Summary: God empties us before he fills us.
The 2007 movie 300 was loosely based on the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. On a thin strip of land between the mountains and the ocean, 7,000 Greeks led by King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 crack troops temporarily held off the Persian army and their hundreds of thousands of soldiers (some even say millions). The outnumbered Greeks lost that battle but they did such damage to the Persian army that they were forced to withdraw from Greece just a year later. I didn’t see the movie but I did see the posters and wondered if ancient Spartan warriors were really as ripped as the actors on the set of 300. If Spartans were such tough guys, I can see how just a few of them were able to compete against a superior force.
300 could also have been the title of our sermon today as we contemplate Gideon’s guerillas and their fight against the Midianites. Only 300 wasn’t the number of elite troops fighting the battle, it was the total number of soldiers Gideon led against 135,000. That’s odds of 450 to 1! You know the outcome of the battle. Gideon’s guerillas didn’t just inflict heavy losses, they won. Why? Because they were ripped? Because Gideon was a military genius? No. Israel didn’t conquer because they had a few good men; they triumphed because they had one good Lord. As we continue our sermon series on Gideon we’re going to find out how this victory will give us strength for the battles we face.
Last week we learned how God commanded Gideon to destroy his father’s shrine to the Canaanite god, Baal. Gideon, the warrior, obeyed God’s directive but showed himself to be a bit of a worrier by doing the deed at night for fear of what his father and others would say. As it turned out, the townspeople would have killed Gideon for what he had done had Gideon’s father not come to his son’s defense.
How pleased Gideon must have been to gain an ally. But he would need more than his dad to help him in his fight against the dreaded Midianites. In fact our text begins on the ominous note that the Midianites and their allies had set up camp in the Valley of Jezreel. Jezreel was in the middle of Israel and was the bread basket of the country. How had 135,000 troops and their camels marched unhindered there? That would be like a foreign army marching into Saskatchewan or Kansas and setting up a fort without having to fire a single shot! That’s how weak and timid the Israelites were…until something happened to Gideon.
At that moment, says our text, the Holy Spirit came upon Gideon. Emboldened by the Spirit’s presence, Gideon blew a call to battle on his shofar (a ram’s horn). Would anyone rally to Gideon besides his dad? Amazingly the Abiezrites did. These were the very same people who had wanted to lynch Gideon for tearing down Baal’s altar. Now they were ready to fight alongside of Gideon. Apparently the Holy Spirit had worked a change in their hearts too. Then others from the tribe of Manasseh came. And then men from the tribes of Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali also showed up. In all 32,000 men rallied to Gideon the warrior.
But before they went charging into battle, Gideon the worrier wanted some assurance that God was really going to be with them and give them the victory. And so Gideon asked for a sign with that wet fleece/dry ground, and dry fleece/wet ground thing. God assented and did what Gideon asked. What does that tell you about God? It tells you that he is patient and graciously bears with weak faith. We’ll return to this thought.
32,000 troops was a start but what was that against 135,000? If Gideon thought God was going to bolster his chances of winning by putting up a few recruitment posters around Israel, he was mistaken. Instead God said to Gideon, “You have too many men. Tell anyone who is afraid to go home.” It probably didn’t take long before someone stood up and walked away. And then a couple more did. And then, as Gideon watched with what must have been horror, it turned into a stampede. Men were practically tripping over themselves to get out of there. Clearly they viewed fighting the Midianites as a suicide mission. In all 22,000, or 70% of the army left before a single arrow had been fired.
Were the remaining men discouraged? Not necessarily. With all the scaredy-cats gone they may have even felt stronger than before. No, 10,000 vs. 135,000 hardly seemed like a fair fight but with the right strategy and a freedom fighter’s zeal they could take on the Midianites and perhaps inflict enough damage that the raiders might go home. Stranger things had happened on the battlefield.