This past September marked the 150th anniversary of a lunch-hour prayer meeting that started in a small church in New York City. When this prayer meeting started, the nation was in turmoil. 30,000 men were idle on the streets of New York. Drunkenness was rampant, and the nation was divided by slavery.
A church at Fulton and William Street decided to relocate, and they left a man behind to start a mission in that area. His name was Jeremiah Lanphier. He walked the streets and began to notice the worried looks of the businessmen in the area. He decided to call a prayer meeting. On September 23, 1857, the lunch-hour prayer meeting started. Six people showed up a half hour late. Not a very promising start.
The group decided to meet the next week, and 14 people showed up. The week after there were 23. The following week there were 40. Within three months there were over a hundred meetings in the city with more than 50,000 New Yorkers pausing to pray daily.
God moved so powerfully that the prayer meeting spread across the nation. Within about 18 months, it is estimated that nearly 1 million people were converted out of a national population of 35 million, including 10,000 weekly conversions in New York City for a while. The effects of this prayer meeting are still being felt today.
One researcher says, "When we look back, we really see that this was not a movement of great men or great women. This was a movement of a simple layman who was left behind by a relocating church" (Ed Stetzer)
There seem to be times when God takes an ordinary individual – often unexpectedly – and initiates something far beyond that person's abilities. In many of these cases, the impact is felt today.
We're going to look at a case study of how God uses people today. When we look at today's passage and meditate on it, we will discover three things:
- First, when God uses people, he initiates.
- Second, he initiates with unexpected people
- Third, he uses them far beyond their abilities.
First, God initiates
When we start today's passage, things aren't looking so good. We read in verses 1-3:
Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. 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. 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.
This is pretty bad. We know that God had promised Israel this land, but now because of their disobedience he has sold them into the hands of this enemy king. What is worse, this king had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron. This is really serious business.
But in the middle of this crisis, God initiates. He doesn't give up on his people, because he gives them a prophet. Her name is Deborah. Verses 4-7 say:
Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 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. 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. 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.'"
From here God initiates with two people. One knows it; one doesn't. But in both cases, God initiates.
First is Barak, who is a warrior. Through Deborah, God tells him to take ten thousand men and go to war against Sisera and his nine hundred chariots. How would you feel getting this assignment? It reminds me of the ad that explorer Ernest Shackleton supposedly placed to find a crew for his trek to the South Pole:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.
But when God wants to move, he often taps someone on the shoulder and initiates his action through them. When God wants to do something, he always seems to want to use people.
God is God, and he can do anything that he would like. If he wanted to, he could have defeated Sisera himself. He didn't need Barak's help. He could have started the Fulton Street Revival any way he liked. But he often initiates and uses someone. In this case, it was Barak. In the Fulton Street Revival, it was Jeremiah Lanphier. God may be initiating with some of you to do his work right now.
You'll notice, though, that Barak was a little hesitant. Look at what Barak says in verse 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.'" Barak appears hesitant, and so are we at times. Some of us have sensed God initiating his work through us, but we've backed off. Maybe we've been afraid or unsure.
Deborah responded to Barak's hesitancy. "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'" (Judges 4:9). As a result of Barak's hesitancy, he will go into battle, and he will be victorious, but he will not get the glory. God still initiated with Barak, but Barak missed out on all that he could have experienced because he held back when God initiated.
I know that there have been times when God has initiated in our lives, and we have held back for whatever reason. If you read later on in the next chapter, you find that entire tribes held back and missed out on what God was doing. If God is initiating and would like to use you, how will you respond? How you respond will determine how much you will experience of what God would like to do through you.
So God initiates, and sometimes we know it. But sometimes he initiates and we don't know it. We just happen to be in the right place at the right time. We're not even aware of how God is using us; he just does and we happen to be there. Verse 11 says: "Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses' brother-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh."
You know what's happening here? God is positioning Heber and his wife just where they need to be, and they don't even know it. He's sovereignly working things together so that Heber and his wife make choices – in this case, to switch allegiance – that lead them right to where he wants them to be.
Every time God does his work, he initiates. Could it be that God is initiating in your life this morning? Maybe you know he's been initiating but you've been hesitant like Barak. Maybe he has positioned you to be in the right place at the right time without you even knowing it. When God uses people, he initiates, and how we respond can determine how much we experience of what he wants to do through us.
But as we look at this passage we also see that:
Second, God initiates with unexpected people
When God initiates with Barak, and you learn that Barak has 10,000 soldiers, who do you expect God to use to defeat Sisera? Barak, right? That would be the obvious choice. To a certain extent, God does use Barak. Verses 14-16 say:
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. 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.
Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera's troops fell by the sword; not a man was left.
So God does use Barak, but he's not really the person who wins the glory in this victory, because Sisera is still free. God uses him, but not as we expect.
Do you remember what Deborah said? "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." Who do you expect that woman to be? Deborah, right? She's a prophet. I think we preachers sometimes give the impression that God does his best work through preachers. We sometimes act as if we are where the action is, and the rest of you have just missed out. Nothing could be further from the truth. God didn't win the victory through the warrior or through the preacher.
When God defeated Sisera, he did what he often does: he used an unexpected person. Just like when God initiated the Fulton Street Revival, he used a businessman. It's amazing how many times he has moved not through the clergy or the people that we would expect, but with unexpected and ordinary people.
In verses 17 to 21, we read that as Sisera flees, he comes to Heber's tent. Knowing that The Kenites and his king had friendly relations, Sisera thought he was home free. Jael invites him in. He asks for water and she gives him milk. She promises him safety, and he goes to sleep. And while he's sleeping, verse 21 says, "She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died."
In those days, setting up and taking down the tents was considered women's work. So you have this stay-at-home wife who takes a common household tool and wins the victory. Being killed by a woman, especially in a time of battle, was considered an insult, but that didn't matter to God. It's not the preacher who wins; it's not the warrior; it's a stay-at-home wife that God uses. God uses people, and he doesn't always use the people we expect.
After this incident, Deborah wrote a song which is recorded in the next chapter. It's the more poetic and theological account of the battle. But Deborah captures what we need to learn perfectly. Read Judges 5:1:
When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves— praise the Lord!
God initiates. He initiates not with the people that we would expect, but with ordinary, unexpected people. And when he does, God gets the glory.
One last thing we discover about when God uses people as we meditate on this text. When God uses people, he initiates, and the people he uses are unexpected. But finally we discover that:
Third, God uses them far beyond their abilities
These couple of chapters are unique, because we get two versions of the same events. In chapter 4 we get the narrative version. In chapter 5, we have the poetic version. We're seeing the events through two lenses.
In both, we see that God uses people far beyond what they are able to accomplish by themselves. In chapter 4, we see that what Jael does looks ordinary in a sense. She knew how to use a tent peg. It was gruesome but it really wasn't hard to use that tent peg to kill someone. But she could never have orchestrated events to make this happen. God put her in the right place at the right time and gave her an opportunity that she couldn't have engineered by herself.
But we see how God uses people beyond their abilities even more clearly as we look at the two accounts of the battle. In chapter 4, verses 14 and 15 we read: "So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. 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." Notice that Barak and the ten thousand people moved, but it was the LORD who routed them.
But look at the details that Deborah's account gives us in chapter 5, verses 20-21:
From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong!
Do you realize what happened? Sisera and his army were trapped. God himself fought them from heaven with storm and caused a flash flood, and he washed away the army. Picture Barak charging down the mountainside with ten thousand men as the heavens pour down against their enemies and wash them away. God himself went to battle that day and won a decisive victory – a victory that was won before Barak even started. That's why Deborah said to him, "Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?" (Judges 4:14)
Donald Gray Barnhouse said, "It is our business to see that we do right; God will see that we come out right." We allow ourselves to be used by God; God is in charge of the results. He is "is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20).
The Fulton Street Revival and the victory over Sisera are both examples of how God uses people by initiating with unexpected, ordinary people, and using them far beyond what they could do themselves. God gives his grace to undeserving people by saving them when they did not deserve it. Christ gave his life so that we could live by grace, not because we were worthy at all. And then God by his Spirit uses us, not because we have the power, but because he initiates with unexpected people and does more with them than we could think or imagine.
Father, we want to be used by you. Today we ask that just as you did in the days of Deborah and Barak, in these dark days, that you would move again and show your power. Just as in the days of Jeremiah Lanphier, raise up people through whom you will do more than we could ask or imagine.
And when you initiate, would you help us respond without hesitancy so that we can experience all that you want to do through us. And most of all, may the glory be yours and yours alone. Through Christ we pray. Amen.