Thursday, March 9, 2017

Samson: God's Unjust Judge--Part 1

When I was young, I was fascinated by the story of Samson for one reason and one reason alone: the incredible strength that he had.  I marveled at how he killed a lion with his bare hands; how he killed 1000 men with the jawbone of a donkey; how he ripped city gates off their hinges and carried them from the city.  I was in awe.  Of course, I didn’t know much about all the other details of this Israelite judge.  I frankly didn’t care.  I didn’t care about his marital issues.  I didn’t care about his anger issues.  I didn’t care about his sexual appetite and want of prostitutes.  I didn’t care about his arrogance.  I didn’t care about his constant disobeying of God.  I just realized something, I’m assuming that you knew all of that.  I’m assuming you knew all of those other things about Samson as well.  Did you?  Did you know just how flawed a character Samson was?  I mean, when you realize just how flawed he was, you scratch your head in wonder that God chose him to be a judge of Israel.  And yet, God did exactly that.  God chose Samson to be a judge and begin the deliverance of God’s people from the Philistines.  Tonight, we begin Samson’s story and hear how God worked through a very flawed, very complex character.

We begin in Judges 13 where an angel of the Lord comes to a woman in the field. This is Samson’s mother–whose name is never mentioned.  Samson’s mother is barren–a source of shame upon her and in her community, and the angel has tremendous news for her: she will conceive and bear a son.  But there is a bit of a catch. Her son will be considered a Nazirite.
“The Nazirite vow to which the angel refers is found in Numbers 6:1-21, and contained three basic stipulations.  A Nazirite was not to cut hair during the period of the vow; was not to drink any produce from vines, alcoholic or non-alcoholic; and was not to have contact with any dead body. The purpose of the Nazirite vow was to ask for God’s special help during a crucial time.  It was a sign that you were looking to God with great intensity and focus.  Keeping one’s hair uncut and refraining from the fruit of the vine were ways of showing that you were “in training” toward a goal.  By refraining from touching a dead body, you were adopting the stringent rules of ceremonial cleanliness for priests, who were not allowed to touch anything dead because they worked in God’s house every day.  So the Nazarite was living before the presence of God every day.
As it clear from Numbers 6, the Nazirite vow was made voluntarily and for a definite period of time.  But Samson was being born into the Nazarite state involuntarily (his parents were taking the vow for him), and he was to stay a Nazirite all his life.  His mother was not to drink wine or eat unclean foods, because the Nazirite vow started immediately–when Samson was in her womb!  What she ate and drank, Samson-in-utero also would eat and drink.  God put Samson under this “rule” even when he was still unborn.  He was truly to be “set apart to God from [and before] birth.”  (Keller: Judges for You)
This was very exciting for Samson’s mother, so she immediately went and told her husband Manoah.  Manoah’s reaction is quite interesting.  He accepts his wife’s account of the facts, but he seems to want confirmation.  He craves additional information.  So he prays, “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.”  I find this prayer interesting.  In one way, the angel of the Lord has already taught them what they were supposed to do: raise their son as a Nazirite.  What more did Manoah want?  Did he want every jot and tittle to be handed down from above?  Did he want the angel to tell them how many times a week they were supposed to take their son to worship?  Did he want the angel to tell them how many hours a week they needed to spend telling him about the Lord?  We honestly don’t know for sure.  But we know Manoah wanted more information; more data; more instruction.

Manoah would have fit in well with our society today.  We crave information.  In some ways, it’s like a drug that we get addicted to.  You walk into restaurants that have televisions, and 24 hour news stations are streaming.  We turn on our computers and pull up the news several times a day.  We scroll through our Facebook feeds seeing what our friends and family are doing and clicking on the links that they find interesting or important or infuriating.  We are overwhelmed by data!

And to an extent, this has trickled into our churches and congregations.  We want to know: how can we make our church grow.  What are the latest techniques; the latest resources; the latest magic bullets that will cause a congregation to attract others–or at the very least get people to open up their wallets and keep the lights on.  What is the latest interpretation of a particular biblical text?  What radically new idea has hit the market?  Who is the next famous preacher who will make Christianity easy to understand?  We crave more information.

You know what is interesting?  The angel of the Lord returns to Manoah and his wife, but–and here is the rub–there is no new information.  There is nothing.  Now, there is an interesting exchange between Manoah and the angel, and I won’t go into the specifics, but in that exchange, Manoah is trying to manipulate the angel and get more information.  Manoah is working to put the angel into a position where the angel will be forced to give extra data.  But the angel refuses.  The angel won’t be manipulated.  There’s a reason for that–in all likelihood, this angel is actually God’s Son.  I don’t have time to get into that whole scholarly argument right now, but it’s a good one.  In all likelihood, Manoah is meeting up with Jesus, and Jesus won’t be manipulated.  He also won’t give any more information than is necessary.

And that begs the question:
 “...why would the angel of the Lord have returned if he had no new information to give?  Manoah prayed for help, and that help was apparently refused.  But in fact, Manoah did get the help he needed, but not in the form he was asking for.  He wanted to know “what is to be the rule for the boy’s life and work?”–to have more regulations.  Instead, God gives Manoah a revelation of who he is.  As we have seen, the angel of the Lord is likely the Son of God.  And his name, he says, “is beyond understanding”–it is too wonderful for a human to grasp.  This points Manoah to his glory.  Then “the Lord” himself “did an amazing the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame”.  He indelibly prints in their minds his greatness.
At last, Manoah “realized that it was the angel of the Lord. ‘We are doomed to die!’ he said to his wife. ‘We have seen God!’” He knows enough of his people’s history to understand that no one can see God’s face and live.  But while he panics, his wife remains calm.  “If the Lord had meant to kill us, he woudl not have accepted” their sacrifices; nor would he have “shown us all these things”.   Evidently, they have not died!  Interestingly, this reminds us that faith is not the absence of thinking, but it is thinking and acting on the basis of the word and promises of God.
      So in reply to being asked about how to bring up their God-given son as part of the outworking of God’s plan–how to live his way and please him–the Lord says: You need to know me and my character far more than you need more information.  All the rules in the world would not be able to give you direction in the innumerable decisions and choices you will have to make with your son.  Only a deep understanding of who I am can give you the guidance you need.
As we will see, Samson’s own life story...indicates that his parents fell quite short in their child-rearing, and failed to show and explain God’s character to their son.  Yet God’s message to them is a message to all of us.  We think we need rules, but we need to know God.  God does not, and will not, give us a guidebook for every twist and turn, every doubt and decision in our lives.  He gives us something much better–he gives us himself.
It is worth pausing on this point a little longer.  In general, a parent gives a child fewer details as he or she gets older.  When your child is very little, you must virtually follow them around and say: Don’t touch this and Don’t go here every step of the way!  A child doesn’t know not to put his finger in a wall socket, and doesn’t know not to eat dirt.  They need to conform to your commands.
The older a child gets, the more you expect them to incorporate the parent’s values and thinking and wisdom into their own heart so that they don’t need detailed instructions all the time.  In order to guide children into maturity, parents must increasingly move from lots of external rules to internal motives and principles of wisdom.
In the same way, Christians in the New Testament receive far fewer rules and regulations than believers in the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament, so much of what you could wear and eat and do was prescribed...What a huge amount of guidance and therefore certainty they could have!  Many Christians consider this a more advanced level of guidance than we have today.  Like Minoah, we would like to have considerably more regulations.
But that is to mistake external rules for a mature relationship.  Paul says that the Christian is not to be “conformed” but rather “transformed by the renewing of your mind”.  We don’t get lots of prescriptions; we do, through the Holy Spirit, get God, and enjoy knowing “the mind of Christ”.  We can look at his rescue on the cross, and his resurrection in triumph, and see the character of God much more clearly than even the greatest heroes in the Old Testament could.  We don’t need to know about God through his external standards when we can know God through his Spirit.  We need to remember the lesson Manoah was taught!  (Keller: Judges for You)  
 We don’t need extra information and data.  We need Jesus.

This will become even more clear as we go through the rest of Samson’s story...”The salvation Samson would bring would be incomplete.  He would only “begin the deliverance of Israel from the...Philistines”.  Samson is the last judge, but he points beyond himself–beyond the book of Judges–to the one who would complete the victory over the Philistines: to King David, God’s king anointed by Samuel.  And David’s salvation was also incomplete, because he provided rest from enemies but could not bring victory over the sin of his own heart, far less his people’s.  Only Jesus’ salvation is a complete salvation–in this sense, only he finished the job.  As an angel told Mary’s finance, Joseph: “he will save his people from their sins”.  Samson points us to David, and beyond him to the greater David–Jesus.” (Keller: Judges for You) Amen.

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