You Are Worthy. Period.
A sermon based on Judges 4:1-23
given at Mount Vernon, OH on November 9, 2014 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A televangelist was called as a witness in a trial and after he was sworn in he was asked by the judge to introduce himself to the jury. The televangelist turned to the jury and said “Hi. I am the greatest preacher of my generation!” The judge leaned over and said “Surely, sir, you could give yourself a more modest introduction?” The televangelist replied “But, judge I am under Oath!”
Notwithstanding that joke, most people who are called to do God’s work by God often feel unworthy, not conceited, about their ability to answer the call. And truth be told most of this idea of unworthiness we get from our culture. Forget for a second about being called by God, often when we want to do things we don’t feel we are up to this or that, because of some cultural ideal or culturally set bar that’s either too high or just downright in the way. “You can’t do that because you aren’t big enough or little enough or smart enough or rich enough or old enough or young enough.” Or worse, “You can’t do that because you are Black or Brown or Red or Yellow or White or Gay or Straight or a man or a woman or have or don’t have this belief or that.”
All those bars the culture puts up that slow us down or prevent us or stop us from doing something, mean absolutely nothing when it comes to offering something to God. When it comes to answering God’s call we are fit to answer without regard to cultural bias or impediments. You and me are worthy in God’s eyes . . . We are worthy to God the greatest power and being in the universe. What more qualification could we want on our resume for offering to God what we hear God call us to do? We don’t need the culture’s approval of our worthiness. We are worthy. Period. You are worthy. Period.
There are very few heroes in the Bible whom the culture of our time (or anytime for that matter) would consider worthy of doing God’s work. Abraham is a homeless wanderer with no known background of any worth yet he is called by God, and even as he answers the call he messes up doubting God, abandoning a wife and child in the desert, deceiving kings and even marrying his half sister. Abraham would never be a cultural choice to do anything of worth. Think about it, would you vote for such a man in an election? I doubt that any of us would. Culturally Abraham’s unworthy. But God calls him and he answers and the result is God made the right call. The culture gets it wrong. God gets it right. The result is Abraham founded three religions that have shaped the world.
We see this type of thing over and over again in the Bible. Take Moses, when he was called he did not feel worthy – and he wasn’t by human standards either. He had a speech impediment. He was a runaway murderer. He was a nobody shepherd in the hills. We wouldn’t vote for Moses either but that did not stop God from electing him to save the Israelites. However, Moses, buying into the culture stuff (like we all tend to do), thought he was unworthy of the call. But it didn’t matter, God still called him. God knew his real worth. And God got it right again! Moses rescued the Israelites, gave laws, and became a hero of Israel and all of Christendom.
It’s not just Abraham and Moses, almost anyone you name in the Bible who is called by God seems unworthy by cultural standards. Humans don’t understand, over and over again, that when it comes to answering God’s call we are fit to answer without regard to cultural bias or impediments. We are worthy. Period. You are worthy. Period. Joseph, a misfit brother and imprisoned slave saves Egypt and Israel. David a nobody teenager shepherd defeats Goliath and becomes King. Ester, a teenage beauty queen saves her people. Rahab a foreign prostitute helps conquer the Promised Land. Mary an unmarried teen is called by God to conceive Christ and she does just that. Jesus is a homeless peasant who is later a convicted criminal, but God keeps calling him and he keeps answering. Peter is a bumbling grumpy combative fisherman, but God calls him and founds the church upon him. Paul persecutes Christianity but is called by God to spread it far and wide; and he does just that.When it comes to answering God’s call we are fit to answer without regard to cultural bias or impediments or even our own misgivings.
Today’s story, an extended version of the Lectionary text for next week (when I have chosen another text), is one of my favorite Old Testament stories, and it is a favorite for me precisely because cultural rejects are called by God and answer God’s call and are remembered as heroes.
The culture during Biblical times was unabashedly patriarchal and the very wealthy male elite by-and-large ruled. The power elites pushed and pushed the idea that women were nobody-second-class humans that were to be treated like property, and men were not to work with them or be ruled by them; and women certainly could not be God’s representatives. It’s only been in our time that this misogynistic cultural view has begun to change on a wide scale. But for thousands of years God has not cared a fig for following cultural views when it comes to being able to answer the call to do God’s work in the world. This is particularly true when it comes to women and those who dare to honor them and let them lead. And this thousands-of-years old story in the Bible about Deborah, Barak and Jael proves it.
And I love that the story is considered to probably be the oldest in the Bible. It means that despite what the patriarchal and elite powers pitched, the people clung to and remembered and held dear the story of women heros and a man who was willing to respect and honor and let a woman lead his army and be God’s representative for the people.
The Lectionary reading from Judges only covered a small part of the story leaving it hanging at Judges verse 7, which is really kinda crazy because the story is not complete without knowing how it ends. So I added the back in the good parts that you heard Steve read this morning.
Here’s a summary of the story: Deborah, a woman, is a judge and prophet, and a person understood to represent God’s presence on earth. Barak is a general whom Deborah asks to defend Israel from the army of King Jabin who ruled over them for 20 years with a powerful occupying army led by a great general, Sisera. Barak has such reverence for God and Deborah he agrees to lead the army against Sisera, but only if Deborah in turn agrees to lead them into battle bringing, as it were, God’s presence before them. Deborah agrees, but notes that if she does as Barak asks God will give the glory to a woman.
Barak is fine with all of that and so with Deborah leading the way they defeat all of Siseria’s army. All of it, except the great General Sisera who runs and hides in the tent of the wife of his ally which violates all kinds of hospitality rules and it threatens the wife, Jael, as well as continues to threaten Israel since Sisera has not been stopped. Jael answers God’s call to put an end to the threat his presence posed to herself, her family and Israel. As we heard Jael stabs Sisera in the head with a tent peg.
Old Testament story characters often have names that tell us something. Barak’s name means “lightening” he was fire from heaven. Deborah is the wife of Lappidoth, a phrase which means “woman of torches,” she was a woman of fire.
Deborah is not just the wife of Labbidoth she is Deborah and her name has two meanings in Hebrew “bee” (as in bumble) and “word” (as in Word of God). This woman of fire, this bee, stings God’s opponent with Barak, fire from the heaven. 1 And as a prophetess Deborah can also be heard as representing the “word” of God that leads the people of Israel like the Ark of the Covenant led the people of Israel in Moses’ and Joshua’s day like we heard last week.
Jael means “mountain goat” a common symbol in the Ancient Near East for the hunted. Jael can be heard to represent all those who are hunted by brutes like Sisera and his army. And who does Jael sting with a tent peg for the “bee” Deborah? There is a visual pun of sorts in that – metaphorically– the hunted spiked headed mountain goat puts a spike in the head of a hunter.
Sisera, the hunter’s name, means “battle array.” The great battle array of the enemy of Israel is remembered as being defeated by God through two women and a man who treated women with respect and honored God’s presence in them. To find that in the oldest story in all the Bible is remarkable, it’s awesome!
But perhaps even cooler is that the ultimate hero, Jael, whom Judges 5:24 remembers as the “most blessed of women,” is not just a lowly woman to the culture, she is cursed by the culture as a woman, a foreigner, a non-Jew, a non-elite and the wife of an ally of the enemy. This five cursed unworthy nobody is whom God calls to save the day along side the cultural rejects of the other woman Deborah and the General Barak who would dare to stoop to let a woman lead.
If this story tells us anything it is that whatever worth humans think they might be are lacking to offer something to God– to answer God’s call– they are mistaken. Forget what you hear the culture whispering or yelling in your ears, whatever God is calling you to, you are worthy of doing. And God would not call you if it weren’t so.
This sense of a lack of worth is rampant. If you are thinking you are the only one who feels unworthy at times, you are not alone. I often hear folks tell me they have a sense of low worth or that they feel called to do this or that but just don’t think they are worthy. Christianity is in great part about transforming our sense of can’t do to can do– our sense of a lack-worth to a sense of worth. And we can hear that as a part of the Hebrew Scriptures too.
The Old Testament (The Hebrew Scriptures) and the Gospel include the good news that we are worthy of love and we matter. We have a lot to offer God and the world . . . all of us.
I briefly mentioned some of the people in the Bible who felt unworthy but weren’t. People we’d think of as criminals, doers of wrong, misfits, the disabled, and outcasts. There’s nothing any of us in this room have done, there’s nothing any of us in this room are, that makes us unworthy to God. Just as you are, by God, you matter.
And God is good all the time and you matter all the time to that good God and what you offer to God can and does matter regardless of what the culture may tell you. You matter. You have great worth.
One of the things I was taught in law school as an arguing skill was that people remember best the first and the most recent thing said or read. It’s called the “primacy and recency effect.” That sounds fancy, but it just means what we hear first and last are best remembered.
When I became a pastor I prayed and thought about what the first and the last things I say in worship ought to be. If you think about it most of you will know what I decided. Every Sunday the first thing I say is “God is good” and the first thing you say is (“all the time”) and then I say “All the time” and you say (“God is good.”). We are taught in our culture that God does not-so-good-things as punishments and tests, and that is never true! God is love and love is always good. God IS good all the time. So that’s what we hear first on Sundays.
And the last thing I say every service is something I felt called by God to put together and say every week because of this unworthy thing we get pounded into our heads by the culture. I say “Go in peace knowing that you are loved and that you matter much.” And the last part “you are loved and that you matter much” is the ultimate Truth of the Gospel, it is the point of Jesus’ teachings and his life and his death and his resurrection. And it is the point of this oldest of the Old Testament stories we heard today about Deborah and Barak and Jael.
We are all of us worthy to do God’s work, to offer what we have for God to use in the world. It doesn’t matter what the culture says is worthy. What matters is that we know we are – all of us– worthy to offer to God what God wants.
And sure that applies to our pledges today on this Pledge Sunday, whether we feel we can offer five dollars or five hundred dollars, the culture’s sense of worth doesn’t matter. What matters is whether God calls us to provide and we decide to answer and then follow through and do it! But it’s so much more than the pledges of our dollars . . . so much more. It’s also about offering to do things at church and in the community for others for love of God and love of neighbor.
There are lots and lots and lots of things happening at the church and in the community, don’t not offer to do loving things because you feel unworthy–yes that was a triple negative . . . don’t not offer to do loving things because you feel unworthy. If you feel called to it, please prayerfully consider answering the call. You see you are loved and you matter much– and what you offer, big or small, counts a whole lot!
May we all hear our very good God’s callings . . . and know that we are worthy to answer them.
* This sermon is based on a sermon I first wrote in 2011.
1. McCann, J. Clinton, Judges, Interpretation, John Knox Press (2002), 49-55. Much of the information of names and meaning of Judges 4 in this sermon I derived from Dr. McCann’s wonderful essay on Judges 4. But don’t blame Dr. McCann for ideas I write about Jael’s name, I looked up the meaning on the internet, saw it was “Mountain Goat” and that mountain goats were ANE symbols of the hunted and I took it from there. Dr. McCann also notes that Deborah means “woman of torches” or “Torch Lady” I read that to mean a woman of fire and connected it Barak as “lightening” which I also claimed to fairly mean fire from heaven.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED