In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jonathan and his unnamed armor-bearer and their exploits against the Philistines: that’s the story for today — but, not just yet. First, a look backwards to the story of Gideon, a story we read recently in the office of Morning Prayer, and one that pairs nicely with that of Jonathan.
It was a dire time for Israel, caused by their own disobedience, of course, but a dire time nonetheless. Here is the description of those days from Judges 6:
Judges 6:1–6 (ESV): The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. 2 And the hand of Midian overpowered Israel, and because of Midian the people of Israel made for themselves the dens that are in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds. 3 For whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. 4 They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey. 5 For they would come up with their livestock and their tents; they would come like locusts in number—both they and their camels could not be counted—so that they laid waste the land as they came in. 6 And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the Lord.
Enter Gideon. God appears to Gideon and commands him to take a series of provocative actions against the gods of Midian and Amalek, rebellious actions designed to precipitate their retaliation against Israel. And so the Midianite and the Amalekite armies gather for war, a host like locusts in number. In response, Gideon assembles his own army, thirty-two thousand men, a large force but vastly outnumbered.
Enter the LORD. The Israelite army is too big, he tells Gideon.
Judges 7:2–3 (ESV): 2 The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ 3 Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ ” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained.
Still too many. Through a strange test of how the soldiers drink water, God has Gideon reduce the troops even further — from ten thousand to three hundred. Just right.
Judges 7:6–7 (ESV): And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. 7 And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.”
From thirty-two thousand men, to ten thousand, to three hundred. And here is the question this poses: Just how many men did God really need to deliver Israel from the Midianites and the Amalekites? Suppose fifty of the three hundred soldiers had gone AWOL during the night, slipped back home under cover of darkness. Would Gideon have postponed the battle? Would the LORD have said, “Three hundred was the perfect number; I can’t do this two-fifty. You need to round up fifty more soldiers.” Just how many men did God really need to deliver Israel from the Midianites and the Amalekites? I think I know what you want to answer, but let’s not be hasty. It’s time to look at Jonathan.
The political and military situation is once again dire; this time the threat is not from the Midianites but from the Philistines.
1 Samuel 13:5–7 (ESV): And the Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude. They came up and encamped in Michmash, to the east of Beth-aven. 6 When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns, 7 and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
Against this force, Saul could field an army of only six hundred men, none of whom had so much as a sword or a spear.
1 Samuel 14:6 (ESV): Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.”
Just how many men did God need to save Israel in Gideon’s day? Three hundred? No: many or few; it makes no difference. Just how many men did God need to save Israel in Jonathan’s day? Six hundred? No: many or few; it makes no difference. One prince and one armor bearer are quite sufficient. But again, I don’t want to be hasty in answering this question. I am tempted to say that God doesn’t need anyone in order to save his people; by his power alone he can deliver. And that is certainly true; it is sound theology based upon the teaching and examples of Scripture. But it is only part of the truth. While God needs nothing and no one, yet he most often chooses to work through his faithful people. Jonathan says the Lord will save by many or few; he doesn’t say God will save by no one. God wants a prince and an unnamed armor bearer to fight the enemies of God, to witness the wonders of God, to proclaim the victory of God.
Enter us — you and me. For some reason known to God alone, God has chosen to engage us as his fellow-workers in the redemption of the world. It is a great dignity and an awe-filled responsibility to be called alongside God, to be his hands and feet and voice in the world, to have a part to play in reconciliation and restoration. Sometimes it seems that the forces arrayed against us are legion: as numberless as the Midianites, as well-armed as the Philistines. No matter; God can save by many or by few. Your gifts may be many or few. No matter; God can save by many or by few. The years ahead of you may be many or few. No matter; God can save by many or by few. You sins may be many or few. No matter; God can save by many or by few. Some, like Gideon and Jonathan, God calls to bear arms. Some he calls to bear armor. Some he calls to bear witness. But, he calls all those in Christ Jesus to bear the cross, to lift high the cross, to proclaim the love of Christ, to sing a song of triumph to the Crucified, to be his cross-shaped fellow-workers in proclaiming redemption and reconciliation through Christ to a lost and broken world.
Many or few: it makes no difference. God can and will deliver by many or by few. And, he has called us to join him. In this reading, Jonathan calls us also:
Come, let us go over…It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.