Sermon from November 8: For the Lord and for Gideon

For the Lord and for Gideon
Pentecost XXIII (O. T. 32); November 8, 2020
Judges 7:15-21

When my friend asked me if I had anything special planned for today, I told him that I was working on three different sermons, depending on whether President Trump won, Vice-President Biden won, or we still didn’t know who won. Actually, that’s not the case, because part of the point of this sermon is that this Presidential election is not as important as both campaigns were making it out to be. But let me tell you the story of Gideon and make comments as we go; whether you agree with my thoughts or not, at least you’ll know something more from the Bible.

When I preached on Deborah I told you the pattern in the Book of Judges: the judge dies, the people sin, the Lord sends an oppressor, the people cry for relief, and the Lord raises up a new leader. Well, here we go again. After Deborah’s death, the people started chasing after other gods, so the Lord let the Midianites oppress them. When they cried out to the Lord for help, the first thing the Lord did was to send a prophet to say, “Look, I told you not to worship the gods of the Amorites, but you didn’t listen to me. You brought this upon yourselves.”

But then the Lord sent an angel to a young man named Gideon, the son of a local chieftain, Joash. Gideon was preparing wheat for milling, and was doing it in the winepress in order to hide it from the Midianites. After all, the Midianites would routinely let the Israelites do all the work, and then come and steal their grain. The angel said to Gideon, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” And Gideon replied, “If the Lord is with us, then why has all this happened to us?” Here’s the first thing that impresses me about Gideon: he’s thinking beyond himself. Okay, it’s nice that the Lord is with me, but what about my people? Even if I’m alright, what about my people?

A popular campaign question is, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” but that is the wrong question. That’s not the question a person of God cares about, for certain, and it really should be the wrong question for all citizens of a republic. A better question is, “Are we better off than we were four years ago?” Candidates who ask the “Are you better off?” question are seizing upon an individual’s selfishness; people of God care about us all.

Anyway, I need to move the story along. The angel commissions Gideon to lead the people in revolt against the Midianites, and so the first thing he does is get some of his men together and they tear down the altar of Baal and the sacred pole of Asherah and replace them with an altar to the Lord, where they make a sacrifice to the Lord. Now, to be prudent, they did that by night, and so the next day when the people of the town saw that the altar of Baal was gone, they said, “Gideon did it; let’s kill him.” Gideon’s dad, Joash the elder, said to them, “Stop trying to defend Baal; if Baal is a god, he can look after himself.” Preacher’s comment: all you folks who seem to think you need to defend the Lord God, listen to Joash: the Lord our God is quite capable of looking after the Lord our God.

Now the part of the story you may have learned in Sunday School: Gideon was all set to lead the revolt against Midian, but he wanted some confirmation. So he took a fleece, and laid it on the threshing floor, and said to God, “If tomorrow morning there is dew on the fleece, but the ground around it is dry, then I’ll know that you have indeed called me to free Israel.” The next morning he looked, and the ground was dry, but when he picked up the fleece there was enough dew on it that when he squeezed it over a bowl, it filled the bowl with water. But Gideon wanted more confirmation. “Oh God, please don’t be angry with me, but give me just one more sign. Tomorrow let the fleece be dry and the ground be wet with dew.” And that is what happened.

Now, some folks will say that Gideon was a coward and others may say that he didn’t have enough faith and wanted proof, but I say that he is a good example of discernment. I don’t think his method is one we should use, but his cautious approach suggests wanting to be fairly sure that he was not following his own impulses, but seeking the will of God. Elders and Deacons and everyone who has a decision to make: keep that in mind. Don’t just follow your own impulses, but seek the will of God.

One more piece to the story before we get to the part we read. Gideon summoned warriors to help him and 32,000 signed up. The Lord said, “That’s too many. When you defeat the Midianites, Israel would boast that you did it yourselves, rather than realizing the work of God.” So Gideon said that anyone who really didn’t want to be there could go home; 22,000 returned and 10,000 remained. But God said, “That’s still too many,” and then the strangest thing happened. Gideon took his men to a spring to drink and he watched how they drank, whether they scooped up water in their hands or bent down and lapped it up, like a dog. Three hundred of them drank like a dog, and God said, “With the three hundred I will deliver Israel.”

And you heard how it happened; it was a clever bit of strategy, of course, and made the Midianites believe there were a lot more of them than there were. There were 135,000 troops in the Midianite army; they were terrified by the ruse of the three hundred, and that combined with a little spiritual interference by the Lord God caused the Midianites to begin to turn on each other. Then Gideon summoned the reserves and they routed their oppressor. Israel was free.

Gideon planned his strategy well and it was effective, but it was effective because he followed the lead of the Lord his God. The point of reducing the army to a tiny remnant was so that everyone would know that the victory belonged to the Lord God, as well as to Gideon. As I said before, prayer and good strategy make a great combination. And this too is why I say that the recent presidential election is important, but the future does not hang on it.

There are always bigger forces at work than can be represented by one person. The warriors cried, “For the Lord and for Gideon!” and we people of faith want to line up behind the one who we believe best represents the will of God. And so many voters cried, “For the Lord and for Donald Trump!” and many voters cried, “For the Lord and for Joe Biden!” Given what God tells us through the prophets about the role of government in protecting the well-being of the poor and those pushed to the margins, the character and commitments of those who govern are important. It matters who is President. But it doesn’t matter as much as many want us to think.

Whether the next four years see what we want to happen in our country or not, the Church of Jesus Christ must always be part of the resistance. We resist the lies of conspiracy theorists and fear-mongers, such as QAnon, which sees a particular President as a Savior. We resist the exaggerations of those who think that same President is the cause of the discord in our country. As many have said, this Presidency is a symptom of deeper issues in our society, not the cause. Above all, we resist the notion that the United States of America is anything more than another one of the kingdoms of this world that will submit to the kingdom of God or will fail. This is my country; I love my country and I am an active, committed citizen who sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” with gusto. But there is another country even more important: the realm of God, the community of those who do the will of God. “For the Lord and for Gideon!” they cried; not, “For Gideon and for the Lord!” Events are always larger than one person or one nation.

Well, the rest of the story. We’ve described Gideon’s triumph; everything went downhill from there. The hero who tore down the altar of Baal fell into his own idolatry later. When they tried to make him king, he refused, but he took on the trappings of a king: wives and concubines and gold, and the slaughter of his enemies. And, after he died, one of his sons tried to make himself king, killing all his brothers so that he would have no rivals. Gideon stood tall for a while, but then it all began to decay.

Because we have poured so much into this election, some of us will be tempted to mourn, claiming that the new administration will try to turn the nation into the U. S. S. R. And others will be tempted to rejoice that our long national nightmare will soon be over. I have my hopes for the near future, both as a committed citizen of my nation and as a follower of Jesus Christ. Please, help me not lose sight of the big picture, not only of the nation but especially of the realm of God. Remember what we stand for: not the flag and the power to submit others to our will, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

Gideon’s soldiers did something astonishingly brave, but they did it with two things in mind. They were following the call of God, not just the orders of their leader. “For the Lord and for Gideon!” And they knew that their victory was not by their own efforts, but by the will of God. They saw the big picture, the story beyond their own experience. I hope that to gain that insight I don’t have to learn to lap water like a dog.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska