For four weeks, I am preaching on Old Testament Bible stories. This week is the story of Deborah recorded in Judges 4-5. Preached on July 23, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.
As we deal with this text from Deborah, I want to address two issues, first, the violence of it. This is a story that would have originated in the Iron age, so we have to hear it in its own historical timeframe. It’s easy to think that somehow God changed from the violence of the Old Testament to the nonviolent Jesus of the New Testament; it is more accurate to say, that people’s experience of God evolved along with history. Not every war or act of violence in the Old Testament is sanctioned or directed by God. Also, every oppressed people from the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, today’s text in Canaan, to people fighting an unjust oppression of any kind today, seek a God who will fight for them.
However, even in the Old Testament, the battles that God fights are not against peoples and cultures—even some Canaanites believed in Yahweh—God’s fight is against evil. Israel is an instrument of divine judgement on corruption and harm, as God fights evil. Sometimes this judgment is also directed at Israel, which is why they also come under oppression and judgement as we read in our story today.
The second issue I want to highlight is how unusual it is to have a religion that continually reveals the failures of its adherents in its sacred texts. But that’s what we have in the Old Testament—the very human story of the Israelites failing in their Covenant relationship with God and coming under judgement. These kinds of failures are repeated in the Old Testament, particularly in the book of Judges. It lets us know that that none of us live out our relationship with God perfectly. These stories also show God’s faithfulness and steadfast love for us after repeated failure—God continues to send new leaders throughout the Old Testament as a whole, ultimately sending us himself in Jesus.
In Jesus the Christ, God reveals that God is not distant from the injustices of violence and death, but God fully enters with us these horrific realities, and overcomes them with his love and his very life for us. So, now with this frame, let’s look at Deborah’s story:
Our story begins as we’ve said, with Israel’s failure: the “Israelites again did things that the Lord saw as evil.”
What were they up to? Well, all kinds of stuff they knew were against God’s law and expectations:
• Like not worshiping God on the Sabbath
• Not taking care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan who are suffering among them
• And the Ten Commandments?! Israel treated them more like the ten suggestions, barely.
• They were more interested in the Canaanites and their pagan Temples
• They worshipped pagan gods, partying at the Temple which involved unmentionable acts, and harm to the body, child sacrifice, and the abuse of the vulnerable people of society
• All of the things that were evil in the sight of the Lord
But their actions were not without consequences. When community cohesion frayed, it became easy for a foreign power to take them over—the Lord gave them over to King Jabin of Canaan—a nasty and oppressive man who backed up his iron-fist with 900 iron-chariots. Israelites had no freedom--they were treated like slaves with high taxes to support a system that brought them little benefit. They had left oppression generations ago in Egypt, and here they were in the land of milk and honey. But the milk had gone sour and the only thing the bees left behind was their sting!
They endured cruelty for twenty years and could not take it anymore. So they cried out to God for a rescue—Israel needed a leader—someone to help get them out of this mess they had gotten themselves into. Whom would God send? Israel was looking for another Moses or another Joshua to rally the troops, to lead the way, to inspire a courageous heart, but no such man appeared on the horizon.
They did not expect the answer to be Deborah, the prophet and judge who sat under a palm tree named for her, where she settled disputes and spoke the word of the Lord. Deborah’s name in Hebrew, means “honeybee” which is significant because Israel was supposed to be in a land flowing with honey, but the Israelites were miserable, so to them, the bee was just an annoying insect. It is also significant because scientists today have found that aerodynamically, it is impossible for bees to fly—their body is too large and heavy, and their wings are too weak and small for flight.
But it was this woman, Deborah, this “honeybee”, that God chose to lead Israel out of its perilous predicament of oppression and pain. God spoke directly to Deborah, giving her military instructions on how God would enable Israel to defeat Sisera and his 900 chariots of iron. But Barak balked at Deborah. He essentially said, “Yeah, right! I’ll go only if you go and put your life on the line as well!”
“Barak’s” name means “lightening”—which in his case means a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing!
Why was Barak and probably most of Israel reluctant to trust her?
• Perhaps it is because Deborah had no military experience.
• Maybe because any plan seemed impossible up against 900 chariots of iron.
• Or most likely, Deborah did not fit the picture of the leader they had in mind.
Israel was looking for a man—someone who carried the commanding weight of Moses or Joshua. Perhaps God worked through women in small things, but for the big stuff, God needed a man, with experience, affluence, and authority. When God chose the unlikely leader of a woman, this honeybee, to rally the troops and lead them into battle, the Israelites asked themselves, “Does this be have sting? Can this bee even fly?
But bees do not know that they shouldn’t be able to fly, so they just go ahead and fly anyway. God’s ways of working are not ours to control or determine. God’s leaders do not necessarily fit our picture, expectations, or comfort zone. How often do we miss God’s leaders and God’s messages because we are looking in the wrong direction for the person we want, rather than the person God has chosen? How easy it is, even when we are desperate and asking for help, to put God in a box and limit the ways and the unexpected variety of people through whom God is working to bring us new ideas, grace, and good news?
Who would have imagined the positive leadership our youth offer our church:
• Virginia did the historical display in the Gathering Area, as her silver award for girl scouts, and we have a visitor who recognized his dad’s college roommate in Pr. Addix –
• And Ashley joins Virginia in being our 2 Nursury attendants –they were the first to step up when we needed new people working in the nursery. Who would have imagined the history our youth keep us connected to, and their presence in the nursery would contribute to our church growth today?
• Natalie built the outdoor food pantry outside as her silver award, and this has become a vital ministry for our community with so many people from the community both getting food from it and contributing to it—Who would have imagined our youth expanding our food outreach food ministry?
• Sam is helping to renovate the Youth room with his Eagle Scout project and this will give the youth a great space to invite their friends and help expand our program. Who would have imagined that our youth again are expanding our opportunities for ministry and contributing to our building renovation?
• Ivanna blesses us in worship regularly with singing with P-squared, the Choir, solos, and playing the violin—who would have imagined that one very young person could bless us with so much praise and worship leadership?
• Brynn, a confirmation student regularly brings a friend with her to church --Who would have imagined that one of our best evangelists is middle school student?
Who would have imagined that Deborah, a woman, would be the chosen military leader to bring Israel’s freedom and turn Israel away from doing evil? Who would have imagined that honeybees could fly? God imagined it and made it so. Deborah can fly. How did Deborah survive in a harsh world? She did not take to heart others’ skepticism and doubt her own calling, she just flew anyway. Deborah was indeed the greatest of the Judges—like Mohammed Ali said of himself, Deborah can “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” She had what it took—not just because of her faithfulness, but because of what God can accomplish through anyone who is a willing servant.
But the real miracle of the Deborah story is not that God called a woman to be a judge, a prophetess, and a military leader, but that when God did, the people of Israel actually followed her. Sisera’s 900 chariots of iron got stuck in the mud of the riverbank and had no power. Sisera abandoned his army and ran off like a scared rabbit to find refuge for himself. He was killed by another unlikely, out-of-the-box person—a Canaanite woman who was faithful to God, named Jael, who “nailed” the victory for Israel by driving a tent peg into Sisera’s temple while he slept.
A woman indeed got the glory for the victory—Jael, a foreign woman, Deborah, and God! After this victory, the people of Israel had peace for 40 years under Deborah’s rule. Now that’s the land of milk honey!
Our invitation this week is to listen to the unexpected people God is using to speak to us this week—who may not fit into our box or expectations. When we do listen to these unlikely messengers or leaders, God’s purposes for freedom, healing, and new life can be accomplished.
Our Statement of Welcome is a conscious way of saying that as a community we will not give in to a limited definition of who God can work through. St. Luke’s life and mission are growing and expanding because you are open to receiving the leadership of all the people God might choose regardless of ethnicity, race, class, income, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, disability, age, mental health, criminal record, or religious background—and given the leadership of our youth—we can also add age! Our youth have not doubted that they can make a contribution, so they just fly anyway.
And as you watch for new messengers and voices this week, be aware of how God is using you to be a Deborah for someone else. Because Aerodynamic or not, bees can fly. And that includes you.