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This is the last week before advent, and so we come to the last of our stories about the Children of Israel (for now). We find ourselves in the book of Judges. Two weeks ago we heard about Joshua’s final speech before his death, in which he encouraged his people to renew their covenant to the Lord, having prevailed in establishing them in the promised land. This, unfortunately, represented a high note from which the book of Judges progressively declines.
The stories in this book all follow a recognizable cycle: the Children of Israel experience a triumph of some kind and a renewal of faith and practice, as in where we left off with Joshua. But over time they fall away into idolatry and evil. As a result, they find themselves challenged by some adversary, which is attributed to God as a punishment for their transgression. They cry out to the Lord for help, and the Lord lifts up a warrior-leader to lead them out of their suffering and oppression and into a time of new thriving for their community. This warrior-leader was also called a Judge, and would often lead them in both battles, and in adjudicating internal disagreements in peacetime. And then, whenever that Judge died and Israel was without leadership for a time, then the cycle would begin again. Each cycle would prove a little more difficult to recover from, and by the end of the book of Judges, Israel is in pretty bad shape.
But in our text today, the beginning of the story of Deborah, things are still pretty good for Israel. Deborah herself is of note because she was the only female Judge, and by all accounts was a wise and successful leader. We are told that Israel is struggling against Canaan, and against Sisera, the leader of the Canaanite army. Deborah deputizes a man named Barak to lead the Israelites in battle against Sisera, but he expresses uncertainty about his mission, and desires Deborah to accompany him, which she does. The Israelites are eventually victorious but not in an entirely conventional way. Sisera is ultimately killed, yes, but by a civilian women named Jael, which is also another story for another day.
Given that we are on the threshold of Thanksgiving, today I would like to focus on the representation of Deborah and how her example can invite us into the practice of gratitude. In verse 14:
“Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?”
This is a typical and expected speech from a leader for the purpose of encouraging their troops. But she does it in a particular way, as many leaders of Israel had done: by reminding the people of their history and the stories of their ancestors. Just as the Lord went ahead of the Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, when they were escaping Pharaoh in Exodus 13:21, just as the Lord has shown up for their ancestors, so too would the Lord show up for them now, and deliver them a victory.
In a similar way, in its essence, thanksgiving for us is a practice of remembrance. In order to be thankful for something that has happened, we must recall that thing, lift it up in our memory, see its place in our life, and understand it’s significance to us. We make the decision to notice and remember, to give a particular occurrence some special meaning. And what happens to us as a result? The act of thanksgiving changes us: changes our perspective, changes how we interpret our current circumstances and our future possibilities.
In our Swedenborg reading, we heard how setting out ahead, or going out ahead by God, represents a setting in order, a rearrangement of our internal selves by Divine Truth. Deborah, as she asks us the question “Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” brings into focus how the act of thankful remembrance sets our view of things in a different order. Gratitude places different things before our eyes than grievance. When we see the truth, the Divine Truth, of God’s presence in our lives, a reordering of our experience occurs, and we often can appreciate it in a new way.
And while we can be grateful about all kinds of things, Deborah specifically represents an “affection for inner spiritual truths which look to the Lord as our Savior.” (1) We can be grateful for luck, we can be grateful for happenstance, but Deborah represents a gratitude that is specifically centered around recognizing God’s providence for us. And I don’t know about all of you, but I really need this practice right now.
Because, while I super love spending time with one of the most powerful female figures in the Bible, I find myself as many of you probably do too, resonating with the uncertainty of Barak. He says: “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” As we all head into very uncertain times together but apart, as we head into a holiday season that probably will not contain as many of the social rituals that we have come to rely upon, as we look toward a potentially difficult winter, and we all grapple with isolation and disruption, we certainly might wonder: What kind of battle are we being sent into? Like Barak, we might need some reassurance. This is totally okay. Barak looks toward the leadership he needs and desires that this leadership accompany him into the challenge to come. I can imagine this being like us looking around us to see what we can bring with us to fortify us, without which we will not go forward into the unknown. Things like: a mediation or prayer practice, alternative ways to connect with loved ones, making sure we get outside in nature, making ourselves nourishing and favorite foods, and multitude of other things we each differently need.
And Deborah’s answer is yes, I will go. These external practices that remind us of the presence of God, the strength of our bodies, the blessedness of our friendships, the beauty of the world, these things are very good for us. They make a huge difference. There is a wisdom to knowing our limits, foreseeing what we might need, asking for help, enacting a strategy for success. And right now, it is probably pretty important that we be metaphorically asking for Deborah to accompany us on our journeys.
But crucially and additionally, Deborah works to widen our view even further, being as she is the “affection for inner spiritual truths which look to the Lord as our Savior,” she helps us to recognize that our life will always be a partnership between ourselves and the Lord. We will do our part, and the Lord will do the Lord’s part. And in our day to day, in our distractedness and necessary earthliness, we will not always be able to see the Lord’s part, or appreciate it. So Deborah lifts up for us the question: How has the Lord gone ahead of us? If we allow it, this question can rearrange our internal life so that we can see with clarity, even if just for a moment, how the Lord always will be present for us and for our world.
What might we see when we ponder how the Lord has gone ahead of us in these times? Here are a few examples that I am thinking of:
Frontline medical workers, tirelessly treating all who come to them; learning and developing new ways to treat those who have Covid-19 and always working to do better and more. For this we thank them. Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?
Scientists, both those have been working directly on a vaccine, and those have built up the foundational science over the years. And administrators that support them in organizing and overseeing vaccine trials. For this we thank them. Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?
Public health officials, who have been working to keep track of data and demographics, so that we might have a sense of what is coming, while communicating safe and effective practices to the public. For this we thank them. Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?
There are so many we can be thankful for: Essential workers, administrators of our various supply chains, teachers, first responders, artists, activists, and many many others. Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?
Deborah’s episode in the book of Judges ends with a song, another mighty remembrance of suffering and ultimate victory. And the final word in her story says: “Then the land had peace forty years.” It’s a little hard to feel peaceful these days, my friends, I know. But we also know, and we remember, from the times gone by:
“Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people." (Exodus 13:22) Amen.
(1) Anita Dole, Bible Study Notes Volume 2, 385
Judges 4:1-10, 14-15
1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the LORD sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help. 4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’ ” 8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” 9 “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him.
14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. 15 At Barak’s advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.
Secrets of Heaven #8192.
And the angel of God set out. That this signifies a setting in order by Divine truth, is evident from the signification of “setting out,” as being a setting in order. That “to set out” denotes a setting in order is because the pillar of cloud-which was an angelic choir-that had previously advanced before the sons of Israel, now betook itself between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel, and thus brought darkness upon the Egyptians, and gave light to the sons of Israel; and because these things were thus set in order by the Lord, by means of the setting out of the angel of God, or the pillar, and by means of its interposition, therefore by “to set out” is here signified a setting in order.