Below is the message I intended to share with you all this morning. And for a very large part it is. However, parts of it came out just a bit differently. I like to call these "Holy Spirit" moments and I pray you were blessed by it!
Today we are going to begin a new preaching series focusing on the lives and examples of a few prominent women in Scripture; Deborah, Esther, Ruth, and Elizabeth. I believe you will see great acts of faith and devotion as we spend our time looking at how they lived their lives. This morning we will focus on the story of Deborah and how her faith in God and her ability to be humble, allowed her to deliver the Israelites from certain defeat.
One of Leo Lionni's simple yet appealing collage-illustrated children's books tell the story of a little minnow-sized fish named Swimmy.
Swimmy is just like all the other fish swimming in the large minnow school, except that while they are all reddish-gold, he is pure black. The school of little fish swims along peacefully until any larger predator fish comes along. Then whoosh all the little fish, including Swimmy, scatter.
Swimmy begins to observe his watery neighbors and in each case, it seems that the big intimidate, bully and consume the small. What could one tiny little misfit fish do about that? Suddenly Swimmy got a brilliant idea. It is a plan that both celebrates his own unique style his solid black coloring and depends on the cooperative teamwork of all his minnow schoolmates.
Swimmy organizes the school of all his little friends so that they are swimming in the shape of a large fish. Swimmy himself, his dark body flashing, creates the "eye" of this illusionary giant fish. In the last scene of the book, we see a huge would-be predator take one look at this intimidating mammoth and then turn tail and run.1 With cooperation and teamwork, an inconceivable victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat.
Faith in Spades
Our Scripture lessons this morning deal with this idea in a way too. In our Old Testament lesson this morning we see a study of faith and teamwork in the lives of two Israelite leaders and how they each faced an enormous challenge differently.
Israel had once again turned away from God and in this particular case, God punished the Israelites by allowing them to be oppressed by a powerful and mighty Canaanite king named Jabin and his general, Sisera. Israel was hopelessly outnumbered and woefully lacking in resources against such an opponent. Sisera’s army was famous for its 900 iron chariots, chariots that more than likely had spikes on the wheels to cut down opposing foot forces, an incredible advantage on the battlefield. This created a air of intimidation that was very difficult to overcome. After enduring twenty years of this oppression, the people of Israel cried out to God in their misery. And God heard their pleas.
It’s at this point that Scripture introduces us to an unusual married woman named Deborah. She’s unusual because despite her male-dominated culture, she has been chosen by God for leadership in Israel. Scripture describes her as both a prophet and Israel’s only female judge. Every day she sat outside and settled the disputes the people brought before her. It seems that she was well-respected. From all accounts, she was forceful yet fair, courageous yet compassionate, favoring no one and yet attentive to each.
One day she is given a word from the Lord for one of Israel’s warriors, Barak. So she sends for him and tells him to start preparing for war against Sisera’s army, “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 4:6b-7 NRSV).
Barak’s response is interesting. “I will go,” he says, “but only if you go with me.” In spite of God’s clear divine directive, it almost seems as if he had more confidence in Deborah as a good luck charm then he did in God’s ability to win the battle. To assure God’s presence and blessing he insists that Deborah accompany the army into battle. Deborah agrees to go, but she warns him that because of his response, the Lord’s victory will be not by Barak’s hands, but by the hands of another, a woman.
The two of them go off and gather the ten thousand Israelite warriors that God commanded and they gather on the top of Mount Tabor. When Sisera finds out where they are, he follows the Israelites, bringing his whole army with all its chariots. Near the base of Mount Tabor is the River Kishon, almost empty and dry. As Sisera’s army approaches the riverbed, the earth shook and great clouds poured down a torrent of water causing Sisera’s chariots to get bogged down in mud and some of his foot soldiers to be washed away in a flash flood. At that point the Israelites swoop down from atop Mount Tabor and kill all of the army, except the general Sisera who escapes. He finds refuge in the tent of a woman named Jael, who offers him nourishment and a place to rest. It’s while Sisera is sleeping that Jael kills him by driving a tent peg into his temple. Deborah’s prediction about God’s deliverance at the hand of a woman has been fulfilled.
The result of that battle is that Israel grew stronger and eventually destroyed the Canaanite king Jabin who oppressed them and they spend the next forty years following God in peace and prosperity.
It’s a great story. But what does it have to say to us so many years after the fact? What can we learn from Deborah that we can apply to the day-to-day living of our own faith journeys?
I said earlier that this Old Testament lesson shows us how faith and teamwork can be incredible allies. We have looked at that truth through the actions of two Israelite leaders with different approaches towards facing challenges. They’d both suffered under the oppression of the Canaanite king. But when God was ready to move, Deborah unquestioningly took Him at His Word. Barak was reluctant to go forth at God’s command and do something difficult. But he is not alone in this. This the same kind of reluctance that Moses had when he was told by God to confront Pharaoh. Gideon had the same problem when God asked him to fight the mighty Philistines.
All these folks felt inadequate for the tasks they were assigned. In a way their reluctance makes them seem more human. So often, when we feel led by God to do a certain task, we are uncertain. We waver. We look around for help and support. But we forget that when God calls us, he also equips us, provides for us, and walks beside us. The Apostle Paul put it this way in II Corinthians: “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers” (3:4-6).
Fear and hesitation is part of our life. Always has...always will be. The mindset that separates the faithful from the faithless is how you respond when faced with a difficult situation. Deborah had faith. Deborah knew that God would hand the victory to Barak. Barak was not so sure and wanted Deborah to go with him. Even with that departure from God's decree, the victory was still secured, just by a different source. Folks, God has a plan. A plan that we are all called to be a part of. A plan that even when we mess it up, by not having faith, not following the Spirit, not listening to God, it will happen another way. But, when you are faithful, like Deborah, and you do listen and go where you are lead, and you do get to be a part of God's plan being fulfilled, now that is awesome. That is an indescribable feeling you will never forget. You are valuable, you are called, we just need to trust and obey.
I think the most interesting thing about the battle Deborah and Barak fought is what can happen when we rely on God and work together. While Barak and his army actually fought the battle, God is the one who actually won the battle on Mount Tabor. He supplies strength and guidance for us in the battles and struggles of our lives. God did it for these people in Scripture so long ago – he can do it for you even today. Nobody had to do any of this alone to secure this victory over Sisera. When you are faced with what seems to be insurmountable obstacle in your life, you are not alone either. Look around...go ahead look around. This is your family. These are people that are willing and able to help. When you are scared, feeling lost, feeling alone, do not avoid church. So often when things go bad we stop coming to church. We stop interacting with this family. When those times of life are happening this should be the place you run to. Let his family surround you and care for you. Let this be where you find peace. Give us the chance to help. Because with God as our guide we can do incredible things together.
In Romans we are reminded of the fact that God is on our side: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:31-39).
We’ve been delivered from a fiercer enemy than the Canaanites – we’ve been delivered from slavery to sin and death. Our sins have been swept away, not by a rushing river, but by the sacrifice of our Savior upon the cross.
We are all part of a community of faith. A community that when we work together can accomplish all things. We each face battles of illness, ethical decisions, trials and temptations and in general the struggle to maintain our faith in an unbelieving world. However, we can overwhelmingly conquer all of those things through Christ who loves us – like Deborah, our battles belong to the Lord!