(Sermon preached at Cromer, 31/7/16)
Today we continue our series of talks about the book of Judges, and begin to look at the last judge in the book, Samson. Remember, a judge was a leader and deliverer of the people, and as such was the one people would come to to help them solve their problems and differences. The book shows a cycle repeating itself: the people forget God, he allows them to be overcome by their enemies, they cry out to him for help, he sends them a judge, a deliverer, their enemies are defeated, there is peace and security, they then forget God and the cycle is repeated. As the cycles continue, God uses fewer people to accomplish the defeat of their enemies, until now in this last cycle only one man is involved. This last cycle is also unique in that there is no record of the people crying out for deliverance from the Philistines – they seemed content to be ruled by them, and there was a great danger that the children of Israel would cease to exist as a separate people.
The story of Samson begins with an annunciation by an angel, and a miraculous birth. The angel appears to Manoah’s wife, tells her she will have a boy, and tells her how she and her son will have to live.
‘The boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth.’
Set apart for God. This is what the word ‘holy’ means – something that is set apart for God. The Israelites as a people were supposed to be God’s holy people – ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ They were set apart for God. That meant they had to be different from the nations around them – that is why God gave them the laws on their way from Egypt to the promised land, telling them how he wanted them to worship him, how he wanted them to live as the people of God, and some specific rules to mark them out as different from the nations around – their food laws and the Sabbath Day especially.
Why was this important? Because the nations around were worshipping idols that were not God in ways that were detestable to God, trusting them for deliverance and protection they had no power to give, and living lives that were frankly wicked. God’s people were to show the nations what God was really like, how he should be worshipped and obeyed, and what a difference it made being in relationship with him – so that those nations could turn from their wicked ways and live according to the truth.
The rules for a Nazarite were a more extreme version, setting them apart from the rest of the Israelites to fulfil particular commitments. Usually people became a Nazarite for a month or so, and Numbers 6 tells us what they had to do: they must abstain from grapes and anything made from grapes, and from any alcoholic drink, they must not allow themselves to become ceremonially unclean by touching a dead body, not even of their own parents, they must not shave or cutting their hair as long as they are under that vow. Interestingly, the instructions the angel gives Samson’s parents missed out the bit about touching dead bodies; in his life Samson seemed to be better at causing death rather than avoiding it.
Why was Samson to be a Nazirite? Because, as the angel said, he would begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines. As the book of Judges shows, Israel failed dismally to live up to its calling to show the nations how amazing God really is, and their acceptance of Philistine domination was threatening to undermine God’s plan of salvation for the world. The state of affairs was such that Israel needed a leader who was utterly different from the Philistines and would lead them away from the absorption into Philistine culture that was going on. If he was a Nazirite he could not take part either in Philistine worship nor in celebrations where drink was involved. How God’s plans worked out we’ll begin to see next time.
What about us? God says to us, ‘you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, so that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ (1 Peter 2:9) We too are holy – and therefore we too have to be different. Not by following particular food laws or making special vows, but by living in close connection to the only true God, loving him, trusting him, obeying him as we trust and obey the Messiah, Jesus our Lord. The world around us is full of false gods. In Samson’s time people people looked for peace and security, pleasure and happiness, freedom and independence – and trusted in their gods to give them these things. In our time people look for the same things – peace and security, pleasure and happiness, freedom and independence – and they are putting their trust in anything except the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in order to get them. People trust in armed force, political power, money, possessions, education, science, fashion, popularity – none of which have the power to deliver what they are seeking, and may lead to all kinds of evil. Look at the news today. What can bring us freedom from terror? Jesus tells us the way to live: ‘Seek first God’s kingdom and all these things will be added to you’. Peace and prosperity are God’s gifts, and he wants us to enjoy his gifts to the full; but they must not become our primary concern. Let’s do different, for God.
‘What is to be the rule for the boy’s life and work?’
The story shows Manoah praying for another visit of the one he calls ‘the man of God’ – he assumed the visitor was a prophet, not an angel, despite his wife’s description of him as looking like an angel of God, very awesome. His prayer was answered – but Manoah didn’t receive any more information. Why then did the angel come? Not to answer Manoah’s request in the way he expected, but to do something deeper – to underline the importance of what he’d already said by showing just how important he, the messenger, was. The angel revealed himself to Manoah both by the way he refused to eat his food or tell his name, and by the way he left the scene. Manoah needed to be convinced that what he had been told was a direct message from God himself, and that it was important. We are reminded of similar appearances before Jesus’ coming into the world – especially to Zechariah who was given similar instructions not to let his son John the Baptist touch alcohol. You remember how Zechariah responded with doubt, and the angel said, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.’ Again, the importance of the messenger underlined the importance of the message.
Manoah wanted more information. God wanted more obedience. Isn’t it often the case that we want to know more and more about God, whereas God wants us to pay more attention to what we already know? For some of you, this may be the one thing God wants you to take on board this morning: there’s a truth to accept, an instruction to obey, that you have already heard: don’t harden your heart, but listen and respond positively.
Manoah wanted to know the rules, God wants his people to know him. When the angel revealed himself, Manoah was terrified. He needed his wife to remind him that God had accepted him along with his sacrifice – and that the whole point of the visit was to give them and the nation a future. God’s aim is for his people to live with him in love and joy and peace.
Many today still want a ‘rule of life’, meaning rules and regulations to live by. But remember Jesus’ prayer for his disciples on the night that he was betrayed, when he said, ’This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ What is of first importance is that we know our God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – personally. Rules and regulations have their place. When children are growing up we have to teach them what to do and what not to do, often without being able to explain the reasons. As they grow older we can explain why we want them to do what we say, and we expect they will internalise a lot of what we have been teaching so that they will act appropriately without having to think about it. As our children get older our relationship changes – one of my sons runs his own company, another is a vicar, and my relationship with them now is very different to what it was when they were little! (I hope!) So it is with our relationship with God. He really does not want a relationship based primarily on rules, but on love. The Communion service we are celebrating this morning is all about that relationship. God forbid we come to it merely out of duty, or focus on whether everything is done in the prescribed manner. The word we’ve been listening to is worthless if it does not encourage and develop our life with God. The sacrament is in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and as we take in the bread and wine we in faith receive anew the indescribable love of the Son of God who gave himself for me, for each one of us, that we may forever live in the light and love of God.