This sermon is part of the sermon series "God Is Big Enough". See series.
When our first child was quite small, we used to ask her, "Laura, how big are you?" She wasn't even a year old—couldn't even hardly say anything yet—and she always had the same answer: she would raise her hands and say, "So big!" Then she would raise her hands to get additional stature, as if she were saying, "I'm huge, I'm enormous! There's no telling how big I'm going to be!"
We want our growing kids to know that how they think of themselves matters. We don't want them to think of themselves as small or weak or insignificant. We want them to think they are "so big!" We are devoting this series to a much bigger question: How big is your God? How big is Christ in your life? I'm deeply convinced that the way we live is a consequence of the size of our God. The primary problem in our lives is we are not convinced that we are absolutely safe in the hands of a fully competent, all knowing, ever present, utterly loving, infinitely big God.
A shrunken God
If I wake up in the morning and go through the day with a shrunken God, there are consequences. I will live in a constant state of fear and anxiety because everything depends on me, and my mood will be governed by whatever circumstances hit me that day. If I live with a shrunken God, I will find it unnatural to pray when I have a need, because I'm not really sure, to be honest, that God makes a difference and that prayer matters. If I live with a shrunken God, I will become a slave to whatever other people think of me, because I don't live in the security of a big God's acceptance of me. If I face temptation to speak deceitful words in order to avoid trouble, I'll do it. Or if I can get credit for something at work that I haven't earned, and I don't trust there's a God who sees in secret and will one day reward, I'll do it.
When human beings shrink God, they pray without faith, worship without awe, serve without joy, suffer without hope, and the result is a life of stagnation and fear, a loss of vision, an inability to persevere and see it through. It's against this backdrop the writers of Scripture never tire of telling us that we do not live with a little tribal God. Whatever we need, God is bigger. Whatever our weakness, God is stronger.
What is it like to live with a God who is so big? Let's look at a story way back in the Book of Judges, back before Israel had kings like King David. They were living in the Promised Land, and they had problems. Their problems were called Midianites. The Midianites had attacked the Promised Land, and the text says they were like "swarms of locusts" taking over all of the crops. The Israelites took refuge in caves and holes in the ground, and though they had not paid any attention to God for a long time, they now cried out to God for help.
God came to one of the most unlikely characters in all of Israel—a man named Gideon. Here's what happened: The angel of the Lord came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress. A winepress was a little pit in the stony ground. Normally wheat would be threshed on a threshing floor out in the open where the wind could help separate the chaff from the wheat. But threshing wheat in a winepress would be like making coffee in a thimble; it would be a ridiculous process. Gideon chose to do this because he was terrified of the Midianites; he was afraid they would spy on him and take away what wheat he had.
We are told about Gideon's behavior because it is crucial that we get a correct picture of him. At this point, Gideon was not some action hero—he was not a strong man; he was no Samson; he was not a confident, "so big" kind of guy. Gideon was living with a little, distant, not very caring, not very powerful, faraway God. When we live with a little God, we live in a world without dreams or possibilities, for things cannot really change. As things were yesterday, so they will be again tomorrow—our habits, our failures, our relationships, our flaws, our problems. We'll have to settle on threshing wheat in a winepress, because our neighborhoods, our schools, our community, our world—the Midianites—are too big for us. Our job is simply to survive.
Let's keep reading. The Lord said to Gideon: "Gideon, go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" "But Lord," Gideon asked, "How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh and I am the least in my family" (Judges 6:14-15).
How would you assess Gideon's self-image here? He found a way of viewing himself that would rationalize his passivity. He found a way of viewing himself that would justify his saying "no" to God's great call on his life—to the great adventure for which he was born. He found a way of viewing himself that rationalized his self-centered existence. And how did God respond? Did he say, "Go Gideon. Your natural charm and good looks are utterly sufficient for the task"? No. That's not what God said. And that's not what God says to you and me. God said to Gideon, "I will be with you and you will strike down the Midianites as if they were but one man" (Judges 6:15-16).
This is the hinge on which everything turns—not just for Gideon, but also for you and for me. What is unthinkable and undoable on my own becomes unstoppable when it's God and me.
A bigger presence
Fifteen years ago I was walking in Newport Beach, Southern California with two friends. Two of us were on staff and one was an elder in the church I was involved with. We walked past a bar, and a fight had been going on inside the bar and had spilled out into the street, just like in an old western. Several guys were beating up on this one guy, and he was bleeding from the forehead. We knew we had to do something, so we went over to break the fight up. I didn't have much experience in this kind of thing. I missed the class in seminary where we learned about how to break up fights in a bar; I don't think we were very intimidating. We went over to where the fighting was and said, "Hey, you guys cut that out." It didn't do much good. But then all of a sudden they looked at us with fear in their eyes, and the guys that had been beating up on the one guy stopped and started to slink away. I didn't know why until we turned and looked behind us. Out of the bar had come the biggest man I think I've ever seen. He was like six feet, seven inches, maybe 300 pounds, maybe 2% body fat—just huge. We called him "Bubba"—not to his face, but afterwards when we'd talk about him. And Bubba didn't say a word. He just stood there and flexed; you could tell he was kind of hoping they would try and have a go at him. All of a sudden my attitude was transformed and I said to those guys, "You better not let us catch you coming around here again!" I was a different person because I had a great big Bubba. I was ready to confront with resolve and firmness. I was released from anxiety and fear. I was filled with boldness and confidence. I was ready to help somebody that needed helping. I was ready to serve where serving was required. Why? Because I had a great big Bubba. I was convinced that I was not alone. I was safe.
If I were convinced that Bubba were with me 24 hours a day, I would have a fundamentally different approach to my life. If I knew Bubba was behind me all day long, you wouldn't want to mess with me. But he's not; I can't count on Bubba. The writer of Scripture poses this question for me and for you: How big is your God? One who is greater than Bubba has come, and you don't have to wonder whether or not he'll show up, because he's always there. You don't have to be afraid, Gideon. You don't have to live your life hiding. You don't have to thresh your wheat in a winepress. You have a great big God, and he's called you to do something, so get on with it.
Gideon's first challenge
God told Gideon to begin by tearing down an altar that was built to Baal—a god that the Midianites and many other people in ancient Mesopotamia worshiped. Baal was a tribal god. His worship was associated with Celtic prostitution—sexual immorality tied up in the notion of fertility and making the earth fertile by the practice of very immoral sexual acts. There was no connection between the worship of Baal and virtues like justice, righteousness, holiness, conviction of sin—none of that. Baal worship was riddles with superstition and involved infant sacrifice. Think about the life of one child and what that one life means to us, and then think of lives like that thrown away by the thousands in an act of worship to Baal. It was a very dark time.
This worship and idolatry had to end; Baal was not God. So God chose Gideon to tear the alter down. But here's the kicker: this alter was not built by the Midianties, but by the Israelites. Worse yet, it was built by Gideon's own father.
How often would you guess Gideon had stood up to his dad? Remember Gideon's claim, "I'm the least in my family." Scripture says, "So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the men of the town, he did it at night rather than in the daytime." Gideon's dad found out what happened and to Gideon's surprise said, "If Baal is really God, Baal can take care of himself. Let him take care of himself." Gideon's big-God faith was contagious; it touched even the heart of his father.
The big test
Now it was time for the big test. God called Gideon to go up against the Midianites to free his people, but Gideon was again scared and responded to God's command by saying, "Lord, if,"—not when, but "if you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said."
You may have heard the phrase "I want to set out a fleece" used in the context of discerning God's will. What I want to point out here is that setting out a fleece was not a positive thing. God had already promised Gideon he was going to save Israel. The fleece was not an expression of trust—it was an expression of immature faith. Sometimes people use this fleece idea in a manipulative or superstitious way.
Ken Davis talks about a guy who is driving down the road, sees a bakery, and says, "Alright, Lord, if there's a parking space in front of that bakery when I drive by, then I'll know it's your will for me to go inside and eat a donut." Sure enough, on his fifth time around the block, he sees an open parking space. We do that kind of testing sometimes, and Gideon did something like that in this passage, but God is gracious and did with the fleece as Gideon requested twice; Gideon was finally ready to go.
In chapter 7 Gideon and his men went to war against the Midianites. Gideon recruited 32,000 soldiers to join him. The Midianites had an army of 135,000. Gideon was outnumbered by a ration of four-to-one. God came to Gideon: the enemy has 135,000 troops. You have 32,000. You've got number problems. Gideon must've said something like, "God, I'm so glad to hear you say that! I was afraid you were going to make me go into battle outnumbered four-to-one!" But God replied: No, Gideon. You don't even need as many soldiers as you have, because this is my battle. I want you to send home everyone who's afraid. You can imagine Gideon's response to that. He went to his troops. Everyone was afraid. Twenty-two thousand troops went home, leaving Gideon with 10,000 soldiers. Now Gideon's outnumbered more than thirteen-to-one.
God came again to Gideon:
"There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there. If I say, 'This one shall go with you,' he shall go; but if I say, 'This one shall not go with you,' he shall not go …. Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink." Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The Lord said to Gideon, "With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands."
Why Gideon was supposed to choose the dog lappers is not clear from the text. It's often taught that the 300 left, the dog lappers, did something deserving—that by lapping like a dog maybe they proved themselves more attentive to the enemy if they were going to be attacked. Maybe that's why they were chosen. The problem with that idea is that in the Bible, any time someone is compared to a dog or referred to as a dog, it's always derogatory— never complimentary. The Bible is not sentimental about dogs like we are with our dogs today. We love our dogs; we care for our dogs.
We have a little tiny Yorkshire terrier. He's like a mop with four legs. I came home one day and our dog was limping around the house, so I took him to the vet. The vet said our dog tore his ACL [Anterior Cruciate Ligament] and would need surgery. I had no idea that our dog had an ACL. I said, "He's not going to like play in the NBA or anything. Do we have to do surgery? Couldn't you just put a rubber band around his leg and he could just hop around?" But no, we had to have surgery for our dog. Do you have any idea how much it costs to repair a dog's ACL? I don't even want to talk about this any more.
The Bible's culture is very different about dogs. Dogs are kind of a dirty thing. Old Testament scholar Doug Stewart puts it like this: Most likely, the idea is that the guys who lapped water like dogs drank in a way we would consider geeky—like nerds. These were not the elite troops. The whole point of God winnowing the troops down was to make clear that victory was God's alone. Israel would then break their cycle of sin—trusting in little gods—and trust in an infinitely big God. So God left Gideon with 300 dog lappers—300 geeky guys who would trip over their own swords.
Midian soldiers now outnumbered the Israelites 450-to-1. God had a reason for this. He gave Gideon one more sign, Gideon took one step forward, and miraculously, the Midianites took off running. Israel was free, and they knew who their God was. "It's my battle," God says. "You don't have to live in fear."
Gideon wasn't the only guy in the Bible who wrestled with fear. Pretty much all the giants did—Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Elijah, Peter, all the disciples—everybody did. In fact, the single most common command in the Bible is, "Fear not." Don't be afraid. Why? Because "I am with you," God says. God is a big God. He doesn't want you to handle things on your own.
Does anybody here ever wrestle with worry? Does anybody ever get anxious? Fear is a universal experience.
There is an article in the New York Times that says the scientists working on the human genome project have identified what they call "the worry gene." I'm not making this up. It's the SLC 684 gene on chromosome 17q12. People who have the short version of that gene, they say, are especially prone to worry. Now that I'm telling you this, how many of you are worried you have the short version of that gene? See? Worry just gets in our hearts, doesn't it?
I have been thinking about worry and anxiety a lot these days. When I wake up in the morning, sometimes I'm tempted to be overwhelmed by all the stuff I think I've got to do. I sit at my desk and think about all the problems I don't know how to solve and all of the really important outcomes I cannot control—my kids, my family, my relationships, the ministry I'm a part of—and sometimes, to tell you the truth, I have moments when it's like I hear Jesus whisper to me: John, you and I are going to walk through this deal together. Just me with you. And, John, if you'll just depend on only me when everything else is outside of your control, and you cannot figure things out, and you don't know what the outcomes will be—if you'll just trust me, if you'll seek to be a submitted heart in my hand and say, 'OK, God, I will live my life with as much hope and joy and trust and obedience as I am able to as you help me to be the kind of person that you want me to be'—if you do that, then I will give you a strength that will surprise you and be more than adequate to cope with whatever it is you have to face.
Things around you can be swirling out of your control, but there's this inner reality: God is enough. He really is. I think this is why the Apostle Paul said: I can do all things. I can sit in a prison cell and face anything life has to throw at me though him who gives me strength—through Jesus. Nobody else can give this sort of peace to you. Your circumstances or your natural abilities—they cannot give you this peace. This peace comes from God. If you do not know Jesus, then I think this is his word for you:
I am bigger than your problems. I am bigger than your failures. I am bigger than your regrets, many though they may be. I am bigger than your sin and guilt. If you will let me, if you will try me, if you will open the door of your heart, I will come into your life and I will be your forgiver, and I will be your strength, and I will be your friend.
Only Jesus makes possible the big-God life because it's on the cross that we see the God who is bigger than our sin and guilt and regret, and it's in that empty tomb from which Jesus came forth that we see the God who is bigger than death itself.
God knows about the Midianites in your life. He knows about your worries. He knows about your kids. He knows what you've lost. He knows about the divorce. He knows about the crumbling marriage. He knows about the affair. He knows about the abortion. He knows about the job failure. He knows. He knows. He knows about where you are stagnant. He knows where your dreams have died. But he has better dreams for you. If you just ask him, he will be a bigger presence in your life than you have known.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.