July 24, 2016

Now or Never

Have you ever gotten a call you didn’t want to take?  What excuse did you give to the person who answered the phone?  You were in the bathroom?  You were “indisposed”?  You were running errands?  What?  Maybe you had to do something like this…

There’s probably a “You Might Be a Redneck” joke hiding in there somewhere but we’ll figure that out another time.  But have you ever gotten a call you didn’t want to take in public?  This changes things.  When it’s at home and on the phone it’s pretty easy to ignore it.  In fact, with most of us taking calls on cell phones now anyway, if a call comes in you don’t want to take you can ignore it without even thinking about it.  You can even push a button so the ringing doesn’t bother you anymore.  But when the call is public, all of a sudden there is a social cost for ignoring it.  Sometimes you have to just swallow whatever’s in your throat and take it.  I remember something like this happening back in eight grade at the end of the year awards ceremony.  Now, you may or may not believe this, but I was a bit dorky in junior high.  I was somewhat of a late bloomer when it came to being cool.  And to prove it, I participated in the solar-powered car competition that year…and won.  Now, winning the solar car competition was a crowning achievement among my circle of similarly dorky friends.  When it came to the whole school, though, I might as well have won the “Biggest Dork of the Year” award.  Thus when the call came to present the certificate to the winner of the solar car competition from my science teacher I was in a lonely and impossible to hide group of one.  I did not want to answer that call, but I didn’t have any other choice.  And so…I got up…from the back of the room (thanks Dad for having a late-in-the-alphabet last name) and slowly made my way up front.  I received the certificate, shook his hand, and slowly made my way back to the back of the room.

I would have been happy to share that particular spotlight with anyone else.  But you know, sometimes it’s not so much that we don’t want to take a call as it is that we’re afraid to take it.  We’re afraid because taking the call comes with some risk.  There are rewards to be sure, but that risk looms pretty large in the foreground.  It’s like getting on a rollercoaster like The Intimidator for the first time.  The first drop seems awfully large…large enough to convince many to not bother riding before they even climb aboard.  But in many of these kinds of situations, if we will persist in taking the risk anyway, the payoff can be pretty incredible.  Yet if we refuse—and we can always refuse—the opportunity will go to someone else.

Well, this morning we are in the third part of our summer sermon series, Going It Alone.  Over the course of this few weeks we are working our way through the book of Judges.  Judges is one of those wild books in the Bible that’s full of the kind of stories nobody really expects to find in the Bible.  Sometimes the reason is that they seem just too violent for Scripture and sometimes it’s because it appears to lead us to a conclusion about God that we just don’t like.  Yet if all Scripture is truly God-breathed, then there is wisdom for us even here if we will receive it.  And so far we have seen some of that wisdom in the overview to the book that comes in the first 2-3 chapters.  A couple of weeks ago as we first started skimming the surface we discovered that once Israel got settled into the Promised Land they did not get off to a good start.  Instead they set themselves on a path of disobeying God’s commands.  Right from the start they failed to completely follow His instructions regarding what to do about the people who were already living there (namely, get rid of them).  What we found is that disobedience always has consequences.  Always.  We cannot live apart from the ways and commands of our God without eventually paying the price for it.  Disobedience always has consequences.

Then last week we looked a bit more closely at the path that Israel was taking and found that it wasn’t simply a bad path, it was a collection of bad habits.  They fell into the habit of walking away from God, of going it alone.  They fell into a pattern of accommodating their beliefs to those of their neighbors who were not at all interested in going God’s way.  In chapter three we saw how this habit began to play itself out.  The people “did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord,” God let them face the natural consequences of this decision, they finally cried for mercy, and He gave it in the form of a military leader who led them in freeing themselves from the grip of whatever neighboring people had been oppressing them up to that point.  But then when things were back like they should have been in the first place, the people fell right back into their habit and the pattern started itself over again.  Out of all of this we were called to examine the patterns and habits that form the controlling narrative for our own life.  Are these mostly good?  Or mostly not so good?  Either way, if we will establish a habit of righteousness we will find ourselves walking both consistently and comfortably down a path that leads to life every single time.

Well, with a pretty good look at the background and overview of the book, it’s time to starting getting more into the thick of the stories of the various judges God raised up to save His people.  Each of these judges has a unique and wild story and each one is a little wilder than the last.  In a way, each one is a fitting reflection of the spiritual and moral state of the people.  Their spiritual decay was not instant.  It took time.  But because of the habits they had in place it did happen.  And the further they sank, the further the quality of the judges did.

The next example of this comes in chapter 4 in the story of a man named Barak.  His story begins like all the others here do: “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died.  And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin the king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor.  The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim.  Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help, for he had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.”  Sound familiar at all?  Ehud died, the old habits took over, and they soon found themselves right back in the same place they always did.  This time their oppressor was Jabin and his general, Sisera.

Now, one of Israel’s problems from a geo-political perspective is that they were a lot slower than pretty much all of their neighbors to enter the iron age.  They may have had spearmen and stone slingers (think: David and Goliath), but those aren’t much use against swords and iron chariots.  And when somebody with iron chariots rules the fertile plains preventing you from doing any large scale farming, it’s hard to thrive as a people.  And while some of you may laugh at how short a time twenty years seems, when you’re being oppressed it feels a lot longer.  So the people blow it again, they cry out to God for help again, and this time God gives them…Barak.

The text says that Barak was the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, but before we say anything more about him, we are introduced to another character: Deborah.  Deborah was a prophetess—something fairly rare in those days—and was serving as a judge over the people of Israel.  This was probably not in the same capacity as the others in the book in the sense of being a military leader, but rather, as one who was recognized by the people to speak on behalf of God, she probably judged in more interpersonal matters.  In any event, Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was holding court in a place that, because of her association with it, had become known as the palm of Deborah.  It was in the hills of Ephraim between Bethel and Ramah.  One day she received a word from the Lord and summoned Barak to her.  Now, we don’t know anything about what Barak was doing before this time and so we’re not even going to speculate on it.  But whatever he was doing, when he gets to Deborah she has some news for him.

Check this out in Judges 4:6: “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun.  And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand.’”

Here was the call.  And what a call it was!  Here was a word from the Lord commanding him to gather an army, to meet the enemy on a field of God’s choosing, and to defeat the enemy with His help.  God not only told Barak what He wanted him to do, but even promised him success in doing it.  I will give him into your hand.  You are going to win.  I want you to be the next judge over Israel.  I want you to serve in the line of Othniel and Ehud.  Barak got the call and all he needed to do was receive it to receive a lifetime of glory.  Set before him was the chance to be remembered in story and song for generations among his people and even among the nations surrounding them.  He would be known forever as the man God used to take down an army many times stronger than the one he would lead to battle.  This would have been like an infantry division with no artillery support taking down a whole battalion of tanks.  This was a no brainer!  All he had to do was take the call.  And why wouldn’t you?  After all, the God who had promised victory was the same God who led your people to this land against nations many times stronger than them.  He was the God who led your ancestors to freedom from the hands of Egypt which was still a major world power at the time.  He parted the Red Sea and provided manna in the wilderness.  He crushed the impregnable walls of Jericho.  On and on and on His list of exploits rolled.  When this God said victory was going to be yours you could just about walk to the field of battle with a piece of paper and come away with a win.

Ah, but you see, we can’t forget the context of the story.  This was a generation “who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”  In their disobedience and bad habit-setting, they had forgotten the stories of His exploits.  All Barak knew was that this woman who claimed to speak for God had told him to go fight against a general and his army that had been dominating his people for 20 years.  And so instead of answering God’s call directly he punted.

Verse 8: “Barak said to [Deborah], ‘If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’”  But what about all the glory that could be coming to him?  It was there, but something else was also looming in the foreground: getting pounded into the dust by Sisera just like every other revolt over the last twenty years had experienced.  The glory of God’s promise of victory may have shined brightly…but in Barak’s eyes it wasn’t enough to overcome the specter of an embarrassing and in all likelihood deadly defeat.  And so we have v. 8.  He essentially told Deborah to put her money where her mouth was.  If she was so confident that God was going to give him victory, then she could ride right along with him to witness it for herself.  And while this perhaps sounds like mere male bravado, this was cowardice plain and simple.  He was trying to look for a way out of it.  Surely this woman would be too scared of the thought of an awful battle to go along with him into the thick of it.  This would give him the out he wanted and save his reputation in the process.  But the truth is that he was scared and so he didn’t want to answer this call.

Deborah saw right through this charade and responded without missing a beat: “And she said, ‘I will surely go with you.  Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’”  In other words, “Okay, let’s go.  But since you’ve refused to answer this call, the glory waiting on the other end of the line will not be yours.  You will win the battle because God has promised as much.  But you will not get the credit.  Your name will not be heralded in song.  You thought you could talk down to a woman and take advantage of the weakness you perceived in her to the benefit of your own cowardice.  Well then, it will be a woman who gets all the glory for what is about to happen.”

After this, things fly into motion.  Deborah gets up and goes with Barak right then and there.  He returns home, raises an army, and heads for Mount Tabor as the Lord had said.  And then things grind to a halt as we are introduced to yet another character: Heber the Kenite. Now, in context this seems totally out of left field.  This is one of those points in a movie when you jump from the main action to a scene that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what has been happening.  Heber was a descendant of the father-in-law of Moses.  He had taken his family, left his tribe behind, and was living near the oak tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh—Barak’s home.  In other words, he was a foreigner living in Israelite land, but a foreigner with a deep connection to the people.  Seems random, right?  Stay tuned.

When word reached Sisera that Barak had raised an army and was preparing to fight, he responded just as the Lord had said.  He called up his forces—all 900 iron chariots—and the two sides met at the river Kishon…just as the Lord had said.  And…just as the Lord said (are you picking up on the theme here yet?)…Barak and his army prevailed over Sisera and his chariots.  But, Sisera escaped on foot.  He ran for his life, but God had promised freedom to His people and it wasn’t coming until Sisera was dead.

Remember how I told you to stay tuned?  Check this out with me at v. 17: “But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.”  So Sisera runs to the nearest place he knows to be friendly to himself and his master.  Ah, but blood runs thicker than water.  Verse 18: “And Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid.’ [If this were something out of Hollywood the music would turn ominous here.] So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug.”  So Sisera has run to hide with a family he assumes to be sympathetic to his cause.  The truth, as it turns out, is somewhat different.  Are you sitting down?

“And [Sisera] said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.’  So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him.  And he said to her, ‘Stand at the opening of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.”’  But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand.  Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness.”  And just in case it wasn’t totally clear, the next sentence spells it out for us: “So he died.  And behold, as Barak was pursuing Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’  So he went in to her tent, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.”  And here you thought the Bible was boring!  The last couple of verses here spell out the rest of the story for us: “So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel.  And the hand of the people of Israel pressed harder and harder against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.”

As for that song, it got written.  You can find it in chapter 5.  It offers a poetic retelling of the whole story.  It’s pretty impressive as far as that goes.  The battle itself is described in a lot more detail.  It’s actually pretty fun to read.  But do you know how many times Barak gets mentioned?  Twice.  One of those is just in passing.  The battle is described as essentially happening, not as unfolding brilliantly under the great leadership of Barak.  No glory for him.  Instead…just as God said…it all goes to Jael.  She gets a whole stanza to describe what she did: “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.  He asked water and she gave him milk [which would have been warm and thus helped put him to sleep]; she brought him curds in a noble’s bowl.  She sent her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple.  Between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; between her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell—dead.”  All the glory that would have been his went to her.  And why?  Because he didn’t answer God’s call.  He took what seemed to be the easy way out and then instead of getting to enjoy the sweet fruits that God had planned for him he got to dine only on leftovers.  He was content to keep going it alone like all the other people around him.  And so, when the call came, he wouldn’t answer.  God still got His purposes accomplished.  He always does.  But Barak missed out on the opportunity to be a part of it.  The simple truth is: When we refuse God’s call, He’ll call someone else.

The same thing goes in our own lives.  There are times in our lives when God comes along and calls us to do something.  He might call us to have a conversation with someone.  He might call us to give up a certain behavior or habit.  He might call us to take up a certain behavior or habit.  He might call us to go to a new place or stay connected with an old one.  He might call us to give away something that’s of great value to us.  He might call us to stand up to a challenge.  He might call us to speak out on someone else’s behalf.  He might call us to work for justice on a matter in which our involvement will be very costly.  I could keep going, but you get the point.  In fact, I suspect that if something hasn’t already come to mind, you could pretty quickly call to mind a time when He has called you to something.  It may be that you are living under the pall of such a call right now and you simply haven’t decided what to do about it.  Well: what are you going to do about it?

We never have to respond.  He’s not a God who forces Himself or even His plans on us.  He loves us deeply and because of that has given us the ability to make meaningful and consequential choices.  One of those choices is the choice to not answer His call when it comes.  And there’s a good chance that where you’re sitting right now, that particular choice seems to make a lot of sense.  You’ve calculated the costs as far as you can figure them and for answering this particular call they are going to be high.  In fact it may be that they’re going to be higher than you can figure out how you’d pay if they suddenly came due.  God has promised to go with you into whatever He calls you, but the shadow of the costs looms too large for you to see around.  So this temptation to refuse the call remains.  You have that choice.  God can use someone else.  When we refuse God’s call, He’ll call someone else.

But, when we don’t respond, we will miss out on what He has for us.  When we refuse God’s call, He’ll call someone else.  Now, there’s always a risk.  Serving God in a world that’s opposed to Him; serving Jesus in the same world that hated and killed Him is not a safe, secure venture.  But the payoffs will always be worth it.  Think about it: if God’s going to get it done anyway, and He’s asked you to be a part of it, why not answer the call?  Why risk missing out on what God has for you?  He’ll get His plans accomplished either way.  That’s not the issue.  You and I aren’t big enough to stop His plans.  No one is.  The issue is whether or not we’ll be as fully involved in them as He’d like us to be; it’s whether or not we’ll receive the blessings He wants to give us.  And so that’s my invitation to you this morning: Answer God’s call.  Maybe He’s calling you to join with Him fully in a relationship—or perhaps to fully reconnect with Him in a relationship—and to declare it to the whole world by being baptized.  Maybe He’s calling you to join fully and formally with our community here so that the gifts He has given you can be fully unleashed in our midst which will be to your great joy and His great glory.  Maybe He’s calling you to get more involved in serving through one of our ministries here so that by combining your efforts with the whole community’s you are engaging your world for Christ as fully as you are able with His help.  Maybe He’s calling you to step way out on a limb of generosity you don’t think can bear your weight so that you can be an integral part of seeing some of our ministry visions for the future made possible—visions that include needed staff positions that where we sit right now aren’t funded.  Maybe there’s still something else that He has placed on your heart.  But whatever it is: answer it.  If you refuse His call, He’ll call someone else.  But then they’ll have the glory and you’ll just wish you did.  Jesus has called.  Answer Him.