Come with me back in time to May 31st 1899, to Janesville Wisconsin. Three men are meeting in a hotel to discuss and implement an exciting ministry initiative – an initiative that will have significant implications for the hospitality industry around the world.
You see, these three men had been given a vision by God. They were all travelling salesmen and each had a strong desire to share the message of Jesus. And what was this vision? To start an organisation that would place a Bible in hotel rooms across the nation. Yes, this was the meeting that launched what we know as “The Gideons”.
The three men: Samuel Hill, John Nicholson and William Knights. And why did they name the organisation after Gideon, this Superhero of the Old Testament? Well, in the words of these men, because they realised the task was huge and they felt very inadequate to achieve it. That’s a great summary of Gideon’s life: an ordinary man…a humble man…a reluctant hero; but one who was to achieve greatness for God and for his people.
During his various encounters with God, Gideon made a number of significant statements and these give us an insight into his relationship with God. They speak to us about his honesty, his vulnerability and his courage.
The first comment from Gideon comes in an incident recorded in the 6th chapter of Judges. It’s the moment when Gideon receives his call from God to be the one to deliver Israel from the constant attacks from the neighbouring nation of Midian. From the text we get the impression Gideon was a very frightened farmer; he’s threshing his wheat indoors (in a wine press and that’s very unusual). The probable reason? He’s scared the Midianites might see him, steal his crops and do him harm.
The Lord appears to Gideon, as recorded in chapter 6 verse 12: “The Lord is with you, brave and mighty man…”
Now this is what I think is called, (in leadership circles), giving someone a fine reputation to live up to! It’s almost comical as we can imagine Gideon saying: “Brave and mighty man – who me?” But it doesn’t take long for Gideon to regain some composure and in the 13th verse of the 6th chapter he replies to the Lord’s angel:
“If I may ask Sir, if the Lord is with us, what’s happened to all the wonderful things our fathers told us the Lord used to do?”
Now isn’t that an incredibly honest and very human response in the face of hardship, setback and disappointment? “Lord you’re saying you’re with us…looking after us…caring for us…but if that’s so, how come we’re still facing huge problems?” You see, what was happening with Gideon and the Israelite nation is they were becoming preoccupied with their circumstances rather than focusing on their convictions, their theology, and the things deep down they knew to be true.
I will remember how encouraged I was years ago when I was introduced to a very simple three part formula to help keep me focused on my beliefs, my convictions about God – rather than being weighed down by my adverse circumstances.
The formula revolves around three words: FACT, FAITH and FEELINGS.
The facts of the Good News never change: God sent his son to show us how to live, to die for our sins and he’s promised never to leave us or forsake us. By faith I have embraced these spiritual truths and over the years I have applied them in my life with great effectiveness – resulting in very pronounced levels of joy, blessing and fulfilment.
However, at times I don’t always feel that positive and sure about my walk with God. There are times of doubt, times of huge disappointment, sadness, despair and fear. My feelings…your feelings can (under the right circumstances) fluctuate quite significantly; but our feelings are the least reliable…the most fragile in this formula of fact, faith and feelings. In other words, how I’m feeling at any one time need not have any bearing at all on the fact of God’s great love for me and the faith I have chosen to place and express in that love.
So here, in the 6th chapter of Judges, against the backdrop of a long history of God’s faithfulness and deliverance over many generations, Gideon receives the message: “The Lord is with you.”
And his natural response at the feelings level, because of his circumstances, is to ask: “Well, if you’re with us, how come so much is going wrong for us?” Very graciously, God doesn’t rebuke Gideon or get all defensive – he simply draws him back to the facts and to the Faith and in verse 14 he says: “Go with all your great strength and rescue Israel from the Midianites. I myself am sending you…” God is saying: Press forward Gideon…your circumstances need not hold you back…you have my strength…you have my promises…you will prevail…
This is a recurring theme in the Bible and I believe it’s because life is full of trying times – none of us are very far from extremely adverse circumstances. That’s why throughout the Bible there are constant reminders that God is with us…be not afraid…do not see me through your circumstances – instead, view your circumstances through me. That’s God’s word for us today: Don’t lose sight of the facts of Good News…don’t lose hold of the Faith you know has brought you through in the past. The second significant statement from Gideon comes from verse 36 of the 6th chapter of Judges: It’s his expression of apprehension following God’s challenge and this is what he says:
“You say you’ve decided to use me to rescue Israel…”
In other words:
“You say you’ve decided, but I want to be sure…”
And what follows is the incident Gideon is probably best known for: The Fleece Test! “Lord, show me a sign!” It’s a very natural response, a very human response and it’s one in which we can all identify with Gideon. Mind you, it’s an aspect of Gideon’s life that arouses feelings of great envy in us – even jealousy because he got his sign! And he got it in a spectacular way! You may recall he put out a piece of fleece and asked dew to fall only on the wool, leaving the surrounding ground dry. God granted that request but wouldn’t you know it, Gideon was not satisfied: “Er, that’s great Lord but so I can be really sure, can we try that one more time – this time with dew on the ground and the fleece dry?”
Again, God in his patience granted his request. Wouldn’t you just love this level of confirmation of God’s guidance in some of the big decisions we face: should I leave this job? should I take this job? should I make this move? should I continue in this relationship? should I go ahead with this treatment? should I serve in this area of ministry? Many are the times when we’d love clear direction on what we’re meant to do, but it’s not very often that we get a 100%, iron clad confirmation of the choices we should make. If only God would make His will for our lives a lot clearer…
I can trace defining moments in my life when God’s will was so clear and the sign given so unmistakable. These would include my call to be a minister…my decision to marry my wife…the decisions to go to the three churches in which I’ve ministered and several other times when big decisions were required. These were all moments when God’s will was crystal clear – but for the other decisions in my life (thousands of them) it’s been a matter of stepping out in faith with as much information as I can get, as much advice from spiritual mentors as I can get – and as much inner peace as I can get through prayer and reading the scriptures. I believe these are the basic spiritual disciplines involved in seeking God’s will today when, for the most part, there’s an absence of spectacular signs. Let’s face it, as far as we know, even the Apostle Paul had only one Damascus Road experience.
Now there’s a sense in which we can envy guys like Gideon, Moses, Joshua and so on because they received such clear instructions from God. In another sense, we can be a little sad for them because they did not have what we have: a clear record of the life, witness and example of our Lord Jesus Christ – who represents one giant fleece if you like, in terms of how we should live, how we should forgive, how we should respond to justice issues, who reveals through His teachings the pathway we should take in life! Combine all this with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and you soon realise we have some clear advantages over the people of God prior to the arrival of Jesus.
The last statement from Gideon comes in the 7th chapter of Judges Verse 20. It’s really a victory cry when he shouts triumphantly: “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” You see, Gideon went on to achieve a great victory for God and for his people. Despite his initial fears, despite his apprehension and need for a sign, despite his sense of inadequacy and his focus on feelings rather than on fact and faith – Gideon became a Superhero. He had a decisive win over the vast forces of Midian, even though the size of his army had been reduced to a few hundred. And this assertion…this battle cry: “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon” was the signal that ultimately God was in control! He would have the final word.
Yes, the Bible promises that the people of God will always be on the winning side. That’s not to say things will always go our way; that’s not to say there won’t be hardship, disappointment and setbacks. Being on the winning side in God’s economy means having the strength and resilience to get through the tough times and it is He, who provides us with the things we need. As Paul says in Romans 8, “there is nothing that can ever separate us from God’s love”. Over the years I’ve met hundreds of faithful Christians who live on the basis of promises like this one. Their over-riding prayer in life is not “Lord give me an easy life” because they know that’s not very realistic. Rather, their prayer is: “Lord, make me a strong person…..”
The three wise men who met in Janesville Wisconsin all those years ago to establish what we know today as “The Gideons”, could never have imagined the impact of their dream, their God-given vision – not only on the U.S.A., but on the entire western world.
Like Gideon, they initially wondered how it was all going to work out; but fortunately, like Gideon, they had the faith and courage to see the project through.
Father, when faced with life’s difficulties and uncertainties, help us to cling tenaciously to your promises for strength, guidance and ultimately, for victory. Amen.