Do me a favor and open your pew Bibles to the front, to the table of contents. The last few weeks we’ve been reading from the New Testament, from the books of Luke and Matthew. Find those in the table of contents.
We’ve been talking about Jesus these last few weeks. We’ve been talking about how God sent his son Jesus into the world to be born as a baby in Bethlehem. Last week we talked about how wise men from a far away place came to Bethlehem to see Jesus, the new King of Israel. Today, we’re going back in time, back to a time before Jesus. Back to a time before Israel was dominated by Rome, before the Roman Empire even existed, before Israel had a king, before Israel was really a nation.
Long ago, God’s people Israel were slaves in Egypt. God saw their suffering, saw the way their Egyptian masters oppressed them, saw their sorrow and decided to do something. God sent Moses to lead the people out of slavery into a new future. Moses did just that. He led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the desert. We find that story in the Book of Exodus.
Moses led them through the desert for forty years. In those forty years God fed them with bread from heaven. God gave them commandments and laws that would teach them to be God’s holy nation of priests. Laws that protected the poor and weak. Laws that protected the land and organized worship. God gave them laws to build a just society. We learn the laws and stories of building a nation in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Those years in the desert taught the people to trust God.
Finally, after forty years of wandering through the desert, God brought the people to the border of the land of Canaan, the land we know today as Palestine and Israel. God told Moses that he wouldn’t be the one to lead Israel into their new home; that was Joshua’s job. So Moses spent some time preparing the people for a new life in a new land.
The Book of Deuteronomy is a series of sermons in which Moses warns the people about the dangers of stability, the dangers of having their own land. Even though they’ve been wandering for years, looking forward to God’s promise of a land of their own, Moses knows that having what we want can be dangerous.
Once the people are settled in a good place and become prosperous, it will be tempting to believe that they have achieved this on their own. It will be easy for them to get comfortable and to forget that everything they have comes from God. It will be easy for them to say, “Look at these beautiful houses and all the crops we’ve worked so hard for. Aren’t we something special?” Moses warns them to remember God, and to remember the righteous laws God taught them.
Moses dies right at the border of the Promised Land and his second in command, Joshua takes over. You’ll notice that the next book is called Joshua and it tells the story of how Joshua led the people into the land and started to conquer it. Under God’s direction, Joshua and the leaders of the people divide the land into territory for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. At that point, each of the tribes basically go their own way to their own land and get on with the business of settling into a new life in their land.
The Book of Judges continues the story. In Judges we see the people trip up. Time after time they turn away from God and start worshiping the gods of the nations around them. Each time this happens God allows them to be defeated by their neighbors and they suffer. When they cry out to God in their trouble, God sends a leader to bring them back to the right path and to free them from oppression. These leaders were called judges.
What we notice in the Book of Judges is that Israel isn’t really a nation as we think of it now. It was really a collection of tribes. Each tribe had some organization and some leaders, but the whole nation wasn’t really organized. At different times in the book different enemies take center stage. In this part of the book the Canaanites are the focus of concern. As with most stories in Judges, this one starts with the people turning away from God. Let’s listen for God’s voice as Sally begins the story.
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. 2So 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. 3Then 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. 4At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5She 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.
6She 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. 7I 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.’” 8Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” 9And 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.
10Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him. 11Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had encamped as far away as Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh. 12When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon.
14Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. 15And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, 16while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.
17Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. 18Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said 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. 19Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20He said to her, “Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’”
21But 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. 22Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple. 23So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. 24Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.
The next time someone tells you the Bible says women should home and be quiet, you can think about this passage. The Bible doesn’t say one thing about women or men or violence or government. The Bible is a bunch of different stories in a bunch of different books written over hundreds of years. At the same time, the Bible is a meaningful whole because it tells God’s story.
It is a complicated story because our relationship with God is complicated. Sometimes we listen to God and follow; other times we turn away and go our own way. There are different messages in scripture because different situations call for different ways of living. Sometimes courage in the face of oppression is what we need. Other times we need to be gentle.
It’s also complicated because even though the Bible tells God’s story and was guided by the Holy Spirit, it was written by human beings and also reflects the limits of its writers. In the time of the Bible women were not equal. The Bible reflects the sexism shared by ancient societies. We haven’t conquered sexism yet, but we’re making progress. Even though the Bible is often used to justify limiting women, God created men and women different and yet equal. Even with all the inequality in the world and in the beliefs of the biblical writers, God’s calling for women still shines through.
The lesson to take away from this story for your life today is not that conflict should be solved with a tent peg and a hammer. Instead, take home the lesson that God sometimes, even often calls surprising people to do surprising things. Deborah was a prophetess, a woman in a sexist culture whose job was to share God’s voice with the people. She was also in charge of settling disputes and working out justice in Israel’s community life. That’s a surprising leadership role for a woman in that time. But it’s even more surprising that she would be part of leading Israel into battle.
Jael wasn’t even an Israelite. Her people knew Israel and the Canaanites. Maybe they profited from the oppression of Israel or maybe they were offended by it. Maybe some of both. The Bible doesn’t tell us anything about why she decided to kill Sisera. We aren’t allowed into her thought process. What we know is that this mighty man who led the powerful and oppressive Canaanite army was defeated by a woman.
That’s how God does things sometimes. On the outside there’s no reason Jael would be part of God’s plan to save Israel. We don’t know if she had a relationship with God. But God chose her to finish the job Deborah started.
If God can use a woman like Deborah to start a war for freedom and a woman like Jael to assassinate the big bad guy, God can use you for something special. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too weak or too scared or too dumb or too young or too old. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good enough. Maybe most of all, don’t let the negative voice inside you tell you what you can’t do.
The truth is none of us is good enough, but by God’s grace we are all redeemed for freedom and service. Sometimes our fears and shortcomings, or our beliefs about our shortcomings keep us from doing something great. Other times our pride or sense of entitlement gets in the way of the humility that lets God work through us.
You are not too good to need God. You are not too bad for God to love you. You do not need to be limited by your age or your sex or your history. God can use your gifts for something surprising if you let him.
For years religion has taught that women are not equal. Some churches still believe that. And there are places in the Bible that talk about things women shouldn’t do. But the big picture we see in scripture is of a God who reaches out to surprising people and leads them to do amazing things. In this case it’s a woman living in a tent named Jael who strikes down an oppressive ruler. In the Christmas story it’s a poor woman named Mary who has the courage to say yes to God’s incredible plan even at the risk of being rejected by her family and culture.
I don’t know what God has planned for you. Maybe you’ve been feeling a calling inside you to something new, something surprising and exciting but a little scary. Maybe you’ve doubted that calling because part of you doesn’t think you’re capable of great things. Maybe you doubt that calling because you grew up hearing that women weren’t supposed to do x, y, or z. Maybe you heard from a parent or a lover or a spouse that you weren’t worth listening too, that you were weak or stupid or ugly.
Those voices are lies. God’s voice is the truth. God’s voice speaks in the stillness of you heart, in the murmur of a child, in the sound of music or the whisper of the wind. Close your eyes and listen. God says to you: “I love you. I forgive you. I welcome you. I have made you special and wonderful. I have given you gifts and perspectives and abilities that no one else has. I want you to nurture those gifts. I want you to use your experience and your imagination to make the world a little bit better. I want you to stand up for justice, to comfort the hurting, to reach out to those who feel alone. I will be with you; you are not alone. You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son. Together we can do wonderful things.”
Thanks be to God.