Giving God a Hard Time

SJF • Epiphany 5c • Tobias Haller BSG
I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.
As members of Christ’s Church, members of his body, we rejoice in being part of a community of faith with deep roots. These roots don’t just go back to the time of Christ himself, but long before, back into the rich soil of Jewish tradition, the faith into which Christ himself was born and from which he drew so much for his teaching and preaching.

One of the wonderful things about that Jewish tradition is the way in which it is permissible for the faithful, now and again, to give God a hard time: to complain, to lament, to “kvetch” — even to struggle with God. This is what Jacob did when he wrestled with that mysterious stranger and later realized he saw God face to face; or what Job did when he sought an explanation from God for his condition; or as Abraham did when he pushed the envelope of God’s mercy towards the wicked cities of the plain. The point is that God is strong enough to take our complaints, just as God is great enough not to need our flattery. And what happens afterward, how God responds to our complaints, will always be instructive and challenging.

We heard Jeremiah complain to God last week, when God commissioned him to speak his word — complaining that he was too young for the job. And this week we see God’s angel appear to Gideon, and the first thing Gideon says is basically, “What have you done for us lately?” — “Where are all of God’s wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us?” And how does God respond? God says to Gideon, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel; I hereby commission you.” And Gideon, like Jeremiah, then responds with yet another complaint: that he and his family are too weak to accomplish such a great task.

Now what interests me about this incident, in addition to the freedom God gives people to make their complaints known, is how God responds to those complaints. God doesn’t say to Gideon, “You’re right; I’ve really fallen down on the job but I promise to do better in the future.” Rather, in response to Gideon saying, “What have you done for us lately,” God essentially says to him, “So do it already! What are you waiting for?” God puts the task squarely in the hands of the one who complains — the squeaky wheel not only getting grease, but a road to run on, and a map to drive by!

I’m reminded of our Lord’s initial response to his disciples, when they come to him in the wilderness complaining that there isn’t enough bread to feed the multitudes of people who have followed them: Jesus initially responds, “You give them something to eat.” When you complain to God, God may well put your complaint right back into your hands.

Or rather, God may show you that you — just like Gideon — already have the strength and the capacity which you thought you lacked — that you already are able to solve the problem you are trying to lay at God’s feet or place in God’s hands. Everything, after all, comes from God — and God is neither stingy nor parsimonious, but generous and abundant. God not only gives us all that we need at a minimum, but has already given us what we need in abundance, to deal with any problem that might arise in our lives. God, unlike Pharaoh, doesn’t expect us to make bricks without straw! And God only asks from us what he has already given us the capacity to do.

So it is that Gideon is already a mighty man, fully capable of defeating the people of Midian — all he needed was the encouragement; and as the story goes on, just to make the point that God is glorified when humble workers do great things, Gideon gains his victory with a pared down troop of guerrilla fighters instead of a massive army.

Gideon complains to God — and God commissions him and sets him to work to accomplish the very thing he complains about. So be wary — when you complain to God, God may well challenge you to do the very thing you want God to do for you — but know that God will also equip you for the task with all that you need.

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Another way people give God a hard time is not in the complaints they make about what they want, or that they think God hasn’t done, but about other people. People love to complain about other people, you know! We see that in Saint Paul: originally an enemy of the church because he doesn’t think the church is doing what God wants. Paul’s problem is that he thinks he is doing what God wants, but is actually following the instructions of the religious authorities who are set on wiping out the Christian movement — a policy with which he is fully in sympathy, as he has no use at all for those crazy Christians. Paul not only gives God a hard time, but the church as well — running up and down Palestine with subpoenas in one hand and death warrants in the other, doing his level best to destroy what he sees as heresy of the very worst sort — these terrible Christians with their crazy ideas that are turning the world upside down.

And how does God respond? God finally — and literally — knocks Paul for a loop, blinding him with the light of his truth and a voice that says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It takes all of this to get the self-righteous Pharisee to realize just how far off the mark he is. Not only is he not doing God’s will, but he is working against it!

So be careful when you give God a hard time by focusing on other people’s faults, and giving them a hard time, presuming to have God in your pocket and the right or warrant to persecute others for their faith. God may give you an even harder time — though again, it will be for your own good, and for the good of the world; for his grace is great, and his mercy endures for ever — and he desires that none should be lost, even those who set themselves against his will for peace and goodwill among all people: God can take the church’s persecutor and make him into one of its greatest defenders.

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The third way people give God a hard time appears in our gospel today. Jesus tells Simon to put out into the deep waterand let down his nets for a catch. Unlike Gideon, Simon hasn’t asked for anything or complained about not getting it. Unlike Paul, he hasn’t been fighting against God. He’s just minding his own business, washing his nets after a long night of work, in which he has caught nothing. What Simon does is sing the old hard-luck song beloved of cynics and pessimists everywhere, “Been there, done that — and all I got was this lousy T-shirt — or empty nets.” Simon is one of those people for whom every silver lining has cloud, and every promise conceals a disappointment. He gives God a hard time because he doesn’t understand God’s capacity to do new things — he’s seen it all, he’s tried it all before, he’s been there, done that — with nothing to show but empty nets.

But does he get a surprise! Not only does he catch fish, but he catches so many that the nets are nigh to breaking. And realizing how foolish he’s been, he falls on his knees and confesses his failing. And Jesus gives him that great task — the same one he would later give Paul: to spread the church and its gospel.

So be careful when you complain to God, that the glass is half-empty, or that the well is dry, or that you’ve been there and done that: God will pour such abundance upon you, such overflowing grace, that you won’t know what to do with yourself. The great good news is, God will know what to do with you! Even though you thought you’d been there and done that, God will send you where you never imagined you could go, and empower you to do things you never thought you could do.

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This is the very reason God puts up with all our complaining in the first place. Whether we complain that we are too weak and too small, or that other people aren’t doing what we think they ought to do, or that we’ve tried as best we can but have just given up — God’s complaint department has answers for all of these. It is a grace and a commission far beyond our imagining; it is a power that can work in us and with us for God’s purpose for the world — to restore, and to build, and to save. By the grace of God we are, all of us, what we are, andGod’s grace toward us has not been and will not be in vain. God will put us complaining, kvetching folk to work — through the grace of God we will do greater things than we thought we could do in our weakness, better things than we thought anyone could do in our self-righteousness, and more abundant things than we had done before on our own. Thanks be to God who commissions and empowers us, reforms and corrects us, and sends us forth into the world to do his gracious will.+