Audrey Hepburn note to composer Henry Mancini, 1961
I have just seen our picture – BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S – this time with your score. A movie without music is a little bit like an aeroplane without fuel. However beautifully the job is done, we are still on the ground and in a world of reality. Your music has lifted us all up and sent us soaring. Everything we cannot say with words or show with action you have expressed for us. You have done this with so much imagination, fun and beauty. You are the hippest of cats – and the most sensitive of composers!
Thank you, dear Hank. Lots of love, Audrey
We seldom forget the impact of a well said word of encouragement, a well written note of affirmation, or even the simplest nod of approval – such moments can lift us up, they can carry us through, they spur us on – they lift our spirits and send us sailing through the good times and the horrible times, in our times of doubt and in our times of greatest confidence.
I frequently think of the apostle Paul’s opening words to the church at Philippi – ‘Every time I think of you I am filled with Joy!’ I cannot imagine the thoughts that must have gone through the minds of those who heard these words.
Or, in Paul’s opening affirmation to the church at Thessalonica as he wrote, ‘We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering your faith, labor of love, and steadfastness hope. We know that God has chosen you. You received God’s truth with joy in the midst of persecution and bad times, and you became an example to all the believers in your community and beyond. God’s truth has been seen and heard in every place your faith has become known – I have people telling me they already know what I have to say because they have heard it from you, and even more, they have seen it in your life – I am so inspired by you!’
Even more encouraging is Paul’s final words to the Thessalonianhs, ‘We don’t really need to write anything else to you, you know what I will say – the day of the Lord will arrive without warning and you need to always be ready. So, we leave you with this (again you already know this) – encourage and build up each other, – which you are already doing. Respect and esteem the attitude, spirit, and work of those who are working hard. Be at peace among yourselves. Guide the lazy, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil, but always do good to one another and, for that matter, to everyone. Rejoice always, pray constantly, and, now in your situation I know this is tough, always give thanks in whatever is happening. Don’t ignore or dismiss what the Spirit is doing. Remember truth and test everything to make sure it is not lies or darkness; hang on to what is good and turn away from what is evil.’
To encourage and build each other up is a necessity, not just in our faith, but in life. We need each other, in bad but also in the good times. It is in its absence that the sufferings of Jesus on the cross were so abominable – He was all alone, going through the most horrific moment that has ever been experienced by any human, the physical pain, the emotional humiliation of the false accusations that put him there, the spiritual unbearable weight of the sins of all mankind, and the loneliness, separation, and isolation in that moment.
That is why it had to be God’s son on the cross, not just because he was the only pure and spotless one, nor was it just because he alone was righteous and holy, it was because only he could take our journey of separation and isolation, our journey that could only be done alone.
There were only 2 times when our earthly human element of time impacted our timeless God, the first was the creation and the second was giving Jesus from his birth to the empty grave. An agonizing wait and an unimaginably sacrificial act. For Jesus was a part of a community, a community that built him up, encouraged him through, and loved him fully – this community was first the Godhead and then an earthly community, an extended family, of humans. He too, in the same way as us, suffered greatly without the encouragement of those communities.
Today, we look at an example of this encouragement and building up each other spoken of by Paul to the church at Thessalonica. It is not an example from Jesus words to his followers or his moments with those closest to him, nor is it from the apostles letters and travels to lift up the believers. Instead, it comes from the book of Judges and ultimately culminates with a hammer, a tent peg, and a woman willing to do what needed to be done in order to build up those who were in the greatest need of encouragement, deliverance, and hope.
It is the story of two exceptionally strong women, who, in today’s vernacular would probably be referred to as beasts – not because of their appearance or presentation. Beast, because in a society that dismissed women, these women did all that needed to be done, in faith and action to listen and act on the words from God, to encourage and build up a leader to go to battle against an oppressive and warring neighbor, with a people against their fiercest enemy.
It is also a tale of a man who was not afraid to depend on his community to build him up and encourage him along in the times when he knew he could not succeed without his community.
Let’s begin with a little context, after the death of Joshua who lead the Israelites into the promised land, the leadership fell to individuals called Judges who would literally the judge of disputes among the people and they would lead the people when leadership was needed. The first three judges reigned for approximately 138 combined years after the death of Joshua – Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, all were men. By the time the fourth judge was in the position of authority, a woman named Deborah, the Israelites had turned from God who was in the process of correcting them through the brutal oppression and attacks from Canaan King Jabin and his sadistic military leader Sisera.
Then, the moment God was waiting for, it is the moment that God still waits for, the moment when we, as humans, realize that our hope and deliverance is not in our selves, it is not in our rulers, it is not in our institutions, it is not in our power, it is in God – it is in God alone. It was at that moment, as it is always in that moment, God set into motion the plan that was already in place – God heard and God acted.
God began with Deborah, the prophetess and judge. The wife of a man whose surname was Lappidoth; a name that meant lightning and a torch. Not only was Deborah’s surname defining her as power and light, she was also a faithful follower of God, a woman whose confidence was in God, a human who was chosen to speak for God, a beloved who was willing to be used by God.
‘Speak this to the leader Barak’, God instructs Deborah.
So, Deborah does as Deborah always does, she obeys God and speaks to Barak. ‘God, the God of Israel, commands you: Go to Mount Tabor and prepare for battle. Gather ten thousand fighters. I’ll take care of getting Sisera the commander of Jabin’s army, to the Kishon River with all his chariots and troops. I WILL make sure you win the battle.’
Barak said to Deborah, ‘If you go with me, I’ll go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
Deborah said, ‘Of course I’ll go with you. But you need to know now that there’ll be no glory, nor public acclaim for you. Instead, God will use a woman to take get rid of the commander Sisera.”
Sometimes we can see more in what is not said than in what is actually said.
I have never heard this passage preached, and quite honestly I have never preached this passage without labeling Barak as a coward. Usually, our own biases, insecurities, and prejudices keep us from seeing truth that is right in front of us. Most of the time we let our own closed minds keep us from opening up amazing gems that are right in front of our nose. Instead of this story depicting a slam on gender, it is not really a story of gender at all, nor is it really about the manly action of going to war. It is in fact a story of the need of all of us to be ready to permit someone else to be the light that God leads us with, a directional sign that leads us to the path and keeps us on course.
This is a story of encouragement and building another up, it is an unique visual of what it looks like to be the encourager and the builder, however, it also reveals the need to permit God to strengthen us through all that he sends our direction.
When Paul spoke to the church at Thesslonica, to the Hebrews, and at Corinth, he applauded them for the fact that they been ‘imitators of Paul and his companions’, he encouraged the Hebrews to ‘imitate those who were following Jesus.’ He was not telling them to follow humans instead of Jesus, but, he was pointing them to those who could build them up and encourage them to actually follow Christ. It was and is a first step of many steps for a believer.
When John the Baptizer pointed to Jesus and told his disciples ‘that is who I have been telling you about, that is the one I have been building you up to follow, that is the one I am encouraging you to trust.’ Then, as the John’s disciples left to follow Jesus, John was not offended, he may have been lonely but he knew this was the whole reason they had been ‘imitating’ him, so that they could then imitate and follow Jesus.
Barak was not a coward, he was a man who knew his limitations, his weakness, in light of what he saw in Deborah. He saw her presence before God, her ability to listen and hear God – he knew that for Deborah, God was truly God. This was new to him as his generation had turned their backs on God.
As I said, it is often what we do not see, what he do not hear in scripture that teaches us the most. We do not see any further doubt or hesitancy, Barak obeyed, he just needed to be built up, he knew he was going to need the encouragement in the dark times to come. To Barak it was not about himself, it was not about acclaim, fame, or position. It was about God’s plan in response to the cries from the people, the people that included Barak.
While our own biases interpret Deborah’s words as a belittling of Barak because of a negative mindset towards her own gender, we, through our filters, read it as a challenge to his manhood. However, we do not see this in his reaction, it is just information regarding the plan, information that will guide him in trusting Jael as she tells him to come into her house to see what she has accomplished.
Barak needed the same thing that Paul told the Thessalonians they needed – building up and encouragement. They were to be that and to accept that.
Even if it was from those culturally considered to be ‘less than’ himself.
So, it was a woman named Jael, a woman that we only know as a ‘wife’, a woman who was considered an ally of Sisera, a woman who was not part of the oppressed people, a woman who was not even an Isrealites nor a Jew. A woman who did what had to be done, a woman who, somehow, knew what God was calling her to do. A woman who knew how to swing a hammer, a talent that sustained her at the right time and in the right place.
So, as we close, we return to the apostle Paul’s words to the believers at Thessalonica, we return to the words of Paul to us.
‘I don’t really need to write anything else to you, you know what I will say – the day of the Lord will arrive without warning and you need to always be ready. So, we leave you with this (again you already know this) – encourage and build up each other, – which you are already doing. Respect and esteem the attitude, spirit, and work of those who are working hard. Be at peace among yourselves. Guide the lazy, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil, but always do good to one another and, for that matter, to everyone. Rejoice always, pray constantly, and, now in your situation I know this is tough, always give thanks in whatever is happening. Don’t ignore or dismiss what the Spirit is doing. Remember truth and test everything to make sure it is not lies or darkness; hang on to what is good and turn away from what is evil.’