Swimming Upstream

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 27 October, we heard the second installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book.  Our scriptures included Judges 6:25-32 and Romans 5:1-8

OnlineDating1You’ve seen the ads for the online dating sites, I know.  Eharmony.  Match.com.  Christian Mingle… They are exploding.  In fact, let me ask you to guess what percentage of marriages since 2008 began online.  According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, that figure is almost 35%.  Doesn’t that sound like an incredible number?

Let me tell you the story of one of those marriages.  When I conducted the ceremony for Alex and Chris a couple of years ago, we did all of the usual pre-marital stuff.  And, like usual, I indicated that they should feel free to call me if they ever wanted a little coaching.

Not long ago, I met with this couple.  It turns out that Chris had left a laptop at home, and needed to forward a couple of emails.  No problem.  A quick call to Alex, who went into the email program, clicked “forward”, and the story was over…until Alex glanced through Chris’ inbox and noticed six or ten messages – all unread – from the online dating service that had brought them together.  Each of these messages had as the subject line, “Somebody is waiting to meet you!”

Alex mentioned it to Chris at dinner that night, and she explained that she had never closed her account.  Her profile was still considered “active”.  Then she said, “What’s the big deal?  We’re married, right?  What difference does it make if I don’t close that account?”  And that’s when they came to see me.

OK, not really.  I mean, nobody has ever come to me with that situation.  But I bet that each of us sees something like it every day.  Listen:

Two weeks ago, we started to hear the story of Gideon, a young man who met God, was called by God, believed God, built an altar to God, and worshiped God.  Sounds like a good day, right?  Yay for Gideon.  “But wait,” as the late night advertisers say, “There’s more!”  Let’s look at Judges 6:

That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Ba′al which your father has, and cut down the Ashe′rah that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order; then take the second bull, and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Ashe′rah which you shall cut down.” (6:25-26)

Gideon’s name means “the Hacker”, as in “the chopper”.  It is the same word that is used in the Old Testament to refer to places where someone has “hacked” or “hewed” or “broken down” a shrine.  Here, the Lord calls him to live into that name.

BaalI want to remind you of the problem that Gideon faced: God had called his people to live in the land and to worship him alone, but the people wouldn’t listen. Time and time again, year after year, they worshiped the other gods.  Two of the most popular dieties were Baal and Asherah.  Baal was a figure usually represented as a bull or as a man with lightning bolts in his hand, and he was the god of fertility and therefore power and strength.  His female companion was Asherah, who was worshiped at shrines that included tall poles.  Worship of these so-called gods often involved ritual prostitution and was rampant in Gideon’s time.

God shows up in Gideon’s life and reminds him of the first two commandments – that God alone is God and that people should not construct idols to worship.  A couple of weeks ago, we read where Gideon promised to worship God, and God alone.  Here, God is saying, essentially, “Look, if that’s the case, then you can’t worship them, too.  If you’re married to me, shut down your dating profile on those other sites!  And, to Gideon’s credit, he does just that. Again, from Judges 6:

So Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the Lord had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night. (6:27)

asherah-poleHe gets his team together and he does as he is instructed.  Oh, sure, he chooses to do so under the cover of darkness – after all, the Baals and the Asherah are still pretty darn popular, and he is afraid of what might happen if and when his vandalism is discovered.

I want to pause for a few moments and consider what Gideon does here, because I think that it has special significance to us this morning.  Gideon does what he is told to do, even if he is scared out of his skin to do it.  To put it another way, Gideon does it that night.  He doesn’t wait until he “feels like” doing it. He acts towards God’s best for him even when he is unsure as to what will happen next.

This morning we observe “Preschool Sunday” in Crafton Heights.  As such, it’s a good day for us to remember that an essential task of parenting is to teach children how to do the things that they don’t really want to do.

When we get these little bundles of joy, there’s no sense of anyone having any control over any of them.  They sleep, cry, and poop at the most inopportune times.  And nobody blames them, because, hey, they’re just babies.  Not too many two month olds make a lot of decisions.

But somewhere down the line, these babies have to learn that it’s a good idea to brush their teeth, or to finish their homework, or to close up the computer and get to bed – even if they don’t want to.  Good parents help their children to learn these things so that later in life, like when it’s time to go to work, or to bite your tongue instead of yelling at the neighbor, or to pay the rent bill – the kids will be good at doing what they don’t want to do.

It’s the same in our faith development.  Sometimes we have to learn that worship and discipleship is not, fundamentally, about me.  We come to worship and we seek to grow in our ability to follow Jesus because we believe that loving God and serving our neighbor is important.  Sometimes, we choose to act in small ways, like when we park a little further from the door so that someone who needs it more can park close; or when we go ahead and sing songs that we don’t really like all that much because we know that they mean something to the folks who sit in front of us.

Sometimes, we have to grow in our faith by doing things that are a little harder, like when we decide not to repeat the rumor we just heard, even though it is really, really juicy.  Or maybe we decide that it’s ok to part with a percentage of our income because we are so grateful for all that we have received already.

And every now and then, we opt to do something that we really would rather not.  Maybe you’ve taken on leadership of a project that was pretty intimidating, but your friends here thought that you had the right gifts to make it happen.  I know that some of you have risked your self by volunteering time you weren’t sure you had or trying something new.  In any case, it’s not easy to choose to do something that you don’t necessarily want to do, but if we are going to grow in faith, we need to learn how to do that.

So Gideon musters up his courage and he pulls down the altars to Baal and the Asherah pole.  Then he goes ahead and makes a statement by sacrificing a bull – the symbol for power and strength – at the altar to God that he has built out of the rubble from the idols he’s demolished.  What happens next?

When the men of the town rose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Ba′al was broken down, and the Ashe′rah beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered upon the altar which had been built. And they said to one another, “Who has done this thing?” And after they had made search and inquired, they said, “Gideon the son of Jo′ash has done this thing.” Then the men of the town said to Jo′ash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Ba′al and cut down the Ashe′rah beside it.” But Jo′ash said to all who were arrayed against him, “Will you contend for Ba′al? Or will you defend his cause? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down.” Therefore on that day he was called Jerubba′al, that is to say, “Let Ba′al contend against him,” because he pulled down his altar. (6:28-32)

gideonAltarThe local CSI team gets involved, and although they were sworn to secrecy, one of the servants lets it slide that it was Gideon who did this.  I find it interesting that Gideon’s father, who lost his second-best bull in the protest, didn’t defend his son.  Rather, he points to the recently hacked-down idol and says, “Look, if he really is as powerful as you say he is, let him stand up for himself.” Of course, there is no reply from the pile of sticks and stones, and at the end of the day we have a story of a young man who responds to God’s call by acting faithfully even when he is afraid and by doing what was right even when it scared the pants off of him.

And I wonder this morning…do you have any idea what that is like?  When is the last time you woke up with a sense of, “You know, I need to _________.”  Or, “I think I really should _______.”  But then you thought about it for a bit and said, “No way.  How can I do that?”

Have you ever at the sense that you have met God, that you have seen God’s hand at work, and that maybe even, in some way, you’ve built an altar to God and worshiped God…but there’s still that other god, that secret love, that hidden hunger that is still hanging around in the back yard?

Is there something in your life, or in our world, that you need to stand up to?  Something that you need to confront and say, “Look, this is simply not God’s best and I need to do something about.

Maybe you need to simply get off the dime and do something that you know you need to do, even if you don’t really want to do it.

For example, maybe there’s a family member with whom you need to have a conversation that could lead to resolution of a long-standing problem, or reconciliation after a deep wound has been festering.  Wow, do I hate doing that.  But if you don’t, who will?

Or maybe you have been thinking about a practice or a habit that is preventing you from being the person that God is calling you to be.  Are you wasting a lot of time on the internet? Are you throwing a lot of your life away binge drinking or getting high? Do you know the secret shame of hiding from reality in the cesspool of pornography?  Are you obsessed with getting each retirement account statement and counting every single penny?  You see?  Is there something that is standing in the way of you being the best you God intends that needs to be torn down and burnt up?

I don’t know where all of you are this morning.  Heck, on some days, I’m not quite sure where I am.  But if you can identify with Gideon and his need to go against the flow, to stand up for something that is worth standing up for even if it may cost you; if you know what it’s like to have to tear down an old idol even if it brings you secret pleasure, then let me give you three reminders.

Remember that God is already moving toward you.  You are far from alone in this thing!  In our previous reading from Judges, we’ve seen that God appears to Gideon, and then he calls Gideon and equips Gideon – all before he asks Gideon to make the sacrifice and tear down the idols.  In our passage from Romans, we heard that it was while we were still sinning that Christ died for us.  Jesus didn’t say he’d come and check in on us once we got our acts together and got our lives straightened out a bit.  He didn’t say to call him once we got rid of whatever it was that was fascinating, amusing, or killing us.  He said that he was here before we even knew it.  While we were still a mess – he called to us.  And he calls today.

Remember that you can’t do this alone.  I know –boy, do I know – from personal experience that it’s easy to feel like nobody understands where you are or what you are doing.  It’s easy to think that nobody cares.  It’s easy to be embarrassed or ashamed, and think, “There is no way that I can stand in front of that man and tell him what I’m thinking right now.”  Yes there is.  If you are serious about wanting to change your life, or tear down some idols, or give up some nasty distraction, I think that sharing it with a couple of friends is about the only way to do so.  Gideon told ten friends what he was doing.  You might need to bring two or three friends into your life and ask for their help.  You have a pastor.  Maybe you need a therapist.  You are not alone, and if you pretend that you are alone, you will fail.

And remember that at some point, you’re going to have to quit talking and start doing.  Yes, it’s frightening.  Of course it is hard.  And you will probably not make unimpeded, straight-line, forward progress from here until the day you die.  Big deal.  What can you do now?  Change your calendar.  Adapt your behavior.  Act like someone who is moving in a different direction.

The Good News is that God does not expect us to be perfect.  God knows that we have and will make some whopper mistakes.  The Better News is that God does not expect us to remain where we are, any more than we expect our children to stay in preschool for seven or ten years.  Like Gideon, you can grow into the person that you are meant to be, one scary night at a time, with the help of the Body of Christ and in the Grace of God.  You are where you are.  But you do not need to stay there.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Who, and Where, and Why…Thoughts on the Presence.

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 13 October, we began to hear the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book.  Our scriptures included Judges 6:11-24 and John 20:26-31.

OK, I’m not going to make you raise your hands on this one, but if I were to take a little survey this morning and ask people who had ever even heard of the book of Judges prior to the beginning of this sermon series, I’m betting that many, if not most of the hands would be up.  But let’s be honest.  How many people have heard about Eglon and Ehud?  Who tells their children about Jael and Sisera?  This is a part of our story that we don’t often read.

GideonCartoonBut there are portions that some of us recognize.  I’ve mentioned Samson as a “Judge” about whom a lot of people have heard.  This morning’s reading introduces us to the person who gets more ink in the book of Judges than anyone else: Gideon.  There are a number of stories in Judges that help us to understand who this man is, and how he points to the intentions of God.

I have to warn you, though, about what we said last week: we are continuing to descend into a dark and cold period in the story of God’s people.  Things are not as they should be.

We know that right away because when we meet Gideon, he is threshing wheat in a wine press.

grumpyNeighborWhen I was a kid, my brother and I loved to play stickball.  We’d get a broom handle and a tennis ball and play every day that we could.  Most days, we’d be down at the corner.  Home plate was the sewer grate near the Wiener’s house.  A ball hit in the air over the Hultberg’s place was an automatic home run.  A ball hit into the windows at the Hultberg’s place was trouble.  And any ball into the yard that comprised foul territory along third base was just lost – that guy never gave our balls back.

garageBut some days, we’d want to play, and it would be raining.  So we’d play in the garage.  We made a line about three feet high, and anything below that line was an out.  Anything into the ceiling was also an out.  But there were a couple of sweet spots that, if you could hit them, were worth a lot of points.

Can I tell you that it usually went better for us when we played outside?  Fewer holes in the wall, less paint spilled on the floor, and no broken light bulbs.  You could play stickball in the garage, but if my mom or dad caught you doing it, you’d get the point that it just ain’t right.  Like threshing wheat in a wine press.

A Threshing Place in Santorini, Greece

A Threshing Place in Santorini, Greece

Theshing wheat was done outdoors.  You need a big area, a wide floor, and ideally, a little breeze.  To thresh wheat by hand, you hold the stalks and slam them against the floor, or you lay them on the floor and you swing a flail at them.  The grains of wheat fall from the stalk and you throw the stalks away and sweep up the grain.

A Wine Press

A Wine Press

A wine press was a small, contained pit that was out of the wind – usually below ground.  The grapes would be thrown into the pit and then stomped until the juice was released. Clearly, the smaller, more contained the pit was, easier collecting the juice would be.

But here in Judges 6, Gideon is playing ball in the garage.  He is hiding in the press, doing his level best to make sure that nobody – especially the Midianites – sees him preparing a harvest.  The beginning of the chapter, which we did not read, tells us that every harvest time the Midianites would cross over into Israel as thick as locusts and devour the harvest – so people like Gideon are forced into hiding their produce from the marauding enemy.  And if that means threshing wheat in a winepress, well so be it.

winepress-threshingHave you ever been there?  Have you ever found yourself so confused, so threatened, so isolated, so afraid, that you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing?  Here’s what I mean: I think that when people look for hope in a lottery ticket, that’s like threshing wheat in a winepress.  When you whip out the credit card at the mall for that next thing that’s going to make you feel better about yourself, or when you wake up in bed next to someone you don’t really know or love, but who has told you things about yourself that you hope are true but are afraid to believe – that’s threshing wheat in a winepress.  There is nothing wrong with wanting hope, or contentment, or love.  But where are you looking for those things?

Here’s another thing: when Gideon is trying to thresh the wheat in that winepress, do you think it’s working all that well?  Of course not.  He can’t do it well in that space, and it also says something about the meagerness of the harvest.  He’s doing a bad job with a small amount.

It’s the same with us.  When we start looking for hope, or contentment, or love in the wrong place, we don’t really expect to find much.  But we live with the illusion of those things until sooner or later we either start looking in the right place, or we give up altogether and say that there is no such thing as hope, contentment, or love. We come to the point where we have an altered view of reality, and we accept our own experience as authoritative for everyone.

Just like the disciple Thomas, Gideon can’t believe the goodness and presence of God because he thinks he hasn’t seen it.  And he can’t see it because he doesn’t believe it.  The reality is that he is sitting in the presence of the Divine. But he cannot process that truth.

In verse 8, we’re told that God sent a “prophet” to speak the truth to God’s people.  In verse 11, we meet an “angel” who comes to speak with Gideon.  And in verse 16, we’re told that it’s “the Lord” himself who is doing the talking… And still, Gideon can’t believe in the presence of God.  Even though God is right there!

So now our morning’s reading contains a narrative wherein God has to provide some ID to Gideon to prove that He is who He says.  One wintry day in 1993 I was moving my family from the temporary residence we had on Clearview into our new home on Cumberland.  I had just finished packing the truck and literally everything I owned was in the back of the U-Haul when I got a call from my friend Bill telling me that his wife had had some heart trouble and was over at Allegheny General Hospital.  I left the truck and went to the ICU, wearing my tattered jeans, stained t-shirt, and flannel.  When I got into the room, as Doris was giving me a hug and a kiss, the nurse came around the bend and looked at me in shock.  “Who are you and what are you doing here?”  Doris said, “It’s ok, that’s just Dave.”  I said, “I’m clergy.”  The nurse put herself between Doris and me and said, “I’m going to have to see some ID.”  When I dutifully produced my little clergy badge, she looked me up and down and sniffed, “well, at least wash your hands before you get anywhere close to my patient…”

Sometimes, we don’t believe what is right in front of us, do we?

Another time, I was at a meeting in Chicago.  I had one of those big plastic nametags on that says who you are and where you’re from.  As I walked into the conference room, a man with whom I had been corresponding for years, but never met in person, looked at my name tag, and then at me, and then at my name tag again.  He said, “You’re Dave Carver?”  “Uh-huh.”  “From Pittsburgh?”  “Yup.”  “You’re Dave Carver from Crafton Heights in Pittsburgh?”  “Um, yeah… It’s good to finally meet you.”  He looked at my tag again, and then at me, and finally said, “Wow, man, it’s good to meet you, too.  Sorry for my slow reaction, but, wow, man… I always thought you were black…”

Not sure how to respond to that one.  I’m just me.

The core of our passage today consists of God seeking to convince Gideon that God is who God says he is.  God has to pull out his ID and flash his name tag in order to get the man’s attention.

Gideon’s Sacrifice, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674)

Gideon’s Sacrifice, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674)

In God’s case, the common method of getting one’s attention, Old-Testament style, involved some fire.  Remember the burning bush, or the pillar of fire by night?  Well here Gideon sets a feast in front of his Visitor and – shazaam! – it is consumed by flame. Turns out that God is who he said he is, and he is where he said he’d be – right with Gideon.

Let me tell you something, friends.  You could make an argument that what God says and does here is in fact the central message of the entire Bible.  God is with us.  Time and time again throughout the scripture, God looks at someone and says, “I am with you.”

In fact, let me help you do a little Bible memorization exercise right now.  I’d like to stop the sermon and help you memorize a dozen Bible verses. Can you say this with me: “’I am with you’, says the Lord.”  Now, repeat it.  Have you memorized it?  What does it say?

Congratulations.  You’ve just memorized the key phrases in Genesis 28:5 and 46:4, Exodus 3:12, Deuteronomy 20:1, Joshua 1:5, Isaiah 43:5, Jeremiah 15:20, Haggai 1:13, Matthew 1:23, Matthew 28:20, John 13:33 and Acts 18:10.  And there are more.  You really are a bunch of Bible scholars.  A dozen verses before noon.

God is with you.  Isn’t that great news!  But did you notice Gideon’s reaction?  Right after he says, “Yeah, well, I can’t really believe all these stories about God because, well, God hasn’t really ever shown up around these parts in my experience…”, God goes ahead and proves that it is, in fact, the Almighty there in Gideon’s winepress.  And Gideon’s first impulse is to cry out, “Oh no! God is here!  I’ve seen God!  I am in such trouble now!”

Wait! Isn’t the presence of God good news?  It sure ought to be.

Unless I have given up looking for the holy and am happy just to be hiding out in my wine press.

godwithusYears ago I was in a mentoring relationship with a beautiful young woman who had experienced great pain in her life.  She loved Jesus.  She yearned for his presence in her life.  But she was in such fear and pain that she believed the only way that she could support herself was by working as a stripper at a “gentleman’s club.”  I went to the city where she lived and we visited for a couple of days, during which time I tried to convince her that she had other gifts and skills and that God would make a way for her.  She replied that God had given her this body and there was nothing wrong with what she was doing and my problem was that I was too uptight.

One afternoon as she was heading out the door, I gave her a pad of paper and I said, “Do me a favor and write the address of the club where you work.”  She jotted it down and said, “OK.  Why?”

I folded the paper and put it in my pocket.  “You’ve convinced me,” I said.  “You’re right.  Nothing wrong with what you’re doing.  And I’ve decided that I don’t want to hang around here all evening by myself, so I thought I’d stop down to the club for a snack and a drink.  I’ll see you in a bit.”

She got a panicked look on her face.  “Oh, please, Dave.  No.  Don’t come.”

“Why?  It’s all about beauty and grace and celebrating God’s gifts, isn’t it?  I’m ready to accept your view of reality.”

“No…Dave, please.  I don’t want you to see me like this.  I don’t want you to see me there.  I can’t take you to that place.”

And I simply said, “I don’t see why my presence would create a problem.  After all, you take Jesus there every night.”

You see – the presence of God can be terrifying and unsettling if we discover that we are in a place that is outside of God’s best.  The reality of the presence of God as described in this morning’s reading, along with the other dozen verses that you’ve memorized, is that such a presence can and should prompt a change in behavior or outlook.  My young friend, for instance, realized that the presence of God everywhere meant that she needed to leave the exotic dancing profession.

How can you take advantage of your neighbor if God is there with you and the neighbor?  How do you continue to tease and mock and bully someone at school if God is sitting between the two of you?  How can we demonize those with whom we disagree if God is a part of the conversation?

You see, if I am sitting in the wrong place, or doing the wrong thing, or looking in the wrong direction for hope or contentment or love, well then I may be uncomfortable when the true source of hope and contentment and love shows up and I continue to look elsewhere for those things.

But if I can believe in that presence…If I can trust that God does provide those things, and more, to those who follow…then maybe – just maybe I can change.  I can grow. I can be released from fear.

Beloved, God is trying to convince you of something this morning.  What is it?  What if it is true? How would your life be different this morning if you knew that God was with you?  How could your life be different?  How should it be different?

Nobody here, to my knowledge, has actually spent much time threshing wheat in a winepress.  But plenty of us know something about holding back and hiding out.  Plenty of us know something about an inability to believe that maybe, just maybe, this God is who he says He is – or, more importantly, we find it hard to accept the fact that he is where he says he is.

One of my supreme joys as your pastor is to invite you to consider the glorious truth that God is with us. With you. Here.  Now.  There.  Then.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

What Have You Got To Lose?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  On World Communion Sunday, we considered one of the most terrifying, and least-likely to be included in Children’s BIbles, texts – the story of Deborah, Barak, Sisera, and Jael (excerpted below).  Our Gospel reading was John 12:23-26.

         If you have not been following along, you need to know that we are working our way through a study of the Book of Judges.  This morning’s reading, like most of that volume, is a bleak and difficult story, especially if we take it at face value.  As we begin, let me remind you about a couple of things.  First, the overall purpose of Judges, as we’ve described it, is to help us see what happens when there is no sense of order and purpose in society.  Several times the text says, “In those days, there was no king in Israel”, and I am taking that to mean that Judges paints a picture of a people who have forgotten the Lord and His purposes.  And secondly, I’d like you to remember that the theological theme of Judges is that God calls his people to replace systems of repression and slavery with structures of release and liberation.

metal-and-stone-spiral-staircaseIn reality, reading through Judges is like following a circular stairwell into a deep, dark basement.  We seem to be going around and around, and instead of getting easier and brighter, it’s getting harder and darker and colder.  And if you think what we’ll read today is bad, well, just wait until March.  This week, I had the sense that a lot of these stories full of violence and bluster are the campfire stories of a culture that needs to hear something of God’s purposes and deliverance, even if they sound unbelievable.  It’s a lot like whistling while you walk past the graveyard in the dark, I suppose.

Let’s begin this fourth chapter, the story of Deborah and Barak, Sisera and Jael.

 

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who dwelt in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.

You see the cycle, right?  The last Judge, Ehud, dies, and there is peace.  And then we forget, and we do what is evil.  And then God allows us to experience the consequences of our actions, and then we cry out to God…

From the Temple of Ramses in Abu Simbel, Egypt

From the Temple of Ramses in Abu Simbel, Egypt

But wait a second.  It says we’re oppressed by a king…and what is the distinctive feature of this particular king?  He’s got chariots.  I seem to remember another king with chariots who tried to stand in the way of God’s purposes.  Do you remember Pharaoh?  Can you see how this is being set up as a story of God’s delivering God’s people?

The story continues:

 

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deb′orah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abino-am from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naph′tali and the tribe of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

DeborahBarakLast week we looked at the meaning of the names in the story.  This week, we’ll see some more of that.  We’re told that Deborah is the “wife of Lappidoth”, and that may be.  But “Lappidoth” is also the word for “torches”.  So she may be “Mrs. Lappidoth”, but she may also be “the torch lady”.  She lives into that name, because she sure lights a fire under Barak!

And “Barak” is the word for “lightning”.  When you hear the rest of this story, I hope you’ll see that perhaps this is a bit of a joke, like when you call a bald man “Curly” or a 350 pounder “Tiny”.  This guy is surely not quick, powerful, or brilliant.

But Deborah, the “torch lady”, is a prophetess.  That is, she is called by God to tell the people the truth.  And the truth she reveals is that God will save us from Sisera:

Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”

Barak is doubtful and even cowardly.  He chooses to see the size of the problem, rather than the power and the purpose of the savior. “I can’t do it…you’ll have to come.  You be my ‘good luck charm’.”  Earlier in this passage, I suggested that the chariots were to remind us of Pharaoh.  Can you think of another man who was told by God to lead his people to freedom, and who tried to get out of it?  Doesn’t Barak sound just like Moses here?  Moses said that he wasn’t a good enough speaker, that he wasn’t powerful enough.  Barak said he couldn’t do it alone, either.

Deborah gives him his answer:

And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand men went up at his heels; and Deborah went up with him.

Here’s the truth: God does not punish people for an inability to believe, but I am sure that people who cannot trust or believe are unable to see all of God’s best. That’s the situation for Barak, at any rate.  God will do what God will do, but you’ll miss out on some of it, Barak. 

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Za-anannim, which is near Kedesh.

OK, that’s a little bit random.  Why do we need to know about Heber and the Kenites?  Isn’t this a story about Deborah and Barak?  Yes, it is.  But here we are reminded that the Kenites, even though they are from Canaan, usually play for our side.  Going all the way back to Moses, we’ve had pretty good relations with them.  Moreover, this verse explains why this particular group of Kenites found themselves in Kedesh.  They are usually much further south…but for some reason, there are a few of them around here.  I wonder what they are doing?

12 When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abin′o-am had gone up to Mount Tabor,

Wait!  Sisera found out about Barak’s army?  How did he do that?  Who told him? Heber!  Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.  I thought we were friends!  But now you’ve ratted our guy out to the enemy.

13 Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15 And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.

The Wadi Nachal Paran, Israel

The Wadi Nachal Paran, Israel

The scene shifts now, to what the RSV calls “the river Kishon.”  The word that’s used, though, is “Wadi” – “Wadi Kishon.”  A “wadi” is a riverbed that is usually dry, packed and firm.  However God defeats the army of Sisera in the Wadi Kishon.  Chapter 5 (verse 4 and 21) describe a battle occurring in a thunderstorm – the dry wadi became a raging torrent, and Sisera’s army was thrown into a panic.  In fact, the word for “panic” that is used here is the same word that describes what happened to Pharaoh’s chariots in Exodus 14:24.  Can you see the echo of a liberation story here?

God does in fact use lightning to defeat Sisera – but it’s actual lightning, not Barak.  Once again, we see that God’s hand is more powerful than the enemy’s chariots.  That’s fantastic!  Let’s see how this story ends:

17 But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Ja′el, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 And he said to her, “Pray, give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is any one here?’ say, No.” 21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground, as he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent; and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.

23 So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. 24 And the hand of the people of Israel bore harder and harder on Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.

Jael and Sisera, Jacopo Amigoni (1739)

Jael and Sisera, Jacopo Amigoni (1739)

Seriously?  A tent peg through the skull?  Look, you can read through the Bible and find a lot of places where you think, “Somebody needs to be wearing a WWJD bracelet here”.  This is not the best and finest part of our story, folks.  What’s going on here?

Well, for starters, let’s consider a couple of things that “everyone knows” – that is, what would be really obvious to hearers of this story that might slip past us?

Sisera, the enemy general, went straight to the tent of a woman.  In that culture, that’s a serious breach.  He ought to be presenting himself to the master of the property, the man.  In a time when the “taking” of “war brides” and forced sexual advances was common, a soldier walking into the tent of a woman is a real threat.

Furthermore, he asked for a drink.  Everyone knows that a good guest doesn’t ask, he waits to be served.  This is very forward and, again, threatening.

Finally, this guest commands his host to lie for him. 

The chapter concludes with Jael finishing the story, all right.  She deals with this threatening stranger and along the way, she undoes her husband’s treachery (remember that it was her husband, Heber, who alerted Sisera to Barak’s presence), and she declares God’s victory and liberation.

So what’s the good news here?  What can we learn from this difficult story?

The Good news is that here in Judges, just like in Exodus, God acts to save his people who cry out. God’s power brings liberation and release.

Deborah and Jael see this, believe it, and act into it.  These strong women take the steps that they can, using the tools they have at hand, to create a future consistent with God’s intentions for peace and freedom.

The men?  Well, not so much.  Both Barak and Sisera seem very intent on saving their own skins.  Barak, at least, is mildly interested in what the Almighty has going on, but it is clearly secondary to self-preservation. He can’t believe what Deborah says and will not move forward into God’s promise without the “torch lady” lighting a fire under his bum.  Sisera leaves his army, hides in a woman’s tent, and lies about that.

If we were to interpret this chapter in the light of our reading from John, we could say that each of the men sought to save their own necks by playing it safe.  They withheld trust and faith, and it ended up costing each of them.

So the women are faithful and able to walk into God’s purposes, while the men shrink back.  That leads me to another question: How do I respond to the call of God? How do I move forward into a future characterized by the intentions of a liberating, empowering, releasing God?

I know.  I know.  The story in Judges 4 is a nasty, brutish narrative.  It’s written by a people who knew far less of God’s intentions and presence than you do.  Nobody here had the Psalms or the Prophets, let alone the Gospels or the life of Jesus.  Every one of you sitting in the pews this morning knows more about light and life and God’s purposes than anyone in this story ever did.  You have more light than they did.

What are you doing with it?

Barak looked at Deborah, and then at the size of the enemy army, and said, “No way.  I am not going in there.  At least, not alone.  I’m only going if you will come with me, Deborah.”  And she becomes his token, his good-luck charm, his idol, his crutch.

CryOutWhat are you afraid of?  What do you look at and say, “No way.  I can’t do it.  Not gonna happen…”? Is it taking charge of your financial affairs?  Getting clean? Are you afraid of aging or dying?  Do you lack boldness in a relationship?

What do you insist on taking with you into the presence of fear?  Barak took Deborah. Do you take a drink instead of facing your fear directly?  Do you medicate your problems with shopping, or seek to anesthetize them with gambling or television or hiding out in the bedroom?  Do you find that you simply can’t move because you feel incapable and overwhelmed?

I’ve got good news.  In a few moments, you’ll be invited to sit at the Lord’s table.  You’ll have the opportunity to receive the sacrament that more than anything else is a tangible sign of God’s presence with you.  A reminder that God’s intentions are for you.

As you come to the table, you can let go of your good luck charm, your idol, your fear, your crutch.  You can walk toward the future, knowing that God is there, that God is in control.  Barak thought he was helpless unless he had Deborah with him.  Sisera thought he was safe hiding in a lie.  Both of them were wrong.  There is nothing else we need to bring, and no reason to hide.  Come into the light.  What have you got to lose?  No, seriously, I’m pretty sure that most of us need to lose something.  What have you got to lose?  The good news is, you can lose it, and follow.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.