In my previous church, I taught the 8th Grade Catechism class. During the first class of each school year, I would give them a pop quiz. It was ten questions, and the last question was, “If you could ask God anything and know that he would give you the answer, what would it be?” Some questions came up consistently from year to year - “What was it like before creation?” “Can I see a video clip of the day you divided the Red Sea?” “Why did you make the world if you knew there was going to be sin?” “Why did you let all the killings happen?” “Are the babies that were aborted in heaven?” Good questions. But in one of my last years at my previous church, there was one question a student had that no one had asked before. When asked what one question she would ask God, she responded, “Can I get a hug?” She wasn’t really curious about any information. She just wanted to know if she could be close to him.

When I would take adults through membership class, I also asked them the same question. And the most common answer I received was actually pretty close to “Can I get a hug?” But instead of asking if they can get a hug, the vast majority would like to know if they will. They didn’t say it exactly that way. The way it was most often said was, “Am I going to end up in heaven?” And some might be surprised that the question of whether or not they’ll end up in heaven is more important to them than the question of how to deal with the crime, drugs, and human trafficking, more important than healing broken families or helping children grow up to be good and productive citizens. But really, the question of what’s going to happen in the future is exactly the one that needs to be asked in order to best address all of those other things in the present because what a person thinks is going to happen in their future has quite a bit to do with how they live in the present.

Consider the weather. This year’s Farmer’s Almanac recently came out, and it is predicting a “Polar Coaster;” a horribly cold and frigid winter. Because many believe the Farmer’s Almanac gives an accurate prediction of the future, there are now many Wisconsinites who are presently considering a move to Florida. Or, consider 9/11. After the attacks on 9/11, people suddenly began to wonder just how many people are out there planning to do something similar in the future, which is why many Americans live feeling a bit more afraid in the present. You probably know that around 3000 people died that day. Do you know that’s about how many Americans die by suicide every month? Do you know that’s about how many Americans attempt suicide every day? And why do they do that? In most cases, they are so convinced that there is nothing good waiting for them in the future that they make some pretty drastic decisions in the present.

Our new worship series means to address that. Our new worship series is titled, “The Open Door – Fulfillment Is Waiting.” And it is. The greatest fulfillment God can give, both in the future and in the present, is available and waiting for any person, Jesus said in our Gospel, from any direction – whether you’re from the north, west, east, or south. But he also said that “many” will try to find it, and will want to find it, but will end up with something far different. There is only one open door to fulfillment, and not everyone walks through it. But you can. And today we look at how you can know that you will. In Judges chapter 7, a man named Gideon led his army against Midian. The odds of them finding the victorious feeling of fulfillment were not good. Yet they show us the one reason we have the right to live in the present fully expecting to find the greatest fulfillment God can give anyone.

1 Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. 2 The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, 3 announce now to the people, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’ ” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained. 4 But the Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.” 5 So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink.” 6 Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. 7 The Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place.” 8 So Gideon sent the rest of the Israelites to their tents but kept the three hundred, who took over the provisions and trumpets of the others. Now the camp of Midian lay below him in the valley.

We stop our reading there because it highlights the decision these 300 soldiers had to make: with the Midianites below them, they had to decide if they were going to engage them in battle. And not many would. Gideon started with 32,000 soldiers, which nearly fills Miller Park and looks like a pretty big army until you compare it to Midian’s. The Midianites had 135,000 soldiers, which means that, even before God shrunk Gideon’s army, they were already at a 4 to 1 disadvantage. But then God shrunk the army – twice - until Gideon only had 300 men, and the ratio was 475:1, which does not mean they had a 1 in 475 chance of winning. Picture a hungry 5-year-old on one side of a room and his favorite donut on the other side. But between them are 475 other hungry children. That 5-year-old would need to get to that donut first – 300 times in a row – to equal the odds of Gideon’s army winning. You literally have a better mathematical chance of being killed by a vending machine than Gideon’s army had defeating Midian. There is no question that the odds looked bleak. But my question for you is: Do you think you would have been chosen for that army?

God recognized some as worthy of the battle, and others were not. And that shouldn’t surprise us. In our Gospel reading, Jesus said something similar will happen at the end of the world. God will recognize some as worthy of heaven. And notice how Jesus said it: that God will not even recognize those who are not allowed into heaven. There are many who will one day hear God say: “I don’t know you or where you come from.” It’s true that God made everyone. It’s true that each person exists only because God designed them in their mother’s womb. But it’s also true that God will be so convinced that a person does not belong in heaven that he will not even recognize the face he created when that life began.

And that leads to the obvious question that the man in our Gospel reading asked Jesus – “Will only a few be saved?” But really, he wanted to know if he would be among them. How would you answer that question? Imagine someone were to ask you if you think you’ll be in heaven someday. And imagine you were to say “yes,” and then they asked you “Why?” or “How do you know?” What would you say? Keep your answer in mind as we look at why God eliminated certain people from Gideon’s army, because his criteria helps us understand where we currently fit within God’s kingdom.

There were two criteria he used to shrink Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300. First, he eliminated those who were afraid. And They weren’t afraid of just anything – like snakes or spiders or terrorism. They were afraid of something in particular. They were afraid that the smallness of their army, that their weakness, was going to be exposed if they took those next steps forward. And sometimes so are we. Do you have any weaknesses you are afraid to let other people see? Are there mistakes you’ve made in the past you try to keep hidden? Are you afraid of what people would think if they knew the types of things you do when no one is looking? Is there a particular temptation you’re hoping doesn’t engage you in battle because, based on previous experience, you’re pretty certain you’re going to give in? The first group wasn’t eliminated because they were weak, but because they were afraid of what would happen if their weakness were exposed. They were afraid that someone would discover the truth about them. They wanted to present that they were someone different than who they really were. So God eliminated them.

Secondly, he divided those who lapped water like a dog from those who didn’t. Today’s equivalent of those who lap water like a dog might be those who drink water straight from the faucet. What this really means is that God was dividing those who were a little rough around the edges from those who a bit more polished in the way they did things. Do you ever try to answer the question of where you fit in God’s kingdom by asking how polished you are as a Christian? Or, think back to when I asked you to think about how you would answer someone who asks why you think you’ll be in heaven someday? Did your answer start with the word “I”? As in, “I read my bible,” “I pray,” I go to church,” “I give an offering,” “I trust God,” “I believe in Jesus.” Those might be true statements, but they can’t be the reason you know you’re going to heaven.

Listen to God’s own explanation of why he whittled Gideon’s army down to almost nothing: “In order that Israel may not boast that her own strength has saved her.” God emptied the army of so many soldiers so that, if they won, they wouldn’t be able to say that “I” had something to do with it or that “I” should get some credit for it. He wanted them to see the reality that we feel so often when, despite our best efforts to make life work, we still end up feeling less than fulfilled, guilty, and hurt. He wanted them to see that our future, and therefore also our feelings of fulfillment in the present, well … we don’t have as much control over those things as we like to imagine. And we don’t typically like that feeling.

Ling Young sure didn’t. Ling was on the 61st floor of the south tower when the wing of Flight 175 came crashing through the wall. When she opened her eyes, everyone around her was dead, and because of her injuries, she believed it wouldn’t be long before she was too. But then she heard a voice: “I found the stairs,” it said. “Follow me.” The voice belonged to a 24-year-old named Welles Crowther, who was wearing a red bandana around his face and was carrying the body of another woman over his shoulder. He had been carrying her down the last 17 floors. Welles showed Ling the way out, and she lived. Welles went back into the building, is credited with saving more lives, but died when the building came crashing down on top of him. Ling was weak, vulnerable, and roughed up a bit. Yet she has a future. She lived, because there was someone else whose hands her life was in.

Just as there is for you. It’s not a man with a red bandana, but someone whose red blood was pouring down his skin when there was no army of 300 fearless men to defend him; when his heart, which never for one moment was all about “I” was suddenly and abundantly broken as he carried on his shoulders the overwhelming weight of our sins. If we’re looking for something to take credit for, we can take credit for the weight of that burden. We can take credit for putting him there.

Just be sure to give him full credit for staying there, for refusing to go into the future without you right there beside him. Give him credit for dying, all alone, and on the third day rising again so that you could one day feel exactly what Gideon’s army eventually did: victory against the most narrow odds you could ever imagine. In chapter 8, it says that Gideon and his 300 men “routed the entire army.” All 135,000 of them. And those 300 men, who all lived, weren’t the polished ones. They were the ones who were a bit rough around the edges. They were weak. And sometimes we are too. But we don’t need to hide that from one another, because at the cross, our weaknesses were all forgiven, and the narrow door to heaven was swung wide open by the God who recognizes you as someone who is already numbered among those who will one day find perfect rest for their souls with the perfect fulfillment of heaven.

And until we get there, God knows that you still have your own Midian’s to do battle with; Midian’s who, just like the one that faced Gideon, will expose your weakness, smallness, and vulnerability, but Midian’s who, just like the one that faced Gideon, will one day see your overwhelming victory. Yours. “With 300 men, I will give the Midianites into your hands,” God promised Gideon. God wins the victory. But in the future, you’re the one holding the trophy, which allows you to take your next steps in the preset, no matter the army you’re facing, no matter the situation or temptation, knowing that there is nothing in all creation that will now stop you from winning.