The God of Small Groups

Typically, these blog entries have been very personal, or were supposed to be, and a lot of it was first-person. Since I’m using the ones from Judges as articles in a guide to study Judges, I’ve been rewriting them, removing the first-person references. Rather than re-write this next batch on Judges 7, I’m writing them as I would for the book, but still putting them out through this blog site. Just FYI.

It’s an often use cliche about God, that He works in mysterious ways, whatever is meant by that. Still, we see that Jesus seems to never use the same process to heal someone in the Gospels. And, in the Hebrew Scriptures, Yahweh seems to work with different people differently. He rejects Saul when he sins, and forgives David when he sins. So, it shouldn’t surprise us when we read Yahweh working differently with Gideon than He does with other Judges.

Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the people who were with him, rose early and camped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp of Midian was on the north side of them by the hill of Moreh in the valley. The LORD said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’ Now therefore come, proclaim in the hearing of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is afraid and trembling, let him return and depart from Mount Gilead.'” So 22,000 people returned, but 10,000 remained. (Judges 7:1-3 NASB)

Just prior to this in the Book of Judges, Deborah and Barak face down 900 chariots of iron with 10,000 men of Naphtali and Zebulun. So, why is 32,000 men, from basically the same tribes, too many men to face down more desert nomadic raiders than anyone can count? That’s really different. At least he has 10k men now, but even so, losing 22,000 men is okay with Gideon. So far, the tests of an offering and two fleeces seems to have given him faith to use 10,000 versus too-many-to-count camel-riding raiders. But Yahweh’s not done.

Then the LORD said to Gideon, “The people are still too many; bring them down to the water and I will test them for you there. Therefore it shall be that he of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go with you; but everyone of whom I say to you, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water. And the LORD said to Gideon, “You shall separate everyone who laps the water with his tongue as a dog laps, as well as everyone who kneels to drink.” Now the number of those who lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, was 300 men; but all the rest of the people kneeled to drink water. The LORD said to Gideon, “I will deliver you with the 300 men who lapped and will give the Midianites into your hands; so let all the other people go, each man to his home.” So the 300 men took the people’s provisions and their trumpets into their hands. And Gideon sent all the other men of Israel, each to his tent, but retained the 300 men; and the camp of Midian was below him in the valley. (Judges 7:4-8 NASB)

Even though 10,000 men worked last time, now, with vast numbers of foes, it’s too many. Now 300 is the right number. Keep in mind this happens long before the king of Sparta faces down the entire Persian army at Thermopylae. Even there, he probably had more total people than 300. Here, that’s all Gideon gets to face the camp of Midian. So, how are those three tests bolstering his faith now? And what is Yahweh doing anyway?

Look at the explanation Yahweh gives Gideon as He reduces his force. Yahweh claims that Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’ Or, more likely, give praise to Baal, the regional god they worship. Remember from the previous chapter, they still worship Baal, they’ve not repented. They’re watching Gideon to see if Baal “smites” him. The sons of Israel around Gideon, the other tribes and clans, they weren’t a part of his “rebellion” in tearing down the altar, Asherah pole, building a new altar to Yahweh, and offering a bull on it.

So, whether they claim the victory for themselves, or give praise to Baal, the battle would have been less of a divine victory for Yahweh. But now, it’s impossible to see it any other way. Why is this so important for Yahweh when His people seem so disinterested in Him? They cry out to Him for help, but not in repentance. They seem confused when He reminds them of His “exclusivity of worship” clause in their covenant. The prophet He sends has no impact, even Gideon is sarcastic with Him when He shows up in person to enlist him. Gideon even blames their problems on Yahweh, all the while Gideon has an altar to Baal in his dad’s front yard. What is Yahweh’s fascination with this collection of ignorant boneheads?

Because of grace. That often-touted quality of Jesus, Christians mistakenly believe was invented by Paul, is the eternal quality of Yahweh described here. These ignorant boneheads are the same as the ignorant boneheaded Christians running around in Paul’s churches, and in ours today. The cultures are different, the belief systems are different, even the covenant defining the relationship has changed. But the Person to whom we relate is the same!

Jesus chooses fishermen, Israeli terrorists, Israeli collaborators, and others to change the world. Here, Yahweh chooses 300 confused ignorant descendants of Abraham to challenge an army no one can count. Both tasks demonstrate the power of Yahweh, not those chosen. Both tasks are impossible, yet get done. Both tasks are miracles, and yet who marks them as such? Who speaks of them as the wonders they are?

Why, even with all this overwhelming evidence of the power of small groups, are we fascinated by large numbers? Why do we believe some things are only possible in larger churches, more people, greater resources? What better “resource” is there than the One forming stars, and tracing quarks? Who is more impressive than the One walking on water, calming the storm, and defeating unnumbered foes with 300 confused men?

In John 6, Jesus basically runs off a multitude of over 5,000 people. He then turns to his disciples and asks them if they intend to leave as well. Confused as they were, Peter says for them all, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life?” (John 6:67-68 NASB). From 5,000 plus a bunch of disciples, down to twelve, and He’s willing to go even further down. Yet, we can’t imagine a vibrant church ministry without 300 regular attendees, at least.

That doesn’t describe every church, every pastor, nor every church attendee. It describes an attitude way too common among churches of various denominations. It’s not that large numbers are wrong. Over 6,000 were baptized at Pentecost. This is about an attitude that judges differently than our Savior does, that measures success in the Kingdom of Jesus on larger numbers. It’s an attitude that measures ourselves by ourselves, and pits us against each other.

So, if our Savior calls a group of 300, awesome, get them together and run. But if, in His call, He only provides 5, don’t delay. Don’t wait for the other 295 to show up someday. Run anyway, obey in spite of the small number. Be faithful even though there’s too few to do so much, face down so many, or even surround the given territory. Remember, it’s not about us, or you, or your “crew”. It’s about Jesus. And He can do anything with nothing. Or with five.

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation


Perspective On Sin

Then the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD gave them into the hands of Midian seven years. The power of Midian prevailed against Israel. Because of Midian the sons of Israel made for themselves the dens which were in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds.  For it was when Israel had sown, that the Midianites would come up with the Amalekites and the sons of the east and go against them.  So they would camp against them and destroy the produce of the earth as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel as well as no sheep, ox, or donkey.  For they would come up with their livestock and their tents, they would come in like locusts for number, both they and their camels were innumerable; and they came into the land to devastate it. (Judges 6:1-5 NASB)

Context and perspective are everything?  Well, no, not really.  We say that, but then we tend to “emphasize” a particular perspective to suit our desired point.  Our behavior differs from our pithy statement.  Perspective isn’t everything. Actually, we focus on what we want, and find a perspective that supports that conclusion.

The writer of Judges has an audience.  They have these kings who, every other generation, wander from God.  It’s frustrating, and causes no end of confusion.  It’s not that they don’t know who the One True God is, but for one reason or another, these kings add another god into the worship of Yahweh.  The writer of Judges points out that this is nothing new.

But there are things about the time of the judges which are very different from the time of the kings.  For instance, without a central standing army, nomadic peoples can descend on Canaan and overwhelm the farmers.  And that is what’s happening here.  The writer of Judges has the perspective that this happens due to the people’s sin.  That’s his perspective.

On the other hand, this also affects the Canaanites who have not been driven out, the Philistines living in the plains, and the “city folk” who don’t live on farms.  We sometimes forget to view these descriptions with the “response to sin” removed.

At this time, Egypt is busy getting their stuff together, recovering from a recent occupation.  Mesopotamia is between empires at the moment.  The kings of Syria haven’t yet arisen, and the Hittites are still in the mountains of Asia Minor.  It’s pretty much up to the squabbling city-states of Canaan to address this issue.

The land is in chaos during the time of the judges.  The Canaanites of Meggido have iron chariots, but they do them no good against the camel cavalry of the desert nomads.  The only option in response to these migrant invaders is to hide the produce in mountain strongholds and caves.  And that is only partially effective.

Saying that seven years of these nomadic invaders comes as a response to the sin of the Sons of Israel is one perspective.  It’s one that interprets the events of that day in light of the relationship of the people, chosen by Yahweh, to be His people.  Whenever they chose not to be “exclusive” in their relationship with Yahweh, they suffered.

But this perspective does not address all the “bad” stuff that happened to the people.  Some bad stuff happened while the people were following Yahweh.  We’re not given those events.  They don’t support the author’s point.  On the other hand, he never says they don’t happen.  We know they had to happen.  This author sticks to his point, his perspective supports it, and other points are left to others to make.

These events are what they are.  The perspective used to derive meaning from the events can vary.  But, the choice of perspective is driven by the author’s intended point to make to his audience.  The chosen message for this author is that, when God’s chosen people are unfaithful to Yahweh, He permits them to suffer.  That is not to say that this is the only time people suffer.  But it does point out that God holds His people accountable for their actions.

That perspective isn’t an error.  It’s true.  It’s not the only explanation of why bad things happen, but it was never intended to be.  Later on, during the reign of Hezekiah, Assyria attacks Judah, and gets all the way to Jerusalem.  Yet Hezekiah and the people are doing well with God.  So, why did the Assyrians have so much success?  Answering that question wasn’t the author’s point, so we aren’t told.  But, we are told that God used that attack to demonstrate His power over even earthly powers considered unbeatable.  But only the Sons of Israel were given that point or perspective.

The unfaithfulness of the Sons of Israel was the explanation of why the nomadic peoples were able to oppress the land.  The reason given for most of the events in Judges is the same.  God holds His people accountable for their relationship with Him.  That point is supposed to be our take-away, our lesson, our insight gained from Judges.  So, keeping that point in mind, what’s going on in our world?  Are there things that indicate we may not be honoring our relationship with God?

God still holds His people accountable for their relationship with Him.  We live under a new covenant, but it’s still a covenant.  There are things for us and for God by which to abide in order to be faithful to the covenant.  He has done His part through His Son, Jesus.  We do our part when we rely on Him, and put this relationship ahead of every other, including ourselves.

Stuff happens when we are not faithful.  Stuff often happens anyway, but why ask for more?  Why not be faithful and avoid additional problems.  Isn’t closeness with God what makes it easier to get through the stuff of this life anyway?  If we have a solid relationship with the Creator of the universe, what else matters anyway?  If nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39), then why does stuff bother us?  The only stuff that should bother us is the stuff our Master uses to bring us back to Him.  The other stuff just deepens what we already have with Him.

Well, that’s my perspective through this knothole this morning.  What do you see of God through yours?