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The Leaders God Chooses: Gideon

August 16, 2009

Sermon: 8-16-09
Text: Hebrews 11:1, 32; Judges 6-8

Today, we continue our series The Leaders God Chooses. Because we are in the process of electing deacons as the church body, this seems an appropriate time for us to consider the types of leaders God chose in the Old Testament times.

I want to call your attention to just one verse in Hebrews 11, a chapter often referred to as the “Hall of Faith.” The chapter opens with the definition of faith: “the substance of things hoped for, the essence of things not seen.” The writer of Hebrews then goes into some detail describing people in the Old Testament who were examples of faith. As he comes to Verse 32, he decides to end his discussion, naming time as a factor. He only mentions notable examples of people of faith: Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. The writer also mentions one leader only briefly. Verse 32: “And what more shall I say? I don’t have time to tell you about Gideon…”

Today, before I share with you the story of Gideon, perhaps a bit of background will be helpful to us. Bernard Anderson, who has written a wonderful introduction to the Old Testament, discusses the conquest of Canaan. He says that the biblical text offers two views about how Canaan was conquered. Anderson advocates considering both views in order to see the complicated way in which the conquest took place. The complexity is the reason the books of Joshua and Judges come next to each other in the biblical account.

One view involves Joshua, a military leader whom I compare to Moshe Dayan or one of the other Israeli freedom fighters. Joshua carried out a military campaign in a strategically planned assault on this land of Canaan, defeating one significant city after another. Anderson points out that a careful analysis reveals that the people under Joshua’s leadership basically went into mountainous areas where they had a tactical advantage.

Anderson draws attention to the entirely different view about the conquest of Canaan in the book of Judges. There, Israel appeared to be a loose confederation of tribes without a single authority figure; no one person ruled the whole nation. We see no Moses, no Joshua. We see no carefully planned military strategy for the conquest of Canaan, but the Israelites worked within the context, within the fabric, of the culture. We see them as a group of insurgents or illegal aliens that basically infiltrated the land of Canaan, setting up dwellings in a way that would stir up ongoing conflict. They engaged in skirmishes, using hit-and-run tactics and guerilla warfare. Anderson points out that they tended to carry out their exploits on places more suited for conventional warfare. For example, the story of Gideon took place in an area close to the Valley of Jezreel, which was somewhat the bread basket of the nation of Israel. Grain was plentiful in this beautiful, lush valley.

It is in this context of conflict that we meet Gideon and witness his role within one of the lesser tribes. He is in a life situation that will seem familiar to anyone who is frightened about the political unrest of the land or anyone who has lived with a sense of terror. We have here what might be described as the first camel riders of the Ancient Near East. They would ride as far as 200 miles to ravage the crops and to steal the wealth – whatever the Israelites had – and take it back to the land of Midian. Look at Chapter 6, Verses 2-6

Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. Whenever the Israelites planted their crop, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.

It is also in this same context that we see Gideon threshing wheat, but not out in the open as most people would have done. He threshes wheat in a wine press, hoping to keep his crop a secret so that the raiders will not steal it. He is trying to avoid this terrible plight that has beset the people in the region.

We see an astounded Gideon in Verse 11, which says, “The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak…” The Hebrew wording used for this angel, Malak Yahweh, can mean “the angel of the Lord,” as well as “Lord.” This angel is God Himself. This appearance of this angel, this appearance of God, is very significant to Gideon. Verse 12 tells us that the angel makes a revelation that surprises Gideon, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” I can just imagine Gideon wheeling around to find who in the world this stranger must be addressing. Gideon has no idea that the angel is speaking to him. He certainly does not regard himself as a warrior of any kind, much less a “mighty warrior.” He only sees himself as a farmer, trying to harvest wheat.

Consider the conversation with this angel, beginning in Verse 13. Gideon questions the angel, alluding to the exodus from Egypt:

“But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the Lord is with us, why has all of this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about… But now the Lord has abandoned us and put us in the hands of Midian.’”
The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hands. Am I not sending you?”
“But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”
The Lord answered, ‘I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together.”

What principles of leadership do we see in Gideon up to thus point? Here in this passage Gideon possesses neither self-confidence nor self-esteem. Maybe one of the reasons God selects Gideon is because he is not so self-assured. The emphasis here is not on Gideon at all. It is on God’s desire. God’s choice of Gideon is as if He has picked up a crooked stick and said, “With this crooked stick, I am going to win a battle.” God, who can do anything, chooses Gideon. It is not that God calls leaders because they are so strong and capable. God calls leaders because He sees what He can do through them. The first principle is that God works through the lives of good leaders.

The second principle I would submit to you is that leaders go through a time of testing. In Gideon’s case, we witness mutual testing. Gideon tests God, and God tests Gideon. We read about the first of time Gideon tests God in Verse 17 when he replies, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.” That doubt sounds a little bit like Bill Cosby’s depiction of Noah’s conversation with God: “Is that really you, God? You have to be kidding.”

In order for Gideon to be sure that it is God who asked him to lead the Israelites into battle, he carries out a plan. He kills a young goat and fixes what would be to us a very fine meal including goat meat, unleavened bread, and broth. Then he places the meal on a rock before the angel of the Lord, Malak Yahweh. Gideon pours the broth over the meat and bread at the angel’s request. Something amazing then happens. The angel of the Lord touches a staff to the food, incinerating it. What does it mean that the meal Gideon has prepared now suddenly bursts into flames? It means that the sacrifice Gideon has offered to God is acceptable. This event serves as confirmation to Gideon that he has really talked with the Lord.

Now, God puts Gideon to the test. Remember one reason for all of the troubles among the people of Israel; they had turned away from Yahweh and had begun worshipping, instead, the false Baal, thinking that Baal was the greater god. They had even set up places to worship Baal. Gideon’s own father had set up such a place. Look at what God tells Gideon to do in Verses 25-26: “Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God…Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.”

God’s command to demolish this altar is a hard test for Gideon. Tearing down an altar to Baal was a crime punishable by death in this culture. Gideon is so afraid of the consequences that he follows God’s orders under the cover of darkness. When the people discover his actions and threaten to kill him, Gideon’s father suggests, “Why don’t we just let Baal decide if he wants to kill him?” At this point, Gideon receives the Canaanite name Jerub-Baal, which means “Let Baal decide.”

Gideon has put God to the test, and God has put Gideon to the test. Gideon is not finished, however. He tests God two more times. We have all heard about how Gideon tested God with fleece since we were little children. Let me hasten to say that this is not the kind of fleece you order from L.L. Bean, Land’s End, or Eddie Bauer. This is sheep’s wool. In Verses 36-37, Gideon puts this wool on the ground and says, “Lord, if you really are asking me to do this, let me find that this fleece is wet but the ground around it dry when I wake up in the morning.” Though God grants Gideon’s request and passes the test, Gideon still has doubts. He asks, “Lord, I don’t want to try your patience, but could I make one more request? This time, let the fleece be dry and the ground around it wet.” God continues to be patient and grants Gideon’s request. God passes the test in Gideon’s eyes yet again.

Gideon and God have tested each other. God will test His leaders, but leaders also test God, wanting to prove that God is really the one they should follow. When God tells us to do something, He does not mind repeating Himself until we are sure we have the message. God repeats himself through Scripture, through fellow Christians, and through Christian music. He will continue to send us a message until we get it. Once that understanding happens, we need to obey.

A third principle is that a leader chosen by God must be empowered by God, by God’s Spirit, by God’s invisible presence. Verse 34 may be the key verse in all of Chapter 6: “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon…” God does not choose Gideon because he is such a great guy. God does not choose Gideon because he has all the traits necessary in a good leader. God chooses Gideon and empowers Gideon because He knows He can work through this man.

You can see that Gideon becomes charismatic because of God’s empowerment. I use the word charismatic in a broad sense. Gideon attracts people, maybe because he tore down the altar of Baal, or maybe because he possesses courage to tear down the altar, even though he did it under the cover of darkness. It may be that Gideon attracts others just because he has the courage to summon them together in a great assembly and say, “We are not going to take this from the Midianites any longer.” When he sounds the trumpet and issues the call for battle, 32,000 men respond.

Chapter 7:2: The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back…’” Gideon tells the people, “If you really do not want to go into battle, if your heart is not in it, you may go home.” Twenty-two thousand men turn back, leaving Gideon with an army of 10,000.

We read later that the Midianite army consists of 135,000 men, not considered a small group. God says to Gideon in Verse 4, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there.” Gideon and the Lord observe the way these men drink. Most kneel on their hands and knees and lap water like a dog. What a flattering description the Bible gives! Three hundred men, however, kneel, scooping water and drinking it from their cupped hands. God directs Gideon to choose those 300 for battle.

Why would the way someone drinks water make a difference? One possible explanation is that a man drinking water down on his hands and knees like an animal does not have the ability to see his surroundings. A person who kneels and brings the water up to his mouth, however, can still be alert to what is happening around him. God is looking for – to borrow a phrase from the United States Marine Corps – a few good men. Once the group has been culled a second time, God declares, “We have it just right now.” Gideon, with God’s guidance, will battle an enemy of 135,000 with only 300 men.

What does this mean in terms of the principles of leadership? Gideon realizes that this battle is not about his strength; it is about God’s strength. Gideon realizes that this is not about his plan; it is about God’s plan. This is not about his wisdom; it is about God’s wisdom. Nobody in his right mind would choose to take 300 warriors into battle against an army of 135,000, except maybe God. God makes that choice, and Gideon’s complete reliance of God now makes him prepared.

The fifth principle involves listening to the encouragement God gives His leaders. For Gideon, assurance about his mission comes in an unusual way. Gideon goes on a reconnaissance patrol to the enemy camp and overhears two Midianites talking. One says, “I had a dream that a big loaf of barley bread came rolling down the hill and crashed into the Midianite tent.” His fellow tent mate explains, “This can only mean that we are going to be defeated by Israel by the sword of Gideon.” Hearing this dream and interpretation from the enemy becomes a word of encouragement to Gideon. To him, God is saying, “Gideon, you can win. Even the Midianites know you can do this. You cannot be victorious on your own though. You must rely on me.” This conversation gives Gideon the courage to proceed.

Hearing this story is the first memory I have of a religious experience. My dad told me about Gideon one night before going to bed because I had been in some kind of scrape with someone. I have always remembered my dad telling me, “Kirk, I want to tell you the story about a man who won without fighting.” This story needs to be told. I encourage you to read it, learn it, and tell it to your children and grandchildren.

How does Gideon win without fighting? How does he arm his men when not one sword, not one dagger, is in sight? Most commentators think Gideon and his men surround the campsite of the Midianites just before midnight. Each man is equipped with a burning torch concealed inside a clay jar. When Gideon gives the order to break the jars, the entire perimeter of the camp is encircled in light.

Each man also carries a trumpet, though not one like the brass trumpet in our orchestra. Their instrument is like the shofar, a ram’s horn a rabbi blows on Rash Hashanah. In the military of the Ancient Near East, every fighting unit – be it a hundred men, 1000 men, or larger – had one trumpet. Hearing the sound of one trumpet, they knew they were facing at least an enemy of 100 men and possibly a 1000 or more.

When the Midianite enemy hears 300 horns blowing at once, they quickly do the math and figure that 300,000 men have surrounded them. Feeling overwhelmed by a superior force, they break into chaos. They begin killing each other and fleeing, never to return. Gideon won this battle without fighting by using a military tactic, a strategy known as the element of surprise.

One more principle I want to suggest is that every leader makes both good decisions and bad decisions. I looked to Frederick Buechner’s comments about Gideon in his book Peculiar Treasures. Buechner does not address the call Gideon received from God. He does not speak to the manner in which Gideon selected men for battle. He does not refer to the tests between Gideon and God. Instead, Buechner focuses on the last events of Gideon’s life where Gideon makes the best and the worst decisions of his life within about five minutes of each other.

Following the victory against the Midianites, Gideon, of course, is quite popular. Because Gideon has done so much to help these people, they plead with him in Chapter 8:22: “Rule over us – you, your son and your grandson – because you saved us out of the hand of Midian.” But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” The people want him to serve as their king, their monarch; but he refuses. Declining their offer and reminding them that God is their ruler who will not be replaced is a good decision.

My dad used to tell me that a person can get in more trouble in five minutes than he can get out of in a lifetime. I agree. I have seen many men and women, in a very brief period of time, make a terrible decision that seemed to undo so much of what they had spent their lives trying to do.

Gideon turns right around and makes the worst decision of his life. Following the military victory, Gideon directs his men to spread out a garment and share one gold earring from each man’s plunder. As they do, Gideon adds purple garments, ornaments, pendants, and chains worn by the camels. Gideon fashions an ephod from that collection of gold amounting to 1700 shekels. The ephod Gideon creates apparently serves as a reminder of this battle and God’s role, but does it ever go sour! He actually violates the second commandment by making a graven image. In addition, Scripture says, “The people prostituted themselves by worshipping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family” (Judges 8:27). Good leaders must make appropriate decisions all the way to the end. Making a bad decision will undo many of the good decisions previously made.

Today, we have examined seven important principles of leadership through Gideon, who affirmed repeatedly that God was in control of his life. For Christians, we must also consider the decision to accept Jesus Christ and acknowledge him as Lord. If you have never made that decision, we want to invite you to accept him as your Savior. Turn your life over to him. Allow him to have control. Doing so will give you strength you cannot have any other way.

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2009

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