Sermon: Proper 28A
Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few weeks ago, a group of us were looking at today’s lesson from the book of Judges, and someone at the table asked why this lesson was even in the lectionary for today. I gave a rather flippant answer; it went something like, “Because . . . Deborah.” Now it’s true that I like to see the women of the Bible highlighted by the lectionary. But even I must admit that that shouldn’t be enough to earn this particular reading a place in the lectionary. So why is this reading in there?
The answer, I must admit, is I don’t know.
I could blame my lack of answers on two handy excuses. One of my sermon prep days was eaten up by a lunch in Valparaiso that I forgot about until the morning of. The second of my sermon prep days was eaten up by a case of food poisoning that I probably got at that lunch. But the truth is, I probably wouldn’t have figured out why this particular section of Judges is in the lectionary anyway.
But I did find out one very interesting thing: this is the only reading from Judges in the entire three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. In other words, this is the only reading from Judges that you will ever hear on Sunday morning.
This shouldn’t be particularly surprising, because Judges is . . . well, disturbing at times. It’s full of illicit sex and violence. It’s full of religious conflict and war. It’s often politically incorrect, by today’s standards. The main characters are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot—and that’s putting it kindly.
Funny enough, when I did some research on why Judges is so ignored by so many Christian denominations, I also found a lot of people claiming that the book of Judges is irrelevant to us and to our lives.
So, let me get this straight. Judges depicts a time full of illicit sex and violence, religious conflict and war, political incorrectness, and leaders that are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot (putting it kindly). Sure—that’s not at all relevant to our situation today. [profound eye roll] Folks, I don’t know why the creators of the lectionary included this exact section from Judges, but I do know that if we want to know how God acts and what God does during times full of illicit sex and violence, religious conflict and war, political incorrectness, and leaders that are more than a little questionable and morally ambiguous, then we should be studying the Book of Judges. It has something to teach us.
Add to this the fact that Judges also depicts a people intent on worshipping other gods, and it definitely has something to teach us. We might not worship other gods per se, but we certainly worship—or at least put our faith in—other things, things other than God. Things like money, leisure, capitalism, comfort, security, a political party, and technology. Yes, Judges definitely has something to teach us.
So I’m about to do a rather strange thing and use our specific reading from Judges today to address the book as a whole, and what it teaches us about how God acts and what God does during troubling times. Because, you know, we won’t hear anything else from Judges on a Sunday morning ever, so we might as well address the whole thing, right?
But first, a little background is in order.
If you’ve been coming to church this year, and if you’ve been listening to the Old Testament readings, you’ve got most of the background. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. God appeared to a man named Moses in a burning bush and told him to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. There were plagues, and there was the parting of the Red Sea, but the people were finally set free. God formed a special covenant with them, and promised to lead them to a land—the aptly named Promised Land. After much wandering in the wilderness, and under the leadership of Moses’ successor, Joshua, the people entered the Promised Land and settled there, alongside the Philistines and the Aramaean tribes that also lived there. As Joshua had predicted, the Israelites failed to keep their covenant with the Lord, and at the same time often found themselves either threatened or dominated by foreign oppressors.
In other words, the Israelites had made it to the Promised Land, but didn’t live there in perfect freedom. Their disobedience prevented their enjoyment of the promised blessings. And since they weren’t yet a monarchy, they didn’t even have a king to lead them. God was supposed to be their king, but they weren’t faithful to him.
Enter the Book of Judges.
Judges actually tells basically the same story over and over again. In each story, the Israelites do evil in the sight of the Lord. Then, the Israelites are threatened or overcome by foreign oppressors. Next, the people cry out to the Lord to help them. Finally, in his compassion, God raises up a judge from among them, and things are made right again for the Israelites. This cycle is repeated again and again.
It is important here to keep in mind what a judge is really supposed to do. We think of a judge as someone in a black robe making legal decisions. But for the biblical authors, a judge was simply someone who brings justice—who makes things right, who defends the oppressed, who saves the people from their own folly, who recovers the divine promise that seems to have been lost. That means that every time the Israelites screwed things up, the Lord, in his compassion, would send someone who would make things right, defend the oppressed, save the people from their own folly, and recover the divine promise that seemed to have been lost.
And God did this over and over and over again.
Which means, my friends, that this is the way that God works. It’s the way that God worked then, and it’s the way that God works now. We live in a time full of illicit sex and violence, of religious conflict and war. Our leaders are a rather questionable, morally ambiguous lot. We worship and place our faith in people and systems and things instead of fully in God—we depend on them to save us. But into all of this, God is continually at work to bring justice—to make things right, to defend the oppressed, to save us from our own folly, to bring to us the full divine promise that often seems to have been lost. This is how God works. This is what God does.
And God does this even when it’s not entirely obvious. In the book of Judges, there were periods of time in which there were no judges—God seemed to be silent, refusing to bring forth justice and to fulfill God’s promises. But God always heard the people, always remembered his love for them, always kept his covenant, always brought forth justice.
In these post-resurrection times, we know that sin and death have been defeated. We know that the cross was victorious. We know that God is leading us to the Promised Land—to the fullness of the Kingdom. But it’s not always obvious. God can seem strangely absent.
Hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. An earthquake in Mexico. Monsoon flooding in Bangladesh. A mudslide in Colombia. Flooding and landslides in Sierra Leone. Wildfires in California. Terrorist attacks. ISIS. North Korea’s continued missile testing. Racial violence in Charlottesville. A church shooting in Texas. In fact, depending on what you count as a mass shooting, nearly as many mass shootings in the U.S. as days in 2017. The opioid crisis. Domestic violence. Sexual violence. The death of our friends and loved ones. Our very real grief and loss. And that’s just a start to all that is wrong in our world.
My friends, I would never want to respond to any of this with empty religious platitudes, but the Christian hope is hardly a religious platitude. The Christian hope—the hope that begins with the book of Genesis and continues through Judges clear through to the resurrection and then the book of Revelation—is that God is at work through all of it. Setting things right. Defending the poor and oppressed. Saving us from our own folly. Recovering the divine promise that seems to have been lost. When I look at just the past year in our communities, in our country, and in our world, I cannot always see how God is at work. But with the psalmist, I say that my eyes look to the Lord, until he shows us his mercy. Join me in that, my friends. Together, may our eyes look to the Lord, until he shows us his mercy.
The second thing that I would like us to take from the book of Judges is this: God often works with and through those we would least expect.
Look at Deborah, for example. I hate to break it to the biblical authors, but Deborah was a woman! She was a woman, and a prophet, and a judge, and a military leader. All of this, somewhere roughly around the year 1200 BCE! This is astounding! What besides God could have led her to sit under the palm of Deborah, pronouncing judgment? What besides God could have led the Israelites to seek her out for judgment? What besides God could have led her to summon a man—Barak—and to give him military counsel? This was not included in our reading for today, but Barak responds by saying that he won’t go to war unless she goes too! The famous Song of Deborah in chapter 5 says that the chiefs of Issachar came with Deborah, and Deborah is referred to as a mother in Israel. This is a mother as had never been seen!
God worked with and through someone that no one could have expected. And God called the people to respond in faithfulness to this person—this woman!—that they never would have expected!
And she’s not the only judge that wasn’t what one would expect. The first judge, Othniel, was a younger brother in a culture that valued eldest sons. Ehud was a left-handed man at a time when all variation from the norm was held suspect. Gideon was from the weakest clan in Israel and was least in his family, and was kind of a goof who kept questioning God and putting him to the test. Jephtah was the son of a prostitute. And Samson—well, Samson led a rather checkered life. I’ll admit, I do not approve of Samson at all. Yet somehow, God worked with and through all of them. Somehow, God used them to further God’s purposes for Israel.
Which means, first of all, that God can and does work with and through any of us—as long as we cooperate by responding to God’s call. Even if we’re kind of a goof about it.
But it also means that we need to look for God at work in the people that we do not expect. In the women. In the youngest sons. In the left-handed. In the weakest and the least. In the goofs. In the children of prostitutes. In the people of whom we do not approve. In all of our modern-day equivalents of these people. In other words, we need to look for God at work in everyone. You never know who is lending a hand in recovering the divine promise that seems to have been lost. And you know, those of is here in the pews tend to talk about how we need to help the least of these, to treat the least of these with compassion, and we do so with good reason. Jesus does too. But we—we need to go deeper and to be ready to follow the least of these, for God just might be working through them.
So. God is always at work. And God is often working with and through people we’d never suspect, in ways that we would never expect.
‘Cause our God is a weird God, full of surprises. Our God is fond of bizarre plot twists. God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts like our thoughts. And our God is faithful. Our God is making things right, is saving us from our own folly, is fulfilling the divine promise that often seems to have been lost.
You know, my sermons are usually punctuated by anecdotes—stories of my family, of my past or my present, of things that I’ve read about or seen or watched. But there were no anecdotes in this sermon. And the reason is simple. This week, I couldn’t see how God is at work in our broken and sinful world. There were no obvious examples for me. And I couldn’t see how God is working in the people that I wouldn’t expect. No obvious examples there either. But despite the fact that I couldn’t find proof for my assertions, I place my faith in God anyway. In the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Deborah, Ruth, and Esther. In the God of the Judges and of the Kings. In the God of the exiles and of the remnant. I place my faith in Jesus. I place my faith in the Trinity. I place my faith in God’s promises. My eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.
Together, may all of our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.