Scripture: Judges 16:4-22
Previously on Judges and Kings: The Israelites have finally made it safely to the Promised Land. They are supposed to get rid of the people already living there, because otherwise they might get tempted and worship foreign gods – but they didn’t quite manage to do that. And so a pattern begins to emerge: the people do evil things and worship other gods, God lets some other king conquer them, the people cry out to God, God raises up a judge – a warrior-leader – to deliver them. Then there is peace until the whole thing started all over again.
I told you last week that this pattern is less a neat circle and more a downward spiral: each judge worse than the last, each period of foreign oppression longer than the last, each period of peace more tenuous than the last.
So last week, when we met a judge by the name of Ehud, things were still going OK. The Israelites had been conquered by their old enemies the Moabites, and the people cried out to God, and God raised up a left-handed warrior who handily tricked and killed Moab’s king and then led the Israelite forces to rout the Moabite army. And the land had peace, shalom, for 80 years.
(I know it is hard for many of us modern-day people to believe that God could be at work through the slaying of Moabites, and if you have some questions about all of that, let’s talk more offline. Suffice it to say for now that even if today we picture God as a little more neutral, these stories still have something to tell us.)
From Ehud, things start to go downhill. Our next judge, Deborah, is still a good judge – though it is presented as a little eyebrow-raising that the man who is supposed to be leading the Israelites in battle has to keep coming to her for advice and encouragement. Then there is Gideon, reluctant at first to lead at all, who finally lets his success go to his head and rushes into battle shouting, “For the Lord and for Gideon!” And there is Jephthah, who makes a hasty vow in exchange for God granting military success that ends up costing him his beloved daughter.
But oh, we’re only getting started.
I made the point last week that none of our favorite Sunday School Bible stories come from the book of Judges. But maybe that’s not quite true. Chances are, if you’ve ever heard a story from the book of Judges, it is the story of Samson – Israel’s last and most powerful judge.
Samson’s story begins as the twelve tribes of Israel are descending into chaos. At this point they are ruled by their neighbors to the west, the Philistines. But one day an angel appears to a barren woman and tells her she is going to have a baby. This baby, the angel says, should be dedicated to God as a nazirite from birth. This nazirite business is something we learn about in the book of Numbers – it was a temporary vow you took to dedicate yourself to God for a time, and the rules were 1) no alcohol, 2) no touching a corpse, and 3) no cutting your hair. Samson, however, is to be a nazirite for his whole life.
From the beginning of his story, we know that Samson is special, and we are led to believe that he will do great things.
As it turns out, Samson’s special status makes him strong. Really strong. He will do things like tear a lion apart with his bare hands, and fight a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone, and escape – time after time – from those who try to subdue him.
The first we hear of Samson as a young adult, he has his eye on a certain Philistine woman. (This is not Delilah, yet.) He sees her, he wants her, and he tells his parents to get her for him as a wife. They object, of course: “Couldn’t you marry a nice Israelite girl?” But Samson says, “NO, MINE” and they do what he says. At their wedding feast, where Samson certainly breaks the nazirite vow rule of no alcohol, he also makes a bet with the Philistine townspeople: a bet that they can’t solve a riddle he poses to them. His new wife wheedles and nags him for the answer until he finally gives it to her. She promptly passes the answer on to her kinfolk, who win the bet. Samson gets so mad that he kills thirty people and storms home to his parents’ house. Her father considers this an official divorce, and marries her off to someone else. When Samson returns and realizes that, he lights the tails of thirty foxes on fire and sets them loose in the Philistine grain fields. In response, the Philistines kill both this woman and her father; in response, Samson kills some more of them, and soon the Israelites and the Philistines are engaged in an all-out war. Samson narrowly escapes by tearing the city gates out of the ground.
We learn a couple things about Samson from this story: 1. He’s impetuous. He wants what he wants, no matter the cost. And 2. He has a weakness for women.
And it’s against this backdrop that a woman named Delilah moves onto the scene:
I believe, a lot of the time at least, that our strengths are our weaknesses. They are the same thing. I, for example, am a fairly introspective kind of person, in my head a lot. This makes me good at writing but not so fun at parties. I know some people who are real visionaries. When I worked with Keary Kincannon at Rising Hope Mission Church, he always had it in mind to be starting a new food pantry or thinking about their move to their next building when they grew. I’m not a great visionary. I like to know the details, how it’s all going to pan out in real life. On the one hand, I can help those visionaries think through how things can actually happen. On the other hand, I can really rain on some parades.
Our strengths are our weaknesses. It all depends on how we use them.
Samson, is, physically, the strongest judge to lead Israel. The question is, will he use that strength for Israel’s deliverance? Or will his great strength end up being his own downfall?
I think we know the answer to that.
Let me tell you the rest of the story. The Bible doesn’t say whether Samson’s new love Delilah is a Philistine herself, but it does tell us she’s working for them. She, like Samson’s first ill-fated love, coaxes Samson’s secret out of him. She demands to know where his strength comes from; she pouts each time he lies to her and the plan doesn’t work, and she accuses him of not really loving her. Maybe Samson simply can’t resist her. Maybe he thinks he’s invincible. In any case, he finally tells Delilah his secret – that his strength is in his hair, which has never been cut. Really, it’s not just his hair, but what his hair represents: his special status, the unique relationship with God that was given him at birth, the last nazirite vow that he hasn’t broken.
So she cuts his hair when he falls asleep with his head in her lap, and when, for the last time, Delilah says “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” he discovers he can’t just bust his way out of the ropes that bind him or uproot some city gates. Not this time. Instead, the Philistines take him, blind him, and condemn him to a life of servitude.
However, we learn – his hair begins to grow again.
One day the Philistine leaders gather for a festival in their temple, honoring the god Dagon, and they call Samson and make him dance for them. This is the ultimate humiliation. But Samson knows how to end it. He stands between two of the pillars of the temple, and cries out to God: “Make me strong once more! Let me die with the Philistines!”
His last words are a prayer of revenge. Then with all his might, he pushes against the pillars. They collapse, and everybody dies.
“So,” the story ends, “it turned out that he killed more people in his death than he did during his life” (16:30.)
This is the tragic ending of the story of Samson – the boy from whom we expected great things.
The story of Samson is a story of the strength and power we have – and how we use it.
I suppose you might say, Well, that’s a good lesson for President Trump. Or Jeff Bezos. Or someone else with actual power. But I don’t have power like Samson. He was special, born to lead and deliver Israel. I’m just a regular person trying to make it through the day, here.
I get that. Most of the time I feel that way too.
There’s a quote I come across every once in a while, by Marianne Williamson, that goes: “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” I hear that and I’m like, nah. I’m pretty sure I’m not afraid of that?
After all, what difference do I think I can really make, in a world where students get shot and killed in their classrooms on a regular basis, where volcanoes bury people in ash, where crying immigrant children are taken away from their mothers, where my dad has cancer that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere? I listen to the news, I get prayer requests, I see my own problems and those of the people I love, and most of the time, I feel so completely powerless.
But maybe that’s Marianne Williamson’s point: that thinking we’re powerless becomes an excuse. Because we do all have some measure of power. On the bulletin board in the Fellowship Hall, which has probably been the same so long you’ve stopped seeing it, there are post-it notes from our last Charge Conference where we listed our various circles of influence. We may not have much influence over nature or other people’s violent actions or even our government’s policies, but we have influence in our families, our friend groups, our neighborhoods, our book clubs and Rotary clubs, our condo associations, our communities. You don’t have to be a deliverer of Israel or a nazirite from birth to have some sort of power.
It’s not a question of whether you have any strength or power. The question is, are you going to use what you’ve been given for good? Are you going to use it for the deliverance of your country, community, and world? Are you going to use it for justice and righteousness, in the service of the Kingdom of God – or, like Samson, are you just going to use it for yourself?
As I was outlining this sermon I decided I should have an example of someone using their power for good in a small, day-to-day kind of way. At first I didn’t know what example to use. But as soon as I started looking, I started seeing examples of it all around me. There was the woman who emailed me, who stopped into our church to pray last week as she accompanied her friend to her asylum hearing nearby. There’s the guy I know who just wrote a book reflecting theologically on his own experience of mental illness, because he believes that this is a conversation that needs to be had, especially in churches. There was the person who came to me and wanted to talk about a prayer vigil for migrant families and other justice issues, because it seemed like there was nothing she could so but pray, but she believed in the power of prayer in community.
Of course you have power. So what are you going to do with it?
The New Testament has some thoughts for us on where our true power and strength come from. When Jesus’ disciples fight about who is the greatest and who will get to sit next to him in heaven, Jesus tells them that whoever wants to be first of all must be the servant of all.
Later, in 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that once when he prayed to God to take away a burden from him, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” For Paul, it wasn’t about his own power at all, but the power of God to work through him.
There’s a reason Jesus was a different kind of a leader from Samson.
Samson got what he want, but Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Samson sought revenge, Jesus said to turn the other cheek. Samson died a fallen man, bringing everyone else down with him. Jesus died for love of this world, and all of us, and rose again in victory.
Which one was ultimately more powerful? Hint: it wasn’t the one who looked the most imposing, or had the greatest feats of strength, or who struck fear into the hearts of the most people. It was the one whose power came from servanthood and vulnerability – and who always wielded it for the cause of love.
And yet even Samson’s downfall isn’t the end of the story. God continues to work for the liberation of God’s people. The Philistines might still be around today, but Israel will come together under King Saul, and then King David, and eventually, God’s oppressed people will be free. And shalom will reign – at least for a time.
The question isn’t whether the Kingdom of God is on its way. The question is, will you use the strength and power you’ve been given to be part of it?
 Common English Bible Study Bible, p. 397 OT