Sunday, November 15, 2020

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Judges 4

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.

4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading[a] Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”

Again the people did an evil and wrongheaded thing in the sight of the Lord. So they were placed in the hands of the apprentice king, who reigned first from somewhere on 5th Avenue. Mitch, the commander of the hundred, was based on swampy ground near the Potomac River. Together, they oppressed the people for four long years, and the people cried out for help.

Nancy, a prophet, held court near the same swampy ground as Mitch, in a place that was supposed to settle disputes for the benefit of the people. An election was called, and she sent for Barak, and said, “Go to the tens and the hundreds, socially-distant in their cars, and remind them of the ways of hope and change. And the people were led to the polls, and reversed the wrongheaded thing they did four years earlier.

This is not the New American Standard Bible, though a translation by that name does exist. I’ve given you an attempt at dynamic equivalence (Nida), a contemporary rendering that gives you a sense of the text without the avalanche of impossible-to-pronounce names. It’s also meant to underline the main theme of the Book of Judges: the endless cycle of obedience and disobedience that defines the relationship between Israel and her God.

Any historian will tell that history is a loop rather than a line, and that the seeming progress we experience will soon loop around to the past we thought we had left behind. And the cycle we see in the Book of Judges provides a perfect illustration. Overall it’s obedience and disobedience, but in text we find a more elaborate pattern:

The people do evil in the eyes of the Lord (v. 1)

The people are sold or given into the hands of their enemies (v. 2, 3)

The Lord lifts up a prophet or leader (v. 4, 5)

The Spirit of the Lord rests on the leader (v. 9)

The enemy is defeated (v. 7, 15, 22)

The people live in peace once more (5.31)*

Until the cycle begins again. A quick Bible search of the words “cried out” will reveal all the moments this movement is underway. The people forget the Lord their God. The people turn away, the people are disobedient, the people adopt idols, the people take foreign wives, the people fall in love with Baal once more. They cry out, and the Lord sends them a Moses, or an Elijah, or a Deborah. And the Lord saves them once more.

But Deborah is unique here. Not only is she the only woman named a judge of Israel, but she joins the war party in their battle with the Canaanites. And she goes further: “Certainly I will go with you,” she says. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” Like Elizabeth I at Tilbury, Deborah transforms supposed weakness into strength, and underlines God’s desire to save.

And, of course, it’s the end of the story, the part we did not read, that becomes the most memorable. The Canaanite general, Sisera, is defeated, but manages to escape the battlefield. He wanders into the tent of an ally, Heber the Kenite, and finds himself alone with Heber’s wife Jael. He demands water, and Jael gives him some warm milk instead, and a cuddly blanket, and soon Sisera is sound asleep. At this moment Jael takes a hammer, and a tent peg, and…well, you can guess the rest. The Canaanite defeat, at the hands of Deborah and Jael is complete, and peace returns.

Maybe we need a moment, after all that excitement, to ponder Western art in the High Renaissance. There seems to be a bit of debate about the preponderance of religious art: was it some sort of custom or decree, the fact that most of the art is religious, or was it simply that the church was the wealthiest patron of the arts? We’ll let the scholars argue over that one, but we should note that even the preponderance fell into predictable categories. Madonna and child, important saints, and predictably, women bathing, such as Susanna or Bathsheba. And then there is Jael, hammer in one hand, tent peg in the other, and…well, you know the rest. (In most paintings she looks really mad, but in Salomon de Bray’s remarkable painting we see the psychological complexity of this character).

In a Christian framework, we see the very same pattern. John the Baptist cries out “who told you to flee from the wrath to come?’ and then Jesus appears. The lost and the disobedient are found and forgiven, and the daily walk begins. Disciples are called, lives transformed, and moments later they are arguing about which one gets to sit at the right hand in glory. Jesus forgives their foolish ways, and the walk continues, up to a lonely hill where pieces of silver are exchanged and denials are made. Even the soldiers that mock and flog will recognize that this is the Son of the Most High—a day later, but never too late.

Failure and misfortune, faith and forgiveness, and the path continues until it loops around once more. It describes a life of faith, and it describes life on earth—the alternating times of promise and peril, progress and failure. Last Saturday, we celebrated the end of an era, the first major defeat in the battle against extremism and populism. By midweek the celebration was over, with numerous elected officials pointing to some sort of fantasy outcome—the rest of us mistaken. Who knows what the mood will be next week, or what brand of crazy we will endure, but the pattern is familiar.

And while we can’t necessarily end the pattern in our time, we should be able to disrupt it, or diminish it in some way. So this might be the moment to revisit something that we talked about last fall, some research on recent trends, from an article with the uncomfortable title “Populism is growing because more people than you think want chaos.” In the article, we learn that a close study of attitudes and activities across several Western countries highlights the real divide of our time. It’s less the division between left and right, even though those old lines remain clear—and more between those who would maintain the existing order and those who would tear it all down.

And these researchers have made the alarming discovery that nearly 40 percent of the population across these countries fall into the ‘tear it all down’ category. These people have lost faith in the existing order, including governments and the leading voices in society, and are seeking alternatives. They come from both the left and right, they tend to be disadvantaged in some way, or have simply lost faith in the idea that the future will be better than the past. They are particularly open to voices that cast blame or propose simple solutions to complex problems. And they are easy to reach—social media amplifies alternate voices and allows people to find each other—for good or for ill.

And on one level they have a point. Wealth inequality, a changing economy, the environmental crisis—none of these problems have been adequately addressed by the people who lead us. But the alternative—‘tear it all down’—is too frightening to contemplate. So the authors of this study make a simple suggestion: that moderates on both sides of the political divide work together to solve the problems that lead to hopelessness and despair. Begin to address the complex problems we face, and over time fewer and fewer people will be drawn to chaos. It’s the hardest simple solution in the world, or the simplest hard solution, take your pick.**

Whenever It’s time to conclude a sermon like this, there’s usually a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help us make sense of the situation we find ourselves in—and he never disappoints. This quote was shared in an address to the Montgomery Improvement Association’s first mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church.

I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian…faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.

When Dr. King shared these words, he was just 26 years old. So he underlines a couple of things. The first is that young people will inevitably lead us forward, since they seek to create the world they will inhabit the longest. And the second is that whenever we ponder love correcting that which revolts against love, we’re talking about God. God is love. And God’s love is always “love in calculation,” seeking ways to lead us home.

Meeting this moment may not require the drama of Deborah or Jael, but it will require the same trust in the power of God to transform lives. In our work, and in our prayer, we turn to God to calculate the love needed to build the kingdom, to make it known, now and always, Amen.

*Guest, 2003



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