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Tuesday, January 28, 2020

"Hillside Faithfulness" (Judges 7)

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Sunday, January 26, 2020

            If you weren’t with us last Sunday, we talked about Gideon.  An ancient Israelite, God called him to liberate God’s people from a growing threat.  A coalition of Midianites, Amorites, and other eastern tribes had assembled an enormous army with iron chariots and this force harassed the Israelites just as they were settling the land God had promised to their ancestor Abraham. 
            So, God called Gideon to be the one to lead the people against the Midianite coalition.  Gideon wanted no part of this, but he built an altar and the angel of the Lord engulfed that altar in flames.  That sign, though, wasn’t enough for the man who informed the Lord that he was from the most insignificant clan in his tribe and he was the least in his clan.  He asked for signs and God gave them.
            He asked that the fleece be soaked with dew overnight and the ground around it remain dry.  God did this.  He asked that the miracle be reversed – wet ground and dry fleece.  God did that.  Finally, out of dodges and delays, Gideon accepted God’s assignment.
I originally titled today’s message “Hillside Faith,” but the more I read and reread, the more I realized Gideon had little faith.  The bigger and better story is God’s faithfulness.  God said He would deliver His people and he would do it through Gideon no matter how thin Gideon’s faith. 
In Judges 6, Gideon negotiated with God, demanding signs and proofs.  In chapter 7, the time had come to put together the Israelite army.  Judges says there were so many Midianites they were like a cloud of locusts (6:5), over 120,000 warriors (8:10).  Meanwhile Gideon had 32,000 soldiers (7:3).  It was a fool’s errand, destined for bloody failure. 
“Too many!”  God said, “You, have too many.”
I imagine Gideon thinking, “Too many, right.  … Wait, what?  We have too many?”
God didn’t stutter.  “The troops you have are too many.  Israel will only take credit away from me” when they win (7:2).  In our lives do we take credit for gains when what we should do is thank God for His grace?
Following God’s lead, Gideon tells his soldiers, “Anyone who is afraid can go home.”  Actually, he says anyone who is trembling with fear may go, and 22,000 do just that.  Gideon should have gone with them.  With all the signs and confirmations God gave him, he was self-centered and terrified throughout the episode.  This sifting out of the fearful happened at the stream of Harod, which in Hebrew means “the spring of trembling” (7:1, 3).
Now Gideon has to face 120,000 bloodthirsty Midianite Commandos and their iron chariots with 10,000 men.  Still too many, says God.  God will do the sifting this time.  Every soldier is to go the “Stream of Trembling,” and God tells Gideon to watch how they drink.  Everyone who cups his hands and brings the water up is moved to one side.  They’re cut.  They won’t be in the army that will route the Midianites and deliver God’s people.  Those who lay down, put their faces to the water, and lap it up like dogs will be the ones who make up God’s army.  Of the 10,000 left, 300 drink in this fashion.  Three hundred! 
Remember the movie called 300!  that came out a few years ago?  Leonidas was the king of the Greek city-state Sparta when they faced the Persian invasion in the battle of Thermopylae in the early 5th century BC.  Three hundred brave Spartans faced a vast onslaught.  All were killed as they heroically defended their homeland. 
Their feats of heroism have been told over and over.  The Hollywood film version lauds the sensual masculinity and dauntless resolve of the outmanned Spartans.  They fought with savage courage. 
We find a much different “300!” story when we read about Gideon’s troops in Judges 7.  Like Leonidas, Gideon had to face a well-armed enemy of 10’s of 1000’s of veteran soldiers.  The comparisons end there. 
God told Gideon, “If you are scared, do a reconnaissance and take along your servant Purah” (v.10).  In chapter 6, Gideon’s idolatrous father Joash stood between him a murderous mob.  Here in 7, Gideon’s servant Purah holds his hand while God leads him to not only surreptitiously reconnoiter the Midianites, but to do so at the perfect spot.  Among 100,000 Midianites, Gideon happens to overhear one tell another of a dream of crumbling barley bread that topples the tent of Midian.  His comrade says, “This is …  the sword of Gideon; … into his hand God has given Midian and the entire army” (7:14)!
At every turn, God reassures his faithless servant.  Gideon and his troops divide into three groups of 100 and come out of the hills above the Midianite valley encampment.  Each Israelite smashes the jar he’s carrying, and then each blows a trumpet.  In all the noise, the Lord throws the Midianites into such a confused, chaotic panic; they begin turning their swords on each other (7:22).  The Israelites don’t even have to fight.  They just pursue the shell-shocked enemy.
The outcome was never in doubt because this story began before Gideon was ever born.  This story began in Genesis 12 when God called a shepherd named Abram, changed his name to Abraham, and promised him that his descendants would live in this land as God’s people.
The sins and the mistakes of God’s people did not negate the promise.  God would work through his people flawed as they were.  Likewise, God works for his purposes in this community through us, his church. 
I want our church to grow.  I hope everyone here grows in Christ, matures spiritually, and comes into a deeper knowledge of God.  I hope our church as a body grows in a sense of our connectedness to Christians all over the world.  I hope we experience an expanding vision of God’s call on us as a group. 
            I also hope more people come to our church because they decide to turn to Christ after hearing the gospel here.  Most Sunday mornings, less than 90 people are in the building.  I’d like to get that to a range of 90-100 people.  And if that happens, then, I hope we grow to 120 weekly and then grow from there and so on.  I hope the growth is a sign that people here are turning to Jesus.  I hope a lot of baptisms accompany the growth.
            Having said that, hear me clearly.  Growth is not our goal.  Our design when we come together is to glorify God in Jesus Christ.  We want to follow Jesus, love others, and share hope in a safe, welcoming environment.  We pray growth will come out of following, loving, sharing, and welcoming. 
If growth were our goal, it would become an idol.  Idols command our worship, but our worship belongs to God.  When we worship an idol, we have robbed God of what’s his, and forfeited that opportunity to connect with God in a relationship of welcome and trust.  So, growth, we hope will be a byproduct of us living faithfully as a worshipping community.  Growth cannot be our ultimate goal.  Our one ultimate goal is to glorify God in Christ. 
I’ve been thinking about Gideon’s story since last year when a lot of people left our church.  People left when we made significant decisions they found to be too conservative.  Many of you did not like those decisions, but you stayed.  Others left because they thought other decisions we made were too liberal.  Many of you agree, but you’re here.  You stayed.  Some left our church because they were exhausted and disillusioned regardless of how the conversation turned out.  Many of you were every bit as discouraged, but you stayed with your church family, and committed to the future God has for us. 
I was discouraged by all the leaving.  But, each Sunday, when I saw those of you who kept coming back, I thanked God.  And I thought about Gideon.
My original thought in titling the message “Hillside Faith” conveys the idea that Gideon demonstrated amazing faith in the face of impossible odds and that we need to do the same.  We – the people of a small church facing institutional challenges as well as each of us personal challenges in our individual lives – need the faith of Gideon to face what’s before us.  Except the story is not Gideon’s faith, but God’s patience.  The God who dealt with Gideon as he was and delivered Israel through Him is the star of Judges 6 and 7.
That same God is the star of Hillside Church’s story.  God has planted this church in this community to bear witness to the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.  God’s purposes are served and God’s goals are accomplished, sometimes with our cooperation, sometimes in spite of our shortcomings.
When I was uncertain about our church’s future, I wrote a note that I’ve kept in my prayer journal since then.  It says “Gideon’s 300.”  If we were to more forward as a smaller group of people, we would do it in faith, and without worry or anxiety.  Studying Gideon’s story, I realized it is actually God’s story.  The focus is not on the three hundred or on our 70-80 Sunday morning worshipers.  The focus is on our God who is always faithful.
Before bed every night, Candy and I write down blessings in a notebook.  We’ve done it throughout our marriage.  The other night we looked back 2 years, the last Sunday of January 2018.  There were 140 people in worship at HillSong Church that Sunday morning.  I don’t know the first time Hillside will have that many people.  But it doesn’t matter.
What’s our goal?  To glorify God because He is always faithful.  However strong or weak our faith is, God loves us, and God works out his purpose in this community through us. 
I have been blessed to see God at work here.  Our faithful God goes before us.  We need not fear.  We step into the future humbly and boldly seeking his path, and sharing the good news of new life in Jesus Christ – new life available to all who come. 
Whatever you might be dealing with, God knows and God sees you.  God’s got you.  He will walk you through the valley, whatever valley you’re in.  He is faithful and we are his. 

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