Judges 4:1-10

The book of Judges is an awkward book – perhaps the bloodiest in the Jewish scriptures. One of its most gruesome episodes concludes this story of Deborah and Barak – Jael and the tent peg.

Judges is a translation of a Hebrew word that comes from a root that means judge – hence ‘Judges’. It is clear though that the book’s judges weren’t judges in our sense of the word. Deborah is the only one of them who seems to have settled cases. Mostly they seem to be a maverick assortment of charismatic figures who emerged from time to time to rescue the people of various tribal areas from those who oppressed them.

Sometimes these figures were deeply flawed. Samson is a case in point. A man with tremendous talent but little discipline, who acts like a lout and finally squanders his talent because of his attachment to a beautiful woman who is only too happy to betray him. At the end of his story there is a suggestion that he achieved more through his death than he did during his life.

פטשׁ (sh f t) means judge, but there is an archaic sense of the word that means govern. The word, ‘governor’ or ‘leader’ does seem to describe more what these people did than ‘judge’.

Although the final form of the book of Judges implies that the judges had influence over most ofIsrael, a closer reading suggests that this is probably not the case. The conflict that Barak and Deborah are called to take part in was something that just affected the northern region of Tribal Israel. Hazor, the Canaanite king’s base, was north ofGalilee. Those, whom Barak summons to help him, come from two of the northern tribes- Naphtali and Zebulun. These were most likely the tribes that had borne the brunt of this particular Canaanite oppression. The battle they take part in is also fought in the north on the plain of Jezreel.

Sisera had the greater military force ( the same army that had terrorised the north and kept it under thumb for many years) and he had the equivalent to tanks in the military currency of the day – 900 iron chariots. The gathered force that Barak led against him was made up of lightly armed infantry; some of the force probably carried farm implements as weapons.

The land they did battle on was the flood plain of theKishonRiver. It was a place that was subject to flooding and was often boggy in the wet season. But in the dry (which was when armies went to war) it would have been considered a battlefield well suited to chariot warfare.

So there was a good reason why Barak wasn’t bursting with enthusiasm when Deborah gave him God’s marching orders. He had been summoned 50 miles south to Deborah’s base in the Ephraim hills, for her to tell him that God wanted him to do something that was (from a military point of view) foolhardy. She was expecting him now to trudge 50 miles back north and do it. Well if she was going to ask him to put his and his people’s lives on the line, then he was going to demand that she put her life on the line too.

‘I will go if you go with me,’ he says, ‘but if you don’t come with me, I’m not going.’

A betting person would have put their money on the Canaanites – it was a dead cert. win.

There are two tellings of the story in the book of Judges. In chapter four there is a prose version and in chapter five a version set as a victory song, sung by Deborah and Barak. The song is thought to be one of the oldest bits of poetry in the Jewish scriptures. It is only through the song that we find out the physical reason why Sisera suffered such a big defeat.

In the prose version Deborah announces to Barak that it is time to attack. ‘Today the Lord will help you to defeat Sisera. In fact the Lord has already gone on ahead to fight for you.’

Here is what the song says….

Canaanite kings fought us at Taanach,
By the stream near Meggido-
But they could not rob us of our silver,
From the pathways in the sky
The skies fought Sisera
And his soldiers were swept away
By the ancient Kishon river.                Judges 5: 19-21. C.E.V.

It seems that an unseasonal rainstorm brought the streams up and caused a flood. Sisera’s heavy chariots and horses would have got mired in mud and they would have been worse than useless. The lighter armed force of Barak was much more mobile than Sisera’s army. Sisera’s army was thrown into confusion and Barak’s force was able to press home their unexpected advantage. The victory was so complete that even the enemy commander, Sisera, did not survive the day. He fell victim to a woman with a spare tent peg.

At its core this story celebrates a salvation. God has stepped in through a couple of leaders, and the people ofIsraelare free of their oppressors once again. It’s a story that reminds me of the great Jewish salvation story- the Exodus, in particular the crossing of theRed Sea. Interestingly victory songs are sung after both events and a prominent woman leads the singing. In both cases what happened can be explained as a natural phenomenon- the miracle is in the timing.

The stories of Judges are a hotchpotch, gathered from different places. They hang together because they are joined in a very patterned way.

The people of Israel forgot the Lord their God; they sinned against him and worshipped the idols of Baal and Asherah. So the Lord became angry with Israel and let King Cushan Rishathaim of Mesopotamia conquer them… then the Israelites called out to the Lord and he sent a man to free them.                   Judges3:7-9, GNB.

The people of Israel sinned against the Lord again. Because of this the Lord made King Eglon of Moab stronger than Israel…. The Israelites were subject to Eglon for 18 years . Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he sent a man to free them.        Judges 3:12

And from the beginning of our passage…

The people of Israel sinned against the Lord again. So the Lord let them be conquered by Jabin, a Canaanite king who ruled in the city of Hazor. …He ruled the people of Israel with cruelty and violence for 20 years. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help.

You get the picture.

We may not particularly agree with the editor’s conclusions. They may seem a bit too neat and tidy. But we do need to recognise that by and large these brutal, vivid stories from the book of Judges do celebrate salvation and rescue from oppressive awful situations, and they attribute that salvation to God.

The past year has been a brutal, chaotic year for planet Earth. – The civil wars across the Middle East and the continuing turmoil, the gruesome celebrations after the execution of Gaddafi that were played many more times that we wanted them to be, across our TV screens in our own peculiar western form of gloat… The frequent reports of western soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan… Our knowledge that for every western soldier killed there has been many, many more civilians in those countries who have been killed our maimed… The captain of the English rugby team who has had his international career brought to a premature end because of loutish behaviour off the field.

The stories of the book of Judges have an almost contemporary ring.

I wonder whether in the traumatised, conflicted parts of the world these stories might be more solid beacons of hope than the tidy, sanitised salvation stories that we would prefer them to be.


Philippians 4:1-10

Perhaps some of you know the story about the ladder that has been on a ledge of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for over 150 years. The church that claims to be on the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection has an equally well known reputation for being one of the most fraught and conflicted buildings in the Christian world. The events of Jesus’ death and resurrection that the Holy Sepulchre church was built to honour are central to the Christian story of reconciliation between humankind and God. It is a sad irony that the various Christian communities that have been stakeholders in the church have had such suspicious, fraught relationships with one another. Their tensions, that have been known to flare into violence, have run for centuries.

Church of the Holly Sepulchre, Jerusalem
Church of the Holly Sepulchre, Jerusalem

We may shake our heads at the vocal and powerful fundamentalist sector of the world Moslem community, but in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the Moslem community has provided the important neutral space that has allowed this fractured worship space to function as a church. Since 1192 the keys of the church have been held by the same Moslem family and another Moslem family have been the doorkeepers. This was the peacekeeping arrangement by a Moslem Sultan, put in place because the Christian factions did not have enough trust between them to allow one of them to hold the keys for all.

An agreement under Ottoman law in the middle of the 1700s acknowledged the legitimate interests of six different Christian communities in the site – Roman Catholic, Greek, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox, Coptic and Ethiopian. The current demarcation of which area belongs and is the responsibility of which community and which are common to all, was drawn up in another Moslem peacekeeping effort in the middle of the 19th century. Times and places of worship in the common areas are strictly regulated. The current agreement is a fragile truce that even in the last 10 years has been broken by violent incidents.

In 2002 a Coptic monk who was guarding an entrance to a small rooftop monastery that Coptics maintain is their territory moved his chair out of the blistering sun into some shade a few feet away. This was read as an hostile action by Ethiopian monks who already disputed the Coptics claim to the little monastery. Fighting broke out and 11 monks had to be taken to hospital.

Ironically this disputed little monastery on the roof with its two chapels and 26 tiny rooms is in such a dire state of repair because the groups can’t agree about maintenance and responsibility that engineers worry that it may fall down through the roof and into the church.

So the two communities in this dispute are, in their fight to hold to and protect what they see as theirs, placing not only what they are tenaciously holding on to on jeopardy but the whole building itself. This in a building intended to honour the one who talked about forgetting ourselves and surrendering rather than jealously guarding our lives in order to save them.

The Ladder
The Ladder

And the ladder? Sometime in the middle of the 1800s a monk from one community put up a wooden ladder above the main entrance to do some maintenance and a priest from one of the other communities accused the man of trespassing. The ladder is still there…. I can’t help thinking they could do with an earthquake.

A couple of things from today’s reading.

There are two groups Paul is addressing his comments to- one whom he calls the weak in faith – from what he says they are stricter about their religious observance- , Paul mentions vegetarianism (presumably because they were worried about how meat might have been butchered- whether it came from a pagan temple or not) and he also mentions the special honouring of a particular day of the week.

The other group, the strong in faith aren’t overly worried about where their meat comes from and they say that all days are the Lord’s day.

Paul wants these groups to respect each other’s expression of their Christian faith even if it is different to their own. He warns the strong not to treat those who haven’t their freedom in faith like rubbish. Don’t mock them. And he says to the weak don’t judge those who do differently to you- don’t think that they are lax and their faith is hopelessly compromised.

To both he says, ‘Sort out what you think is right for you and do that to honour the Lord, not to justify yourself as intellectually, morally or theologically superior to those whose conscience leads them to do otherwise.

I want to close by saying something about the word, welcome. It is there in verse one when Paul tells the strong in faith to genuinely welcome those who are weak and it is also in verse three. ‘The person who eats meat mustn’t rubbish the person who doesn’t, and the vegetarian mustn’t judge the non vegetarian, because God has welcomed that person.’

It is our experience of God’s welcome and hospitality that unites us, however that works its way out in our lives. We are people whom God is pleased to see. You and I and our brothers and sisters in the Tawa Union family, and the folk from across the road at the Gospel Hall, and down the road at St Christopher’s, and the Sallies, and the Baptists and the New Lifers, and whatever else blooms in this Holy City of Tawa. God has said ‘Welcome’ to all of us…. ALL of us.

It is a lifetime’s education learning the enormity of the welcome, and a lifetime’s transformation learning how to offer that same welcome and hospitality to one another and those around us. Amen.


Prayer for People

Creating Loving God we pray for our world,
We think about countries that are at war
We think about countries that are suffering from drought or floods.
We pause and ask for your peace

Peace to the land
Peace to the seas and rivers

We remember before you Aotearoa the land of the long white cloud
We pray for Christchurch
for the people who are living on the edge of their indurance
We pray for the children who will most likey carry scars hidden within them.
We pray for the elderly and confused
We pray for the mayor and cauncil and all who are makes decisions that effect others lives.
we pause and ask for your peace

Peace to the people
peace to the land

We remember family and friends
we give thanks for the people in our lives who have carried the hope when we have struggled.
We pray for the sick
We pray for the youth of our country espically those involved in taking their own lives
those who are struggling, either physically or mentally
we pause and ask for your peace

Peace to the people
peace to families

We give thanks for Jesus
our Brother, Saviour, Friend
We give thanks for each other
We give thanks for opportunities to gather and pray.

we ask these prayers in Jesus Name


Matthew 15:1-20

Every culture has its way of marking out what is sacred, special, to be respected, and what is ordinary and needs no special respect. For instance, in Maori and Pacific culture you may eat specially consecrated food like communion bread and wine in a place of worship, but you don’t eat ordinary food there. Palagi culture doesn’t mark its sacred space in that same way, so we have no particular issue with eating in a worship space. I’m sure that the Pacific families that are part of our church can point out a few ways that Palagi do mark sacred space though. Some of them will be the same as Pacific people and some not – move the chairs, touch the organ, bring the drum kit and synthesiser, forget to light the candle, shift the bible, let the service go on a bit long….

When a couple marry and move in together, (or move in together and then marry)- they are suddenly confronted with a whole lot of differences in the way things are done. They have taken on not just the person they love but, horror of horrors, the way that that person goes about life as well. In her family they know about dirty clothes baskets, in his they use the floor for that (or so he says). He works to a budget, she sees something she likes and just buys it. One of them squeezes the toothpaste tube at the bottom, the other just squeezes it.

There are all these things, that all their lives, they have just assumed that that’s the way it’s done- it has never crossed their minds that it can be done another way. It is very easy to guild the way we do things with words like logical, best, sensible, obvious, right, proper….

So the negotiations begin, in that mix of love and frustration, understanding and argument, Negotiations that will hopefully lead to some workable compromise in which both win some of the time, and the essentials get done one way or another.

Whether it is a matter of different cultures being brought together or different people being brought together, it is a chance for all to sort out what is really critical, and what isn’t quite so important and might even be let go. This may not feel like a blessing in the cut and thrust of negotiations, but it is. The chance to recognise what is core, and what isn’t, is one we probably wouldn’t have had had, had we encountered only more of our own assumptions and conclusions instead of difference.

Segments of Jewish culture in Jesus’ day made a very definite division between what was holy and what was ordinary. The Hebrew and Greek words for holy both have a strong sense of being set apart from ordinary use and dedicated to sacred service.

There was the sacred and the profane. Profane in this sense doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. Our word ‘profane’ comes from two Latin ones- fanum which means temple and pro which means before. Profane means something that is outside the bounds of the sanctuary- it is before it, not inside it.

The New Testament equivalent is koinos ( you may have heard the word koinonia-fellowship, community- they are both from the same root). Koinos means communal or common-something that comes into contact with anything and everything. Ordinary, unfussy, profane… and because it could have been in touch with anything it was regarded as ceremonially impure or unclean.

Something that was koinos (ordinary) was approachable and usable without any ceremony. That was not the case for anything that was holy. There special attention had to be paid, precautions had to be taken. You did not mix the sacred and the profane. You did not bring anything that was potentially unclean, including yourself, into a holy place.

The Pharisees were the holiness movement of the day. Wherever possible they avoided contact with anything that might render them unclean. They were fastidious in their observance of Jewish ritual law. Within their own circle and outside of it, they gained a lot of kudos for going above and beyond the basic legal requirements for ritual purity. They were seriously holy. They prided themselves in not only following the Torah (the legal requirements of the Hebrew scriptures) but also in following the oral commentary that rose up around that law and came in the end to be written down as the Mishnah.

Their protest about proper hand washing is a case in point. The Torah only stipulates ritual hand washing for priests. On the strength of their oral tradition the Pharisees had adopted the practice whether they were priests or not. Then on the rationale that Israel was a holy priesthood in respect to the rest of the world, they sought to impose the practice on the wider community. This was not an argument about public health; it was an argument about who was holy and pure. It was an argument about authority.

The Pharisees were very sure that there was one route to holiness and they were the ones who knew it and practiced it. So anyone who wanted to dedicate themselves to God had better get in behind. There was no room for negotiation for they had the mind of God, or at least the wisdom of the elders, on this.

Jesus responds by giving them a flea in the ear about a particularly glaring short coming in their brand of holiness. Then he calls the crowd and makes a statement that scandalises the Pharisees and astonishes even his own disciples.
Listen and try to understand. It is not the food that you put into your mouth that makes you unclean and unfit to worship God; the bad words that come out of your mouth are what make you unclean. Mt15:10-11

That’s a direct hit on Jewish dietary law, one of the major ways in which Jews observed their faith and honoured what was sacred. You can imagine any Gentile hearing or reading Matthew’s gospel in the days of the early church going, ‘Yes!’ It meant, you see, that dietary law was cultural, not core. ‘It is what you say and do that are far better indicators of the state of the soul than what you take in by way of food,’ Jesus explains to the disciples.

It is not the things that come from outside that taint us; it is what comes from ourselves- poor attitudes, economy with the truth, stories told to justify theft, infidelity and violence. That is the stuff that makes us less than what we should be. If we are scrupulous about external religious observance yet neglect the nudges of God’s Spirit within us to accept God’s love and forgiveness ever more deeply, and to allow that same love and grace to spill over into our living then we have missed the point. We are not a plant planted by the Lord at all, only a weed that robs other plants of the sun and the nutrients and space that they need to grow. We make dangerous guides, because we have no real idea of where the track is or even what it looks like.

The high priests of computing say ‘Garbage in, garbage out,’ but when it comes to humans Jesus says ‘Garbage out, garbage out.’ What comes out is indicative of what is inside. Faith that lacks integrity is nothing. But faith with integrity… that is something else. That is God’s treasure hidden in the ordinary, earthenware vessels of our lives. That is the sacred touching and transfiguring the profane.