Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Don't Know My Own Strength

Then Samson called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.”  And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other.  And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life.  Then his brothers and all his family came down and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father. He had judged Israel twenty years.  – Judges 16:28-31

Samson’s strength came from keeping his Nazirite vow by not cutting his hair.  In other words, his power came from his adherence to the law.  Samson is entirely a man of the flesh.  The carnal nature can be somewhat controlled by law, and, so long as it adheres to the “shalt not”, it can be blessed and empowered.  Where there is no transforming grace, the victories of the law are limited.  As we noted before, though Samson judged Israel for twenty years, he did not defeat the Philistines and break their oppressive yoke from the neck of the nation, unlike Gideon and the other judges.  As far as Samson was concerned, it was all about him.  In the end, he wanted only to be avenged for his eyes. 

All the old man can ever understand about religion is what is in it for him – whether in terms of this life or the next.  Some will focus on the material benefits that come from keeping the law, and these are not imaginary.  The law of sowing and reaping applies to all.  One who sows kindness, charity, and temperance or who is willing to give financially to help others -- even with wrong motives, will be repaid in kind.  I find myself grumbling at times because God is so good to people who don’t deserve it.  Then I remember that would include me – but that’s another topic.

The law can bless us and strengthen us, but it cannot turn us into new men.  Metamorphosis is the result of grace acting through faith.  Like the caterpillar, the old man has his destiny built into him, though he does not know it.  Samson makes the “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11 not because of his strength but because, in the end, he found the path to transformation and his true destiny.  And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.”  It will always look like death from the perspective typified by Samson.  For a person who is “stronger” in terms of natural willpower or determination, it may often be the case that the transformation will be more difficult, painful, dramatic, or extreme.

Some of us take more killin’ than others.  It is, perhaps, one of the reasons I tend to be sympathetic toward those who believe in universal salvation.  I can imagine that there are those who will only “die” in the ninth circle of hell – and maybe not there.  Samson fought on for twenty years.  It takes a lot of us a long time.  I suppose it could take some an eternity.  I'd rather not find out the hard way.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29)  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Watch This Space

I won't be around much this week as I am in training deep in the heart of Austin.  Assuming I'm not eaten by zombies or kidnapped by hipsters -- I know, redundant -- I'll be back to reality in a few days.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bummer of a Birthmark -- Samson, Part 3

And Samson said to them, “If this is what you do, I swear I will be avenged on you, and after that I will quit.”  And he struck them hip and thigh with a great blow, and he went down and stayed in the cleft of the rock of Etam. – Judges 15:7-8

These days the United States has to fight what are called “asymmetrical” wars.  It is somewhat confusing to call them wars at all.  These are not defined battles over land masses by uniformed combatants.  Identifying the enemy and the objective is often difficult.  The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is unclear.   The same is true with us when it comes to spiritual warfare, and Samson’s troubles with the Philistines typify our own.

Samson did not clearly understand that he was in a war.  From his perspective, he was just going about life, wanting to get married and raise a family with a little Philistine hottie.  After his disrupted wedding feast, the girl’s father had given her in marriage to another man thinking that Samson had decided she no longer pleased him.  When Samson returned for her and found out the situation had changed, he avenged himself upon the Philistines by setting fire to their grain fields and olive groves.

This was strictly a personal feud, Samson thought.  He was not striking a blow for the liberation of his nation.  He was just mad about losing his wife.  He did not consider the larger implications of his actions.  He did not see himself as leading a rebellion or harassing the enemy of his people.  His goal was vengeance, an evening of the score.  The Philistines, however, took it differently.  Upon learning that Samson – still considered the son-in-law of his former bride’s father – had perpetrated the destruction of their property, the Philistines exacted their revenge.  They put the woman and her family to death by fire.  This act led Samson to swear he would have his revenge. 

It might seem foolish to us for Samson to think that his actions would not provoke further retaliation to the point of his saying, … and after that I will quit.  At the very beginning our struggle was initiated:  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15).  Like Samson, we may think we can walk away from trouble, but that is not how it works.  In the world you will have tribulation, Jesus promised us. 

The promise of peace and joy is for the heart, independent of circumstances.  No one who in any way goes about the Lord’s business should expect anything other than constant harassment and attacks from the enemy.  

Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.  Being born from above means that we are targeted -- that we have, like poor Hal, a bullseye painted on us.  As long as Samson left his hair uncut, he was empowered by God, but it was also a red flag waved at the enemy, an open taunt to the adversary. 

I don’t remember signing up for this.  For some reason, they didn’t spend a whole lot of time on this subject in Sunday School.  Perhaps I was absent or dozing that day.  I have offered my resignation several times, but it has, apparently, been rejected.  And when your position is surrounded by a vindictive force hell-bent on your destruction and humiliation, desertion isn’t much of an option lest one end up eyeless in Gaza, as Huxley said.  The positive alternative is to cling to God’s promise that the trial will not be beyond our ability to endure.  (Seriously, I am not that tough.)  There is, though, no retreat, no holding the fort, no truce. 

I think my confusion might come from the truth that Christ has been victorious over all the power of the enemy.  Through the Holy Spirit, I am able to participate in that victory.  In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe there is a scene after Aslan’s death and resurrection where He goes into the “trophy room” of the witch’s fortress and quickens all the creatures turned to stone.  They do not go on a picnic.  Instead they rush into the battle.  We are given life and power to fight.  To be partakers of Christ’s victory means to follow Him into battle.  As Rick noted in a comment a couple of days ago, the crucifixion of Christ is eternal, as is His resurrection, as is His victory.

When we receive the new and eternal life – the only kind God has to give us – we are released from bondage and enter in as combatants to that eternal struggle.  As Christ overcame, so we must overcome through Him and in Him.    

Monday, May 14, 2012

Austin Anderson

Ron Luce is a minister known for his Teen Mania organization, a Christian outreach to youth.  His daughter, Hannah, and four young men were flying to one of Teen Mania's "Acquire the Fire" rallies in Council Bluffs, Iowa when the small plane crashed and began to burn.  Three of the plane's occupants apparently did not survive the initial crash: 

The pilot, 23-year-old Luke Sheets died at the scene, as did 29-year-old Garrett Coble, and 22-year-old Stephen Luth.  

The fourth man in the fire, 27-year-old Iraq War veteran and former Marine Austin Anderson, pulled Hannah Luce from the wreckage and walked with her to a nearby road.  She has burns over 28% of her body.  Ninety percent of Anderson's body was covered in burns.  He later died in a Wichita, Kansas hospital.  Hannah Luce is stable and will survive.

Initial reports are often a little misleading, but it sounds likely that Anderson might have survived had he not stayed in the burning aircraft to help his friend.

You can read other reports HERE and HERE (pictures of the young men included).
Join me in prayers for the families of Luke Sheets, Garret Coble, Stephan Luth, and Austin Anderson, as well as for Hannah Luth's recovery.    

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Study of Samson -- Part 2

And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the LORD blessed him.  And the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol. — Judges 13:24-25

In a theophany, the Angel of the Lord came down and appeared first to Manoah's wife with a promise of a child then to both parents in response to Manoah's prayer for guidance.  They understood that, though all children entering this world have a destiny, few are so marked before they are even conceived.  I get the impression that the mother was content to have a son, but the father may have harbored visions of his son's success and greatness, not unlike a modern father, watching his boy struggle to find the handle on a slow rolling grounder, wonders if he might grow up to play shortstop in the Majors.   And Manoah said, "Now when your words come true, what is to be the child's manner of life, and what is his mission? " (v.12)

We want the specifics, the end at the beginning.  The Lord rarely gives us such a detailed map.  Instead He wants us to head in the right direction, to follow a few simple rules, and to do the right thing.  Thus the Angel replies, "Of all that I said to the woman let her be careful.  She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine, neither let her drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. All that I commanded her let her observe."  (vv. 13-14)

No grand plan.  Nothing complicated or elaborate.  Parents do not need a doctorate in child psychology.  They do not need to be experts or possess special skills or knowledge.  They do, however, need wisdom, and the essence of wisdom is a wholehearted trust in the Lord and a willingness to follow Him themselves. 

The Angel of the Lord departs.   The child is conceived and born into the world.  His mother names him Samson which means “sun-like”.  No doubt this baby was the light of her world.  As Samson grew, it was clear that the hand of the Lord was upon him. 

There is an old gospel song that says in part, “As the eagle stirs her nest/ So her young ones have no rest/ So the Lord in that same way/ Stirs up His people to watch and pray.”  Though Samson was blessed as the son of Manoah -- whose name means “rest” or “quiet”, as he grew older, he became more agitated.  Like the sun, Samson appeared to move within certain boundaries – “between Zorah and Eshtaol”.  He was not able to rest, or camp, as his father could in Mahaneh-dan – that is, the “camp of Dan”.  Zorah means “hornet”, and Eshtaol is “a way”.   

The hornet reminds us of Joshua 24:12 – “And I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you, the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow.” 

Now for this, at least, I can see an application in our own lives.  We tend to think of everything as going in a linear, cause-and-effect direction.  What we find is that indirect and unintentional vectors are often more influential in the end than direct, intentional actions.  God did not simply raise up a hero and deliverer in Samson.  He brought up a flawed, frequently misguided man with extraordinary gifts to break through the complacency and apathy of a nation. 

Israel had gotten so far from God that they no longer sought out His help in their distress.  In fact, they no longer recognized that they were in distress.  Bondage seemed now to them the normal state. If we look around, we see millions around the world in exactly this condition, whether we are speaking politically or spiritually.  Oppression must become truly oppressive in order for most people to wake up to it.  It is the old story of the frog in the pot, except that the human frog – a few, at least, will try to leap out when it gets really hot.  Except, perhaps, for the Frogs, as evidenced by this week's election results. 

The life work of Samson was to cause strife, dissension, and discontentment, to anger and frustrate the enemy, and to worsen the plight of the people of God to the point that they would begin to seek the Lord for their deliverance.   

It is a ridiculous plan if you think that God is about fairness or justice or a social gospel or making people happy.  He is not.  He is about making sons and daughters of the kingdom through the blood and pain of the new birth.  He is in the business of creating warriors and rulers and heroes for a new heaven and a new earth.   

Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw one of the daughters of the Philistines.  Then he came up and told his father and mother, “I saw one of the daughters of the Philistines at Timnah. Now get her for me as my wife.”  But his father and mother said to him, “Is there not a woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes.”
His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines ruled over Israel. (Judges 14:1-4)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Study of Samson -- Part 1

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.  — Judges 13:1

So begins the story of Samson.  I have discussed Samson a little before, but I find the record of his life and accomplishments to differ from the accounts in the rest of the Book of Judges.  I don't really have a point to present.  I'm just going to pick through the narrative and see what strikes me as interesting. 

As it starts the story is not much different than that of the other judges.  The people of Israel have strayed from the Lord and been ensnared by the lifestyle of idol-worship and self-indulgence.  To discipline them, the Lord had turned them over to one of their most persistent enemies, the Philistines, for forty years.  It seems that the Israelites were less troubled being subject to the Philistines than they had been in the past by other foreign powers.  Perhaps the Philistines were more tolerant and benevolent rulers and less harsh in their subjection.  In any case, we read nothing of God's people crying out to the Lord for deliverance. 

We begin with the parents of Samson — members of the tribe of Dan.  The father's name is Manoah, and he and his wife had no children for the unnamed wife is unable to conceive.  She is minding her own business one day when the Lord interrupts:  And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son.  (Judges 13:3)

No one is apparently seeking God with regard to the oppression of Israel but perhaps Manoah's wife was praying for a child just as Hannah the mother of Samuel did later (1 Samuel 1:9-20).  The Lord is always looking for those who seek Him no matter the cause.  He was also looking for a means to stir up and subsequently liberate His people — but first they had to recognize their condition.  This may be the key to our understanding of Samson as less liberator and more rabble-rouser. 

From the very  beginning, Samson's life is marked and mythical.  He will be given great power but with heroic restrictions and limitations.  Even before his birth, his mother must adhere to the limits.   Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines (vv 4-5).

We first hear of the Nazirite vow in the sixth chapter of Numbers.  A person — male or female — freely takes a vow to Lord wherein they will not only refrain from wine but from grapes, grape seed, raisins — anything associated with the vine.  The Nazirite will allow the hair of his head to grow uncut, unthinned until the vow is complete.  Oddly, the Nazirite is not allowed to touch a corpse — odd, for Samson, anyway, since he is going to be creating a lot of corpses.  Though Samson is a Nazirite called by God from his birth, those who take the Nazirite vow do so for a limited period of time.  When the time ends, the person goes to the priest with a specific set of offerings — two lambs, a ram, unleavened bread, and a drink offering:  And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire that is under the sacrifice of the peace offering (Numbers 6:18).  Thus the vow and the period of special dedication ends. 

Though the period of a Nazirite vow was normally relatively short — 30 to 100 days, John the Baptist, like Samson, was a Nazirite from birth.  Another perpetual Nazirite was the prophet, judge, and priest, Samuel, who was dedicated by his mother as referenced above.  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul may have taken a Nazirite vow (Acts 18:18) after his conversion.  Also, in Acts 21, Paul was to pay the rather hefty expenses associated with the vow for some other Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem in order to demonstrate his respect for the Law of Moses. 

The term "nazirite" is derived from a Hebrew word, "nazir" meaning "consecrated" or "separated" and is unrelated to "Nazareth" despite the similar sound and appearance in English.  However, it may be that Matthew is referring to the Nazirite Vow when he says,  And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene."  Jesus, though obviously holy from birth, did not follow the Nazirite stricture against wine, but He was certainly a "keeper of the Way".  There is, however, the possibility that there was an existing Nazirite or "Nazirene" sect among the Jews or the Essenes that somehow, correctly or not, was associated with the early Christians, as, in Acts 24, Paul is accused of being "a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes". 

 The idea of the Nazirite is to be free from both the comforts of the world and from the consequences of sin — thus the defilement of coming into contact with a dead body.   As we will see, Samson often ignored the less public limits on wine and corpses, but he kept the visible, outward sign of his consecration.  We might dismiss that as hypocritical, but God appears to have honored Samson's vow as long as his hair was uncut.  As a warrior, it would be impossible for him to fully keep the vow's restrictions, but his hair — as visible crown and as a prayer covering — would continually remind all who saw him that Samson, for all his faults, was consecrated to the Lord's purpose. 

This is getting a little long, so we will pick it up in the next post.