Gideon — The Three Hundred

jester7th Sunday after Pentecost

The sixth sermon in a summer series
on Joshua and the Judges

Judges 6-7 (8)

The Book of Judges is a chronicle of God’s faithful intervention in the course of Israel’s checkered history.  And when God acts, Israel succeeds amazingly!  But sometimes…it does seem as though the Almighty has a sense of humor in how He goes about it.  It’s as the character Tevye says to God in Fiddler on the Roof, “Sometimes I think, when it gets too quiet up there, You say to Yourself, ‘What kind of mischief can I play on My good friend, Tevye.’”

Indeed, the story of Gideon is, once again, a story of God’s faithfulness to His own promises, and of His power to bring victory out of defeat, light out of darkness, salvation out of judgment.  But…the way this story unfolds…it sounds as though He has a certain twinkle in His eye as He does so!

As chapter 6 opens, it’s been 20 years since Deborah’s victory over the Canaanite forces of Jabin and Sisera.  V1, “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.”  As has become their sad but predictable pattern, Israel has turned away from God, so God has allowed the Midianites to oppress them.

But it is such a devastating oppression.  V3, “Whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amelekites and the people of the East would come up against them.” V4, “…and devour the produce of the land as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep and no donkeys.”  V5, “…they would come like locusts…”

There’s certainly nothing funny about that!  Yet in all that dread seriousness, v11, “Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out the wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.”

To keep it out of the hands of the Midianites, Gideon is threshing his wheat in the confined space of a winepress, instead of an open floor where breezes can carry off the chaff.  No breeze…but plenty of dust and sweat and very inefficient results for a great amount of work.  And an angel from God shows up and plops down in the cool shade of a tree to watch.

It’s hardly inspiring stuff!  Sounds more like something from the world of Sven and Ole.  Like dat time vhen Ole got a new truck and invited Sven over to show it off.  Sven got dere and saw dat da new truck was full of dents.  “Ole!” Sven asked in amazement, “I tout yoo said yoo got a new truck.  Dis von’s full of dents.”  “Ya,” Ole replied, “it’s new but it vas in a hail storm.  But da dealer said it vould be yust fine.  All I haf to do is blow into da tailpipe and all dose dents will pop right out!  But, uff da, I’ve been blowing into dis here tailpipe for tree hours…and look!  Nothing!”  Sven yust shook his head.  “Ole…yoo are so dumb!  Yoo haf to roll up da vindows first!”

So Gideon is flailing away in sweat and dust, expending a lot of effort for little results, and this angel, lounging coolly under the shade tree, says to him, v12, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.”  Seriously?  Doesn’t he even get a “Hail, Gideon”?  Or a legendary, “Fear not, for behold…”?

Gideon doesn’t take it well. V13, “Please, sir, if the Lord is with us why then has all this happened to us?  And where are all His wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us… But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”

Poor Ole…uh, Gideon…he just doesn’t get it.  For the 40 years Israel was in the wilderness, for the 200+ years that Israel has now been in the land of Canaan…whenever things have gone poorly for the Israelites it was NOT because the Lord had forsaken them!  It was always…always!…because Israel had forsaken God!

But that doesn’t stop Gideon from railing against God’s injustices toward His people.  And the angel sounds about as helpful as Ole’s friend, Sven.  V14, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian…”  Doesn’t he get it either?  Oh yes he does.  He quickly adds, “Do not I send you?”  “I” the angel?  No…turns out, God has been speaking in the person of this angel.

But Gideon isn’t laughing!  V15, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel?  Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”  Gideon still doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t know that God always has the last laugh…especially when He brings strength out of weakness, glory out of shame, life out of death.  And Gideon has no clue at all that in the course of time God’s greatest joke against every evil will be played out on a cross…and that this episode is only another warm-up to that cosmic last laugh!

And through the angel, God says, v16, “But I will be with you, and you will strike the Midianites as one man.”  Did Gideon just see a little twinkle in that angel’s eye?  A smile curling up in the corner of his mouth?

Well…Gideon wasn’t born yesterday.  Over in v36, he says to God, “[Okay…] if You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor.  If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel….”

And, of course, next morning, v38, “It was so.” And Gideon wrung a bowl full of water out of the fleece while the ground remained dry.  But Gideon doesn’t quit. “Okay, two out of three.”  V39, “Let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.”  And, you guessed it, next morning that’s exactly what happened.

Gideon still doesn’t get it!  Like dat time vhen Ole asked Sven to check to see if the rear turn signal vas vorking on his dented new truck.  Sven stood in back, vhile Ole turned on da left turn signal.  “Is it voorking, Sven?” he shouted.  Sven shouted back, “Ya!” “No!” “Ya!” “No!” “Ya!”…like Sven and Ole, Gideon is mighty slow in catching on!

But God isn’t finished.  In chapter 7, Gideon has called out every man and his uncle to go up against the Midianites.  Over 30,000 men are assembled.  A very impressive army!  But God says to him, “Uh…no!” V2, “The people with you are too many for Me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over Me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’”  If Israel wins this battle with 30,000 men, they’ll think they did it.

Gideon thins the ranks, v3.  But, v4, God says that the remaining 10,000 are still too many. He has a test. “Take them down to the water” to drink.  V5, “Every one who laps water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself.”

Well…out of 10,000 men only three hundred kneel down and drink with cupped hands.  All the others get down on all fours and lap it up like dogs!  300 men against all the might of Midian. V12, “The Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the East lay along the river like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number, as the sand that is on the seashore.”

And yet with what seems to be all the world arrayed against Gidian’s 300…God has one more joke to play.  Gideon and his men don’t even get to swing a sword.  Midian will defeat itself!

I’m sure you remember the story from Sunday School.  The 300 under Gideon spread out and surround the Midianite camp at night.  In their left hands they carry torches hidden under clay jars and in their right, a ram’s horn trumpet.  Obviously, it doesn’t leave any hands free for fighting!

V19, in the middle of the night, at Gideon’s cue, the Israelites smashed those jars to reveal the torches and they blew their trumpets. V20, they shouted “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!”

Surrounded by this cacophony, the sleeping Midianites awake in panic.  Well, technically, God sets them into a panic! V22, “When they blew the 300 trumpets, the Lord set every man’s sword [that is every man in the Midianite camp] against his comrade and against all the army.”  In their panic, the Midianites started killing each other!  “And the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the border of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath.”  They ran a long, long way before they even thought about slowing down.  And you can easily imagine the raucous laughter of disbelief among the Israelite soldiers that this whole thing actually worked!  Well, of course it did.  It was God’s doing.  In the end, it’s always God’s doing!  Even when we’re left kinda scratching our head!

Like de utter day vhen Ole and Sven vere driving dat dented truck into town.  Suddenly Ole shouts out, “Sven!  Look at dat cow vit von eye!”  Sven goes, “Vhich von?!”

Ya…and how many times is God going to have to explain it to His people?  40 years pass…but, chapter 8:33, “As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again…and did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side.”  “Oh, My people…”

But the divine humor is irrepressible!  God will have the last laugh…even though it will come, like a good Norwegian joke, at God’s own expense, with God’s self-deprecation on a cross, followed by the unexpected punchline of a resurrection.  God will have the last laugh!  Because Old Testament or New, then or now, even in the darkness, the twinkle in God’s eye still shines!