God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to listen for our story in the stories of the Book of Judges. On January 26 we sat once more with the disturbing character of Samson, perhaps the greatest and undoubtedly the worst of the Judges. Our text included selected verses from Judges 14 as well as I Peter 2:9-12.
Did you hear about the two young fish who were swimming along and encountered an older fish? “Morning, boys! How’s the water?” he said as he passed them. He went on his way. After a few moments, one of the pair turned to his friend and said, “Water? What the hell is water?”
I love that little story because it reminds us how easy it is to forget the fact that we exist in a culture. Every day, we make decisions and choices based on what we, or what “everyone” knows. This morning, as we continue to explore the book of Judges, we see how the story of Samson illustrates for us the ways in which it is so easy to allow someone or something else to define our environment and expectations. When that happens, rather than looking towards God’s best, I am simply swimming thoughtlessly and often faithlessly along with the tide.
Let’s think about what we know already from last week’s reading. Why was Samson born? “To begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5) God is sending this person into the world so that God’s people might have an alternative way of living – so that they can reject the slavery, oppression, violence, and greed that characterize the cultures around them and live into the purposes of God.
So Samson is going to begin this. How? What is distinctive about this baby? He is called to be a Nazirite. One who is set apart, or consecrated.
OK, do you remember what a Nazirite looks and acts like? Are there rules for this sort of thing? Of course. Samson is not to allow his hair or beard to be cut; he is to avoid contact with anything related to grapes; and he is to avoid becoming unclean by contact with the dead, or by eating anything unclean.
That’s what we learned last week, and when we left chapter 13, young Samson was beginning to experience the Spirit of the Lord.
In chapter 14, which we did not read, he falls in love with a Philistine woman. Yes, that’s right. The one who has been sent into the world in order to “deliver us” from the Philistines now finds himself drooling at the thought of marrying one. That’s a funny way to deliver us…like sponsoring a “Gambler’s Anonymous” meeting at the casino. But, well, you know…young love…
And so on his way to visit this young beauty, he has an encounter with a lion as he is taking the shortcut through the vineyard. An observant reader such as yourself might think, “Self, I thought Nazirites were supposed to avoid contact with grapes. Why is this Nazirite hanging around vineyards, let alone sponsoring a seven-day feast “as was customary” at the wedding?”
This sounds like a lot of grape wine.
At a Nazirite’s wedding.
To a Philistine girl.
The author of Judges reveals Samson as one who time after time receives the blessing or the empowerment of God, but who takes that blessing lightly. More than any other character in this book of Judges, “the Spirit of the Lord” comes to Samson, but nearly every single time he uses the benefit of that encouragement and strengthening to vent some petty, vengeful, selfish rage. The impression one gets is that Samson is a shallow hothead, and if we are honest, we see that the one who was born to begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines is, in fact, acting just like them.
Remember, my theory is that the book of Judges was given to describe the choices we make, and to consider in what ways we are willing to embrace God’s intentions of justice, freedom, and joy.
How’s the water, Samson?
In the passage you heard this morning from chapter 15, we discover that the leaders of the nation of Israel are turning Samson over to the Philistine authorities. Why? Because evidently, they fear the Philistines more than they trust God. Did you hear what they said to Samson? “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us?” Last week, we noted that the people of Israel didn’t cry out when they were suffering the oppression of the Philistines. Here, we see that they take it as normal. It’s just the water that they’re swimming in, that’s all.
The leaders of Israel cave in to the purposes of their Philistine rulers. Samson hides out in selfishness and anger, and when he is finally brought face to face with them, the Spirit of God comes upon him. And when the Spirit of the Almighty fills him, our hero, the Nazirite, grabs… the jawbone of a donkey. A dead donkey.
Nazirite rule #1 – no grapes. Gone.
Nazirite rule #2 – no contact with the dead. Gone.
And in spite of that, Samson overpowers the enemy and slays a thousand men. With the jawbone of a dead donkey.
And then, for the first time in his life that we can see, Samson cries out to God. Do you remember how many times the book of Judges contains the phrase, “and the people cried out to God to save them from their enemies…”? When the people realized how weary they were of sin and death and slavery and idolatry? Do you remember when the people prayed BIG prayers and said, “Lord, save us”?
And here, the people don’t pray. The people have given their leader over to the enemy. One man prays. And he doesn’t even pray a big prayer. He asks for a drink of water.
Do you see how the faith is being diminished here?
Yes, God responds – because God’s grace is amazing. But doesn’t this whole set-up seem wrong? This can’t be what God had in mind when he brought the Children of Israel to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey – to a life characterized by God’s presence and God’s purposes.
It’s not. Look at the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson “led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.” Do you see? God’s people. God’s hopes. But Philistine days.
How’s the water? It’s Philistine water. And what has happened in the last fifteen chapters is that our people have become increasingly defined by the purposes of others. We have lost sight of the Lord and accept as truth conditions imposed by powers in our world – powers that defy the truth and beauty of God.
We believe lies, and we live as though we can’t change them.
And this is what is so frustrating and disappointing to me on January 26, 2014: that the people of God in so many ways continue to live in the days of the Philistines. We continue to accept as truth the lies of the enemy, and to pretend that there is nothing we can do to change that.
We see that in our world. This week, Oxfam released a report indicating that the world’s wealthiest 85 individuals have a combined worth that equals that of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people. One group of people, who could ride in a single Megabus (as if that is ever going to happen), are richer than the number of people who currently live in North and South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and Europe.
When that statistic came out this week, there was a collective yawn. A few folks talked about “class warfare”. Some raised questions of justice. But mostly, the people I talk to said something like, “Well, what are you going to do? That’s the way that the world is. The rich get richer.”
They do. We do. But although these are the waters in which we are currently swimming, they are not the waters of God’s intentions for the earth. I do not deny anyone the right to work hard and to benefit from his or her labor. But as George Monbiot has said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”
I don’t know how to fix it, but I would suggest that a world in which wealth and power flow increasingly from the many to the few is a world that looks more like the slavery and oppression of Egypt rather than the justice and sufficiency of the Promised Land. The Church of Jesus Christ worships a savior who was born in poverty, raised as a refugee, lived as a homeless man, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. We don’t need to attack the rich – but we dare not forget the poor and work for justice.
In our own nation, we live in the days of the Philistines. Every year, more than 30,000 human beings are killed in the United States by guns. Every day, 32 Americans are murdered with firearms. Every day, 8 children die of gunshots.
Now hold your horses, Second-Amendment Sally. And don’t get all worked up, Gun-control Gus. I don’t want to start an argument about strategy right now. What I hope is that the people of God in the USA in 2014 can think about those numbers – 30,000 deaths in a year, 32 murders in a day – and say, “You know, that’s too many.”
Can the NRA and the people from the Brady Campaign agree on much? Nope. But can the church of Jesus Christ say that it is not acceptable to simply say, “Hey, it happens. People die. Nothing we can do.”
Again, I don’t know what the answer is – I only know that this water is making me sick. We will disagree on strategies and on policies and maybe even priorities. If we knew that once a year, somewhere in the USA, a building the size of PNC Park was going to be wiped out, would we want to do something? I hope so. In the same way, I hope that we can begin to think that maybe losing 30,000 people a year to gun violence is preventable – that there are solutions that honor individual rights and responsibilities. People of faith need to be talking about how to end illegal gun sales.
And it’s not just in our world or in our nation. It’s in our own lives. How often do we allow the culture around us to define who we are, or who we are becoming? We cheat on the test. We drive like maniacs. We get drunk and act like idiots. We participate in all kinds of behavior which is less than God’s best for us. Why? Because everyone else is doing it.
Listen, beloved – this is not a sermon on the distribution of wealth or guns or personal choices. It’s a call to be the people who know that the place we live in isn’t always shaped by God’s intentions but who act like those intentions are still valid.
When we live like this, we refuse to throw up our hands in despair over the evils of racism, domestic violence, or anything else, saying “What are you gonna do?”
When we live like this, we refuse to behave as if these are the “days of the Philistines” and we seek to act reflecting the love and mercy and justice of Jesus of Nazareth. When we live like this, we acknowledge that our lives point to a greater truth.
The Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson and he slew a thousand Philistines in a fit of rage. And for doing that, he got his picture in the Bible coloring books. He’s a hero.
But can we conceive of a reality where the Spirit comes upon Samson and instead of satisfying his personal vendetta he used the power he got from God to establish justice? Could Samson have used that power from God differently?
To be honest, that’s a rhetorical question, and right now I’m not particularly interested in that.
What I do want to know, this morning, is this:
What will you do, in the waters where you are swimming right now, when the Spirit of God comes upon you?
In whose days do you live? What makes you sigh and say, “What are you gonna do?”
And what are the intentions of the God that you worship and serve? And how do you point to them…even if no one else can see them right now? And will you help me point to them, too? Because unlike Samson, we are not in this alone. Let us work together to discover and demonstrate the purposes of God in and for this place. Amen.