Midweek Service: Deborah — “The LORD Is Marching Ahead of You”

This week finds me dipping once again into that time when we were between senior pastors, when we were in the midst of transition and new construction at the same time. It’s really good for me to remember how faithful God was to us during that 2-year time stretch — and how faithful the community was to one another, too.

All stained/painted glass windows in this series are from the Cathedral of St. Vitas in Prague, The Czech Republic

Made to Matter: People Who Partnered with God
Deborah:  “The Lord Is Marching Ahead of You”

Preached at Montecito Covenant Church
November 16, 2003
by Diana R.G. Trautwein

Today is a day for telling stories, for remembering stories, for celebrating stories. Today is a day for finding ourselves in the midst of someone else’s story, in the midst of our own story, and most wonderfully of all, today is a day for finding ourselves in the midst of God’s story, sometimes when we least expect it.

I find myself this morning nearing the end of a long, hard weekend. And there are about 15 other folks scattered around this room this morning who find themselves in the same place. Your Church Council leaders met on Friday night for 3 hours and then again yesterday from 9-4:30 in order to spend some concentrated time together, learning more about the people we’ve been seeing around the tables at our meetings each month, learning more about what it means to truly be a leadership ‘team,’ learning more about what it means to dream God’s dreams for this place, to take some risks with one another, to be encouraged by God’s words delivered to us through the words of a friend and fellow traveler.

Yes, it has been a long, hard weekend. But also, a tremendously exciting weekend. To catch a tiny glimpse of what God is up to in this place — to be reminded, even in the midst of what seem at times to be overwhelmingly difficult circumstances that, “The Lord is marching ahead of us” — this is a wonderful thing. In fact, I would venture to say, it is a life-changing thing, a life-saving thing.

And today, we’re going to look at the biblical story of Deborah and we’re going to remind ourselves that the Lord our God is not out of the marching business – that God does indeed remain faithful to his promise to walk with us, to partner with us in this life. We are going to hear the wonderful truth one more time, the truth that when we show up, God shows up. And that is all that is required, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances may appear to be.

So . . . the story-telling begins. With Deborah.

A little background, please. . . I’m sure you all remember Moses, the Exodus, Joshua and the taking of the land from the early books of the Old Testament, right? Sometimes it’s good to remember that this was a very long time ago, that the Israelites were a pretty rough-neck group, probably armed at any given time with wooden, maybe bronze implements and weapons. They had strong tribal ties, yet they were only very loosely connected to one another. And when they moved into the land, suddenly they found themselves surrounded by a much more sophisticated culture, one with fortified cities, elaborate and difficult religious rituals, and sometimes much more effective weaponry.

They struggled to settle in, and they did a pretty lousy job. This was true primarily because they allowed themselves to get sucked into and subdued by the cultures around them, adopting their rituals, intermarrying, and basically forgetting who they were as children of God, as God’s chosen people.

And if I’m honest, I can’t blame them too much for that. Sometimes it’s just plain easier to ‘go with the flow,’ to do what everyone else is doing, to worship the god you can see rather than the One who is unseen by human eyes.

And after the death of Joshua, that’s pretty much what happened. The book of Judges is the story of the people of God regularly forgetting who they were, of falling into the ways of the world around them, and then of suffering the consequences of their amnesia. And those consequences involved coming under the oppressive control of those surrounding people groups with alarming and depressing regularity.

Every so often, though, someone within the chosen people would remember — “Wait a minute here. . . we have a God who calls us by name. Shame on us because we’ve forgotten to call HIM by name.”

And the next thing you see in the whole, sad story of the Judges are these moments of remembering, of calling on the name of the LORD for mercy and deliverance, of deciding to show up. And guess what? Every single time they do that, every time they show up — God shows up. And the first thing God does is to raise up a leader, an encourager, sometimes a warrior, but always someone upon whom God’s Spirit rests in a special way. These leaders were called judges over the people, and through them, God showed the people the way toward freedom, deliverance and ultimately, peace in their land.

Our story this morning is early in the series of these sad cycles of forgetting and remembering, and it’s told in two chapters — one a narrative and the other a long poem or song. Chapter 4 outlines the events as they happened, but chapter 5 fills in the blanks of the narrative with a fascinating, creative and beautiful set of verses. These verses, this song, is probably the oldest piece of scripture that we have in the entire Bible — one of the very first things that the people of Israel wrote down to help them remember the faithfulness of God.

And this is the story it tells: Joshua is long dead. The people have sunk into despair and oppression at least three times and have then remembered God three times. And once again, times are tough. A Canaanite king named Jabin, who builds huge forts for cities and then lives behind the walls, has forced the scraggly band of Israelite people into a hard and discouraging life

They have endured twenty years of oppression of the worst kind. Jabin’s military general Sisera has built himself a terrifying army of men and machines. The Philistines had discovered the secret of smelting iron and then used that knowledge to devise a deadly killing machine — the heavy duty tanks of their day — in the form of a chariot made of iron. These chariots could trample a man on foot in mere seconds. The Philistines used these chariots to keep the Israelites off the roads and to continue to use the most primitive of farming methods. This meant they could never rise above subsistence living and it generally made their lives miserable.

What could a group of unsophisticated, under-equipped, tribal warriors ever hope to do against such technological superiority?

Well, they began by calling on the LORD for help, as verse 3 of chapter 4 tells us. And then the very next verse begins the amazing story of how God chose to deliver his people this time.

 “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.”

So, here is the new leader! A woman. A woman who is a prophet, who sits under a palm tree up in the hills.

Uh. . . I’m not sure this would have been MY first choice for the salvation of the people, but. . . Deborah is God’s choice.

And God’s choice calls on Barak, who lives in a different community, one that is in closer proximity to those walled cities and those awful chariots. Deborah has a word for Barak when he gets there. And in the original language, it comes in the form of a question: “Didn’t the Lord God command you to go? To take an army and lead the way to Mt. Tabor?”

And his reply is more than a little bit surprising: yes, he knows the question. Yes, he’ll go to Mt. Tabor . . . under one condition: if Deborah comes with him. I’m betting he figured that it might be a good idea to take the ‘word of the LORD’ along with them into battle. And Deborah, the one who sat under the palm tree, she IS the word of the Lord during this time period.

So Barak gathers together a very rag-tag bunch of 10,000 foot soldiers and they head to the top of Mt. Tabor, peering down into the Kishon River Valley. Which might not have been the smartest military strategy in the world.

EXCEPT. . .

Deborah is listening to the LORD. She comes along with Barak and she continues to listen as Sisera arrives with his men and his iron chariots and all of them fill that river bed. She is still listening . . . until . . . she yells out, “NOW. Charge! Now is the time. The LORD is marching ahead of you!”

At this point, I’d like to take a small pause in the story-telling and offer a word of support for Barak. It is true that he wanted a woman to go with him. And yes, Deborah told him that that choice of his would mean that he would be outdone by a woman before the day was over. And it is also true that early in this story, the narrator sets us up to discover who this woman might be when he mentions Heber the Kenite and his tent near the battle site.

But just try to imagine this, okay? You’re on the top of a mountain with a bunch of guys with sticks and maybe some very bendy bronze spears. At the bottom of the mountain are 900 iron chariots, at least that many horses and thousands of soldiers outfitted in the very latest fashion of heavy metal armor. You’ve decided to throw in your lot with this woman who talks to God and she says, “CHARGE!” just when your men can see the overwhelming might of the enemy.

What was she thinking??

To better help us understand the timing of all this, it really helps to jump from the narrative in chapter 4 to the song in chapter 5, where there are a couple of hints in verse 20 and 21:

“The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul!”

So, what do you suppose Deborah was listening for up there on the mountaintop as she waited with Barak and his motley band of fighting men?

She was listening for a word from the LORD, and I think that word came in the rushing roar of a summertime flash flood, as a rainstorm caused a wall of water to surge down that canyon below them, engulfing those heavy iron monsters in a miry bog of water and mud.

So as the Israelites descended the mountain, all of Sisera’s men — including Sisera himself — jumped out of their chariots, off of their horses, dropped off their heavy armor and weaponry and ran for their lives. It was a complete rout!!

And then, of course, there is the wonderful, very gory footnote of this story — the detail that every Confirmation student just loves! Running in fear of his life from Barak and his men, Sisera caught sight of those Kenite tents. Now Heber has had a friendly relationship with Sisera’s boss, Jabin, and Sisera knows it. What he doesn’t seem to know is the long history of good relationship between the Kenites and the Israelites, going all the way back to Moses’ marriage to the daughter of Jethro, who was a Kenite.

Heber’s wife, Jael, stands outside her tent and offers Sisera hospitality as he runs toward them. “Have a rest,” she says. “How about some milk or yogurt?” she says. And the milk has its usual soporific effect and Sisera falls asleep, exhausted from his wild running retreat.

And then, Jael — amazing warrior that she turned out to be — took one of her hefty wooden tent pegs, and her handy-dandy wooden mallet, and she smashed that peg right through the man’s temple and into the ground beneath him.

End of Sisera. End of story.

But let’s notice how it is that God chose to do God’s work in this particular story for a few minutes. God brought deliverance to God’s people by assembling a surprising team of leaders. First and foremost, there was Deborah — who listened to God, who spoke for God to the people, who believed that God would do God’s part.

Deborah is like a brightly blazing torch, shining the light of God, the hope of God, the call of God, into the lives of the people God called her to lead. She spent time under that palm tree listening to God, listening to the people, reflecting on what God wanted, and, when asked, she also leapt into action, going with Barak and the troops to the mountaintop.

Without her, a willing instrument in God’s hands, there would be no story.

But there is also Barak. As I noted earlier, he gets a bit of a bad rap in both the story and the song. But the New Testament writer of Hebrews, chapter 11, lists him with some of the other judges rather than listing Deborah. What’s up with that?

Well, I think we can find ample evidence to support the argument that Barak had a measure of faith as well. Perhaps his was not as sure and steady as Deborah’s, but he was willing to trust her, to act on Deborah’s command without knowing what God was going to do to save the day, wasn’t he? I think that’s why he’s included in the roll call of heroes of faith in that chapter in Hebrews. Barak trusted Deborah’s relationship with God, and ultimately, he trusted Deborah’s God to get him through.

And then, of course, there is Jael. It’s tough to make a moral heroine out of a woman who uses subterfuge and violence to accomplish her goals, but she, too, is important to this whole tale. In a way, Jael did the dirty work. At least that’s how it appears to us, standing here in the 21st century. As followers of Jesus Christ, the Peace of God, it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the bloody violence of the Old Testament. Yet I find hope and encouragement even in this hard part of the story. For we, too, are warriors in a battle. And sometimes, the circumstances of the battlefield around us seem overwhelming.

Our children are sucked in by the values of this culture, and sometimes, so are we. We read the newspapers, listen to the news, try and balance the checkbooks, deal with aging and dying parents, or with rebellious and broken children, live with sadness and sorrow on every side. Sometimes it looks just plain overwhelming and hopeless.

The bad guys around us seem to have heavy-duty iron chariots and we’ve just got these pointy sticks!

And what can you do against the bad guys with a wooden stick and a mallet anyway?

Well, you can do a heckuva lot of damage! You can take the bad guy out of the picture entirely if you’re in line with God’s purposes for the battle, if you’re relying on God to ultimately snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

I have to tell you that for a long list of reasons this past week has been one of overwhelming circumstances for me. I can’t even tell you exactly why. We have dear friends in pain, parents living with loss, more work to do than can humanly be done, and I’ve been feeling more than a little bit hopeless about not finding enough people to do the work I think God is calling us to do right here, right now, at Montecito Covenant Church

But here’s the deal: I spend too much time looking at the hard stuff. Now that stuff is certainly real and I don’t want to make light of it in any way. But sometimes, looking at all of that tends to take my focus off the palm tree, that place where I can meet God, where I can talk and laugh and wonder with friends and co-workers, with the people who can speak God’s words of hope into my life.

There have been times in my life and ministry when I have been tapped by God to be a Deborah in the lives of others. I am humbled by that and grateful for those opportunities when they arise.

But this week, I needed a Deborah or two . . . or three or 14 or 15!

And here’s what happened: I showed up, 14 members of the Church Council showed up, and God showed up. It was a remarkable time. As we closed our time together on Friday night, we affirmed in one another some qualities of leadership we saw, using a list provided by our consultant as we move through this time of transition.

And we also asked for prayer for that one area where we each felt the weakest that night. One of us asked for more clarity and confidence; another asked for more compassion; I and several others asked for a greater degree of hopefulness as we continue together to provide leadership for this congregation.

I went home tired, feeling like the evening’s exercises had been good and helpful, but dreading another full day of group work when I had a sermon to write and a computer that had shut down.

As we began on Saturday, we were led in a time of sharing and prayer. And you know what? The woman who had asked for confidence and clarity, spoke with passion and great articulation about her faith in God, her faith in this process, her faith in this church. She lit a fire that morning that burned all day long. And a man, who had asked for compassion the night before, shared a wonderful story of family sharing and prayer that had broken through some barriers that night following our session.

Around the room we went and heard from one another exactly how God showed up! And I’ve got to tell you, at the end of the day, after listening and laughing and dreaming together, my own sense of hope was rekindled, big time.

So I’m here today to give testimony to the truth that overwhelming circumstances are God’s specialty! That if we show up, God will show up. In fact, God is already there,  waiting for us to catch a clue. My prayer for all of us this day is that we would meet God meeting us in the midst of whatever overwhelming circumstances we are facing. That we might cry with the psalmist, “That some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD!” That we might learn to write and sing our own songs of victory, just as the Israelites wrote a song to celebrate Deborah and Barak and Jael.

Wherever you are this morning, whether you’re in need of a Deborah, or you’re equipped to be a Deborah; whether you’re needing or offering strong words of encouragement from the LORD; whether you’re more like Barak, looking for a partner in the LORD to face the battle together; or even if your circumstances are more like Jael’s, calling for a firm, clear stand against evil in order for the victory to be won. . . wherever you are this morning, I urge you to lift your eyes from the circumstances that surround you and to ‘call on the name of the LORD,’ and then to listen for the word of the LORD — in the pages of scripture, as God speaks to your heart in prayer, or as God speaks to you through the words of a fellow believer — and then to act on what you hear.

Look beyond the circumstances;
call on the name of the LORD;
listen to the word of the LORD;
act in confidence that the LORD will bring the victory. Amen.

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