Date: March 11, 2020
Festival: Lenten Midweek 3
Text: Psalm 78 (antiphon v. 4); Judges 6; Matthew 12:38-42
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #720 We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Maybe something like this has happened to you: You move to a new place and, when you ask for directions, someone answers in a way that depends on an old landmark that’s no longer there. For example, maybe the person said something like, “Go down this road until you get to where that big, old oak tree used to be before it was cut down, and then turn left.”
Well, maybe no one asks for directions anymore—everyone uses their smartphones now—and Google Maps is certainly not going to use a cut-down oak tree as a landmark; but in the first reading, a terebinth or oak tree at Ophrah served as a landmark at that time, not much unlike the great trees of Mamre near the Machpelah we heard about last week.
Under the oak at Ophrah, the Angel of the Lord came and sat while Gideon was beating out wheat in a winepress, attempting to hide it from the marauding Midianites. The conversation that ensued between the Lord and Gideon when he tested God by asking for signs, as well as the Pharisees’ much later asking of Jesus for a sign, are all relevant to we who are, as it were, “Living among the Bible’s Trees,” the theme for our Lenten sermon series.
Asking the Lord for Signs to Prove Himself
The Lord called Gideon to be a “judge” or “deliverer” of a group of the Israelites when they cried out to Him on account of the Midianites. The Lord had given Israel over to Midian because, despite all He had done in delivering them from Egypt and making them into a great nation, the people had not obeyed the Lord’s voice but had done what was right in their own eyes. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This sounds much like America.
As you might know, the book of Judges is rife with cycles of the people of Israel straying from the Lord, being oppressed because of their unfaithfulness, crying out for deliverance, and being provided a judge (or “deliverer”), then a time of peace before the cycle repeats itself over and over again. The generation after Joshua apparently had not been well-informed in the faith as they, in general, did not know the Lord or the work the Lord had done for Israel [Judges 2:10]. Yet, as we heard in the reading, somehow Gideon had heard of the Lord’s wonderful deeds.
Apparently he could not reconcile what he had heard about the Lord with what the people were now experiencing. Perhaps somewhat ironically [Cundall, 104-105], the Angel of the Lord called Gideon a mighty man of valour, though Gideon’s response suggested he would be anything but brave in war. Gideon was insecure and reluctant to answer the Lord’s call, asking for a sign of the Lord’s power and willingness to help him save Israel.
Of course, Gideon is not alone in history either in asking the Lord for signs of proof or in putting the Lord to the test, trying to make the Lord prove Himself. The second longest psalm, Psalm 78—which we read from earlier—aims to teach the next generation by recounting the glorious deeds of the Lord so that they would not, like the previous generations, forget His signs, rebel against Him, and test Him. Nevertheless, in Jesus’ day, the Jewish leaders ignored the signs Jesus did, rejected Him, and asked for other signs.
This is still common today. We hear it all the time from the mouths of atheists as well as suffering believers and even actors on TV. They look to the skies and put God to the test, saying, “God, give me a sign!” And their eyes sink in dismay when they receive no answer. They shouldn’t be so surprised, however. The Lord rarely gives a sign to those who ask and He never answers those who ask in unbelief. In fact, He rebukes them for it! Just like Jesus did in our Gospel reading, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” [Matthew 12:39].
We may similarly seek signs, at times reject Jesus, and ignore those signs He does give us. By nature, we are part of the same evil and adulterous generation as the Jews of Jesus’ day. And, like the Israelites of Gideon’s day, all too often even we Christians do not obey the Lord’s voice but instead do what is right in our own eyes.
From the Scriptures—like in Judges—we know that whenever people do what’s right in their own eyes, they always end up doing what’s evil in the Lord’s sight and He responds by bringing judgement upon them, usually for the purpose of bringing them to repentance, as was the case with Israel. So, we shouldn’t be surprised if or when God judges the people of our nation who are doing what’s right in their own eyes by legalising and advocating for all sorts of debaucheries. Unless we repent, as God calls and so enables us to do, we will be like the unrepentant scribes and Pharisees on Judgement Day rather than those Gentiles who answered God’s call to repentance through Jonah and Solomon.
Yet when we repent—which means to turn in sorrow away from our sin, trust God to forgive our sin, and want to do better than to keep on sinning—we receive God’s forgiveness. He forgives our ignoring His signs, rejecting Him, asking for other signs, or whatever our sin might be. God graciously forgives all our sins on account of the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.
God’s Signs: The Resurrection, the Word, and the Sacraments
Greater than Jonah and Solomon, Jesus is the Son of God in human flesh. He is the “Angel” or “Messenger of the Lord” in preincarnate form who came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah. Jesus Himself saved Israel and all people from sin, death, and the Devil. Jesus lived the perfect life we fail to live, and on the oak of the cross He Himself died in our place the death we deserve on account of our failures.
And Jesus did not stay dead but, as the greatest sign of all, He fulfilled the sign of the prophet Jonah—just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days, so Jesus was in the belly of Death for three days before He rose from the grave. As God repeatedly showed mercy and graciously forgave the Israelites for their reiterate unfaithfulness, so not only this Lenten season but always, God repeatedly shows mercy and graciously forgives all who cry out to Him in repentance. There is no limit to God’s grace who eagerly waits to forgive you.
And God gives you miraculous signs of His forgiveness so you do not have to doubt His gracious favour toward you or otherwise put Him to the test. God gave Noah the rainbow as His sign of the covenant (which means promise) between Him and all creation [Genesis 9:12-13, 17]. God gave Abraham circumcision as His sign of the covenant He made to give him a son and to make him into a great nation [Genesis 17:11], which came to be known as Israel, through whom we are all blessed in His greatest Offspring, Jesus Christ. God also gave Gideon miraculously consumed broth and unleavened bread, the wet fleece, and then also the dry fleece as superfluous signs that He promises to be with him in his calling.
The prominent sign for us today is that Jesus is risen from the dead! The tomb is empty! History attests to this fact! As we have seen with Abraham, Noah, and Gideon, God likes to use ordinary things of this world as signs of His covenantal promise. And He continues to use ordinary things of creation to ensure and strengthen our faith in the sign of the resurrection, which is read and preached in the Word as well as the Sacraments: the water in Holy Baptism, the touch of the pastor’s hand in Absolution, and the taste of the bread and wine that are Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, all with God’s command with the Word making them effective.
Better than the reminder of old covenants like the rainbow, circumcision, and the signs Gideon received, we have God’s Word and Sacraments as His means of grace that connect us to the new covenant in Jesus Christ. These means are directly available to all, and they can and should be returned to as often as we need His forgiveness—which is pretty darn often considering, as Luther says, that “we daily sin much” and, apart from God’s forgiveness, “surely deserve nothing but punishment” [SC, 5th Petition]. This is why our Divine Service—following the structure of the early Church—is centred around the Sacrament of the Altar, which Christ says is His blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins [Matthew 26:28].
The Lord doesn’t call everyone to “judge” or “deliver” Israel as He did Gideon. Yet, forgiven by God through His Word and Sacraments, we all serve in the vocations to which God calls us by doing the good works He gives us to do. And, like Gideon, our faith will know “moments of uncertainty as well as heights of greatness” [Cundall, 109]. Especially at those “moments of uncertainty,” the Lord’s patience with Gideon can encourage us, whom the divinely inspired author of Hebrews seems to suggest was made strong out of weakness [Hebrews 11:32-34].
So, considering the oak at Ophrah, we realise that, although we sin like Gideon did by seeking signs and testing the Lord, Jesus saves all who believe in Him from sin, death, and the Devil in and through His greatest sign of all: His resurrection. The oak of the cross is our landmark for this reminder.
Even with landmarks such as the oak at Ophrah, navigating our way through this life can be difficult as we are “Living among the Bible’s Trees.” Yet we are not alone! The Lord is with us! We do not have a God who abandons His people. Don’t believe me? Just read the psalms of David who spoke abundantly of God’s presence even when he felt he was forsaken. And David was a murderer and adulterer! Much more, then, will God be with you in your daily vocations.
This Lenten season and always, we are humbled in repentance to live only by grace through faith. To that end, we close now by praying as we sang in the opening hymn: “No blinding sign we ask / No wonder from above. / Lord, help us place our trust alone / In your unswerving love” [LSB 424:3]. Amen.
Cundall, Arthur E. Judges: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968.