Unlikely hero! Unlikely army!

Gideon addressed a recent gathering of ministers-James Astleford was there to take notes.

James Astleford, until recently a church pastor, is the director of Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Sri Lanka.

Unlikely heroes, unlikely armies, and unlikely victories? That depends on your perspective! I must begin by thanking the conference president for inviting me to speak to you. Frankly, I shrink from the task of challenging you ministers in these momentous times (Judges 6:15), but I have learned that the Lord can use the most unlikely candidates if they are committed. Although you all are acquainted with my story, it might be well to go over it again highlighting some of the applications for you today.

My story begins with my people's apostasy. God had stopped shielding us from security threats around us, and consequently the Midianites invaded us. Now, that is quite an irony, considering that the Midianites were our relatives (see Gen. 25:1-6). Prob ably many of your members encounter similar problems; parents, children, or other relations can bring about difficulties and temptations. Family members are not always supportive.

Fortunately, our nation came to its collective senses and cried out to the Lord. He graciously heard us, despite our having grievously and callously neglected Him (Judges 6:6). How ready God is to forgive, and how inclined He is to hear prayer. Scripture certainly bears testimony to this (see Isa. 55:7; Neh. 9:17; Jer. 33:8). Never forget that even if you have wandered from God, your relation ship to Him and your ministry are not doomed. Our God is a saving God.

God sent a prophet to us (Judges 6:8). He came not to drive us away but to discipline us, to bring us back to Him and to life. Unfortunately people usually pay no attention to loving words and kindnesses, and then it appears that God has to speak in harsher tones. I understand that many of you have members who are uncomfortable with the prophet whom God graciously provided in your recent history. I want to encourage you to keep your prophet's messages before the people; we ignore them at our peril.

Well, my part in the story begins with me somewhat ignobly threshing wheat in a winepress. Obviously, I wasn't bravely tackling the Midianites; I was skulking in the winepress trying to do a job without anyone finding me. You see, although history has been kind to me, painting me a brave hero, I wasn't really anything of the sort. My clan was the weakest in Manasseh, and I was the youngest in my father's house. If any of you are familiar with Eastern customs, you know that position, caste, and family are all important; if you're not the heir and chief, you don't count. Frankly, I didn't have a lot of faith either. You know how I challenged God to provide at least four miracles before I was ready to do His bidding (Judges 6:21, 36-40; 7:9-14).

God uses the weak

Do you ever feel like you are the least? Maybe you don't have a large bank balance, powerful car, or high profile position. Possibly you come from a humble background and are conscious of your deficiencies in public speaking, singing, or whatever. You have a gnawing realization that you don't possess much faith. Even at this meeting you see some of the ministerial "stars" and you fear that you will never preach, administer, counsel, or organize like these per sons. So maybe you're wondering if you should be in the ministry at all. What can God do with you? Don't worry. God is probably looking for someone exactly like you.

After all, He found me and used me! "God does not always choose for His work men of the greatest talents, but He selects those whom He can best use."1

When the angel called me to my ministry (later I came to recognize that it was the Lord Himself) He brought me both a challenge and an assurance: "Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat the Midianites as one man" (Judges 6:16).* This promise is a theme to my story. To us problems may seem many; but to God they are just one. All I could see was thousands of enemy soldiers, but God saw them as one. I suspect that in your ministry you find hordes of problems too. Cranky members, obstructive boards, shrinking financial support, unsympathetic conference officials, more requests for help than you have time or energy for... I am sure you could recite a long list. But to God those multiplied problems are as one. Are you ready to let the Lord be with you to deal with them?

Before I could rush out and send those Midianites packing, God had some homework for me to do. I had to tear down the family altar to Baal. That wasn't easy. You don't mess around with Dad, especially when you're the youngest in the family. But every idol must be removed from the heart if we would claim God's blessing. It's a principle that God constantly sets before us (see Matt. 6:33). Do you rush in to battle the enemy without first having removed the false idols or roadblocks in your life?

This is a meeting of pastors, and your members aren't listening, so let me ask the unaskable questions. Is there in your life something that prevents God from blessing your ministry? Perhaps it's dislike or hatred of a member, fellow pastor, or conference leader. Perhaps it's "quantity time" spent before the modern idol for many, the TV. Or do you linger too often in the bookstore "accidentally" looking at centerfolds in the glossy magazines? Whatever your idols are, tear them down!

You know, of course, that having taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, the Lord really blessed, and good old Dad came to my rescue when the townsfolk were ready to kill me for pulling down the altar. "Let Baal take care of himself!" Dad challenged. He didn't, and I got a new nickname: Jerubbaal, or let Baal plead!

Making a bold start

Having made a bold start, how ever, I couldn't bring myself to accept that God really wanted me to launch out in faith against impossible odds. Others may show faith (consider the centurion's faith in Luke 7:1-10), but I was scared. And so I set out my fleece. Looking back on the incident, I marvel at God's patience.

He makes the best use of the instruments available and often honors the weak in faith. However, I have no doubt that as faith develops, God expects people to take Him at His word and depend less and less upon con firming signs. May I say one word in my defense? I was cautious about placing myself at the head of the army without conviction that God had called me. Surely it is fitting to be cautious about advancing ourselves. Are you ministers similarly cautious about "promotions"? At the triennial, when the nominating committee puts your name forward for department director, or secretary, or president, will you agonize over whether this is God's call or not?

Finally convinced of my calling, I went out to look at the forces that had assembled to help me. I got one of the biggest shocks of my life. The Lord said I had too many! I had only 32,000, and the enemy had more than four times as many (Judges 8:10). Of course, I had forgotten the promise that they would all be "as one man." God wanted us to understand that victory did not come, would not come, from our physical strength and numbers. And those who were unwilling to face danger or whose worldly interests would draw their hearts from the work of God would add no strength to our armies.

How many today recognize this truth? Many of our church books are swollen with numbers, but these numbers of themselves add no strength to the church. It is commitment that counts, not membership (see Rev. 3:16).

So I released from the army all those who wanted to go home. To my horror, two thirds of the army left! How astonished I was to hear from God that I still had too many. So down we went to the river and just 300, thinking that we were about to make an attack, hastily splashed a little water to their mouths as they made ready to fight. The rest were more concerned about themselves, and the Lord told me I didn't need them. The men of His choice were those who would not permit their own desires to delay them in the discharge of their duty. In the end, there were only 300 that God could use.

As you look around you this morning, does it not seem to you that our ranks are pretty thin? How will we ever evangelize this conference with so few ministers? Even if you factor in our church membership, as those of you who are theologically awake must do, our band is still precious few.

Now, wouldn't you be shocked if the Lord walked in this morning and said that we had too many? Because if any of us this morning are fainthearted and overly concerned about our own selves, our standard of living, or whatever, we are too many. And the Lord might have to trim down our numbers until He has a band of committed pastors.

My 300, meanwhile, were divided into three groups and provided with trumpets, pitchers, and torches. How would you trans late that today? What seems powerless in the eyes of the world? The cross, the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit?

Our army had a battle cry: "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!" That cry was more than just a yell to keep our spirits up. It broadcast the unbeatable combination of the Divine and the human. "It is God's plan that human agencies shall have the high honor of acting as coworkers with Jesus Christ in the salvation of souls."2

Letting God do His work

Cooperating with the Lord means allowing Him to do His work. We "stood in our place" around the camp. This is a lesson that Job, Moses, and Jehoshaphat came to understand (see Job 37:14; Ex. 14:13; 2 Chron. 20:17). All through my story I hope you have seen the emphasis on the Lord's victory. At least eight times in my narrative this emphasis is made (Judges 7:7, 9, 14, 18, 20, 22; 8:7, 22).

Are you led to wonder sometimes at the task and the tools that the Lord has given us? Frankly, some of my soldiers were inclined to feel a little foolish with trumpets, pitchers, and torches. I would like to share this with you: "The simple act of blowing a blast upon the trumpet... by Gideon's little band about the hosts of Midian was made effectual, through the power I of God, to overthrow the might of His enemies. The most complete system that men have ever devised, apart from the power and wisdom of God, will prove a failure, while the most unpromising methods will succeed when divinely appointed and entered upon with humility and faith."3

Temptations of power

I come now to one of the most significant parts of my story how I almost became King Gideon! After the victory over the Midianites, the people proposed that I become their king. I recognized that this was in violation of the theocratic principles on which our nation was established.

"I will not rule over you," I declared, "nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you" (Judges 8:23). I would be telling less than the truth if I didn't admit that there was quite a temptation here. Maybe it was almost easier to defeat the Midianites than to turn down this alluring offer. But we can't ever forget that we are the people of the Lord, not of some power figure. [I was very heartened to hear that at the Indianapolis session of the General Conference the newly elected president announced that Jesus Christ, not he, was the president. We need more of that attitude.] Those of you involved in conference leader ship, remember it is the Lord's organization not yours. He may ask you, for a time, to perform certain tasks. But learn to back away gracefully when your time is finished. Do not try to carve out political kingdoms for yourself in the body of Christ. Save yourself the heartache so tragically common at constituency meetings when people who live for the glory of their office suddenly find themselves not elected and consequently crushed. If "the Lord shall rule over you," then it doesn't matter who gets elected as long as you are enlisted in His service wherever He wants you.

I wish I could end my story here. But honesty compels me to admit that there is more. Although I refused the king ship, I did allow myself to take a bonus from the booty. About 20 kilograms of gold was handed over to me. Instead of investing the money wisely for my people, I made an ephod out of it. I suppose I thought that since the dinner I offered the angel had become an offering, I now had the prerogatives of the Aaronic priest hood. But although I coveted the Lord's assurance before the attack on the Midianites, now I did not seek divine sanction for my actions. To my shame, I, who had helped to over throw their idolatry, led the Israelites astray. Eventually I did obtain peace, but the evil seed I had sown bore bitter fruit in the next generation.

"Those who stand in the highest positions may lead astray. The wisest err; the strongest may falter and stumble. There is need that light from above should be constantly shed upon our pathway. Our only safety lies in trusting our way implicitly to Him who has said, 'Follow me.' "4

* Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version.

1. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), p. 553.

2. ____, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 573. See also vol. 6, p. 40, and , Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1943), p. 111.

3. ____, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 554.

4. Ibid., p. 556.

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James Astleford, until recently a church pastor, is the director of Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Sri Lanka.

March 1994

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