January 20, 2013 - Second Sunday after Pentecost
He said, “I’ll be
back,” and starting last Friday, he is. Unfortunately, most of the reviews of
Arnold Scwharzenegger’s new film say his return is regrettable. With a more
than usually stupid plot and a gazillion gunshots, “The Last Stand” is a pretty
lame vehicle for an aging action hero. As much as I’ve enjoyed it in the past,
my interest in watching big, strong, inarticulate guys wreaking havoc among
their enemies has lapsed a bit.
Our interest in the
Bible’s actions heroes may have lapsed too. Several years ago a writer for Christianity
Today asked the question, “When’s the last time you heard a sermon on
Samson?” We might ask ourselves that. Sure, you probably know the story, but
you learned it in Sunday School, right? Or maybe, like my wife, from an opera.
But can you remember anyone ever preaching about this guy?
There are good reasons
for overlooking Samson as sermon material. Even though we keep telling his
story to our kids, he’s not exactly the best role model, kind of like our
friend Arnold. In three chapters of Scripture about Samson’s life, he gets
involved with three different women and none of those relationships end well. He
also has an ugly temper and his regular response to problems is violence.
And, frankly, the guy
just doesn’t seem that bright. He comes up with a tricky riddle in chapter 14,
but other than that there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of computing power
available in his CPU. Rather than think his way out of trouble, he’s way more
inclined to grab whatever’s handy, like a fresh donkey jawbone, and start
whacking people with it.
Yet Samson gets more
space in the Bible than any other judge. Some church fathers saw him as a type,
a prophetic metaphor, for Jesus Christ. And as dumb and violent as he was,
Samson is fascinating. If you just read chapter 16 assigned for “Around the
Word,” you’ll want to go back and start in chapter 13 and read all the
craziness that leads up to it.
Samson started out a
spiritual golden boy. In chapter 13 an angel comes and says to his mother, “you
shall conceive and bear a son.” Sound familiar? Hear the connection the church
fathers made? Then the angel told her that her son was to be a “nazirite” from
birth, drinking no alcoholic beverage nor having his hair cut in any way. That’s
what Hannah promised God about Samuel, what the angel told Zechariah to do with
John the Baptist. Samson was the model for them both.
The Nazirite vow is
described in the book we were in last week, in Numbers, chapter 6. Either a man
or a woman could take a vow with three parts: First, you abstained from
wine—in fact, you abstained from anything that came from grape vines, including
grape juice, raisins and even plain grapes. Second, a Nazirite was not to touch
anything dead, even the body of a loved one who had died. And finally, the part
we associate most with Samson, the Nazirite was not to get a haircut until the
vow was completed. The hair of the head was a symbol of one’s life being given
completely to God.
Samson had this golden
path of devotion laid out before him from the moment of his birth, from before his birth. His pregnant mother kept the first two parts of the vow herself,
abstaining from wine and avoiding contact with a dead body. Samson was on God’s
path for him even in utero.
So when that powerful
man went off the rails with his lust and violence, he also almost derailed a
plan for his life put in place before he was born. He abused the power that God
Himself created and stored within him.
You might think you
are not like Samson. No divine plan surrounds and guides your life. Your
own ups and downs, failures and successes are just good luck and bad luck
playing out. You have little or no power over things. Nothing in your life is
as significant as God’s plan for Samson. You don’t matter much.
But you are more like
Samson than you think. Scripture tells us God has a purpose and plan for
everyone who comes into the world. Every child conceived is sacred to the Lord,
and is being called from before birth into a life with God. That’s why the Covenant Church opposes abortion and why we care so much for the babies that are born among
us. That’s why you are significant and loved by God.
Of course, not
everyone has Samson’s physical strength or comparable gifts of any sort. Yet as
our lesson from I Corinthians 12 says, everyone, especially every Christian,
has gifts from God, gifts from the Holy Spirit, to be used for God’s glory.
Samson is the sad
story of a man throwing away his God-given power, his Holy Spirit-instilled
gifts. What a waste! It’s like Steve Prefontaine taking his running talent and
living wild until he died horribly young in a car accident. It’s like Janis
Joplin and Jimi Hendrix ruining their musical gifts with drugs and alcohol to
die young of overdoses.
Part of Samson’s
lesson for us is a warning not to squander what God gives us, whether it’s
physical strength or intelligence or musical talent or a capacity to love and
care for others. When God gives us gifts, it’s awful to waste them. From God’s
perspective, those gifts He’s given each of us are no less good or important
than what He gave Samson.
Power is a dangerous
gift, though. Power can corrupt a person. Powerful people get used to having
what they want, and therefore are especially tempted to take what they
want, even when it is wrong. As great as his legacy is, we’ve learned it’s part
of Martin Luther King’s story. And it’s what happened to Samson, especially in
regard to women.
The first woman Samson
wanted was a Philistine. In chapter 14, the man set apart by God from birth as
a savior of Israel became infatuated with one of the enemy. His parents tried
to dissuade him, but you can hear his immaturity in verse 3 of that chapter as
he says, “Get her for me, because she pleases me.” Samson is like Count de
Bouvray in Victor Herbert’s operetta singing, “I want what I want when I want
Philistines ruled Israel in Samson’s time. They were “sea people,” from Crete or the Aegean islands. In the
time of the Judges, they established a five-city state on the southern coast of
Palestine. They expanded east, headed inland at the same time the Israelites
tried to settle territory further west. In the beginning, the Philistines got
the upper hand and subjugated Israel.
As enemies, Samson and
his Philistine groomsmen insulted and deceived each other, making a drunken bet
about a riddle. Samson broke the first two of his Nazirite vows, drinking with
the groomsmen and handling the carcass of a lion. When the Philistines cheated
on the bet by getting the answer from Samson’s wife, he killed thirty of them. In
simple retaliation at the end of chapter 14, they handed his wife off to the
So then, in chapter
15, Samson burned up their crops. They in turn burned up his wife and her
family. Verse 8 then says Samson got his revenge and “struck them down hip and
thigh with great slaughter.”
And then the whole
Philistine army showed up to get Samson’s own people to hand him over for
punishment. So they tied him up and handed him over to the Philistines. Yet in
all this, God watched over Samson. Verse 14 says “the Spirit of the Lord”
rushed on him and he broke the ropes so easily it was like they melted. Then in
the language of the King James Bible, he seized the “jawbone of an ass” and
killed a thousand of the enemy, making “heaps upon heaps” of them, as he says
himself in chapter 15, verse 16.
The word for “heap”
sounds like the word for “donkey” in Hebrew, so Samson was saying he took the
jawbone of an ass and made asses of the Philistines, not a bad tagline for an
action hero. The end of chapter 15 tells us Samson led Israel for another twenty years. But it was no great time of peace. He had no strategy, no vision.
He acted on impulse, let his power fly wherever and whenever he saw fit.
As our text, chapter
16, opens, Samson has learned very little. He is all muscle, with very little
mind to control it. I picture him as a Sylvester Stallone character—a Rocky or
Rambo of the Bible—strong, dumb and completely ruled by his feelings. The first
four verses of this chapter are the epitome of Samson—a woman gets him into
trouble and his muscles get him out when he rips up the gates of a city to
Yet in all this God
does not completely leave Samson. His strength stays with him. That’s why one
of the church fathers thought Samson’s little episode with the prostitute in
Gaza was like Jesus Christ descending into Hell, then tearing off the gates of
Hell and rising from the dead victorious, setting free anyone who believes in
Him. But even that imaginative church father had to say that Jesus had way
better morals than Samson.
You know the rest of
the story. Even with all that the Lord did for him, in his lust and stupidity,
Samson threw away his last connection to God. He gave up the secret of the one
part of his vow still not broken, the fact that his hair had never been cut. It
was the rock bottom point in Samson’s life, and the best thing that ever
happened to him.
After three tries, Delilah
finally wormed the truth out of Samson and cut his hair. Then her Philistine
handlers came and captured him, and it was “zero dark thirty” for this action
hero. They grabbed him, gouged out his eyes, bound him with bronze shackles,
and enslaved him to push a grinding wheel around in a grain mill. It was now
Samson’s turn to be made into an ass, to be treated like an animal.
It was just what he
needed. As the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous learned and as the Bible teaches
us, what we all need sometimes is to hit bottom, to find ourselves alone and
powerless. The more powerful we are, the harder and lower we may need to fall.
If power is corrupting you, like it was Samson, you need to lose that power for
awhile. That’s the point at which God can step back in with the real power of
happened between verse 21 and 22. In 21, he is blind and enslaved. In 22, he receives
the grace of God, beautifully understated in the words, “But the hair of his
head began to grow again…”
God works in our lives
when we give Him room. Our power can get in the way of God’s power, like
Samson’s strength got in the way of God’s plan for him. But when our own
strength leaks away, God’s strength flows in to help us. If we try to hold onto
our power, our strength, God can’t do much for us.
A dam stores enormous power,
a massive potential of kinetic energy. Yet that power only accomplishes
something when it is let go. Held back, it does nothing, but released it turns
turbines, waters crops, and quenches thirst. Released water power becomes electricity
and food and drink. And more water flows into the reservoir to replace what
God’s grace flows in
where our power flows out. Falling prey to Delilah, Samson’s strength drained
away. It was only then that the greater power, the strength which comes from
God, could flow back into the man.
It’s a constant theme
of Scripture. God’s power and help comes when our own resources are exhausted.
In our Gospel lesson from John 2, Jesus only did His first miracle, only began
to reveal His glory, His power, when ordinary human resources ran out. There
was no place for miraculous wine when there was plenty of the regular stuff.
Jesus did His first miracle when all the usual wine skins were empty. God will
only work miracles in our lives when we run out of or give up all our own
Paul said it in these
words in II Corinthians 12:10, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” He was
talking about what Samson had to learn. Real strength, God’s strength, only
arrives when we arrive at the end of our own strength.
Not everyone has to
fall as low as Samson to learn the lesson. I hope that most of us will not mess
up that bad. But we all need to discover that what God wants for us is what we
saw Him wanting for Moses last week. He wants us to rely on Him, to trust in
Him and not in our own strength or power or intelligence or beauty or skill or
wealth or whatever gifts He’s given us. He wants to give us His gifts.
He wants to give us His Holy Spirit.
As I said, ancient
interpreters saw Samson, despite his flaws, as a picture of Jesus. Their births
were announced in similar words. They were both called saviors. And in the end,
like Jesus, Samson gave up his life to defeat the enemies of his people. Verse
28 tells us that Samson prayed. God heard him and he pulled down the temple of
a false god, killing more Philistines as he was dying, says verse 30, than he
ever killed living.
Jesus gave up His
life, not tied between two pillars, but nailed to two pieces of wood that
formed a Cross. He had more power than Samson ever dreamed. Like Samson pulling
up gates and snapping ropes, Jesus could have ripped out the nails and uprooted
His Cross. But Jesus let go of that kind of power in order to destroy our
spiritual enemies. By letting Himself die, Christ broke the power of death and
tore down the gates of Hell and rose again to set us free from our sins and
from our own deaths.
Samson is here in the
Bible to remind us of what life is like when we rely on ourselves. Even if we
are gifted and strong and get our way much of the time, we haven’t yet found
real power, real strength. It’s only when we let all that self-will and
personal power fall away that we learn how to pray and receive the true power God
wants to give us.
God has a purpose and
a plan for you, like He did for Samson. He gave you your strengths, as Paul
says, by the Holy Spirit for the common good. He means your gifts to be a
blessing and help to others, not just a way to indulge yourself. So follow
Samson’s final example. Let yourself be captured by the grace and power of
Jesus Christ, and give up your life by serving Him.
This week, think about
Samson. Then think about your own strengths, whatever they are. Then find just
one way to give up your strength, give up your advantage in order to help and
bless someone else. Maybe it’s letting someone else go ahead of you, or taking
a late-night shift at the warming center, or spending a few more minutes than
you can spare to listen to someone else’s troubles. Give up your power and then
discover the gracious strength which flows into you from our Lord who gave up
His power to save you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj