Unanxious Heroes for Uncertain Times: Deborah
Things were not looking good for the people of God.
They had settled in the Promised Land, after the wilderness wandering of 40 years. But the years since had not been peaceful ones. While the
story of Joshua seems to suggest that all of the existing tribes and nations are overpowered and removed, the book of Judges tells a different story. First there were the Aramites. Then the Moabites. Then the Philistines. Now the Canaanites. Each one in turn caused significant death and carnage to God’s people. They would destroy crops, steal possessions, kill the men on the battlefield and abduct and rape the women to birth children as property.
Judges 4 and 5 tell the story of this oppression. Chapter 5 was likely written first, in poetic form, and is possibly one of the oldest parts of the Bible that we have. Then Chapter 4 was written in prose form, as a way to fill in the blanks. The Canaanites have oppressed God’s people
for twenty years. Twenty years of death, of destruction, of fear, of intimidation.
The Canaanites were the superpower of their day; they possessed the newest military might: chariots. With this “atomic” power they were able to dominate and destroy their opponents, including God’s people, the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Both of these stories tell of the depravity of this oppression. Judges 5 tells in poetic form of the mother of the Canaanite general Sisera. In
the poetic retelling, she is waiting for her son to come home, wondering how many chests of riches he will bring with him. How many women he will drag back; in fact, she does not even call them women, but “wombs,” abducted property in order to birth more slaves. The Canaanite marauders and oppressors were cruel and inhuman.
Things were not looking good for the people of God.
So, they cried out to God for a savior, and God obliged by, in fact, sending three saviors. Three heroes in the face of uncertainty.
The first was Deborah. Of our three heroes, she served the role as spiritual leader. She was a prophet in the Old Testament tradition: she was spiritually discerning and used that discernment to speak truth to the people. Year after year of Canaanite oppression, she saw her people suffering. The mighty and the weak alike came to her with their disagreements and their angst in the middle of their oppression. Sitting
underneath a palm tree in the hill country, she dispensed wisdom and care. One day, up to her palm tree in the hill country came a military
processional. Deborah had summoned the top Israelite military general with a word, and he came in full regalia. Mounted on a steed, flanked by his personal guard, he entered the court of Deborah, and bowed to receive a word from God.
This was Barak. Of our three heroes, his is the role of the military and political leader. He had might and power at his fingertips, and Deborah called on him to use it. The people were struggling. It was time to protect them. Deborah sent Barak to take a stand against the Canaanites, that the Lord had ordained a victory and the people would be at peace. Barak, uncertain of victory, said he would go…if Deborah went with him. She must come to represent the Lord before them in battle. In the heat of the day, the shadows of the palm fronds played on her face. Underneath the flickering, Barak thought he saw a smile. “I will go, but if I do, the honor and glory will not go to you, but to a woman.” Implying, of course the question, “can you handle that?” Barak agreed and led her into battle, with ten thousand warriors—and the power of God—behind them.
The battle went as Deborah said it would. The Canaanites were routed, and from the battlefield fled the losing Canaanite general—Sisera
(remember the poetic telling of his mother waiting for the riches and the wombs that he would bring home?) As he ran and looked for a place to hide, he ended up at the tents of the ironsmiths who were providing the warriors with their weapons. Specifically, he ended up at the tent of our third hero: Jael. Jael was married to one of these smiths, and was thus considered “safe” for the general. He came and hid and asked for something to drink, and quickly fell asleep. But Jael was anything but safe for the general. She knew what kind of man he was, knew what he and his soldiers did to women like her, knew that he was the tip of the spear of a depraved and violent Canaanite kingdom that oppressed people like her. Jael represents in the story an ordinary, everyday, hero, the kind of hero that does what is right to protect people, even if there is risk involved. Her heroism is one of decisive action. And there is no way to keep this from sounding as violent and messy as it absolutely was, so I’ll give it to you straight. While the great army general Sisera lay in her tent resting from battle, Jael took a hammer and a
tent spike and drove it through his temple, killing him in his sleep. Sisera’s mother would never again enjoy the sight of her son returning
in victory with the spoils of war, including women like Jael.
How’s that for a rousing kickoff to a new sermon series?
We begin today with a look at what I am calling “Unanxious Heroes for Uncertain Times.” In case you hadn’t figured this out yet, most of the
stories of the Bible happen when things are not going well for God’s people. Exodus from slavery. Exile from the Promised Land. Roman
oppression during the life of Jesus. That pattern of God’s people losing their way, crying out for help, and receiving a savior is really the story of the whole Bible. Or at least most of it. The Scriptural narrative is more or less a lily-pad jump from “Uncertain Times” to “Uncertain Times” to Uncertain Times.”
You see where I am going. We sit in one of the most unpredictable seasons of many of our lives. Medical uncertainty. Economic uncertainty.
Social and cultural uncertainty. Out of this uncertainty comes a ton of anxiety about what we should do, who we should be, how we should act. I don’t have to work too hard to make the connection to the uncertain times of Scripture, do I? While it feels incredibly chaotic and unpredictable, the reality is that we are living in times much like many of the people of the Bible, including the book of the Judges. The oppression of the Canaanites, or the Amorites or the Philistines or the Midianites or whomever, led to a chaos and an unpredictability that
terrified God’s people, and caused them to cry out for help. A cry that many of us can understand. Lord, how will we pay these bills? Lord,
should I go back to work or stay at home? Lord, who should I trust when there are authorities giving unhelpful or even contradictory information? Lord, how can I survive this mental unhealth, this addiction, this emotional struggle, in the midst of extreme isolation? A cry for help rises up from the people, and it echoes back thousands upon thousands of years.
Things rarely look good for the people of the Bible. But when things look their worst, that’s when God shows up!
But, whatever the age and whatever the season, the cries of the people reach the ears of a loving and caring God. The beginning of chapter 4
tells the story of 20 long years of chaos, suffering at the hands of the Canaanites. By the end of chapter 5, the narrator reports that the
actions of our heroes result in 40 years of peace. Today, and in the days and weeks ahead, let us learn from and glean from these heroes who we are to be in today’s chaos. How might we be faithful followers of God together in these days? Again, I turn to our three heroes from the story of Judges 4–5. For in them, I see three stories of courage.
Our first hero is Deborah, the spiritual leader. Hers is the courage to speak the truth. In the middle of a global pandemic, there are plenty of
spin doctors, ready to take advantage of anxious people, especially if it makes them look better in the process. Political leaders using the
pandemic to run for office. Cultural leaders ready to further their image with a controversy. Let us look past these, to the wise spiritual leaders, sitting underneath of palm trees, dispensing wisdom instead of fear. Margaret Marcuson is one of those church consultants I talked
about a couple of weeks ago, but she has been a well-differentiated, non-anxious presence among the fearful throng. Gregg Hemmon, our Region’s Executive Minister, has offered thoughtful and anxiety-lowering wisdom in these days. A handful of you have mentioned that Richard Rohr is helpful in giving thoughtful and non-anxious words. People of faith, look to the margins, to the hill country, underneath the palm tree. The wise spiritual leaders of our age are not conducting daily press briefings. But they are offering wisdom. May they like Deborah teach us that truth and wisdom in these days.
Our second hero is Barak, the political and military leader. The conclusion on Barak is mixed. Some suggest that he is the failure of the
story. Deborah has to point out to him, “you aren’t going to get credit for this win…it will go to a woman.” As if that were the worst thing
that could ever happen. But notice what Barak does when Deborah tells him this: he doesn’t seem to care. Barak is a hero who with the courage to share power. He doesn’t need the credit for himself. He doesn’t need to receive the honor. One thing that we have learned about these days is that we need each other. We need to rely on medical professionals to tell us how to be smart about the virus. We need to rely on teachers and educators to throw away lessons from decades of teaching experience and become learners themselves. We need to rely on small business owners and restaurateurs who use their abilities to feed school kids even when they don’t get the profit. We need to rely on essential personnel to put on masks and go to work and do the things that we don’t know how to do. We are all in this together, a lesson of courage that Barak understood and teaches us today.
Finally, our third hero is Jael. “Wow…how are you going to tell us to be more like Jael, preacher? Sharpen those tent pegs?” Clearly, we could
debate for years the complexity of the morality of her act. When is it right to commit violence in order to end violence? Just war theorists and pacifists and ethicists still haven’t figured that one out, thousands of years after Jael, and it is an important discussion to have. But, we cannot let the violence of Jael’s act distracts us from the simplicity of it. Hers was not a heroism of power and prestige: she was a poor woman, part of an outsider culture, who would never be invited into the halls of power. But she saw people hurting, and did what she could to make a difference. Hers was the courage of simple and decisive action. For us today, don’t let the complicated morality debate keep us from becoming an everyday hero. Jael saw people hurting and she did what she needed to in order to care for them. And instead of another 40 years of this man’s reign of terror, there were 40 years of peace. Can we have the same courage today? The courage to see our neighbors in
need and choose to make a difference. Can we be ordinary heroes like Jael?
I cannot look out and see you today, though I wish I could. But in my mind’s eye, I see heroes. I see those who have responded with courage to the events of the last several weeks. Those who have taken simple and decisive actions to help their neighbors, care for the hurting, and
protect the weak. I look out in my mind’s eye and see Deborah, to whom we turn for wisdom. I see Barak, who shares power and creates community and not division. I see Jael, someone no one thinks would be a hero doing what she can. Today, I celebrate you as heroes.