[Underlined text will take you to another sermon]
The pastor really caught me off guard. He was beginning a sermon series on the critical role of women in leadership in the bible.
Now this pastor approached biblical facts as though every single one of us in the congregation were going to show up on national television on a bible trivia show. From the children in Sunday School to the adults in study groups, he was a personal pop quiz generator. You could hear him going down the hall firing away at the children.
"Who was the first king of Israel?"
"How many children did Jacob have?"
"Which church in the book of Revelation is named after a famous American city?"
One of his favorites questions to stick somewhere in the middle of a rapid fire quiz was, "Where in the bible does it say, 'Give me liberty, or give me death? ' "
Strangely, his enthusiasm for the bible carried over into the church. Children actually loved it and many adults actually paid more attention to their bibles just hoping to catch the pastor at his own game.
As a seminary student, I held my own pretty well. But this time, I was stumped.
"There are many women who held critically important positions in the bible," he began, "There was Paul's assistant, the deacon Phoebe. [check] Lydia was a central figure in the beginning of the church in Philippi." [check]
Then the one that stumped me. "And of course you all remember the work of Mrs. Lappidoth."
"Mrs. Lappidoth?" I'm thinking as my mind rifles through the biblical story. "Who in heck is Mrs. Lappidoth?"
Then he reads a verse from our Old Testament lesson.
"At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel."
"Unfair! Unfair!" People are thinking, "Everyone knows who Deborah is." (Well at least a lot of people know about Deborah in the bible.)
Then the key lesson of this exercise came as the pastor said to us, "Our identity as children of God is centered in who we are in the eyes of God more than it is in the eyes of persons around us."
This is a consistent theme in scripture from 1 Samuel: "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." [16:7] ... to the Apostle Paul, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." [Galatians 3:28]
We are no longer the "wife of someone," or the "husband of someone," or the "son or daughter of someone," -- we are the unique, gifted individual God has created. Our identity is in who we are for God and not in who others deem us to be.
The wonderful thing about the story of Deborah is that there is no great explanation of why Deborah was leading Israel, or what exceptions God might have made to the Hebrew patriarchal system so that a woman could lead Israel. It is simply, "Deborah was judging Israel."
"Mrs. Lappidoth" as it turns out is "Deborah," God's messenger and the nation's deliverer when Israel was in mortal danger. No matter who else we may ever be to other persons, we are most who we were created to be when we are fulfilling the purpose God has for our lives. Deborah has gifts of wisdom, teaching and divine insight for a troubled nation.
As for Mr. Lappidoth, we don't know anything about him. He was likely known as "Deborah's husband." Hopefully he too discovered his gifts and used them for the advancement of God's rule in the life of Israel.
Deborah was a leader in Israel at a very rough time. The book of Judges is filled with conflict and violence. Not unlike our own conflicted world in these troubled times. Israel's religious life was very much like the religious life of people throughout the ages. "On again, Off again."
During the time of the judges, in the days before Israel had a king, the nation lived as a loosely federated group of tribes. When a crisis came, someone would be called by God and empowered to help Israel dodge another bullet.
But Israel was like an unfaithful lover. Over and over again the words of our scripture are repeated in the book of Judges, "The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord..." And great trial and struggle would come to Israel's borders. Armies invaded, people were oppressed and lives were lost. The the second, very predictable theme emerges, "Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help..."
And for those who see the Old Testament God as a God of wrath and vengeance, there is a third consistent theme which tells a tale of patience and forbearance with wandering and wicked children that few if any of us could match in our best moments, "But when the Israelites cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the Israelites..."
This is a compassionate God who extends mercy and forgiveness beyond our human understanding. "Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them..." [Judges 2:18]
Deborah came to leadership as the fourth judge in the continuing cycle of Israel's declining religious and social life. Under her leadership, King Jabin of Canaan and his commander Sisera were obliterated in a stunning campaign. The nation breaks out in joy and song.
And God's gift to the nation?
"...the land had rest forty years."
Last week as we looked at the life and ministry of Joshua, there was a choice that had to be made by the people. Joshua set it before the gathered nation. "...choose this day whom you will serve... Revere the Lord and serve him faithfully." And then Joshua expresses his choice, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
There is a similar theme in the Song of Deborah at the conclusion. "So perish all your enemies, O LORD! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might." [Judges 5:31]
In some ways, the story of the book of Judges is all the more disheartening because the people stood before Joshua, and in words my grandfather used to use, "declared up and down," that they and their children would serve God faithfully generation after generation.
At the beginning of the story of Israel's Judges comes these tragic words: The people worshiped the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel.... that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD..." [Joshua 2:10-12]
The choice which Joshua put before Israel was the choice that Moses before him had set out for them and the choice which the Song of Deborah expresses in terms of friends and enemies. It will not go well for the enemies of God, but the fiends of God will be "as the sun" in strength.
Who is Mrs. Lappidoth? She is one more servant of God in the long train of servants who go back to the very beginning of the story of God's relationship with humankind. One more voice calling out to God's people to love God with all their hearts and souls and minds and to love their neighbors as themselves.
This story speaks to the ebb and flow of our spiritual lives. Hopefully it stimulates more flow than ebb. Perhaps it can call us once again to the fact that our relationship with God is not a static thing as though it were settled once and for all in confirmation or in some kind of conversion experience. From Genesis to Judges, Israel is having to choose gain and again.
Jesus put the whole issue this way: ""Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." [Matt. 7:13-14]
Though history is filled with well known figures like "Deborah, Judge of Israel," the story of God's people throughout the ages is more fully borne by countless multitudes of people who are not well known. People like Mrs. Lappidoth and you and me.
May we be ever choosing to enter the narrow gate which leads to the wide road of life and always affirming that we will love and serve God forever.
Connections in the Texts
The eternal power and righteousness of God stands over against the futility and unrighteousness of mortals. Apart from our relationship with God, we have no claim upon the gift of life. Personal gain is an illusion and the notion of inherent significance in our living apart from our relationship with the Lord is folly. God will reign, righteousness will prevail, Christ will come, and only those who see themselves in light of who God is will stand in The Day of the Lord.
Matthew speaks to the issue of productive Christian living. Zephaniah rocks those who dismiss the reality of God’s immanence and Paul comes through with an affirmation that God does not desire our demise, but had destined us for salvation. 2 Peter 3:9 affirms that the Day of the Lord or coming of Christ is sure. The delay of the parousia should not be perceived as a denial of the reality of the Day of the Lord, but rather as a sign of God’s patience and desire that no one should perish, but have an opportunity to receive the grace of God.
We need to remember once again that Jesus is speaking to his followers on the verge of a crisis. His relationship with the religious leadership is 100% toxic. They seek and will bring about his death. In light of his departure, Jesus is in the midst of teaching his followers who they must be and how they must be when he is gone. They also need to be aware that with God there is a final consummation where absolute righteousness will prevail.
Key point: We need to live our lives as individual followers of Christ and as the Body of Christ in light of God’s ultimate victory over evil! A short form of this particular parable about the master and the servants is, "Make it count!" We have been given just so much time, and just so much talent – God may sometimes seem to be far away. Wrong sometimes seems to be gaining and the right on the run. But the Master will return and there will be an accounting, so to his followers, Jesus says, "Make it count!"
Another key issue in this text is: "Everything is of God!" There is the humility inducing principle that whatever talents / gifts we have are given to us by God. The difference between persons is not the number of talents or a difference in reward for using those talents. The only difference is in how responsible we are in using those talents. The lesson of the third servant is that there is no "coasting" in the Body of Christ.
This would make a good stewardship text. You could deal with the responsibility we have to invest our resources (time, talent and treasure) in a way that will honor God and build the kingdom. We must avoid the "third servant syndrome" – "I’ve done my share." "Let someone else do it." "Joe’s got way more ability than I do." "My grandmother did more than enough for our family."
Zephaniah’s words strike at the heart of complacency in our relationship with God. God’s words to the people through the prophet are a stern warning to those who dismiss God as a relevant factor in their daily lives.
Zephaniah addresses those whose lives are built on the false premise that God will not scrutinize our lives. The words are powerful, "At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’ "
On another occasion, I might do a message called, "The Third Servant Syndrome." Matthew contributes the point: "The Third Servant is Irresponsible." Zephaniah adds, "The Third Servant is Complacent."
Zephaniah has a word for those who eliminate the notion of responsibility in living and God’s judgment. I hear that in the words some folk will use in a cavalier way when someone – anyone – good, bad or indifferent – dies, "Oh well, he’s / she’s in a better place." This calls to mind J.B. Phillips’ comment in "Your God is Too Small" which ran something along the line of, people don’t want a Father in heaven so much as a Grandfather in heaven, a kindly, benevolent old chap whose chief desire is that a good time be had by all."
The beginning words in this text follow the line of Zephaniah. Just at the time people have dismissed the Lord and have become quite complacent – judgment will strike. The Day of the Lord will come like a "Thief in the night." That is – unexpectedly.
There is an application of this in all of our lives. Whenever disaster strikes our lives, there is a sense of shock, "That’s the last thing I thought would have happen today!" Another reminder to embrace each day and each experience with an eye on the temporality of our living.
Key words in verse four: "But you, beloved, are not in darkness…" The people of God – the Body of Christ would not however be surprised by the coming of the Lord. We are not irresponsible, complacent, unknowledgeable concerning biblical teaching about the final victory of God. Are we?
The passage is a call for people of faith to live their lives responsibly in light of the redemption Christ has gained for us. Two important words go to the heart of our lifestyle as Christian folk – how we are to be with each other. Encourage one another and build up each other…" And isn’t it a great joy to a pastor’s heart when we can add the words, "As indeed you are doing!"
A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 90)
Leader: O Lord God, we who are mortal turn to you who are
A Prayer of Dedication
We stand amazed before you, O lord. You use the gifts of