“JUDGE BARNEY FIFE”

JUDGES 6: 1 - 24

FEBRUARY 5, 2012

 

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           According to several different polls, one of the best known and most unique characters on television was Barney Fife played by Don Knotts.  Don Knotts had that swaggering, know it all, braggadocios, chicken of a character down pat.  I still enjoy watching him do his thing on re-runs of The Andy Griffith Show.  He still makes me laugh.  He cashed in on those character traits in several movies like The Reluctant Astronaut, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Shakiest Gun in the West.  Other than Bob Hope in all the “Road” movies with Bing Crosby, no one has ever played that type of character as well as Don Knotts.

            I mention all that because today we meet the Barney Fife of the Old Testament.  His name is Gideon.  Gideon was the sixth judge of Israel.  The Book of Judges recounts the time ... a period 350 years ... between the death of Joshua and the first kings of Israel:  Saul, David and Solomon.  It was a time when the people of Israel were a loose knit group of tribes who often forgot God, and when they forgot God, these tribes got into trouble, and the people would cry out and God would raise up a judge from the people’s tribe to come to their aid.  Gideon was one of those Judges.   He was from the tribe of Manasseh, and as we read the story of Gideon, we will find out that he was the Don Knotts or Barney Fife of The Book of Judges.  He was not “The Reluctant Astronaut,” he was “The Reluctant Judge.”  He was not the “The Shakiest Gun in the West,” he was “The Shakiest Judge in the Middle East.”

            We first meet Gideon in the sixth chapter and to understand him properly we need to examine this first portrait of him.  We’ll look at him more in the week’s to come, but what will follow in the Sundays to come will make sense only in light of this initial appearance.  So let’s continue our study of The Book of Judges by opening our pew Bible to chapter six and get a feel for the man and his times.  Verse one.

 

            The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, (there’s the book’s motto or mantra once again) and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.  The hand of Midian prevailed over Israel; and because of Midian the Israelites provided for themselves hiding places in the mountains, caves and strongholds.  For whenever the Israelites put in seed, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them.  The would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the land, as far as the neighborhood of Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel, and no sheep or ox or donkey.  For they and their livestock would come up, and they would even bring their tents, as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted; so they wasted the land as they came in.  Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midian; and the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help.

            When the Israelites cried out to the Lord on account of the Midianites, the Lord sent a prophet to the Israelites; and he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:  I led you up from Egypt, and brought you out of the house of slavery; and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians, and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave your their land; and I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall not pay reverence to the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’  Bu you have not given heed to my voice.

 

            Once again we see the same cycle of sin, servitude, supplication and salvation.  Forty years have passed since the time of the previous judge, Deborah, and the Israelites, and particularly the tribe of Massasseh, as a result of their repeated disobedience, find themselves in trouble once again. 

            This time God uses a group of desert people to reek havoc with Israel, and as verse five reveals, the Midianites had discovered a frightening new military weapon - the camel.  In those days, this gave the Midianites an enormous military advantage.  Camels are big, ugly, and they scared the Israelites half to death.  Camels also provided the Midianites with a mobile, long-range, swift attack force.  Think of camels as the scud missile of that time.  Camels can travel three or four days and cover three hundred miles without food or water.  The Hebrews were outrageously overmatched. 

            So, for seven years the Midianites, with this powerful new weapon dominated Israel and left the Israelites in a desperate situation, reduced to playing hide and seek in mountain caves.  Realizing their need, they cried out to God for help and God sent an angel to Gideon.  If we had lived back then, and if the Gallup organization had polled us about the most likely deliverer of Israel, Gideon’s name would have never appeared.  There may have never been a least likely liberator in the history of Israel.  If you have never met him, let me introduce you to him.  Verse 11.  And as I introduce him, I want to pause from time to time to point out four things about him. 

 

            Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak of Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. 

 

            First, thing to note about Gideon ... he was a frightened man.  A person normally threshes wheat in a large open area where the wind can separate the grain from the chaff.  Gideon, however, is hiding, threshing the wheat in a small, confining wine press.  So, what the angel says to him, comes as quite a surprise.

 

            The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.”  Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?  And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’  But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the the hand of Midian.”

 

            Second, note that Gideon was not only frightened, but also he was discouraged.  A little girl was listening to her mother tell some Bible stories about great saints like Moses and Joshua and Daniel and Mary.  Finally, the little girl turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, God was much more exciting back then.” 

            That’s how Gideon felt.  “Where are all of God’s wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us?  It was much more exciting back then.”  Let’s continue on to the third thing we find out about Gideon.  Verse 14.

 

            Then the Lord turned to him and said, “God in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.”  He responded, “But, sir, how can I deliver Israel?  My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” 

 

            Gideon is not only scared of the Midianites, and he is not only discouraged about the situation in Israel, but he also is feeling inadequate.  At this stage of life Gideon reminds me of the man who came to his psychiatrist with a problem.  He said, “Doc, you must help me.  Everything’s going wrong.  I feel worthless.  My friends tell me I have an inferiority complex.  Can you help me?”

            So the psychiatrist told him he would give him some tests to evaluate his mental and emotional state.  A week later the man went back to the psychiatrist and the doctor said, “I have some good news and some bad news for you.  The good news is that we have proved you do not have a complex.  The bad news is you are inferior.”

            Right or wrong, that’s how Gideon felt.  Inferior.  OK, let’s note one more thing about Gideon before we draw it all together.  Verse 16.

 

            The Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”  Then he said to him, “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that is you who speak to me.  Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.”  And he said, “I will stay until you return.”

           

            Gideon was not only frightened, discouraged and feeling inferior, but also he struggled with doubt.  “Show me a sign that it is you who speak to me.”  Like Doubting Thomas, he asks for a sign so he can believe. 

            So there he was, a most unlikely candidate to lead Israel against the Midianites and their camel corp.  In the next three weeks, we’ll get to know more about him, but this morning, I want to shift from Gideon to God.  Specifically, I want us to notice what God did to bring out the best in Gideon.  I want us to observe what God did with Gideon so that we might do the same with the people with whom we live and work.

            First, note how God expected Gideon’s best.  On God’s behalf the angel said to Gideon, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” 

            If we did not know any better, we might think God was mocking Gideon, calling him a mighty warrior, when he was hiding out in a wine press, but that wasn’t the case at all.  God wasn’t mocking but rather holding up a picture of Gideon at his best.

            I think of a study conducted by a Harvard psychologist and a school principal.  The two wrestled with the question, “Do some children perform poorly in school because their teachers expect them to?”  If so, they surmised that be raising a teacher’s expectations, a child’s performance should be raised as well.  So here’s what they did.   They gave a group of children a learning ability test and the next fall the new teachers were given the names of five children designated as “gifted.”  The tests, supposedly, revealed that these five children had exceptional learning ability.

            What the teacher did not know, however, was the test results had been rigged and the names of these “gifted” children had been chosen at random.  At the end of the school year, all the children were retested.  The result?  The pupils who the teachers thought had the most potential had improved the most.  Furthermore, the teachers described these five children as happier, more curious, more affectionate and as having a better chance of success later in life.  The only change, however, was the change in attitude of the teacher. 

            God expected Gideon’s best.  Second, God looked for Gideon’s hidden talent.     

            God saw something in Gideon that had been overlooked.  God saw a gift of leadership in Gideon going unused and God brought it to Gideon’s attention.

            History books are full of stories of gifted persons whose talents were overlooked, until someone finally noticed them.  A newspaper editor, for example, fired Walt Disney, because Disney had no good ideas.  Joseph Haydn gave up on Beethoven because Haydn said Beethoven was slow and prodding, calling him a young man with no apparent talent. 

            One person put it this way: “There is something that is much more scarce, something rarer than ability.  It is the ability to recognize ability.”  Everyone has a treasure to be discovered.  Let’s help them find it.

            Finally, God centered on Gideon’s strength rather than Gideon’s weakness.  Verse 14 ... “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian ...”

            Yes, Gideon was afraid.  Yes, Gideon was discouraged.  Yes, Gideon felt inadequate.  Yes, Gideon struggled with doubt, but God did not mention any of that.  Gideon already knew that about himself.  God didn’t need to remind him of it.  Instead, God said to Gideon, “Go in this might of yours.”

            It’s exactly what Jesus did with Peter.  Remember how Jesus nicknamed Peter, “The Rock?”  A rock ... Peter?  This stick your foot in your mouth, deny Jesus three times guy a rock?  But that’s exactly what Peter became.  He became a rock.  He ended up crucified upside down in Rome for the cause of Christ.

            Jesus never camped on people’s weaknesses.  He didn’t ignore them, but he didn’t camp on them.  Rather he camped on people’s strengths. 

            That’s what Abraham Lincoln did in his first inaugural speech in March of 1861. Lincoln's second inaugural is more famous, replete with its soaring phrases that roar like this one: "with malice towards none, with charity toward all."  But the first inaugural is my favorite.

            The country was already deeply divided.  The "united" continuance of the United States hung by a thread.  Yet rather than reciting a laundry list of evils that needed to be addressed, or demanding immediate actions that should be taken, Lincoln instead appealed to the common "bonds of affection" that the American people shared and to “the better angels of our nature."

            What a resonant phrase: "the better angels of our nature."  Do we believe in "better angels" anymore?  If we don’t, God certainly does.