Thursday, 24 July 2008


This is out of the usual pattern of sermons, we have been covering Old Testament figures under the very broad title 'Heroes of Faith' - seeing in these often deeply flawed individuals inspiration for our own journey of faith. This is the end of the series....

Heroes of Faith - Samson

We probably know a number of stories about Samson, perhaps like me you heard the stories of Samson in Sunday school and were presented with a great hero of faith, almost a kind of Old Testament ‘Superman’ – missing only a cape and pants outside his tights. He is renowned for his strength and his long hair – and being tricked by the dodgy Delilah! My My My Delilah…

A Summary of his life, as found on Luther Seminary’s online ‘people of the Bible’ website:

Samson - A judge noted for great physical strength.
Samson was born to aged parents. He was a Nazirite set apart for God's service and therefore did not cut his hair or drink alcohol. His exploits included tearing a lion apart with his bare hands, killing a company of the men of Ashdod, setting fire to their fields and orchards, and slaughtering a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. After a Philistine woman named Delilah enticed Samson to reveal the secret of his great strength, she cut off his hair, and the Philistines gouged out his eyes, bound him with strong fetters, and set him to grind at the mill in the prison. But Samson's hair, the secret of his strength, began to grow again. The day came when the Philistine lords sent for the blind Samson to laugh at him. Samson felt for the pillars on which the house rested, pulled them down, and died along with many Philistines.
That’s probably how most of us remember it, pretty straightforward really – almost ‘Grimm’s fairy tales’ in its scope, at least at first glance. We tend to remember the exploits, the tales of lions being killed and bees making a hive in the carcass, or we remember foxes being tied together and set off into the fields with burning tails, or the various wiles Delilah used to get him to reveal the secret of his great strength, or the heroic ending where blinded and mocked Samson enacts revenge on his Philistine captors by the ultimate ‘last word in entertainment’ – really bringing the house down…. sorry, couldn’t resist!

But all of this seems a bit two-dimensional, and there’s one thing that scripture doesn’t really let us get away with, and that’s seeing life in two dimensions. This is not a fairy story, it’s a history, something to challenge and inspire, a story in which we are invited to share, to immerse ourselves in and allow to affect us. The almost comic-book simplicity which comes from popular perceptions of Samson doesn’t really encourage us to do this. So in keeping with our other ‘heroes of faith’ talks, I want to try and delve a little deeper by looking at the text itself and seeing how it can speak to us today.

Like all of those we are calling ‘heroes’ from our Old Testament stories Samson is very human, in fact you could say deeply flawed. He doesn’t seem to know what’s good for him, and really doesn’t seem to pick up that Delilah, who he is obviously obsessed with, might not have his best interests at heart. It’s like the old joke – a man goes to the doctor and says ‘Doctor, I’ve broken my arm in three places’ to which the Doctor replies ‘I’d stop visiting those places if I were you’ – boom boom! Samson seems to head straight for trouble! Hot headed, and it seems at times, daft as a brush Samson keeps getting himself into trouble.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get Biblical and start at Chapter 13 of the Book of Judges and see in the first five verses:
1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, so the LORD delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.
2 A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. 3 The angel of the LORD appeared to her and said, "You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. 4 Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, 5 because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines."

A bit of background, then, the people of God, God’s chosen people, are pretty Godless – they’ve given up on living the way that God has called them to, in fact they don’t seem too bothered, and they are overrun and ruled by the Philistines – as far as we know these were an even more godless bunch! And the people of Israel leave it there – they don’t even cry out to God for help, they allow themselves, it seems, to be subjugated and ruled by these unbelievers. There are only a few still faithful, and it seems that this ‘righteous remnant’ are pretty silent most of the time….

And then God takes the initiative, sending and Angel (or visiting himself, as in the Old Testament the word ‘angel’ seems to represent God visiting rather than some kind of being distinct from God – but that’s another discussion for another time!). He comes to a woman unable to have children and offers her a lifeline (remembering that children are a lifeline in a society where there are no social services or benefits or pensions, who else would care for you in your old age or carry on the family line?). She will have a child who will be dedicated to the Lord, he will be a Nazirite for all of his life.

This in itself is unusual, normally a Nazirite vow was taken for a set time, say a month or period of weeks, during this time the person having taken the vow would abstain from cutting his hair, could not touch or go near a dead body, and would not partake of any alcoholic drink. This was a standard of purity and discipline which reflected a rejection of worldly pleasures and earthly pursuits and focused on God and God’s standards. There are only three mentions in scripture of men who were lifetime Nazirites, Samuel, Samson and John the Baptist – interestingly all of them born to women who were unable to have children (that dreadful word ‘barren’) and all set apart for specific purposes – one to be a prophet to bring the people back to God, one to combat the Philistines, and one to proclaim the coming of Christ.

So from the moment Samson is conceived he is dedicated to God completely and utterly. In this way he mirrors our own calling to faithfulness. In the New Testament there is no mention of the practice of Nazirite vows for Christians, perhaps because we are called to practice such standards in all of our walk with Christ. No matter how Samson failed, the fact is still there that his devotion to God is the very foundation of his being, not just because certain vows have been made, but because God has a plan for him, and God longs to use him. In some ways maybe Samson is an example of the greatest ‘what if…?’ of Scripture – what if he’d not been drawn to this Philistine woman, what if he’d not been daft enough to give away his secret, what if he’d remained faithful?

In this way I think that the Lutheran Seminary summary is deficient. It’s not that Samson’s hair was the secret to his strength, but that the vow which was behind it was the basis of God’s ability to work in and through Samson. Ultimately it wasn’t a magical barnet that was the source of Samson’s super power, but his devotion to the Lord and the way that this devotion made it possible for the Holy Spirit to work in him. We see in Chapter 14 verses 5 & 6 that Samson may not have been super strong all of the time but was given strength of the Spirit to combat the lion which threatened him…
5 Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. 6 The Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat.

So a message here, to allow our devotion to God to be such that we too are open to the strength which the Spirit offers. Now we might not be nipping out on any lion ripping expeditions but there are things which we encounter day by day where we need God’s strength and God’s power in order to conquer. What Samson’s story says is that its not just about turning to God in emergencies, though often God is gracious enough to respond to our cries with the help and strength we need. It was the foundation of a devoted life that made it possible for the Spirit to enter Samson’s life in power in this moment of need!

The story continues in chapter fourteen with the exploits around Samson’s marriage and his desire to be with a particular Philistine woman. The Bible says that this was all part of God’s plan to bring the Israelites back from their subjugation by the Philistines, mainly it seems by Samson knocking seven bells out of lots of Philistines, killing them to get robes from them when he loses a bet, tying foxes together and setting them on fire to burn the fields, and the killing lots of them (a thousand we are told) with the jawbone of an ass when he’s really, really angry! All of that can be found in chapters 14 and 15 of the book of Judges if you want to look it up – stirring and slightly disturbing stuff, but not really what I want to concentrate on today.

Then in chapter sixteen of the book of Judges we get to that point where, having been a leader of Israel for twenty years Samson meets his greatest challenge.

Actually its worth noting that Chapter 15 verse 20 is a verse we often miss (its also mentioned again in chapter 16 verse 31), it reminds us that despite his failings God continued to use Samson, and after his disastrous marriage and his fearsome anger he is, as far as we can see, faithful again to his promise and returns to God and serves God and Israel for many years. Obviously without quite the same level of adventure as the rest of the story, as its skipped over and we get to the meaty bit. Samson and Delilah.

Unlike Samson’s first disaster in the romance department, his paramour isn’t under the threat of death (along with her family and everyone she knows or has ever looked at it seems in chapter 14) if she doesn’t find Samson’s particular brand of kryptonite. Delilah is in it for the money. Nice and simple. Chapter sixteen is an exercise in seeing how anyone can be distracted from what is right by differing vices. Samson finds himself completely at a loss because of his obsession with this woman, and blinded by love (and distracted by nagging, it seems) finally gives away this secret of his hair, the mark of his vow, which sees him shorn and stripped of his power. Delilah does the will of the Philistines because she wants to make a quick buck – faithful to neither the man who loves her nor her own people, but doing it for the cash – and quite a good amount too, about 26 pounds of silver. Not a bad return for a little bit of betrayal!

Samson, who starts chapter 16 with a visit to a Philistine prostitute (Gaza was a philistine stronghold) has a weakness for Philistine women. Earlier in the story God uses this weakness as a way of combating the Philistines. In Chapter 14 we read
1 Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. 2 When he returned, he said to his father and mother, "I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife."
3 His father and mother replied, "Isn't there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?"
But Samson said to his father, "Get her for me. She's the right one for me." 4 (His parents did not know that this was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.)

But this time, it’s Samson indulging his preference for Philistine womanhood that is going to be his downfall. Again and again Samson has drifted from his vow, and though the serious haircut he received in verse 19 is the symbol of the betrayal of his vow of faithfulness, he slips – as RC Sproul writes – ‘inch by inch into sinfulness’ and the low point is his visit to a prostitute in Gaza leading on to his odd relationship with Delilah. It’s almost as if he wills himself into that final loss of his strength, again and again falling into sin, blind to what Delilah is doing.

For a hero, Samson is something of failure. Despite the way the Spirit of God has inspired and strengthened him, despite all that has happened, he falls in a big way. For all we know his twenty years of being a Judge of Israel, the last in the line of the Judges, were successful and faithful – but in the end Samson fails to deliver Israel, and can’t even deliver himself.

Of course, after his capture and blinding by the Philistines he turns again to God and we are told in Chapter 16
28 Then Samson prayed to the LORD, "O Sovereign LORD, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes." 29 Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30 Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.

So his cry is heeded and his strength returns to him again.

Leaving behind our twenty-first century distaste for the bloodshed and violence that characterises much of this story. (Though there is much that could be said about that!) We are left with a story that contains a tragic hero, someone who despite being dedicated to God from before his birth, leaves that behind to satisfy his own carnal desires. With bouts of faithfulness, and at times an underpinning of devotion Samson shows perhaps how God is willing to use even those with a seriously patchy faith. But we are left with a feeling of a life wasted, and left to wonder just what might have been achieved if Samson had remained faithful and sought God….

And I’m sure I don’t need to join too many dots here to think about the application of such a story to our own Christian lives. The message seems pretty clear, look at what Samson did do, but also at what he didn’t – all those questions about what he might have been able to achieve if he’d not wasted. In our own lives are there distractions that prevent us being the people we are truly called to be and doing those things that God longs to do through and with us.

I could go on, but sometimes we just need some time to reflect – to dedicate ourselves again to God in order that when the storms come we are on the rock of Jesus Christ. That when things go wrong, we don’t run around desperate for guidance, blowing dust off of our Bibles and hoping for strength – yes, God is faithful even when we are faithless, but if we are rooted in lives of devotion and commitment, then when things happen – for good or bad – we will be equipped to meet them with the strength, grace and spirit of God.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Year A Proper 9

Tricky Jesus

In my wife’s room as she was growing up there was a picture of Jesus surrounded by animals and children – a wonderful example of Victorian Kitsch, all soft focus and shiny blonde Jesus – around it was a line from a well known hymn which said ‘all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all...’

It was a meant to be a comfort, a picture of a Jesus who welcomed the vulnerable and who projected an aura of love and acceptance. It didn’t possess any particular artistic merit, but was unthreatening and warm.

I’m not sure what picture you have of Jesus in your own mind, perhaps you share such a ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ image, perhaps you have a mental image of the publicity campaign a few years back which had a picture of Jesus on a red background, looking remarkably like the Che Gevuara pictures which have adorned lots of student walls for the past thirty years or so which say ‘Meek. Mild. As If’ Or maybe an image of a man on a cross, or Christ surrounded by light rising into glory, or a Jesus who never blinks like Robert Powell in the Jesus of Nazareth TV series. I could go on and on...

But all of these pictures, whether you consider them good or bad images of Jesus, can’t really encapsulate this grace-filled, awe-inspiring, earthy, divine and human, disturbing and joyful man which we read about in the Bible. A Jesus who, on a regular basis, breaks free of our own stereotypes and preconceptions, our own prejudices and human limitations.

And it is this Jesus we encounter in our passage for today – a disturbing, challenging Jesus, a frank and forthright Jesus, perhaps even a slightly exasperated Jesus and yet also a Jesus who offers comfort and care for us.

If we look at the text itself we see many different aspects of Jesus’ character. We see him begining with a children’s saying in response to the pharisees criticism of him ‘we played the flute for you and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn’. As far as his detractors were concerned, these strange teachers such as Jesus and John the baptist could do nothing right – if they were austere and aescetic they were miserable and were wrong, if they were open and welcoming, enjoying a party and spending time befriending people then they were equally wrong.

I must admit to being drawn more to Jesus’ model of reaching out myself – and it makes me smile when he is called a glutton and a drunkard – or ‘winebibber’ in the older translations of the bible! But there is a welcome and a joy in his reaching out to people that I believe that we are called to model as the church today!

In the text, though, Jesus is critical of those who are so negative towards his ministry. There is a sense of frustration in his pointed response, and it leads on to Jesus rather strong criticism of those who consider themselves clever and dismiss the truth by using complicated arguments: ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’. There’s also a strong message to us no to veil the Gospel by clever argument, but by open and straightforward sharing of our faith to make real the good news of the kingdom of God by being open and straightforward ourselves!

Jesus continues saying that ‘no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father exceptht he Sond and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’. There is again a challenge for us to take up that call to reveal Christ in our lives and by our words and actions to live lives that draw others to getting to know Jesus, that we may be windows through whom Christ shines.

And having been so forthright in his speech, Jesus finishes this passage with words which console and offer a hope of comfort. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’. After these challenges, which apply not just to those original hearers, but to us today, we are given the reminder that the message that Jesus brings is one of life and freedom, rather than burden and struggle.

For those of us who follow Jesus, we are set free into the life which only he can bring. We no longer have the burden of living a certain way because we ‘should’ but of living life, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel chapter 10 ‘in all its fullness’. We are set free to live lives of joy, peace, hope, gentleness, self control, patience and more by the benevolent grace of the Spirit of God.

None of this is academic. This text isn’t here just so we can see different parts of Jesus character. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to know about Jesus I want to know Jesus – and in the same way that everyone we get to know has the capacity to surprise and challenge and disturb and inspire us, so it should be with Jesus. Then as we know Jesus more, we can call others to know this wonderful, difficult, grace filled person of God made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. As we read this passage we should be excited by the joy of calling others to know Jesus to. This passage doesn’t allow us to box Jesus up into nice easy categories, but serves to remind us of the fact that we who follow Jesus have still so much to learn about him, and that it is this Jesus we are called to share, that others may know the excitement of knowing him to.

May Jesus again refresh us as we see him anew and share his risen life with all those we know and those we meet.

Thanks be to God!