There have been times in my life when Sunday School lessons have been more frustrating than inspiring. Every week, since the time I was a little kid, there have been these lessons filled with biblical heroes, champions of God, great men and women of faith. And it’s not that I didn’t believe those accounts — I did. It’s just that their heroic deeds didn’t always seem to connect with my ordinary world.
And so, I read about David killing the giant, Goliath, or Daniel surviving the lions’ den, and these men seemed almost like superheroes. Elijah at Mt. Carmel, Moses at the Red Sea didn’t so much inspire me as intimidate me. Not to mention Noah and the ark, Solomon and his wisdom, Joshua and his victories in battle, Samson’s strength, Paul’s insights, Peter’s charisma, Stephen’s boldness…
Each new story seemed to bring a greater distance between me and the characters pictured on Sunday School walls — all of whom were larger than life, but none of whom I really felt like I could identify with.
“C’mon, Lord, give me someone with whom I can connect! I want Bible characters who aren’t listed in Who’s Who, but Who’s That? I want men and women who are average Joes and Janes. I want heroes who have never been portrayed by Charlton Heston.
Have you ever felt the same way? Do you ever get the feeling that God can’t use you? Maybe you feel like you’re not very gifted or talented. There’s always somebody who can do things better than you can. Maybe you feel just like an ordinary person. Or maybe you feel less than ordinary and you can’t imagine that you could ever be used in a significant way for the Lord.
If that’s the case, I want to give you some encouragement this morning as we look at someone in the Bible who was just ordinary. If fact, if we’re being honest, we’d have to say that he was actually less than ordinary, but God used him to do some amazing things.
And I want you to know that whatever stage of life you may be in, no matter what obstacles lay in front of you, how matter how much you may lack in gifts, abilities, or knowledge, God wants to use you and he is able to use you in extraordinary ways to expand his kingdom.
This morning, we’re going to take a look at a man by the name of Gideon. Some of you may recognize the name Gideon if you’ve ever stayed in a hotel or a motel. The Gideons are the ones who place Bibles in hotels around the world.
But long before Bibles were being placed in hotels, there was a man by the name of Gideon that God used in an extraordinary way. God chose Gideon to lead his people Israel in battle against the Midianites, who were oppressing them.
A lot of times, we make the mistake of going to these Old Testament stories and we look at people like Gideon as heroes. We say, “Look what they did! I wish I could be like that.”
But if you really pay attention to Gideon’s story, it’s hard to imagine a less heroic hero. He wasn’t brave. He wasn’t powerful. I’m not even sure he had faith the size of a mustard seed. But I think that’s the point of the story. Gideon is not the hero. God is. Gideon was a mighty warrior, but he was only a mighty warrior because God was with him.
And it’s important that we see that the same thing is true for each of us. We are not the heroes of our story. God is. We struggle. We get hurt. There are times when we get absolutely overwhelmed and we feel like there’s no way we can ever win the battle we’re fighting. But it’s important for us to realize that, like Gideon, we will only find victory through God’s power.
But before we look at the story of Gideon, I want to take a few minutes to set the scene. You will remember that God rescued the children of Israel from the land of Egypt. And then God took care of the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness, and then he brought them to the land of Canaan, the land that he had promised ever since the days of Abraham to give them.
And then, under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelites crossed over into the land of Canaan, and little by little they began to overthrow the people who were living there, to take possession of the land, and they settled in the land.
And that was a beautiful time for the children of Israel. God had given them a land that was plentiful, and after the terrible time they had experienced in Egypt as slaves, and the awful 40 years they had spent wandering in the wilderness, it was wonderful for them to have the opportunity to live in the Promised Land.
And, for a while, things were great. But, as is often the case, when things get easier, people tend to get a bit lax. And so, as time went on, the children of Israel got comfortable and they stopped honoring and obeying the Lord, and they stopped observing what he had told them to do.
You remember that it’s was God’s plan not just to bring the children of Israel into the land of Canaan, but to have them as a unique people to show all the other people around them what a difference it makes when the Lord is their God. But unfortunately, the children of Israel began to lose their distinctiveness.
And it’s true that God had promised them blessings, but he also promised that if they did not live in obedience, and if they did not follow his commands, and if they did not continue to honor him, then things would not continue to go well for them. And that’s exactly what happened.
Now the children of Israel were surrounded by enemies. And there was one particular group of people who began to give the children of Israel a hard time. They were called the Midianites because they lived in the region called Midian. They began to make life very, very difficult for the children of Israel. And that’s when we meet Gideon for the first time.
Judges 6:11 tells us, “Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.”
When God first came to Gideon, Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress. And I want to stop right there for a moment. I don’t know a whole lot about threshing wheat or pressing wine for that matter, but it seems to me that that a winepress is a strange place to be threshing wheat. So, let me help you to see what’s going on here.
Here’s a picture of a threshing floor. This is where you would take your grain after you have harvested it from the field. And at this threshing floor, you would separate the chaff — the bad part, the husk — from your grain (the part you would eat). And this is how it would work. You would take your pitchfork, toss the grain up into the air, and you would let the wind carry the chaff away because it didn’t weigh as much, and then your good kernels of grain would fall back down to the ground. To do this, you needed a wide-open space where there was a lot of wind for this to work well. Which is why most threshing floors were on top of a hill.
But Gideon was threshing his wheat in a winepress. Now, here’s a picture of an ancient winepress. Do you notice where this winepress is? It’s in the ground! So, Gideon is down in a hole in the ground, trying to thresh wheat.
Remember, you would usually thresh wheat in a wide-open space, but Gideon was in the ground, and that must have made it very difficult to do his work, wouldn’t you think? So why would he be trying to thresh wheat in a place that was designed for crushing grapes?
Well, the Bible tells us. We read at the end of verse 11 that Gideon was threshing his wheat in a winepress “to hide it from the Midianites.” Gideon was hiding what he was doing, because he was afraid.
Now, the first few verses of chapter 6 gives us a little bit of background on why Gideon was hiding from the Midianites. The Midianites were the enemies of the Israelites. And every year, the Midianite invaders would ride into Israel on camelback, they would beat up on on the Israelites, and they would steal all their crops.
And verse 1 tells us it was Godwho sent the Midianites to oppose his people Israel. Because they weren’t being faithful to the Lord. They were out worshiping the gods of other nations.
This is an aspect of spiritual warfare that we don’t talk about much. Over and over, scripture tells us that God is a warrior who fights for his people. But when we are unfaithful to God, he will also fight against his people.
There’s a sad pattern that’s found in the book of Judges. Israel forgets the Lord and does evil. So, God allows an enemy nation to oppress them. After a while, they cry out to the Lord for rescue. Then God raises up a judge to save them. And the land has peace for a generation or so.
But then it starts all over again. The Israelites fall away from God again. God sends in another enemy to oppress them. They cry out to the Lord again, and God gives them another judge to save them. And this happens over and over and over again.
So that’s what’s going on when we meet Gideon. He’s just a pathetic little man, hiding out from his enemies. And if you continue reading in chapter 6, you’ll find that Gideon’s family was just as sinful as everybody else. They were also worshiping idols.
And Gideon was afraid. Fear makes us do things that don’t make any sense. Things like threshing grain in a winepress. Deep down, you know that Gideon had to know how messed up that was. And deep down, I’m sure he knew that God didn’t want it to be that way. The Lord didn’t rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, only for them to end up hiding from their enemies in mountains and caves and winepresses.
It was fear that drove Gideon into the winepress and held him hostage there. He was stuck doing things that made no sense in a place he was never supposed to be.
And I think all of us can relate to Gideon’s story. Because I believe we all have things that take hold in our lives that God never intended for us. Maybe it’s a sin that you struggle with. Or maybe something has happened to you that’s just broken you, shattered you, made you feel so small and helpless.
And I think, eventually, we all end up like Gideon in his winepress. At some point in our lives, you find yourself in a place you never meant to be, doing things that don’t really make any sense.
But by the time you realize just how bad the situation is, and how much trouble you’re in, you’re stuck. Your shame and your fear are so oppressive that they keep you trapped in this place you never meant to be, doing crazy things that don’t make any sense.
Or maybe you just feel so broken, so worthless, so beat down, so insignificant that you just decide it’s best to just keep your head down. It’s safe down there in the winepress. Nobody can hurt you there.
Perhaps, in the past, you’ve had your own experience of threshing wheat in a winepress. Maybe spiritually, emotionally, that’s where you are right now.
But it was right there in Gideon’s lowest, darkest moment, when sin and shame and fear had overwhelmed him, that God’s light tore through the darkness, and God spoke the words that would raise Gideon up out of the winepress.
Because that’s when the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, and he said, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.”(Judges 6:12).
Now if there is one thing that Gideon did not think he was at that particular moment, it was a mighty warrior. He was a scared farmer — that’s what he was. He was threshing his wheat in a winepress because he was scared to death that the Midianites were going to come and steal his harvest. So, the idea that he was a mighty warrior just didn’t make any sense..
Nobody would have looked at Gideon and called him a mighty warrior. The truth was, he was just a scared, pathetic, sinful man. Hiding out in a hole in the ground. And that’s all Gideon could see when he looked in the mirror. But God saw something very different when he looked at Gideon. He saw a mighty warrior, chosen by God to rescue his people from the Midianites.
But, if the fact that Gideon was a mighty warrior didn’t make any sense, neither did the rest of what the angel said. Because the angel of the Lord said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior!”
Immediately Gideon began to question this, and this is how he responded, “Please, my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6:13)
Gideon wants to know, “If what you say is true, if indeed the Lord is with us, then please explain to me why all this terrible stuff is happening to us? Why is our land overrun with Midianites, if God is with us? If God is with us, then what I am doing down here hiding my wheat in a winepress?”
And so, Gideon comes to the conclusion, “It’s not true. God is not with us. The Lord has forsaken us.”
You see, one of the things that was at the very core of the Jewish religion, was the idea that God lived among his people. That was one of the things they were supposed to hold onto, whatever else happened.
The problem was this: they started looking at their circumstances rather than at their theology. And when you begin to look at your theology through your circumstances, the time will come when your circumstances become difficult and you begin to find that your theology has changed.
Have you ever noticed that? I’ve met people who will say, “Yes, I believe certain things”, but then their circumstances become rather difficult, and instead of looking at their circumstances in the context of what they believe about God, they allow their circumstances to change what they believe about God.
Gideon had to be reminded of this truth. “Whatever the circumstances are, Gideon, one thing hasn’t changed, and it is this: The Lord is with you!” Now, I know many of you here this morning, and I know something of the circumstances in which you live, and I know that many times, they are very discouraging circumstances. You live in very difficult situations, and I would not minimize that for a moment. But the one thing you must not do is to change your theology about God to fit your circumstances, but rather see your circumstances in light of who God is. Circumstances will change; God will not! Make sure that is your orientation. Make sure that is your focus!
But I love how God doesn’t fuss at Gideon. He doesn’t take this opportunity to remind him that God hadn’t abandoned Israel, they had abandoned God. He doesn’t quote scripture, or club Gideon over the head with all his sins and failures. He simply says, “The Lord has not abandoned you. I’m here with you right now.”
He says, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6:14). But Gideon still didn’t understand, and he still didn’t believe. He said, “How can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh (which was one of the tiniest of Israel’s tribes) and I am the least in my father’s house.” (Judges 6:15)
Gideon looks at his resources, which are utterly depleted. He sees absolutely no hope, and he certainly does not see himself as playing any major part in rolling back the forces of evil. But the Lord says to him, “I want you just as you are with what strength you’ve got, which doesn’t amount to much. What does amount to a lot is that I will be with you!”
God says, “Go in the strength that you have. I know it isn’t much; in fact, you don’t amount to much at all. You’re from the tribe of Manasseh. You’re in one of the lowest clans of that tribe, and then you’re right at the tail end of that family. I know what you are, Gideon, you don’t amount to much! But you’re the one I want, because I’m looking for people who don’t amount to much so that they will realize the key is not what they have to offer. The key is that I have everything they need to do what I’m calling them to do.”
You see, the problem is this: when we bring all kinds of riches and resources to the table, we get the impression that our riches and our resources are going to win the victory. But the poorer we are, the more inadequate we are, the fewer resources we have, the more likelihood there is of us being willing to be dependent on God, and in the end, that is the key to Gideon’s experience.
When Gideon looked at himself, all he could see was a weak and frightened man, from a pathetic little tribe in a God-forsaken corner of the world. He couldn’t see past his weakness to God’s transforming power. He didn’t understand that one of God’s greatest joys is pulling people like Gideon up out of their winepresses, and pulling off impossible victories with them, against impossible odds.
And so, patiently and tenderly — but firmly — God assured Gideon: “I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” (Judges 6:16).
Gideon still wasn’t convinced. He needed to be absolutely certain that God really was with him before he climbed out of his winepress, to go destroy the oppressors. Se he devised a test — one of several hoops he made God jump through before he would trust him. But here’s what’s so amazing about this story — God jumped through every hoop Gideon put down. What a patient God we have.
Then, basically, Gideon said: “God, if this really is you, then please accept my sacrifice.” So Gideon prepared meat and bread as an offering. He laid it out on a rock, a makeshift altar, before God. Then the Angel of the Lord reached out his staff and touched the sacrifice with it. And Gideon’s offering was consumed in a flash of fire.
And, after that, Gideon did become a mighty warrior. In the next chapter of Judges, he led an army of 300 Israelites who defeated their Midianite oppressors. Even though they were outnumbered nearly 500-to-1 and armed only with trumpets and torches. Correction — they were armed with trumpets, torches and the glorious power of God.
But as spectacular as that battle must have been, I think the more intense battle was fought and won in Gideon’s heart. It was his struggle to believe that he was who God told him he was — a mighty warrior.
It was the battle God won to rescue Gideon from the shame and the fear that had taken hold of his life, and kept him stuck threshing wheat in a winepress. And that battle that took place in his heart meant so much to Gideon that chapter 6 tells us he eventually went back to where that winepress had been, and he built a real altar there. And he named his altar, “The Lord IsPeace” (Judges 6:24).
So, let’s make this personal again. As I said earlier, I believe there are times when all of us end up like Gideon, threshing our wheat in a winepress. Gideon was hiding from the roving bands of Midianite invaders. They had taken hold of the land, and so fear had taken hold of Gideon’s life.
So, this morning, let me ask — what about you? What’s the oppressive power in your life? What is it that has left you stranded in a place you never meant to be, doing things that don’t make any sense? And I don’t know what that thing is for you. Maybe only you and God know.
But I do know that God doesn’t want you to stay hunkered down in your winepress, keeping your head down, with only your fear and brokenness to keep you company. I know that God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to pull you up out of that winepress.
And I also know — from personal experience — how easy it is to argue with God when he comes to rescue you from that hole you’re stuck in. There’s something that speaks to you out of the darkness, “I’m sure God has given up on me. I’m a nobody, a nothing. I deserve to be stuck in this winepress forever.”
But I also know that Christ has already won a sweeping victory over whatever it is that fills you with shame or fear. Because Christ already placed it on himself, and he took it to the cross with him. And God’s righteous anger against everything evil and oppressive that he never intended for us was poured out at the cross.
God already went to war against all of it. It died with Christ, and he took it to the grave with him. And when he rose from the dead, he left it all there. Buried.
So, I don’t know what you see when you look at yourself. But I do know that, just like Gideon, God doesn’t see you the way you see yourself. God sees who you can be. He sees his loving intentions for you. God sees who he is shaping you to be by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, when Christ calls you a mighty warrior, when he calls you a beloved daughter or son of God; or a living stone to help build a temple to his glory, you need to believe him. You need to trust him. Because you are exactly who he tells you you are.
And you can trust Jesus because he died and rose again to set you free from your winepress. An altar not made with human hands bears witness to Christ’s victory. That altar is his cross and his empty tomb. Sin and shame and fear and death — everything that has taken hold of our lives to oppress us — have all been consumed on that altar.
And just like Gideon’s altar, the cross of Christ and his empty tomb proclaim that the Lord is Peace.