Does It Take Two or Three to Tango?: Judges 4:1-10

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Sipes on the First Sunday of Lent, Feb. 26, 2012 at Wesley Memorial UMC

This sermon is part of a Lenten sermon series called “Disciple-2-Disciple: Learning from the Great Cloud of Witnesses.” Proverbs 27:17 reminds us that just as “iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” During Sunday morning worship this Lenten Season, Wesley Memorial will learn from several lesser-known disciples in scripture while also hearing witness moments from the disciples of our present congregation. Together during this 40-day Lenten journey Wesley Memorial will learn practical, yet life-transforming lessons from the great cloud of witnesses of the past and present. Our hope is to grow in our faith journey as a church and individual disciples, so that we may see our world truly transformed for Christ. This Sunday we learn from Deborah and Barak in Judges 4:1-10.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a forty-day season of preparation, self-reflection, and growth. It is a journey of transformation, growing closer to God as more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  But I think too often we throw around the word disciple or discipleship without really knowing what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in our world today. If someone who wasn’t a Christian, who didn’t know anything about the church, came up to you and asked you what a disciple is, looks like and does, what would you tell them? I remember a few months ago I asked many people on church council that very question—what is a disciple—and I discovered that is a very hard question for people to answer. But we need to know what a disciple is so that we are able to grow as disciples and so that we can also nurture disciples for the transformation of the world—which is Jesus’ Great Commission for all of his disciples.

Fortunately for us we have a wonderful collection of timeless stories of disciples in the Bible that can teach us what it means to be a disciple in our world today. God wants us to grow in our faith walk as his disciples. God has given us a guide and provided a way for us to grower closer to him, but it is up to you and me to be intentional and deliberate in working on our relationship with God. Again that is what Lent is all about. Lent is a season where we take a good, hard look at ourselves and where we have fallen short as Christ’s disciples, but we don’t stop with simply self-reflection. Lent is a season we open ourselves up to God, so that he can truly transform us from the inside out, making us whole, new and stronger disciples.

Today we begin the journey of Lent with two disciples of the Old Testament whom you may have never heard of, but whose story has a lot to teach us about discipleship today. Their names are Deborah and Barak. Here is the beginning of their story in Judges 4:1-10:

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgement. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.” ’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.’ And she said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.”

So, here we have a woman judge and prophetess at a time in the world when being a woman was hard and definitely didn’t have any benefits. But this woman was called by God to be a prophet, to speak on God’s behalf to God’s people, and she was also called by God to be one of twelve judges, the only woman judge, to hear and settle conflicts among God’s people. But also as prophet and judge it was Deborah’s job to call God’s people to repentance and return to faithfulness.

Our scripture lesson today tells us that “the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Another place in Judges tells us that the problem with the Israelites was that “each person did what was right in his or her own eyes.” Israel was full of corruption. People chose new and false gods to follow, they turned their backs on God, and there was a spiritual void among God’s people. This is a familiar pattern in the lives of disciples in the bible and disciples throughout history. The pattern seems to be: follow God for awhile and then stray, follow God for a while and then turn away, and again follow God for awhile and then do my own thing—does that pattern sound familiar? It does to me; it is way too often the pattern in my life. It is so easy in all the busyness and distractions and demands of our daily lives to fall into this pattern. It is so easy in our world that puts a high value on independence and an emphasis on “me” rather than a collective “we” to feel self-sufficient, to feel like we can do everything on our own, to forget that we need God.

But together Deborah and Barak remind us that none of us are entirely self-sufficient.[1] We may think we can do everything on our own; that is what the Israelites thought, but Deborah reminds the people that first and foremost they need God; they need to return to God, to seek God. Today, we also still need God. Barak and the Israelites probably thought Deborah was crazy for what she was calling them to do. For twenty years the Israelites had been violently oppressed by and lived in fear or King Jabin. In the pit of despair and with no hope at all the Israelites finally cried out to God. God heard their cry, and God sent Deborah to lead his people out of their trouble. God does hear our cries and God rescues. But sometimes our rescue doesn’t always look the way we expect it to look. I don’t think the Israelites thought a woman could lead them out of their troubles. Sometimes our rescue doesn’t always look like what we expect it to; it doesn’t always look like a man emerging from a phone booth in a cape, or a woman with a check for a million dollars in his hand. Sometimes our help from God comes in very unexpected and surprising ways; sometimes our rescue from our problems looks like a woman quietly sitting under a tree in prayer like Deborah. It seems that God likes to upset our expectations and prejudices. God called up a God-fearing woman, Deborah, and Deborah called on Barak to gather 10,000 foot soldiers to fight Jabin’s 900 chariots.

Now, that might not mean anything to any of us today. 10,000 foot soldiers against 900 chariots seem like good odds. But it wasn’t. Jabin’s army actually outnumbered the Israelites by 4,000 soldiers, and not only were the Israelites outnumbered, but Jabin’s army had better technology and far more advanced equipment.[2] For Barak and the Israelites it looked like a hopeless and impossible situation. But Deborah had courageous commitment and trust in God despite the odds. Deborah’s courage eventually inspired Barak, his army and the Israelites against great odds, so that in the end the Israelites were victorious, and the Israelites and their neighbors enjoyed peace for the next forty years. Deborah’s courage came from God, and Godly courage will influence and inspire others to take on and overcome the impossible. Satan uses many tactics to veer us away from the God—but I think he especially likes to do so by bringing seemingly impossible situations into our lives that make us doubt and feel like we have hit rock bottom with no hope at all. But Deborah teaches us that those are the times when we need to cling to God; we need to search for God, cry out to God and trust that God hears our cries and sends help, but we must open our eyes to the unexpected places God is sending help. No situation is too big or small, or too complex or simple for God. As disciples we are called to put our whole faith in God—as Deborah did and as she inspired others to do as well.

But Deborah and Barak’s story and our scripture lesson from 1 Corinthians 12 are all clear that not only do we need God in our lives, but we need the perspectives, strengths, gifts, talents and support of the entire body of Christ. We need others. God created us for relationships—a relationship with him and a relationship with other people. Whether introvert or extrovert, shy or gregarious, God has hardwired us to need him and one another. Deborah, even though she was a judge and a prophetess called by God, needed help and support from others. Deborah called Barak to help her, and Barak had enough humility and sense to ask for Deborah’s help and support when he needed it. Again Deborah, Barak and the Israelites seemed to be in the middle of hard and difficult times with no hope of deliverance. In such seemingly impossible and hopeless situations, God has given us others to make it through those hard times that seem to have no end in sight. Deborah helped Barak and all the Israelites put their faith and trust in God once again. That is what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ. We are called to help one another on our faith journey. Deborah and Barak remind us today that there is strength in community.

Hiram and I have been taking ballroom dance lessons, and I was thinking about Deborah and Barak as Hiram and I were practicing our steps in our kitchen. There is a cliché that says “it takes two to tango,” but really after learning steps for the tango and the rumba,  I think it takes three people. I know for us, it takes me, Hiram and our dance teacher. We wouldn’t even know where to begin to dance without our dance teacher. She helps us learn the steps; she takes turns leading us through our steps; week after week she makes us better dance partners. Randy Maddox, one of my favorite Wesleyan Theologians, says that God invites us to dance with him in this life. We can choose to join God in his dance, or we can choose to refuse, but if we refuse that does not deter God from asking us over and over again to dance with him. Because sometimes in this dance of life with God we miss a step or two. In fact the Greek word in the New Testament for sin literally means to “misstep.” Sometimes we misstep, we take our eyes off God and we lose our place in the dance, or we try to lead the dance or we decide to sit the dance out for awhile, but God has given us stories of those in scripture and stories of disciples throughout history, and God has given us Godly women and men in our lives to help us learn how to be better dance partners with God, to encourage and support us, to nurture us, to help us grow.

Our first lesson during this journey of Lent is that 1.) We need God, and 2.) We need each other. Deborah reminds us to put our whole faith in God, to give our whole hearts and selves to God. And together Deborah and Barak remind disciples today that we are called into a community of faith. Our faith in God is not to be lived out in private, but to be shared with and in and outside of God’s family.

As we begin out Lenten journey, we begin with two very important reminders—we need God and we need each other. This Lenten season of self-reflection and discipline and return to God is not an easy journey to make—especially if you try to do it alone. Like the Israelites in Deborah and Barak’s story, there are some hard truths about ourselves that we must face and change. Throughout Lent it will be easy at times to “cheat” on those things we give up or take on, but just as God promised to be with Deborah and Barak as they faced their impossible situation and just as Deborah promised to go with Barak—God and our church family walks with you on your Lenten journey. So remember when things get tough this week, or throughout this Lenten season that God is with and we, your church, are with you. Amen.

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