Q: Why doesn’t God just zap his elect, bring them to salvation and usher in the New Creation?
Or: why do we need to be involved with the hard work of ministry? Why do we need to shed tears, have sleepless night, endure unanswered prayer, learn Greek verb paradigms, study our church history, work hard, so that those God has chosen to be saved, might be saved?
We’re in judges, and we’re coming to the end of yet another cycle of sin that we see so often in Judges. Let’s recap
4:1 “The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.”
Verse 2 “The LORD sold them into the hands” of their enemies.
Verse 3: Then the people of Israel cried out to the LORD for help.
4:4 – Introduced to God’s answer. Deborah, the prophetess is judging Israel, she calls Barak (v6)
*v6* “Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at mount Tabor… And I will draw out Sisera… and I will give him into your hand?’”
Barak takes some persuading, but eventually goes, and the result is in v15
*15* “The LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak, by the edge of the sword.”
How did the LORD rout this army? The song of chapter 5 helps us to know what happened:
In 5:4 The LORD caused the rains to fall and the result is in
5:21 – The Kishon river flooded its banks, sweeping away Sisera’s army with their 900 iron chariots.
There is absolutely no doubt as we read these chapters that God is the one who answers his people’s prayers and saves his people. And so the question comes: Why did God need to involve Barak? Why did he use Deborah? Why hammer wielding Jael? Or the 10,000 of Naphtali and Zebulun?
The answer is implicit in 4: 9. Deborah tells Barak to go, Barak won’t go unless Deborah goes, Deborah says:
*4.9 – “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory.”
Why had God asked Barak to go? He wanted to bless him. But Barak refused, and so Jael entered history as the one who pegged Sisera.
And Deborah’s song in Chapter 5 reflects this. God is clearly the one who’s in charge, yet the song also gives glory to those in Israel who fought, which is the focus of our passage today:
V12: Deborah is there leading the way followed by Barak
V13: We have the nobles and the people join in the fight.
And 14-18 gives us a report on how the different of Israel performed on that day.
Ephraim is first in verse 14. Deborah of course judged Israel in the hill country of Ephraim – and they must have marched north with her and entered into the valley where Sisera’s army was.
Following closely behind them is Benjamin. Benjamin are just south of Ephraim. When they heard that Ephraim was marching north they followed suit to join the battle.
Machir joined in – Machir probably a part of Manasseh, and with them Zebulun and (v15) Issachar and down in v18, Naphtali joins in.
I wonder how you’d feel if you were a little Ephraimite and were listening to this song? Or if you were a Benjamite boy, or a girl from Naphtali?
Clearly God was the one who won the battle. The people and princes and commanders and lieutenants and kinsmen all fought: but so did God through the stars up in heaven and the flood waters of the Kishon. To claim credit for winning the battle would be like Noah claiming he managed to sweep away the wicked in the flood, or Moses claiming to have destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.
Yet… wouldn’t it be great to be an Ephraimite and hear this song sung?
Wouldn’t it be awesome to be Deborah junior? When you sang the song in assembly it would be impossible not to whisper to your neighbour: that’s my mum that is!
God has won the battle, but he’s done it in such a way that vast numbers of people get to participate in his glory.
Which might make us a little nervous. Shouldn’t God get all the glory to himself?
If we are thinking that, we’re probably thinking that glory is a little bit like a cake.
If I share a cake, I cut it up into pieces, pass it around, and the more cake others take, the less cake I have for myself. And if that’s the way God shares out glory, he most certainly does not share his glory with others.
If we’re thinking this way it’s because we’ve basically got a Unitarian version of glory.
Take your box standard Unitarian god. Allah, for instance. There he is sitting on his own with a little greatness bubble around him, and if other people turn up the only thing that can happen is that they take away this greatness from him. So Allah gets a little bit precocious about his “greatness” and holds a hissy whenever someone might come and threaten it.
On the other hand, think about the living God. The Father loves to glorify his Son and just as we read in John 3 today: “The father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” Why? So that the whole world might believe in Jesus.
Likewise Jesus loves to glorify the father, and so he reveals the father to us and calls on the father to glorify his name.
And we shouldn’t be thinking of glory as a cake and the father gives this glory to the son and the son says, “no, no – you have it”, and the father responds, “no, I insist: you take it”, and we have to wait until the eschaton before we finally know who will get it.
No: part of the Son’s glory is precisely the way that he seeks to glorify his father. And part of the Father’s glory is precisely the way he seeks to glorify his Son.
And what’s more, we’re included in this!
Jesus asks us
to pray to him
that we will do even greater works than Jesus himself did
“the father may be glorified
in the Son.”
Jesus in his lifetime saw how many people come to genuine faith in him? 11? 120? Maybe a few more?
Since his ascension how many countless millions have moved from death to life through the witness of ordinary Christians? How many people have been given the crown of joy of having friends believe? Who gets the glory? Clearly God does – and yet part of the glory of God is that we get to participate in this glory at the same time.
Contrast this with Reuben – back in Judges 5:15
Reuben is of course the first born son of Israel, we might hope that he would be leading things – but when the news of war comes there is great searchings of heart. Not just a little, mind you. They really are thinking terribly hard about whether to go or not: it’s being debated at every possibility. I wonder when they came to a conclusion? Did they decide to join in the fight a minute before they heard that the war was won, or a minute after they heard the news?
One of the really sad things about this verse is that it’s just about the last time Reuben is mentioned in the Bible. He’s not there in the rest of Judges, he’s not there in Ruth, or 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel. He’s not there in 1 Kings, but he gets a fleeting mention in 2 Kings when we hear his land has been taken away.
Gilead (v17) – a reference to Manasseh on the East of the Jordon – is the same. Maybe the reason they didn’t want to cross the Jordon was because it was the rainy season, and they were worried the Jordon would flood? In which case isn’t it ironic that the very reason they stayed behind became the very reason God gave victory against Sisera?
Dan and Asher both decide to stay with their ships, and keep their businesses going.
In hindsight, wouldn’t it have been disappointing to be amongst these tribes? Had they known the LORD would give a great victory I’m sure they would have rushed to take part in the battle, and had their names recorded in this song as part of the faithful of Israel.
Yet it’s no point blaming the clarity that hindsight gives. God had spoken through a recognised prophetess of Israel that he would give a great victory. The fact that victory came, should be no surprise at all!
In the same way, at the end of time when we are gathered with people from every tribe, tongue and nation, we shouldn’t be surprised. When we’re with those saints who God used in remarkable ways to bring many to know Jesus, we shouldn’t say: if only I’d known that God was going to bring many muslims to faith in my generation, I’d have got stuck into the work. Hindsight might be wonderful, but divinely inspired foresight is more than enough.
Where does this leave us in our ministry.
Firstly notice that nothing I’ve said implies ministry will be easy.
V18 is clear on this: the people of Zebulun risked their lives to the death.
We think of the pastor in Iran, facing death for his beliefs.
It’s right to mock Allah – the Bible consistently mocks worthless idols: yet let’s remember that before Sisera was defeated, he was given power by God to oppress his people.
What I hope might change is our motivation for ministry.
If our primary motivation for entering ministry is that we are meeting somebody’s needs (whether it is the needs of the world around us, or the need for God to find some workers) – if we enter into ministry seeking to meet needs, we will dry up: we will burn out.
That might happen whilst we’re here in college, it might happen in 5 years time, or it might happen in 30. But as long as we think we are in the process of fulfilling a need, we will end up grumbling and complaining and in the end give up.
Alternatively if we see our ministry as a gracious gift from God to us, that allows us to participate in his glory – just as Barak was invited to share in the glory of the defeat of Sisera, and just as Deborah, Jael, Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, Issachar and Naphtali have been remembered for thousands of years…
If ministry is a gracious gift to us we can enter it with zeal, knowing the goodness of God to us, and giving glory to him that he has chosen to bless us with this gift.
Why doesn’t God just save his elect without us and bring in the New Creation? It isn’t because he’s needy, and he needs us to complete the work that Christ started on the cross.
It’s because he’s generous, and wants us to participate in his glorious work of making his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.