I have been preparing a sermon focusing on Gideon and his defeat of the Midianites. I was particularly struck by two things in the whole incident related to Gideon’s fleece. Here is the passage:
36 Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, 37 behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” 38 And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. 39 Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” 40 And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. (Judges 6:36-30)
What seems clear enough is that Gideon does not take God at his word. He is the only judge visited directly by God, the Lord has told him all that will come to pass and even gave him a confirmatory sign as he requested. So it is all the more surprising when Gideon not only seeks yet another sign but wants it doubly confirmed.
It’s worth noticing that v36 and v37 tell us that God’s will was already clear in Gideon’s mind. Notice the repeated phrase “…as you have said”. Whatever else we may wish to say about this fleece incident, it has absolutely nothing to do with discovering God’s will. What God wants to happen, and what will actually transpire as a result, have both been made known in no uncertain terms earlier in the narrative. Gideon was under no illusion as to what God wanted to happen and what He had said will take place.
The two things that struck me most were these. First, Gideon is trying to avoid his call. He is looking to manipulate God and get out of the mission God has given to him. The second thing, which is all the more striking, is that God grants these further signs and effectively lets Gideon manipulate Him. Nevermind that Gideon is demanding things from God in the way one might entreat Baal; forget that Gideon is trying to wriggle out of obeying his calling; ignore the impertinence of demanding signs and wonders from Almighty God who has already done such things for Gideon. Despite all that, God grants Gideon’s demand.
This tells me two important things, chief of which is that God cares about preserving his people more than we do. God didn’t quibble about Gideon’s theological inadequacies. Rather, God accommodated Gideon knowing that he was the one who would lead the people. God was more concerned about how He would use Gideon to save Israel than he was about Gideon’s failings.
We can be wont in the church to worry when things are not as they ought to be. And sometimes it is right to make a big issue out of some of these things. But we can be in danger of forgetting that God is bigger than our theological inadequacies. He is bigger than our less than excellent programmes, our shoddy fellowship, our lack of care, our flakey commitment, our dilapidated buildings and our own inherent sin. That is not to say we can ignore these things, that we shouldn’t strive to glorify God at all times nor that we shouldn’t seek to be as excellent as we can. It is simply to say that God cares more about His church than we do.
I think I care about the church a lot. I spend my life serving it, caring for it, teaching it, worrying about it and praying for it. The church occupies much of my thinking time and it is the primary focus of much of my energy. I have invested a lot into the church and I really care. But as much as I think I care about it, God cares infinitely more. Many of the issues and problems above may worry me (and some of them really worry me); God cares about them all the more. And this is what Jesus Christ had to say about it: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The problems are not insurmountable for God. He will not let his church crumble.
The other thing this fleece incident tells me is that we can be wont to demand clarity from God in what he has already made clear. We can seek to stall God, and avoid serving Him, by throwing up unnecessary roadblocks. Gideon’s fleece was a way of twisting God’s arm so he could get out of doing what God had called him to do. Demanding signs and experiences from God, when He has already made his will abundantly clear, is the height of impudence. It is a refusal to take God at his word and it is a way of trying to skew his will into serving our own purposes.
Interestingly, Gideon’s demand for signs, and God’s gracious response, took him only to one place. Gideon was using the fleece as a construct to hide his own fear and unbelief. By fulfilling the request, God broke down any real barrier to mistrust Him. He brought Gideon to a place where he was forced to either trust in God fully or reject Him altogether. Like that, our demand for signs and experiences may lead us down the same road. The danger is that God may not respond how we expect. If we demand signs and experiences to back up what God has already made clear, we may find ourselves rejecting God altogether if He doesn’t show up in the way we were trying to manipulate. Far better to take God at his word than to demand what He has never promised to give and find ourselves falling away because He chose not to indulge our manipulation.
So, what does a “laying out a fleece” ever tell us? Firstly, it tells us we don’t fully trust in God. It tells us we may be demanding from God what he has already made clear in his word. If we really believe in the sufficiency of scripture, there is nothing outside of his word that is necessary for us to wholly and fully obey God, live holy lives and serve to the praise of his glory. We have all we need to know and serve God properly. Second, if God’s response to Gideon is anything to go by, it tells me that God is bigger than our unbelief. He is bigger than our sin, our faults and our failings. It tells me that even though we may doubt his word, He is still mighty to save and will build His church, whether with us or in spite of us.