Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Deborah - "When the Future is Unclear..."

Deborah & Barak defeat Canaanite forces at Mount Tabor
We’ve entered a great stadium, mid-race, as thousands cheer us on.  One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down to cheer us on our journey. A woman now approaches us with a commanding presence and the voice of a wise counselor: “Shalom Aleichem!" she says. "I am Deborah.” "And upon you also be peace" we reply. What a privilege to speak with this prophetess, counselor, and warrior who led Israel during the period of the Judges.  It was a time when the people were to look to God for leadership; but often failed to do so, plunging them into a cycle of oppression and suffering at the hands of their enemies.  When at last they cried to God for help, he would raise up inspired leaders or “judges” to deliver them. Deborah was the fourth of these Spirit-filled leaders during a period of Canaanite oppression.  As this great woman of faith starts to jog alongside us, we hear these words, “Even when the future was unclear, I could see God’s victory… and so can you.”

(i) When the future was unclear, Deborah looked to God and saw his victory.  Deborah stands out as one who could see clearly.  She was blessed by God with insight.  She was a wise counselor with sanctified common sense and biblical wisdom…speaking the truth with compassion.  We’re told that she “used to sit under the palm of Deborah….and the Israelites came to her for judgment.”  Those who had disputes would come to her for help…and they received it. Deborah was also blessed with hindsight.  She saw that Israel was in a cycle of pain brought about by sin and disobedience… she saw that this led to their oppression by King Jabin, just as their sin had led to suffering in the past.  Perhaps she even heard the many cries for help while listening to their stories day after day.  She saw the troubled history of her people…and wanted to make a difference.  Finally, Deborah possessed the gift of foresight.  As a prophetess she was able to see into the future, and what she saw was God’s victory. Summoning Barak, the commander of Israel’s northern army, she says, "The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, "Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.' " – Judges 4: 4-7 

There were many things Deborah could not see…she could not see how long this cycle of disobedience, cries for help, and deliverance would continue for her people.  She could not see exactly how God would deliver her people again…but one thing she saw clearly: she saw God’s victory. When the future is unclear, we need Deborah’s insight, addressing problems with the sanctified common sense and biblical wisdom God has given us.  We need her hindsight, addressing present and future concerns by learning from the past.  Finally, we need her spiritual foresight, looking to the future with hope and confidence in God’s victory, regardless of present dangers.  

Last Tuesday, I was working out on an elliptical trainer at the gym, when a fellow got on the machine next to mine and began talking on his cell phone.  Now here is the unusual thing.  I could easily overhear him saying again and again that he was really scared and nervous about something. That's just not something you hear men saying at the gym within earshot of complete strangers. After he finished his conversation, I felt compelled to ask him if he was OK, acknowledging that I had overheard him.  Without hesitation, he shared with me some very personal details about his relationship with his girlfriend, and some very real and serious concerns that he had that I won’t spell out here.  When I asked him if I could pray for him, he said (surprisingly!) yes, and added that he was a new Christian. I shared with him one relevant word of encouragement and then added, "I believe God put us next to each other for a reason" - because I do.  He not only agreed, he thanked me and said that he would let me know how things were going the next time we saw each other.  I don't believe it was accidental that I chose to do this particular workout on this particular machine on this particular day, since I usually swim on Tuesdays.  God gave me the opportunity  - as he does all of us - to come alongside someone as Deborah did; to help him see his life in the light of God’s truth, and to look to the future not with fear but with hope in God’s victory! Deborah looked to God and saw his victory in the face of an uncertain future and so can we…but if the truth be told, we often don’t.  Like Barak and Sisera and Jael, we’re tempted to look elsewhere.  Deborah invites us to consider their stories.

(ii) When the future was unclear, Barak looked to a godly person.  After Deborah summons Barak and gives her the Lord’s marching orders, he says this, "If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go."  - Judges 4: 8  Now, on the face of it, there is something humble about this reply… a general from 1300 BC asking a woman to accompany him in battle. Yet, Deborah implies that there was something missing from Barak’s response.  “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.” 
What is clear is that Deborah was trusting in God, but Barak was trusting in Deborah. We know this is the case because he says, “if you go with me.”  If you go with me I will go; and if you will not go with me I will not go.  That was not the response of someone who trusted in God’s victory…but in Deborah’s charisma. Let’s be clear: seeking help from others to obey God’s commands is not a bad thing. But the point here is that it is all too easy to become infatuated with charismatic individuals, only to find out that they too are fallible creatures.  Hear me again, when we face an unclear future…getting the counsel of godly people is wise, but we also need the counsel of his Word, and Spirit, and the willingness to follow it...without a lot of if's, and's, and but's.  Deborah looked to God, Barak looked to a godly person, but what about his enemy Sisera, the commander of King Jabin’s army?  What did he look to when the future was unclear?

(iii) When the future was unclear, Sisera looked to his superior technology. We read in vv. 1-3 that “…the commander of [King Jabin’s] army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron….” Archaeological evidence confirms that Canaan, as part of the Ancient Near East (1300 BC), was one of the first regions in the world to move from Bronze Age technology to the more advanced Iron Age technology.  The “Iron chariot” would have been one of the most advanced forms of weaponry of that period, and because of that superior technology Sisera probably had a sense of near invulnerability.

Try to picture the scene of this battle.  According to v. 12, Sisera is told that “Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor” and that in response “Sisera called out all his chariots nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him” to confront him at Wadi Kishon. The Wadi Kishon is a river that runs alongside Mount Tabor in the Jezreel Valley …one of the most famous battlegrounds in the world.  Over the past 4000 years we can date at least 24 major military conflicts on this land. According to the text, Barak ascends 1800 foot Mount Tabor with his army where he awaits Sisera and his chariots.  Then the moment arrives where Deborah cries, “Up!  For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand” (14).  How was Deborah so confident that this was to be the God-ordained day of victory? Turning to the ancient Song of Deborah in Judges 5, we learn that there was a great thunderstorm that day which saturated the ground; causing Sisera’s nine hundred chariots to become mired in the mud (see Judges 5: 4-5; 21-22). That was the moment Barak led his army down the mountain on foot, and defeated his enemy.  Some years later David will write, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7). 

The lesson here is that Sisera trusted first and foremost in his chariots, his superior technology.  Our nation has tremendous technological resources, we all know this.  Yet it doesn't take much imagination or knowledge of history to see how a nation, loosed from its moral and spiritual foundations, might begin to use its technological and material resources for evil. Which is precisely why John Adams (2nd US President) said this: “We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other (1798).”  Over Los Angeles' city hall you will find these words engraved: “Righteousness exalteth a people” –  a citation attributed to Solomon from the book of Proverbs 14: 34. May these be more than words!  Barak trusted in a godly person, Sisera in his superior weaponry and Jael…

(iv) When the future was unclear, Jael looked to her own cunning resources. Heber and his wife Jael (v. 11) were members of the Kenite clan, allies of Israel since Moses’ day. Yet it appears Heber separated from his clan to move north and ally with the Canaanites.  He may even be the one who told Sisera that the Israelite army was heading to Mount Tabor (12).  After Sisera’s spectacular defeat, he deserts his men on foot and looks for shelter in the tent of Heber and Jael.  We read that Jael comes out to meet Sisera, and says 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….But Jael 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, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. – Judges 4: 18-21 

That’s one R-rated Bible story!  It’s hard to know whether we should be applauding Jael’s loyalty to Israel, or condemning her violation of several of God’s commandments, beginning with lying, and murder. Complicating things is the fact that the Song of Deborah blesses her for her deed (5: 24).  Still, we must ask ourselves, “Did God bless her for her deed?  Did the end justify the means?”  Jael knew that her first allegiance should be to the Israelites, an allegiance which her husband had betrayed; but was a ruthless murder the way to show that allegiance? When faced with an uncertain future, we may be tempted in a similar way to break God’s commands and do whatever it takes to get a job done.  Yet God calls us to be a people of integrity with the highest moral principles.  

I was at a Fuller Seminary Leadership Forum this past week where Executive Producer Ralph Winter was speaking. His action/adventure films have grossed more than 2 billion dollars. I had the pleasure of working with Ralph at a previous church and have always been impressed not just with his professional success but with his spiritual depth.  He shared with us about a pivotal time in his life when he was working on a picture in New York. Away from home, he and his wife Judy learned that her father had taken his own life.  Ralph sent Judy and the kids back immediately, but he didn't come back.  He was with a company going to London for a film shoot, and he had a responsibility to finish the project. Not long after that, United Artists called and said, "Why don’t you leave this picture? We need you to go take over the James Bond movie." At the time, "Golden Eye" would have looked very good on his resume, but after talking with Judy they decided that he would finish out that movie and accept no more projects that would take him out of the Los Angeles area.  “I’m choosing my family over my job,” he told UA. For 8 months after that movie, he had no work.  They wondered what God was up to as they watched their accounts drop to zero.  Then, out of the blue, Ralph got an offer to work on a TV show shooting in the Valley.  As it turned out, the executive producer on that show was Steven Spielberg.   That set his career.  What Ralph Winter said to us in conclusion was this: “God is not just interested in the end result, he is also interested in the process.  As we look to the future, how we get there is as important as where we’re going.  

As I think about Jael and Deborah, and what it means to be a person of integrity as a husband, a father, and a pastor with goals and dreams of my own...I am reminded that how I get there is as important or more important than if I get there.  As a community of Christ's followers, the journey we take together, how we treat one another, how we honor God together, is as important as the destination.

Before Deborah leaves us, she asks us a question: “Can you clearly see God’s victory in your future"?  There are many things that can obscure our view…the willingness to compromise our moral principles like Jael, the godlike power of technology that has not ceased to tempt us since the days of Sisera and his nine hundred chariots, even Barak's tendency to idolize other fallible human beings.  Just as God sent Deborah and Barak to Mount Tabor before the battle to give them a clear view of their adversary, so we came to worship today to get a clearer view of God’s victory regardless of our present situation.  According to tradition, it was on this same mountain that Christ was transfigured before his disciples, and spoke with Moses and Elijah about his soon departure.  It was here that his disciples, fearful about the future, were given a clear view of the Messiah's majesty and assured that he would be victorious even in the cross!  

Our time with Deborah is almost over as she asks to pray for us before returning to her seat: “Dear God, give us the eyes of faith to see your victory in every situation, to be assured that though we know not what the future holds, we know you hold the future. Forgive us for trusting in lesser things, whether it be the power of a person we idolize, the power of human technology to save and set us free, or the power of our own cunning and resourcefulness. Take us again in prayer to that holy mountain where we see that our victory over sin, evil, and death is in you because Y’shua our Redeemer lives today.  Amen.”

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