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The Leaders God Chooses: Deborah

August 23, 2009

Sermon: 8-23-09
Text: Judges 4-5

We continue our series The Leaders God Chooses, and it only stands to reason that at least one woman should be included in our discussion. Today, we come to the woman known as Deborah, whose story is told in the book of Judges, Chapters 4-5. I am reminded just how important it is for us to think of women as being a part of the leadership available to us. How silly it is to believe one-half of the leadership pool can be eliminated, based only on gender.

Many women have been good leaders and continue to be. We find a number of their stories in the biblical account. On the Sunday before Labor Day, I am going to begin teaching a study entitled Women of the Bible in the Mary Magdalene class. Deborah is one of the women we will consider. She is one of the most outstanding, and the most outstanding in the book of Judges.

Most scholars believe that Chapter 5, which is a poem or song, is one of the oldest parts of the New Testament. A common practice in the Ancient Near East was for someone to compose a song soon after victory in battle. That was not true only in Israel. It was also true in other Near Eastern countries. The song was actually written long before the prose of Chapter 4. Let’s look at Judges 4:1-10:

After Ehud died, the Israelites did evil once again in the eyes of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.

Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak…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 the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”

Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”

“Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh, where he summoned Zebulun and Naphtali. Ten thousand men followed him, and Deborah also went with him.

Deborah has a very clear idea about her leadership responsibilities. She serves two roles: prophetess and judge. It is important to understand the different roles of prophets, priests, and judges when we come to a study of Israel. A prophet speaks to people on behalf of God. A priest speaks to God on behalf of the people. A judge mediates disputes among people, sometimes using the wisdom of God. Certainly that is the case of the judges in the Bible. Deborah holds court in the open air under a palm tree called the Palm of Deborah. She is married, and it would have been unbecoming for her to invite men into her home to make these decisions.

Several weeks ago in our study of Joshua, I said that Joshua came into the land of Canaan and defeated thirty-one separate kings. Forty-two kings, however, remained undefeated. Among those kings mentioned is Jabin, who amassed an army consisting of men from many of these smaller kingdoms. Sisera, a mighty general, represents many of those kings.

Deborah speaks to her husband Barak, also named Lappidoth, telling him that he must fight Sisera and his army. The name Barak means “lightening,” and Lappidoth means “flame.” It was unclear why he would have both names, but maybe he was responsible for keeping the candles lighted in the sanctuary. Deborah assures him of victory, but Barak is reluctant, telling her, “I will not go unless you go.” Deborah responds to him, basically saying, “Barak, that is not my job. My job is to stay here under this palm tree, to be a prophetess, to be a judge. You go fight this battle. When you get back, I will be right here under this tree waiting for you.” Again Barak refuses, “No, I am not going unless you come with me.”

A clear division of labor is evident here in this couple. Barak insists that he will not go; and Deborah, though a strong-willed woman, finally agrees to accompany him. She informs him though, “Listen, because you are acting this way, you will not receive credit for the victory. A woman will get credit.” Her comments here sound as if she is talking about herself. In fact, the poem in Chapter 5, entitled “The Song of Deborah,” sounds rather self-congratulatory. In the end though, another woman receives credit for the victory.

We have painted for us in Chapter 4 a picture of this battle. Deborah does as she said she would do. She lures Sisera, who was by the River Kishon with his army and 900 chariots, to move west and gather at the foot of Mount Tabor. If we look at the way this battle is set up, almost anyone would say, “This is a bad idea for the Israelites. Sisera’s army will simply overwhelm the Israelites. Why would they want to come down a mountain and face an army of that size, especially one armed as well as they were?” It is the way the British, who were on top of the mountain, lost the Battle of King’s Mountain. The Patriots, located at the bottom, defeated them by pinning them in on top of the mountain. The same thing could happen in this situation.

The army of Israel, consisting of 10,000 men, gathers on top of Mount Tabor, believed to be the mountain where Jesus was transfigured. It was also the mountain David cursed after Saul and Jonathan died there, declaring that no trees would ever grow on top of the mountain. Today the mountain is completely bald. It resembles some in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Whether it was bald at the time of this battle is unclear. What is clear is that the army of Israel gathers there. The poem in Chapter 4 reveals that the army of Israel absolutely overwhelms Sisera and his troops.

The poem also reveals that something else happened. God somehow joins the battle in two ways – through the heavenly bodies and through the waters of the river. Some Jewish writings I have read about this account say that a terrible drought had absolutely parched the land. The heat is so intense that the men clad in iron armor, those in the army of Sisera, are overheated. Camped by the river, they make attempts to get cool with the water. Somewhere in the mountains a heavy rainstorm causes the Kishon River, which has been just a trickle, to now suddenly become a rushing torrent. A flash flood causes all of the chariots of Sisera to become mired in the mud. With this help from God, the Israelite army overwhelms and soundly defeats the enemy.

Sisera, who flees on foot to the north, enters the tent of a woman named Jael, a name that is actually a combination of the words Yahweh and Ale. By all accounts, she is a rather seductive woman. Though married to a Kenite named Heber, she invites the general into her tent where she gives him goat’s milk and a mixture of wine and water. Already tired, Sisera falls sound asleep. Jael picks up a tent peg in her left hand and a hammer in her right hand and drives the peg through the temple of the general, killing him. Deborah is right. In the end, the defeat of Sisera comes at the hands of a woman.

Today we observe a service of the Lord’s Supper. How are we going to transition to the Lord’s table from this story? It is the problem I have dealt with all week. Stick with me.

We must consider two points of leadership this story of Deborah presents. First, behind every strong woman, there is a strong man. That statement is backwards from the way you have always heard it. Of course, many women who are strong leaders do not have a good man behind them. What happens here in this story is that two people – a husband and a wife who have a clear division of labor – work together to bring about this victory. Two separate people, who each have their own strengths, come together, creating a result that is greater than just the sum of the parts. They have synergy, more strength together than they have individually, more strength than simply adding strength to strength. They know their responsibilities.

Most of us think we know our responsibilities. I thought I knew until a couple of weeks ago when I found a light bulb, still in the package, lying on the kitchen counter.

Clare said, “That lamp needs a new light bulb.”

Because the lamp was not tall, I asked, “You can’t reach that lamp?”

She answered, “Oh, yes. I can reach it, but I do not change light bulbs.”

I said, “You don’t? I have been married to you for forty-three years, and I am just finding out that you do not change light bulbs?”

“No, I have not changed a light bulb since we got married.”

I have been changing all the light bulbs in our home for forty-three years. Is that justice? It is if you think about preparing meals. I do not mind changing a light bulb. I just did not know we had this division of labor, you see.

I asked, “Could you please explain to me why you don’t change light bulbs?”

“Because when I was a little girl, I tried to change a light bulb and got shocked. Changing them is your job.”

A good healthy marriage needs some clear division of labor. At times though, it also needs people to share strength with strength in a way that creates synergy, strength that each person could not have on his/her own. I love how the wisdom of the Bible words this: “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). What are the three strands? It is husband, wife, and God. Good leaders, if married, understand that their marriage partner is their strongest ally, their strongest companion.

Second, Deborah accomplishes something that no other judge had been able to do. She does something that was not needed until David became the king. When the threat of battle comes from Sisera and his army, she is able to unite more of the Israelites for a single cause than anyone had been able to do since the Conquest. She understands the importance of bringing together a number of tribes. She could have stayed under her palm tree and done nothing because her tribe had not even been threatened. She recognizes, though, that if she does nothing about the threats to others, sooner or later her tribe will be threatened.

The poem in Chapter 5 lists the names of the tribes who join the battle and admonishes those that do not. Deborah also questions the tribes about the reason they did not support the others. We believe the saying, “United we stand, divided we fall” in this country. Jesus says, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Luke 11:17). Engraved on our coins is the phrase E Pluribus Unum, which means “the many as one.” The second great principle of leadership we get from Deborah involves the need for unity. That principle brings us to this table.

This table reminds us that Jesus gathered eleven disciples for a meal they knew well, the Passover meal. Jesus’ disciples remembered the fact that God had freed the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. Jesus took the elements of that meal – the bread and the cup – and reinterpreted them, saying, “This is my body…this is my blood.” As he reinterpreted those elements, he gave them the admonition, “Do this as often as you do it in remembrance of me” (I Corinthians 11:25). Jesus is not just giving them a way to remember him. He is giving them a way to come together, to continually remember that his purpose is to unite them, to make them as one. Look at the Gospel of John, in those last discourses after this Passover meal. Jesus prays exactly that prayer for his church: “Father, I pray that they might be one” (John 17: 11, 21-22).

We celebrate unity here, our unity. That does not mean that we all think alike or that we all agree on every single issue. It does mean that we have a unity of purpose. We affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he is the living Lord. We acknowledge him as our Savior. In that unity of purpose, our commitment is to follow him. We are united in our mission to share this good news with the entire world.

What Deborah did for the people of Israel, the Lord Jesus did for his disciples and for us. By giving us this meal, he gives us a way to celebrate our unity in Christ Jesus. I say to you, whether you are old or young, whether you are single or married, whether you are a man or a woman, God calls you to some kind of leadership.

When you come to this table, you do not come here because you are a member of Morningside. You do not come here because you are Baptist. You come to this table because you can celebrate unity with every person who acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord. Because we have a sense of unity in our purpose, we are at one in the Great Commission to take the good news of Christ to the entire world.

If you acknowledge Jesus as your Savior, acknowledge him as your Lord, you are invited to take this meal with us. Let us celebrate the supper together.

The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread. He blessed it, and he broke it, saying, “This is my body, which is broken for you.”

Let us have a prayer of blessing for the bread.

Dear heavenly Father, as we take this bread which represents Your body that was broken on that cross, how we thank You for that love, for the sacrifice made for each and every one of us. We thank You for the grace and the mercy You show us. Lord, we love You and thank You for this time that we here together. In the precious name of Christ, Your Son, our Savior, we pray. Amen.

Come, Thou fount of ev’ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs as loud as praise:
Jesus sought me, when a stranger,
Wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed his precious blood.

Jesus said, “This bread is my body given for you.” Eat this as often as you eat it in remembrance of him. Eat ye all of it.

We will have a prayer now for the cup: Lord, as we take the cup, we consider it a symbol of Your Son’s blood, shed for us on that cross. He came to complete Your plan of salvation for all of us. What a wondrous gift given to us! What wonderful grace given to us! We can never repay You. We thank You, and we love You. We ask that You keep us mindful, as we take up this cup, of what You would have us do in our lives to serve You. We ask these things in the name of your Son, our risen Savior. Amen.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy grace, Lord, like a fetter,
Bind my wand’ring heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, Lord take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Drink this as often as you drink it in remembrance of him. Drink ye all of it.

I told the congregation during the early service this morning that observing the Lord’s Supper together is absolutely one of my favorite times of worship. The sermon is preached right here through these elements that have so many different interpretations. The very basic meaning is that God loves us so much that He gave His Son, Jesus. His life provides instruction on how to live. His death teaches that by faith our sins can be forgiven. His resurrection promises the hope of life eternal. Every time I come to this experience of worship, I find myself making a decision to recommit my life, just as the words of that wonderful hymn words it: “Here is my heart, Lord, take and seal it.”

I know that this service means so much to many of you. My hope is that every person will make a decision, not a decision necessarily that brings you down the aisle, but one that is heartfelt, one that is really important between you and the Lord. If you have never acknowledged Christ as your Savior, we invite you to make that decision.

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2009

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