On Friday, April 3, 2004, the news of another soldier killed in action in the Middle East was reported. We never get used to these reports and every loss grieves us, but there was something unique about this particular soldier. His name was Pat Tillman, and what he did was extraordinary.
Tillman had everything a young man could want as a citizen of this country. Drafted into the NFL by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998, he won the strong safety position, where he broke the franchise record for tackles in 2000 with 224. He was at the top of his game, his 3.6 million dollar contract was never more secure. The Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams were already after him with three times as much money. Pat Tillman was living the American dream.
But after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks a higher cause gripped him. In May 2002, at 25 years of age, he walked away from the NFL, trading the multi-million dollar contract for $18,000 a year from Uncle Sam as an Army Ranger. He didn't make a big deal about this. He kept the enlistment quiet, shunning interviews. He told his friends he wanted to give something back to his country. Two years later, Tillman was killed about 25 miles from a U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan.
I read the comments of fellow players, soldiers, and politicians in the wake of Tillman's death. But his agent, Frank Bauer, said something that struck me: "They talk about the impact player [in this business] - well, [Pat] was an impact person. [Dale R. Yancy, Londonderry, New Hampshire; source: USA Today, (5-3-04)] He swam against the current. He marked those who knew him.
Over the next several weeks, I want to introduce you to some impact people from the Old Testament. Like Tillman, they weren't the headliners of the Bible. You'll typically hear a lot more about Abraham or David or Paul than these quieter heroes of the faith. I guess you could think of them as the "not-so-rich-and-famous" of the ancient world - people like you and me, common men and common women who did uncommon things because they trusted the unchanging promises of God. We can KEEP THE STORY ALIVE if we learn the lessons their lives hold out to us and put them into practice.
This morning we focus on a regular guy named Gideon. He is not very impressive at first look, but he makes some choices that flow from his faith in God. So significant is the mark this very ordinary man made in his time that he is listed in Hebrews 11 alongside the movers and shakers of the Old Testament. Track his story with me as we work our way through Judges 6-7, where we find a primer on trusting God. There are six lessons here to help us trust God more.
I. God uses tough times to get our attention (Judges 6:1-6)
As we open Judges 6, we find the nation of Israel coming off a time of relative ease. The bills are paid, the kids are behaving, and business is good. Everything's coming up roses. And as it tends to happen to us all in such times, Israel forgot God. They became self-sufficient. They didn't need God. So the Lord shook things up by rousing an enemy against them to show them how hard life can be without Him.
Verse 1 says that the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. So the LORD handed them over to Midian for seven years. You need to know that the Midianites were extremely powerful and oppressed the Israelites mercilessly. Every year around harvest time, the nomadic Midianites would invade Israel. And v. 5 tells us that they would come in like locusts, ravaging the land. What they couldn't carry with them they destroyed. The Bible reports that it was so bad many of the Israelites left their homes to live in caves and strongholds, fearing for their lives.
This went on for seven years. Finally, the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help. Why did they wait so long to turn to the Lord? Because they're a lot like us - they waited until every possible option played out and they couldn't take it any longer. Verse 6 tells us that Israel became poverty-stricken because of Midian, and the Israelites cried out to the LORD. How many times have hard circumstances come to us, and we never stop to ask what God is planning for us in those circumstances? Instead we hold out, thinking that we can handle it on our own. Learn this from Gideon: every experience in life is a test. And every trial in the lives of God's people is tailored to draw us closer to God.
Here's the point: When tough times come, instead of looking at them as if God is punishing you, try to see them as God's gift of grace.
Proverbs 3:11-12: Do not despise the LORD's instruction, my son, and do not loathe His discipline; 12 for the LORD disciplines the one He loves, just as a father, the son he delights in. He loves you too much to let you keep living the way you are. He longs to be at the center of your life. So He has designs in our troubles, and they are always for our good.
C.S. Lewis said it like this, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It's His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
II. God sees more than we do (6:7-12)
The wonderful thing about God is that even though we're slow returning to Him, He is never slow in responding to us. Verses 7-8 show us that when we cry out to God, He moves in mercy and love toward us. He tells us the truth, and begins to work behind the scenes to help us. For Israel, He first sends an unnamed prophet to call them back to total surrender and full devotion.
But His plan also included a most unlikely man named Gideon. We meet Gideon in v. 11 where he is threshing some wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. Now some of you know this, but city boys like me don't. Normally, you would want to thresh wheat out in the open so that the wind could blow away the chaff. But Gideon has apparently been stung before, so he goes into hiding in an underground winepress, hoping to avert the attention of the Midianites. It's a pitiful sight, full of frustration, discouragement, and fear.
In case you ever wonder if God has a sense of humor, read v. 12: Then the Angel of the LORD appeared to him and said: "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." Can't you imagine Gideon around for the man of valor the Lord was addressing! Was God being sarcastic? Or did He see more than Gideon saw? I believe God saw what He was about to make of Gideon. It was time Gideon saw it too.
Hey, brothers and sisters, do you know who you really are? One of the biggest lies we tell ourselves is that God only uses special people. If you are a born-again believer, you are God's child (John 1:12), His friend (John 15:15), and His masterpiece (Eph. 2:10). You have been justified (Rom. 5:1), freed forever from condemnation from God (Rom. 8:1). You are adopted into His family (Eph. 1:5) and your citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). You belong to God (I Cor. 6:20), never to be separated from His love (Rom. 8:35)! And you have everything from Him you need for life and godliness! God knows who you are, even if you don't. And He will work to help you see your true identity.
III. God confirms His priorities with His presence (6:13-24)
After being called a mighty warrior, Gideon questions God: "Please Sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened? And where are all His wonders that our fathers told us about?" (v. 13) Gideon's conclusion was that the Lord has abandoned them.
Verse 14 records something that must have bulldozed Gideon's sensibilities. It says that the Lord turned to him. He looked Gideon full in the face and said, "Go in the strength you have and deliver Israel from the power of Midian. Am I not sending you?" Gideon still isn't doing the math in this divine equation, so he notes just how unimpressive his resume is. He is the weakest link in his clan, the youngest in his family. He doesn't have any authority to call out the cavalry from his own tribe, let alone from others.
God confirms His priorities with His presence in v. 16, " I will be with you," the LORD said to him. "You will strike Midian down [as if it were] one man." Gideon is given an undeniable commission, told the remarkable results in advance, and promised the unrivaled partnership of the Lord Himself. After further confirmation that he was in fact, dealing with God Himself, v. 22 tells us that the pieces fell into place for Gideon. He cries out, "Oh no, Lord GOD! I have seen the Angel of the LORD face to face!" His fears comforted, His calling affirmed. So he builds an altar to the Lord.
Gideon needed a personal encounter with God. God met him right where he was, giving him a sense of peace and purpose by His promised presence. It was said among Napoleon's soldiers, "When Napoleon takes our hands and looks at us, we feel like conquerors." There's something that changes in us when we listen to His voice and look "full in His wonderful face." Suddenly, His priorities become the most important thing on earth.
Gideon was ready for the first test, and we're ready for the fourth lesson.
IV. Private faithfulness is a prerequisite to public usefulness (6:25-32)
Before Gideon can be used publicly, he must first clean up his own backyard. His family was breaking the 1st and 2nd commandments, with idols to Baal on their property. So the first assignment from the Lord was to take his dad's special seven-year-old bull and tear down the idols. Then, Gideon was to sacrifice that prized bull using the wood from the destroyed idol.
What's the point in telling us this? If you want to learn how to trust God, you must first set your own house in order. Before God can use you mightily, He must be magnified in your own life, in your own home. Private worship prepares us for public power from God. There are no short cuts. So is there anything you've been holding on to? Is there any sin that you're clinging to? Knock down your idols. Confess you sin. Deal with it and return to full obedience to God.
Will it stir things up to do this? Sure it will, but God will honor those who honor Him! It happened for Gideon. Evidently, this bull was community breeding stock owned by Gideon's family. Verse 30 reports that the men of the city said to Joash, "Bring out your son. He must die." But Gideon's act was already affecting change. His father, Joash, awoke to the truth and stood up to the men, asking in v. 31, "Would you plead Baal's case for him? . . . If he is a god, let him plead his own case."
V. God is patient with our faith process (6:33-40)
If this were a movie, when we got to v. 33, ominous music would be playing. It says the Midianites and their partners are getting ready to make their annual raid. But instead of cringing in a cave, v. 34 says the Spirit of the LORD enveloped Gideon, and he blew the ram's horn and the Abiezrites rallied behind him. Gideon had taken a huge step of faith in his private faithfulness and now God's Spirit was drawing people from far and wide. Thirty-two thousand men men show up, ready to fight!
But watch this. Even after his encounter with Almighty God, even though he had been obedient to clean shop at home, and even though the Holy Spirit was empowering him, Gideon still struggled with doubts. He knows that God has promised to save Israel through him, but he's looking in the mirror and the reflection he sees doesn't look encouraging.
Notice vs. 36-37. Gideon says to the Lord, If You will deliver Israel by my hand, as You said, 37 I will put a fleece of wool here on the threshing floor. If dew is only on the fleece, and all the ground is dry, I will know that You will deliver Israel by my strength, as You said." I love how loving, tender, and patient God is with us. Gideon is making a deal with God. He wants a confirming sign. And the Bible says the next morning, God gave it to him: the fleece was wet and the ground was dry. Even when this "Doubting Thomas" of the OT reverses the test in v. 39, asking that the fleece be dry and the ground covered with dew, God graciously confirmed His power to Gideon. Our Lord was developing this man into a fully convinced servant, matching each doubt with kind reassurance. God will show you the same patience as well as you seek His face, allaying your fears to grow you into a man or woman of God.
VI. Success is determined by God's power, not ours (7:1-8)
Gideon's now ready to rumble but God has other plans. In Judges 7:2, the Lord said to Gideon, The LORD said to Gideon, "You have too many people for Me to hand the Midianites over to you, or else Israel might brag: 'I did it myself.'" God proceeds to give Gideon a couple of tests to whittle the number down. The first test culled 22,000 men out of the army, leaving 10,000. Still too many, said God.
So in v. 4, a second test was given. God tells Gideon to take his men down to the water and let them drink. Weed out any men who stick their face down into the water to drink; keep the ones who ladle the water to their mouths with their hands. Gideon must have gulped hard when he counted how many were disqualified: 9700 were out, leaving only 300 men.
Can you imagine how Gideon felt? Chapter 8 tells us that the Midianite army numbered 135,000 men. That's 450 Midianites to every one Israeli soldier. God wants Gideon's army to face this horde with a mere 300 men who know how to drink politely!
God created an impossible situation of human weakness to exalt His own strength. This is His specialty! What did Jesus say in Luke 18:27? "What is impossible with men is possible with God." Here's a good lesson for us: Accomplishing God's purposes is not determined by the bottom line on a finance sheet, or the size of our congregation, or the efficiency of our plans. We need to attend to all those things, sure. But the truth is, God is looking to glorify Himself on earth through people who are fully dependent on Him, who believe He is with them and are ready to charge the hill in the name of the Lord! God doesn't need a majority vote from us on this. He doesn't need us at all. But He invites us to join Him in doing His will. When we do, we reap the benefits and He gets the glory. The saying is often attributed to D. L Moody: "Give me ten men who fear nothing but sin and love nothing but God, and I shall change the world."
It happened in Israel. In one of the strangest battle strategies in history, the 300 went out with trumpets, torches, and jars to meet the marauding Midianites. God sent confusion into the ranks of the enemy so that they began attacking each other. When it was over, 120,000 Midianites had killed one another and the other 15,000 fled. It was over. God had answered Israel's prayers. He used a common man who believed God.
God uses tough times to get our attention. Is He getting your attention today?
God always sees more than we do. Do you see yourself as He does?
God confirms His priorities with His presence. Can you sense His presence with you now, urging you to trust Him? Private faithfulness is a prerequisite to public usefulness. Are there things in your life, in your home, that need to go so God can move in power in your life?
God is patient with our faith process. He meets you right where you are with what you need.
Success is determined by God's power, not ours. Will you trust Him today - with your life, with your children, your finances, your decisions, your husband or wife?