"Brave Gideon had 300 men, the Midianites had a host;
But Gideon had the Lord with him, and so he had the most."
-- Children's Sunday school song
When Vance Havner died, the world became a poorer place. Even now when tapes of the old country preacher's sermons seep into late-night radio programs, I can see the unpretentious, spiritual giant standing before a packed sanctuary in Boston's Tremont Temple Baptist Church, and I can almost hear him say: "God doesn't need more church members on file; he needs more men and women on fire!"
We church leaders had come to the New England Evangelism Conference to learn how to increase our church membership, not how to cut our rolls. But the speaker held us spellbound nevertheless, and we listened as he told us more.
In a sermon called "God's Minorities," Havner used simple, down-home words to tell us that the problem of empty pews in our churches might be with the members we already had. In fact, he said, the problem might be with us. For his text Havner used a story from the seventh chapter of the book of Judges we had all known since childhood.
He wasn't the bravest soul around, and he had no military experience. But God had called and Gideon agreed to lead little Israel into battle against the huge Midianite army. He may have had second thoughts, however, when God unveiled his instructions, one incredible layer at a time.
Although the Midianites filled the valley as far as the eye could see, Gideon could muster an army only a third their size. But God counted the 32,000 men and said, "The people who are with you are too many."
"Too many men?" Gideon cried.
"Yes, Gideon, too many. I want you to call your army together and ask who is afraid. Those who answer, 'yes,' send home."
About 22,000 went home. Now the Midianites outnumbered the Israelites 10 to one. Gideon hoped God was pleased.
He wasn't. "You still have too many men," he told the bewildered Gideon. "Take them all down to the stream and watch as they drink. Those who lie down on their bellies and lap the water like a dog, send home. Those who cup their hands and drink while keeping their feet going and their eyes on the road ahead, take with you into battle."
All but 300 men lapped the water like a dog.
With only 300 men left, Gideon must have wanted to go home, too. But the weeding process was over. Gideon finally had the right number -- and caliber -- of men, and God had Gideon's full attention. The instructions continued:
"Take your men into the hills above the Midianite camp and separate them into three groups of 100 each. Give each man a trumpet (probably a ram's horn), an empty pitcher and an unlit lamp. Before the sun rises, have each man light his lamp and hide it inside the pitcher. Then, with a trumpet in the other hand, proceed toward the enemy. When everyone is in place, and at your signal, give all the trumpets a mighty blast, hold the lamps up high, and smash the pitchers on the rocks below."
The Midianites didn't know what didn't hit them. Drowsy with sleep and judging the size of the enemy by sound instead of by sight, they grabbed their swords, flailed at each other and, if they weren't killed or maimed, ran away. Only then must the astonished Israelites have understood why God didn't include weapons in their battle gear. They had won the fight without incurring a single casualty, or dealing a single blow.
Every time I hear the words majority, minority or "according to the most recent poll," I think of Gideon, and of a fiery preacher who reminded his grown-up, Sunday School audience that God doesn't always need the largest, best-equipped army to win his battles.
Those of us who find ourselves in the minority, even when we are certain our position is correct, should take heart. As the Apostle Paul reminded the Roman Church 2,000 years ago, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31)
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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