The more, the merrier. That might be true for parties. It might also be true when you are watching your favorite sports team. More is better than less. But, there are also times when just the reverse is true. When my son Nathan and his wife found themselves with an unexpected second set of twins, raising their number of children instantly from four to six, they were faced with the reality that their newly bought mini-van was not going to work. If you are audited by the IRS and show up at the meeting to find eight or nine people from various government agencies all in the room waiting for you, that is probably not a good sign. More is not always better.
But, inevitably, one time in life when more ought to be better is when you are going into a battle. Weapons being roughly equal, a much larger army has distinct advantages over a small army on the battlefield. At least, common sense tells us it should. Several years ago, the United States Army had a recruitment campaign based on telling potential soldiers they could “be an army of one.” Not surprisingly, it was not very effective for recruitment. The last thing most people want to hear if they are being dropped into a war zone is, “Good luck, soldier. Of course, you know every else is kind of busy at the moment, so you’ll need to be an army of one.” No, most people would want to be told they were an army of thousands.
When Gideon prepared a large gathering of men to attack the vast and well-armed camp of the Midianites, things look hopeful. More than 30,000 Jewish men show up. That was much smaller than the Midianite army, but victory might be possible with brilliant tactics and surprise. But, God advised Gideon to trim it down a little.
Not all of the Hebrew men actually wanted to be in the army. That would be a good place to start. But the number of those reluctant to fight may have been more than Gideon had anticipated. This is obvious when Gideon announces that anyone too scared to fight or newly married can leave, and more than 20,000 decided it is time to get out of Dodge. Since it is not likely Israel had a sudden rash of weddings just before the battle, it is pretty clear many who had gathered did not want to be there.
Now, with less than a third of his original army, it would be risky to start of battle. Risky, but not impossible. That may be why God commanded another way to filter out some of those present to be sent home. This time, it was how they would drink water from a stream. You can read the details, but nearly 10,000 got their official pink slips. So, now, Gideon is left with just 300 men.
God, quite intentionally, had once led more than a million Hebrew slaves fleeing Egypt to the edge of the Red Sea. Then, He just had them stop and wait. They waited until Pharaoh’s army found them and started lining up for the attack. Later, God led the Hebrews right up to the Jordan River and, once again, had them stop and wait. He intentionally waited until the Jordan river was in flood stage because of the spring rains. He waited until they could not safely cross it before he told them to cross it. It is not always that God just happens to use people who seem inadequate. It’s more like He works to create circumstances where success is impossible, and then tells people to move. God does not look for self-confidence, he actively undermines it.
Is it any wonder the same God who whittles Gideon’s 32,000 down to 300 decides to challenge the throne of Herod and the power of Rome with some shepherds and an immigrant family living in a stable?
Materials: If you have access to a horn that has been cut so as to be playable, then use that to show the children what a ram’s horn sounds like. Or, if you have access to the internet, do a google search for “ram’s horn” and find a link that includes either a video with sound or an audio file you can play. Also, 70 or 80 coins (pennies work well).
Most of the time we think of people who lead armies into battle as being very brave. But, Gideon was not very brave. He had a hard time trusting that God was really going to take care of him and his soldiers. Even when God first called him (Judges 6), Gideon is afraid. He asks for God to do some miracles, just so he will know for sure he is really talking to God. And, then, when he gathers thousands of Jewish men together as an army, God makes him send most of them home. Finally, he is left with just a few soldiers against a huge enemy army.
Gideon’s army was now so much smaller than the Midianite army that no one thought they had a chance. [using the pennies] In fact, for every one soldier in Gideon’s army, do you know how many soldiers were in the Midianite army? (begin with 1 “Midianite,” then make it 10, then 20, and so on all the way to 50. Although we do not know the exact size, it had to be more than 150,000 or better than 1 to 50.)
But, Gideon gave each soldier an clay pot with a lantern inside and a ram’s horn. You could blow through these make noise like a trumpet. He had them scatter on the hills around the sleeping Midianites one night. Then, on a signal, they all shattered their clay pots, showed their lanterns and blew their horns. (Let them hear the sound of a ram’s horn being played).
The Midianite army all panicked and people just start shooting arrows in every direction and swinging swords blinding in the dark because they were so scared. By morning, it was clear the Midianites had been killing their own soldiers all night long and the rest fled away from Israel as fast as they could.
The Jesse Tree ornament shows the lanterns Gideon’s soldiers were hiding in clay pots. When they got ready to attack, they broke the clay pots so that lights could be seen and they all blew their ram’s horns. In the New Testament, Jesus will pick just twelve men and send them out to change the whole Roman Empire. Although it took many years and lifetimes, do you know what happened? The Roman Emperor became a Christian and starting using Roman money to build churches all over the Roman Empire. And, even though that Emperor was the most powerful king in all the world, he bowed down and called Jesus his King and Lord.
In your prayer time, talk to God about times when just a few people made a huge difference in your life. Think about how vital a small group of family or friends can really be when people feel overwhelmed by some disease or tragedy or crisis. Although we might be encouraged when we worship in mega-churches that are crowded with thousands, there are many times in our own lives when a few people who really care mean much more than thousands. Finally, reflect on how tiny Jesus’ family would have looked on the census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Three names on a list of many millions. But those three names, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are remembered today long after most of the kings and generals and governors of that time are forgotten.