To say that these are worrying times has become a well worn cliché. "Climate of fear", "new security environment", "living in fearful times", "hightened violence", "anxious times" - I have no wish to sound like the tabloid press, or to manipulate by fear, but I do want to examine todays readings in the light of our current climate. Some long range perspective is a very good thing, and the distilled wisdom of Gods people is well worth some reflection.
The book of Judges is a little read text! It appears only once in the three year lectionary cycle. Judges has a more gloomy, messy and often gory alternative perspective to the occupation of Israel to the more heroic straightforward book of Joshua.
Judges has a realistic tone, showing a ragged group of tribes, only loosely held together. They are in conflict with neighbors, in danger of loosing their unique identity and at times being drawn back together by a strong and charismatic leader know as a judge.
Deborah is such a person. It is extraordinary that a womans story is remembered and included from such a male oriented time, world and text. She must have been a great leader indeed! Its worth placing her in context, there may even be some common anxieties for us to relate to.
Judges tells of a piece-meal settlement of the land. Tribe after tribe contests the land with the indigenous peoples, and according to Judges, most fail. This is put down to the peoples disobedience. The people are duly repentant, but after Joshua dies another generation rises up who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. Judges then sets out a pattern for the subsequent story of Israel.
The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; they followed other gods; the Lord is angry and gives them over to an enemy; they are in great distress; in pity the Lord raises up a judge to deliver them; when the judge dies they relapse and the cycle starts again. We see failure, people looking to blame, change and relapse to form, does it sound familiar?
At the same time there is a consistent theme running through the stories that it is solely the mercy of God in seeing the distress of his people that moves him to deliver them. It has nothing to do with the inherent qualities they may have.
Todays reading is the beginning of the account of the only female judge, Deborah, also known as a prophetess. It is the story of the defeat of the Canaanite king Jabin, and his commander Sisera.
No detail of the evil said to have been done by the Israelites is given as the story moves quickly to tell of the victory of the Israelites. All we know is that the Israelites were oppressed for twenty years by Jabin.
The situation in the promised land seems to be little better than it was back in Egypt. This is probably not what readers of the story (let alone the Israelites) might have hoped for. The promised land was meant to be a place of security, peace and prosperity, a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey!
Now it is a place of testing and oppression even as Egypt was.
It is as if the people see the gift of the land as an end in itself and the wilderness journey as simply a preliminary stage. They fail to recognize that the gift of the land is more than just a good and broad land, and the law given at Sinai, more than just a way to that land. The land is a place where the people are to live in Gods presence and know that presence in many ways. The law is their guide for living in that presence. The divine promise is, in the end, all about Gods presence with his people, a presence even in the most difficult times. There is no doubt that Deborah and her people faced difficult times and dealt with living them faithfully.
Gods presence and good guidance these were Deborahs keys to success and they bring me to the second reading.
Paul writes to his friends, new converts to Christian faith, people who faced intimidation and the risk of becoming outcasts or worse for their beliefs.
"Now, brothers and sisters, about times and seasons we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night."
Im not sure how reassured I feel about that assurance?
Does it fill you with a warm inner glow?
No, Paul is much more concerned to encourage his flock to get on with the job of living the Christian life in the face of their fears, rather than offering easy comfort.
"So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
So, for the fearful, Paul says, "yes Jesus will return, but we dont know when, so get on with the job of living good lives. Paul and his friends lived under a government whose power was expressed in violence. These early Christians lived under a power whose leader was worshipped as god and where Judaism was just tolerated because it was an ancient religion. If you want more protection, says Paul wear your faith and love like armour and hope like a helmet."
Forgive his militaristic imagery, its borrowed from Isaiah, and if you can get past the old world expression here, you may find a deeply radical answer to fear.
Faith, hope and love are the protections we need, not aggression, tough laws and shoot to kill policies.
Cicero, the Roman philosopher and senator lived a few generations before Paul, so it may be that Paul, Roman citizen that he was knew Ciceros work. This senator of a regime renowned for its brutality, was well known for his moderating wisdom.
He said, "the strictest law often causes the most serious wrong." And, "the more laws, the less justice."
But concerning the times and the seasons, concerning your fears, concerning your existential destiny; Pauls answer is not in keeping a low profile, like many Christians today. Pauls answer is not in protective laws, but in people of faith encouraging each other and building each other up in faith, love and hope.
Paul does not incite a campaign of aggression against the other religions and it is not because his was a small struggling fledgling.
Paul does not dream of dominance in terms of world power. Paul does not imagine a marriage of convenience between church and state even though such odd realities did come to be.
Paul does not look in these directions because they are not of the essence of Christian faith. Such ways are not part of the example of Christ. The life Paul knows is one of risk and uncertainty; peace and sudden destruction were well know in their times. And the Jesus Paul knows as Lord is one who gives his life in love for all, one for whom the values of faith, love and hope were not to be compromised at all.
Pauls emphasis is not just on the concept he calls salvation in Christ, but on the core values Jesus taught and on applying them in a Christian life. Look after your head with hope the hope of Jesus will give you some good directions!
Protect your heart with faith and love these are the protections of real and ultimate value.
Its good that we are more safety conscious; helmets, have a useful function, especially for cyclists and construction workers. Wise awareness of what is going on around us is good, but what sort of helmet and armour will you and I choose to wear?
"Encourage one another, build each other up" is the direction for the day. Paul goes on to talk about Christian life in terms of living together in peace, repaying no one evil for evil, but always seeking to do good to one another and to all.
In Deborah we have an example of faithfulness and courage to do what is right in dangerous times of threat, trusting in Gods presence.
In Paul we have the example of living by core Christian values; faith hope and love, as the protection needed for anxious, frightened believers.
Perhaps faith, courage, hope and love might still be what we and our world today need most.
Here are good examples to learn from and to share.
And may the God of peace be with you.