What happens to the country when you have a mediocre leader? What happens when the country is in the middle of a war and he sends the army home? When the only people left to help him out are dim bulbs at best?
I’m not talking about our current president or the one before. I’m talking about a guy from the first part of the Bible named Gideon.
Gideon’s story in the Bible starts out in a wine press. He’s not drinking. He’s hiding.
His homeland has been invaded and he’s hiding.
The Midianites had a brand new technology in warfare of the time that made long-range assaults easier, enabling them to take by surprise their unwitting victims. They had camels. Camels gave them the ability to cover vast stretches quickly and stealthily, which is exactly what they did.
The Midianites also had a scorched-earth policy. Not only did they steal everything they could, they tried to weaken those they conquered by destroying crops so that they couldn’t fight back.
So, there’s Gideon, afraid for his life, hiding in a wine press, grinding grain in the dark.
He is not a hero. The Bible makes that very clear, regardless of what Sunday school teachers have tried to do to him since.
Gideon is a coward.
God has an affinity for cowards.
Remember Moses? He sees an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew slave and in a moment of passionate bravery, he kills the Egyptian. But then the word gets out and instead of taking the opportunity to become a freedom fighter, he runs away and spends the next 40 years hiding in the desert.
Remember Peter? He has these brilliant moments of passionate belief in Jesus. Jesus asks the disciples who he is and Peter jumps up and says, “You’re the Messiah, the Son of God!” And after Jesus gives a hard sermon that causes a lot of people to give up on him, he turns to the disciples and asks them if they’re going to give up, too. And Peter jumps up and says, “Where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter makes these passionate affirmations of who Jesus is, but then when Jesus needs him the most, he spends a whole night denying that he ever knew him.
God likes to grow good things in bad soil.
So, back to the Gideon story. The angel of the Lord — the Old Testament’s code for saying a physical manifestation of the unphysical God — appears to Gideon and says he’s hungry.
Gideon says, “There’s some food and drink over there.”
The angel of the Lord touches it with his staff and it all burns up.
Gideon is stunned (as he should be), realizing finally who he’s dealing with. He falls to the ground and says, “I’ve seen God face-to-face.” Which is another of saying, “I’m a dead man,” since no one can see God and live.
But the angel of the Lord says, “You’ll live. But you’ve got to do something. Your people have been hedging their bets. They say they follow me, but they’ve got back-up gods, too. I’m not happy about that. So, I want you to clean house. The reason you’re in the mess you’re in is because you’ve only followed me with half your hearts.”
That hits home, doesn’t it? Back up gods. Half hearted following.
So, Gideon cleans house, destroying his family’s gods.
He does it secretly, so he won’t get caught. But he does do it. So, there is some backbone there after all. A little, at least.
The angel of the Lord shows up again and says that God is going to use Gideon to lead the Hebrews to salvation, to victory over these swarming Midianites.
And Gideon says, “Sounds great! When do we get started?”
No. He doesn’t. He says to this obviously otherworldly being, “Uh, right. So, how do I know it’ll work? Prove yourself.”
Prove yourself? That’s a dangerous thing to say to God.
But God is amazingly tolerant of our unbelief and our tendency to try to negotiate with him, so the angel of the Lord says, “OK. What do you have in mind?”
Gideon says, “Here’s the deal. I want to see the impossible. So, I’m going to lay this sheepskin here on the ground. When I come back tomorrow, I want the impossible to have taken place. I want the fleece to be wet with dew but the ground around it to be totally dry.”
So, Gideon comes back the next day. The ground is dry as a bone, but the fleece isn’t just wet, it is soaking. In fact, when he picks it up and wrings it out, he fills a whole bowl with the water. There is no question here. God has done the impossible.
“Nicely done,” he says. “But can you do the opposite? Dry sheep fleece and wet ground?”
The next day, Gideon has to tip toe through the mud to get to a completely dry fleece.
“OK, God. I get the point. Let’s do this thing.”
So, sends out a call to war and the response is amazing. The men from the surrounding tribes (Menasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali) gather to his summons to fight the Midianites. It isn’t a force to match the Midianites, but it is pretty darn big — 30,000 men.
Gideon isn’t so happy. He would like more. I would. I’d want to outnumber the Mideanites. I’d want to be unbeatable.
But God says to him, “You’ve got too many. They might actually win. I know. You’re thinking, ‘What?!’ But you see, if they did win, they’d think that they had done it themselves. Without me.”
So, Gideon says to them, “If any of you are scared, you can go home.”
Now, fear before a fight is expected, right? In fact, if you’re not afraid, you’re stupid. Really. You’re supposed to be afraid.
So, a full 20,000 headed for home, leaving 10,000 to fight.
But God says, “Still too many. Take them down to the river, I’ve got an idea.”
They head down to the river and all the men stop for a drink.
Now, Gideon has to laugh, because some of them men are actually sticking their heads down to the water and lapping it up like dogs. The rest drink normally on their knees, alert to what was going on around them.
God says, “The ones you’re laughing at? Those are your army. Get rid of the rest.”
Gideon’s eyes bug out.
“You’ve got to be kidding me! There are only a few of them. And they’re morons!”
“Right. They’re perfect for what I have in mind.”
So, after sending the rest away, Gideon has gone from an army of 30,000 that had a fighting chance to 300 morons. One percent. And the worst percent at that.
A coward leading morons. This is a recipe for disaster. But in God’s hands, it’s a recipe for victory.
And they do win. So decisively, in fact, that the Midianites no longer harass the Israelites. Not only that, the Midianites actually disappear from history at this point. They’re gone!
In the middle of the night, using covered lanterns and trumpets, these 300 morons create confusion in the Midianite camp as the Midianites and their hired mercenaries from other lands end up fighting and killing each other.
All right. So, what do we get from this?
Sometimes, God needs us to clean house of anything that we lean on instead of him. He wants us to trust him alone. Not back-up gods. Not money. Not skill. Not experience. Not cool gimmicks. Nothing.
Sometimes, God doesn’t need us to be braver. He doesn’t need us to put on our big boy pants, puff out our chests, and say, “I’ve got this!” He actually needs us to be more cowardly, so cowardly that we ask for and receive from him signs of his Presence and Power. Because if we put on a brave face, we’re not going to ask him for anything.
Sometimes, God doesn’t need us to be smart. He needs us to be foolishly abandoned to him and what he has in front of us. Only morons would leave their swords at home to go fight with torches and trumpets.
Sometimes, God doesn’t need us to be bigger. He needs us to be so small that we give up hope in ourselves, that we look at ourselves and say, “There is no way for us to do it. We just don’t have what it takes. It’ll have to be God doing it or else it won’t get done at all.”
Sometimes, we need to be so cowardly, so dumb, and so small that we stop trusting in ourselves and start trusting in God, that we actually start praying, really praying.
Sometimes, we need to give up on ourselves so that God can show us that he hasn’t given up on us.
Jesus had a cousin named John who became a pastor before Jesus did.
John was innovative. He was passionate. He was controversial. He dressed more crazily that Lady Gaga.
John’s ministry was powerfully personal and unapologetically political. He had the gall to tell Jews that they needed to be baptized — that they had to go through the same ritual that non-Jews had to go through in order to become Jews.
He was saying, in effect, “You don’t measure up. So, start all over again.” And people did it. Gladly. They lined up for it.
They came to him in masses, listening to his blistering sermons and getting baptized.
And then Jesus showed up and John turned to the people and said, “You think you’ve seen something, just wait till you see my cousin. I’ve baptized you with water. He’s going to baptize you with FIRE!
“I’m not worthy to unlace his sandals, much less baptize him. And yet, when I did baptize him, this is what happened. Heaven opened up. God’s Spirit of power and prophecy and kingship came down on him like a dove and the Voice of God himself thundered out, ‘This is my Son, my delight.’
“If you thought I was something, then look again. I’m nothing. He’s everything. I’m going to disappear so that you will only have eyes for him.”
It was a powerful sermon and a glowing endorsement, and lots of his followers starting following Jesus. And John stood back and watched to see what Jesus would do.
And he kept watching. And waiting. And watching.
Eventually, John’s politics got him in trouble with the king ,and he ended up in prison. On death row, actually.
And still, he kept listening for news of Jesus. But there wasn’t much.
Eventually, he started to question whether he’d gotten it right. He sent messengers to Jesus, asking, “Are you or aren’t you the Messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for?” And even though the answer seemed to be a Yes, it was vague enough that John died unsure.
Sometimes, we need to decrease so that God can increase.
Sometimes, we need to get out of the way so that God can step into the way.
Sometimes, we need to watch and wait through a whole lot of what looks like nothing in order for God to do his absolutely amazing and revolutionary something that is everything.
Sometimes, we need to die without seeing more than a glimpse of what it is that God is doing.
Sometimes, we need to struggle with our doubts about what God is doing because it sure doesn’t look like what we think he ought to be doing — struggle and yet still believe.
The apostle Paul wrote 13 letters that have changed the world. He was a theologian beyond any before him or after him. Before becoming a Christian, he was the top student of the top rabbi in generations. He would have made the history books if he had stuck with pharisaic Judaism. If he had been a Greek, his name would have been alongside those of Plato and the other great philosophers. Really. His was the mind of the century.
Everything we are and do as Christians comes to us through Paul. His retelling of the biblical story based on what Jesus had done and what the Spirit was continuing to do was so profound that even in his own day, people recognized his writings to be by the same Spirit and of the same authority as what we now call the Old Testament scriptures.
Paul started churches left and right, bringing the gospel of Jesus to Jews who were scandalized by a crucified Messiah and to non-Jews whose lives were such a moral mess that the message of Jesus was just as much bad news to them as it was good news. And yet when he preached, both Jews and non-Jews responded and were profoundly transformed.
Paul was the man.
But he struggled deeply. In fact, God gave him what he called a “messenger/angel from Satan” to torment him. We don’t know what it was, but he agonized over it. And God refused to remove it from him.
Paul needed something to bring him down a few notches. He needed to live by God’s grace, not by his mind, not by his skill, not by his success, not by his sheer will power. Grace only.
Paul writes this in 2 Cor. 12:9 — But [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
When we try to hold on to our power —
When we try to hold on to what we know —
When we try to go with what has worked in the past, with what we like and are in control of —
When we do these things, we stand at odds with God.
God’s ways tend to go against our power.
God’s ways tend to lead us into the unknown.
God’s ways tend to be creative, continuing on from what has been done in the past, but never repeating themselves.
God’s ways tend to be painful and rarely ever easy.
God’s ways tend to pry our fingers from whatever it is that we’re trying to control so that we can stop controlling and start trusting.
This is why we read things like this from 1 Cor. 1:26-31 and nod our heads:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
So, be smaller. Be weaker. Be dumber. But do so in the Presence and Power of God for whom all things are possible.