God First (A Sermon on Judges 5:1-13)

A sermon given at Colonial Church on October 4, 2020. You can listen to the sermon below or you can watch the service on YouTube. You can also watch the Kids’ Sermon HERE.

Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:

“When locks are long in Israel,
    when the people offer themselves willingly—
    bless the Lord!

“Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
    to the Lord I will sing,
    I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.

“Lord, when you went out from Seir,
    when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled,
    and the heavens poured,
    the clouds indeed poured water.
The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai,
    before the Lord, the God of Israel.

“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
    in the days of Jael, caravans ceased
    and travelers kept to the byways.
The peasantry prospered in Israel,
    they grew fat on plunder,
because you arose, 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?
My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel
    who offered themselves willingly among the people.
    Bless the Lord.

10 “Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys,
    you who sit on rich carpets
    and you who walk by the way.
11 To the sound of musicians at the watering places,
    there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord,
    the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

“Then down to the gates marched the people of the Lord.

12 “Awake, awake, Deborah!
    Awake, awake, utter a song!
Arise, Barak, lead away your captives,
    O son of Abinoam.
13 Then down marched the remnant of the noble;
    the people of the Lord marched down for him against the mighty.

 Judges 5:1-13


As we move into a time of reflection on the passage that you just heard, would you pray with me? 

YHWH God, we give you thanks this morning for so many things, for the lives that we lead, for the breath that we breathe. God, we give you thanks that you have been at work in the midst of people’s stories, stories just like ours, since the beginning of time. So God, by your Spirit, might you grant us faith and hope and courage enough to move more deeply into this story and find you, that we might be changed and transformed. And that we might indeed be the church. Meet us, oh, Christ. It’s in your name we pray. 

Amen.


Well, good morning! It’s really good to be with you this morning. Today, since the book of Judges, which is a little bit more of a story, I thought we’d join together here in the Meetinghouse for the story time, also known as preaching.[1]

This fall, we’re going through a sermon series exploring what it means for us to “Be the Church.” As we were talking about what we wanted to bring ourselves and our whole community into through the series, we thought, “Let’s move more deeply into God’s story as it’s told in the Bible, and thereby, through that encounter, to find ourselves and the story of our lives and the story of this time, so that we can wrestle together with what does it mean to be the church now.” Indeed, what does it mean to be God’s people, people shaped by these stories, formed by the Spirit, transformed by the love of God in Christ?

Over these last few weeks, we’ve begun to move into the text. We started off with, “In the beginning…” from Genesis, and then last week Jeff Lindsay brought us into the book of Exodus, as we’ve explored what it means to be a people of the promise, what it means to be a covenant people, a people who are brought into freedom and then invited to live a particular way of life.

Since we’re not doing a 66-week sermon series (which is how long it would take us if we were going to hit all the books of the Protestant Bible), we’re going to skip over a few of the books. So to date we’ve breezed through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua…to get to our book for today: Judges. What’s happened so far in these stories is, after Genesis, which is the story of this really nomadic people who are encountered by YHWH God, they begin to move into the land of promise but then there’s famine and by the end of Genesis they are enslaved in Egypt. Then, as Jeff talked about, in the book of Exodus, that’s where YHWH hears their cries of a people who’ve been enslaved for 400 years to bring them out of slavery, into freedom, into a land of promise.

And so in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the people are traveling to the promised land, trying to get to the place of freedom, trying to figure out what it means to be a people who live freedom. And then, at the very end of those first five books, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch, their main leader, Moses, dies. And they are about to move into the land. And right before the book of Judges, in the book of Joshua, Joshua becomes their new leader, the person who brings them into the land. And if you’ve read the book of Joshua you know it’s a triumphant a story of them moving into the land and conquering it…everything’s great and wonderful and amazing and also complicated, of course.

And then we come to the book of Judges. The book of Judges tells us a little bit more about the people as they’re seeking to figure out what it means to follow YHWH, to be a covenant people, meaning a people bound themselves to this God, not to any other king, but only to YHWH. They are asking questions such as: what does that mean for how we live in the land and how we understand ourselves? That’s why I asked the question to the kids during the children’s sermon: who’s your favorite superhero, because Judges is very much a story of the heroes of the people of Israel as they move into the land.

So, how about you? Who is your favorite superhero?

Now, I know even if you’re 80, there’s still some kid left in you, and maybe sometimes you wish you could be a superhero, too. So who is yours? Maybe it was as a kid, you wanted to be Superman or Batman. Maybe some of you really liked Cat Woman. She’s not technically a superhero, but she does have a cool costume, right? 

In so many ways, the book of Judges is a story of heroes. For this community, these leaders, these judges, they function as heroes for the people as they try to make sense of who they are and are called to be. Originally, these tales of the judges would have been tales told around campfires, taught to children, “Hey, kids, sit around. Let me tell you the tale of Deborah.” Or they would be shared with the young emerging leaders of the community, as they would get together and talk about Gideon and what happened with his son, when really things didn’t go well.

Communities have always had these kinds of stories: the stories of their heroes, the stories of people who saved them. Hero stories form us. They invite us to believe in worlds that are beyond that which we’re experiencing now. I know for me, that’s so much of what I love about Wonder Woman. The sense of the lasso of truth will prevail. I mean, sometimes, some days, I really just wish I could wrangle people with the lasso of truth and they would have to tell me (and all of us) the truth. Namely, I think that frequently about politicians. Am I right?

Heroes tell us about who we are and who we long to be in the world. And similarly, these judges were important for the community as they sought to make sense of their world and themselves. Now, though these stories existed in the oral culture of this community as they moved from being a nomad clan in Genesis to an enslaved people in Egypt to being a free people who have arranged themselves very much like a modern-day chieftain system, according to the 12 tribes. They’ve now moved into the land but there are other people in this land, too, and the people of Israel are trying to figure out how to live in the land as a people following YHWH. They are wrestling with what it means to become a people whose first and most central command was to love God. “You shall have no other gods before me,” is the first commandment that Moses brings down to the people from Mt. Sanai. And here in the book of Judges, they are wrestling with, what does that look like and does that mean for us to fulfill the command in our lives as we live in the land?

Over time, these oral traditions ended up being collected and gathered and written down to become what we know in Hebrew as this book that’s named Judges. This book is about “the ones who judge,” it is the story of the ones who judge. Many commentators believe that the form of this manuscript as we have it now was constructed and compiled when the people were in exile in Babylon, thus serving as a way for the people to make sense of their captivity. 

So if we fast forward from the time that the Judges rule, the people are in the land originally as a loosely organized chieftain system, and over time they move into a unified nation, ruled by kings. Over time the north and the south split and then other geo-political forces come into play and first the Northern Kingdom and later the Southern Kingdom are overrun by the Babylonian empire. And you see in Judges, a pattern to the stories of the ones who judge, which are believed to aid the people in exile as they make sense of what God is up to and where is God in their midst while they are in captivity.

And so the stories follow a very similar pattern: 1) As the people of God who are supposed to be covenanted to God first, they turn away from God. They don’t do what God asked of them to do in the land. 2) As they go their own way, they’re overtaken over by some other outside forces who oppress them. Their freedom is erased, and according to the text, it’s a punishment for their turning away from Yahweh. 3) They then cry out to God to rescue them. 4) Then YHWH, as YHWH always does, responds to the people, rises up a judge from amongst them, who rescues them. 5) For a period of time there is peace and the people live as YHWH intends for them, where God is again the center. 6) And then, as people are wont to do, they forget, and so the cycle begins again.

And so if you take this book and start to read it … I will say, this is one of those times where I picked this to preach on and then I was like, “Really? Why did I pick this text!?” Because there’s a lot of violence in Judges which makes it really hard to read.  But if you start reading it you will notice that in the intro there is an accounting (that differs from Joshua) of what happens as the people move into the land. This runs from chapter 1 through 2:5. If you have your Bible, you can skim along with me. Then there’s a second introduction, a little bit more theological in nature, wrestling with what is happening when the people break the covenant that they have made with YHWH. This runs from 2:6 through 3:6. Then the major portion of the book is filled with the accounts of the stories of the heroes, the judges. There are six major judges and seven minor judges…thirteen in all. Their stories are recounted through chapter 16.

Now, when I was growing up, I only knew one of the stories from Judges: Samson. He’s the really strong guy with really long hair. He was married to Delilah, and she was like real, real bad. Moral of the story, ladies: don’t be a Delilah. Well, spoiler alert, but Delilah like tricks Samson, shaves his head (which is his secret superpower), and then the Philistines, they capture him and put him in chains. And then Samson is placed under like pillars, maybe like the ones here in the Meetinghouse, except for maybe closer because if he were in the Meetinghouse he would be Inspector Gadget length arms. Well, his hair grows back, and he cries out to YHWH. And of course, YHWH restores him and his superpowers, and then Samson, boom! He pushes down the pillars, the building collapses and the Philistines die, and Samson dies a sacrificial hero’s death…so yay! That’s the only one I know from when I was a kid. If you grew up in church, did you learn the stories of the judges when you were a kid? If so, which one(s)? What were the lessons you were taught about them? Think about that for a minute and reflect on how that shaped you.

For me, I only learned this one and from it I internalized that women were tricksters and untrustworthy. I’ve heard sermons to beware of the sexual prowess and seductive powers of women. Clearly, godly men were at risk. Thus, I felt a lot of shame and wished I could be godly like Samson.

But there are actually 13 different stories in this book about these different judges who play out the pattern of the people: forgetting about YHWH, sinning and turning away from YHWH, crying out to YHWH. A new judge is appointed to bring them back into right relationship with YHWH. I’ll come back to this in a minute. 

Then, at the end of the book, from chapter 17 through 21, the story gets really, really dark. It’s really painful. Many people think that the reason for this is that the book of Judges is actually trying to argue for the role and the necessity of having a monarchy in Israel. This is argued for because, as it says at the end of the book of Judges, over and again: “In those days, Israel had no king. Everyone did as they saw fit.”

So many scholars will argue, that the inclusion of 17-21 in the written text is because the editors was making the case for the monarchy. That by telling the failing of the judges and the devolving situation in the land as it descends into anarchy people would think, “Hey, we should really get a king because if you don’t get a king, it’s real, real bad.” But I think if we take a step back, if we want to “Be the Church” and root ourselves in the story of God and God’s people, we want to come to texts like these to look for where God is at in this text. And one of the central truths that we see throughout the Bible is that at the very core of all things is always supposed to be YHWH, YHWH first. 

Our relationship with God is supposed to shape who we are, and so that the call and the cry at the end of Judges, I’d argue, is best understood not as an apology for a monarchy, for a king here on earth to save us (even if that’s what the editors intended and what some people in Israel desired), NO—for what God has always wanted is not for kings to save us, but for us to look and to turn and to remember that our call to be the people of promise is to live in covenant faithfulness, and relationship with God. And that the real problem is what happens when we look to heroes and kings and princes and politicians to save us, and we forget that central and always for every one of our stories is supposed to be the call to follow the ways of God.

God first. God at the center of all things.

And at its core, I think Judges is a book that reminds us that when we forget that YHWH is at the center, things go real bad. When we forget we slaughter each other. When we forget, we think we need to be the superheroes, like our superheroes in our movies do, right? They kill a lot of people and are flawed. But that’s not what God is inviting us to! To follow YHWH and to be a people of promise is to know the freedom of the land that was intended for all of us.

To be the church is to put YHWH first.

Today you heard part of the story of one of these Judges. It’s the story I didn’t know when I was a kid and maybe you have or maybe you haven’t heard it before. It’s the story of Deborah. Deborah, in chapter four and chapter five, is one of the major six judges who rules in the land. As she comes into power, which is unusual even back then, just like it would be today for a woman to have such power. Of all of the judges, only one of them is a woman who is named. We’re told that she’s actually a woman of fire, and she judges as people come to her to ask her to figure out disputes between the people, and also she’s a leader in the community. There’s also a military ruler, Barak, and he is called by God to help to free the people. But when Deborah tells him this Barak is basically like, “Hey, yeah, that’s nice that you like think YHWH told you that and everything, but I’m a little afraid about it.”

And so Deborah says, “Okay. Be afraid. I’ll go with you. And by the way, you’ll help, but God’s going to actually deliver the people through the hands of another woman, a woman named Jael.” In this story, the people are indeed delivered. Jael helps to free them. God shows up. And in chapter five, we have parts of what the commentators think is one of the most ancient poems in the whole of the biblical text. We have that in our culture too… think about that old rhyme about Paul Revere. You know it: “One if by land, two if by sea, and I on the opposite shore shall be.” This poem functioned for Israel like the tale of Paul Revere’s ride does: poems and songs have always functioned within communities to help us remember the stories of our heroes and victories, and in chapter five, this song, this poem is a poem in which Deborah, with Barak at her side, are calling out and reminding the people of the faithfulness of YHWH. They’re singing the song and cry of freedom to inspire the people remember that at the center of all things is supposed to be YHWH.

This story invites us, at its core, to come back to seeking to as a people who put YHWH first, who put God at the center of our lives. Judges calls us not to live as if there is no king, as if there were no God who is the God of all of us, but to live under the reign of the ONE TRUE LORD and KING, to turn our whole selves and our lives back to the God who is the God of the promise for all of us.

That’s why one of the things I love about our Bible and the part of the cannon that we won’t go to next is Ruth. The beginning of the book of Ruth starts off by saying, “In the time when the judges ruled,” and then proceeds to tell a beautiful, completely different story from the horrors of what is happening in the book of Judges. And likewise, we, as a people, have the opportunity to, with our lives, tell a story not about a people who live as if there is no king, nor to be a people who look for kings or presidents to save us, but to be a people who live in hesed faithfulness with YHWH. Do you remember when I preached about this last spring?  The book of Ruth is employed in the Jewish community during Shauvot as a testament to the faithfulness of YHWH and of the faithfulness of YHWH’s servants, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.[2]

In the time of Judges, another world is possible. 

We, too, are called to be a people who, no matter what is happening in our land, no matter the kings or the judges, are a people who live in faithfulness and in response to YHWH. We don’t have to be superheroes who crush our enemies and vanquish empires in order to defeat the rule of evil in our world. No! That’s never how the gospel works, right? 

To “Be the Church,” to be the people who follow YHWH has always been something a little less like superhero power and more like Spirit. This is why I love when we get to II Timothy 3 it says, “All scripture is God-breathed and useful to teach and instruct us.” Because in that way, I think these stories in Judges become an invitation for us to look for the breath of God, to look for the Spirit bubbling up in the midst of the stories of people who are doing their best at times and sometimes just really go astray.

Might we be a people who look for that Spirit, who quest after God, who seek to live in view of the reality that it’s not about the superheroes or kings or politicians who we think will save us, but always about YHWH. And might we then align ourselves with God’s good story, a story of promise and faithfulness and love. Might we sit around campfires and dining room tables, telling our children, our emerging adults,  and ourselves not stories of great superheroes, but stories of love, stories of the person who shared the food they had with the poor, stories of the stranger who was welcomed in, stories of grace like we ourselves have known, stories in which God is first, and God is center.

Might we be a church and be the church as a people who live not as if there was no king and just do whatever, but live as a people who re-root and realign and recommit ourselves to living stories of grace and of love and of peace. For indeed, there is one Lord and one king and one ruler and creator of all of us. He is not Caesar. Our one true LORD and King is the Prince of Peace, and his story is a story of love. 

So let us live that story. Let us put God first. Let us be the church.

Amen.


[1] I gave this sermon while sitting down in the meetinghouse, like it was a story.

[2] See: Sara Wilhelm Garbers, “Grace Actually Makes Us Bold,” Sermon Preached at Colonial Church (May 3, 2020): https://sarawg.com/2020/05/03/graceactuallybold/. Also, Sara Wilhelm Garbers, “Grace Actually Restores,” Sermon preached at Colonial Church (May 10, 2020): https://sarawg.com/2020/05/10/gracerestores/.

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