One Big Story - Week 3: "Woman On Fire"
The Bible is One Big Story filled with heroes and villains, great adventures, epic battles, love stories and astonishing tales. It’s also the story of a “once and future” King who picked the most unlikely people to help him share the story of God’s amazing love, and how far God was willing to go to save the world.
Today we are continuing our summer sermon series, One Big Story. And what we're going to be learning over the course of this summer is one very simple fact: "God can use you no matter what."
You might think that you aren't good enough to be used by God... You might think you're too old, too young, too busy, too messed up, too much of a sinner... but God doesn't care about that. God loves you and wants to use you no matter what.
We'll be encountering some of the great characters in Scripture along the way---characters that undoubtedly dominated many a Sunday school class for some of us church-y types.
I'd like to think that this sermon series is kind of a "Sunday School Remixed," sort of thing. We're going to be going over some familiar ground for many of our church members but hopefully, we'll all learn some things that surprise us when we do.
And if you are tuning in and you don't have much of a history with the Bible---you will definitely get the chance to learn more than you bargained for if we do this right...
Today we're going to be hearing the story of Deborah, a woman on fire... more on that later.
Let me ask you a question. Have you ever been made to feel like you were "less than?"
I remember a time when I was a newly ordained associate pastor in Florida. After a presbytery meeting, I walked up to a newly installed senior pastor who had just been welcomed into the presbytery and introduced myself.
He shook my hand and asked the name of my senior pastor. I gave it to him. "Well, tell him to give me a call when he gets a chance," he told me, "I'd like to take him to lunch."
Yeah. It made me feel pretty small. Maybe you've had a moment or two like that in your life.
But when it comes to understanding what it's like for people who are really on the margins, I can't possibly know how it feels. I'm a white, privileged male in a culture that unfortunately hasn't figured out that's not the be all and end all.
I can't speak to the experience of women or people of color. Anything I might say would seem trivial and not all good enough. But what I do know is what I want all of us to know... In fact, this is the one thing that I want us to hold on today: God is an equal opportunity employer. Period.
Our story today begins in Judges chapter 4 and continues to chapter 5. It starts off with that familiar phrase that we've been hearing over the past several weeks: "The people of God did evil in the eyes of the Lord..." Again.
In this particular story, the tribal people who oppress the Hebrew people are simply known as the Canaanites. The text refers to Jabin, as the main leader of this group. He was a king in the city of Hazor, which was located in a strategic location high in the hills above the Galilee region.
We first meet Deborah as she is seated in the shade of a palm tree in the hill country, going about her work as a "judge" settling disputes among her people.
The Hebrew expression, “wife of Lappidoth” could also be “woman of Lappidoth,” referring to where she comes from. Or, that phrase could be a description of Deborah’s character; the word “lappidoth” means “torch,” or “lightning,” so Deborah could be a “fiery woman"--a woman on fire.
Out of all of the judges in the book of Judges, Deborah is the only one that appears to actually be serving as a judge.
But the story picks up as Deborah puts on her prophet's hat and brings a word from the Lord. She summons a certain Barak, from the territory of Naphtali to the north, and tells him that the Lord wants him to call out some 10,000 troops from Napthtali and Zebulun and bring them to Mount Tabor. There the Israelites will battle the Canaanites under Commander Sisera and will defeat them.
So the thing is, the Canaanites under General Sisera had iron chariots. A lot of iron chariots. Remember in the story of Gideon how the Midianites had camels? The Philistines from Samson's day also had superior weapons and they were seafaring to boot.
There is a theme at work here as the people of Israel are constantly facing oppression from tribal foes who are stronger and armed better.
But the story is just getting started. Barak says he'll carry out this order from the Lord, but only if Deborah will go with him. She agrees to go but says ominously that the Canaanite commander Sisera will be humiliated in this battle. Not only will he be the loser, but he will die at the hand of a woman!
Deborah basically takes a jab at the sexism of her day, which is just awesome.
The Israelites mass on Mt. Tabor in the Jezreel valley. They are outnumbered facing a foe with superior weapons, but suddenly a storm comes up as they are preparing to attack. The ground turns to mud and muck, and the iron chariots sink into it, rendering them useless.
Sisera is routed, and has to flee the battlefield. He takes refuge in what he believes is a sympathetic tent, belonging to a man named Heber who is referred to as a Kenite--a group of people who were often allied with the Canaanites.
Jael, Heber's wife, is the only one in the tent. She invites Sisera in, gives him milk to drink, encourages him to rest and as soon as he falls alseep, she takes a tent stake, a mallet and drives the stake into his temple.
She goes outside, hails Barak (who is apparently searching all over for Sisera) and invites him to come in and see what she's done.
We don't get any reasons why Jael did what she did. There is no backstory. The whole thing seems brutal and awful, and you have to imagine that there were all kinds of things that must have been going on inside her to bring her to that moment.
Chapter 5 of Judges is what scholars believe to be the oldest text in the Bible, the song of Deborah. She sings this song with Barak--a song of victory praising God and highlighting the people of Israel's delivery by God's faithfulness.
We have to read these texts carefully. They are set within a hard, brutal world filled with warring tribes and people who have experienced all kinds of violence and injustice as a result.
In each of these instances where God seems to be encouraging people to go to war, the important thing we have to remember is this: The people of Israel are being oppressed in each of these stories. They find themselves at the mercy of more powerful and dangerous tribes, and God delivers them from that oppression when they finally rise up.
Sadly, the human condition across history is often marked by violence and war. The Bible does not ignore or shrink from that tragic truth. The God of Scripture enters into even these messy and tragic conflicts and battles. As God fought for the Israelite slaves in Egypt, so God fights here on the side of the oppressed and less powerful who cry out to God. God fights against those who trust in and worship above all else their own idols of military might and humanly created technology
And here's something else that is important in this story.
The surprising people that are highlighted as being used by God to do extraordinary things are women, and in the case of Jael someone who was also an outcast--aligned with the enemy.
At the very end of Deborah's song, there is a moment when she sings of Sisera's mother waiting for her son to return home from the battle. It's a poignant moment when you begin to feel sorry for her, knowing how tragically he's been killed.
And then the women with Sisera's mother reassure her, telling her that he will be home soon bringing riches from his victory---including women, who were torn from their homes, reduced to being concubines and slaves.
It's at this moment you get a glimpse of God's sense of justice in all of this. The man who would have most assuredly kidnapped women and brought them home as slaves and concubines is himself defeated by a woman, and dispatched by a woman.
Pretty cool story, right?
It makes you realize that God is an equal opportunity employer. And always has been.
Sadly, the Church has failed to acknowledge this.
In the vast majority of churches across America, women are still denied leadership--as pastors, priests, elders, and deacons.
Many Christian churches have adopted the notion of complementarianism--which simply means that men and women have complementary gifts---but that women are not to be in leadership or "headship" over a man. By a combination of straight-up misogyny and a misuse of Scripture, women in these contexts are told they cannot under any circumstances be in leadership over or even teach a man.
I recently read an interview with a well-known, widely-read pastor who also asserted that a Christian woman should also not be in a career where she might be in charge of a Christian man.
And this practice has led to pride, abuse, fear and injustice. The news today is full of the turmoil this rotten theological foundation has produced, the women it's hurt, the Christian witness that it's ruined.
Because it leads us to believe that God has favorites... that only men can lead in the church... that only men can be pastors.
Here's the news. God doesn't have favorites. In fact, if God had a wallet your picture would be in it. Doesn't matter who you are... or what your gender happens to be.
Sisters and brothers, it is up to us to be faithful witnesses to the height and breadth of God's inclusion. It's up to us to share the good news that God is an equal opportunity employer. When we actively embrace God's equal opportunities, it strengthens our witness.
There are countless people outside the church who have lost faith in Christianity over this issue because they know deep down inside that God couldn't possibly be so sexist. And they are right. We need to share these stories--some of the oldest in the Bible.
As Christians, we are in a unique position to practice God's equal opportunity love everywhere we go. Ask yourself, am I standing with the oppressed or with the oppressors? What would Jesus do?
Also, when we actively embrace God's equal opportunities we find wholeness. I truly believe that if the Church would repent of the sin of excluding women in leadership, there would be a revival in this country. We need to live into that hope. We need to seek that kind of wholeness in the world in loving and generative ways.
Rather than railing against those who "don't get it," we should live by example, and teach our daughters that nothing is impossible for them. Rather than demonizing people who don't agree with us on this, we should pray that they find the wholeness that comes from embracing God's equal opportunity love.
Because only when the whole people of God are given their equal opportunities will the Church itself find wholeness.
Beloved, live into this beautiful, life-changing truth today and every day forward: God is an equal opportunity employer. Period.