier, Rosa Parks had been waiting for a bus downtown. When her bus came, it was so crowded that after Mrs. Parks had paid, the bus driver instructed her to get off the bus and walk around and enter through the back door. Initially Mrs. Parks refused, but the bus driver was insistent. So, Mrs. Parks got off the bus, walked to the back door, and the bus pulled away, leaving her standing there. Mrs. Parks committed the name of that bus driver to memory and swore to herself never again to take a bus that he drove. Wouldn’t you know that the one time she didn’t take notice of the bus driver was on that day in December 1955. The very same bus driver who told her to give up her seat was the one who had left her standing on the curb a decade and a half earlier.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had just arrived in Montgomery in 1954. He was still the “new kid on the block” when Mrs. Parks was arrested. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, two blocks south of the capitol building, was his first (and only) pastorate. When a group of pastors got together to decide how the boycott should continue, they formed the Montgomery Improvement Association. They elected King president of the organization. He was reluctant to be elected president. He was only 26 and thought himself to be too inexperienced. The other pastors saw his recent arrival as an advantage. He had not been there long enough to make political enemies. From Montgomery, King would go on to lead a thirteen year movement that would begin to free African-Americans from the oppression of segregation and discrimination.
Over and over again God prepared His people, unlikely and reluctant though they may have been, and He prepared the surrounding circumstances for the action He was going to bring about to set them free from oppression. Paul tells us that it is God who prepares us and gives us His Spirit as a pledge of His faithfulness. Peter urges us to prepare our minds for action.
I think that God is working right now to prepare us and the circumstances that surround us for another great move of liberation. I don’t know exactly what form it will take, nor can I tell you what your role will be. But, as we have already seen, God has heard the cries of people crying out from their oppression. He is, even now, raising up unlikely leaders and preparing the way for His action. Soon we will see God act through those people, perhaps He will choose us as the conduits of His action. Next week we will talk about that third, and most visible step, of being on the right side of history.