Sermon 08-31-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 4: Barak”

September 10, 2014

superhero graphic

One of the most difficult truths of scripture is that God permits suffering in our world, whether he causes it or not. The good news is that he redeems suffering too. He constantly uses it for our own good. He did so in the case of Israel at the beginning of today’s scripture, and he did so in the case of Barak. Suffering, as C.S. Lewis famously observed, is like a megaphone by which God wakes us up. But victory is always waiting for us on the other side of hard times, if we can only trust in the Lord.

 Sermon Text: Judges 4:1-22

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

The best-selling new atheist writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins got some bad publicity a couple of weeks ago from some remarks he made on his Twitter account. One of his followers said, “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.” It was no dilemma for Dawkins. He tweeted back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Dr. Dawkins received a ton of well-deserved criticism for this tweet, including from a thoughtful writer named J.D. Flynn in the Christian journal First Things. Flynn wondered on what basis Dawkins believed that knowingly bringing Down Syndrome children into the world was “immoral.”

He wrote: “I suspect you believe that people with Down syndrome suffer, needlessly, and cause undue suffering to their friends and relatives. And, as a general principle, I believe you’re inclined to [want to prevent] as much human suffering as possible.”

Flynn continues: “I have two children with Down syndrome. They’re adopted. Their birth-parents faced the choice to abort them, and didn’t. Instead the children came to live with us. They’re delightful children. They’re beautiful. They’re happy. One is a cancer survivor, twice-over. I found that in the hospital, as she underwent chemotherapy and we suffered through agony and exhaustion, our daughter Pia was more focused on befriending nurses and stealing stethoscopes. They suffer, my children, but in the context of irrepressible joy.”

“Suffering,” Flynn goes on to say, “is not a moral evil to be avoided. Suffering can have meaning and value.”

Suffering is not a moral evil to be avoided. Suffering can have meaning and value.

Given that somewhere between 65 and 90 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome in the U.S. and Europe are aborted by their parents, it’s hard to imagine that most people agree with Flynn. It seems likely that most of us living in the Western industrialized world agree with Dawkins that suffering is a moral evil that ought to be avoided, and that suffering can have no meaning or value.

If so, it’s clear that God’s Word does not share this point of view. After all, listen to way today’s scripture begins: “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan… The commander of his army was Sisera… Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help, for he had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.”[1]

Our scripture takes place after Moses led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt—after Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and after Moses’ protégé Joshua led them into the the land of Canaan, the Promised Land—but before Israel had a king who ruled them. God’s original intention was that Israel wouldn’t need a king. The people would love and worship God, obey him, and live at peace.

That didn’t happen! Not even close! The people continually rebelled against God, worshiped the idols of their Canaanite neighbors—and what happened? God let them suffer the consequences of their sin. In fact, God used foreign kings and armies to oppress them and punish them. Until the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help… until they repented. And then God raised up what the book of Judges calls a “judge,” someone who could rescue Israel from the hands of their enemy. The Book of Judges tells that story—and we see this cycle repeated throughout the book: the people’s disobedience, followed by punishment at the hands of foreign kings and armies, followed by repentance, followed by deliverance.

But the point is, the scripture says that the Lord was responsible for his people’s suffering—and that he used it for their good. Because it forced them to “cry out to the Lord.” It brought them to repentance. It brought them to a place where they could trust in God more deeply than before.

My own father died of cancer when I was 25. He was 62. During that last year of his life, our relationship deepened into a real friendship. I told you a couple of weeks ago that Dad was not happy when I, at age 17, was thinking about pursuing a career in ministry. He was not a deeply religious man, and he didn’t appreciate my wanting to be at church every time the doors were open. So imagine my surprise when, during that last year he asked me to go and buy him a Bible—not a King James, but one that was easier to read. My dad wanted to read the Bible! Where did that come from? So I bought him a Bible, and he read it. And he told me about how he was praying. My father came to know the Lord during that last year of his life. He was saved, and I’m confident he’s in heaven right now because his cancer brought him to his knees. It motivated him to place his trust in the Lord!

And if we could ask my dad in heaven right now, “Was it worth getting terminal cancer and dying so that you could repent of your sins, place your trust in Jesus, and be saved?” what do you think he would say? My dad died at 62. I wish he would have lived to be 102! But not at the expense of knowing the Lord! What’s 102 years in light of eternity?

So God uses suffering to cause us to repent and turn to him—just as he did for ancient Israel, just as he did for my father.

But suffering isn’t just for sinners who need to repent and be saved. After all, I can’t imagine a Christian who had it more together, spiritually, than the apostle Paul. Can you? He wrote most of the New Testament, for heaven’s sake! Paul was the greatest missionary who ever lived. God used Paul to spread the gospel all over the known world. Yet in 2 Corinthians chapter 12, Paul says God gave him a “thorn in his flesh.” We don’t know what this “thorn in the flesh” was. Probably some physical ailment with which Paul’s readers would be familiar. Perhaps it was something that disfigured him in some way. We don’t know. Whatever it was, it caused Paul great anguish. He pleaded with God to heal him of it, but God said no. And why did God give it to him in the first place? Paul said it was “to keep him from being conceited”—from getting a big head. So God gave him thorn, which caused suffering, which accomplished something good.

But here’s the thing: Paul also described this “thorn in the flesh” as being a messenger from Satan sent to torture him.

Wait… So how can something be from both God and Satan?

Here’s how: Satan caused Paul’s suffering, and God transformed it into something good. Satan caused the suffering. God transformed it into something good.

This sort of thing happens all the time with God. Remember the story of Joseph in Genesis? He is his father Jacob’s favorite son. His brothers are jealous of him. So they sell him into slavery in Egypt. Through a long and convoluted history filled with suffering, Joseph eventually becomes the Pharaoh’s chief aide; Joseph saves the people of Egypt from starvation when a famine hits the land. And at the end of Genesis, Joseph reunites with his brothers and tells them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”[2]

It’s clear from scripture that Satan has the power to harm us: even to cause illness, natural disaster, tragic accidents, financial harm, family problems, and other kinds of suffering in our lives—hoping that these bad things will make us lose our faith and fall away from following our Lord—but God has the power to transform all of that bad stuff into something good! So that we can say, “Satan intended to harm me, but God intended it for good!”

Brothers and sisters, think of the worst thing you’re going through in your life right now. I’m sure it’s bad; it’s very possibly evil; and I’m sure the devil has a hand in it. Say this: “Satan intends this thing to harm me, but God intends it for good.”

See, even in today’s scripture, it’s not as if God is the puppet-master pulling King Jabin’s strings, pulling Sisera’s strings, causing them to enslave and oppress the Israelites. No… they’re doing evil on their own. It’s just that God is transforming it into good! God always does that—because we know that in “all things God works for the good of those who love him.”[3] All things means all things! Which is exactly why—even when we’re facing the toughest circumstances in life—the Bible says that we are supposed to “give thanks in all circumstances”[4] and “count it all joy” when we face trials of various kinds.[5] Again: “all” means all!

Now, I would be lying to you if I said that I was there yet, spiritually—if I said that I was often able to be joyful in the midst of pain and suffering. I’m not! I feel a sense of entitlement, you know? “Why me, Lord? Do you know how lucky you are that I answered your call into ministry? I had many other offers to choose from!”

So my first response to suffering is to feel violated. Like, “I don’t deserve this bad thing, Lord.” But that can’t be right because I don’t deserve my life in general. I don’t deserve these 44 years that God has given me—and if God takes my life away this afternoon, I would be deeply ungrateful to complain. Because they’ve been 44 good years in spite of the many ways that I’ve tried to sabotage them, make a mess of everything, and kick against the goads! If I haven’t enjoyed my life enough, it’s my fault; not God’s. All he’s done is show me, time and again, through his Word and through his Holy Spirit, what it means to be happy, and yet I so often choose my own way!

So when the bad stuff comes my way, I’m reminded of something C.S. Lewis said:

I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down… Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times.[6]

 

“I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. That’s the secret, isn’t it?

 

In today’s scripture, Barak was not in the frame of mind when God called him to defeat Sisera. God tells him through Deborah the prophetess: “Take all your troops, go to this mountain, and I will deliver Sisera into your hands.” And what does Barak say? “Ma’am, yes, ma’am! I’ll go right away!” No… He says, “I’ll go if you go. If you won’t go, I won’t go.” In other words, he didn’t believe God, and he was afraid. God told him that he was going to give him the victory, all Barak needed to do was trust him and go! And consequently, Barak missed out on the glory of defeating Sisera personally. God chose to let someone else have that honor—a woman named Jael.

 

The point is, Barak missed out on the victory and he missed out on the blessing because he didn’t trust the Lord.

How many victories do we miss out on because we fail to trust the Lord? How many blessings do we miss out on because we fail to trust the Lord?

I have a friend—a fellow Methodist pastor in Dayton, Tennessee named Chad Holtz—whose church’s tagline is, “God is changing lives here.” God is changing lives here. I love that. The tagline I keep seeing around here is, “Hampton United Methodist… A Place of Grace.” That’s good. But I like my friend’s much better.

 

We are a place of grace—because through Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, God has graciously forgiven us of our sins. That’s grace! And because of this grace, God accepts all of us sinners just as we are, “without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” That’s grace!

 

So God accepts us sinners just the way we are and forgives us just the way we are… But the gospel of Jesus Christ is not like a Billy Joel love song: “Don’t go changing, to try and please me/ You never let me down before…” Or “I need to know that you will always be/ The same old someone that I knew…” No, the gospel of Jesus Christ means that the “same old someone” that we used to be needs to change! That we need to “go changing” to please God because otherwise we do let God down!

God accepts us just the way we are, but we don’t get to stay just the way we are. We need to change! God forgives us just the way we are, but God expects us to overcome the sin in our lives for which we need forgiveness in the first place. Staying “just the way we are” isn’t an option for those of us who follow Jesus Christ!

 

It wasn’t an option for Barak! God wanted him to change! And so maybe by showing him that he missed out on the blessing, maybe by wounding Barak’s pride, maybe by showing him that an unarmed, untrained, seemingly harmless non-combatant won the victory that Barak so badly wanted—maybe this was was the means by which God was teaching Barak that he needed to trust him more! I’m sure Barak suffered a little bit, too, but this suffering was good for him.

 

I want our church to be a place of grace and a place where God is changing lives and giving us victories over sin in our lives. I want our church to be a place where we know that God gives us the power to win these victories!

 

Do you need a victory in your life? Will you please trust that the Lord has both the power and the desire to give you that victory! Trust him! And by all means do what he says!

 

[1] From Judges 1:1-3 ESV

[2] Genesis 50:20 NIV

[3] Romans 8:28 NIV

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:18

[5] James 1:2

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 106.

One Response to “Sermon 08-31-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 4: Barak””

  1. bobbob Says:

    so i went and read the original tweet and the”apology” and i am not favorably impressed. the i read this article frm the Spectator publication: http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9303832/i-know-that-richard-dawkins-is-wrong-about-downs-syndrome-because-i-know-my-son/

    it just came out a couple of days ago so maybe prof dawkins has not seen it yet. it dismantles his arguments skillfully and makes him look like a twit. not tweeter, just a nitwit.
    i like the line that the title of The God Delusion would have been better suited for his autobiography. does the good professor realize he has faith just as the rest of us?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s