Pacified Rebellion (A Sermon on Judges 16:23-31)

If you've spent much time in the Old Testament, Samson is someone you might think of as larger than life, a "biblical Hercules" minus the myth--Israel's last and, arguably, most legendary judge. With twenty years of tribal service on his resume, Samson actually "was the only judge to die in battle with the enemy." As for who would win in a street fight between Samson, He-Man, and Hulk Hogan, like you, I can only speculate. But I do know that just one of them had God on his side, so I'd cast my lot with him: Samson. In artistic renderings often he's painted with broad shoulders, bulging biceps, legs the size of tree-trunks, and chiseled abs, with--of course--long hair. On the basis of brute power alone, who pops into my mind is Iceland's Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, a record-setting strongman who also plays a popular character known as "The Mountain" on HBO's hit series, Game of Thrones. He stands 6'9" and weighs 396-pounds, can deadlift 990-pounds, bench press roughly 500-pounds and for good measure, squat 770-pounds. Nothing too special. Just another day at the gym.

But I don't think Samson was into ancient CrossFit competitions and he may not have been the massive physical specimen that we imagine him to be. He was though, set-aside for special purposes and given superhuman strength by God. In-between the reign of Jephthah and Samson there was conflict about Israel's leadership. There was a lot of turnover. Jephthah judged for six years, then someone for seven, then someone else for 10 years, and another for eight. More specifics of his birth can be found in Judges Chapter 13--but the long and short is that an angel told Samson's would-be mother, who was barren, that she would have a son destined "to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines." The caveat, however, was that her and her husband had to raise this miracle child as a Nazirite, one sanctified and set-aside for God, one who abstained from shaving his head, and drinking alcohol.

I've mostly heard Samson explained as a hero of sorts, replete with the standard dose of machismo, aggression, and goodwill. And then of course there was his consecrated physicality, which he used with unapologetic chutzpah and flare. He was supposed to save his people from the Philistines and indeed that he did. His story is proof-positive that in the Christian canon it's not, ultimately, about how you begin, but about how you end. And with God on your side, in your corner, as your sustenance, all things are possible. And that is true. In life's fourth quarter when defeat appears eminent, God can redeem. God can secure victory and even retribution in his name. And all of that is on-point, but with Samson just like with you and me, there's another side to the story.

Though Samson was a holy man, separated for God's distinct use, he was also impulsive, reactive, and defiant. There's no getting around that. He was dripping wet with rebellion and on account of being so strong, so reactive and hot-tempered, it's no wonder that we don't have any account of someone pulling him to the side to offer a reality-check, to lovingly tell him about himself. Sure, he'd been had in one situation or another. He'd been took. He's been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray. Run amok! We read of this in Chapter 14 with his marriage to a Philistine woman. But he brought that drama on himself. That's what happens sometimes when we do whatsoever we're big and bad enough to do.

Samson betrayed God and his own people by sleeping with the enemy. He told his father, "Get her for me, because she pleases me." But he didn't stop there. He went on to play with the intellect and emotions of his wife's companions, trying to humiliate them with a riddle. When it was all said and done, he was guilty of murder and theft, and his wife had been given to his best man. In Judges 15 it was much of the same. More shenanigans of pride, power, and violence that resulted in the Philistines killing his ex-wife and her father. His own people approached him and, if I can paraphrase a bit, were like: "Bruh, we have to turn you over to the Philistines, so that they don't kill all of us. No disrespect, but you need to roll out." Samson sympathized with their plight and agreed to go with the Philistines, but then all of a sudden "the spirit of the Lord rushed on him," and he went berserk, beating over a thousand men to death with the fresh jawbone of a dead donkey. Rebellion that's pacified is no joke. It comes in all forms.

According to Scripture, Samson was a bit of a rogue judge, wouldn't you say? He basically did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted and only called on God when it was convenient. While in Gaza, beginning of Chapter 16, Samson went to bed with a prostitute. Not really the Nazirite thing to do. Sometime later he would fall in love with a lady named Delilah and that led to big trouble. Shacking up with his new home-girl, he again let temporary pleasure pave the way for permanent pain. For the right price paid to her by the Philistines, Delilah sold Samson down the river, going to great lengths to eventually have his head shaved while asleep. "The Lord had left him." No longer having God's support, Samson's extraordinary strength left him as well, and he was overpowered and shamed by the Philistines, who gouged out his eyes.

In Judges 16:23-31, Samson is beaten and broken. He'd been hot-tempered and rebellious most of his life it seems, pacified and accommodated, excused at every turn, all which resulted in him now standing before the Philistines, a bound and blind, washed-up warrior present only to entertain them befuddled prisoner. However, he was able to muster one last attempt to honor God. With that successful effort he was able to wipe-out more Philistines than he had during his entire life, but he died in the process. On the one hand we could say this is noble; the kind of story-line that epic films are made of. On the other hand though, we could say Samson's death was yet another example of his dysfunction.

In verse 28, Samson prays. Prayer is always a good idea. "Please remember me, Lord God. The Philistines poked out my eyes, but make me strong one last time, so I can take revenge for at least one of my eyes!" He didn't beg for forgiveness or cry out for redemption. He asked for some good 'ol fashioned payback. It doesn't appear that he was that concerned about maybe, finally doing some good, godly work for a change. He just didn't want to go out being laughed at, looking like a fool. Also, what about this unnamed young man who "was leading Samson by the hand" in verse 26? Samson said to him, "I need to lean against something. Take me over to the columns that hold up the roof." I wonder why this fella had to die. That's what I would ask Samson, but he was so selfish that he'd probably dismissively walk away without answering. This innocent man chose to help him in a last-minute masterplan coming to fruition and all he receives in return is death? Samson isn't a martyr, I don't think, but he's definitely an example of pacified rebellion.

I doubt any Nazirites are here this morning. None of us, we hope, in a rage has used the skeletal remains of a donkey as a murder weapon. Maybe Samson's exact problems aren't yours. Maybe it's not women, or pride, or anger. But it's something. Believe you me, it's something. We're all one decision, one chapter in life, one lifestyle of ungodly behavior away from Samson's type of mostly self-inflicted trouble. Just like Samson we're prone to waste our potential. Just like Samson we can compromise our calling. Just like Samson we can sabotage what's sacred and rebel against God in God's own name, which is a spooky spiritual state to be in.

Lest we give ourselves an untrue, unbiblical excuse, it is only right to acknowledge that we're all called to surrender to God's will and way. He is worthy of our obedience. Paul wrote in his second letter to a young Timothy these words:

God saves us and chose us
to be his holy people.
We did nothing
to deserve this,
but God planned it
because he is so kind.
Even before time began
God planned for Christ Jesus to show kindness to us.

We're not Nazirites, I know, but we have been bought at a price, so we are special to God. We, ourselves, are special--we as human beings created in the image of God. We are special, not our professions, not our profit margins, not our people skills, but you and I are set-apart to be used by God. An English historian and novelist, and Anglican clergyman, Charles Kingsley said, "I do not want merely to possess faith; I want a faith that possesses me." If we are ever to address the rebellion that's so painfully obvious in others, we first must give our own rebellion over to God.

[This sermon was preached by yours truly, The Rev. James Ellis III, on January 31, 2016 at Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, DC where I serve as the senior pastor.]