On January 19 we continued our study of the Book of Judges as we considered the events leading up to the birth of Samson. Our texts included Judges 13 and Luke 1:45, which reads simply, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Every morning, I sit at the breakfast table and read the newspaper. The actual, paper and ink, comes in a little plastic bag, newspaper. I realize that this ancient and mysterious behavior makes me perhaps the oldest and most backwards man that some of the younger members of the congregation know. I will wear that mantle.
At any rate, on Thursday the “Drabble” comic strip featured a conversation between Ralph and his wife that makes sense in light of our study of the Book of Judges:
If there is one thing that we have seen in this ongoing saga, it is that history does, in fact, repeat itself. You will remember that we have talked about what scholars call “the Deuteronomic Cycle of Judges.” The people are secure and blessed, and then they do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. They abandon God’s best for them, and God allows them to walk away. They discover that this leads them to pain and misery, and they “cry out” to the Lord, who responds by sending a deliverer, or a “judge”, who comes to defeat the Ammonites, the Amelekites, or whoever else is stepping on God’s people at the moment.
And so when we began reading through Judges 13, it sure seemed like the cycle repeated itself: the story of Samson begins with the narrator of Judges informing us that once again the Israelites did what was evil, and the Lord gave them into the hands of the Philistines. However, there is a key element missing from the cycle this time. Did you catch that? What is not here?
There is no outcry from the people. For forty years, God’s people are oppressed and victimized by the Philistines, and yet they do not cry out.
I have mentioned that the book of Judges, taken as a whole, seems to be a large narrative about the ways that God has called a people out of one system of living – the slavery, idolatry, and repression of life in Egypt – and invited them into a new way of life as represented by the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey and characterized, we would expect, by justice and joy. Time after time, the people in Judges walk away from God’s best, find themselves in trouble, and say “Wait! God! This is not where we are supposed to be! Help us!” And God raises up someone like Ehud or Barack or Deborah or Gideon.
But here, the world is so distorted and reality has become so unhinged for these people that they cannot even sense that life is wrong. They have no hope for change. They are so accustomed to life as it should NOT be that they can’t imagine anything else, and they don’t know to cry out. We will talk more about that next week.
What I want to point out now, however, is simply this – that even when the people of Israel are unable or unwilling to cry out, God is moving. God shows up to bumbling old Menoah and his wife and reaches out to his people even when they are unaware how far they have wandered away from his intentions for them.
Remember that, beloved. Remember that even when we are not interested, for whatever reason, in looking for God, God does not stop looking for us. One of the truths that this story reveals is that we, and those that we love, are not beyond God’s reach.
That leads to a second observation about this beginning to Samson’s story: that God’s movement, whether surprising and intrusive or expected and anticipated, always invites a response. In the book of Exodus, God interrupts the shepherd Moses in the desert by means of a burning bush and says, “Look, here’s what I’m thinking…” and Moses’ obedience brings about the deliverance of God’s people. God sends an angel to a young woman named Mary, saying basically, “Hey, here’s an idea…” The passage that Erlina Mae read comes from the story of Elizabeth’s meeting Mary after the angel departs, revealing that God’s own son is coming into the world – as a result of Mary’s willingness to respond to the initiative of God.
In Judges 13, the angel of the Lord promises to send a son to Manoah’s family, but indicates that there is an expected response. The boy is to be what is called a “Nazirite”. The Hebrew word nazir means “separated” or “consecrated”. The one who is to be born will, we learn in verse 5, “begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
And what does it mean to be a Nazirite? Well, the three main criteria are listed in the instructions that are given, over and over again, in the reading:
– Abstain from grapes, wine, vinegar, raisins – in other words, a distinctive diet that will remind the person and his community that he is set apart for something special.
– Avoid any contact with anything dead that will make him impure in the tradition of the Law
– Refrain from cutting his hair or beard – an outward sign of an inward consecration.
I want to encourage you to remember those three rules of the Nazirite, because next week when we consider Samson in more detail, I’ll ask you to help me keep score as to how he is doing. But here’s a spoiler alert: I believe that Samson is not only the final “Judge” in the book of Judges, but that he is the worst of the lot.
And you say, “Wait, wait, wait, Pastor Dave! It says right there in the Bible – verses 24 and 25 – that “the Lord blessed Samson” and “the Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him.”
And you are right. Those things did happen. But I believe that this part of the chapter is a warning to those of us who might be tempted to confuse God’s blessings with our obedience, or who might mistake our apparent successes as a sign of spiritual maturity.
I get it. For a long, long, time, Samson is “all that”. He’s got the star appeal. He’s apparently filled with the Spirit of the Lord – the scriptures actually tell us that this happens to Samson more often than to any other Judge. But I would say that he winds up as a failed leader who is consumed by selfishness, lust, and materialism. He does receive the blessing of the Lord. He is touched by the power and Spirit of the Lord. And I would suggest that in the next week or two we will learn how he squanders those things and wastes them – and that perhaps that is why he’s in the Bible: to show us the dangers of taking the blessings of God lightly or for granted.
And yet as hard as I appear to be on Samson, I have titled this message, “Finally, a Hero!” Why? Because I believe that after 12 chapters of train wrecks and almosts, we do see a pure-hearted, wise, obedient, responsible character in the book of Judges. The person who is most heroic in this chapter, if not in the entire book, is not even named.
She’s called “the woman.” She is Menoah’s wife. She is the one to whom the angel of the Lord comes. And he comes to her in her own brokenness and poverty. The angel shows up and immediately reminds her of her greatest weakness, at least in that culture: she is “barren”. She is infertile. She cannot produce a child in a world that depended on children for everything.
The angel – who is also unnamed, by the way – reminds “the woman” of her inability to conceive, and then says that God will give her a son.
“So, Pastor Dave, if it’s the angel who makes the promise and God who gives the son and Samson who will begin to deliver the Israelites, why are you saying that Menoah’s wife is the only hero here? What does she do that is so heroic?”
She lives into the truth. She believes it. She acts as if it were true. That’s all she needs to do to be a hero in my book.
Her behavior is miles ahead of her clueless husband’s. After the angel appears to her, she goes ahead and reports to him exactly what happened. And the first thing that Menoah does is to ask God to send the messenger again, because it sounds too good to be true. And the angel returns, and when Menoah questions him, the angel basically says, “Look, buddy – listen to your wife. We went over all this last week.”
Menoah manages to offer up a little worship, and then as soon as the angel departs, he breaks into a panic and predicts their deaths. His wife sensibly reminds him that God’s promise of a son is rather dependent on their being alive, and she goes right ahead and gets pregnant, avoids grapes and uncleanliness, and has a son.
An unnamed woman having a baby. So what? That happens every day. Actually, it happened about 370,000 times yesterday, worldwide. It’s not news. It’s not startling.
Yet in this case, I’m saying that there was something heroic about what happened. Because it involved an anonymous and essentially powerless person doing the only thing that she could do: trust that God was for her and act like that mattered.
The great theologian Woody Allen once said, “Showing up is eighty percent of life.” OK, that was actually in a conversation with his colleague Marshall Brickman, and they were talking about play-writing, but I think it fits.
If we can trust the Bible, it’s evident that every now and then, God calls some people to rise up and do something extraordinary. You’ll find the occasional burning bush or talking donkey or hungry whale. But in my experience, that’s rare. Most of us will more closely identify with the life station of Samson’s mother, whose name has been lost to history. Her example has not.
Beloved, that’s what I think the Word of the Lord is for us today. Can you leave this place and be a hero of such magnitude? I’m not telling you to avoid grapes or miss the cemetery or skip your appointment at the salon. I’m simply asking you if you can bring yourself to believe that in the midst of whatever mess you may find yourself tomorrow, God is there. And then can you act like God is there by responding with obedience and faith?
You probably won’t face any lions, or be called on to turn water into wine, or be imprisoned for your faith tomorrow.
Show up anyway. That is to say, act like God is moving in your days, and go to school and to work ready to behave like a believer. Tell the truth. Be kind. Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Buy a cup of coffee for a stranger. Give five minutes to someone who needs a sympathetic ear. Pray.
If you believe that God is moving ahead of you, then show up. And if you show up, then it might be easier for your neighbor to imagine a God who is already here. History can repeat itself, you know. Your obedience can be a blessing to someone else, just as this woman’s obedience became a blessing to her neighbors.
Be a hero, even if nobody notices. Amen.