November 13, 2011

Deborah and Barak

Passage: Judges 4:4-6

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She 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 judgement. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you ...

When the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was killed most of the tears shed were tears of joy.  Outbursts of exultation at his death may seem barbaric to many; but we understand such response for those who suffered long under the terrible cruelties of Gaddafi’s regime.  We need not rehearse details of those cruelties to know that for many Libyan’s life was bitter.

In the aftermath of Gaddafi’s death a number of articles have appeared in news media endeavouring to explain what makes someone a dictator.  James Fallon, a neuroscientist who made a study of the dictators of history, noted that Gaddafi shares a long tradition with fellow dictators who have a penchant for crazy titles, weird philosophies, megalomaniac monuments, and arbitrary social structures.  In his study of dictators, Fallon determined that genes, upbringing, abnormalities in the brain and a lack of empathy all played a role in forming such a person.

In these various attempts to explain the cruel behaviours of dictators not much was said about evil.  The scriptures declare that God is shaken at the way evil scourges his creation, disfiguring people and warping nature.  Evil in not subject to rational explanation; evil isn’t rational.  Evil disfigures people and unchecked the monstrous results are always hideous.  Our world would much rather talk of brain abnormality and genetic makeup than talk of our ancient foe who seeks to do us harm and the Saviour who has taken the field on our behalf against evil.

Tyranny in any form is abhorrent. All of us have an instinctive aversion to it. We readily understand why millions of people couldn’t wait to get rid of political tyranny in the former USSR in 1989; we know why people cheer when dictators come to their end.

At the same time as we find tyranny repulsive, we have to admit that tyranny is highly efficient.  Tyranny is much more efficient than any form of democracy.  Clumsy and ponderous as democracy is, however, we readily agree with Winston Churchill when he stated that democracy was a terrible form of government – awkward, fumbling, bumbling, often laughable – yet we cherish democracy and will die to preserve it just because, said Churchill, all other forms of government are worse. Tyranny is repugnant anywhere, anytime.

To the story of Deborah and Barak; it was a time in Israel’s history when the Canaanite King named Jabin and his army general Sisera cruelly oppressed the Israelites for 20 years.  Dictators and tyrants—this is how we are to understand Jabin and his cohort in cruelty Sisera.  Through cruelty they sought to extend their rule over the Israelites.  Think of Gaddafi’s Libya and you get some picture of the bitterness Deborah and her fellow Israelites faced.

1.  Life is full of challenges; we need encouragement and courage to meet and overcome all kinds of things—barriers and setbacks; some self imposed—to living life.  In my life time most of the challenges I would say I have had to face have not been of the order of magnitude faced by those living under the cruelties and vagaries of dictatorship.  Deborah is a great inspiration for me when I consider how she faithfully exercised her ministry of leadership in the faith of Israel through 20 years of cruel oppression.  It is the same kind of inspiration I find in the testimonies of those who remain faithful in their witness for Christ in the face of persecution and oppression like our brothers and sisters of the Coptic Church in Egypt.  So ingrained is this reality for the Coptic church that becoming a believer in Christ is to be ready to be a martyr for this faith.

I read recently the story of a minister from Iran.  As the minister was driving with his wife, they stopped in a small Iranian village to purchase some water. Before entering, the minister noticed a man holding a machine gun and leaning against the wall outside the store. The minister's wife looked at the man's face and the gun, then put a Bible in her husband's hand and said, "Give that man this Bible." Her husband looked at the man—noting the machine gun—and replied, "I don't think so." But she persisted: "I'm serious. Give it to him. Please, give him the Bible."

Trying to avoid the issue, the husband said, "Okay, I'll pray about it." He went into the shop, purchased the water, climbed back into the car, and started to drive away. His wife looked at him and said, "I guess you didn't give him the Bible, did you?" Looking straight ahead, he replied, "No, I prayed about it and it wasn't the right thing to do." She quietly said, "You should have given him the Bible," and then she bowed her head and started praying. At that point, he turned around and told his wife, "Fine! If you want me to die, I will."

When the minister returned to the store, the man with the machine gun was still standing against the wall. The minister approached him and placed the Bible in his hand. When the man opened it and saw it was a Bible, he started to cry. "I don't live here," he said. "I had to walk for three days in order to get to this village. But three days ago an angel appeared to me and told me to walk to this village and wait until someone had given me the Book of Life. Thank you for giving me this book."

The minister became a courageous witness for Christ. Eventually, along with many other co-workers in the Iranian church, he was martyred for his faith.  The courage of these followers of Christ inspires courage in my own heart.  Deborah was courageous for the faith.

3.  The period of Israel’s history covered in the book of Judges is the time between Israel’s conquest of Cana under Joshua’s leadership and the time when Israel is ruled by kings.  This is the period when God raise up leaders known as judges who gave leadership to Israel.  There is a cycle that runs through this period of the judges that was like a downward spiral.  It began when Joshua died and the people were soon worshiping the idols of their neighbours.  A period of oppression by neighbouring peoples followed; then God raised up judges who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.  The author of Judges writes: “But whenever the judge dies, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors” (2:18).  Deborah is one of these judges God raised up.

The judges in ancient Israel were not like the courtroom judges of our day. Present-day judges are courtroom referees whose sole responsibility is to preside over trials without favouring either party in the trial. Ancient judges, by contrast, were chiefly leaders and rulers. They were leaders in times of controversy and conflict; they were rulers in times of peace. In the book of Judges the men and women who were set aside as judges were also called deliverers or saviours. We must be sure to note this point: judges are deliverers or saviours. Obviously a judge wasn’t saviour in the sense in which God is uniquely saviour, any more than a pastor (the Latin word for “shepherd”) displaces Jesus as the “Good Shepherd”. Jesus alone is and ever shall be the Good Shepherd. Nevertheless, in the company of Jesus the shepherd, pastors are under-shepherds.

Under God the saviour, judges in ancient Israel were recognized as saviours or deliverers.  When the people were threatened, the judge mobilized them and encouraged them. When the people were cocksure and spiritually indifferent, the judge sobered them. When the people were about to meander, the judge guided them. And when the people, unguarded in their naiveness, found the “New Age” pantheism of the Canaanite neighbours attractive, as well as Canaanite immorality, not to mention a “tolerance” that accommodated everything and accommodated most eagerly precisely what was most lethal; in such a time the judge recalled the people to the truth and reality of God, as well as to the claim and command of God, as well as to the promises of God.

Deborah was one of Israel’s greatest judges; Deborah was so highly esteemed that she was hailed as “a mother in Israel”.

We read: “She 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 judgement.”  This is a picture of Deborah exercising her ministry: she has the law of God given through Moses in one hand and she is guiding the people in their decision for life and encouraging them to walk with God.  It speaks volumes of her courage and tenacity and love for God that she persists in this ministry in the midst of cruel oppression.

It isn’t just oppression that can discourage believers from the importance of the ministry of the word of God in their lives.  Distractions in life are often far more subtle in turning us aside from that which is our greatest need—to be nurtured in our faith life with the Saviour.  There are lots of good and important things to do in life; but what we engage in here in worship and word is necessary for life.  Here we draw aside from the important to do the necessary.

As I read the testimonies of my persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ I note that they long for the gathering of believers to worship and hear the word of life.  Perhaps persecution has a way of helping us see distractions for what they really are.  I note that it was during days of oppression that Israel sought our Deborah; soon after the threat was dealt with by Barak—Jabin and Sisera defeated—Israel all too soon relapses and drifts away.  I am not praying for oppression; oppression is evil and needs defeating.  I am praying that we use our freedom to the best ends ever treasuring the activities of nurturing faith in Christ and organizing our lives to reflect this commitment.

4.  In the course of her ministry God sends a word to Deborah to summon a man named Barak for a special task in God’s saving work for his people; Barak is to summon ten thousand men and do meet Jabin’s general Sisera in battle—God’s promise is he will give Sisera into his hand.  Barak hesitates.  He responds to Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”  I can understand his hesitancy; what God asks him to do looks impossible or perhaps he thinks himself unequal to the task. So he hesitates.

According to recent news story posted at, “Now there’s research to show that a pessimistic outlook might be better for mental health overall. … The researchers set out to examine the best method [for] dealing with life stressors and determine if positive outlook resulted in improved mental health. … They found that ... with greater stress, a positive perspective was found to correlate with an increase in depressive symptoms over time.

Psychiatric disorders are now the biggest source of illness among Europeans.  This is simply to note what Barak experienced long ago; that lots of things we face in life can depress even the most positively minded among us.  Don’t be surprised that physical illness has an accompanying depressive effect on the mind and heart.  Don’t be surprised that tasks that look beyond our abilities can shake even the most well honed can-do attitude.

I have often though that while the development of a positive attitude can bring much good that pessimism can keep us realistic.  I prefer positive people over pessimistic but I think what we really need is faith.  Faith is a gift of God to us; faith isn’t the ability to muster a positive attitude in the face of what discourages; it is trust in the one who suffered on the cross for us.  Faith isn’t to develop a can-do attitude; it is to trust the One who really can do.  Stressors in life come and go and will deliver their blows to the positive or pessimistic attitude with equal force; faith in the one who has us in the palm of his hand is that which sustains us in all of these things.

Faith ever needs nurturing and this is the mandate of the church.  All of us as believers are called to share in this common work and what we do to contribute to the announcement of the good news of Jesus is, in essence, to do this work.  And may I remind you that even your presence at worship is a gift to the faith of every other worshiper.  Just as Barak’s weak faith was blessed by the company of Deborah so too for all of us.

5.   Larry Taunton is a Christian apologist who has debated atheist Christopher Hitchens particularly on Hitchens thesis the world would be a better place without Christianity.  These two men have become friends; Taunton has noted how something in his personal life has impacted Hitchens; it was the story of how Taunton and his wife adopted a Ukrainian orphan girl.  Taunton has written a book about his daughter Sasha—The  GRACE EFFECT: How the Power of  One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief

The publisher’s description of the book notes:  “Simply defined, the ‘grace effect’ is an observable phenomenon—that life is demonstrably better where authentic Christianity flourishes.”What does Christianity give us beyond televangelists, potlucks, and bad basketball leagues? Not much, according to the secular Left. The world, they say, would be a better place without it. Historian and Christian apologist Larry Taunton has spent much of his career refuting just this sort of thinking, but when he encounters Sasha, a golden‐haired Ukrainian orphan girl whose life has been shaped by atheistic theorists, he discovers an unlikely champion for the transforming power of grace. Through the narrative of Sasha’s redemption, we see the false promises of socialism; the soul‐destroying influence of unbelief; and how a society cultivates its own demise when it rejects the ultimate source of grace. We see, in short, the kind of world the atheists would give us: a world without Christianity—cold, pitiless, and graceless.”

In the promotional material for the book is this quote about the author: “If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and concern and care for others as Larry Taunton had, we’d be living in a much better society than we do.”  The author of that quote is Christopher Hitchens.

Don’t ever think that your life lived in faith in Christ is insignificant.  God, through faith, is working his saving purposes in us and through us.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.