Sermon –March 10, 2014
Church of the Abiding Presence/Gettysburg Seminary – Gettysburg,PA
Judges 4:1-6, 14-23; 5:2-12
I’ve been wrestling with this text for several weeks. It’s not an easy one to try and make sense of never mind preach on. Jael is hailed as a hero because she has killed Israel’s enemy Sisera. And it’s no accidental killing. Jael invites Sisera into her tent, provides him with milk (perhaps further induce sleep), covers him up with a blanket, and tucks him in bed. What a kind and motherly thing to do. I could preach about that all day. But then “Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground – he was lying fast asleep from weariness – and he died.” After I read that I wanted to die, rather than preach on this text!
It’s tempting to rationalize this murder by saying that Jael acted as God’s messenger and destroyed the enemy. “All’s fair in love and war?” as the saying goes. It’s tempting to rationalize this murder because Sisera had violated all the rules of hospitality. After he fled the battle he sought refuge not in his ally Heber’s tent, but in Jael’s – he had no business being alone with a married woman. Further, as a good house guest he had no business requesting anything from her, but we read that he not only requested water to drink, but for her to stand guard, and furthermore to lie!. These are not the actions of a good houseguest.
Yet one could argue that Jael herself violated the rules of hospitality by calling him into her tent. Why would she do such a thing? Delving into the text deeper we can gather some clues. Jael saw Sisera running on foot from the battle to go to the tent of her husband. “Why, she may have wondered, would he be running toward them in such a hurry? What was wrong? It probably put her on edge. And so she came out to meet him and said, “turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me.” Jael is taking a great risk by inviting him in, but she very well may have been afraid for her whole community there that night. And so Jael acts quite motherly toward him – it would calm anyone down – and perhaps entice them to talk. And Sisera does talk. He commands her – this woman who has taken him in – to stand guard. Why would she need to stand guard? I have to wonder if Jael was not becoming increasing more suspicious of his real intentions. And Sisera continues by saying if anyone “asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No’.” More accurately the phrase was, “Is any man here?” Sisera would have no idea how prophetic his words would prove to be. Not only is Jael treating him like a child vs. a man, but soon this man would be dead.
What does all this have to do with Jael’s final action? It has a lot to do with it. For a woman in the ancient near east who was surrounded by a culture of frequent wars, she knew what would most likely happen to her. Rape and murder were commonplace. The end of the Canticle of Deborah – which we didn’t sing – talks about Sisera’s mother and how she was waiting for her son’s return, imagining he was probably late because he was dividing the “spoils of war.” I don’t need to elaborate on what that meant. Jael lived in an environment where women were raped on a regular basis and nothing was thought of it. “All is fair in love and war, right?.” Jael was not about to be the next victim. Nor was she going to allow any of the other women to experience this fate. Jael was going to act. She was going to “get” Sisera before he “got” her. And that is why in the Canticle of Deborah she is hailed as “most blessed of women.” Jael rose up and took a stand against evil. Just as Deborah – prophet, judge, and ‘mother in Israel” rose to lead Israel into victory. These women – mothers of faith – took great risks to lead their people to safety. Mothers are not just soothing and comforting; they stand up and fight to protect those they love. And in the case of Jael – who was not even an Israelite – the effort is even more amazing.
Yet Deborah and Jael are not the only women warriors who stood up against the powers of violence and evil. Today we commemorate the lives of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth – mothers of faith and warriors in the battle against slavery, women’s rights, and justice for all people. Harriet Tubman, also known as “Moses” because she helped lead African Americans out of slavery via the Underground Railroad- risked her life too, so that others might live. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery – that evil that that thought nothing of treating people as inhuman and subjecting woman to endless beatings and rape. Though Jael drove the tent peg through Sisera’s skull to prevent the horror of what would have happened to her and other women, it was only temporary. Violence against women has continued across the ages. At age 12 Harriet Tubman herself was struck in her skull by a heavy metal weight for refusing to restrain a runaway slave. As a result, she suffered seizures for the rest of her life. If Harriet Tubman could have struck back like Jael I’m sure she would have. Yet, she struck back in a different way by spending the rest of her life freeing people from the bonds of slavery.
Isabella Baumfree – better known by the name she later gave herself -Sojourner Truth was another abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Though she was born a slave she fought hard to escape to freedom. Her best known speech, “Ain’t I a woman” given extemporaneously at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 echoed the voices of women from generations before and into today. She echoed the voices of suffering, and slavery that still continues. Today almost a million people – mostly women and children – suffer from human sex trafficking – a $32 billion dollar industry. Over 60% of rapes around the world are unreported. And estimates of 400,000 rape kits in the U.S. alone are still sitting in storage waiting to be processed. 400,000! That is inexcusable violence! I know women who have suffered from rape. I know the pain that follows them their entire lives. Yes, Jael murdered Sisera, but unfortunately that didn’t stop the violence. The crime is that she felt she had no alternative to protect herself. Why was she left all alone? Too many people are left to face their fears alone.
The truth is that violence doesn’t stop violence. The phrase, “All is fair in love and war.” Could perhaps better be restated as “All is inevitable in love and war.” Violence and murder are an inevitable part of war. Violence doesn’t end in peace; it ends in suffering. The answer to the end of violence is not more violence but love. Not love that is passive, but love that is active. Love that stands up for justice. Love that puts an end to oppression. Love that is willing to risk one’s own life for the sake of others. Love that says, I am willing to allow myself to be pierced and impaled on a cross to show the world the end results of violence and sin. The cross. We can’t look away from the horrible violence that it is. We are faced with the ugly truth. The sin of violence destroys.
But God’s love is triumphant! God’s love can and has broken the bonds of sin and death. God’s love shows no partiality to Israelites or Canaanites, to men or women, to the color of skin, or sexual orientation, but stands on the side of righteousness and justice. Like the Underground Railroad God’s love is on a trajectory to lead all of God’s people from oppression to deliverance. From Creation – to the Exodus – to the Civil Rights movement – to the Women’s Suffrage movement – to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall – to the fight for equal rights for all people – to the one day tearing down I pray of the wall in Palestine ….God continues to be on a trajectory to deliver all God’s people and bring about justice and righteousness to all the cosmos.
That’s the Good News! The Good News that though we struggle and though violence seems to have the final say. Violence does not and will not have the final word. For the Word Made Flesh has come among us. The Word Made Flesh dwells among us today. The Word Made Flesh is here in the eyes of the stranger, the hands of the outcast, and the voice of the oppressed crying out to be seen and heard. The Word Made Flesh is among us, but we must break through the violence with love.
We who have been baptized in Christ Jesus continue that trajectory of Christ’s love in the world. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to stand up wherever and whenever injustice raises its ugly head. We are empowered to raise our hands through the power of the Spirit to strike down the oppressors not with violence, but with the word of God and the power of truth and the power of love. This word of truth must be spoken in our churches and schools, in our work environments and in our communities, in our neighborhoods and among our family and friends. It must be spoken from the mountains of the east to the great prairies in the west.
God’s trajectory of love and righteousness is carried out through our hands. God works in the least likely of places and through the least likely of people. Deborah and Jael were hardly who the Israelites thought would lead them into victory. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth never dreamed as former slaves they would be heroes of women across the ages. Those twelve simple fishermen never thought they would be send across the globe to preach to millions. And Nazareth……“Can anything good come from there?” Indeed God’s grace comes from the least likely of places, and through the least likely of people. In Christ, grace not violence is inevitable. And for that grace we give our deepest thanks by living lives in Christ’s service. Amen.