Hervey Bay Presbyterian Church

The Long Road to Bethlehem (2)

Scripture Reading 

  • Judges 13:24-14:20

Introduction

All Sunday school children will encounter the story of Samson.  About all children’s Bibles will have a full-colour page of Samson tearing the lion to bits.  

What do you remember of Samson?  How should we understand the story of Samson? 

The official synopsis of the 1951 film reads: When strongman Samson rejects the love of the beautiful Philistine woman Delilah, she seeks vengeance that brings horrible consequences they both regret. In that movie, Samson won his bride after a contest of strength.  The woman he married then betrays him and fell in love with another man.  Samson went after them and killed them.  Her sister Delilah who had loved Samson in secret, seduces Samson into a relationship, in an attempt to avenge the death of her sister. She succeeded, and Samson dies a blind man.

That’s it! That’s the plot! It that we need to know about Samson?

The story of Samson was not included into the Scriptures to provide the script for a movie or even a large colour page in a children’s Bible. Samson was not a precursor to Superman.

One of the keys to understanding the Bible is to compare the Bible with itself.  Whit this in mind we need to bring into account what the Bible centuries later said about him:  

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions… And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, (Hebrews 11:32-22, 39, ESV)

 If the name of Samson is mentioned along with the heroes of old for his faith and he is commended for it, then surely we have to try to understand why Samson’s story is included into the Scriptures.

In my research for this sermon, I found precious little theology about Samson.  Not a lot of sermons are recorded, and the commentaries are at best skimpy.  So, it is with fear end trembling that I preach this morning.  Think with me, and test the word of today against the Scriptures. May God’s Spirit give us understanding.  

Prayer:  That the Holy Spirit gives us understanding

God gave Samson to perform a specific task

Samson’s birth was unexpected and humanly impossible. His mother had been barren.  His birth was because of God’s direct intervention.

Both Samson’s parents would play an active role in his birth and upbringing.  They had to raise Samson as a Nazirite—a child dedicated to the service of God.  Even before his birth, they had to treat him as God’s chosen instrument.  Manoah knew that Samson would be unique when he asked what his son’s mission would be (13:12).  From birth, Samson would be set apart to “begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” (13:5)

The encounter of the parents with the Angel of the Lord has all the marks of a covenant between God and them.  It was sealed with a sacrifice, which God accepted. 

Samson grew up as a specially consecrated instrument in the hands of God.  His name was carefully selected:  “Sunshine” as if his mother saw the mission of her son as God giving light to his people.

Through his diet, appearance and everyday activity his parents would imprint on him God’s calling for his life.  One can be sure that his extended family and neighbourhood knew about God’s mission with the young man. God affirmed his intentions with Samson; we read,  

And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol. (Judges 13:25, ESV)

 Samson’s misguided program to of attack

Timnah was a Philistine town only a few miles away from where his parents raised Samson, on the other side of the border. He probably went there often.  In the back of his mind the words of his parents echoed:  You must deliver the people of God from Philistine oppression.   

In his mid-twenties, he met a girl and fell in love with her.  Maybe he thought he could overcome the enemy by first becoming part of them, he would thus gain a platform to execute his mission.  All along we read: the Lord was seeking an occasion [the right moment/time] to confront the Philistines.  Samson knew this fact very well, but his personal strategy went along a different path.  

His patents protested because they disagreed with his strategy.  Samson insisted, “She’s the right one for me.” (Or: “She’s right in my eyes”.) This was probably not the action of a man only blindly in love.  He understood his mission, and all along he probably still thought God will bless him through his marriage to get a foothold on the oppressors.  

So, the parents went along to make arrangements for the marriage.  They had to negotiate the dowry.  This made the betrothal to be married binding.  (So by the way, in this word betroth, the word for truth is buried.  This, of course, leads us to understand marriage between man and wife as a relationship based on truthfulness.) 

But on the way to Timnah, something extraordinary happened.  In the Sorak valley of vineyards, God’s Spirit came upon Samson.  When a lion attacked him, God gave him the strength to rip it apart as if was a young goat.  This must have impacted Samson to know getting married to the Philistine woman was not in God’s plan. Keep in mind, the Bible gives us no indication that Samson was physically stronger than any other person of his age.  He most probably never was, but God enabled him with exceptional strength when only he needed it. 

Samson suppressed God’s plan, but even subconsciously he must have known it was the right thing to do.  Contrary to what one might expect, he hid the episode with the lion from his parents,.  Would you not tell your parents that God empowered you and you just killed a lion with your bare hands? He was probably afraid that they might see it as a sign of God to not go ahead with the marriage.

If it was my mother, she would be quick to tell me that God wanted me to listen to God’s voice!

But his heart was set:  if he had to deliver the enemy, he would do it his way!  He did not abandon his mission, he just went about it in his own strength, thereby rejecting the power by which God wanted him to go about it. 

On his way for the actual wedding day, he diverted into the vineyard and had a look to see if the carcass of the lion was still there.  Yes!, and this time it had bees and honey in it.  He took the honey and gave it to his parents—but did not tell them where he got it from?  Why?  

Once again he missed the message.  He probably saw it as a sign that God would bless his marriage, but he lost the picture as a followup of him killing the beast:  if he could kill a roaring lion by the strength God provided, he would lead the people to restore the Promised Land to a place of milk and honey.

Samson did not overcome the enemy; he only somewhat distressed them

From what we gather from the Scriptures, unlike the custom of the day, the wedding feast did not take place in the house of the groom’s father.  That was in some sense humiliating for Manoah:  having a wedding feast in the house of your oppressors. If his relatives were present, those who had been told that God gave Samson to deliver Israel from the hand of their oppressors, this wedding celebration was instead a sign of defeat and further oppression.  It would be a riddle to the Israelites who attended it.

But maybe God can still hit a straight blow with a crooked stick.  Samson, as God’s special consecrated man, might have other insights regular folk did not have!

It lasted a full week. The guests were intrigued by Samson’s riddle:  Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.” If only Samson’s heart were receptive to understand his own riddle, he would have followed God’s plan: he would have assumed that the eater, the Philistines, would be defeated and God would restore his people in the land of milk and honey.

Instead, Samson, the consecrated Nazirite, frivolously squandered the opportunity amongst the enemy known for their wallowing in drunkenness and hedonistic self-gratification. Does it remind you of the lost son in the parable of our Lord? 

Surely, Samson did infiltrate the enemy, but only thirty Philistines lost their lives, and that because the Spirit of God enabled him.  It was hardly a comprehensive victory!  Even more so when this episode in Samson’s life ended up where his ministry started: in his father’s house:  he lost his wife and went back to live with his parents.

Application

There are other examples in the Bible of men of God who made the same mistake as Samson.  

  • Abraham:  instead of staying in the land God promised to him and his descendants, he went down to Egypt, gave up his wife, only to return humiliated.  He misunderstood the promises of God, and he wanted it to come true as he saw it. Through the school of faith, Abraham learnt to fully trust and obey God, even if it were needed to sacrifice his only son.
  • Lot:  He thought he could gain something by living in Sodom.  He chose wrongly.  Yes, the Bible calls him a righteous man (2Peter 2:7), but his witness became weak, and none in Sodom believed him when he told them to flee the city ahead of God’s judgment.  By the grace of God, he was saved.
  • Samson: Samson had it wrong and initially squandered the opportunities God gave him because of his own stubborn understanding of God’s purposes.  Pigheadedly, he insisted on being the leading player in his life drama, instead of being like clay in the hand of the Holy Spirit.

Borrowing from Spurgeon’s sermon, we have to say that the secret of Samson’s strength only lied in his consecration as God’s instrument. Never should we think that we have any power and understanding of our own.

We have to guard our consecration; it must be sincere; we must mean it, and then look up to the Holy Spirit, relying on Him to give us daily grace.  It is not by any grace or insight, or power we have in us, but by the grace that is in Christ, and that must be given to us hour by hour, or we will fall.  Then, when we have done all required of us, we will be crowned last as a faithful one, who has endured unto the end.

Just one last thought:  Samson, and all human deliverers before and after him, was born of a man; they were sinners.  They were born on the long road to Bethlehem.  It was only then that the Messiah, not born of a man, but of the Holy Spirit, was born.  Being sinless, being one with the Father, His mission succeeded.  He totally destroyed the enemy.  For his wedding feast we, his bride, are waiting.

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 2 December 2018

 

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Christmas: God rent the heavens

Scripture Readings:

  • Isaiah 63:7-9
  • Isaiah 63:15-19
  • Isaiah 64:5-9
  • Isaiah 64:1-4, Luke 2:8-14

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

God is good and merciful

We come together tonight and we can only say, “How good is God!”

With Isaiah we say:

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Isaiah 63:7, ESV)

This church, as is the case with the church of God all over the world from all eternity which includes God’s people from all tongues, nations and tribes, exists because God called it into existence.  It is because of God’s mercy and grace that we are here tonight.  Our Lord is our God, and our Lord is our Master – He owns us.

Many good things He has done for us.  His compassion and his kindness towards us sustains us.

He is our Father, He is our Saviour – we are privileged to be called “the people of the Lord”, not be anything we have done, but what He has done in his mercy.  Listen to this verse:

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9, ESV)

Right in the beginning when He called his people out of the bondage of Egypt we hear Him say:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey … (Exodus 3:7–8, ESV)

He carried them on eagles wings. He gave them the angel of his presence and in his love and mercy He redeemed them. There at Mount Sinai He revealed Himself in his majesty as they saw the smoke and heard the earth shake.   He declared them to be his holy nation, a priesthood of redeemed people to proclaim his wondrous deeds.  Never has any God done such a wondrous and glorious thing.

Has the love of God cooled?

But something happened.  Somehow it was as if they did not experience the same kind of powerful presence and guidance of the Lord anymore.  It was just as if God did not care to intervene from them as He did at first. They began to ask:

Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me. (Isaiah 63:15, ESV)

They almost wanted to remind God that He is their father, although their arch fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob acknowledge them anymore.

There was something wrong:  it seems as if God not care if they were committing sin or wandering away from Him, as if the Lord did not care if their hearts were hardened.  They have seen the enemy come and take possession of their inheritance – God does not care.  So they prayed:

Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. (Isaiah 63:17, ESV)

What seemed to have been the problem?  Is it God whose love cooled?  Is it God who has to return?  Is God still their God?  How does it happen that your spiritual life, and the spiritual life of a congregation can become stale and lifeless? One goes through all the motions of reading your Bible, maybe even pray, attend worship services, and even contribute financially to the work of the Lord, and yet – one has to drag oneself along. Why does it seem that God is far away?

There is this verse we should keep in mind:

But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. (Isaiah 63:10, ESV)

We have sinned

But there is a wideness in God’s mercy.  Although He is grieved, although He becomes angry even with his own, He leaves with us a hunger and a thirst.  We crave the living water, although we realise we do not deserve it.  So we cry out:

How can we be saved? (Isa 64:5)

We look at our lives and we say:

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. (Isaiah 64:6–7, ESV)

By his mercy He makes us remember how good his love is.  He calls us to Himself with cords of love, because He is our Father.

At that low watermark, when we hit rockbottom, we cry out for help.  Our will crumbles and our desires do not count, but we just cannot live without the newness of his mercies every morning.  So we pray:

But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8, ESV)

We pray:

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence. (Isaiah 64:1, ESV)

This is a risky prayer.  It is a risky thing for a sinner to pray to the holy God of Heaven to rend the heavens and come down, especially after you know that He hates sin and you just acknowledged your sin before Him.  List to how the Psalmist describes what happens when God answers such a prayer:

He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds. The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. (Ps 18:9–13, ESV)

At Sinai their reaction upon God rending the skies and revealing his holiness:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off (Exodus 20:18, ESV)

How will God answer the prayer of his people?

Hundreds of years passed since Isaiah prayed the prayer of Isaiah 64 for God to rend the heavens.  There was even a period of 450 years between the Old and New Testament when God seemingly turned his back on his people, and did not even had a prophecy for them.  God was silent while the enemy trampled the inheritance of the Lord.  Would God answer the prayer of Isaiah?  Would God forget his people, forget his Covenant with Abraham and David?  Can God be trusted?

We look around us today and see how the people of the Lord is trampled upon.  His Word has become fodder to politicians, comedians and many scientists.  Every effort is put in place to discredit His wondrous work in creation.  It seems as if the Church of Christ is dwindling into obscurity, and to be honest we lose hope to see the promise of the return of our Lord realised. It is all true?  Is it all trustworthy?  Will God answer us?

Has He not answered us?

God saves: Immanuel

It was a cold night on the fields of Bethlehem Ephrata. There were shepherds in the filed keeping watch over their sheep.  Something extraordinary happened.  The heavens opened, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.  God has come to visit his people.

This expression “glory-of-the-Lord” is important.  It is mentioned every time God has come to live with is people to show his greatness, holiness and compassion, like when the glory of the Lord entered the tabernacle, or the temple.  It was a good sign.  There was good message – not a message of condemnation and reproach, but a message of good hope and great joy:

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11, ESV)

There were angles all over the place singing the praises of God:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14, ESV)

God is pleased with his people, not angry.  How can we be saved?  How can this be possible?

You might wonder, dear friend, how can God have a message for you tonight, telling you that He is pleased with you, while you know very well in your heart that you don’t deserve it; you know very well that you despised Him and hated your fellow men.  As one fellow puts it: “I kicked Him in the teeth for more than sixty years of my life, I hated Him and despised Him, yet, when I ended up in hospital with my life hanging on a thread and I called upon Him, He was there the first time and showed his mercy to me.”

How is this possible?  Listen:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, ESV)

This Jesus grew up and began his ministry which culminated in Him being nailed to a cross just outside Jerusalem.  Of Him Isaiah said:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5–6, ESV)

The Lord did rend the heavens, not to pour out his wrath, but to announce the birth of Him who would eventually bore the full wrath of God to set us free.

This is the message of Christmas.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on 24 December (Christmas Eve) 2012