Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The God of Surprise”
Rev. Art Ritter
November 15, 2020
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his 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, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “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.’”
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.” 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 got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.
Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.
A man went to see a movie and was surprised to find a woman with a big collie sitting in front of him. Even more amazing was the fact that the dog always laughed in the right places through the comedy. “Excuse me,” the man said to the woman, “but I think it is astounding that your dog enjoys the movie so much.” “I am surprised myself,” the woman replied. “He hated the book.”
A sermon based on the book of Judges may be like that movie theatre experience. We may be surprised when we hear the words of Scripture. Yet we may be astounded when we realize that these strange stories can actually teach us something.
One of the most popular films is recent times is the 2016 release Hidden Figures. The movie was nominated for Best Picture in 2017. The film, loosely based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, was about a group of African-American women, specifically Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked as human computers at the Langley Research Center in Virginia during the early days of the NASA program. They performed mathematical equations and geometric calculations by hand and offered their answers to those who made decisions about the flights into space. The women had to provide the information necessary for determining the proper launch angle for the rockets and the re-entry vectors for the returning space capsules.
The interesting part of the movie is that much of the important work was done by these women behind the scenes. Until the book and the movie, practically no one knew they existed. They were women and they were women of color. They had been denied educational opportunities and job advancement because of their color and their gender. They had to work in a separate area. They even had to go to a different building to use the rest room. They labored quietly as others around them received more attention and glory. Yet their work was essential to the launch, orbit, and safe return of American astronauts. I read this week where a couple of the hidden figures later developed a complete classification system for stars based on their temperatures, a system that is still used today.
Before the book and before the movie, I don’t think many of us knew that human computers existed, and certainly didn’t know of the importance of persons like these women. But these living math calculators, who used pen and paper and simple adding machines, were crucial to those who were planning the early U.S. manned space flights. Their work and influence were most surprising.
Sometimes the story of God is told through surprises. Unexpected people respond to an unexpected call from God at a most unexpected time. It doesn’t always make sense. It usually isn’t at all practical. On the surface, the demands of God seem to be more than the one who is called can handle. And there always seems to be someone else more capable who either isn’t called or doesn’t respond.
One of more anonymous books in the entire Bible is the book of Judges. It contains one of my favorite stories, the story of Ehud the left-handed leader who helped set God’s people free from their oppressors. I preached on Ehud’s tale a couple of years ago and other than today this is the only time in my 35 years of ministry that I have preached from Judges. Judges is a book filled with violence and hard to explain circumstances. Rival kings are killed and armies are destroyed. On the surface these stories seems so bloody and senseless. Perhaps that is why the particular passage that we explore this morning is the only passage from Judges cited in the three year lectionary cycle. But there are lessons to be learned from the faithfulness of those whom God works through in the book of Judges. Indeed, most of the characters in the book are like surprisingly hidden figures in the ancient story of God’s people.
Judges can be characterized like a shampoo in the shower. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. The people of Israel do evil and abandon God. God delivers them into the hands of foreign leaders who oppress them. The Israelites cry out to God, who hears their cry and raises up a judge to deliver them. The judge, also a military leader, is successful and the people live for a time in peace. But then the judge dies and the people forget about God and the cycle begins yet again.
This morning we heard the prologue to the story of Deborah. Deborah was a prophet and a judge. When we meet her in Scripture she was sitting under a palm tree settling disputes among her people. The account seems to give her a last name, as though she were married, but many scholars believe that Lappidoth was not a name but a nickname, a word meaning “lightning” or “torch.” This could infer that perhaps Deborah was a fiery woman. As the story intensifies she put on her prophet’s role and brought the word of God. Deborah summoned her general Barak and told him the God wanted him to call out some 10,000 troops and bring them to Mt. Tabor. There the Israelites would battle the Canaanites under their commander Sisera and would defeat them. And that is where our lesson ends, with Deborah’s confident prophecy and action.
But the story is really just getting started and more complicated and more violent and that is probably why the rest of it gets left out of the lectionary reading. Barak said he would follow Deborah’s orders but only if she would go to battle with him. Deborah agreed but predicted that if she went, Barak would not get the credit for the victory. She prophesied that the Canaanites and their commander Sisera will be humiliated at the hands of a woman.
As the story progresses, Sisera and his army of 900 chariots were defeated. He looked for shelter in the tent of a friendly neighbor named Heber. Heber was not home but his wife Jael allowed Sisera in their tent and treated him with a relaxing beverage and offered him a bed in which to nap. While he slept, Jael grabbed a tent stake and a hammer and drove the stake through his Sisera’s skull, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Deborah.
As I mentioned, there is a lot in this story that is hard to understand. Perhaps it is even more difficult to explain in a sermon. Of course one of the primary reasons the story was told was to portray a God who was absolutely committed to God’s people. Also, within the context of the story the ancient authors were trying to remind the people that God hates oppression. God is partial toward justice and righteousness. God opposes those who oppresses the weak and the vulnerable. The lesson is that as God’s people, we should respond to God’s faithfulness by doing what we can to align ourselves with God.
Whenver I read the book of Judges I am reminded of another lesson in these strange stories. The world is often a broken and dark place. There are times, like the one in which we currently live, where the light is dim and answers are few. But these stories remind us that God’s intention for us and for our world cannot be overcome. God is always present and working through the messy ambiguities and imperfect structures of our human world. God sides with those who are downtrodden and seemingly without power. And God works to redeem us and bring us to safety and security. The good news of God cannot be contained. There are circumstances around us that call for us to act decisively to recognize and to support God’s way in our own words and deeds- just like the ancient judges of Israel. We will find our redemption in God when we choose to act faithfully in God’s ways.
Finally, we can discover that God often works through hidden figures and through unlikely people. As the Gilbert and Sullivan song said, “Things are seldom what they seem.” In the story of Deborah, the women are the heroes and the men are timid and faithless. The way of God prevails but only after God ignores the expected rules of society and culture and finds another way to do the divine work. God patiently and cleverly turns our flawed human conceptions upside down to order to offer a more positive vision of true community and real peace.
In this story, it is not the powerful who win the day but ordinary women who use time and circumstance faithfully. Deborah did not let anything stand in the way of God using her for leadership and for the proclamation of God’s word to her community. Deborah, the only female judge, becomes for us an example of someone who put her gifts to work in surprising and creative ways, trusting that God will find a way to use what she could provide.