Rev. Phillip Blackburn
October 6, 2019
I know exactly where the flashlight is in my house. Aren’t you proud of me? Stashing the flashlight is always one of the first things I do when I move into a new place. I want to know exactly where it is. I suspect this value was instilled within me back in the Oklahoma of my childhood. During spring storms a transistor radio and flashlight would seem to magically appear when the weather deprived us of electricity. My mom and I would clamber into the closet in the hall and said radio and flashlight would just seem to be there.
I know how comforting it felt when that narrow little beam of light would blast into the darkness created by the chaos outside. You learn a lot about the power of light when you are deprived of it, I suppose. There is a cycle that happens in the book of Judges that reminds me of this, a little bit, and it goes something like this. The Israelites would thrive under the leadership of a judge. The judge represented God’s judgment in the community, and it was an important position. The judge would occasionally function like an OT prophet, warning the people of their transgressions, but then would also function as a tool of God’s mercy. So anyway, they would thrive, then the judge would die or the people would get fat and happy and ignore the judge. And then they would begin to ignore God and forget God’s commandments. This would make God angry, so God would hand them over to some sort of enemy. Then they would cry out to God, then God would send a new judge to help them and set them free. They would be restored and then, after a few years the pattern would repeat itself.
But in each cycle you can see the spot where the Israelites would be in trouble; where they would be reminded of the power of light. In that moment when they realized that they were losing, or had lost, and were now under the thumb of some great power; suffering and afraid, they would remember, finally, God. When the light was out they would remember its power. And this is the moment where we find them at the beginning of chapter 4. They are sitting in the dark.
And then, of course, there is a judge who arises. This judge is Deborah. Deborah, we are told, was the wife of Lappidoth. Now maybe she really was married to a guy named Lappidoth, I don’t know, but it’s also possible that there is a play on words here. Because wife of Lappidoth can also be translated as woman of flame. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfaithful to translate it as Deborah, the torch lady. So Deborah, the judge, the torch lady, rallies the troops. Literally. She gets the general Barak, who doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to fight back, and she tells him to get 10,000 men together because they are going to fight the Canaanites. This sounds all well and good, but the Canaanites, who were the current repressors of the Israelites, had far superior technology. Judges reminds us that their general, Sisera, had 900 iron chariots. This is a problem. But nonetheless, Deborah wants the army called. The time of darkness is coming to an end. It is time for God’s mercy to restore the Israelites.
I have to admit, it is kind of hard to preach a sermon on this passage. People like sermons that they can apply to their lives and it is not the easiest thing in the world to take something that happened around 3,000 years ago and involved chariots and make it applicable to your life. But if we think of the text in a more metaphorical manner, we might be able to get there. It took the darkness of Canaanite oppression for the Israelites to cry out for God. And here is something I have noticed in my years as pastor; often it is when the lights go out in life that people start to begin thinking seriously about the presence of God in their lives. Often when life is going well we tend to think about God sporadically and we survey our lives and give ourselves a nice pat on the back. Well done, we say to ourselves, you are sure a competent fellow. Then, if we consider God at all, it is to count our blessings.
But when the lights go out that is when we start asking the hard questions. Where are you? Why won’t you help me? Have you abandoned me? Did I do something wrong? And here we can imagine that these are the same questions those Israelites would start tossing God’s way when things went south for them back then. Oftentimes God would make them wait it out awhile, but always a torch lady would show up at some point. Always the power of God would descend. And always chariots, and weren’t there always chariots, would be tossed aside. The light would come into the darkness and the darkness, finally, would not overcome it.
Today we aren’t involved in too many literal battles. The battles we fight today are often ideological. But I want to think about something else. I am not sure we fight enough battles, to be honest, and here I do not mean with other people, but within ourselves. Some of us are altogether too aware of the darkness which holds sway over vast swaths of our lives, but it seems many of us are oblivious to any darkness in our lives. I often think of the Presbyterian church I once heard about that cut the prayer of confession of sin because they thought it was a downer. Too often I think we approach that element of prayer without enough sincerity.
I remember one time hearing a young pastor at a presbytery talk about his commencement address from Seminary. He said the seminary president had challenged the new grads to go into the church and “pick a fight.” I was somewhat appalled by that advice as I generally believe fighting in the church is counterproductive. But I strongly believe that advice could have been well channeled into the life of the individual. If you think everything is going swimmingly in your life. If you believe you are doing just fine, thank you very much, then the time has arrived to heed the voice of the torch lady, the judge, and pick a fight within yourself. There are whole swaths of each of our lives which are awash in darkness, in dire need of the light of God.
And here is the good news. Barak knew what he was doing. He agreed to follow Deborah’s commands, to go and pick a fight with the Canaanites despite their vast superiority. But he told her one thing. If I am going, you are coming too. There will be no more confronting darkness without the light. The torch will be there to shine in the darkness. And so on a day long ago the Israelites and Canaanites took the field for battle. And the Canannite host was swept away as if by a tidal wave of light and God took mercy on the Israelites and they were free once more.
There are areas of each of our lives that to this day are awash in darkness; areas which keep us from being faithful disciples, areas which separate us from those whom we love. There are areas of our lives where we feel as if we are slaves, where we do not believe even God can affect the necessary change. There is a place in all our lives where we need light. Where the torch of God’s judgment should be allowed to shine forth. Make no mistake it will be a battle, but if you take the field, and God is with you, then you will prevail. It takes darkness to remind us we need the light. And the light is right next to you always, challenging you to rise up and promising to go with you, even into battle of your life. Amen.