I’m going to tell you a story that happened a long time ago. It’s a story about a time when God’s people were struggling, persecuted and poor. It’s a story about how God never abandoned them, even when things seemed darkest and most hopeless. A story about someone called to set the people free, to give them new hope, new life. His name was Gideon. (We’ll come back around to that other story in a little while!)
Gideon lived a little over three thousand years ago, long before Jesus, long before the Roman Empire, even before King David. God had called this little tribe of people, called Israel, to follow God’s ways and be God’s people. But in Gideon’s time things were not going well.
Gideon’s story is in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. Judges has a pretty clear view of Israel’s history: God called the people Israel to a way of life founded on justice, mercy, and worship of God. But again and again, the people fell away; that way of life seemed too hard, or they figured they could do better by *not* being just and merciful. But when they turned from God, they got weaker. They weren’t looking out for each other, weren’t building up their common good and their shared strength. And so they were attacked by neighboring tribes and nations, again and again. And then they’d cry out to God, and God would help them, and they’d promise to do better this time… This time we’ll REALLY be the people God calls us to be! No, this time we REALLY mean it!…
Well. Those are the kinds of times when Gideon lived. When Gideon was a young man, a neighboring tribe, the Midianites, was attacking Israel. Things were bad. The Midianites had driven the Israelites out of their towns; they were living in caves in the mountains. The Midianites would destroy the fields, kill or steal all the livestock, and bring their own flocks to devour all the pasture land. So Israel was starving. And they cried out to God for help.
One day Gideon is beating out wheat, separating the grain from the chaff. He’s doing it inside his father’s wine press, to hide from the Midianites. And an angel appears to him, and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty warrior!”
And Gideon says, “But, sir, if God is with us, why has all this bad stuff happened to us? Where are the miracles and mighty deeds that we hear in our holy stories? Why doesn’t God deliver us today, like God delivered our ancestors from Egypt? It seems like God has cast us off, and given us into the hands of Midian!”
But God didn’t strike Gideon down; apparently God wanted someone strong-minded and a little bit argumentative. The angel said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from Midian; I hereby commission you.”
Gideon says, “Sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest clan of my tribe, and I am the least in my family.” And the Angel of the Lord says, “Because God is with you, you will drive out the Midianites.”
Because God is with you.
Well, that sounds good; but Gideon is not someone to be convinced by pretty words. He tells the angel, Stay here; I will bring you an offering, and you can give me a sign that you actually have holy power. Gideon hurries to prepare some meat and bread. When he brings them out, the angel says, “Put them on that rock.” And then the angel touches the food with the tip of its staff – and fire leaps up and consumes the food.
Okay, pretty convincing. But Gideon wants proof that this is actually God, and that God can actually do what God says, before he raises an army and attacks the Midianites, which could just leave everybody dead.
He starts to gather an army, calling together all the fighting men and boys of Israel. At the same time, Gideon asks God for a little more proof. He says, “In order to see whether you will actually deliver Israel by my hand, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor. In the morning, if there is dew on the fleece but the ground is dry, I will know you will free Israel from the power of Midian.” And it was so; when Gideon arose in the morning, the ground was dry, but the fleece was so wet he could squeeze a bowlful of water out of it. All right! God is with Gideon! It’s time for battle! Well… maybe. Gideon is not so easily convinced. Gideon says to God, “Okay, let’s try this once more, the other way around: make the ground wet, and the fleece dry.” And in the morning, it was so.
So finally Gideon is convinced that God is with him, and that God has the power to shape reality, to do improbable things – like defeating Midian. Because even with all Israel’s warriors, thirty-two thousand troops, the Midianites still outnumber them.
But Gideon’s willing to give it a try. He gathers his troops, near the Midianite camp, ready for attack. Maybe they have a chance, with God’s help. But then God says to Gideon, “You have too many soldiers. If you defeat the Midianites with all these soldiers, Israel will take the credit away from me, and say, ‘We delivered ourselves.’ Speak to your troops and say, Whoever is fearful and trembling, GO HOME.”
So Gideon does that. And twenty-two thousand men … go home. Leaving Gideon with ten thousand soldiers who are itching for a fight.
Okay. Now there are a LOT more Midianites, but this is how God wants it. Fine.
But then God says to Gideon, “You STILL have too many men. Take your army down to that pool of water over there for a drink. Some of them will cup up the water in their hands, and some will kneel down and lap the water like dogs. The ones who cup the water in their hands – send them all home.”
So the men go to drink. And how many of them lap the water like dogs? Three hundred. And God says to Gideon, “With these three hundred men I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hands. Send the rest home.”
And Gideon does. But before they go: he takes all their water jars and their trumpets. So here’s Gideon, with three hundred men, and a bunch of jars and trumpets, looking out at the Midianite camp, with its soldiers as thick as sand on the seashore. And that night God speaks to Gideon and says, “Attack the camp. It’s time.” And he wakes his tiny army and says, “Get up. God has given Midian into our hands.” He gives them all trumpets and jars – with torches hidden inside the jars.
They sneak into the camp under cover of darkness, and at Gideon’s signal, they all BLOW their trumpets, and SMASH their jars so the torches shine out, and they shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon!”
And the Midianites panic! They wake up to this horrible noise, and light, and fire, and shouting! Some of them start to run and others see them running and they run too, and pretty soon the whole Midianite army, tens of thousands of men, are fleeing towards home. And they’re fighting each other in the dark, in the confusion, and killing each other, without Gideon’s men even drawing their swords.
So Gideon and his three hundred crazy fearless men drove out the great army of Midian, freed their land from the invaders, with some trumpets and some torches and the power of God. Because God was with them.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
This reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah is always used at Christmas, because of the image of light dawning in darkness, and because of Isaiah’s prophetic words about a Savior who will come to God’s people, a child who will be born to us, for us, who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace. Christians have long understood this text as pointing towards Jesus.
Isaiah lived about halfway between Gideon and Jesus; his words harken back to his people’s history, and lean forward into their hopes for the future.
This phrase, “As on the day of Midian” – tt’s a passing allusion to a long-ago battle – one of countless battles told in the Old Testament. And its protagonist, Gideon, didn’t make the cut for most children’s story bibles. Who remembers Gideon? But I really like story of Gideon and the defeat at Midian. And I think there’s something very timely about it.
This story is timely for us as Americans in 2017. I find Gideon really relatable. He’s skeptical, and kind of pessimistic. He hears God’s promises and looks at the world around him and says, God, I’m not sure we can get there from here. He says, God, you’re an idealist, and I’m a realist. But he enters a dialogue with God. He’s not totally cynical; there’s hope lurking under there. When God says, Things can be better, Gideon doesn’t laugh in God’s face and walk away. Gideon says, Tell me more.
So this conversation begins, and continues, all the way through the first business with the sacrifice, through the moments just before the attack, when Gideon sneaks into the Midianite camp, just to see what they’re up against, and hears one of the Midianite soldiers telling a friend that he had dreamed their army was defeated by Israel. Gideon believes: The impossible is possible. Let’s do this.
Gideon begins the story wearing skepticism as a kind of armor to protect the tenderness of hope, and of his anguish at his people’s misery. And he ends up committing himself to God’s purposes. He reaches a point where he wants what God wants, and he gives himself over to it, using his strength and his connections and his ingenuity to help bring about God’s deliverance for his people. Even to the point of risking his life.
And all of that makes Gideon a holy figure worth remembering, in these weary and jaded times. In our discouragement and our skepticism.
And I think the story of Midian is timely for Christmas. Because it’s about how something small can accomplish something big. Gideon marched on Midian with an army of 300 men. A laughably tiny force. Yet by God’s power, combined with human imagination and courage, they were successful. The power of God to do what seems impossible in human terms is what Isaiah has in mind, when he says that the burden of oppression will be cast off as on the day of Midian. It’s not just that a battle was won – but that a battle was won by the power of God. And that’s the Christmas story, the Incarnation: a tiny tiny baby, a newborn infant, poor, cold, and helpless, nevertheless – changes things.
Attacking an entire camp of enemy warriors with three hundred men is ridiculous, but confronting the entire regime of evil and greed and injustice and suffering in the world with one newborn baby – that’s even more absurd.
But that’s the kind of God, God is. That’s the heart of God, made known to us in the face of the child in the manger. Not a God of overwhelming force, to bend humanity to God’s will, but a God of hope and possibility and invitation.
Our God is a God who calls us to take heart, take courage, to lay down our skepticism and weariness and commit ourselves to God’s purposes, God’s agenda of liberation, justice, mercy, and love. To believe that better is possible, and that we can help, because God is with us. And our God is a God who changes the world with the power of small, ordinary, beautiful, powerful things: The light of a candle, the sound of a trumpet. A few words of love. An infant’s first cry.