June 13, 2010

Lead Spiritually, Act Faithfully

This morning we find ourselves three weeks from the 4th of July. This is, of course, the time of year when Americans gather to worship before the barbecue altar and to make sacrifices to the god of fireworks. I think there should be something there about the signing of the Declaration of Independence as well. No, the 4th of July is the time we remember the document that declared our freedom from England. In the history of the world there are few political documents or any other kind of document as important as our Declaration of Independence. For 234 years we have been a free nation thanks to the incredible leadership of the Declaration.s 56 signers and a handful of others. Recently, I have been reading a book entitled A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart which I would highly recommend to any history buffs in the room. Though it is perhaps passé to speak of such things in some circles today, one of the things that has deeply impressed me about our Founding Fathers is the profound spiritual sense they carried with them throughout this monumental task of creating a nation from scratch. While it is certainly true that not all the Founders were Christians in the sense in which we understand the title today, they were all thoroughly shaped by the Judeo-Christian worldview. They knew without question that if God was not an active part of their political formulations then their time was utterly wasted and their task would ultimately prove futile. What they were doing was laying a philosophical and political and religious foundation by which they declared the United States of America (a controversial designation if ever there was one in that day) to be free from under the oppressive tyranny of the English Crown. They fully believed in the fallenness of human nature and recognized very clearly from their own experiences that if given the time and the opportunity, any government of men and women would tend not towards freedom, not towards anarchy, but towards tyranny. (As an example, the French Revolution that took place within this same generation did not have a similarly sufficient foundation to restrain human nature and quickly fell, first to tyranny of Robespierre, and then to the tyranny of Napoleon.) And so, with greatly spiritual leadership (leadership driven by the moral compass and redeeming power of the Spirit of God) and actions which were imbued with as much faith as they were capable, these men laid just such a foundation as has withstood 234 years of every conceivable enemy, both foreign and domestic, trying their best to see it crumble into dust.

Indeed, every government in the history of humanity has eventually devolved into tyranny, some more quickly than others. Part of the problem is that we don.t know what to do with real freedom. As a case in point, consider that after the Colonial Army.s improbable victory over the British, the men who had just fought for freedom from one king wanted to make George Washington…a king. It is almost like, given the chance, people will naturally take the steps necessary to enslave themselves to someone else in exchange for both false and actual securities. Or else we leave the principles that bought us the freedom in the first place which puts us in a place ripe for being conquered in some fashion by a people already enslaved; for the natural reaction of the one who is oppressed to one who is free is to pull the free person down into oppression so there is sameness, equality, fairness between the two. This also demonstrates in the mind of the conquering people that their situation is in fact better than that of the people they conquered. Who needs freedom anyway? They.ll just mess it up.

This cycle of freedom yielding to oppression and back and forth and back and forth is not new. It has been going on for a long, long time. We can find clear examples of this cycle all the way back in the Old Testament. One of the primary sources for stories of this nature in the Bible is the book of Judges. In fact, in our continuing journey through some of the great stories of the Old Testament, I have an especially good one for you this morning from this very book. I want to tell you the story this morning of one of the greatest leaders in the Old Testament. Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the book of Judges, it is a pretty depressing book. It is the story of the downward moral descent of the people of Israel in the years between the settling of the Promised Land and the beginning of the monarchy; in the days between strong leaders like Joshua and David, when good leadership was hard to find. The basic pattern of the book is this: the people turned away from God, God allowed them to be oppressed by some foreign people, the people cried out to God, God appointed some guy to lead the people back to Him and free them from the oppression they were facing, and the people lived in peace until they drifted away from God again. The story I want to tell you this morning, however, is a bit different. It.s different not because it.s the first story of the major judges. It.s not different because the guy God found to judge was more notable than the rest. It.s different because the “he” those of you who haven.t already turned to Judges 4 are trying to identify is actually a “she.” I want to tell you the story of Deborah this morning, one of the greatest leaders of the people of Israel. You can find her story in Judges 4-5. Grab your Bibles and turn there with me. I want to tell you her story, and then take a look with you at just how God saves His people from the oppression that we naturally seek when left to our own devices.

Deborah.s story begins much like all of the other stories in the book of Judges. The people of Israel departed from the ways of Yahweh and so He allowed them to be captured and oppressed by a neighboring people. And so we.re clear, this was a case of both the active and the passive judgment of God. He was actively opposing them when they turned from Him, but this opposition played itself out by letting them stupidly put themselves in a place where they were sitting ducks for a bigger, power-hungry neighbor. Let me give you the text itself starting in v. 1 of chapter 4: “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 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.” Now a bit more poetically from chapter 5:6: “In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned, and travelers kept to the byways. The villagers ceased in Israel; they ceased to be until I arose; I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel. When new gods were chosen, then war was in the gates. Was shield or spear to be seen among forty thousand in Israel?” What all this basically comes down to is that the people left God and got themselves in a heap of trouble.

Now, in all the other cycles of the book of Judges, God calls some guy to step up and lead Israel in a military victory over whatever people are oppressing them at the time. In fact, the first three stories in Judges reflect this very thing in Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. But this time God had a servant named Deborah who was already on the job. From 4:4: “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.” That.s right. In the patriarchal Biblical culture that hated women and gave them no place in society, this woman was the political and religious leader of Israel. She was a judge of Israel. During the period of the Judges, the people who led Israel were specifically raised up by God for that purpose and they served as the highest leaders of the people during their lifetimes. They served in the place of kings and queens before the monarchy was established. Harkening back to our American Revolution illustration, they would have been like a colonial governor who was over all the colonies at once and reported straight to God, not the king. This is the position Deborah would have been in as a judge for the people. As a prophetess she would have been the highest religious authority in the land as well, speaking the words of God to the people on His behalf. And she was not some holier-than-thou prophet who stayed away from the people. She was from the same region that Samuel would later come from which was not the major religious center of the people (that was Shiloh). In fact, considering the pathetic spiritual condition of all the other judges in between the two, Deborah can be rightly considered Samuel.s spiritual mother. In other words, she dwelt among the people and set a solid spiritual example for them not from on high, but from alongside. She was, in other words, a spiritual leader for the people: someone who sets a good example of faithfulness for people and then leads them in following it. There.s something to notice here. God doesn.t call folks to deliver His people from oppression who have it all together. He chooses deliverers through whom He can showcase His power and might. Yet neither does He choose the spiritually defunct. He chooses men and women who demonstrate the same spiritual leadership and faithful actions as Deborah.

As always, though, we have to deal with the worldly realities as well as their spiritual counterparts. And the worldly reality here is that Sisera with his 900 iron chariots was still around terrorizing the people. Having a spiritual renewal was great, but there was a man.s work to be done—dispatching with the chariots. So, as we should have known all along, God has Deborah call and commission a man, Barak, to lead 10,000 troops in overcoming Sisera.s army. From 4:6: “She sent and summoned Barak, the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, „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”?.” But, before I let you think this really is just like all the other male-dominated stories in the Bible, get this: Barak chickens out. He just got this incredible call from God through His prophetess guaranteeing him victory (and the accompanying glory) over Israel.s oppressor and he totally chickens out. From v. 8: “Barak said to her, „If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go..” The big, tough military commander wants Deborah to come hold his hand while he leads the troops. So now, in addition to the political and religious leader of the people Deborah is a military leader as well. When she responds to Barak she doesn.t miss a beat. She agrees to go with him, but assures him that he won.t receive any glory for the upcoming victory. Because he wanted the help of a woman, it would be a woman into whose hands God would deliver the enemy general.

Now, on occasion, there are verses in the Bible that initially don.t seem to make a lot of sense. Have you ever encountered one of these? Verse 11 of chapter 4 fits in this category. Right after we read about Barak and Deborah getting the army of Israel in place for battle, we get this: “Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh.” Then in v. 12 we launch straight into the actual battle scene. Seems a bit out of place, does it not? Well, hang on to that verse for just a minute, the writer of this story knows what.s going on. The battle itself was glorious and went just as God promised it would. The Israelite army wrecked havoc on Sisera.s 900 chariots. Actually, the text says that God won the battle. This is not to say that God did the physical fighting, but to give Him full credit for the victory. Listen to the poetic rendering of this from chapter 5:19: “The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent of Kishon swept them away, the ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might! Then loud beat the hoses. hoofs with the galloping, galloping [daharot, daharot in Hebrew—wonderfully onomatopoetic] of his steeds.” What an incredible image! Even the heavens are pictured as opposing Sisera and his oppressive forces. Then, when it was clear that his forces had been overcome, Sisera chickened out like Barak and took off running. He ran until he came to the tent of Jael. Jael is another important woman in this story. She was married to a man named Heber the Kenite—the same guy introduced back in v. 11.

You see, Heber had basically left the people of Israel by choice and Jael was not an Israelite name. Sisera ran to Heber because, as the second half of v. 17 points out: “there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.” So Sisera, who had been oppressing Israel for twenty years, flees the scene of his army.s defeat to the tent of the wife of a former Israelite who was now a friend to his king. Oh, irony of ironies. Where Barak once sought the aid of a woman, he now gets it in a most unexpected way. Jael welcomes Sisera into her home and puts on the Ritz for him. He simply asks for water and a place to hide from Barak who had taken off after him in hopes of attaining the glory of killing him. Hear it from the text in v. 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 a movie the music would have just turned sinister and Jael would have given a mischievously knowing glance to the camera.] So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. And he 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.”.” Got the scene? Everything seems to be going great for Sisera right now. His friend.s wife has generously sated his thirst and hidden him completely from view. Let me finish the story from 5:24: “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed [that.s really high praise in case you were wondering]. He [Sisera] asked water and she gave him milk; 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….So may all your enemies perish, O Lord! But your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might. And the land had rest for forty years.” Thus ends the story of Deborah, judge and prophetess of Israel.

So, what can we say at the end of this story? It.s certainly a violent end to a violent man. Chariots were not used so much as a first-affront weapon back then, but rather after the enemy had been provoked into fleeing, they were used to chase after the enemy and kill them from behind as they ran. Presumably, with 900 chariots, one could kill a lot of fleeing soldiers. Well, violent ending aside, this is a story of God delivering His people from a foreign oppressor. How did He do it? It certainly wasn.t through the cowardly, glory-hound Barak. It wasn.t simply because Israel.s army managed to defeat Sisera.s dreaded chariots with God.s help. It was through the spiritual leadership of Deborah and the faithful actions of both her and Jael. Jael.s actions can be pronounced faithful, by the way, not simply because she killed Sisera, but because she demonstrated her fidelity to the people of Israel and what God was doing for and in them in spite of her husband.s betrayal of his own people. Jael stands in the line of the various non-Israelite biblical characters who turned from the false ways of their people in favor of the true ways of God.s people. All of these characters, by the way, are women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Jael. Boiling this down a bit, if we want to be in this same tradition of standing against the oppressive forces of this world—all a result of sin—in favor of the lasting freedom of the kingdom of God, the example of Deborah is a pretty good one to follow: lead spiritually, act faithfully. Such a lifestyle will put us right in line with another famous deliverer to whose work the spiritual leadership and faithful actions of Deborah were a pointer: Jesus. Christ.s ministry on earth and work on the cross were the ultimate examples of spiritual leadership and faithful actions. They provided the way for all people to be saved from oppression—the oppression of sin. They also opened the way for us to enter into the kingdom of God which is where such spiritual leadership and faithful action are the norm rather than the Spirit-led exceptions. The kingdom of God is the only kingdom on earth that will never devolve into tyranny because it.s not made of earthly stuff. If we want to help make His kingdom the reality in this oppressive world, then two of the things we need to do are these: lead spiritually, act faithfully.

So how do we do this? How do we truly incorporate spiritual leadership and faithful actions into our lives? Remember what I said spiritual leadership is. Usually when we hear the word “leadership” we think of big, important positions. Or else we think of tightly controlled positions reserved for a few folks who have the right gift-set. By this mindset we feel that we have safely excused ourselves from needing to worry about the weight of leadership. And indeed, leadership, when done right, is a weighty role. Leaders are responsible for those who follow them. Most of us don.t want that kind of responsibility. But think about this. Yes, there is without a doubt a spiritual gift of leadership that God gives to some of His children so that they can take special leadership positions in the church in order to oversee the ministry and to make sure it goes in the right direction. Yet if we claim to be followers of Christ, then we are filled with the same Spirit who empowered His ministry, the same Spirit in fact who empowered the ministry of Deborah. The charge given by Christ to all who are filled with this Spirit is to make disciples of all peoples. This means leading them in following Christ, in entering and inhabiting His kingdom. In other words, as followers of Christ we have a responsibility for the people around us who are still under the oppression of sin. There are a lot of different ways to lead, but one of the simplest is to set a good example and then call others to follow it. Well, what better example could we set than that which Christ set during His time on earth? This is the essence of this spiritual leadership: being fully devoted followers of Christ such that others see this example and are led to follow it. The faithful actions piece of this freeing combination is to act on this spiritual leadership. With this leadership-backed-by-deeds God truly frees people from the oppressive forces of sin in this world and brings them safely to the spacious and gracious lands of His kingdom. And let.s build for just a minute on where we.ve been in our journey through great Old Testament stories so far. We must, before anything else, have a great faith in God like Abraham. We must then persevere in this faith regardless of the opposition we face. In order to deal sufficiently with this opposition, we must be shrewd in the ways of both the world and the kingdom. This shrewdness, though, will only mean anything when backed by a life of integrity. A life of integrity, however, takes a great deal of courage. From this foundation we can spiritually lead those of our people who do not know the freeing ways of the kingdom of God to enter into this awesome reality. Deborah did this for the people of Israel. Let me ask you then, where is your Israel? Home? Work? School? Does the oppression of sin exist there? Do you want to see the people you love who are under such oppression freed? Here.s what you must do: lead spiritually, act faithfully. Just as it took both the Declaration of Independence and the leadership of our Founding Fathers to lead this nation to be the freest, most prosperous the world has ever known, after we have declared our freedom from the oppressive forces of sin currently ruling over this world, we must lead (by following Christ) others to the kingdoms free land that they may also enjoy real freedom. So, my friends, I urge you again: answer the call of Christ-like character: lead spiritually, act faithfully.