Four Cracked Pots
February 16, 2009
“And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah” (Hebrews 11:32).
Long-winded preachers, take note of this verse.
When you know you are running out of time, summarize and get to the main point as fast as you can. Rookie preachers make the mistake of circling the field and doing a lot of “touch and go” landings. Experienced preachers bring the plane in on the first try.
The writer of Hebrews must have been an experienced preacher because he says, “I do not have time to tell about” or as The Message puts it, “I could go on and on but I’ve run out of time.” In my early years as a preacher, I routinely prepared enough material for four or five sermons, always fearful that I would end too soon. No one ever told me that preachers generally don’t get fired for preaching short sermons. . . but it has happened the other way around. So I would bring so much with me-on paper or in my head-that I could never get to the end of the sermon on time.
To me Hebrews 11:32 is like a preacher at 11:52 AM. He knows he’s got to be finished by 11:55 so the congregation can sing one final song and be done by 12 noon.
But he has so much to say!
Every preacher knows that sinking feeling, especially if you’re only on Point 4 of a seven-point message. You do have a few options, including carrying over until 12:20 PM, which is bound to frustrate everyone or just wrapping up on time, either keeping the rest of your sermonic gold for next Sunday or simply summarizing it in the last three minutes.
A Bumpy Landing
Like all truly gifted speakers, the author of Hebrews could read the clock on the wall. Knowing that he had plenty more material (and he truly did-good preachers always have more), he decided that having already made his point, he didn’t need to belabor it.
He brought the plane in on the first try.
But he had a bit of a bumpy landing. Because he didn’t have time to write out the full story of all the great heroes of the faith, he decided to mention only a few names and then go for the finish in verses 33-40. In verse 32 he mentions four names from the period of the Judges, then David and Samuel, and then a group he simply calls “the prophets,” a conglomeration that includes everyone from Elijah to Malachi. David and Samuel we can certainly understand because they stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries as men who walked by faith in the living God.
But who are these others? How did he pick them out? He names four men from the period of the judges, a wild era in Israel’s history when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 ESV).
Here’s what we know about the four men he mentions in verse 32.
Gideon defeated the Midianites.
Barak defeated the Canaanites.
Samson defeated the Philistines.
Jephthah defeated the Ammonites.
These four men are mentioned only here in the New Testament. That fact ought to make us pay attention. We also need to know that each of these four men had significant character flaws. No plaster saints here. These are real men, flesh and blood heroes whom God considered honored in spite of their flaws. Their faith was like ours, mingled with fear, soiled with unbelief and doubt, spotted with compromise, troubled by human reasoning.
God knew all about their faults but he honored their faith anyway.
And yet . . . and yet . . . and yet!
It was true faith-imperfect, badly flawed, but faith nonetheless. God knew all about their faults but he honored their faith anyway.
Hold on to that word “anyway.” We’ll come back to it before the end of the sermon.
I. Gideon was Fearful.
“I do not have time to tell about . . . Gideon.”
Let’s travel back in time over 3000 years to meet a man named Gideon. The angel of the Lord came to him one day and said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12). This surprising word came in the midst of the Midianite oppression of Israel. The Midianites were a vast army from the east who invaded Israel riding on camels. They came each year during the harvest time just as the Israelites were harvesting their crops. They would plunder the land, get on their camels, ride out of town, and then stay away until the next year’s harvest. Then they would come back and do it all over again.
When you look at Gideon’s life, you don’t see a man of great faith, you see a man of weak faith whom God used greatly.
So every year at harvest time the Jews were losing everything they had worked for because the Midianites kept invading. The people of God were reduced to living in caves because they were frightened of the mighty power of the Midianites. In response to this crisis God tapped Gideon on the shoulder and said, “I am going to use you to deliver my people.” The angel of the Lord is very clear on that point. “Gideon, you’re the man who will deliver my people.” He repeats it two or three times in Judges 6. Gideon says, “Who, me?” “Yes, you.” “You’ve got the wrong man.” “No, I don’t. You’re the man, Gideon.”
All is now set for the showdown between the men of Israel and the invading Midianites. The men are gathered, the enemy is approaching, all is ready for the great battle. Everyone, that is, except Gideon. He’s still not sure if he’s the right man to lead Israel. At that point Gideon asked God to give him a sign, unmistakable proof that he really had called him to lead Israel. He even named the sign. He put out a fleece and asked God to make the fleece wet and the ground dry. When God did that, it wasn’t enough so Gideon asked him to do it in reverse, making the ground wet and the fleece dry (Judges 6:36-40). Only then did Gideon finally believe what the Lord had told him in the beginning.
It was not a sin to ask God for a fleece; but it was a sign of his weak faith because he already knew what God wanted him to do. If you make that a habit in your life, it is a sign of weak faith in your life. When you look at Gideon’s life, you don’t see a man of great faith, you see a man of weak faith whom God used greatly.
Turns out that Gideon made a fine military leader once he got past his fear.
If you read Judges 7, you can see that God used Gideon and his 300 men to spring a nighttime surprise on the unsuspecting Midianites. He used a classic military ruse to make them think his army was much larger than it was. They had to do something unusual because the enemy forces were “thick as locusts” in the valley (Judges 7:12). He divided his 300 men into 3 groups and spread them out around the vast Midianite army. At the appointed hour, the men began to shout, blow trumpets, and wave torches in the darkness. The Midianites fled in total confusion, leading to a complete rout of the enemy and a total victory for Gideon’s men.
Turns out that Gideon made a fine military leader once he got past his fear. As long as he thought he couldn’t do it, he was right. But once faith replaced fear, he won a mighty victory for the Lord.
II. Barak was Timid.
“I do not have time to tell about . . . Barak.”
Whenever you mention Barak’s name, you must add another name with it. It’s not just “Barak,” it’s “Deborah and Barak.” Who was Deborah? She’s not his wife. Deborah was the only female judge of Israel. The spiritual life of Israel had fallen so low that the nation was now being led by a woman. This is no knock on Deborah because she is clearly brave, decisive and bold. She judged Israel because none of the men would step up and do the job. After twenty years of humiliating oppression at the hands of the Canaanites, God raised up this prophetess to represent him to the people. Since Barak commanded the army, Deborah sent for him and told him to go into battle. She even gave him the battle plan.
She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands’” (Judges 4:6-7).
On one hand this is very simple. God gave the battle plan to Deborah who gave it to Barak. All he has to do is rally the troops, go into battle, and win the victory. But check out his timid response:
Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” (v. 8).
It’s a man’s job to saddle up and face the enemy.
Excuse me for saying this, but that’s just pathetic. It’s a man’s job to saddle up and face the enemy. Being a man means having courage in the face of great danger. But Barak won’t even go to battle unless Deborah goes with him. In case you think I’m being too hard on the guy, check out what Deborah says in response.
“Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman” (v. 9).
Even Deborah, a great leader in her own right, didn’t like his response. What a namby-pamby, mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy answer Barak gave. Can you imagine John Wayne talking like this?
But I can partly understand Barak’s hesitation. We find out in later verses that the Canaanites had something the Israelites completely lacked. They had iron chariots. That meant the enemy had a huge advantage on the battlefield. For the Israelites to attack would seem to be a suicide mission, like sending out the Boy Scouts armed with muskets to do battle against a tank brigade.
So God sent a storm that flooded the Kishon River, trapping the iron chariots. It turned into a slaughter, a rout, a total victory for the men of Israel. In another ironic twist, Sisera, the captain of the Canaanite army, escaped, only to be tricked, trapped and nailed to the ground by a woman named Jael who drove a tent peg through his temple. She then said to Barak, “Come. I will show you the man you are looking for” (Judges 4:22). And there was Sisera, nailed to the ground, with a tent peg through his temple. Killed not by a man but by a woman.
So even though Barak led the troops in battle, Deborah and Jael get the credit. Was Barak a bad guy? No, he was a good guy who was too dependent on women. Give him the credit he deserves. He’s listed in Hebrews 11:32 as a man of faith-and he was-but he was timid when he should have been a strong leader.
III. Samson was Out of Control.
“I do not have time to tell about . . . Samson.”
Most of us know the general outlines of Samson’s story. We know that he defeated the Philistines and we know that Delilah tricked him into revealing the secret of his strength. And we know about his eyes being poked out and how he gained revenge by killing 3000 Philistines in one of the most dramatic death scenes in the Bible.
But there is much more to Samson.
*He’s the American Idol of the Old Testament.
*He had it all-good looks, great strength, popularity, and the blessing of God.
*He threw it all away.
Of his life it could truly be said that he had unlimited potential. No man in the Bible started out with as much going for him; no man ended with less. He had it all and he let it all get away from him.
It is very possible to be empowered by the Spirit of God to do great things and yet not to have your life yielded to the full control of the Holy Spirit. </h6 class=”pullquote”>
Samson is a bristling bundle of contradictions:
–He was a man of faith with a weakness for women.
–He was a man of prayer given to uncontrollable fits of anger.
–He was a leader of Israel who lusted after Philistine women.
–He was a man of God who lacked common sense.
–He was empowered by the Spirit yet he often lived in the flesh.
That’s Samson-“a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” He is listed in Hebrews 11 as a man of faith, yet he slept with a harlot. Go figure.
When we read Samson’s story, we tend to think that his problem was all in the sexual area. Actually, his problem is not in the sexual area at all. His most basic problem was that he never learned how to control his emotions.
First he is filled with lust and then he is filled with anger. Then he’s full of lust again, then anger again, and then lust and anger again. He’s riding an emotional roller-coaster, from the peak to the valley and around a sharp corner, and then he does it all over again. One moment he’s worshiping God, the next he’s flirting with the Philistine women. On one occasion he leads the army of Israel to a stunning military victory by the power of the Holy Spirit. Later he sleeps with a Philistine prostitute. Not long after that he meets Delilah who tricks him into revealing the secret of his power, which leads to his imprisonment and death.
Either we believe in the redeeming grace of God or we don’t.
Samson never learned to control his emotions and so they controlled him completely. Proverbs 16:32 could have been written about him: “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.” In his day Samson had taken more than one city. But he never learned to control his temper. He never learned how to rule his spirit. He never knew the first thing about self-control. In the end his runaway emotions ran away with him.
Samson’s zigzag life teaches us that it is very possible to be empowered by the Spirit of God to do great things and yet not to have your life yielded to the full control of the Holy Spirit. Samson at certain points was empowered by the Spirit of God. But there was never a point in his whole life when for a long period of time he was under the control of God’s Spirit.
He is deeply flawed-just like most of us. He finds himself continually battling anger and illicit desire-just like most of us.
He could sometimes do amazing things for God-just like most of us.
He could turn right around and make incredibly stupid mistakes-just like most of us.
And yet he began to deliver his people from the Philistines just as the angel of the Lord said he would in Judges 13:5, and he shows up in Hebrews 11.
IV. Jephthah was Foolish.
“I do not have time to tell about . . . Jephthah.”
The first verse of Judges 11 tells you the essentials about Jephthah.
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.
Don’t overlook that last line. His mother was a prostitute. Not a very promising beginning. Maybe that’s part of why he was such a great warrior. I’m sure everyone knew about his past and many people held it against him. Things like that drive a man to prove himself over and over again. When he grew up, his own family turned against him so he ran away and gathered a group of thugs who joined his gang. That’s Jephthah, a man from a bad background who becomes an Old Testament gang leader.
When the Ammonites attacked, the men of Israel asked Jephthah to come back home and lead them in battle because he was their best warrior. After some negotiation, he accepted their offer. Then he began to negotiate with the Ammonites, reminding them that they had no quarrel with the Israelites. It didn’t work.
Jephthah made a foolish mistake that would haunt him forever and is the one fact we remember about him today.
The Bible says that the Spirit of the Lord came upon him as he prepared to go into battle. At that moment he made a foolish mistake that would haunt him forever and is the one fact we remember about him today. He vowed that if the Lord would help him win the battle, he would offer to the Lord a burnt offering of the first thing that came through the doors of his house when he returned home from fighting the Ammonites (Judges 11:30-31). No doubt he expected the “first thing” to be an animal of some sort. To his shock and dismay, it turned out to be his daughter, his only child, coming out to welcome him home. Distraught, he ripped his clothes and said, “I made an oath to the Lord and cannot break it.” For two months his virgin daughter spent time in the hills with her friends. At the end of the two months, “he did to her as he had vowed. She died a virgin” (Judges 11:39 NET Bible). Though this is much debated, I take it that he actually offered his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, a heathen practice strictly forbidden by God. Others believe he offered her to the Lord in a life of perpetual virginity.
Either way it was a rash and foolish vow. And it came on the heels of a vast victory over the Ammonites (Judges 11:32-33). The vow was unnecessary and dangerous. These were depraved times and the moral situation had sunk so low that I think it is likely that Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter.
So here we have the hardest case of all. A gang leader for God, the son of a prostitute, who made a rash vow, wins a mighty victory, apparently sacrifices his own daughter, and shows up in Hebrews 11.
It’s hard to get your mind around all of that.
Lessons from Four Cracked Pots
So what we are we to think about these four flawed heroes?
Gideon who was afraid to answer God’s call.
Barak who was so timid he needed a woman to tell him what to do.
Samson who couldn’t control his emotions.
Jephthah who made a foolish vow.
These are seriously flawed men, yet they made the Book!
If there is room for them, there is room for you and me.
Down deep they were men of faith who believed in God and were willing to act on what they believed. Their very significant faults cannot be overlooked but those faults cannot and do not keep them out of the Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11.
God uses flawed people to demonstrate his grace so that when the victory is won, he alone gets the glory.
Why would God use men like this?
God uses flawed people to demonstrate his grace so that when the victory is won, he alone gets the glory. Paul said the same thing in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us” (HCSB). That’s all we are, just clay pots, ordinary kitchenware, clay pots that are easily cracked and often broken. We’re not expensive China that you buy in some high-dollar store in New York City. We’re ordinary Wal-Mart kitchenware, useful but not expensive. We’re all cracked and chipped in various places yet God in his grace uses us anyway.
So hang on to that word “anyway.”
Gideon was fearful but God used him anyway.
Barak was timid was God used him anyway.
Samson did a lot of dumb stuff but God used him anyway.
Jephthah made a terrible mistake but God used him anyway.
Finally, I think, it comes down to this. Either we believe in the redeeming grace of God or we don’t. If we do, then we won’t be surprised that God includes these four flawed heroes in the Hall of Fame. And we’ll be glad they made the Book because that means God can use people like us too.
In his commentary on Hebrews 11:32, John Calvin draws the following conclusion:
Thus, in all the saints, something reprehensible is ever to be found; yet faith, though halting and imperfect, is still approved by God.
Look in the mirror. There’s something reprehensible there. John Calvin said so, and he’s right. You’re not perfect, far from it, and neither am I. And our faith, halting and imperfect, is still approved by God.
Calvin then adds these words of exhortation to all of us:
There is, therefore, no reason why the faults we labor under should break us down, or dishearten us, provided we by faith go on in the race of our calling.
God honors faith, and he seeks it so much that he will honor people who otherwise do some very stupid things. We all labor under a sense of our own failure. Like Gideon we are slow to answer the call. Like Barak we need someone else to push us. Like Samson we let our emotions guide us wrongly. Like Jephthah we say things that hurt ourselves and others.
Let us then push on by faith despite our failures, knowing that if God can use men like this, he can use us too. Amen.