Readings: Psalm 11, Hebrews 13:1-8, Luke 19:30-40,Judges 5:1-12
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 20th, 2016
As a kid growing up in a time before internet, before DVR's and 200 channels and actually before many people even had televisions there was one thing that occupied many a Saturday afternoon. Afternoon matinee performances at the local cinema, often affectionately described as the 'Flea Pit'.
For 6 pennies you could join with a multitude of other obnoxious kids and hoot and holler and create all kinds of mischief as the latest B movie block buster did the rounds of town and village cinemas. Swashbuckling Errol Flynn would fight pirates, Robin Hood would see the Sheriff of Nottingham got exactly what he deserved, and, of course, the main feature would be a cowboy film, which led to some kids wanting to be John Wayne when they grew up.
In 'The Story' we have reached the biblical book of Judges. I think of this period of Israelite history as their 'Wild West' days. It's a period of some 330 years characterized by the very last verse in Judges; 21:25 'In those days Israel had no King; everyone did whatever was right in their own eyes'
Just like the days of the Wild West in the United States, certain characters emerge as legends. In particular, in chapter 8 of 'The Story' we are introduced to two wise women known as Deborah and Jael, a doubtful hero called Gideon and a larger than life superman called Samson.
Israels fortunes rise and fall under the influence of whoever is in charge. 110 years are spent in the hands of enemies, but the rest are enjoyed in relative peace. The crazy thing is, that whenever they find peace, instead of sticking with God, they wander away, and God has to raise up somebody else to deliver them.
Two of the first characters we are introduced to are the Wisdom-Warrior-Women Deborah and Jael. The nearest contemporary TV characters you could compare them with would be Xena Princess warrior and her traveling companion Gabriell. What sets them apart from everybody else in their day, is their wisdom.
From the beginning of this series on 'The Story' we have talked about how running throughout Scripture there is an 'Upper Story', the account of God's purposes and a 'Lower Story', that is the account of how we, from a human perspective, view the events that befall us.
Deborah's wisdom is found in her ability to connect with the God of the 'Upper Story'. She sees the bigger picture. Barak, the commander of Israels army, is in total panic mode. His opponent, Sisera, has 900 iron clad chariots. This was the equivalent of guys riding horses, shooting bows and arrows, taking on a regiment with a battery of tanks and armored vehicles.
Deborah doesn't see it that way. She consults her God for marching orders. We read in Judges 4:14. ' Deborah said to Barak, "Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has delivered Sisera into your hand. Has not the Lord gone out before you?" (KJV) 'Lower Story' – it's hopeless. 'Upper Story' – the battle belongs to the Lord.
In a similar fashion Jael understands that there will be no peace in the land until Sisera was gone. Under the pretense of befriending him, she literally lays him to rest, with a tent peg and a hammer. Brutal? Yes, but this is the Wild West. That action resulted in there being 40 years of peace.
If Israel had learned the lesson that when they followed God's ways and not the practices of those who didn't know God, the peace may have lasted longer. But those other gods were mighty attractive and often less demanding. It only takes a generation and they have lost their focus. This time their enemy are the Midianites.
The Midianites are terrifying. They are described as being like a great plague of locusts. Judges 6:2 'Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds'. When the people cry out to God for help, who does God choose? A mighty general? A prophet? A hero?
No. A farmer from the weakest clan in his tribe called Gideon. Gideon is the 'Doubting Thomas' of the Old Testament. We first learn of Gideon, hiding out at a secret wine-press. An angel appears to him and says 'The Lord is with you mighty warrior'.
You can picture Gideon looking around; 'Say What? You talking to me?' The angel insists that Gideon is the one who can bring about the defeat of Midian, because this was what God had intended to do... and God will do it through Gideon to demonstrate God's power.
Gideon takes a lot, a lot, a lot, of convincing. He asks for signs. God gives them. Fire burns up an offering. A dry fleece is found to be wet, and then next night, a wet fleece found to be dry. Reluctantly Gideon gathers together an army. They are heavily outnumbered and stop for some refreshment. God says 'Your army is too big. Watch how they drink their water from the stream. The ones who lap like dogs, take them.' He has 300 soldiers against an army whose camels alone outnumbered the grains of sand on the seashore.
'Upper Story' – the battle belongs to the Lord. Gideon, of course, has his doubts until, along with his servant Purah, they sneak into the Midianite camp and hear about a rumor being spread among the troops. From his enemies lips he hears 'God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into Gideon's hands.'
A plan emerges that would sit well into the context of a Saturday afternoon Wild West movie matinee. The underdog is about to take control. As the guards are changing shifts, they surround the camp in the darkness. At Gideon's command they blow their trumpets and smash glass jars onto the ground, then let out a blood curdling shout; 'A sword for the Lord and Gideon' and they wave lighted torches in the air.
Total confusion descends upon the Midianite camp. In the darkness they attack each other and then run for the hills. Gideon sends messages to his allies and the soldiers who had not come along. 'Join us...the Midianites are on the run. We got this!'
Judges 8:28 'Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon's lifetime, the land had peace forty years.' Gideon, the reluctant hero, was not immortal. After his death the 'Lower Story' of 'same old, same old' takes control. And once again they suffer the consequence of their unbelief. We now meet an enemy of Israel who will be a threat for years to come. The Philistines.
The Philistines had a pantheon of deities, the lord of all their gods being the Canaanite god of fertility and war, Dagon. Dagon's name appears in Babylonian texts that date back to 2300 BC, long before the period of Judges. He makes an appearance a number of times in Biblical literature after the time of Judges, as does one of his offspring called Baal.
These ancient gods had a tremendous hold on their cultures and people. As strong as (if not stronger than) that of any world religion in our own day. It is helpful to remember that, lest we become to critical of the way the Isealities could drift from their God to the influence of others.
Having that picture in our mind may also help us understand the life of our final hero in Judges. Samson. Samson is such a Wild West character. He's a brawler who wouldn't be out of place in a wrestling ring. He's a child of promise, like Isaac and others, born to a mother presumed to be barren. He's a man of principle, who, up to a point, sticks with the Nazarite vows he has made.
He's a man of passion, who puts his relationship with some of the ladies in his life over and above his relationship with God. He's got a wild west sense of justice. He's a joker, who spins riddles and sets traps. He seems to embody both the best and worst of being human in a world where right and wrong are negotiable.
Time does not permit to outline all the escapades of Samson's life. We see him, rather like the nation during this whole period of Judges, swinging from acts of great faithfulness to times of complete abandon that lead to nothing but trouble. We see how the Spirit of the Lord often intervenes in mighty ways to get him out of trouble. We see his frailty. He is the trickster who often ends up being tricked.
His relationship with Delilah is a disaster that leads him to being imprisoned and blinded and thrown into the dungeons of the Philistine fortress in Gaza. Yet it is at that lowest point of his life we see how God used this unruly child to show that at end of the day, the battle belonged to the Lord.
As he is taunted and treated as sport in the name of the great god Dagon, as the rulers and powers that be, insult him and his God, he pushes back and his final act brings the whole house down. The Wildest man of the Wild Wild West is ultimately vindicated through his faithfulness.
Chapter Eight of 'THE STORY' places before us a few good women and men, who, in an age where many powerful religions dominated the landscape and in which everybody did what was right in their own eyes, manage to discern, however imperfectly, the direction and blessing of God.
Surely that too is something for us to pursue. We live in a multi-cultural, multi-philosophy society. There are those who say there are no gods and those whose religious practice is formed by many different values. Cultural pressures often take precedence over what we claim to believe. The influence of materialism and consumerism, the many voices that clamor for our attention, make it tough to discern the voice of right among all the others.
So we can learn from Deborah and Jael, that God is no respecter of gender or position, but will use in God's service those who can see the bigger picture and look beyond the 'Lower Story'.
We can learn from Gideon that God is able to take us beyond our doubts. That questioning God's will can be a way of discerning God's will. That what the world sees as powerless can be powerful beyond belief when aligned with God's purposes.
We can learn from Samson that God really can use the roughest diamonds to achieve God's 'Upper Story' purposes. There are no limits to who God can use, how God can use them and where God will use them. No limits, that is, except for faithfulness.
Today in the wider church calendar is Palm Sunday, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem armed with nothing but love. He was about to face both acclamation and rejection. Through Holy Week we see Him betrayed, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured and crucified.
As He hangs on that cross, He prays 'Forgive them, Lord, they don't know what they are doing'. The stories of Deborah, Jael, Gideon, Samson … and you can probably insert your own name there... remind us that people of faith don't always know what they are doing. But they keep on trusting that God knows exactly what God is doing!
Next Sunday we will gather in resurrection light to declare that even death can be a doorway to the unimaginable.