Monday, September 19, 2011

Of Tent Pegs and Nails

Though he didn’t intend it to be a book on preaching, Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity has made an impact on the way I put a sermon together. Horton drew my attention to how so much American Christianity is little more than moralism devoid of the gospel: Do this. Don’t do that. Keep the rules. Smile a lot. Buck up. Be a good boy. Be a nice girl. He also bemoaned the state of preaching in such churches: “Four Steps to a Happy Marriage,” “How to Live Debt Free,” “Three Keys to Happiness,” “How to Climb Out of Depression.” Nothing wrong with any of that really, except that there’s no gospel in it, no Jesus in it. It would probably work just fine on the self-help rack at the bookstore. Any of us can work on being nice, keeping the rules, and applying a sermon’s “steps” whether we have Jesus or not.

Honestly, other than in the area of marriage and family, I’ve never done much of this kind of preaching anyway. But I haven’t always moved my sermons to Jesus and the gospel. Have I left people with the impression the Christian life is more law than grace, that Jesus is more crutch than life-support? Have I inadvertently communicated that we can do this Christian life thing on our own, leaning on Jesus only when we get in a tight spot? Thank you, Michael Horton; I think you’ve helped make me a better preacher of the gospel whether you intended to or not.

But what in the world do I do with Jael and the tent peg? Do you know the story? Jael was the Kenite tentwife who got Israel’s enemy and oppressor Sisera to take refuge in her tent. He was on the run from an Israel rout of his armies. Sisera believed Jael to be a friend, and bone tired from the fight and the flight, Sisera took Jael up on her offer. She treated him with much kindness—gave him a skin of warm milk, tucked him in nice and cozy, and told him to sleep well. But the woman was a sneak and a sly one at that. Once Sisera was happily snoring away, Jael took a tent peg in one hand, a hammer in the other, slipped back into the tent, tip-toed to Sisera who was sleeping on his side, lined up the peg with his temple, pulled the hammer back, and drove that peg right through his temples and into the ground. No more Sisera—he was dead at a tent peg. She murdered a sleeping man who trusted her. And through the act of a woman, not even an Israelite woman, Israel was delivered from Sisera and 20 years of Canaanite tyranny. Though a bit gruesome, it’s a good story.

But how do I get to Jesus and the gospel from there? I preached that story on Sunday and I never quite figured out a way? I did get it part way to gospel, I think, by reminding the congregation that this really isn’t a Jael story; it’s a God-story—that it’s more about God and His actions than about us and our actions. A noble try, I hope.

But as I continued to reflect upon that story through the day, another idea came to mind. And while it didn’t involve a tent peg, it involved some nails—as in the nails Roman soldiers drove through the hands and feet of Jesus. The story comparison is hardly apples to apples. In Jael’s story the good girl kills the bad guy, and Israel is delivered from the oppression of Canaan. In Jesus’ story, the bad guys kill the good guy, and people who believe from every nation, tribe, and tongue are delivered from the oppression of sin and death and the grave. Jael’s story is a temporary deliverance; Jesus’ story is an eternal deliverance. And while the one Jael murdered with a tent peg stayed dead; the one the Romans murdered with some nails did not—on the third day Jesus rose from the dead.

I don’t know if I’m on to something here or not. I don’t know if I’ve made a leap from Jael to Jesus that doesn’t follow. Maybe in doing so, I’m breaking some important rules of interpretation. I just don’t know.

But I do know this: the leap from Jael to Jesus gets my eyes on Jesus. That’s a good thing, right? The leap from Jael to Jesus gets me thinking of my own sin and of Jesus’ grace, of my own need and Jesus’ provision. That’s gospel, isn’t it? And this leap does something else: instead of hearing Jael’s story with the challenge to go and be as brave and cunning as Jael in dealing with my enemies, I’m reminded once again that, in the cross, Jesus decisively dealt with my worst enemies like sin and pride and self-sufficiency by doing for me what I could never do for myself. That take on the story doesn’t make me bow up; it makes me bow down. It doesn’t make me think I can deal with my enemies on my own; it drives me even deeper into dependency on Jesus and the power of His Spirit in my life. Hmm, I don’t know if making this leap is technically and hermeneutically correct, but it sure smells like gospel, and it seems to leave the fragrance of Christ over a story as brutal as Jael’s.

I wonder, isn’t that what separates Christianity from moralism? Isn’t that why the Bible isn’t just another book in the self-help rack at B. Dalton?


  1. Big thumbs up John! I loved the story of Jael, but also felt something was missing. I just didn't know what. I think you're on to something! :c)

    Linda Bush

  2. I completely think you have made a great correlation! I felt myself feeling a need to rely on God more reading this. I hope others get to hear this. Maybe even Michael Horton :-)

    Laura Overton