Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"FAITH IN THE VALLEY"

Judges 7:1-8, 19-22a (C.E.V)

Psalm 140:6-7

     There’s a story of a little boy who was asked to say grace before supper.  Ernie opened his prayer.

“Dear God, thank you for these pancakes…..”  When he finished, his parents praised him for his nice

prayer, but were puzzled.  “Ernie, why did you thank God for pancakes when we’re having chicken?” 

The boy smiled and replied, “I thought I’d see if God was really paying attention.”

      Who of us have not at some point wondered if God was really paying attention?  When our life is

going well, we assume that God is smiling upon us.  It is at such times that we – in a manner of

speaking – take God for granted; just kind of forget about God and go about our happy way.  But

when things take a bad turn, we begin to believe that God has forgotten about us; that God is

frowning rather than smiling upon us.  Such beliefs are influenced by the Old Testament images of

God which seem to suggest that our faithfulness results in rewards, and our unfaithfulness in

punishment.  I think we reinforce this pattern with our children when before Christmas we threaten

them with “You better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m tellin’ you why.”

      Our reality is this:  life presents us all with peaks and valleys.  During the peaks, we have a sense

of control and self-esteem. But our valley experiences often come with a sense of helplessness and

total lack of control.  When the valley times come, most of us do think about God.  It may be to seek

God’s intervention, strength, and comfort.  Or it may be to question God’s power or presence.  In the

Old Testament story we read this morning, Gideon and the Israelites seem to be questioning both. 

      As we join the story, the Israelites have been freed from bondage in Egypt, and were occupying

the promised land.  But for seven years, the Midianites, the Amalekites, and other eastern tribes had

pilfered the land and forced the Israelites into caves and dens in the mountains.  Some promised land. 

The prophets of the day were claiming that all this was related to the Israelites having bowed down

and worshiped foreign deities. 

      Earlier in the book of Judges, Gideon was threshing grain when an angel showed up with this mes-

sage:  “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.”  Gideon, of course, was shocked.  To begin with,

he was not a warrior at all; just a young guy threshing grain; a bitter young guy.  He cynically

answered: “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?”  The Lord, though,

had come to deliver Israel, through Gideon.  Yet like Jeremiah and others called by God, Gideon had

several reasons why he was not the one for the job.  Gideon protests, “But sir, how can I deliver Is-

rael? My clan is the weakest…  and I am the least in my family.”  In response, the Lord said, “But I

will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”  Gideon was still not

convinced.  After seven years of the Midianites, he wanted assurances.  So he demanded a sign.  He

asks the angel to hang around while he prepares a goat and some unleavened cakes.  He places them

on a rock and pours broth over them.  Then the angel touches the meat and cakes with a staff, fires

consumes them, and Gideon seems convinced for the time being.

      Meanwhile, the Midianites along with other people of the East were gathering in the Valley of

Jezreel, near the Jordan River.  The spirit of the Lord moved Gideon to ready himself for battle.  Gide-

on sends messengers to the other tribes of Israel, inviting them to join in the battle.  But again,

Gideon becomes unsure of God’s presence and asks for additional signs; which God provides.  Finally,

Gideon seems ready to be God’s instrument of justice for the Israelites.  He gathers the troops and

begins marching toward the enemy.  But now it’s God’s turn to do a little testing of His own.

      The Lord said to Gideon:  “your army is too big.  I can’t let you win with this many soldiers.  The

Israelites would think that they had won the battle all by themselves….So call your troops together

and tell them that anyone who is really afraid can leave Mount Gilead and go home.”  Not exactly

what Gideon wanted to hear.  Twenty-two thousand soldiers booked, leaving Gideon with only ten thousand.

Then God tells Gideon to take his men to the water.  God instructs him to place all those who lap the water

like dogs on one side, and all those who kneel to drink like gentlemen, putting their hands to their mouths,

on the other side.  God chooses the three hundred who drank like animals to be the army.  By this time,

Gideon is near having conniptions.  As it stands, the Midianites, Amalekites, and other Eastern tribes

“covered the valley like a swarm of locusts.” 

      That night, the Lord tells Gideon to proceed with the attack.  Gideon divides his men into three

companies of one hundred each, and they surround the Midianite camp.  He gives each man a

trumpet, a jar, and a torch.  Following Gideon’s lead, they blow their trumpets, smash their jars, and

hold high their torches. The Midianites scream in terror, and in the confusion begin killing each other.

In the end, in spite of their fear and finitude – only 300 against tens of thousands – the Israelites

prevail, and the Midianites are driven out of the valley! 

      Some years ago, I had a personal valley experience which led me to trust God more.  I don’t handle

medical problems very well.  When I was having chest pains and had to call my wife to come to the

church and take me to the ER, I was afraid.  Then learning I had a 99% blockage in the artery called

“the widow maker,” and was facing surgical intervention, I was scared to the bone.  Although I have a

regular prayer life, it became more intensified and focused that week.  I suppose I wanted to make

sure God was really paying attention.  I wasn’t sure why this was happening to me at the tender age

of 49, but most frustrating was I had no control.  While I sensed God saying to me, “I am with you,” 

I felt a bit like Gideon:  “Why, then, has this befallen me?” 

      There is a relationship between fear and faith.  Any soldier involved in combat would agree with

the statement:  “There’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole.”  One dictionary definition of fear

calls it “a mingled feeling of dread, and reverence toward God.”  We solicit God’s intervention and

power in our lives when things befall us.  Yet at the same time we tend to resist it, often putting God

to the test.  And our desire for self-sufficiency often prevents us from recognizing God’s presence. 

That was Gideon’s dilemma, and ours as well.  I believe the story of Gideon provides at least three

lessons of faithfulness. 

      The first lesson is to put total trust in God.  Through God, we learn we are able to achieve goals

which are beyond our own power to achieve.  And our future is according to the grace and providence

of God; not according to our own power and control.  Mother Teresa was once asked how she could

do the work she did with the poor in Calcutta.  She said she daily grew convinced that it was by God’s

grace.  Don Shelby quoted her in 1993:  “I knew that if the world was mine, it would die with me.  But I

knew this was (Christ’s) work, and it will live and bring much good.  If the work is looked at by just our

own eyes and only from our own way, naturally we ourselves can do nothing.  But in Christ we can do

all things.”  Against overwhelming odds, Mother Teresa poured out her life and transformed the lives

of the poor.

      Against overwhelming odds, Gideon led the Israelites against the Midianites.  Only by God’s power

and presence was the victory won.  God’s decreasing of the Israelite forces from 32,000 to only 300

was God’s lesson to Gideon, and to us, the need for total dependence upon the Lord.  And depending

upon the Lord, we shall not be disappointed. 

      A second lesson of faithfulness found in the Gideon episode is that faith is not an intellectual pur-

suit.  The late American Baptist minister Joseph Fort Newton once stated:  “Belief is a truth held in the

mind.  Faith is a fire that dwells in the heart.”  Gideon wanted to intellectualize his faith, asking God

for several signs before he decided it was safe to trust.  Gideon had to wrap his mind around the situa-

tion before his heart could commit.  How often do we first want to intellectualize faith?  In the age of

reason, that seems to be the default setting for most of us.  It’s like comedian Woody Allen once said: 

 “I would believe, if only God would give me a clear sign – like making a large deposit in my name in a

Swiss bank.”  Faith is not a matter of personal benefit as much it’s a matter of personal commitment. 

And faith that remains solely in the mind and intellect does not move us to action.  Only faith that

lives in the heart – like a fire -- can win battles and overcome enemies. 

      A third lesson of faithfulness in the Gideon story may be the most important:  the healthiest faith

is consistent faith.  It seems that once Gideon was convinced that God was present, and once he got

past his conniptions, he followed God’s orders which seemed altogether irrational.  Three hundred

troops against who knows how many thousands?  What were the chances?  Nevertheless, Gideon did

as he was instructed – to the T -- and overcame Israel’s enemies against overwhelming odds; not by

his power, but through God’s.  By releasing his faith to the One who was ultimately in charge, Gideon

came out a winner.

      Have you ever heard of Charlie Hough?  Some of our baseball aficionado’s may.  He gained fame as

a knuckleball pitcher, having played for the Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox, and Florida Marlins.  In

a 1993 article in Sports Illustrated, Charlie said that throwing a knuckleball – which provides minimal

rotation – can be the most unhittable pitch in baseball, and in the same inning, the most hittable.  He

was thus quoted:  “If someone hits one knuckleball four hundred feet, and the pitcher throws the next

one the same way, it will likely do something different.  In the end, you’re not in charge of what the

ball does.  You’re only in charge of letting it go.” 

      What a wonderful analogy for faith.  For the most part, we are not in charge of our lives.  We can

only let go and allow God’s providence and grace to work.  But we must be persistent.  If we get

knocked down – as Charlie Hough did in his up-and-down baseball career --  we must try again.  We’ll

find that God’s power in our lives will be manifest in surprising ways. 

      So there we have three lessons:  faith requires trust in God’s grace and providence, not our own

abilities;  faith is ultimately not of the mind, but of the heart;  even in the face of fear and failure, we

should seek to be both consistent and persistent in our faith.  So often, we are like Gideon in that we

tend toward a faith of convenience.  Unlike Gideon, we have the advantage of God’s ultimate sign of

faithfulness:  the cross of Jesus Christ.  God has shown us that no matter how we stumble, God is

there to deliver us.  So let’s go courageously into the valley, and face our enemies with the assurance

of God’s presence, power, and grace. So often, Lord, we face enemies both outside us and within us,

and question whether You’re really there, and really listening.  Help increase our faith, which is Your

gift, that we might stand strong, whether on the mountaintop or in the valley.  Grant us the victory,

in the name of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

 

 

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102