Size Doesn’t Matter
Thanks to Taylor Mertins for the title upgrade. Originally I called this "A Few Good Men." His idea is better.
A small group of people sit around a table in a social hall. It is a church council meeting and they are discussing plans for their upcoming fall festival. They haven’t gotten very far in their discussion because they are stuck on when to schedule it. Everyone seems to be in agreement that it needs to be on a weekend when everyone in the community can come, but there are so many conflicts they can’t figure it out. The neighboring church is having a revival on the first weekend they look at and homecoming is the following weekend and they know the youth won’t come if they do it then. There’s a big wedding the weekend after that in the next town that half the congregation will be attending.
Meanwhile, across town a committee is meeting about vacation Bible school. They are having a similar problem with scheduling. This week would compete with the big Baptist Bible school down the road. That week the coordinator will be on vacation. This other week the two families with all the kids will be out of town and attendance would be cut in half.
A pastor slumps down in his office chair after a particularly difficult nominations committee meeting. Attendance has been dwindling steadily the last several years, his flock is aging and young families are few and far between. Almost everyone in the congregation holds an office or is in charge of something and he just received a letter from the district about a new ministry initiative they want all churches to participate in. He has no idea how the few people who aren’t already burnt out or overwhelmed will be able to pull this off.
On a bright and beautiful Sunday morning the council chair calls three women to the front of the packed sanctuary. He announces to everyone that these three women are solely responsible for the planning, organization, and execution of one of the most profound ministries the church has ever seen. Their efforts have touched the lives of hundreds in the community, provided food, clothing, and education opportunities to the homeless and poverty-stricken residing in the city. Because of them, the church will have a lasting legacy. He bestows them with all manner of honors and accolades.
Each of these scenarios is one that could and has happened to some degree in every church across the country. On the surface they appear to be what every good group of Christians would do or discuss in the given situation. So ask yourself… what would you do next?
We learned the other week that the purpose of scripture is to refresh and rejuvenate the soul, which is absolutely true. But isn’t it also to inform our decisions and influence our actions? Of course. So let us examine the story from our scripture today to see what light it sheds on the course of action that should be taken.
Gideon, a man from a small, weak clan, has been called upon by God to free Israel from the hands of the Midianites, who have enslaved them for seven years. He has mustered 33,000 men, a truly impressive force, but on the eve of the battle, God says to him… “Wait! You have too many soldiers. Get rid of some.” So Gideon sends away those who are afraid, whose hearts are not in the fight. He’s left with 10,000 men. But God tells him he still has too many, so he leads them down to the river to refresh themselves. The men who knelt down and put their faces to the water to drink were sent home. He was left with only 300 men to fight the armies of Midian who were thick as locusts, who could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.
Imagine how paltry a force of three hundred soldiers must have seemed against an army of thousands. A successful campaign must have seemed near impossible. Gideon was most certainly doubtful and full of fear at the prospect of what awaited him. The story continues beyond what we read today with God acknowledging Gideon’s fears and sending him to spy on the enemy where he is encouraged by the retelling of a dream one of the Midianite soldiers had.
Then Gideon splits his 300 men into three companies of one hundred each and attacks. The Midianites are routed and Israel is freed from oppression.
So what does this story mean for us today? How and why is it relevant for our own church? Let’s think again about the council planning a fall festival. They are concerned about the timing and how many people will be able to help. They are afraid they will have too few hands on deck to be successful. The same could be said for the committee planning for vacation bible school. Many times, I’ve heard complaints of how few members the church has, that there are things we can’t do, projects we can’t take on because there aren’t enough people. I’ve even said the same thing myself. But if God can defeat an army of thousands with only three hundred men, imagine what he can do with five or six. Look at how profoundly he changed the world with only twelve. If we are committed to doing God’s work, we are no less than they. If it is God’s will, he will use us to accomplish wonderful and amazing things no matter how few in number we may be. Being a faithful group, the council decides that who shows up is ultimately out of their control, and they should focus on making it an enjoyable time even if only a handful of people participate.
So what about the haggard pastor who has been asked to spearhead a new ministry? He leans forward in his chair and places a hand on the well-worn leather bound Bible on his desk, uttering a whispered prayer for guidance as he picks it up. He flips through the dog-eared pages and stops at Judges, chapter 7. The story of Gideon, the one we’ve just heard. His keeps going back to verse 3: “ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’ So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.” He realizes that God doesn’t want the weary, the afraid, or the overwhelmed to go on this mission. Such people will only harm the morale of the others. Of course, he also realizes, it is not his job to determine who will go and who will not, just as it was not Gideon’s. God will sort them out. If only two people agree to tackle this project, then that is God’s will and it will be enough. Relieved of his burden, the pastor picks up the phone and begins calling the list of members.
These three situations seem bleak and desperate on the surface, similar to the fate that was facing Israel. But in reality they are an opportunity for God to work through his people to achieve great victories.
Now we return to the last scenario: the joyous occasion celebrating the success of several church members. This appears to be the most positive and faith affirming situation of them all, but I believe that this particular church is in great peril. They are poised on the precipice of disaster, of bringing God’s judgement upon them, of wallowing in the sulfurous fire and brimstone of sin!
Ok… maybe I’m going a little overboard with the theatrics. But I do think this moment requires careful examination and reflection.
Let’s look at the reason God told Gideon to send away so many of his troops. He said, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” Israel has had a bad habit of turning away from God, of forgetting all the miracles and wonders he has done for His chosen people, of forsaking the covenant they had made. They have grown in numbers and strength since being delivered to the Promised Land, but are facing an oppressive enemy. A force of 33,000 men is nothing to scoff at, and should Gideon defeat the Midianite army with them, the people of Israel will certainly chalk it up to their superior skill, leadership, and prowess in battle and be blinded to the Will of God. To prevent this, God sets Gideon an impossible task, one that can only be achieved with Divine intervention. The people need to be reminded that God has not turned His back on them despite the error of their ways. They need to know, without a doubt, that it is God’s hand that delivers them from their enemies and not their own.
The church in our story has won a great victory by creating and running such an effective ministry, but they are on the verge of bursting with arrogance. They boast of their own strength, they applaud the accomplishments of their own people. They have forgotten who is truly responsible for these magnificent works. In this, they are like the people of Israel who, upon Gideon’s return from battle, ask him to be their king. Gideon refuses, saying he will not rule over them, but that the Lord will.
The warning is clear. When great and wonderful things happen as a result of our actions, we must resist the temptation to take credit for them. We are merely instruments through which God has chosen to do His work. When we are offered accolades for our accomplishments, we must refuse them, redirecting the glory to He who truly deserves it.
I struggle with this constantly. As an actor, a performer, I occasionally find myself in the spotlight and receive praises from the audience. I will admit that sometimes I let it go to my head. Ok, it always goes to my head, and sometimes my ego is the size of Montana. I mean, come on, I even have a shirt (that I bought for myself) that reads “You’re looking at a legend.” Then there’s the pair of Superman socks with the capes on them that I got for my birthday. So, no, modest is not a word most people would use to describe me.
In my heart, however, I know that I am not worthy of any honor. Whatever little talent I do possess was granted by God and my challenge is to use it in ways that glorify Him, and to publicly give Him credit for it.
Others have a different challenge. Some people seem outwardly humble, yet in their hearts, they secretly crave attention and validation. The goal, then, is to bring the desires of our hearts and the words of our mouth into harmony with each other.
But it is not only those who have done great things that are being cautioned in this story. The witnesses of God’s great work must also be held accountable for their response. We, the church, must not be like Israel, offering our subjugation to the few who seem great. Our loyalty and praises must always remain focused on the Lord. We can certainly thank the people who serve and celebrate with them, but looking on them with eyes of awe and wonder, like one would a celebrity is going too far. After all, none of us is better or greater than any other. We are all equal in the eyes of the Lord. Each of us can be called to serve just as each of us can be sent away to serve another day.
So I urge you all to think before speaking. The next time you are tempted to sing someone’s praises, pause to consider who’s you really should be singing. Truly, I tell you: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him, all you creatures here below. Praise Him above the heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen and amen.