Between Barak and a Hard Place

Sermon Series: The Commendables

Between Barak and a Hard Place

November 08, 2012 - November 11, 2012

Hebrews 11:1,2,32-34,39,40; Judges 4:4-23

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Sal Scecchitano

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Deborah and Barak… It could only be the warped sense of humor of the folks on the team that develop our sermon series and help make the preaching schedule that could assign me a text dealing with two characters named Deborah and Barak this particular week.

Our sermon series on the Commendables, those heroes of faith from Hebrews 11 has now moved officially into what we call the Old Testament period of Judges. A time, the Bible notes, when people did that which was right in their own eyes—a very cyclical period which found Israel going back and forth between obedience to God and living a blessed life, and being caught in idolatry, leading to enslavement by other nations and the need to be bailed out by the latest hero.  And as we’ve seen in recent weeks, more often than not, God works through the most unlikely of people, making them heroic.  Last week, Chris showed us how the prostitute Rahab went from being a condemnable to a commendable.  And she even shows up in the Christ line—the genealogy leading to the birth of the Messiah, as the great, great grandmother of King David.

I’ll  point out the obvious from the reading that only Barak is mentioned in the Hebrews 11 list of those to be commended for their faith.  I’m actually NOT tampering with things here to bring some kind of gender equality out of some enormous gender sensitivity on my part.  You may have heard the expression “hitching your wagon” to someone.  It’s just as we see the story unfold, Barak had pretty much hitched his chariot (or lack thereof) to Deborah’s and any success on his part is clearly linked to her.

Israel had experienced peace for 80 years since the first Judge of Israel, Ehud killed Eglon, King of Moab.  Moab had oppressed Israel for 18 years.  But after 80 years of peace, and the death of Ehud, Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord.  And they were sold into the hands of Jabin, king of Canaan.  The commander of Jabin’s army was Sisera and he had what we would call a state of the art army—900 chariots fitted with iron (think the Batmobile or those cool James Bond cars) [for those of you old enough to remember the movie, Ben-Hur, just picture those chariots with the massive spikes coming out of the wheels to tear apart their opponent’s chariots. These were the most feared weapons of the day.  Jabin and Sisera made life miserable for the Israelites for about 20 years and they cried to the LORD for help.  OK, we’ve already got a bunch of names going on here so let’s just begin to put up a “cast of characters” that we can refer to so we can keep things straight. ("cast" listed on screen)

This is the cycle that repeats over and over again in the Book of Judges:

1. Israel does evil in the eyes of the LORD

2. the people are given into the hands of their enemies and cry out to God

3. the LORD raises up a leader,

4. the spirit of the LORD comes upon the leader,

5. the leader manages to defeat the enemy, and

6. peace is regained.

In fact, the word translated “judge” in the Hebrew means “savior” or “deliverer”.  That person fights for the LORD, enforces the Law, and saves the people from their enemies and sometimes even themselves.  Leading Israel at the time was Deborah, whose name means “honeybee”.  She was a prophetess and the wife of Lappidoth.  Aside from being in tune with God’s voice as a prophetess, she was very much a judge in the literal sense of the word.  She held court and the Israelites would go to her to have their disputes decided.  Deborah was something of a one-person Supreme Court.  You got to her, that was the end of the line.  You lose, you’re all out of appeals.  As Judge over Israel, the closest thing they had to a head of state at the time, she also functioned as commander-in-chief and the commander of her army was BARAK.  Deborah discerned, taught, and judged for the people and Barak fought for them.  Now if this were going to be a film, who’s going to play Barak?  You might think it needs to be a heavy-duty muscleman, like Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson or maybe Bruce Willis, or in his heyday, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Or maybe you think it needs to be one of our more sensitive, current leading men, like Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Denzel Washington, or Brad Pitt.  I think it should be this guy (DANNY DEVITO).  Short, scrappy.  Like little David with his slingshot up against Goliath, or as we’ll see next week with Gideon and his band of misfits up against the vast Midianite army, Barak was not exactly the George S. Patton type.  Deborah had a word from the LORD for Barak, namely that that if he would take his army down to the Kishon River, the LORD would deliver Jabin and Sisera’s army into his hands.

In a response that has caused no small amount of speculation on the part of commentators, scholars, and preachers, Barak said he’ll go only if Deborah goes with him.  What is up with that?!  Is he doubting her and insisting she come, too, in case she’s gotten this all wrong?  Does he think it’s a setup and is making sure she suffers the same consequences if he’s hung out to dry? And to boot, she tells him, “just for being like that, the honor of getting Sisera, the commander himself,  is going to go to a woman.  WHOAA!  I wonder if he thought Deborah was saying that SHE would be the woman receiving that honor.

Now, it’s tempting to make this all about male/female stuff and why is SHE leading Israel and why is SHE making military decisions and why would HE put a woman in harm’s way against a superior enemy.  But that’s not at all what this is all about, as we shall see.  The Bible is full of examples of very capable female leaders:  Ruth, Esther, Rahab, Hannah, Hagar, several Marys, Martha, Priscilla, Miriam—just to name a few.  The Bible is also filled with many examples of poor and ineffective eadership from men.  Good men, bad men.  Good women, bad women.  And yes, women in leadership in the church, especially ordained leadership continues to divide denominations and offshoots within denominations.  And they will interpret verses of scripture to say it is right, and good, and perfectly appropriate and the others will interpret verses of scripture to “say it ain’t so.”  But I’m reading in Judges, chapter 4 and I see a very strong woman, named Deborah, who is the leader of Israel, hearing from and discerning God’s will, and acting in courageous, valiant ways.  So wherever one falls in the debate, there’s just no arguing with the reality of this passage.   Of course, given how counter-cultural at the time it was to have women in positions of such authority, it’s reasonable to wonder how Barak would have handled it.  

Myself--I’ve been blessed to have served and worked under or alongside a pretty significant number of very capable women leaders and never gave it a second thought.  In college, I was led to the Bible and the things of God by the dean’s secretary, an amazingly tenacious woman named Juli.  While in college, I did a lot of long-term temp jobs with high-profile companies, like the auditors, Peat, Marwick, Mitchell, and I remember a wonderful boss, named Sara Fair, who was head of the entire expatriate tax division (they handle taxes for U.S. corporations with offices abroad).  Before Brunswick, I was not only music director at the Sparta NJ Presbyterian Church but was also their youth director and had the superb leadership skills alongside me of someone else you may know—Debbie Russell.  I was on staff here for 15 years with an extraordinary associate pastor, named Kate Kotfila.  And I now serve every day alongside Elizabeth, Erin, Colleen and Niki.  And let me just tell you—don’t mess with them!  Especially if they’re carrying milk and sharp objects--just run the other way!  And of course, there’s the Deborah I live with!

Deborah puts her money where her mouth is.  In fact, she puts her money where God’s mouth is as the Lord is speaking through her.  And she won’t send Barak off on a mission that she wouldn’t go off on herself.  With such long-shot odds, you really do have to have a “word from the LORD” to engage when you have the short end of the stick in what looks to be a very lopsided battle.  Even Jesus had a practical view when it came to warfare and military strategy.  He says, in Luke 14-- 31 “Suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.”    Let’s face it, Barak is between a rock and a hard place.  But through Deborah, he gains comfort that the LORD is on their side and now he gets to recruit and convince 10,000 volunteers that this is a battle worth fighting, despite the long odds from a human point of view.

So off to battle they go.  The battle was fought on a dry, cracked riverbed.  Conveniently, there was an earthquake to break up the ground and a flash flood to turn it into a swamp.  Those state-of-the-art chariots were useless! Barak’s army wipes out Sisera’s—to a man, everyone killed and Sisera, having seen enough, takes off on foot.  Of course, the only way he was able to escape is that he was leading the army from the rear—a coward.  He flees to the tent of Jael, (Ya-el) the wife of Heber, whose family has an alliance with King Jabin, Sisera’s boss.  [CAST OF CHARACTERS update on screen]  Jael takes Sisera in and shows him hospitality.  Well, not exactly hospitality from the Martha Stewart school, as we’ll see.  He asks her to protect him by denying he’s in there should anyone come around asking.  And he’s thirsty so he asks her for some water.  What does she give him before bedtime?  A nice glass of milk.  What’s that going to do?  Hmmm… He falls asleep and she drives a tent peg through his skull.  And shockingly, he’s dead!  Imagine that.  I think she just flunked that hospitality class.  There’s a book out there called, “Radical Hospitality”.  I don’t think this is what the authors meant.  Are they any out there on our Welcoming Support Team?  Except for the milk part, we don’t want you gleaning anything else from this passage!  Jael was a foreigner, not a Hebrew.  Did she just want to be on the winning side of things or was she, like Rahab, one of the “righteous gentiles”?  And you know, we’ve got another problem here:  It sure looks like Jael did a wonderful thing here—took out the bad guy, big time.  But I seem to remember something in that Judges passage about her husband having made an alliance with Sisera.  So, you’ve got Sisera caught in a huge breach in protocol by wanting to enter this woman’s tent while she’s alone and then you’ve got an equally huge breach of eastern hospitality with Jael killing him.  They took hospitality seriously back then.  You don’t just murder your guests!  God at work in unlikely people and unlikely actions.

And now comes 40 years of peace.  And another round of that six-step cycle I mentioned early on—Israel sinning in the eyes of the Lord, they’re given over to an enemy, the LORD raises up a deliverer, the Spirit of the LORD falls on that leader, they’re delivered and peace is regained. Here’s the thing—when we adopt a Judges-like attitude in our lives, namely that we’re just going to do what is right in our own eyes and not necessarily God’s—we can get caught in that same cycle.  We can be enslaved to ourselves in our sin.  We’ll cry out to God for deliverance from sin’s consequences.  We’ll find deliverance in our repentance and God’s forgiveness.  And we’ll enjoy a period of rest and peace from it until the cycle begins all over again. We’re always serving someone or some thing.   Israel didn’t seem to notice and heed it, but we would be wise to:  When we serve God with obedience our lives are lighter and filled with reward.  When we don’t our lives can be heavy and bitter.

The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “…we have this treasure [Christ in us, the hope of glory] in jars of clay [weak and frail human vessels] to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

This whole thing hasn’t been about men and women, Mars and Venus, women in leadership, or women in combat… It’s about weak and strong, weakness and strength, about God’s power and strength manifesting itself in our weakness.  It’s about resisting pride in our own abilities and accomplishments and humbly relying on God. It’s about God’s strength beginning where ours ends.  I see it like the automatic backup generator we bought for our house last fall after Hurricanes Irene and Lee.  When the power fails, the generator kicks in 10 seconds later and everything that needs power is transferred over to it.  And now the generator is supplying all the power.  What came between Barak and a hard place, namely facing an overwhelmingly superior army, was God, speaking and working through the likes of Deborah and Jael.

When the apostle Paul was tormented by a “thorn in the flesh” (and nobody really knows for sure what that was), the LORD) said to him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Paul then writes, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Unlikely people:  Deborah, Barak, Jael.  Though it was  Jael who so colorfully took care of Sisera, and Deborah and Barak who played such significant roles, the final verse in our passage makes clear who was behind the victory: Judges 4:23 says,  On that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan before the Israelites.

To contact Sal Scecchitano about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180