A dear brother in a house church once challenged me: “I have always wondered why you keep driving all the way out here every week for house church. We are such a small group and it takes you over three hours driving time to do it. Are you sure it is worth your while for such a small group?”
I am not sure if it’s worth my while, but I am absolutely sure it is worth God’s while. The story of Gideon tells me so. (Judges 7:1-22)
Gideon is given the task of driving the Midianite invasion out of Israel in the period of the Judges. The Hebrew scripture is graphic in describing how huge a task it was. The Midianites had invaded the land of the 12 tribes of Israel with their whole nation; a whole people numbering more than the sands of the seashore were gobbling up the land like locusts. Their army alone numbered 135,000 sword-bearing soldiers. They were encamped in the valley below the hill of Moreh.
Gideon looks down on the valley with its swarm of Midianite people and livestock; with its massive professional army. Behind Gideon is the ragtag band of men he has managed to raise up from the tribes of Israel. They were 32,000 strong, untrained and outnumbered more than 40 to one. While he is looking down, God tells Gideon his army is too big; send home everyone who is afraid.
Gideon sends home 22,000 men, perhaps the sanest ones. God tells Gideon his army is still too big, take them to a creek and watch them drink. Send home everyone except those who lap water like dogs. Gideon is left with 300 men who lap water like dogs and who, according to Josephus, were the least watchful of the lot. Well at least they are the elite and the best warriors. Actually they are all musicians. Well at least Gideon can arm them well, preferably with nuclear warheads or something. But God insists that they be armed with trumpets, torches and pitchers. Well at least Gideon can form them into some type of sleuthing guerilla group that could slink underground in small groups of two or three and begin to assassinate the Midianites one by one with shards of glass from their pitchers. But God has Gideon march them right out into the open in three military columns around the massive camp and basically has them declare to the Midianite encampment, “We’ve got you surrounded.” Well at least Gideon can attack at the end of the last watch when all the guards are tired and nearly asleep. But God has the attack staged at the beginning of the middle watch when all the guards are fresh and wide awake.
Somehow the complete massive Midianite army is destroyed. We are told in Judges 8:10-12 that there were only 15,000 Midianites left and these, Gideon and his merry band of 300 trumpeters routed out of the country, capturing the two kings of Midian in the process. And few in all of Israel who had not been directly involved could understand it or believe it.
So what is going on in this story? Is it just an individual quirky miracle saga? It could be, except that this story is repeated over and over again in both Testaments of the Bible. It’s the story of God choosing to use the small, the insignificant, the week and the lowly to accomplish God’s purposes in the world.
It’s the story of the patriarchs. Look at Abraham and Sara. From out of a weak, very old man and a barren old woman God spawns a mighty nation. God insists that it be this way and we are warned against offering our own Ephraim solutions. It’s the story of the prophets. Look at the call stories of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah. It’s the story of all the judges, including Gideon. It’s the story of the kings, at least those who were faithful. David versus Goliath is the best example that comes to mind. And It’s the story of the Christ: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
Somehow this is my story, too. I can’t count the times I have been on the cusp of doing something with my life and I have prayed: “O God, I am too weak, make me strong.” I can’t count the times that I have hesitated in doing a task precisely because I have felt inadequate, too small to carry it off. I can’t count the times that I have felt completely overwhelmed by the task, and overcome with defeat before I get started. I am ridiculously too small, embarrassingly insignificant, absolutely too weak. And God says to me in the Gideon story, in the biblical story, in the Christ story, the same thing he said to the apostle: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
It seems to me this story also speaks volumes to us as communities of faith. We seek to build large and mighty congregations and God chooses to use the small and weak. We meet in our presbyteries and vote to close down small congregations and God elects to use the small communities of faith as agents in doing His work in the community. We call small congregations “unviable” and God calls them “my people.”
This biblical precedent of God using the embarrassingly small as his agents in the world is precisely why a handful of God’s people meeting in the bush out at Canim Lake are extremely significant. And what has proven to be the case is that when a handful of faithful people begin to perceive that it’s out of their smallness and even their weakness that God will use them to perform His purposes in their community, that together with the likes of Moses trembling at the burning bush and Joshua anxiously pacing the desert at Jericho, we discover we are standing on holy ground. In my mind, there is no better place to be as a community of faith.
It seems to me, as individual Christians and as a denomination, we have a lot to learn about the working of God. For the main part, we are a denomination of small congregations and yet we haven’t learned the gift and the grace in being small. We haven’t learned how to stand on the holy ground created when a small group of believing people offer themselves in Gideon or Moses or Joshua or Jesus-like fashion for God to use. A local presbytery not long ago voted to close down a congregation because there were only 12 faithful people regularly participating. I expect they decided the work was no longer viable. Go figure: Jesus used 12 of the same kind of people to change the world.