by Pastor George Van Alstine

One of the Bible’s most graphic stories about God’s spiritual warfare strategies is found in Judges 7:4-7. It tells about how he led Gideon, one of Israel’s judges during the period before there were kings ruling over God’s people, to defeat the pagan enemy, the army of Midian. It was an unfair battle from the beginning: only 32,000 in Israel’s army, against a massive force of 135,000 Midianites.

But God didn’t think the odds were great enough:

The Lord said unto Gideon, “The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me’” (verse 2).

So he instructed Gideon to cut down the army’s size by a simple criterion: whoever was “fearful and trembling” would be sent home. It was not hard to identify the shaky-knees people, and 22,000 went back to their families and farms.

God’s response? “The troops are still too many” (verse 4). 10,000 against 135,000? That’s 13.5 to 1. God was determined to cut back the number still more drastically. He had Gideon bring them to a nearby brook and put a test before them:

“All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side” (verse 5).

Try to get a mental picture of this. One commentator writes that the first group “stood lapping directly from the water, as a dog does.” You’d have to be a contortionist to do that. So I disagree with the idea that the key difference is that the second group’s kneeling and cupping water up with their hands made them more vulnerable and therefore less ready. That’s what I remember from my childhood Sunday School lesson about this story. I was taught that God selected the first group because they were best fit to go to battle. As a matter of fact, I think this lapping group, in their careless desire to quench their thirst, got down even lower than the kneelers, on all fours, practically prostate. They were, in fact the worst soldiers of the 10,000 that remained. There were 300 of them, and God enlisted this sorry group to be his rag-tag army of victory. Leftovers!

There are a couple of New Testament stories about how God prefers to use leftovers. In this week’s sermon passage, John 6, we learn about a critical moment when Jesus’ teaching became a little too tough for the majority of the crowds who had been following him.

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-68)

This is usually seen as Peter’s bold proclamation of faith, but it may also be read as an expression of the disciples’ resignation: “We’ve left our families and our jobs; we have no options but to keep following you.” These twelve were not the cream-of-the-crop among the young men in Jesus’ circle of nearness. He could have done better. In many ways, the twelve can be seen as leftovers.

The story of a woman “caught in adultery” is told in John 8:1-11. there was no shortage of men to accuse her publicly of her sin. But then Jesus started writing with his finger in the sand, presumably words or pictures that reminded the men of their own moral failings:

Then they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

One lonely leftover. And on that day, in that moment, she was his only disciple.

Paul noticed this pattern in God’s way of building his Kingdom:

Not many of you were wise, by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, . . . what is weak . . . what is lowly . . . what is nothing . . . (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)

Do you feel like a leftover? You’re in good company.