Sunday, November 15, 2020

Sermon: "You First!", Judges 4:1-9 (November 15, 2020)


Today’s scripture may be unfamiliar to some of you, but it’s a favorite of many clergywomen because it unapologetically depicts a woman in a position of religious leadership. The CEB calls Deborah a “leader”, but it’s important to realize what this means in context. In its early years, the nation of Israel had no human monarch and was “ruled” exclusively by God. However, we all know how difficult it can be to discern God’s will apart from our own, so in their times of greatest need, God would raise up a leader to help guide the people. Such leaders were less than kings and queens of Israel, but they were significantly more than mere advisors. They were known as Judges, and they essentially led the people as God’s representatives.

Deborah, scripture tells us, was not only one of these judges, but she was also a prophet. So she had just about as much credibility and authority as it was possible to have in those days. Pretty cool, especially considering that the Church banned women from leadership positions for hundreds of years. Anyway, Deborah took her leadership seriously, and unlike other prophets (Jonah immediately comes to mind) she didn’t shy away from difficult messages. At the time that our reading takes place, the Israelites had fallen back into the same old pattern of doing evil, bearing the consequences of their actions, and eventually crying out to God for salvation from the trouble that they’d gotten themselves into. Typical humans. But by this point, God’s apparently decided that they’d suffered for long enough. God commands Barak, a military commander, to go to Mount Tabor with ten thousand soldiers, where the Canaanite army would be delivered into his hands.

And just how did Barak react to this promise of divine assistance? How did this strong, powerful military leader respond? He told Deborah, “I’ll only go if you go!” Now, we could make all sorts of excuses as to why he might answer this way—he was showing respect for Deborah, he wanted her help discerning God’s will on the battlefield, her presence would prove that God was with them, etc. And maybe there was some truth to some of this. But let’s be honest about what was probably the biggest factor here: the guy was scared. He didn’t want to feel like he was facing the enemy by himself.

Fear itself isn’t bad; it’s an evolutionary tool developed to help us avoid things that could harm us. The problem is when fear paralyzes us. When, instead of helping us make smart decisions, it keeps us from making any decisions at all. Fear certainly should have compelled Barak to prepare his soldiers for this encounter, to make sure they were well rested and had strong armor. But it shouldn’t have made him say, “Nuh uh. You first.”

Just as the Israelites have a proud heritage of messing up and then crying out to God for help, Israel’s leaders also have a history of resisting God’s instructions out of fear or doubt—even the really good leaders. Not only did Moses offer a litany of excuses when God called to him from burning bush, but even after he’d successfully led the people out of Egypt, he STILL struggled to overcome his fear. In Exodus 33, after the incident with the Golden Calf, God told Moses that God would no longer travel with the people to the promised land. Apparently, God was fed up with their stubbornness and felt that before too long, God would be driven to destroy them because of it (yikes!). But Moses cried out, “If you won’t go with us, then don’t make us leave this place!” Even though God promised that they’d still make it there safely, the man would rather PERMANENTLY LIVE IN THE WILDERNESS than attempt to enter the Promised Land without God.

Now, based on personal experience, my knowledge of Moses’ personality, and my understanding of human nature, I can state with some authority that our fear of moving forward on our own often stems from a sense of inadequacy. We only feel confident when we know we have someone powerful, like Deborah, leading the way. Who am I to end 20 years of Canaanite oppression? Who am I to lead the people into the promised land? Who am I to be a leader in the Church? Who am I to stand against centuries of systematic injustice? We find it difficult to believe that God would want “little ol’ me” to lead the way.

But the fact that God DOES, in fact, want “little ol’ you” shouldn’t surprise us at all. No one is relegated to the background of God’s plan; EVERYONE is vital to the Kingdom of God. Like a careful gardener, God nurtures each of us in faith for years, decades, even, preparing us to fulfill whatever unique purpose we’re destined for. Yet when the time comes for the harvest, we all cry, “Oh, no; not me!” We’re all convinced that we’re too ugly and misshapen, like those carrots with extra points sticking out at odd angles or peppers with weird extra bumps on them. We’d far prefer to be left in the garden, leaving the higher-quality produce to represent God’s garden.

But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the ugly vegetables, and somebody needs to go first. If every vegetable sees itself as too ugly and refuses to be harvested, what happens? People aren’t fed. In the US, six billion pounds of produce are wasted every year for aesthetic reasons.[1] The farmers or the grocers determine that it’s unsellable, so they either throw it out or leave it to rot—even though it would go a long way towards feeding the hungry.

But God refuses to let people starve just because the metaphorical harvest isn’t up to the world’s standards. God doesn’t accept it when a cucumber says, “I’m not articulate enough; send someone better spoken,” or when a pumpkin says, “I’m too uninformed; send someone more educated.” After all, the goal of a harvest isn’t to acquire a prize-winning squash, but to feed the people. The goal of prophesy isn’t to impress crowds, but to convince them to follow God’s will. The goal of evangelism isn’t to make the best speech, but to share the Good News. If God says you’re good enough to accomplish God’s ends, then you are. If we refuse to go where we’re called, to be harvested when the time comes, the world misses out on the blessings that God plans to provide through you and you alone.

Now, of course we’re not ACTUALLY vegetables, so we DO have a choice. We can allow our fear to hold us back; it certainly won’t stop God from accomplishing God’s ends. God wouldn’t force humanity to suffer indefinitely just because you’re too afraid to be a leader. But make no mistake; your reluctance DOES have consequences, and not just for God’s larger plan. Moses had been in the habit of speaking to God face-to-face, “like two people talking to each other”.[2] When he refused to lead the people to the promised land on his own, it didn’t stop God from fulfilling God’s promise to the Israelites. But God told Moses that from then on, no human would be able to see God’s face and live. Moses’ relationship with God would never be the same. Barak’s hesitance, too, had consequences. Because of his refusal to go into battle alone, he lost the honor of defeating Sisera that God had intended him to have.

There are times that each of us is fearful of taking steps on our own. Maybe we’re afraid to be the only one wearing a mask in the grocery store. Maybe we’re afraid to speak up in the face of injustice. Maybe we’re afraid to tell someone about Jesus’ message of love. The good news is that our fear will never cause God to abandon us…but there WILL always be consequences. Our fear robs us of the gifts that God has planned for us. In Moses’ case, it took away his intimacy with God. In Barak’s case, it took away his place in history. What will it take away in our case? Our health? Our relationship with our neighbor? Our identity? It depends on the situation. But rest assured that we always lose something precious when we allow fear to keep us from making a stand.

Beloved, the battle has come to Barak. The journey into the Promised Land has begun for Moses. The harvest is here. God has called upon you (yes, you) to feed the world, both metaphorically and literally. Don’t wait for someone else to go first. Don’t sit back in self-doubt or fear. You are an essential crop, full of exactly the nutrients the world needs—bumps and all. Even if no one else goes with you, God has chosen YOU to harvest. Don’t question that choice. If you do, everyone loses. Instead, go forth boldly and nourish the world with everything you are, exactly as you are. It’s all God asks of you. And it’s enough. Amen.


[2] Exodus 33:11, CEB.

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