God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 3 November, we heard the third installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book. Our scriptures included Judges 6:33 – 7:23 (below) and Psalm 33:12-22
I can’t imagine that anyone savvy to the internet isn’t familiar with the series of Capital One advertisements featuring the tagline, “What’s in Your Wallet?” Whether it’s with Vikings or secret agents or sports stars, actor Alec Baldwin assures us that as long as we use his preferred credit card, we’ll get what we want, when we want it.
How will you get what you want or need, when you want or need it? That’s the question that faced Gideon in the book of Judges. He, along with all the other Israelites, were sick and tired of the Midianites coming in and emptying the pantry every harvest time. The Israelites were primarily agriculturists, growing wheat and barley on their small farms in and around their settled villages. Yet every fall, the nomads from Midian would swoop across the border and devour the harvest, thus impoverishing God’s people.
You’ve heard it before in Judges. The people cry out to God, swearing, “God, you’ve gotta save us! If you do, we’ll follow you from now on. Really! We mean it!”
God appears to Gideon and says, “Yes – I will. I will deliver the Midianites into your hands.” And if you were here a couple of weeks ago, you’ll remember that Gideon asks God for a little ID, and God ignites the offering that Gideon has set out. So we’re good, right? “Not so fast, God,” says Gideon.
Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.
Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. (Judges 6:36-40 NIV)
So here we see God, who has already demonstrated his purpose and intentions to Gideon, giving him a second and a third proof that he is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do.
Have you ever done something like that? Offered a little prayer… “Um, God, if you really want me to do such-and-such, well, you’ll have to give me a sign.” If I should ask that girl out, then let the next car I see be red. If you want me to call my sick friend, then let the next sound I hear be a telephone. If you think I should increase my giving to the church, Lord, then let the Pirates make the playoffs this year. Look, I’m not suggesting this as a strategy, but let’s not limit the Lord, OK? In this case, however, God gives Gideon the grace of two more signs that he is not alone, and that he will have victory.
Gideon believes God, and rounds up 32,000 friends to go out and face the Midianite army that contains, if we can trust Judges 8:10, 135,000 soldiers. You don’t like those odds, but hey, God is on our side, right? Only there’s one problem:
Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. The Lord said to Gideon, “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 Mount Gilead.’” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained. (Judges 7:1-3 NIV)
Yep, there’s a problem. Gideon has too many soldiers. If the Israelites won the battle, they’d be tempted to think that they were “all that” and had just skunked the enemy in their own strength. So God instructs Gideon to allow anyone who’s nervous about the battle to leave. That cuts the army by two-thirds, but it turns out there’s a problem: that’s still too many men for the people to know that it’s really God’s hand at work here.
But the Lord said to Gideon, “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.”
So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.
The Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.” So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites home but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. (Judges 7:4-8, NIV)
Okie-dokie, God. We get you now. We’re down to 300 men. We’ve lost 99% of our soldiers. If we win now, we’ll know that it’s you. Hoo-boy, will we know. I have a hunch that if Gideon had given the fellows a second shot at that “is anyone here nervous?” question, he’d have lost some of the 300 who remained at this point. But finally, they are ready for combat, right?
Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley. During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” Judges 7:9-11a NIV)
I like how God says, “if you are afraid”. Do you remember Gideon? Hiding in his basement threshing wheat? Explaining to God how he couldn’t possibly be the one to deliver Israel because he was too weak. And God says, “if you are afraid to attack”? That sounds like God doesn’t know Gideon very well. You and I know that Gideon was afraid:
So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp. The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.
Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”
His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.” (Judges 7:11b-14 NIV)
When I first read this, I thought, “Seriously, Gideon? It’s not enough for God to show up in your basement and promise you, and prove it. Then, for two nights out on the back porch, you get a sign. Now, this knuckle-headed Midianite buck-private says something and you all of a sudden believe what God is telling you? Get real, Gideon.”
But then I thought, “How many times has something sunk in on the fourth, fifth, or tenth time I’ve heard it?” You know what that’s like: someone tells you something, or you read about it, and it doesn’t register…until one day, something just “clicks” and it all makes sense. Beloved, let me encourage you to be unfailing in your willingness to continue to speak words of encouragement and truth to the people around you. You can’t be sure when they will actually hear them. It may be that someone is so scarred and so afraid that they simply won’t be able to hear you the first time you speak to them about love, forgiveness, grace, and hope. Make that a refrain of your life, so that when the time is right, you will be heard – because you’ll still be saying it!
At any rate, Gideon finally, finally believes, and we get to the thrilling conclusion of today’s reading:
When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshiped. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, “Get up! The Lord has given the Midianite camp into your hands.” Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside.
“Watch me,” he told them. “Follow my lead. When I get to the edge of the camp, do exactly as I do. When I and all who are with me blow our trumpets, then from all around the camp blow yours and shout, ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’”
Gideon and the hundred men with him reached the edge of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, just after they had changed the guard. They blew their trumpets and broke the jars that were in their hands. The three companies blew the trumpets and smashed the jars. Grasping the torches in their left hands and holding in their right hands the trumpets they were to blow, they shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” While each man held his position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled.
When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused the men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled to Beth Shittah toward Zererah as far as the border of Abel Meholah near Tabbath. Israelites from Naphtali, Asher and all Manasseh were called out, and they pursued the Midianites. (Judges 7:15-33)
Wow! A group of 300 men routs an army nearly 500 times its size! Gideon’s army wins – without actually fighting. The night was divided into three watches. So when Gideon’s men showed up all around the camp and blew their trumpets and shone their lights, there were about 1/3 of the enemy standing guard, there were 1/3 walking back to their tents, and 1/3 asleep. Imagine what it would be like to hear that there was an attack, be awakened, and find an armed man coming into your tent. It must have been that before they realized what was happening, the Midianites were slaying each other.
Did you notice how Gideon’s men won? By simply standing there. They held their torches and blew their trumpets, and the Midianites beat themselves. It ought to be clear to anyone and everyone that this is God’s victory, right? Seeing a squad of 300 men defeat an army of well over 100,000 – that’s a miracle on a par with the crossing of the Red Sea or the feeding of 5000 people with a couple of loaves of bread.
Except…except did you see what Mr. Scaredy-pants did back there when he was instructing his men? After God had given him four signs that God would win the victory, Gideon put his own name in the headlines. “Look, fellas, when you shout out, remember to say, ‘This is for the Lord…and Gideon!” I’m here to tell you that this means trouble – but we’ll consider that another day. I’d like to focus today on the fact that here, in this moment, God’s people are victorious.
How? By trusting in God. And how did they trust? Look at what this group did: they had to release the things that they usually carry – things like swords or spears and shields. And then they were free pick up…well, they pick up what God tells them to pick up.
They pick up a trumpet. Literally, a shofar. An instrument made from a ram’s horn. It’s the same trumpet that God said should be blown to announce the year of Jubilee; the same trumpet that would herald the forgiveness of sin; the same trumpet that would declare the Day of the Lord.
Do you remember all those old western movies? Who plays the bugle? The skinny guy, the kid, the wounded guy…the one who is too weak, too weary to actually fight. The bugler doesn’t do anything…except to announce the arrival of a power that is far greater than he. Nobody in the history of buglers has ever been afraid of the bugler. We fear and respect the one that the bugler announces and summons, don’t we? We fear and respect the power that those notes represent. God’s people picked up bugles.
The other thing that they picked up was a torch. A means by which they could see and, more importantly, be seen. A light that pierces the darkness and reveals what is really true. The presence of God!
What’s in your hands this morning? As I’ve suggested, an ancient Israeli soldier would probably be clinging to his spear or sword and a shield. A weapon for attack and something to defend himself against attack. I bet that you don’t have either of those things today.
But hold up your cell phone. And hold up your wallet. I bet that if for some reason we needed either of those things today, you could put your hands on yours inside 15 seconds. What does that say about us?
This cell phone is, for many of us, the way that we stay in contact. It reminds us that we are somebody. We get texts. We update our status. I heard on the radio this morning that the average college student checks his or her facebook status 20 times an hour. We use that phone, don’t we? We need that phone. The phones we carry are precious indeed.
And our wallets? They contain our ID. We use them to prove we are who we say we are. We use them to gratify our needs, or to complain about why we have so many needs. My wallet contains either a wad of cash reminding me how powerful I am, or it contains a couple of bucks reminding me what a loser I am because I’m so broke. Either way, we are tempted to use our wallets as measuring sticks.
I’m no Gideon, but I’m here to invite you to lay down, to profane, if you will, the things that you don’t want to let go of. If you turn off your cell phone, are you still you? If your last status update didn’t get twelve “likes”, do you still have friends? If you can’t reply instantly to that pile of email that came in while you were listening to the sermon…do you matter? Beloved, don’t allow any piece of technology to control what you do. Turn it off, every now and then. Take a Sabbath. Listen to the people who are with you now. Be present to The One who is always present to you.
And what about that wallet? Can you loosen up the grip that money and materialism has on you? You can, you know. You can profane the power of money and stuff in your life by simply wanting less and giving more. Refuse to allow your net worth to define your true worth.
Listen, if you loosen up your grip on your cell phone and your wallet every now and then, you’ll have a hand free to pick up a torch or a trumpet. If you refuse to allow those external devices to dictate your identity, then you can have access to the Power that not only saved the day for Gideon and his friends, but who paved the way for the ultimate act of grace and strength in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If you can open up your hand and grab a torch, you’ll be able to see into the darkness far more clearly. You’ll grow into a life in which there is no reason to hide in the darkness.
What’s in your hands? You know the answer to that. But what should be there?