(Sermon preached in Cromer, 7/8/16)
We are continuing our series through the book of Judges, and have reached the story of Samson. Let’s remind ourselves of the story so far…
The people of Israel had entered the promised land under Joshua, driving out the wicked inhabitants and taking over their lands and houses. But the job was not finished – many of the original inhabitants remained, and after the generation that entered the land died out the people of Israel turned their back on God and started following the religious practices of their neighbours. So the book of Judges tells of a deliverance cycle: the people forget God, God hands them over to invaders, the people turn to God for help, God sends a saviour (a judge), there is deliverance, the land has peace for a time, then the people forget God and the cycle repeats itself. Except it isn’t a cycle, more a downward spiral as successive saviours show more and more flaws. Samson was the last of the judges before Samuel and the first kings of Israel, and he was possibly more flawed than any of the others. Even the cycle is not complete: the people reject God, he gives them into the hands of the Philistines, but this time they don’t turn back to God and cry for help. Nevertheless God provided Samson, born miraculously to a childless couple after a visit by an angel who told them to bring him up as a Nazirite, that is, a person set apart for God who must not drink alcohol or eat anything made from grapes, and who must never cut his hair. Samson, said angel, would begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines. Today’s reading shows how that began to happen.
The story is shocking. After the miraculous birth and the Nazirite upbringing we expect Samson to be a godly man. He is anything but. This first story shows his violent nature and immense strength – and his godlessness. First, we see his desire for an attractive woman outweighs his desire for a godly family – he sees a beautiful Philistine woman and must have her for his wife, despite God’s commands to Israelites not to intermarry with people who would lead them astray from God. His parents remonstrate, but eventually give in – Samson shows no respect for them at all. On the way to meet her parents he kills a lion with his bare hands – and on the way to the wedding feast goes to look at the carcass and sees a bees nest so takes some honey for himself and his parents. Nazirites were not allowed to touch dead bodies – though interestingly the angel who told Samson’s parents how to bring him up did not mention that, and the fact that he would be a Nazarite for life rather than for a set period may have allowed a relaxation of that rule in his case. The rest of the story shows Samson’s foolish challenge to his Philistine companions, his blind infatuation with his bride, and his violent response to the solving of his riddle.
Not exactly a heroic tale. But what is so shocking is the fact that God is there in the thick of it, seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines and filling Samson with power by his Spirit to do these violent things. What’s going on? The New Testament tells us God is love. Is this the same God? How could God choose to use this violent, vengeful, sex-driven man even to begin his deliverance? Why does God use Samson’s eye for a beautiful woman to bring about a violent confrontation? Why does the Spirit of God come upon him in power to enable him to pay the men of Timnah the thirty sets of clothes by killing thirty men of Ashkelon? We can see why a vengeful man like Samson might react in such a way, but why does God actually help him to do it?
To be honest, I don’t really know. The answer is not revealed to us. Earlier in the Bible, Deuteronomy 29:29 says, ’The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law.’ We are not given full insight into God’s reasons for his activity or lack of it. That does not allow us to assume the worst of God. Someone once said, ‘Don’t let the things you do not understand override the things you do understand.’ I find that helpful. I believe that Jesus has made known to us what God is like. I understand from him that God is love, God is wise, God cares about even the smallest details of my life, and nothing is impossible with him. I therefore try to understand the story of Samson in that light.
I also try to understand the story of Samson in the context of God’s plan for the world. The New Testament makes clear to us what that plan is: to transform creation through Jesus Christ into a perfect world inhabited by people who have freely chosen to love him. In a situation where evil is active, even dominant, there’s a high price to pay to defeat evil and bring about God’s planned transformation. But there are no shortcuts, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus show just how much God was prepared to pay to bring you and me into his plans. How is God putting his plan into effect? Chiefly through natural means. He chose to make himself known to Abraham and his descendants the Israelites, so that through them all nations would be blessed. One of those descendants would be the Messiah, through whom all things would be made new. The Old Testament tells the story of his people – a people who were flawed, often rebellious, yet from whom the Messiah came. Despite all their flaws, God preferred to use them rather than do everything himself.
How does Samson’s story fit in to this? Well, in his time the Philistines were ruling over Israel – and Israel had given up trying to combat them. The danger was that Israel might lose its identity, and through intermarriage and adoption of Philistine religion and customs cease to be the people of God – and that would be the end of God’s plan of salvation. The nation had to keep its identity, and therefore had to become separate from the Philistines – and God chose to use a flawed person like Samson to get up the Philistine’s nose in such a way that Israel and the Philistines would thereafter be enemies, not joined at the hip.
Giftedness is not a measure of godliness. God’s gifts can be used for good or ill, depending upon the spirit of the man or woman involved. King Solomon, the wisest of men, used his wisdom for ill to make marriage alliances with nations around him and then to join in his wives’ idolatry, despite God’s warning. Samson used his God-given strength for ill, to avenge himself on the Philistines. He also used it for good, to defend himself against them. (That story is in the following chapter.) Yet in both cases God was at work behind the scenes, using the good and also the evil Samson did to bring about that separation of Israel from the Philistines which was so necessary. God is not limited by our flaws nor our mistakes.
God does not condone evil; but he will not deny us free choice, even if that choice is an evil one, and he is able to use even our evil choices to further his plans – we see that especially in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Of course, good results do not justify bad choices. We have a friend who had a series of one night stands, resulting in a pregnancy and the birth of a dearly loved son. Should she regret having the son? Of course not. But that does not justify the one night stands. When we do evil, and good comes of it by the grace of God, we must repent of the evil even while we rightly rejoice in the good. We cannot condone Samson’s behaviour just because good came of it.
This story also has something to say about leadership. A superhero or a strong man or woman is not the answer to our problems. We do not need another Samson to cope with IS or economic difficulties or climate change. Force may have its place, but it cannot change hearts and minds. Samson could only begin to deliver the Israelites from Philistine control, he could not complete the job. So don’t let’s put our trust in human power. Believe that God is working his purposes out, and that Jesus is Lord. The evil we see around us and in the news is not going to have the last word. So pray in faith for our leaders. They are, by and large, amazingly gifted; pray that they will do God’s will in God’s way, even if they have no faith in God.
Let’s also act. We have God-given gifts, to work with him in what he is doing. George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘A reasonable man adapts himself to the world. An unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ Where are we adapting ourselves in an ungodly way to the world around us? How can we persist in trying to adapt the world – or at least our part of it – to God? God is working his purpose out largely through natural means; and we have a part to play, however small and seemingly insignificant. Don’t beat yourself up about what you can’t do. Do what you can!