Our numbers are not looking good. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), lost 510,536 members between 1998 and 2009. Eighty-eight congregations closed in 2009 alone. My own congregation is mourning the deaths of many dear saints. We are also watching with sorrowful joy as most of our children move away in order to answer their calling. I am sure Gideon was utterly dismayed when his army of 32,000 was reduced to 300 in the face of a massive contingent of Midianites, and then utterly amazed at what God did next. I wonder whether God is using similar tactics with us. Could God be doing a “Gideon’s Army” kind of thing here and now?
Gideon could not believe his ears! Just when he was getting his confidence up, just as he was really beginning to believe this job was do-able, here comes God saying, “Gideon, this army’s too big! We’ve got to cull this herd!”
Who ever heard of anything so foolish? If anything, the Israelite army of 32,000 needed to get bigger. Why? Because the Midianite army boasted 135,000 soldiers, and they were mounted on camels. Their strength was massive!
Just when Gideon was beginning to trust God. God had given sign after sign to show Gideon that God really was with him, and that God really would use him and the Israelite army to stop the Midianite menace. Remember Gideon’s fleece? It is the most famous of the signs God gave him.
Gideon said, “Lord, I need some reassurance that you really are going to deliver Israel by my hand. I need to be sure I’m not just dreaming this up. Tonight I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. Tomorrow morning if the dew is only on the fleece and the ground all around is dry, I’ll know I’ve heard you right.” God acquiesced. It was so.
Gideon’s reply? “Don’t get mad at me, Lord, but I need another sign. Let’s use the fleece again, only this time, let the fleece be dry, and the ground all around be wet.” Once again, God acquiesced. It was so.
Gideon was convinced—mostly. He tested God and was reassured. Somehow the 32,000 Israelite soldiers would be enough to go against the enemy. But hold on: not time to start the war yet. Here comes God with a huge test for Gideon!
“Gideon, we’ve got to whittle this army down. There are too many. If this army is successful, they’ll believe it was all by their own doing, their own strength, meaning I, God, am irrelevant. Israel will say, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’ Israel will forget about God!
“So here’s how we’re going to make the cut: tell the troops that whoever is fearful and trembling should go on home.”
More than two-thirds left. How disheartening that must have been! Now Gideon’s army numbered 10,000. Surely God would stop there. Given the size of the Midianite forces, the Israelites couldn’t afford to lose even one more soldier.
“Gideon,” God said, “this army is still too big. Take the troops down to the water, and I’m going to sift them out for you. I’ll tell you whom to take and whom to let go.”
So Gideon went along. God said, “Now watch how they drink. Put the ones who lap like animals to one side, and put the ones who use their hands for cups on the other side.”
Three hundred lapped. God said, “Let all the rest go. With the three hundred that lapped I will give the Midianites into your hand.”
The odds that had started out long were now impossible. It is hard to picture a more pitiful sight. Gideon’s army of 300 foot soldiers equipped with torches, pots and trumpets versus an army 450 times larger, the Midianite cavalry equipped with camels.
The old hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” has a line that says, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God.” What mighty army? So often the church of God looks more like Gideon’s army, a pathetically weak force against a mighty foe!
Think of the first little army of Jesus Christ. And it was little. On Easter evening when Christ gave them their commission, there were just a few. And they were fearful and trembling. If Jesus had sent home all the fearful and trembling, there wouldn’t have been any left! Yet he forged ahead with these few. He reviewed the scriptures with them. He showed how his life, death on the cross and resurrection accomplished God’s plan. And then Jesus said, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in my name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
It was the tiny army of God deployed to the whole world. What mighty army?
What mighty army now? There are a few megachurches that look like mighty armies, but by and large the forces of God are arrayed in small, even tiny congregations. They struggle to keep their torches raised in a culture that is sometimes hostile to faith, and often apathetic. Vast numbers of people could not care less about living a life of walking humbly with Jesus. Life is about acquiring enough stuff so they don’t have to worry, and then they can relax and enjoy. Life is about self-fulfillment.
What mighty army of God? We’re such a small group, our congregation is so small, and the need is so great. The foes are big—sickness and suffering everywhere. Sin snaking its way around through everyone’s life, poisoning relationships, spawning selfishness, killing love. What good is a pocketbook of pennies when the enemy army is massive, like the Midianites?
Everything around the church screams that there is power in numbers and power in cash. Even large churches feel this. They always feel they need more. If they just had more, they could be more secure. Then they could do more ministry. Things would be all right if they just had more. They could get the job done if they just had more.
Gideon’s army versus the Midianites. Yet here God is whittling down the forces. Why? So Israel won’t forget that the great “I am” is the real power behind this operation! The power and the victory come from God!
It’s a pattern God has repeated again and again: calling the weak to do God’s work, and supplying the power himself. Remember the story of Abraham and Sarah, an elderly childless couple? God said, “You are going to have more children than there are stars in the heavens. Your family is going to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” The odds were impossible! There was no way—humanly speaking, at least. And yet God made a way. God gave that infertile couple one child, and then many children, including us.
Then there’s Moses in the Exodus story, when God sets the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt. God decided to send someone to speak to the Egyptian Pharaoh, saying, “The Lord God Almighty says, ‘you let my people go!’” Whom did God send? A great orator? A smooth talker, with poise and charisma? No! God sent Moses, someone slow of speech! Incredible—according to conventional ways of thinking at any rate. “No way, Lord!” cried Moses when he heard this preposterous plan. Who could think of a more foolish choice, humanly speaking? Yet, God accomplished God’s purpose. God made a way!
Jesus chose just a few to work closely with him, just twelve and a few more. And the few were weak, full of flaws, and full of fear.
God has made a habit of working in an upside down way, an inside out way, a foolish way in the world’s eyes. Who ever heard of a Messiah and king getting killed on a cross? As Paul says, God chooses to work in a way that is utterly foolish in the world’s eyes.
“Look at yourselves,” Paul adds. Look at the people God has chosen to be the community of the cross: not many were wealthy, not many with influence and prestige, not many with flashy talents, not many of what the world considers the brightest and best. Nobody can toot their own horn before God, Paul says. We can only toot God’s horn. We can only blow the trumpet for God.
God keeps on choosing the small, the weak, the poor, and giving them God’s power. Weakness is precisely where God’s power operates, and those with the eyes of faith can see it. We can see God at work.
No, that first little army of Jesus Christ had very little to show for itself, humanly speaking. Yet Christ commissioned precisely them, and he said, “Now wait until you are clothed with the power that comes from on high.”
Gideon and his army’s mission—or at least the first phase of it—was accomplished by means of a very foolish-sounding plan. First the tiny army divided into even smaller groups of 100 each. Then the small groups stationed themselves at points on different sides of the enemy. Each soldier carried an unwieldy assortment of equipment. It was a juggling act to carry a lighted torch with a jar over it in one hand, and a trumpet in the other. When Gideon gave the signal, they were to smash their jars, revealing the light, hold the light high, blow their trumpets and make a lot of noise…….
The true power for ministry is not in personal charisma, or prowess, or professionalism. The true power for ministry is not in a packed pocketbook or a packed sanctuary, as good as those make us feel—temporarily. The true power for ministry is the power from on high, the power of God, the power that we are called to receive humbly and gratefully. God makes a way where there isn’t any way. God pours out the power where there isn’t any power. God has done that again and again.
What God needs to accomplish God’s purposes here is not a large group of people with large pocketbooks. All God needs is a few people who trust God, who love God, who are grateful for all that God has done for them, who seek God’s will as sincerely as they can, a small group that won’t let fear stop them. Remember—the fearful Israelites left Gideon and went home. All God needs is a small group that’s willing to try something that may look odd, utterly foolish in the world’s eyes, as foolish as trying to hold a torch high and blow a trumpet and shout, all at the same time. All God needs is a few people who depend on him for the courage and the power and the victory.
What God needs is a community of fools.
What God needs is a community of the cross.