The shortstop watches carefully as a man swings a wooden bat. All through this contest, the man with the glove is on the receiving end of surprises. Sometimes the ball comes at him like a lightning bolt and sometimes it looks more like a rabbit running for its life.
ESPN Sports Center know-it-alls watch and judge and condense the drama. With the benefit of slow-motion and hindsight they render judgment and make glib editorial comment. Not one of them is the man out there in the dirt between second and third base, others striking and slashing at him, the game’s outcome in some way riding on his poise and his response to the ball in play.
Beloved Bible episodes are often compressed, too. The reader doesn’t have to lie face down on the ground for seven days as David grieves the consequences of his hard heart. The anxiety of Abraham’s all-nighter before he saddled his donkey for Moriah — I can read it from my recliner in 20 seconds.
You say you have known the episode of Daniel in the Lion’s Den since you were a child? But are you still able to hear it as if the ball is in play? Instinctively we think “Oh, Daniel gets out of this.” That’s only because we didn’t have to crouch in the bones and litter, the green eyes and the grunts and the gloom. Who can say Daniel knew he was going to breathe here on earth for another five minutes?
The muck at the bottom of the cistern slipped away under Jeremiah’s feet, not mine. No fair for me to say “Oh, it’s all right, he gets out of there.” The gang stoning the apostle to death outside Derbe’s city gate did not say “Enough of that, boys. Paul gets to stumble away from this one. There are still fourteen more chapters of Acts to go.”
God permits troubles into the lives of his redeemed children, in order to conform us to the image of his Son (Ro 8:29). These range from the pressures of your daily duty to migraines. There are long drawn-out periods waiting that test our patience, like John in Herod’s prison cell, doubts about Jesus cooking away in us. There are shocks, up to and including the death of our bodies, that make our knees give way.
We remember heroes of faith. But the reason is not that they had unusual strength, or intrepid self-command, or unfailing grasp of words, or coolness under pressure, or undaunted courage. We might slip into thinking that Bible women had all achieved Elite status or were to be found in accelerated courses. Is your old Bible History book packed with people chosen for the Select Team and Honor Roll?
They were just believers, but believers they were. They got scared. They had to learn some hard truths about themselves. They shuddered at what they were capable of. They feared what God’s justice must do. And then they remembered: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Ps 56). Every one of them knew that the “You” in that sentence was the one who’d promised to send his Son. Even Jesus in the days of his obedience had to cry to his Father.
God wants his children to call to him in the day of trouble. God wants my deliverance to be a marvel, not a given. For you and me there is always an element of surprise, a new reason to thank the Father, a new song to sing today.
Head’s up. Ball in play.
Living Hope Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE