Can we risk for God?

by Lowell Chilton

A sermon for the people of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Mercer Island, WA.

The primary text is Judges 4. Judges 4:1-8, which is from the semi-continuous alternative readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (with verse 8 added), was read in worship along with 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Psalm 90:1-12, and Matthew 25:14-30.

A sermons are primarily a spoken medium, I encourage listening to the audio recording.

This is a confusing time and place to be a Christian. For those who remember the hey-day of American Protestantism, the bursting churches of the post-World War II era, it is easy to be discouraged when we see neighboring congregations close.

As we watch television and see the image of Christianity portrayed there primarily being an image of a culture of strict codes and moral absolutes, which is at odds with our beliefs and practices as Christian, it is easy to be discouraged.

Or to turn away. To turn away from the church all together.

When we feel threatened, when we see the doors closing and the people turning away, how do we respond?

In our first reading today, from the Book of Judges, we find the Israelites in trouble, again. The Book of Judges is a series of stories of the people being in trouble and a leader being raised up to save them.

This time, the people are under the control of King Jabin and are being oppressed. God calls upon Barak, through Deborah. Deborah goes to Barak and tells him that the Lord, the God of Israel wants him to call together an army to throw off Jabin. God is even going to lead Sisera, Jabin’s commander, into the weaker position in the battle and prepare the way for an easy victory by Barak.

And Barak tells Deborah, “Only if you’ll go with me.”

Really? He has been promised the overwhelming support of God, and he refuses without Deborah at his side.

Barak refuses to risk for the Lord unless he has worldly safety.

So next, and this is beyond what we read but we really need the whole story, Deborah says “Okay, but the victory will not be yours, for the Lord will lead hand Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

And we, as the receivers of this text are intended to think that Deborah will therefore be the hero, after all she was already a leader in Israel right? If Barak, the army commander wasn’t going to be the hero, then the hero is supposed to be the person that he won’t go to battle without.

<BIG> AND God has said the victor will be a woman and we only have one woman in this story - so far, but we’ll get to that.

Deborah and Barak call together an army from the tribes of Israel and only two tribes, of the 10, send aid. What kind of support for your brethren is that? This would be like a NATO state coming under direct attack and the other NATO states not participating.

Nevertheless, they march out to the appointed place with ten thousand soldiers. And Sisera shows up with his nine hundred chariots and a great many soldiers. And again Barak hesitates. Deborah has to remind him that God has already prepared the way and primed the fight.

He is reluctant to risk until he is reminded by another that God has already prepared the way.

And what a fight it was. Even with nine hundred chariots, the Canaanite army is overwhelmed and defeated, but the leader Sisera gets away.

He flees into the tent of Jael the Kenite. Now we are told that Jael is married to Heber the Kenite. We are also told that the Kenites were descended from Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. An ancient reader would have recognized the Kenites as being a clan known for their metal-working.

Since the Kenites are metalworkers, Jael is probably near the battle because her husband is there to work on the chariots of Sisera’s army.

So Sisera would expect her to be an ally.

Instead, Jael tricks him into sleeping deeply by giving him milk instead of water and kills him in his sleep with a tent peg and hammer.

She invites him in, gives him something to drink, and kills him.

Why would she do this? Back during the Exodus, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law and the ancestor of the Kenites, shows up after the Israelites defeat the Amalekites and helps Moses set up the system of leadership still in use during this story. Furthermore, although Jethro is not of Israel, he knows the Lord, the God of Israel to be greater than all other gods. It appears that some people of his clan still retain knowledge of the Lord at the time of this encounter, including Jael.

The least likely person in this story is the one who risks the most and is the bearer of God’s grace.

Jael, the wife of the ally of the enemy, not Barak the army commander, does the will of God without being commanded to by God, simply because she knows and love God.

She is willing to risk her safety for the betterment of the world and furthering God’s relationship with God’s people.

God is present throughout this story. God hears the people cry out and appoints a leader, paves the way, and even when the people don’t listen and things go sideways, God is there.

Sometimes we are all a bit like Barak. Sometimes we are like the servant who received the single talent. Sometimes we want to be safe and bunker down and not take risks.

The problem is that when we bunker down, we miss out on the bigger picture. When we try to hold onto the way things were, we get in the way of letting things become the way they could be. We get in the way of the gospel.

Yesterday I was blessed to be present at the Ordination to the Office of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA of one of my Seattle University classmates.

During the service, the preacher, Dr. Sharon Callahan from Seattle University, shared the following story:

One night a mother was trying to put her daughter to sleep and the daughter kept calling her back. “what’s wrong?” said the mother. “I’m scared” said the daughter. “Well God is here and everything will be okay.” The daughter replied “tonight I think I need God with skin.”

That is who Barak needed in our story today, and who Deborah and Jael were, God with skin.

That was who a Jesus was when he was on earth; God with skin.

And sometimes we need God with skin; and our call as members of the body of Christ and as children of God is to be God with skin for one another and to go out and be God with skin in the world.

We are called to step out of our comfort zone and risk grandly for God.

Even better, we have lots of help. We have the whole body of Christ to be God with skin for us when we need it too.

When we come to this table, we gather together the body of Christ and are encouraged in our faith and in our conviction to go out and risk ourselves as we proclaim God’s grace until God comes.

Amen and Amen