Deborah and Jael and a Peg

Sermon Series: Who Will Save Us?

Deborah and Jael and a Peg

July 05, 2007 - July 08, 2007

Judges 4:1-24

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Harry Heintz

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Ripped from the headlines!  It sounds like an episode of “Law and Order.”  There is a messy murder.  A military leader is found dead in a tent with a tent peg lodged through his head.  If “Law and Order” weren’t on TV three times every night of the year, this one might hold us until the surprise ending is revealed.  It has all the elements of a tight crime story:  political intrigue, warfare, bad leadership, good leadership, perhaps some romance, and a homemaker with her fingerprints on the weapon. 


At the graduation program for our nursery school a few weeks ago the director asked the children what they wanted to be when they grow up.  One girl stopped the director dead in her tracks when she answered: “A urologist.”  Now picture two girls having that what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up discussion about 3,100 years ago.  One says, “I’d like to be the leader of our nation, plus a judge, a prophet, and a published poet.  What about you?”  The other says, “I’m more for traditional roles.  I’ll be a homemaker gifted in hospitality.  As a den-leader, I’ll be able to pitch a tent.  I’ll bake the best chocolate chip cookies in the land and serve them to house guests with milk.  And one more thing:  I’ll be able to drive a tent peg through a feared foreign leader’s head, should the need arise.”  There we have them: Deborah and Jael.  Ms. up-front and Ms. behind-the scenes.  Shock and awe.  Thelma and Louise ride again.


We see the Judges cycle again.  God appoints a new leader, Ehud, in chapter 3.  Blessing follows.  Then
forgets and sins.  God sends judgment.  In distress
cries out to God, who sends Deborah.  Whoa!  Are you kidding?  God sends a woman to lead the nation.  Can this be?  Some might say that there must have been no good men or surely God would have chosen a man.   Look at the track record of most of the men God chose and Deborah looks pretty good.  She is a multi-gifted woman.  She is described as a prophet, a judge, and a national leader—all while married.   “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading
at that time.   She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.”  (Judges 4:4-5.)  As a prophet she spoke the word of God to the people.  That was and is the essence of the prophetic gift.  As a judge she gave rulings to solve disputes, which led to her nationally syndicated afternoon TV show, “Judge Debbie.”  As a national leader she showed great wisdom, calling on the wisdom of others, assuring the week-kneed Barak that maybe he could do something for his nation, and instilling confidence in the nation that victory was at hand.


Of all the national leaders we find in Judges, I think she is the most commendable.  Unlike most of the others, she is not recorded as having a lapse in faithfulness to God.  My conviction that women and men are called to share in church leadership is well known.  Deborah certainly gives me room to say more today.  Deborah is the only woman listed as a leader of
in Judges, so some might say she was an exception.  She was an exception, with a resume more interesting and diverse than any other of the judges.  But she wasn’t the only woman God used with prophetic or leadership gifts in
.  There were Miriam, Huldah, Naomi and Ruth, Esther, Rahab, and more.  In a time when much of societal life was hierarchical and male-dominated, God had a better way. 


Sometime after Deborah, the Lord spoke so clearly through the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.  Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”  (Joel 2:28-29.)  And that became glorious reality in Acts 2 on the Church’s first Pentecost.  But it was happening long before.  God chooses people for leadership in ways that confound us.  We wouldn’t have picked Moses, guilty of murder, to become
’s deliverer in
.  We wouldn’t have picked Abraham and Sarah, advanced in age and with some moral lapses, to bear the child of promise for the nation.  We wouldn’t have picked David over his older brothers, far more impressive than he, to be the king to unite
.  We wouldn’t have picked Mary, barely a teenager and engaged to a quiet male, to carry the Messiah to birth.  We wouldn’t have picked Paul, devout Jew and a violent hater and persecutor of the Church, to become the great missionary to the Gentiles.  We wouldn’t have picked each other!


What does God look for in a leader? After years of pastoral leadership I’ve come to this answer:  I don’t know.  I know God looks for heart.  I’m not sure I can add much more.  I know that the more I read the Bible the more I stand in amazement at how God selects leaders.  Several people are mentioned in this chapter.  Barak, a military leader, is afraid to go forth without Deborah.  In a way the heroes in the story are Deborah and Jael, two women who look to be very different, but the great hero of the story is their God.


A teacher was sitting at her desk grading papers when her first grade class came back from lunch. One of her students told her, “Robert has to go to the principal's office.”

The teacher asked why.  “Because he's a following person,” the child replied.  “A what?” the teacher asked.  “It came over the loudspeaker: ‘The following persons are to go to the office.’”   Jael was a following person.  She never sought the spotlight.


If Deborah is called to a place of high-profile service, Jael seems content to be a homemaker, make that a tentmaker.  God uses them both.  While I was on vacation in
, Ruth Bell Graham died.  The obituary in “The Boston Globe” noted that she early on thought she wouldn’t marry so she could become a missionary to
, the land of her birth.  Then she met this lanky young preacher named Billy and her plans changed.  Billy is a Baptist through and through.  One of the Baptist distinctives is that followers of Jesus be baptized by immersion at an age of understanding.  Billy has well-known gifts of persuasion, demonstrated before millions of people around the world, but he could never persuade his wife of 60+ years that her baptism as a baby didn’t count.  Ruth simply said that her infant baptism was good enough and Billy couldn’t change her mind.


We are all followers and, at various times, we may get to lead for a while. The one true judge in the book of Judges is God and God alone.  The one true leader of the Church is Jesus and Jesus alone.  The one true empowerer for serving is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit alone.  If you are ever in a leadership role, this advice from college football coaching legend “Bear” Bryant about how to get the best from those you're leading can be useful.  Bryant said, “I have learned how to hold a team together, how to lift some players up, how to calm down others, until finally they've got one heartbeat together, a team.  There are just three things I'd ever say: ‘If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it.  If anything goes really well, the team did it.’”  That is servant leadership.


Romans 12:8 lists leadership as a spiritual gift, with a pithy admonition:  “if it [one’s gift] is to lead, do it diligently. . . .”  I devote a lot of my pastoral life to doing just that, leading diligently.  I am aware all the time that, apart from the grace of God, I have no business asking you to listen to me or to follow me.  But as God may be pleased to use me, I will call on you to honor his gifting in me.  In God’s hands extraordinary things happen to ordinary folks.


A basketball in my hands is worth about $30;

            a basketball in the hands of Michael Jordan is worth about $30 million a year.

A baseball bat in my hands is worth about $25;

            a baseball bat in the hands of Alex Rodriquez is worth about $25 million a year.

A tennis racket in my hands is dangerous;

            a tennis racket in the hands of Serena Williams wins championships.

A golf club in my hands is worth about $100;

            a golf club in the hands of Tiger Woods is worth about $100 million a year.

A rod in my hands is lucky to catch a fish;

            a rod in the hands of Moses parts the Red Sea.

A slingshot in my hands may hit the side of a barn;

            a slingshot in the hands of David brings down a giant.

A tent peg in my hands might get a corner of a tent secured with some coaching;

            a tent peg in the hands of Jael seals the victory for Israel.


Deborah and Jael are two remarkable women.  Jesus once visited the home of two women, named Mary and Martha (see Luke 10:38-41).  Mary sat at his feet drinking in his teaching, while Martha was busy working in the kitchen.  Martha got a little perturbed that Mary wasn’t in the kitchen with her.  Jesus corrected her in words like these.  “Martha, there is always work to be done, but Mary is honoring what’s really important.”  For all of us there is nothing more important than recognizing that Jesus is our leader, the head of the Church.  The base for our serving and leading is listening to him.


We in our own hands are bumbling fools;

            in the hands of the Lord we are worth more than we can ever imagine.

To contact Harry Heintz about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180