We have reached the end of Ordinary Time.
Sounds pretty dramatic, huh? The new church year begins on the first day of Advent, which this year is November 30th. Next week, we celebrate Christ the King day. So, for all intents and purposes, today we celebrate the last day of the church lectionary year. While we’ve spent all of Ordinary time following the Old Testament through the stories of Genesis, Exodus and then briefly Deuteronomy and Joshua, after today, the narrative thread ends and the lectionary hops around a bit throughout Advent, Christmas and Easter. We’ll pick back up with the Old Testament narrative in the books of I and II Samuel-but not until next June.
When last we left the Israelites, they were being led into Canaan by Joshua and a bloody series of battles ensued.
So, what happened next? What did the Israelites do when they woke up and realized they were actually in the Promised Land? How are sort-of faithful people who reluctantly followed God into new places now supposed to govern themselves? For that matter, what does it mean for us sort-of faithful Christians to be governed?
At first pass, the book of Judges may not seem to address these questions. Judges is a weird, weird book. It is filled with stories that seem more appropriate for a comic book than a book in the Bible. There’s the story of Jael, the woman who drives a tent peg through Sisera’s head. There’s the story of King Eglon, a fat man who gets stabbed while on the toilet. And of course, the story of Samson who stupidly reveals the secret to his super strength to his devious girlfriend, Delilah.
Our reading today is about Deborah, one of the more sane characters in Judges. She is a prophetess and a judge, hence the title of the book. Judges in those days are not judges in the sense that we think of now. Judges were charismatic leaders who led tribes throughout Israel. They could adjudicate disputes, but they also could act as military leaders, as Deborah does.
The important thing to note here is that Israel has divided into tribes. For awhile, Israel was able to function as one people, descendants of Abraham, but now the twelve tribes of Israel have spread out over the land they have been given and each is governed by their own tribal leader.
So, now the tribes are not only fighting with indigenous peoples, this division leads to a terrible civil war in which thousands of people die and the tribe of Benjamin is nearly wiped out.
That’s right, the tribes of Israel start fighting each other!
The author of the book of Judges fully acknowledges the sorry state of Israel by starting nearly every new story with, “In those days, when there was no king in Israel. . .”, as if the lack of a king was to blame for this terrible behavior.
Now, we’ll get further into this issue of kings when we study I and II Samuel next summer, but the problem is God doesn’t think a king is that great of an idea. Eventually, after the civil war, the Israelites start clamoring for a king so they can be like other nations around them. They go to Samuel, the prophet at the time, and demand he give them a king. His feelings get hurt, but God reassures him that they aren’t rejecting Samuel, they are rejecting God as their king. God tells Samuel to warn them about the consequences of having a king. Now, these are not punishments handed down by God, these are just the natural consequences of a government led by kings. Samuel warns the Israelites,
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyard and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle, and donkeys and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
Now, if you go back to our reading today, you’ll see that Deborah was called into action when a local king was threatening the Israelites with nine hundred chariots of iron. That was incredible, incredible technology. The Israelites were a nomadic people. They had weaponry, sure, but chariots made out of iron? No way. The sight of such a thing must have been terrifying. The chariots were the iron-age equivalent of jet planes or tanks. The Israelites just had no recourse against such technology. And how were Hazorites able to have 900 iron chariots? They had a king.
And so Israel wanted a king, too. Not just because kings were exciting, but because militarily they were unable to compete with other kingdoms.
So, the Israelites ignore Samuel and insist that God give them a king and he does. And some kings were wonderful and some kings were terrible and the Israelites did just as bad of a job of being faithful to God, their true King, as they always did.
For the first few hundred years of the Christian Church, early Christians broke from this idea that the religious group is also the political group. After all, they were powerless, even persecuted while the Roman government wielded its incredible power. However, after Constantine’s conversion, once again, the idea that God chooses kings to rule over his people came into power.
Now, of course, with the world wide spread of Christianity, you have Christians under as many different kinds of governments as you can imagine. There are Christians under dictatorships, democracies, communist rule, even socialist rule in oppressed countries like. . .Sweden.
The rhetoric in THIS country about whether or not we are a Christian nation has been particularly strong this last year. There are faithful Christians who believe we risk God’s wrath if we don’t elect conservative Christian leaders to government who will end abortion, post the Ten Commandments everywhere, eliminate sex education and reinstate prayer in school.
But, as it turns out, the founders of our Country were not attempting to make a Christian government. God is not mentioned once in the Constitution and religion is mentioned only twice. Once in the sixth article, which reads, “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Secondly, in the First Amendment which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
And this is good news not only for American atheists, Muslims, Hindus or Jews, but for Christians, too. When Israel finally elects a king, they do not become more holy and obedient to God. Instead, they shift their loyalty to the king. The God we serve does not need to be represented in government in order to govern our hearts.
God does judge societies, but throughout the Bible those societies are judged on how well they worship God, take care of orphans, widows, the poor, immigrants and whether or not they have just policies. We can do all those things as individuals and as church communities within a secular government. Occasionally we manage to do them through our government as well. We feed the poor school lunches. We give widows Social Security payments. We maintain justice as best as we can. And of course our government is not perfect at this, but that leaves room for those of us in the church to pick up the slack-whether through ministries we already do-like Disciples’ Kitchen and Bread Fund-but also ministries we haven’t even dreamed about yet. Who knows, maybe one day God will call Emmanuel to start a ministry for migrant workers or open an orphanage or teach financial management to those who struggle.
My point is, as participants in a democracy, we are called to keep our government full of integrity, justice and ethics, yet we can still fully live out our Christian duty within the confines of a secular government. Our fealty to God is not hampered by the Constitution. In fact, our fealty is protected by the Constitution, which many Christians in other nations cannot say about their own countries.
So, in short, American democracy gives us the best of both worlds. We have more iron chariots than can possibly be good for us, yet total freedom to worship and serve our God.
Thanks be to God.