When I was a child, I was deathly afraid of fire. I’m not sure what started, it; perhaps it had something to do with the raging furnace that consumed a barn on my parent’s property as I lay blissfully asleep when I was six years old, but I cannot be sure. What I do know is that well into my teens, I had an irrational, all-consuming fear that one day, I might be stuck in a housefire and that it would be up to me, and me alone, to escape.
To deal with my anxiety, I came up with all sorts of coping mechanisms. First of all, I memorized every possible escape route out of our house. Fire in the bathroom? I could run down the hallway. Fire in the hallway? No sweat; deliverance was just a quick jump out the side window into the orchard in our backyard. The hardest work was trying to figure out what I would take with me. Could I carry all of my photographs AND my diary AND my toy horses? How much time would I have? Would a suitcase filled with stuffed animals fit out the window, or would I have to bid farewell to them as I slipped into the night?
When my parents offered me the opportunity to move into my very own room upstairs, I wanted desperately to accept. But I also knew that it limited my options for escape in the event of a fire. And so I agreed to spend one “trial” night upstairs, to see how it might feel. I lasted a few hours. Images of smoke pouring under the door and nowhere for me to escape overwhelmed any sense of excitement. And so I tiptoed back downstairs and into the room I shared with my little sister. Ultimately, it would be my little brother who would move upstairs, while I stayed firmly ensconced in my bedroom with its multiple egresses.
Fear has a powerful way of taking hold of our lives. And while fear can be entirely irrational, more often our most deep-seated anxieties are borne out of real experiences. The death of a loved one to Alzheimers that leaves us fearful of knowing whether we too are carriers. The experience of debt that leaves us pinching every penny out of fear that we might not have enough. A year on food stamps that leaves us paralyzed with anxiety that we cannot provide for our family. Our experiences of pain, of lack, of isolation carry forward into our experience of the world, and, for better or ill, color our vision.
The People of God in our Hebrew text this morning knew what it meant to live in the aftermath of fear. The book of Judges, you see, is the story of what happened after Exodus. And if you remember, Exodus is the story of God’s people fleeing from slavery in Egypt. After forty years of wandering, forty years of uncertainty and of learning what it meant to be God’s FREE people, the Israelites FINALLY arrive in the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. A land known to its own inhabitants as Canaan, the land of merchants and abundance. The book of Joshua tells their arrival as though they swept through like a whirlwind, the power of God quickening their hand as they brushed aside heathens and idolators to make space for God’s people to flourish in peace.
But our reading today comes from the book of Judges, and it tells a slightly different story. The people of God have settled in Canaan alright, but they aren’t the only ones who live there. Instead, they are surrounded by other people, cultures, and civilizations, some of whom think that the Israelites look like they would make excellent slaves for their fields, wives for their men, and converts for their own religions. Which means that their way of life is continually threatened by the military aspirations of the foreign people around them, and they often must pick up their weapons to defend their right to exist as free people in the Promised Land. Every fight is life or death—for the life of freedom that they dreamed of, against the death of return to slavery and oppression.
The authors of Judges make sense of their rough landing by explaining that the people experience hardship because “they have done what is evil in God’s sight.” Which is to say, they have struggled with remaining faithful to God in a culture where fidelity to God has no value.
When we meet them this morning, the struggling people of God have found their worst fears realized—living in Canaan, and have found themselves slaves once more, this time to King Jabin, whose name roughly translates as “the Wise Guy.” We learn that for twenty years the people have been cruelly mistreated by Jabin’s commander Sisera, or Hawkeye. This may have something to do with the weapons of war at his disposal—900 chariots of iron, built for no purpose but battle and oppression and violence.
Remember that in the time of the Judges, Moses had long passed. There were no kings (yet) for Israel to turn to for help, so they entrusted their safety to judges, men and women of faith who acted as intermediaries between God and the people. And in this instance, God raises up the first female Judge, the prophetess Deborah, whose name means Honey Bee. Considering that the people had followed Moses to a place that they called the land of milk and honey, and considering that honey and milk were often understood as “superfoods” that provided great strength and power to overcome any hardship, it would have been incredibly symbolic to have a priestess raised up whose name implied that she could provide honey for the people.
And Deborah does not disappoint. According to Judges, she sends a great warrior named Barak, or Lightning, to draw Hawkeye’s army out into battle. It would not have been lost on the people of Israel that Deborah instructs Barak to go to the Mountain of Sanctification. Or that Sisera would meet the Israelites at the River of Ensnarement. The very names of the places God sent them assured the people that there was nothing to fear—God would deliver them.
And deliver them God does, but not in the way that is expected. Barak assumes that he will be the hero, but Deborah is quick to correct him—deliverance, she says, will not come on the battlefield. Instead, it comes in the most unsuspecting of ways.
Barak turns the heels of Hawkeye’s army, but it turns out that Lightning isn’t quick enough to capture Hawkeye. Hawkeye flees to a land that he expects will shelter him—to the town of Sleepy Oaks. Sounds like a pretty safe place to run to. There he finds the tent of a man whose name means “Mr. Charming,” a man who got tired of the city where his people dwelled and moved to the suburbs to get a little peace and quiet and security. His wife Yael, whose name means Mountain Goat and likely implies that she is quick on her feet, invites him in, hides him under her rug where he falls asleep while she plots her people’s revenge.
According to one ancient rabbi, Yael induces Hawkeye’s weariness by “inviting him in” and seducing him until he was exhausted, thereby “taking one for the team,” as it were. Personally, I would have to imagine that running for your life would tire a brother out. What we know is this: Hawkeye falls asleep under the rug, Yael pulls out a tent peg, and before you know it, the commander known for his ability to spot danger from miles away is undone by a woman and a piece of wood. The rest of the story is all but over—the Israelites rout the fleeing troops, King Smarty-Pants Jabin is destroyed, and once more the Israelites are liberated from slavery and free to serve their God.
Until the next time the people fail to be faithful to God. Throughout Judges, the people will try and fail to be the people that Moses helped them to become in Exodus. It turns out that it is one thing to follow God in the desert; it is another to obey the Lord when you are surrounded by people who couldn’t give a hoot which God you serve.
Which is why I think that the book of Judges is particularly useful to us. For all the talk that America is a Christian nation, the truth is that we are surrounded by a culture that simply doesn’t give a hoot what we believe in. Our church community often looks very different from the community that we live in. And the values that we are taught as Christians often don’t seem to have a place or are in tension with the values we encounter in our schools, in our work, and even sometimes in our marriages.
If we take our faith seriously, it can sometimes feel as though we are under assault. And if we are struggling or unsure of what it means to follow Jesus, it is easy to blink and find ourselves lost in translation. And when the going gets tough, sometimes we might wish that we could just sweep all the temptations away. It would be easy to fantasize about a world like Joshua’s, where everyone agrees with us, where our enemies are easily defeated, and where we are free to practice our religion and our way of life in peace and without struggle.
But that isn’t the real world. The real world looks a whole lot more like Judges, and we need to figure out how to survive here.
We need to be reminded that, for as long as there have been people worshipping God, there have been people struggling with what that means. There was never a perfect moment when everything was easy. Not during Judges, and certainly not when Jesus walked this earth. We need to be reminded that there has always been a cost to worshipping the Lord—we will feel out of place in the culture, we will find ourselves at odds with what our neighbor is doing. Because the truth is that the world is a violent, dangerous place, full of suffering and struggle and pain, often levied by the powerful against the powerless.
But our God calls us to imagine it otherwise. In our reading from 1 Thessalonians this morning, Paul encourages struggling Christians in Thessalonica to answer the weapons of this world by “putting on their spiritual armor.” Like the ancient Israelites, Paul recognizes that the world is a dangerous place for a people who proclaim peace in the name of Jesus Christ, and the only way we can hope to persevere is by arming ourselves. But he isn’t talking about offensive weapons—no swords or crossbows here. Instead, he encourages the people of Jesus to put on defensive armor—the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” Somehow, Paul is convinced that faith, love and hope are enough to defend us from are deepest, darkest fears.
It seems absurd. How can faith, love, and hope protect us against real violence, real darkness, real pain?
The answer to that, I think, can be seen in the witness of the countless doctors, nurses, and faithful people who have risked their lives to fight Ebola, armed with nothing but their gifts for healing, their faith that they can make a difference, their hope that Ebola will soon be a memory, and their love for the people whom they serve. They, like so many other helpers in this world, trust Paul’s words, that this armor is enough.
Faith, Hope, Love—this is the fertile ground from which faithful resistance can take root. This is the place from which the light which casts out darkness shines. This is the moment where God’s Kingdom breaks through.
Let us remember this lesson as we prepare to enter the holiday season. For we dwell in a world that would love to enslave us by tricking us into believing that all that matters this season is how much food is on the table and how many dollars were spent under the tree. This world would have us believe that all that matters is that which glitters, but we know the truth. What matters is the Kingdom of God. What matters is the good news of the Gospel—of peace, and justice, and enough for all people.
Fear not, for God is with us.