The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evening Prayer      8th November 2020
Gideon and the Midianites
Andrew Penny

I want, this evening, to look at four aspects of the story of Gideon and his three hundred; it’s strange story, more, perhaps like a fairy tale than history, but like all the historical stories in the Old Testament, intended to tell us something about God and his working.

We can draw one conclusion right away; God does indeed move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. And the most curious in a way, comes earlier in the story, before our reading, when God tells Gideon to reduce drastically the size of his army. Gideon does so, first, logically enough, by sending home all who felt frightened, and then by surely oddest selection process, the dog lapping water test. You might think this strange procedure was to pick an elite troop for guerrilla like tactics- which it may have been, but the express reason is that God does not want the Israelites to think the coming victory is their own work, rather than His. Man’s achievements are to be as agents of God and instruments of his will, not as His rivals.

The selection of those agents is not always so apparently random; Noah and his family are chosen because they are righteous and blameless, but we are not told on what basis the lucky animal couples were chosen. Elsewhere, selection is as capricious; Gideon himself was minding his own family’s business when the Lord’s finger falls on him, and he’s a reluctant national hero. So too Moses, minding his father-in-law’s flocks, is scarcely an eager volunteer. The theme continues into the New Testament; fishermen and tax collectors are not obvious evangelists; few would have predicted Paul’s future achievements when he was Saul.

If the choice of agents is, superficially at least, puzzling, the choice of methods is no less unexpected. So many of the mighty works of God are achieved by unconventional methods; the destruction of the pursuing Egyptians was not through Israel’s military prowess; Joshua’s tactics at Jericho, are not standard siege techniques and in the use of trumpets and shouting, resemble Gideon’s blitzkrieg at En-Harod. But we shouldn’t expect the execution of God’s will to follow human methods or conventions. It must have seemed to the Egyptian charioteers pursuing Moses through the Red Sea, the inhabitants of Jericho and the Midianites (if they had time to think) that Israel’s God wasn’t quite ‘playing the game’. And indeed, he was not carrying out any human strategy.

The agents and the methods are unexpected, and so too is my third theme; the speed and decisiveness of execution.  Gideon does not hang around with his 300; true he takes the precaution of gathering intelligence before his attack, and hears of the Midianite’s weird dream and its interpretation (and note the speed with which demoralisation spreads through the Midianite camp). Having assessed the enemy’s resolve, he strikes at once. This rapid decision making, no councils of war or long logistical planning, reminds me of the rapidity of the Passover flight from Egypt. The Israelite victories are not always rushed- Jericho took six days before the final precipitous assault which is sudden when it comes; when Goliath has been felled (with another somewhat sneaky shot), the Philistines immediately turn on their heels and run, like the terrified Midianites at En-Harod. Victory is swift and unequivocal. This decisive, even precipitous action is reflected in the New Testament, as for example the Peter and Andrew, James and John and Matthew abandon their livelihoods and families; or Saul’s lightening experience on the road to Damascus; or the conversion of so many thousand on the day of Pentecost. This sudden rush is indeed a characteristic of the Holy Spirit, which we might equally call the Holy Gale.

So strange choice of people; unconventional tactics, rapidly executed; my fourth theme is the power of words, or even just noise. It’s the smashing of pots and blaring of trumpets which terrified the Midianites, but they have been softened up by the insidious strength of rumour and suspicion, words whispered in the night and derived from a depressed explanation of a surreal dream. Not until the feeding of the five thousand, will barley cakes, even stale barley cakes, have such a seminal role. This is perhaps another facet of the unexpected and, in human terms, unconventional working of God’s purpose and the realization of His Word. It is the shouts of the Palm Sunday crowds and yelling of the mob on Good Friday that drive the story of Holy Week; it is rumour and twisted quotes that serve as evidence in Jesus’ trial. Words shouted, words whispered exert a powerful force, stronger than reasoned strategy, or careful judicial consideration. It’s a force sometimes harnessed to achieve God’s purposes, sometimes apparently contrary to them. God ways remain mysterious.

From these brief and very eclectic reflections, you will have guessed that they all share the attributes of the Holy Spirit; the primordial breeze wafting over the watery chaos, unpredictable and unpredicated, but turned into a creative gale by the word of God. This is the same spirit that moves by suggestion and dreams, inspiring three Magi to go on a mad mission to seek the origin of the star, and telling his parents to up sticks immediately and flee to Egypt. And I suggest, the same spirit that gives babies to octogenarian women or chooses an unmarried teenager to give birth to the Messiah.

This is a spirit which, or whom it’s not easy to analyse, operating outside the bounds of human experience and comprehension, and yet unmistakable, whose impulsions may not be welcome or popular, but which cannot be resisted, and whom we should welcome, whatever the apparent cost to self, because in truth we can do nothing without it, but with it may become just a little but divine. Amen.

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