Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In a World Adrift: God's Strategy of Surpise

Preached Sunday, August 28, 2011
Scripture readings: Judges 4:1-24; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

In the summer I walk around my yard every day to watch the weeds grow. The other day I saw this weed in one of my flower beds. It was as tall as I am. At first I was surprised. Truth is (knowing me) it’s no surprise that I missed it so long.

It’s easy for me to get used to some thing that is not as it should be. Patience usually has nothing to do with it. Some things are just easier to ignore. And then they jump out at you and you see what was right under your nose all along.

And there are times when I pass by a mirror and get a big surprise to see that my hair has turned grey. When did that happen? Maybe God has designed us for surprises like that. I think God has designed us to often experience life by surprise.

Sometimes the surprise is God’s gift. Sometimes the surprise is our fault. When God’s people in the Old Testament turned away from God, when they tried to blend in with others, when they tried to exchange God’s priorities for the priorities of their neighbors, things went wrong and this surprised them. But this surprise was their fault, or maybe it was God’s gift.

Their mistakes, and their calling the shots for themselves, hurt in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and they were shocked. At such times of surprise, we read that they would, “call to the Lord for help.” (Judges 4:3) That is God’s gift.

When the people of Israel turned back to God, they drew a new faith and determination to face their enemies and their problems. The surprise that came from being on the right track was that, now, they found themselves facing an enemy that was way too big for them. It seemed impossible.

The count of the two armies (as we read it) makes it sound like the Israelites had the bigger numbers, but the writer of Judges only counted the enemy’s iron chariots. On that count the Canaanites scored 900 to zero.

In ancient warfare the chariots, if you had them, were always just a small part of much greater forces. And if you had chariots it was the equivalent of having tanks. Each chariot would hold at least a couple soldiers beside the driver, and each chariot held a small arsenal of the weapons of the day: arrows, spears, javelins, clubs. Often each chariot had a group of lightly armed soldiers running on foot beside it.

The Canaanites’ possessed a superior military technology that the Israelites could not match. The Israelites had never fought such an army before.

The day of the battle was a day of surprises. The Israelites came to that day with a set of expectations. They expected the sort of surprise you get from fighting a problem or an enemy much bigger than you are.

We all expect such surprises. None of us do very well in the face of them. But that day of battle brought the completely unexpected. And this is what won the day for God’s people.

God’s people began the day of battle with expectations and they ended it in surprises. God’s people faced an enemy army that was bigger, more disciplined, and much better armed than they were. The surprise was one that they did not deserve to expect: the Lord fought for them.

The song that follows, in chapter five, expresses wonder at the surprises of God. It is a truly great ancient poem because it expresses the sense of wonder so well and communicates that wonder to us.

The two armies waited to advance. While they waited, they saw a surprise forming overhead and wondered what it would mean for them. It was dark and ominous. A huge thunderstorm rolled in from the northwest, from the sea, and then it seemed to skirt around them (as thunderstorms can), almost as if it would blow over. Then it came back around upon them from the east, from the land of Edom, the land of Seir, and it lodged firmly over the high hills of the upper Galilee.

Lightening flashed and thunder pounded, and the world seemed to shake with it. Their innards flipped when the thunder boomed. Have you ever felt thunder like that? I have.

Then rain poured, or the air turned to water and hit the ground! It was a cloudburst.

The two armies joined battle at the Kishon River that drains the valleys around the base of Mount Tabor. When the two armies met, they were overtaken by a flash flood sweeping down the river basin. The sheet of mud and water disabled the iron chariots and their crews.

The Canaanites worshiped the god Baal who was god of the storms. Suddenly it seemed that Baal fought against them, but it was the Lord who fought.

The poetic telling of the battle sounds like this. “O Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel….From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on my soul; be strong!” (Judges 5:4-5, 5:20-21)

General Sisera fled the battlefield. He found his way to the nearest safe place. It was the camp of a tribe of nomadic metal workers whose chief was named Heber. Heber was an ally of the king of the Canaanites. Perhaps his tribe did the contracting to build those nine hundred chariots in the first place.

Sisera did not go to Heber, the chief, but to the tent of Jael, Heber’s wife. She was alone.

She found the armed man at the door of her tent and she invited him to come inside. She knew him, but she did not feel safe.

Even though Sisera was a defeated general, he remained what some people call a great man, in the sense of being a so-called “big-man”. He was a trained warrior, and he remained important enough, even in defeat, to make big things happen.

Such a man, dealing with an ally like Heber, would never go alone into his ally’s wife’s tent. It was a completely inappropriate act. A woman would have interpreted his request with an unspoken twist, “You better help me, or you may regret it.” This is real.

In the song version of the telling, Sisera’s mother worried about why her son was delayed so long in returning from the battle, and one of her ladies-in-waiting guesses that, perhaps, there is a lot of looting to do, and Sisera is looking for some especially nice things to bring home for them and, beside that, perhaps he is finding a girl or two for himself.

But the ancient language has been cleaned up for us by the translators. It is not a girl or two, but a part of the female anatomy that their men were taking. This is talk about rape. This is the kind of thing that those who knew him best would think of, when they thought of Sisera in action.

The truth is that Sisera might have done what the women at home were thinking, but the discipline of war was wearing off. In battle Sisera had learned to convert all his strongest emotions (even fear) into a kind of fighting drug. Even though he was still very much in survival mode, he was coming down from the high that had driven him. He was exhausted. (He felt much worse than a high school kid after the first few days of football practice.) He looked big and tough, but secretly he was overcome.

Jael gave him a nice cup of yogurt, and yogurt is a sleepy-time food. Sisera drank and slept. Then Jael crept up and killed him with a tent peg through the skull.

That was a surprise. Jael was as surprised as anyone. The word spread. The war was over. Sisera was the military genius behind the power of the Canaanite kingdom, and a frightened woman killed him.

We seem to live in a society and a nation that is spiritually and morally adrift. The whole world seems to have lost its moorings. The planet itself is shaking all over.

Yet a world like ours can still hold surprises. The people of Israel were drifting from God in a downward spiral. The Book of Judges is clear about this.

But the writers of Judges also knew that the greatest days of God’s people lay ahead. The kingdom of David still laid ahead, and all of the promises that would be attached to his family. The family of David would become the family of the Messiah, and the Messiah would bring a whole new kingdom into being; a whole new life.

Even the writers of Judges may have been surprised to realize that they were telling the story of a God who would come down from heaven as a member of the family of David. He would become a man named Jesus, in order to live and die and rise as a representative of the human race; to do battle, as a man, against all the forces of sin and death. This would have surprised them; and yet, maybe, not.

For them the surprise, in the middle of the downward spiral, was the work of God among his people. And God’s work for his fallen people centered upon a woman sitting under a palm tree, in some in-between place. She was a person full of the Holy Spirit because she could see and speak for the Lord.

God’s people came to her with their problems, instead of going to the priests and idols of the Canaanites and the other tribes around them the way they used to do. The woman under the palm tree was a sign of the presence of God. She was a sign of the readiness of God to work among them. She was no warrior at a time when they needed warriors. But she was a warrior of the Spirit of the Lord.

If you are aware that the world seems to be adrift and especially the world around you, are you aware that the Lord makes his Spirit available to you through the cross and through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? Are you aware that God’s word is telling you that unlikely people, even unequipped people like Deborah, can be at the center of what God wants to do, and be a partner in God’s work? Are you aware that God came in Jesus to make it possible for all his people to be at the heart of the surprising work of God, right where they are?

What Paul calls God’s secret wisdom, is what I mean by God’s strategy of surprise. The gods and goddess of the Canaanites were all about power; the power to get what you wanted and to do what you wanted.

That is what a fallen world wants. It is what Adam and Eve decided they wanted. They wanted this power more than they wanted to be creatures in fellowship with God. They wanted the power of knowledge to gain their independence, which is a kind of power. They wanted knowledge and we often think of knowledge as power.

The secret wisdom of God is not about power or knowledge. It is about love and faithfulness. So Deborah and her people could be at the heart of what God was doing in a way that Sisera, and his king, and his army could never understand.

This is the wisdom that runs through God’s work from beginning to end. The very center of this wisdom is Jesus. Through the surprising strategy of becoming one of us, it is what God has done through weakness and through what seems foolish to the world. It seems weak and foolish because the world is always looking for power and knowledge instead of love and faithfulness.

The secret wisdom of God was so surprising that it tricked the world into accomplishing the plan of God in spite of their best efforts of resistance. As Paul says, the powers and authorities of this world crucified God when he entered this world in love, and faithfulness, and weakness, and foolishness. God in Christ made himself into the bait for a trap in which sin and death would be caught. They took the bait thinking that they could swallow it, but that dead meat of Jesus on the cross suddenly rose and defeated the powers of evil. It was God’s gift of surprise.

Paul says, ‘None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:8-9)

God has prepared a kingdom for us. It is a spiritual environment that will change heaven and earth so that God will rule everywhere and in every life. It is all based on a mission that seems weak and foolish. It is built on the life of a baby in a manger, who grew up to work with his hands in a carpenter’s shop, who gathered a circle of friends, and who got himself executed on a cross.

The courage of Deborah, and Barak, and Jael, to face enemies stronger than they were, came from the kind of faith that requires you to die to yourself, and to your limitations, and fears and pride; and to live for God. It is the power that works through the weakness and foolishness of the cross. It is a surprising strategy, but it runs clearly all through the scriptures.

The Book of Judges is about human weakness and our failure to be faithful, but it is not about the resulting absence of God. It is not about how inadequate and imperfect our repentance is. It is not about how limited our faith is. It is about the faithfulness of God to such people as the Israelites and to us.

It is God’s strategy for you. Your value is not based on the power of what you can do on your own, or on the power of what you know. Your value is not even based on the quality of your faith. It is based on faith as a trusting awareness of your weakness and of the faithfulness of God to you in your weakness.

Faith is a kind of courage that is based on dependence and trust in God. To a fallen world this seems foolish and weak. Paul, in the first chapter of First Corinthians wrote, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Faith sometimes seems like weakness, because we do not know what it will lead to or where it will take us. (But there, again we want the power of knowledge.) The whole point is that power and knowledge are not the way.

Faith means to trust the God of surprises, and such faith is well placed. The God who came in Christ is the focus of our faith. Faith is built on the weakness of living by faith in the one who died for you, and who did this to make you a person who can live your life, each day, in the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.


  1. the only thing i have to say is to pray and take things day by day.

    God has plans for everyone; sometimes the plan has to to with what is happening to us or with what we are experiencing...

    God may be calling us into suffering for reasons only to which He is only privy.

    thanks for your inspiring thoughts.

    hope you and yours have a great day!


  2. Thank you for your kind thoughts, Betty, and have a wonderful trip to the UK. I am sure you must have an exciting calling in life; so many opportunities to see the world and observe life.