If the spiritual desert teaches us to rely on God, the season of dryness and uncertainty calls us to pray.
Next week will be seven months since life as we knew it was interrupted by Covid19. As I explained yesterday, many of us find ourselves in a season of dryness, like a "spiritual desert." I believe this spiritual wilderness is being experienced not just personally, but communally, in a way I've never experienced in my lifetime.
As I've said often in many ways, this is an opportunity for renewal.
Last week I wrote that God is calling us to a season of prayer. Today I am inviting us as a church to gather for prayer. (Details at the end.) And I want to set that up with an analogy that you might not like, but I hope you love.
I've been thinking lately about Gideon.
In many ways 2020 feels like that Gideon moment when God weakened Israel's army so that he could prove his own strength. I believe God is weakening things the Church has thought were strong so he can renew our confidence that "when we are weak, he is still strong."
Yeah, that needs unpacking.
In the book of Judges, chapter 6, a man named Gideon is called by God to save the Israelites from the Midianites who are oppressing them.
In chapter 7, Gideon readies his army to attack but the Lord tells him (verses 2-3), “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave...’ ”
So Gideon does that and 22,000 men leave. That's a lot of men! But he still has an army of 10,000. I mean, it's not much compared to the enemy (their camels alone are too many to count). But at least it's something to work with.
And then the Lord says, verse 4, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.”
Yes: "thin them out."
He chooses a seemingly arbitrary method. He calls the troops down to the water. He tells Gideon to watch how the men drink. If they kneel down and drink straight from the water, send them home. If they cup the water in their hands, keep them.
Out of the remaining 10,000 men, 9,700 kneel!
Only 300 drink from their hands!
And God tells him, “With the three hundred men...I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.”
And with that, the army that started out as 32,000 soldiers is thinned out to 300! God has reduced Gideon's army to less than 1% of what he had started with! But God is in this, and Gideon is determined to obey him in it.
He sent home 31,700 soldiers and left Gideon with an army of 300 -- literally "something," but for every reasonable consideration, it was nothing. It was only enough to blow some trumpets on cue, and crash some clay jars with torches in them. You can read the story for yourself in Judges 7 but (spoiler alert) God wins the battle for them against all odds. He routs the enemy, sending them scattered in every direction, killing each other as they go.
So that's the original Gideon moment.
To treat the story fairly, we need to acknowledge that this wasn't normal. And it didn't become normal. Like, they didn't conclude from this that "from now on 300 is the right size of an army." Israel went on to have decent sized armies.
And yet, at that time and for his expressed purpose, God chose to reduce the size of Gideon's army to make a point that, even when he invites us to be part of the solution, it is God who saves us, not we ourselves.
I have been living with an inner witness that started out as an inner question, like a pondering. But I'm pretty sure of it now.
This isn't popular to say, but I have to say it: I believe God is thinning out the Church.
Please hear me: I'm not saying he's getting rid of people. Don't let that offense set in.
What I'm saying is that he's getting rid of misplaced confidences. At least he wants to. And this is our opportunity to see him work. But what are those misplaced confidences?
I believe the confidences of the American Church are strategies, systems, and solutions. We rely on strategies to bring people to faith, and systems for getting them plugged into the church, we look to therapeutic solutions for eliminating sin, and now (increasingly) political solutions for eradicating evil.
These all have their place, but they're simply no match for the kingdom of darkness.
We have been waging war with the world's weapons -- weapons that do not have divine power to demolish strongholds. We have forgotten the encouragement of 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds."
And so, I look at the Church's vast array of strategies, systems, and solutions, and I see Gideon's army of 32,000 going up against Midian. For years we've been busy polishing our strategies, sharpening our systems, and rehearsing our solutions, believing that if we do these things well, we have a chance at winning this war!
But this year Covid19 sent "two-thirds" home. Our "large gathering" strategies were canceled by governors. Our "small group" systems were dismantled by a virus. Our therapeutic solutions proved ineffective against addiction and suicide. And now many in the Church have turned their attention all the more to political solutions. What we had relied on has failed us, but at least we still have "one-third". It may just be politics, but at least it's something. We may have lost "twenty-two thousand" but at least we still have "ten thousand."
At least we still have politics, right? And God will surely cause our strategies, systems, and solutions to be effective again, right?
None of these things will win the war against the kingdom of darkness!
While there does seem to be some statistical correlation, I mean the following figuratively: The Church has lost "two-thirds" to fear, or disinterest, or lack of engagement. Perhaps they realized they weren't really into what the church was offering. Covid gave them an easy out. They were sent home.
We now have "one-third" left, and we're tempted to muster the troops. We figure, at least it's something.
But what if God is calling us down to the water?
Wow, let that sink in for a bit.
What if God is calling us down to the water?
I believe what he is calling us to is prayer. And I want everyone to come pray. But I am actually not concerned about how many come to pray.
I am okay if God wants to reduce the "army" of our confidences to 1% of what it was. Even if the "confidence" is large crowds.
I say that because I believe he wants to do something way bigger, way more significant than just having a large "army," or a large church, or a political win.
I believe he wants to teach us a new confidence that far exceeds strategies, systems, and solutions. I believe he wants to actually rout the enemy.
And I believe prayer is the battle field. And I believe it is going to be there that we break our jars and raise our torches as we sound our trumpets and send the enemy into panic.
As you prepare to pray, read Judges 7:17ff and let God give you understanding.
Here's the call to prayer:
Monday, October 12th at 7pm, in the sanctuary.
And if you're not able to join us in person, gather with two or more people wherever you are.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.