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The People of Salvation: Samson

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ Isaiah 6:8

I will tell you from the outset of this sermon there are more questions than answers and, perhaps like me, you will leave baffled by God’s action / inaction in the case of Samson’s story. His whole story runs contrary to our concept of justice, of mercy, of love, of fidelity. I could not find a single clear virtue in the whole of the Samson cycle!

To tell you the truth, it was depressing to reread it. I had remembered a noble, courageous man of God with superhuman strength which he used to defeat the enemies of God. I remember as a child being mesmerized by the story of him using the jawbone of an ass to slaughter 1,000 men. Undone by the trickery of a beautiful woman, in one last moment of desperate faith, he gave his life to vanquish the evil philistines! But that’s not the story.

He is not a hero, not at all! At least not in the traditional sense. Every act he commits is based on self-aggrandizement, sexual bravado, and petulant revenge.

Samson was given an extraordinary gift from God. He was meant to be a hero. He was meant to be the original superhero. The Philistines had been a thorn in the side of Israel for decades, defeating and humiliating them time and again. God gave him this strength to defeat them. He was to keep and protect Israel, but instead he used his gift for his own entertainment and personal revenge.

He wreaks such havoc that his own people tie him up and give him over to the enemies!

Unlike others we have explored these past weeks – Joseph, Sarah, and Jonah – who are flawed characters with some redeeming qualities, Samson does not demonstrate a single one. Not one redeeming or godly act. Read it for yourself!

Even his most famous act of pulling down the temple is simply to get revenge for being blinded by his enemies, but he is perfectly willing to kill 3,000 people-men and women for this purpose! This is what Samson said in Judges 16:28, “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.” He could have said, “Lord God, grant me strength so I may repent for my acts and defeat your enemies and save the Israelites!” He wasn’t doing it for God, or the Israelites. It was revenge, pure and simple.

Samson is a man whose virtues are clouded by his own personal faults and demons. He is like the star athlete that becomes so enamored with his own bravado that his entire life becomes a train wreck. Samson never used any godly virtues such as patience, love, or mercy in his trials. He never sought the wisdom of others who could have helped temper and moderate his raw passions.

And yet the Bible tells us he judged Israel for 20 years. He was the leader of the people for that time. It was clear that God had given him this special gift.

But God is oddly silent throughout this whole story. We might expect a call story like God’s encounter with Jeremiah as a boy in which God declares, “Samson, I have given you this strength that you might free my people from the Philistines.” Nothing. You might think God might warn him, “Samson, only use this gift in battle. Do not tell the secret of your strength lest you spurn this gift and violate my command and die.”

God never speaks. Furthermore, the narrator does not offer any evaluative judgements regarding Samson’s actions for good or ill. We are left on our own to judge Samson the Judge.

First in God’s story of salvation, it is ultimately about the purposes of God and not our faith. Samson keeps Israel for 20 years because God wills it and so it will be. God is sovereign over heaven and earth and as such the Lord’s plan cannot be thwarted by humans. Samson is the Lord’s appointed.

However, if Samson had been a godly man this story could have been much different. Take the horrific incident regarding Samson’s wife. He asks the people a riddle about a lion that he killed, which was filled with honey. The riddle was impossible to guess. In the end because of his actions 300 foxes die, olive groves, vineyards, and wheat fields are burned, his wife and father-in-law are murdered, and 30 random men are slaughtered. All of it completely unnecessary. All of it due to his low moral character.

As you can see, if Samson had simply fought the Lord’s enemies in battle with his God-given strength things would have been very different for everyone. God’s intentions were fulfilled, Israel had defeated the Philistines, but rather than a story of triumph it is a story of tragedy.

The key to understanding Samson’s tragedy rests in his hair. That was the source of his power, that special gift from God and he spurned it.

Samson was a Nazirite. This was a tradition found in the book of Numbers in which people devoted their lives to God, abstained from wine, cutting one’s hair, or touching a corpse. His strength was literally in his hair but there is another layer of meaning for us all.

For each of us our strength is found in those places in our lives we have devoted to God. When we cut them off or treat them cheaply, we lose that strength.

Samson abused his great power and others in our time have done so with similarly disastrous results.

Take the disgraced Sackler family, private owners of Purdue Pharma. Endowed with entrepreneurial power, they helped manufacture drugs that would bring great relief from physical agony that so many in this world endure. This alone would make them fantastically wealthy. Yet, their greed outstripped their morals, and they wielded their power and influence which spurred the opioid epidemic taking 450,000 lives. “[They] also instructed its pharmaceutical representatives all over the country to tell physicians that oxycontin was not addictive primarily because of its slow-release properties. Purdue told its representatives to tell doctors that only persons with an “addictive personality” became addicts.” Over half of the deaths began with a doctor’s prescription.

Along the way they corrupted thousands of doctors and pharmaceutical representatives to be a part of their scheme. Like Samson the collateral damage they caused can scarcely be calculated. And they have ended in disgrace, their names being taken off buildings.

When Israel first arrived in the Promised Land Moses reminded the people that God had blessed them “with houses full of good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant...take heed lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

All that we have is a blessing and gift from God and God calls us to dedicate it all in Nazirite fashion to the Lord.

Consider Jonas Salk in contrast with the Sacklers. He liberated millions from the scourge of Polio. Unlike his contemporaries, he believed that “vaccines composed of ‘killed’ polio virus could safely immunize without risk of infection.” He boldly immunized himself, his wife, and his children demonstrating the courage of his convictions.

In the two years before the vaccine was widely available, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000. By 1962, that number had dropped to 910. Hailed as a miracle worker, (and this is the incredible part that would never happen today) Salk never patented the vaccine or earned any money from his discovery, preferring it be distributed as widely as possible.

Like Samson he was given a gift from God. But unlike Samson and the Sacklers he used it not for his own benefit but for others.

God gives us the call and the abilities but the shape and character we put on it is our own. Samson had extreme power but made poor choices which ended in his death despite his power. The strength we have is the strength of character we execute each and every day we wake up with every single person we meet.

May we use all that we have and all that we are to the glory of God and the benefit of others. Amen.

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