Posted in Vital Signs

Vital Signs 1: This is the Life

VS pic

Readings: I John 1: 1-4; I John 5: 13-15

4 pictures on the screen. Which is the odd one out?

A letter from the former US President Jimmy Carter

A Philharmonia Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5

Three lego figures

A picture of the Sydney Opera House 

The odd one out is the Lego figures. The other three were all contained on the Golden Records, sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft, as a message to any intelligent lifeforms out there in the universe.

The Lego figures have also gone into space. Figures of Galileo, Juno and Roman God Jupiter are on board the spacecraft Juno, currently orbiting the planet Jupiter. If Juno were intercepted by aliens, they might have an odd idea about life on earth!

 

Over the last half century or so, humans have been exploring space, seeking to uncover the mysteries of the universe. But underneath it all, there’s one question to which we really want to know the answer.

Is anyone else out there?

In Silicon Valley and the University of California in Berkeley, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, train large antennae on the sky, scanning for radio signals that could be generated from another world.

They ‘re searching for Signs of Life.

Part of that search is looking for planets, moons, which have the kind of conditions which can support life, or on which life can flourish.

Meanwhile back here on earth, much closer to home, even  just up the road in Northwick Park Hospital,  at regular intervals doctors and nurses which check the temperature, blood pressure, pulse and rate of breathing of their patients.

These are called Vital Signs. They indicate not so much that life exists, they’ll hope to find something, but together these things can help tell key professionals our state of health, whether we’re recovering or deteriorating, whether we need to be watched more closely… he says, like he knows anything about this, rather than relying on Wikipedia.

In their way they’re checking for signs of life.

If the John who wrote the letter from which we shared this morning ever wanted a subtitle for his book, he could have done a lot worse than call it Vital Signs.  The search for ‘signs of life’ is one of main activities in which he engages in writing this book.

We have three letters attributed to John towards the back of our Bibles. They’re amongst the last parts of our Bibles to be written.

When he wrote them John was an elderly man. But he has spent a lifetime following Jesus. He was by the Sea of Galilee, probably in his early teens, and was cleaning his nets after a night’s fishing, when Jesus had walked along the shore and called, first Peter and Andrew, then John and his brother James, and said Follow Me. And they did.

 Many years have passed since then.  John’s the last of those original 12 disciples still around. Most of the rest have been killed for their faith. John’s reflecting on what a life of following Jesus is all about and he’s putting it into words. Committing it to paper, or parchment at least. He lets us know why he’s writing it towards the end of his letter.

I am writing this to you, so that you may know you have eternal life…

 

He’s asking us to read and reflect on what he has to say to us. He wants us to search our hearts, to train the antenna not up into the sky but inwards, on our own inner lives, and search for signs of the kind of life John talks about. He calls on us to explore the state of our hearts and ask what we find there. Do we find conditions in which the kind of life John is writing about can exist and flourish?

He wants us to examine ourselves as a medic checks our breathing, pulse, blood pressure and temperature, to examine the state of our lives, of our relationship with God.  Are we strong and healthy? Or is that life weak, possibly just hanging in there.

Are we growing, getting stronger, or are we deteriorating?

But how will we know?

Well, John offers us a few indicators, a few vital signs, if you like to help us acknowledge or recognise it in ourselves. Over the next few weeks we’ll explore some of these.

But ‘what is this life John’s talking about?

Some of you might remember that over the summer last year we looked at a single verse of the Bible. It was also written by John. John 3:16.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

This series follows on a bit from that, so for the really observant among you, some of what I say this morning might sound familiar.

 

John had spent perhaps 3 years following Jesus around, witnessing the events we read about in our Gospels. John saw more of Jesus’ life than almost anyone else. More even than most of the rest of the 12 disciples. There are several incidents like the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, or when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, asking for the cup of suffering to pass from him, where we see the kind of access to Jesus John had. Jesus asked other disciples to wait behind, but he took Peter, James and John with him.

I wonder… if you or I had that kind of experience what would stick with you most? What would really leave an impression on you?

We might say ‘he told the greatest stories and said the most amazing things.’ Others might point to the crowds he fed with just a few fish and loaves. How he walked on water, made the blind see, healed lepers with a touch. He raised at least 3 dead people.

And all those things did leave an impression on John. Yet for all the reflection on Jesus, none of those were what really blew John’s mind. Years have passed. But it hasn’t caused the memories to fade. Rather they’ve changed his perspective. It’s enabled him to view them from a distance which see a bigger picture. He looks beyond all the details to see what it was really all about. What was really going on. What it’s about.

 

You get the same sense from his Gospel and his letters. He begins and ends them with the same idea.

His Gospel begins by telling us that

in him was LIFE, and that LIFE was the light of all people.

It ends with an explanation of why he wrote it.

These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have LIFE in his name.’

As we’ve seen this morning, he does the same with his letter. He begins by slowly building layer upon layer…

That which was from the beginning…

which we have heard…

which we have seen with our eyes…

which we have gazed at…

which our hands have touched…

this we proclaim about the word of LIFE!

He ends by saying

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal LIFE.

Notice a trend? For John, the central point about Jesus, the thing Jesus gives us is LIFE. For John, the whole thing is about LIFE! There was something about the life Jesus had that stayed with John.

And something about the life Jesus gave to others. That he had given to John. A life that’s available to you and me. He moved past having met the man, to experiencing the life Jesus came to bring. He says that life appeared, and it changed everything.

Thing is we can get distracted by the words John uses. He speaks of eternal life. We can get hung up on the eternal, when the word John wants us to focus on is life.

We hear phrases like eternal life and think he’s talking all about heaven. We think we have life now, then some day we’ll die, then, if we believe in Jesus we will get eternal life.

But that’s not how Jesus, John, or any part of the New Testament talked about it. John is not talking of eternal life as something we’ve been promised, that we’ll get one day in the future. When John tells his readers that they can know that they have eternal life, he speaks of them having it now.

He’s telling them to search their heart and check for signs of that life in them now.

John is saying ‘you think you’ve experienced this thing called life. So did we. Then Jesus came and that changed everything. It wasn’t easy but once we experienced it, none of us wanted to go back.’

But there’s something else he says about it. He says it’s always existed. But in verse two he says it’s become visible. He’s saying we’ve always had the potential to live this kind of life, but it wasn’t until Jesus came along and lived it that we realised it was possible.

I’ll offer a trivial example of the kind of thing I’m talking about from my own life. Last season I was playing a league match at the Tennis Club. The heights of NW Middlesex Division VII. Amongst the six players in the opposing side was a young lad, probably about 14, 15. As we introduced ourselves he said to me ‘nice racquet’ which I thought was odd, cos there is nothing that special about my racquet. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s hardly top of the range. Then I realised. He was using the same racquet.

Now in my experience, when a team turns up with a young lad like that, it means one of two things. Either they’ve really struggled to get a team together, so they’ve brought along one of their juniors to make up the numbers.

More common is that they’re sickeningly good and you’re going to spend the next hour watching a greeny-yellowy blur fly past you before you’ve even realised they hit it. You know in the first couple of points which it’s going to be.

Unfortunately my experience that evening was more of the second kind of variety. Forehand, backhand, smash, drop shot… he had the lot. At the end of the match as we shook hands I joked with him I never knew this racquet could play those shots.

But of course, it wasn’t the racquet. It was the one in whose hands it’s held. The person who was controlling it.

John says something similar about what happened when Jesus came amongst us. John says they watched Jesus life thought ‘I didn’t know this was possible. I didn’t know life could be like that.’

Now at this point we might be tempted think, that’s all very well.  That was Jesus. He was God.  And, well, I’m not.

Trouble is, Jesus doesn’t seem to think that’s a problem. He doesn’t say ‘well, there’s something you should bear in mind… I’m God, so whilst I can do this, you can’t.’

Quite the opposite. Jesus called on people to repent, to leave behind their old way of life and embrace a different one. He calls people to follow him: to imitate him, to learn from him, to live as he does.

He called disciples to watch him at work, to see how he lived, then sent them out to do the same for others, who in turn were to be sent out to keep the chain going. It wouldn’t make sense for Jesus to ask people to follow him, to imitate him, to live as he lived, if the only reason he could do it was because he was God. That would be setting them an impossible task. In fact as we saw last week, Jesus said they would do even greater things than he had done.

After a life time’s reflection on Jesus, the most important thing John found in Jesus was that a different kind of life was possible. What Jesus revealed wasn’t something completely new. He revealed something that was already true about us. This kind of life was already possible. John was not just saying that he and the other followers of Jesus had experienced that kind of life, but that we can too. He’s writing this so we can know if we have this kind of life.

It wasn’t that Jesus flesh and blood was different to ours. It was the One in whose hands his life was held. The one who was in control.

One of the main themes on the scriptures is God offering us life. And one of the main reasons we reject it is that we don’t realise we need it. We think we’ve already got it.

In English the problem is made worse by the fact that we use the same word, life, to describe something to for which the Greeks had two words.

One word was psyche. The other was zoe. What’s the difference?

Psyche is what we normally call life. It’s stuff that happens to us. Relationships, finances, achievements, failures. It begins when we’re born, and it dies with us. It’s rooted in and affected by our circumstances. The psyche is a life which begins and ends. But it has one main feature. It’s constantly changing.

However those things are not who you are. That’s zoe life. The difference is probably best explained by an example. Psyche is like the clouds, or the weather going on all around us, the zoe is the sky which is always there; the backdrop on which all those weather patterns take place. It might look different to us, but the sky isn’t actually changed by the clouds.

There’s something else that’s important about zoe. The source of psyche is the events which go on around us. Sometimes within our control, sometimes not. The source of zoe is God alone. Zoe is the life that God has given you. It belongs to God but he shares it with us. We can ignore it, but no-one can take it from us.

It’s not a case of we have psyche now, then when we die we get zoe. Both are going on all the time.

It’s just most of the time we’re only paying attention to the psyche.

Zoe is the life, or person God created you to be. It’s that part of us that connects to God. It’s that part of us into which God speaks and assure us that we’re loved, that we’re his children, and whatever the psyche type of life throws at us, God can keep us safe and bring us through. When we pay attention to that kind of life, it creates the conditions in which the kind of life God wants for us can flourish.

All too often we live purely at the surface level, all our energy focussed on keeping the show on the road, and we can fail to connect with who we really are, with the person we are created to be. We keep our life firmly in our hands. We firmly maintain the controls. We don’t place it in the hands of God.

We think we’re alive, but we’re settling for existence.

Let me offer you another way of looking at this. Rooted more in the here and now. Your breathing.

How many people here can breathe? All of us. We mastered it pretty quickly. We had to, else we wouldn’t be here. I don’t want to sound like I’m showing off, but I can breathe without even thinking about it!

But let me let me tell you something about breathing. You will probably take over 26,000 breaths today. You’ll take in around 14,000 litres of air in doing so. But how will we breathe?

We should breathe from our stomach, but often we don’t breathe as deeply as we should. We tend to breathe from our chests. This means we don’t need to take as many breaths as we do. You’ll tend to breathe more and shallower when you are stressed. Ever noticed how at the end of a really stressful day you’re shattered? Well one very good reason for that has been your breathing.

If we breathed as we’re supposed to, we would gain the vast majority of the energy we need from breathing. But what proportion of the energy available to us from breathing do you think we are accessing?

10-20%

We think we’re breathing, but we have all this power and energy available to us, and we’re not connecting with it.

 

That’s what we’re like that with God. He has been reaching out to us, offering himself as a source of life. Yet all too often we have not been connecting with that source of life at all, or we’ve being doing it in very limited measure. Then Jesus comes to us and shows us a life that is possible, a life that is lived in loving, trusting relationship with God. Allowing it to be held in the hands of that God.

It’s not a life based on circumstances. I mean, let’s face it, Jesus lived most of life on the wrong side of circumstances. But in all of those things God could be trusted. A life better in his hands that ours. Under his control than ours. A life that once experienced, everything else seemed so much less.

But the question is how do we access this kind of life?

Why do we find it so hard?

I think it’s because we often try to approach a relationship with God more like Batman and less like Spiderman.

Does anyone know what the big difference between Batman and Spiderman is? They’re both superheroes who fight crime or whatever, but they do it slightly differently. Batman doesn’t have and superpowers as such. He’s just a rich guy who has lots of technology and gadgets which he carries around in a utility belt to get the job done.

Spiderman is different. Peter Parker became Spiderman because he was bitten by a radioactive spider. This led to him acquiring spider-related abilities, such as clinging to surfaces, shooting webs and so on.

Most of us turn to God and the scriptures like Batman. We want something we can pack into the utility belt when we need it. But again like the tennis racquet, it’s still us firmly at the wheel. It’s still basically the same us. There is some room for that. Paul talks about the Armour of God in those kind of terms.

But what God wants is for us to be bitten by the life he offers, so that it becomes who we are. So that it transforms us into something we would not be without him, into the people he created us to be, living the life he created us to live.

The path of Batman is easier, but the path to life, to the real life is the Spiderman route. The Batman route is more attractive cos it’s a life we make. The Spiderman route is about who we are becoming. And it’s offered to us as a gift. To receive it, all we have to do is ask and open ourselves to receive it. To make space to connect with it. It won’t happen all at once. But we start small and allow it to grow in us. It isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.

Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, or to make good people better. He didn’t come to make sick people well. He came so that we might know life. Life where we can live in a relationship of trust, knowing that whatever the circumstances, whatever we face we are loved and we are held.

That was the life that Jesus revealed. The kind of life Jesus came to offer us. An indestructible life that is possible for each one of us.  Over the next few weeks we’ll explore some of the vital signs, signs that can help us know if we are living that kind of life.

John was able to tell us so, because he had seen it in Jesus, he’d experienced it for himself

and he says that we too can have that kind of life.

The kind of life that the more we experience it, the less we’ll want to be without it.

I got quite a bit of this from an Erwin McManus sermon I heard years ago. but which I can’t find now. Some of it also came from a Kent Dobson sermon (the psyche/zoe bit). I nicked the Batman/Spiderman thing from Conrad Gempf and I think the breathing stuff was from a Nooma video. 
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Posted in Encountering the Risen Christ in...

Encountering the Risen Christ in… Shame

jesus-by-the-lake

Reading: John 21: 1-19

Have many people seen The Repair Shop? It’s on BBC, in the slot just before Pointless. A team of expert craftspeople take items, which may or may not be valuable of themselves, but hold great emotional value to the owners. Furniture, toys, clocks, musical instruments, you name it. But time has taken its toll on these items. They’ve fallen into disrepair and are no longer useful, or usable. To anyone else they might be destined for the scrapheap or the dustbin.  But in the hands of these experts, these items are restored to their former glory.

As the intro suggests, they’re resurrected, revived, rejuvenated. Then you see that moment where they reveal the results of their work and you see the joy in people’s faces, when something they had treasured but thought was pretty much gone forever is restored to them. I’m a soppy old thing and feel myself filling up at the point.

 

Something of that is happening in this morning’s Bible reading. Jesus sets up his very own popup Repair Shop, for the heart and soul, on the shore by the Sea of Galilee. He restores a disciple who probably considered himself not just destined for the scrap heap, but already on it. Jesus resurrects, revives and rejuvenates a relationship, which even Peter probably considered broken beyond repair.

 

Peter thought his best days were behind him. There had been a time when he was a fisherman. That was no bad thing. It was decent trade. Fishermen made a decent living in the Capernaum area of Galilee.

But one day, as he had cleaned his nets, he had been offered a different kind of life. A rabbi called Jesus had been walking along the shore as Peter was coming in from a night’s fishing. They’d had a bad night and caught nothing. But the rabbi told them to give it another go. It seemed foolish even then. Everyone knew nighttime was best for fishing. If they’d caught nothing all night, what chance had they come morning? What would this rabbi know about fishing?

Yet clearly something about Jesus compelled him to give it a go. When he did, their nets were filled to breaking point.

At which point Jesus invited him to drop the whole lot and said to him Come, follow me.

 

 

We don’t always appreciate how big this was. To be asked to follow a rabbi in 1st Century Galilee was a huge deal. It was virtually every young lad’s dream. It was what every 1st Century Galilee parent wanted for their son. It’s like that academic child being offered a place in Oxford or Cambridge. Or the football-mad kid being called up personally by Jurgen Klopp and being told we want you at Liverpool. Or coming offstage after a school play and being asked to join the cast of a West End production. Maybe all of those things rolled into one.

And Peter did drop everything and followed Jesus.

Over the past few years he had seen Jesus say and do all sorts of remarkable things. Jesus told the most amazing stories which opened up a whole new way of understanding what God was like. Starting with Peter’s own mother-in-law, Peter had seen Jesus heal people of all sorts of illnesses. He had even seen Jesus raise people from the dead. Jesus never let Peter down.

Jesus let Peter in on some of his most intimate moments. Even when Jesus would leave others behind, he would often take Peter, James and John with him. Amongst the twelve whom Jesus had chosen to be his closest followers, Peter had acquired something of a ‘leader’ status.

Which was also quite remarkable, really. For Jesus had seen Peter do and heard Peter say some remarkably stupid things. Sometimes even when Peter tried to do the right thing, Jesus ended up clearing the mess Peter left in his wake. Peter let Jesus down a lot.

Jesus had been a far better friend to Peter than Peter had to Jesus.

Never was this more true that on the night on which Jesus had been arrested. There had been many occasions when Peter had pledged his undying loyalty to Jesus. How he loved Jesus more than all the others, how he was more devoted to Jesus than all the others. That he was prepared to die for Jesus, rather than let anything happen to him.

But that night, when Jesus had tried to wash the disciples’ feet, Peter resisted. Even if the others seemed willing to let Jesus do it, no way was he going to let his master humiliate himself by doing a slave’s job. When Jesus challenged him, he suddenly wanted Jesus to go further. But that was also the wrong answer.

Then Jesus told them that they were all going to desert him that evening. He was about to be arrested and they would scatter and abandon him. That was too much for Peter. Loudly and emphatically he insisted he would remain loyal. He wasn’t going to let him down. He would follow Jesus wherever he went. To prison, to death, anywhere. He was prepared to lay down his life for Jesus.

Jesus simply shaken his head and gently replied, Peter, before the cock crows tomorrow morning, you’re going to deny you even know me… three times.

 

Peter was partly right. He did follow Jesus that night. From a distance, but he followed. All the way to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house where Jesus was being held and questioned. He gathered with others around a charcoal fire. That was where it all went horribly wrong. Peter was asked if he was not one of those with Jesus. And he denied it. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Then instead of getting out quickly before it got worse, he lingered and got it wrong again. And again. Three times he denied knowing Jesus by that charcoal fire. Then the cock crowed. Across the courtyard Jesus caught Peter’s eye and Peter knew that what Jesus had said would happen had happened. His last memory of his time with Jesus would be that charcoal fire, the cock crowing and the sorrowful look on Jesus’ face as Peter let him down. The next day Jesus was crucified.

However a few days later, early in the morning, Mary Magdalene came to him, when he was with another disciple, John. She had told them that the tomb was empty. He and John had run to the tomb and found it just as she said.

Jesus had since appeared at least twice to the disciples.

 

It should have been good news. Great news. Jesus had been dead but was now alive.

But it was bittersweet for Peter. For up until now there seems to have been no special words for Peter. Even Thomas, who had been missing on that first occasion when Jesus came to them, and who then refused to believe that Jesus was alive, had had an encounter with Jesus, where Jesus met him in his need. Peter had none of that.

I wonder if, on those encounters, Peter struggled to look Jesus in the eye, knowing what he had done…

…and, knowing that Jesus knew.

Was he even there? John doesn’t actually tell us. Last we heard of Peter, he went into the empty tomb, saw it was as Mary had said, then went home. Could home have meant Galilee?

Did Peter think that he had just messed up too much? That his discipleship though once so precious was broken beyond repair?

That Jesus would be finished with him?

Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself. When you’ve let someone else down, self-forgiveness can be made easier by knowing the other person forgives you. But receiving that forgiveness from someone else, believing in it can be much harder when you won’t forgive yourself.

I suspect that’s where Peter was. Peter thought he was finished. That period of his life had been wonderful, far beyond anything he could ever have dreamed of or hoped for. But he’d messed it up. Not even Jesus could help him now. Best that he hide or disappear off the scene.

Whether he was there or not, Peter was living with the embarrassment of having failed, especially so soon after the great claims he had made. Peter is suffering from Shame.

 

It’s good to distinguish between two words which can often get confused. Those words are Guilt and Shame.

Guilt is an objective fact. It is an emotion attached to something you have done. You have done something wrong. It might be something really small. It might have been a right whopper. But you did it. It was wrong. And you know it was wrong.

Experiencing guilt can be a good thing. Sometimes its unhealthy, such as when people feel guilty about things they haven’t done, but there is a healthy guilt. It’s a sign that you’ve got a conscience. You’ve at least had some awareness that you need forgiveness, from the person you wronged, from God, from yourself even.

Shame is different. Shame is an emotion about who you are. Shame is where you believe one action defines who you are. Whereas guilt might say I have done a bad thing, shame says I am a bad, unworthy person.

Shame many not even necessarily require you to have done something wrong. It may be something you have had done to you. Ever wondered why people who have suffered abuse of different kinds can take so long to report it, if ever? It’s shame. Shame that they did something to bring it on themselves. Shame that they should have done something but didn’t have the courage or strength.

Shame is one of the most primitive emotions we have…

…and we all have it in some form or another. Shame is that feeling of I wouldn’t want anyone to know this about me. If they knew this, they would think so much less of me.

If you’ve ever found yourself thinking any of these things?

What will people think?

You can’t love yourself yet. You’re not ____________ enough.

No-one can find out about _________________

I’ve got to put a brave face on this.

Everyone else can ___________? Why can’t I?

Who do you think you are to ________________?

Guilt can have a positive restorative side. I can hold my hand up, truthfully accept I did wrong, say sorry, make amends, and hopefully be forgiven and restore the relationship. Guilt can help to reconnect us to other people, to God, to ourselves.

Shame is most often destructive. It stops us owning our stuff, cos if we admit it, others will think less of us or won’t like us. Shame is this sense of I am unworthy. I am unlovable. Shame cuts of us off from others.

It causes us to disconnect. It causes us to hide away. We all have it, but nobody wants to talk about it. And the less we talk about it, the more control it exercises over us. Shame thrives on silence and secrecy. We don’t even need to be told we’re unworthy to be paralysed by shame. The mere thought that someone might think we’re unworthy is enough for us to disconnect.

 

In an odd way, Peter’s shame might have had a pride element to it. You might think they are opposites, but in an odd way they can intermingle.  Two sides of a coin.

Peter hadn’t wanted to be lumped in with all the rest. He was more than that. He was better than that. He loved Jesus more, followed Jesus more. All the others could fall away, he wasn’t going to. Pride and shame do strange things to us. If you imagine looking through binoculars, we can analyse everybody else’s faults close up, then turn the binoculars round and look at our own faults in such a way as to minimise them.

But sometimes we do the opposite. We can be really hard on ourselves. We zoom in on our faults. Really magnify them.

 

I wonder if this had been someone else, if Peter would have encouraged them to come to Jesus with it. Come on. It’s Jesus! You know what Jesus is like, how patient he’s been with us. Jesus can handle it.

 But it’s not someone else. It’s him. And that’s different. There is an odd mix of pride and shame here that thinks he’s too far gone. That God can help others, but not him.

That’s why I believe Peter is back on the boats, back fishing. Peter considered himself too far gone. His discipleship and relationship with Jesus was broken beyond repair. It had been great while it lasted, but it was over now. He might as well get on with life, do something he’s at least good at, earn some money, catch some fish. But they toil all night and catch nothing.

Then it’s dawn. It’s the same word for when the women go to the tomb on the Sunday morning. Just as the women who went to the tomb were about to have their expectations shattered, so was Peter.

Over on the shore is a stranger who shouts out ‘you don’t have any fish have you?’ Whether it’s the half-light or the preoccupation with what they’re doing, they don’t realise who is calling out to them. Then he tells them to cast the net but onto the other side and when they do, just as a few years before they suddenly land a huge catch.

It’s the Lord says one of those on the boat with Peter.

In some other resurrection appearances, Jesus vanished as soon as he is recognised. In some ways it might have been easier for Peter if that had been what happened next.

But Jesus waits. He is there to restore Peter to relationship with himself. So far as Jesus goes, Peter thought he was fit for nothing but the scrapheap. But he had no idea just how precious to Jesus he was. Jesus hadn’t given up on Peter in his failure, just as he didn’t given up Thomas in his doubt. Jesus was waiting on the shore to resurrect, revive, rejuvenate their relationship.

Peter puts on his cloak, jumps overboard and wades the 100 yards or so to the shore, where Jesus is waiting to meet him… by a charcoal fire.

Jesus feeds them with bread and fish, but then he turns to Peter.

Notice what happens next. Jesus doesn’t say Peter, about that Thursday night, Friday morning… it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it. Let’s just forget the whole thing ever happened. Let’s just go back to how it was.

It’s not that Jesus hasn’t forgiven Peter. He has. But forgiveness only involves one person.

Reconciliation, healed relationship… that involves two.

Jesus is the master craftsman in the Repair Shop of the heart and soul. Jesus knows that if Peter is to experience that forgiveness, Peter needs to forgive himself.

To do that, Peter has to confront his shame. Peter has to accept that he is worthy of that relationship.

Maybe that’s why Jesus has left it so long to have this conversation. All that time Peter was absent, or Peter wasn’t catching Jesus’ eye, Jesus knew Peter wasn’t ready to hear it. Peter’s haste to get to Jesus suggests that now he is ready.

If Peter’s going to forgive himself and truly receive the forgiveness being offered to him, Peter’s got to own what he’s done. Jesus doesn’t just gloss over it.

But nor does he want Peter to be defined by it.

Peter is right to feel guilt. He did wrong. Jesus holds Peter accountable for it. He’s got to own it. But he does offer a way forward. There is forgiveness, and forgiveness was necessary.

But Jesus doesn’t want Peter held in the grip of shame. He wants him to know that a bad things does not make him unworthy of love and forgiveness.

There by a charcoal fire he is asked three time Simon, son of John, (that had been his name before he was called) do you love me?

The first time he asks him do you love me more than these? There is some dispute over what Jesus is talking about. Is it the nets, the boat, the fish, the sea, all that Peter had before he started following Jesus. Is Jesus asking is this what you want? Do you want to go back to this?

Much more likely Jesus is asking do you love more than they do? Peter do you remember those times when you said you loved me more than everyone else, when you thought you were better than everyone else, that even if they all left you wouldn’t. What do you reckon now? Do you love me?

And Peter asserts his love. But this time without the big, bold, brash claims. Failure has humbled him. But that’s the place where healing can begin.

 

Twice more Jesus asks the same question. Do you love me? The three times echoes the denials. It’s like Jesus gives him the chance to take back all three.

Or maybe Peter just needs that little more time for it to sink in. That yes, despite making a hash of things, despite the fact that he had got it wrong, that he had messed up, he was guilty…

…Jesus knew it all, yet Jesus was still here waiting to meet him, and hadn’t given up on him. In Jesus’ eyes Peter was worthy of relationship, he was worthy of connection. He had done a bad thing, but it had no right to define him.

That he did love Jesus and that was all that really mattered. Jesus wanted his heart above all. Not a love that was tame and soppy, but a love that was prepared to follow and bear all that lay in the future.

That offers an encouragement to us all. Or for those who are honest to do admit that we mess up, that we don’t have it all together. Over the last few weeks since Easter, we’ve seen Jesus encounter people in a whole variety of circumstances, in sorrow, in fear, in doubt and today in shame. Jesus made time for all of them, did not rebuke them, but challenged them to see that through his resurrection all these things could be dealt with.

And today he invites us to a table to meet with him, to eat with him as he did to those disciples. Peter had been an idiot. He had blown it and thought he was fit for nothing but the scrap heap. But to Jesus he was treasured, valuable possession whom he longed to resurrect, revive, rejuvenate.

They were flawed people round that fire, as are we. Peter had made a mess of things, Thomas had doubted him, Nathanael was loyal but fairly ordinary, the sons of Zebedee were hot-headed. The other two were barely considered mentioning. But Jesus made time for them all.

But for Peter especially. For Peter who had messed up. And from Peter we learn that failure is never final with God. No matter how desperate or failure and deep-seated our shame, when we are ready to give up on ourselves, if we look for him we will find him waiting by the shore, the master craftsman of the heart and soul, ready to restore us, to resurrect, revive, and rejuvenate.

Where we see failure, Jesus sees foundations. There is more forgiveness in Jesus than there is failure in us.

 

So come to this table, however you come. Jesus is here waiting to meet with you. None of us have got it all together. We all make a mess of stuff, and trust me, we’ll make a mess of stuff again.

But when we do, we’ll find Jesus waiting to meet us. He challenges us to own our stuff, yes, but he offers us a path onwards. You mean too much to him for him to throw away. He declares us worthy of love, even if we struggle to believe it. We might think we don’t deserve it, and the truth is none of us really does. That’s irrelevant. You are worthy because God says you are. God considered you so worthy, he sent Jesus into the world for you.

At this table Jesus wants to remind us just how precious we are to God. That however ashamed of ourselves we feel, nothing gives heaven more pleasure than when we turn back to him.

There will never be a moment when Jesus regrets forgiving you, never be a moment when you disgust him, even when you disgust yourself. Jesus is bigger than our failures, better than our sin, and as the master craftsman at the repair shop of heart and soul, he is committed to finishing the work of resurrection, revival and rejuvenation in you.

 

I was deeply indebted to three rather different books in this sermon. These were

Brené Brown; The Gifts of Imperfection

Dan Dewitt; Sunny Side Up

Desmond and Mpho Tutu; The Book of Forgiving

 

Posted in Encountering the Risen Christ in...

Encountering the Risen Christ in… Doubt

slide-6-handsReading: John 20: 24-31

For 20 years, Dick Rowe was one of the most influential people in the British entertainment industry. He was an executive as Decca Records from the 1950s into the 70s. He brought through so many of the biggest names in pop music. The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, The Moody Blues, Cat Stevens…

But for all his success, in musical folklore, he will mainly be remembered for one thing.

Anyone know what it was?

He was the man who turned down the Beatles.

In fairness to him, some suggest the actual decision was taken by someone junior to him. And it wasn’t just a case of thinking they weren’t good enough. Rowe was offered a choice of two bands and told he could only sign one.

Does anyone know who the other one was?

Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. If you’re young enough to think who?  well, exactly.

Apparently they made their choice because Brian Poole and the Tremeloes were based in London, rather than Liverpool (can you imagine someone saying that today?) but they had also shown signs of success, whereas the Beatles were a bit of an unknown quantity.

However, according to George Harrison, Rowe told the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein that ‘guitar bands are on the way out.’

But whatever the facts of the matter, Dick Rowe, for all he did in his career, will go down in history for one thing – the man who turned down The Beatles!

In that regard, he might have had sympathy with the guy we are focussing on this morning.

The disciple Thomas.

I always feel some sympathy for Thomas. He’s not around on one occasion, he misses something, then when he struggles to believe what he’s told, he’s forever known as Doubting Thomas. There are probably people who have used that phrase and don’t even know it comes from The Bible!

Thomas is forever famous for one thing – doubting.

Which is pretty harsh. For a couple of reasons.

Firstly, what he’s doubting? That someone he had seen killed a few days earlier was alive again.

It’s hardly surprising he doubted that. As I’ve said a few times over the last few weeks, when Jesus was killed no-one expected him to come back. Even those faithful women who went to the tomb on that first Easter morning and discovered it was empty, hadn’t gone hoping to be the first to catch a first glimpse of the risen Jesus. They went to complete the burial rituals. They assumed he’s still be dead.

They all thought that was it. Because however much we think our age is more advanced and knowledgeable that those who lived 2000 years ago, they knew that dead people stayed dead.

It’s not as if Thomas is the only one who doubted. We see in this in each of the gospels.

At the end of Matthew, as Jesus gives what has become known as The Great Commission, the disciples are gathered round the risen Jesus, and we read when they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.

 

Mark has two endings. One had the women fleeing the empty tomb and saying nothing to anyone, cos they were so afraid.

The longer version has Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus, going back to tell the others that she had met the Risen Christ but when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

 Then Jesus is met by another two of them in the countryside (I presume this refers to the story on the road to Emmaus) and they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

 

In Luke Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women with them go the apostles and give them the message that Jesus had risen, just as he had said he would. And how did the others respond? These words seemed to them like an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

 

Even in John, there is little evidence that the other disciples had any more belief than Thomas in the resurrection before the Risen Christ appears to them behind the locked doors of the room where they were gathered.

 

Thomas is not the only one to doubt the resurrection. They all did. The only difference between Thomas and the others is that he wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to them. Thomas wasn’t alone with his doubts. But he’s the one who’s remembered for it.

 

I’m not even sure doubting is even the best word to describe Thomas.

Curious is probably better.

True his statement about how he wouldn’t believe unless he sees the marks of the nails in his hands, and puts his hand in his side, is very emphatic. But it’s not just a hard-headed refusal to believe. He just doesn’t want to commit himself to something that he cannot be sure is true.

We don’t know much about Thomas. What little we do know is from John’s Gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts mention him as one of Jesus’ disciples, but other than that he makes no contribution to their stories.

John mentions him a couple of times. One is in John 11, when news reaches Jesus and the disciples that Lazarus has died. Jesus at first delays going to Bethany, then decides he will go after all. But when Jesus had last been in that area there has been trouble. People had tried to stone him. Other disciples try to stop Jesus from going. But Thomas says let’s go with him, that we may die with him.

The other mention comes from the night Jesus was arrested. One of the more famous sayings of Jesus is I am the way, the truth and the life… Well, that saying is a response to something Thomas said.

Jesus is talking about going away, coming back and he says you know the way to the place where I am going. It’s Thomas who answers Lord, we do not know where you’re going, so how can we know the way. I suspect quite a few of them were thinking thank goodness someone else asked. I hadn’t a clue what he was on about either. But Thomas is the one who spoke up.

Thomas might have been something of a pessimist. But the little we read of him he is also courageous and loyal. He’s prepared to stick with Jesus in trouble. But he’s not going to be taken in. Thomas is honest. He never claims to understand or believe something when he doesn’t. If Thomas is going to have faith in something, it’s going to be his own faith. And, if he’s going to commit himself to something, he wants some evidence.

Anything worth believing, is also worth doubting. If something demands your commitment, and Jesus certainly does, then it’s worth weighing it up, searching, checking, testing. Seeing if it’s true.

Thomas comes across as one who truly loved and followed Jesus. But he was also perceptive enough to see where things were going. That the opposition that was rising up against Jesus was dangerous.

The worst that Thomas expected to happen had happened and it broke his heart. To Thomas, in fact to all the disciples, the fact that Jesus was killed had meant he wasn’t who they thought he was. He was just another failed Messiah. He had committed himself to Jesus and Jesus hadn’t been who he thought he was.

Fool me once, shame on you

Fool me twice, shame on me

To have followed a failed Messiah was tough enough. It can’t have been easy for him to then have to cope with glimmer of (possibly false) hope, given second hand. Especially when it cut him off from the others, who all seemed to believe it.

But perhaps there is something more going on here. In a sense Thomas is ahead of the others. When Thomas does encounter the risen Christ, his declaration My Lord and My God is the high point of John’s Gospel. It’s like the great reveal where we discover who Jesus really is.

Perhaps Thomas realised more quickly than the others that, if this were true, he’d need to rethink everything he knew about Jesus. That he had been wrong about Jesus. That it turns out Jesus was a whole lot more than Thomas had realised.

And he needed more time to wrestle with that. Before committing himself he wanted to be sure.

Doubt can be a lonely place.

It would be fair to say that churches haven’t always been the most comfortable places to express doubt. People who ask those awkward questions can sometimes be viewed with suspicion. We might think of faith and doubt as opposites.

But they are really just two sides of the same coin.

There is one passage which is a bit of a struggle. A few months back we looked at the book of James, which suggested ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

But as we unpacked the rest of the book, we saw that James meant something very specific when he talked about faith and doubt. For James, whether you have faith and doubt will be expressed in how you behave, rather than what you say you believe. James isn’t talking about people having questions. He’s talking about those who ask God for help, but then are not prepared to listen for what God wants, or do what God calls them to do.

Other parts of the Bible offer a very different picture. When God speaks at the end of the book of Job, it is Job, who has voiced all sorts of doubt who is commended by God. It’s the friends who sought to comfort him with all the pat answers learned from the text books, whom God rebukes.

Or in the New Testament, Matthew and Luke both tell of an incident in the ministry of Jesus, where John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus. John is in prison, having been arrested for challenging King Herod for his questionable behaviour.

John had talked about Jesus as the one who would come after him, who would baptise people with the Spirit and with fire. He had pointed to Jesus and said there’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John had staked a lot on Jesus.

But now in prison, things don’t quite seem so obvious to John. Jesus doesn’t seem to be acting as John anticipated. So John sends some of his followers to Jesus and they ask him Are you the one we’re waiting for? Or should we expect someone else?

In other words, have I got this right?

Jesus doesn’t tut and say how can John possibly doubt me? He just offers John a description of what is going on and lets John make his own mind up.

In both Job and John’s stories, they are not dismissed for their doubts and questions.

But they are challenged to dig deeper.

To explore their questions and make their mind up.

To discover the truth for themselves.

 

That’s what we get with Thomas.

The journey of faith isn’t always straightforward. Life gets in the way. We are works in progress. Or at least we should be. There are times when we think we have the answers, when we reckon we understand, when we think we’ve got something sussed, then something happens which lets us know we really know less than we think.

And that’s ok.

God can handle your doubt.

What God really wants is your honesty.

That’s what God can work with.

 

That’s what we learn from Thomas.

Some doubting is good for us. Doubting and questioning is how we grow. We grow in maturity by asking questions and working through them. It’s one thing to take instruction from somebody. It’s another to really make that knowledge your own.

In the book of Acts we read of Paul and Silas visiting a city called Berea. They start teaching and they’re well received. But the people there don’t just take what Paul says without questioning it. They examined the scriptures see whether these things [what Paul and Silas had said] were true. They checked it out for themselves. Paul and Silas weren’t insulted by this. It was seen as a good thing.

One of my favourite bits of what I do is when someone asks me something about what I’ve said. Ok, it depends a little on how they ask it. Years ago I preached a sermon on the call of Simon Peter, based on the account in Luke. As I shook hands with people at the door, someone said if you’d ever read John’s Gospel you wouldn’t have preached that load of nonsense. I can’t say I entirely appreciated that.

But when someone says what do you mean by that? or have you thought about this? that’s great. That makes my day. We’re engaging. That’s how we develop in faith.

There is something of that in Thomas. He just wanted to check out for himself that what he was being told was true. All the others had seen Jesus. He had shown them his hands and side. All Thomas was asking for was the same experience the others had. He wasn’t content with secondhand faith. He wanted to encounter the risen Christ for himself.

Sometimes we need to doubt. Because all too often our ideas are wrong. That’s not just true of faith. Part of the mess we are in as a country right now is because no-one os prepared to doubt their rightness. Ours is an age where we’d rather shout at each other than listen, or it seems waste perfectly good milkshakes by throwing them rather than engage.

The world moves on because people are prepared to question what is generally accepted as true.  That God people do that. Otherwise we’d still be prescribing leeches to cure everything!

It can be true in all of life. But especially true of relationships. certainly true when it comes to a relationship with God. Faith is not a tick box list of assertions we either accept or deny. It’s a relationship which should grow, develop, mature. In any healthy relationship we regularly discover new things about the other person. Ok, as times wears on you come to know more and more, but people can still surprise us. And it is the same with God.

That’s not necessarily easy. We can become very attached to ideas that we have held for a long time, that perhaps have served us well, even when they no longer really work.

In a sense that was what was happening with Thomas. It wasn’t that Jews didn’t have a belief in resurrection. It’s just that those who did believe in it, understood it as something that would happen to everyone at the end of time. Not to one person in the middle of history. Thomas had no framework on which to base this.

But, as with Job and John, Thomas doubt is not rebuked. But it is challenged.

It’s a week later. The disciples are together and this time Thomas is present. The suddenly Jesus came and stood amongst them. He said Peace be with you.

Then he said to Thomas… what?

Thomas, get out of here. You didn’t believe the others when they said I was alive and you clearly didn’t listen to a word I said on the road to Jerusalem. You’re out of the gang! 

Is that what Jesus said?

No! He said Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Don’t doubt, but believe.

I don’t hear those last words as a rebuke. To me Jesus is saying if this is what you need to believe, then let’s do this!

 

Jesus can handle the doubt. The bigger question is can Thomas accept the challenge.

And Thomas is transformed. If tradition is to be believed, Thomas was the first disciple to take the Gospel beyond Jerusalem, and the church in India traces itself back to him.

I think there are two challenges prompted by the Thomas story. One is how we as a community cope with doubt and questions. I hope we are open. Because people progress along the spiritual path differently. What might help one, might hinder another. We all come with different questions, different needs. If we’re really honest, none of us have got it all together. In fact one of the reasons I think some churches react so strongly to people with doubts is because they’d rather not deal with their own questions. And I think they’re frightened of three little words. I don’t know.

Doubt is not a sin. Jesus did not rebuke Thomas for his doubt and nor does he rebuke us.

But there is a deeper question for us. Are we prepared to be stretched, to be challenged about how we see and understand. Cos there is a type of doubt that doesn’t want to believe. That sees doubt as its badge of honour.

Faith is a journey and doubt can be a staging point on the journey. But it’s not the destination. Doubt can be lonely, but it can also be quite a safe place. Cos maybe if we believed it’s change our lives. Safer to stick with the doubt and not have to reach a decision.

Thomas had his doubts, but he was willing to be stretched. We know that because he showed up. When Jesus came to the disciples once more, Thomas was there. He put himself in the situation where he could encounter the risen Christ and be challenged to see things differently.

Living faith realises it doesn’t have to have all the answers. And that’s ok. Because it is open to challenge. It can live with the mystery. It realises that God is far, far bigger than we can get our head around.

The only way we can be drawn deeper into relationship with him is when we accept that we don’t know everything, that we can be open to seeing things differently.

And keep on exploring.

Doubt can be worked through. It can help us grow. It can transform us. It did for Thomas. It’s what makes our faith out own.

So don’t be afraid of the questions.

God can handle the question.

God welcomes the questions.

God invites you to come just as you are.

He can handle your honesty. He can work with your honesty, if you’re open to challenge and open to change, you are open to transformation. He can take that openness and honesty and create a faith that is truly personal.

Posted in Encountering the Risen Christ in...

Encountering the Risen Christ in… Fear

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Reading: John 20: 19-23

We live in a world of fear. We are afraid of so many things. Does anyone want to guess the 4 most common fears people admit to?

Snakes; Spiders; Heights; Trapped in small spaces.

After that comes another list which are probably not that surprising: Public speaking; needles; flying; mice; strangers; dogs; crowds; blood; darkness; fire; drowning

You name it, there are people who are afraid of it.

As if there’s not enough fear in the world, we are actively encouraged to be fearful. Often because it serves the interests of those encouraging us to be fearful.

Politicians play on that. Vote for the other lot and all sorts of terrible things will happen. A vote for us is the only way to stop [insert your choice of bad thing here].

It’s not always with negative intent. Attempts to curb smoking have tended to highlight health risks associated with the habit.

Advertisers play on our fear of bad breath, dandruff, social embarrassment at serving bad coffee, or your whites not being quite whiter than white enough to sell us stuff!

According to Behavioural Psychologist Dr Wyatt Woodsmall, If you can find out what people’s worst nightmare is, camp out inside their nightmare…[they’ll] do anything…to get out of that situation.

It’s suggested that one way of tackling fear is with information. Ignorance, or the unknown, often drives fear. If you just knew the facts you’d realise you have no reason to be afraid, they say. Although I’ve had enough friends who have worked in the food industry who  beg to differ.

That idea is not new. The church should recognise it. Jesus said ‘you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’

Unfortunately the media, a major source we rely on for such information, contributes to the fear.

We are not short of information. In my house, growing up, we had a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was huge. These days I can carry much, much more information in my pocket. No-one has the mental capacity to handle all the information available to us.

The question is what parts do we process?

How did that get selected?

What part do we ignore?

The bits most likely to attract our attention are the dramatic.

 

You might remember a quiz I did around this time last year about whether the world was getting better, worse or staying much the same. It was based on a book called Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling. One of the things he highlighted was how we consistently view the world more negatively than the reality. In a multiple choice quiz, about all sorts of issues about development and the like, he found that people generally failed what he called The Chimpanzee Test.  A chimp selecting answers at random would on average, score better than humans taking the same test and trying to answer intelligently. That was true even amongst people trained in or working in the areas about which they were being asked! Why is that?

Rosling says fear plays a major part in our failure to see clearly. In a world with so much information, it’s like we have an attention filter. It protects us against all the noise of the world. But certain things can break through that attention filter. One of these is the dramatic.

Ever wondered why the news is always bad. Why don’t we get some good news for a change?

Well, there’s a reason for that. Our media is designed to get our attention. It’s how they make their money. So they won’t waste their energy on stuff that won’t get past our attention filter. Headlines like Malaria continues to gradually decline or 650 flights land safely at Heathrow Airport won’t register, even though both are true.

But unusual, dramatic events like earthquakes, war, terror, shark attacks, disease; they get our attention. But without the balance we start to see the unusual as the norm.

And the instinct which most strongly influences are attention filter is fear.

Our brains are hardwired to notice danger. Fears of physical harm, captivity and poison contributed to keeping humanity alive. But now, Rosling says, we can protect ourselves against many of these things. Fears that once kept our ancestors alive, today simply help keep journalists employed.

When we are afraid, he argues, we do not see clearly.

Critical thinking is always difficult. But it’s almost impossible if we live in fear.

But there is something else which helps us overcome fear.

Encounter.

Spend time with someone different to you, and you quickly realise that in so many ways we’re just the same and that there was nothing to be afraid of.

It is to a bunch of disciples in fear that Jesus appears in our reading this morning. It was a Sunday evening. The evening of the first Easter. Earlier that morning some women had gone to the garden, to the tomb in which, just a few days earlier, their master Jesus had been buried. But when they got there they found the stone rolled back from the entrance of the tomb. The graveclothes in which Jesus had been wrapped were still there. But there was no sign of the body.

Mary ran and told Peter and another disciple who went to the tomb. They found just as she said. But then they went away.

Last week we spoke about what happened next. There at the garden, Mary has an encounter with someone she assumes to be the gardener, but on hearing her name she realises it is Jesus.

But she is told not to cling to him. Go, tell the other disciples.

 

Presumably she did so. But whether she was believed or not is another matter. Luke tells us that when Mary and some other women return from the tomb and tell this to those disciples who were still together they were dismissed. The apostles thought that what the women said was nonsense and they did not believe them.

So that evening they meet in fear of the Jewish leaders. They had seen what had happened to Jesus. What if they were next?

If anything, news of the empty tomb may have made them more fearful. If people started putting around false rumours of Jesus walking around again it might make it more likely that the authorities would come looking for them.

In one sense their fear might seem to make perfect sense. I can’t emphasise enough… when Jesus was crucified, no-one thought oh, don’t worry, that’s alright, he’ll be back again in a few days. Within Jewish thought, by the time of Jesus, there was a belief in the idea of resurrection. But resurrection would happen to everyone at the end of time. Not to one individual, in the midst of history. They had no framework around which to base this idea.

Yet, they weren’t entirely without information. Several times we read of Jesus, with ever increasing clarity, warning this disciples of what lay ahead of him when they got to Jerusalem. We’re told of at least three specific occasions he did this. But Matthew says from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed…’ which suggests there may have other occasions we don’t read about.

On the third occasion Jesus was very specific…

We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.

 All of which happened. But Jesus wasn’t finished…

 On the third day he will be raised to life.

They had the information. In fairness they had no experience on which to base their hope. But they had the information. As I said last week, let’s not assume that because people lived thousands of years ago they were just plain stupid. They knew dead people stayed dead.

Talk of resurrection might have been unusual and dramatic enough to get past their attention filter.

But the fear instinct was strong.

And fear stopped them seeing clearly.

Fear kept them from remembering what Jesus had told them.

Information was not enough to overcome the fear instinct.

They needed encounter.

And that was what happened. We’re not told how many disciples were present that evening. Was it just the 12, minus Judas and, as we read later, Thomas, who were there. Were their other followers of Jesus also present? We don’t really know.

Still, they were behind locked doors. The locked doors were designed to keep them safe. How effective they might have been I don’t know.

But the locked doors don’t keep Jesus out. I wonder what was going on in that meeting. (I love this cartoon from one of Chris Bambrough one of our Baptist brothers from Sunderland). Were they arguing about the explanation for the empty tomb and what the women had seen, what was likely to happen if their enemies got hold of them…

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…when suddenly, despite the locked door, there was Jesus standing amongst them.

 

And his first words were Peace.

In fact, he says it twice. Once before he shows them his hands and side, once after.

That word Peace is much stronger that what we think. We tend to peace simply as an absence of trouble. The Hebrew word Shalom and the Greek word used in the New Testament Eirene mean a lot more than that. It means everything that is best for us.

There is good reason why Jesus would begin like that.

And good reason why he needed to repeat it.

Not only was one whom they had believed to be dead now standing amongst them. That would be unsettling enough. But when they had last been with him, it hadn’t ended well. They had been with him in the garden, the night the guards came to arrest Jesus. That night Jesus had warned them that one of them was about to betray him and that they were all about to abandon him. Each of them had denied it. They’d said no way. Not me.

 But Jesus was right. They had.

Some disciples emerge from the Easter story looking worse than others, but that’s only because they are specifically mentioned. They all failed Jesus when he needed them.

So news that he was alive, or seeing Jesus amongst them need not necessarily have been considered good news.

At best they might have feared rebuke and censure for abandoning him in Gethsemane. For not listening, when all along he had told them what would happen in Jerusalem. For not believing Mary Magdalene (and the other women) about the resurrection when Jesus had sent her to them…

It would force them to confront their shame at the ways in which they had let Jesus down when he most needed them.

Or worse. If Jesus really had conquered death, if he had gone through all that they had witnessed and still emerged from it triumphant, if he could reach them even behind locked doors, might he seek revenge on those who had failed him?

YET the first word Jesus speaks to them is Peace.

 

It’s probably not surprising they need to hear it. Because, although it would take time before the disciples would appreciate it as such, this was an encounter with the divine.

Sometimes people use the expression ‘then God showed up’ to describe a bad situation, which suddenly or miraculously got resolved. In those stories talk of God showing up is considered a good thing.

But actually for most of human history the idea of God showing up hasn’t been good news. Not just in the world of other religions. Just look through our own scriptures.

What’s the normal reaction to encountering the divine?

Abject terror.

 Why?

Because deep inside us is this sense that God is not on our side.

That God is out to get us.

Philip Yancey tells a story of priest who was asked what the most common problem he had encountered in 20 years of hearing confession and, without hesitation, he replied God. Very few people, he added, behave as if God is a God of love, forgiveness, gentleness and compassion. They see God as someone to cower before, rather than someone worthy of our trust.

We live with the image of the Larson cartoon of the God with his finger hovering over the SMITE button.

It’s there in the primal story of Eden, of God coming seeking the man and the woman in the garden, and we hide because we fear judgement. It’s there in the number of people who joke that if they set foot in a church it’d be struck with lightning. Which always makes me think why this God can only get them in church, and why they think he would take it out on the church but whatever…

Yet despite everything, all that he had been through, and all that they had done, the first words to those disciples who encountered the Risen Christ in their fear was Peace. Jesus was not looking back, not holding anything against them. His arms were extended in welcome. A renewed relationship was possible, because he had come to offer them peace.

Then he shows them his hands and side. This seems particularly important to John. Three times in the second half of this chapter Jesus will refer to his hands and side. Although they’re not specifically mentioned here, we’re supposed to imagine the scars.

Jesus is recognised by the scars of his crucifixion.

Why is that so important?

 

I think there are two reasons.

One is that it shows it is really him. The one offering peace is the one whom they let down.

But also it shows what God had the power to overcome. Jesus bears the scars. It was true that he had endured all that he faced on that Thursday and Friday. He had been flogged, mocked, beaten, scourged, bruised, crucified. The world had done it’s worst to him.

And God had overcome it all. The world had done their worst. But Jesus was still here.

Oh, it was real. It mattered. It had left its mark. Jesus bore the scars. Resurrection isn’t about saying it doesn’t matter. It is about saying that whatever we face, we are not beyond the reach of the love of God. There is nowhere we can go, where God cannot reach us. There is nothing which God cannot bring us through.

For in Christ, God has gone there before us. He bears the scars of it. But he has done it that we might fully come to know the peace, the Eirene, the shalom of God.

Down through the ages we have hidden from God, run from God, lived in the sense that we are to be afraid of God, that God is out to get us.

When all along, God’s longing, God’s desire, God’s mission for us is Peace. Eirene. Shalom. All that is for our good and our blessing.

In a world of fear, where there is so much fear and there are plenty of voices encouraging to be afraid; we are loved, we are held, and nothing can separate us from the love of God. That nothing truly has a hold over us, but the power of all conquering love.

A perfect love, which longs to cast out all fear.

And it’s here we have a part to play. For Jesus adds As the Father sent me, so I send you.

 

If we encounter the Risen Christ, if we experience something of the peace God desires for us, then we are to pass it on. We are to be people who embody that peace. To take the news of a God of peace who loves them and gave himself for them, to those living in fear, who hide behind the locked doors they create in their lives, who find it hard to believe that God is with them. To let them know that they are loved by one who holds us, whatever we face.

But it’s not enough just to talk about it. Information is not enough. It wasn’t for the disciples in John’s Gospel. It won’t be for anyone else.

 

It needs to be embodied.

The words need to be made flesh.

We need to live it.

 

Is this sense of a God who loves them, who is on their side, who wants all that makes for their highest good, who wants to bring peace, Eirene, Shalom, is that the first impression people get when they encounter Christians?

Is that the first thing people think of when they think of Christians?

What about us?

If not, might it be because we need to encounter that God for ourselves. To hear him speak words of peace into our sense of fear, so that we might pass that on.

It is an odd thing Jesus says when he says if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

 Have we been guilty of putting some sins in a category of forgivable and others beyond the reach of a forgiving God? I love how the Message puts this. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”

But if the message is that God loves you and gave himself for you, UNLESS [insert caveat here] it’s not the Gospel of Jesus.

Because people won’t encounter the Risen Jesus in the same way as the disciples in this morning’s reading. But they will encounter us. They won’t hear him pronounce peace in a fearful world, unless we do it.

 

The peace he comes to bring is not that we will never face anything bad. Jesus never promised us that. Jesus told his disciples in the world you will have trouble, but take heart I have overcome the world.

Sometimes we will live through painful experiences. All of us will encounter them at some point. If you haven’t so far, give it time. And yes, healing can come through prayer, support, grace. But it matters. It is real. Even when healing comes we may bear the scars of it, just as the risen Christ bore the scars.

Sometimes the greatest good you will do, is through those scars. Through those scars you might say this is what I experienced, this is what God brought me through, this is how I discovered that whatever I face, I am held by a love that has promised never to let me go.

There are plenty of voices out there, trying to encourage us to live in fear. There are plenty who, as the disciples did on that first Easter evening, think rumours of resurrection are just nonsense. Information will not be enough for that. The world needs encounter. The truth of resurrection needs to be embodied.

 

May we be a people who listen for the voice of the one who speaks peace.

May we be people who listen no for the voice of fear, but for the Spirit who helps us recognise God as a loving heavenly Father, who is on our side and longs to bring us peace, Eirene, shalom.

May we be a people who come to know through all things, that whatever we face, we are held, we are loved. That nothing but this love has a right to have a hold over us.

May that encourage us out from behind the locked doors we build on our lives.

That we might step away from fear, and into the peace God longs for our lives.

And may we embody it, that others might encounter the Risen Christ, to meet him in their fear and hear his words of peace.

 

The painting of Jesus appearing to his disciples, at the top of this item is a work of art by Ed de Guzman, a freelance artist from the Philippines.

More at https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/525373112780238222/

Posted in Encountering the Risen Christ in...

Encountering the Risen Christ in… Sorrow

martin-resurrection-morningReading: John 20:1-18

I’m a fan of the Pixar cartoon films. They’re probably most famous for the Toy Story series, but they’ve made a lot of great films.

You could dismiss them as simply for kids. I mean, they’re cartoons, for goodness sake. But part of their genius is that they mix enough stuff to keep children entertained, but throw in bits deliberately aimed at the grown-ups taking their children to the cinema. An example of this is the film Up which I showed here a few years ago, shortly after we got the big screens installed. One particular scene left quite a few of the adults looking like they’d been chopping particularly strong onions in a very smoky room.

But another example of a film aimed as much at the grown-ups as the kids was Inside Out. The story mostly takes place inside the head of an 11-year-old girl called Riley, in what is described as her Mind HQ. We meet personifications of 5 basic emotions, who influence Riley’s actions from a control console. Rather than try to explain them to you, why not just show you them….

Video 1: Meet the emotions

Amongst Riley’s emotions Joy is the self-appointed leader. She sees it as her job to keep Riley as happy as possible. But there’s one emotion that neither Joy nor the others understand.

That’s Sadness.

What is she there for?

What’s the point of her?

Joy does all she can to keep Sadness away from the console and certainly tries to stop Sadness touching Riley’s memories. Just one more clip to show how Joy tries to isolate sadness…

Video 2: Joy and Sadness

Sometimes church can feel a bit like what is going on in Riley’s head. It’s not just church, but it’s particularly relevant to church. We want to encourage people to be joyful. To celebrate what God has done for them.

That’s good and right. One description of Christians is that we are called to be Easter People in a Good Friday World. 

But we need to keep both halves of that statement in mind.

Yes, we are Easter People. We should be a hopeful people, for we declare that God loves the world, hasn’t given up on his world and has plans and purposes for us and his world. Nothing can separate us from God and his love.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we live in a Good Friday world. Denial is not an honest, authentic way to live.

It’s interesting that we’re never told Jesus laughed. I’m sure he did. I’m reliably informed that his audience would have found bits of his teaching hilarious, even if that’s lost in time and translation. But we’re never told Jesus laughed.

We are told he wept.

Growing up in church I was told not to trust my emotions. They are fickle and changeable and can deceive you. Instead focus on God and his promises for God is unchanging.

I understand where that was coming from. There is a danger in being entirely at the whim of our emotions. Ours is an age which has had enough of experts, where if I feel something or think something, it must be true.

But something I’ve learned from practising Christian mindfulness over the past 2 or 3 years, is that thinking or feeling something does not, of itself, make it true.

I’ve also learned we can go too far the other way. To ignore emotions all together. It’s not just sadness we can try to keep away from the console. It’s any emotion which we might view as negative or uncomfortable.

We’re not just souls trapped in a body. We’re a complex mix of body, mind and spirit. What impacts one, affects the others.  God is interested in all of it. I believe God wants to encounter us as we are, where we are.

So, over the next few weeks we’re going to explore some of that, as we look at some of the encounters that the Risen Christ had with people in John’s Gospel, wrestling with all sorts of emotions and feelings. In future weeks I plan to consider Jesus’ encounters with fearful disciples, a doubting Thomas, and Peter, wrestling with a sense of failure.

But this morning I want to consider the encounter in the garden where Jesus has been buried, when the Risen Christ encountered Mary Magdalene, in her sorrow.

 

Why are you weeping?

 Mary Magdalene is asked that question twice, as her tears flow by a tomb in which, just a few days earlier, she had watched her friend and Master, Jesus, be buried.

The tomb which now lies mysteriously empty.

 

Why are you weeping?

She’s asked by angels , now sat where Jesus’ body had been laid. One at the head, one at the feet.

A few verses later she’s asked it again by the Risen Jesus, although at that point she does not realise who she is talking to. She thinks he’s the gardener.

Why are you weeping?

 

It’s an interesting question.

At one level it should be obvious. You do realise this is a tomb, right? Someone I loved was buried there a couple of days ago. Someone who had turned my life around, someone to whom I was utterly devoted. Someone who’d just been betrayed, arrested and whom I’d watched be executed in a horrific manner. 

 Why do you think I’m weeping?

But it’s also an ambiguous question.

It could mean different things. It depends on how you hear it, what’s intended.

Most of the time I think the way we treat it more like a rebuke than a question. Fair enough, a gentle rebuke, but a rebuke nonetheless. Like Mary’s being asked what are you weeping for?  Like there is no need for weeping.

Mary, don’t you realise Jesus is alive?

If you did you wouldn’t be weeping!

Now that is a perfectly valid way of reading it. The story begins in the dark, early in the morning. But it also begins with Mary as we might say ‘in the dark.’ She doesn’t know what has happened to Jesus. She thinks his body has been stolen. It’s a story about her expectations and understandings being completely overturned.

 

But it’s not the only way to hear those words.

What if we treat it as a genuine question?

As an invitation to name and explore the reasons for sorrow?

Times of celebration can be difficult for those who don’t feel in a good place to celebrate. Easter in a faith community can feel like that. After the darkness and sorrow of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, comes the celebration of resurrection. Our worship quite rightly tries to reflect that.

But our lives don’t work to that calendar. They’re not like seasons in a TV series where everything is neatly tied up for the finale. If we find ourselves weeping at the empty tomb that question can feel like a rebuke; when maybe what you need more is simply a gentle invitation to name it, to explore it, to bring it to the Risen Christ.

May I even offer a word of encouragement?

It was precisely because Mary didn’t run away from the place of sorrow, because she lingered in it, that she was the first to encounter the risen Christ.

 

Mary Magdalene is probably one of the better known characters in the Gospels. She probably came to a lot more people’s attentions following Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, and the film, starring Tom Hanks. Part of the plot was that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene, they had children and their descendants were still around today.

There was also a Hollywood film made Mary Magdalene just last year.

Very few biblical characters have had so much speculation surrounding them. It has been suggested that she had been a prostitute. She has been linked to the woman who washed Jesus feet with her tears and hair as he sat at dinner. Wikipedia tells me she is mentioned 12 times in the Gospels,  more than most of the apostles.

 

But there is a reason there is so much speculation about her.

We know very little about her.

Prior to the crucifixion of Jesus, she is mentioned only once in the Gospels, and that in passing. We’re given two pieces of information about her.

One was that Jesus had commanded seven demons to come out of her.

The other is that she was one of a group of ladies, who looked after the disciples material needs from their own pockets.

So far as the Bible goes almost the entirety of her story is contained within those three days at the first Easter.

She is there at the cross, as Jesus breathes his last.

She is there at his burial, watching where Jesus is laid.

She is there on Easter Sunday morning when the empty tomb is discovered.

She’s amongst those who tell the disciples of the Resurrection, and in two Gospels she is the first to witness to risen Jesus.

And you know what? As soon as Jesus ascends to heaven, Mary Magdalene disappears from the story.

Not once is she mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.

Not once is she mentioned in the letters. Even when Paul lists the Resurrection appearances of Christ, he mentions Peter, the Twelve, 500 others, James, the apostles.

Even himself…

…but not Mary Magdalene.

When Jesus’ teaching is wowing the crowds, Pharisee’s are being outwitted, thousands are being fed, the sick are being healed and there isn’t a demon safe in Galilee, Mary barely gets noticed.

But when darkness descends, when their worst nightmares are coming true, when everything they thought they had been preparing for is crumbling before their eyes. When Judas is selling his Master to the authorities, when Peter is denying he ever knew the man who had turned his whole life around, when the twelve are fleeing for their lives, when the crowds who called on him to be their Messiah less than a week earlier are calling for his head…

Who’s left standing?

 Mary Magdalene

Mary was the last one at the cross, and the first at the tomb.

Whatever else we learn about Mary Magdalene from the Gospels, she’s not afraid to linger with the darkness and sorrow.

That’s what she’s doing at the tomb that morning.

That can be quite a lonely place.  It was for Mary.

John says she went to the tomb very early in the morning. The Greek suggests it was between 3 and 6am. Matthew tells us another Mary, the mother of James was there. Mark adds another lady called Salome. Luke doesn’t tell us which women went to the tomb, but later says the two Marys, a woman called Joanna and others with them tell the disciples about the empty tomb.

John only mentions Mary Magdalene. Whether she went ahead of the others or whether she’s the only one relevant to what follows I don’t know. But when she finds Peter and the other disciple she says ‘they’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb, but we don’t know where they have put him’ which suggests there were others.

 

Anyway, when she got things are not as she expected. The stone is rolled back from the door of the tomb.

Now here’s the thing about the Gospel stories. When Jesus was killed, nobody was thinking oh, it’s ok, he’ll be back in a few days. Often I think our generation believes that merely because people lived a long time ago they must have been stupid. But there was something they did know – dead bodies don’t just vanish. They’re moved.

So she runs, finds Peter and the other disciple and tells them the only possible explanation she can think of…

They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!

 

Who has taken the body?

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who had taken responsibility for the burial?

Other Jewish leaders?

The Romans?

Grave Robbers?

Does Mary even know?

Does she care?

The body’s gone.

They run to the tomb, leaving Mary behind it seems. The other disciple gets there first but stops outside. Peter dashes in and sees everything.

We’re told the other disciple believes but not what he believes. He might just believe that yes, Mary’s right, the tomb is empty.

But they then go home.

Which seems a remarkable lack of curiosity.

It seems they don’t even wait for Mary to catch up. When she returns to the tomb they’ve gone.

So Mary lingers alone.

 

Sorrow can be a lonely place.

It can also be all consuming. Mary is so caught up in the whereabouts of Jesus’ body that she in not really aware of what’s happening around her. Mary is probably the only person in the entire Bible who meets an angel and is underwhelmed by the experience.

She looks into the tomb, sees two angels and she barely notices. Unless the can tell her where Jesus’ body is, Mary’s not bothered.

 

It can be a very personal place.

One of the things I remember from a tutor in Bible college was about pastoral conversations. Ever been in that position where you visit someone, not necessarily in a church capacity, maybe just as a friend, and every time you go to see them, it seems like you have the same conversation?

When you hear the same story again and again it can be very easy to slip into autopilot. He said in those circumstances, listen for the differences. It might be the same story, but if you listen you’ll often spot subtle differences.

That’s what happens with Mary. She says more or less the same thing to the angels as to Peter and the other disciple. It’s not they’ve taken away THE Lord, it’s MY Lord. And it’s not WE don’t know where they’ve put him. It’s I don’t know.

I wonder if she has that sense of Am I the only one who cares here?

Where are the women she had come with?

Where are Peter and the other disciple?

They’ve taken the Lord’s body away, we don’t know what they’ve done with him, and everyone else seems to be carrying on as if nothing’s happening.

But even if they’ve stopped caring she won’t.

They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put him.

 

Then there’s footsteps behind her.

Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for? 

Slowly a plan forms in her head. Not necessarily a coherent one, but a plan nonetheless. If you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.

She doesn’t mention how she would move him, or where to.

Then Jesus says one word and everything changes.

Mary

 

There can be something about someone saying your name to shake out of daydreaming. Or maybe there’s a gentle C’mon Mary, don’t you recognise me?

 She exclaims rabboni – an intimate, personal term and wants to cling to him, but he says don’t cling to me, instead go and tell the others.

 

It seems a bit odd, because soon Jesus will actively encourage Thomas to touch him. But I suspect it’s cos Jesus wants her to realise that although he is risen from the dead, things don’t just go back to how they were.

They will see him for a short time, in a series of encounters, some of which we will look at, but soon he will return to his Father. We wouldn’t be walking round Galilee and Judea, sharing meals, talking and praying together.

But at the same time the story isn’t over and Jesus is alive. Their relationship will look different but it will go on.

It will be some time before it begins to become clear to any of them what any of this means, but for right now Jesus was alive. They had done their worst to him, but God had raised Jesus from the dead.

The hope of resurrection isn’t just that nothing bad will ever happen to us. It isn’t that there is no point of weeping, because we will face loss and sorrow. It isn’t even that everything will just go back as it was, because we know that simply isn’t true.

It isn’t even just about the hope of life beyond death. It’s about the fact that whatever we face, new life and hope is possible here and now, for we are never outside the love and care of the God who has revealed himself in Jesus.

He has the power to bring life and hope into situations of death and despair; to shine light and wisdom into darkness and fear. That even when sin and darkness has done it’s worst, it does not speak the final word.

However that does not mean we have to deny the pain and sorrow we feel right now. Years later when Paul writes to some followers of Jesus who lived in Thessalonica he told them not to grieve as those who have no hope.

He doesn’t tell them not to grieve.

But as they do so, he urges them not to lose sight of the hope.

We are Easter people in a Good Friday world.

Both parts matter.

There is no need to lock away the sorrow, for we all will, like the bread we’ll share in a few moments, at times be broken. And we don’t need to fear bringing that to God.

Maybe some of us need to hear those words, addressed to Mary, addressed to us…

Why are you weeping?

Not as a rebuke, but as invitation to bring to God, to name before God the sorrow you are carrying. God wants to encounter you where you are, as you are.

 

But equally don’t lose sight of the hope. Listen for the voices of the angels. Be open to Christ encountering you, often in ways which might surprise us, through people we least expect. Things may never be the same, but new life, new hope is possible, for at this table we are reminded that we are never outside the love and care of God.

 

Posted in Samson: A Weak Strongman (Lent 2019)

Samson: The Story of a Weak Strongman Part V: Bringing Down the House

Sermon-Feature-Samson

Readings: Judges 16: 22-31: John 2: 13-21

Some of you may have heard a Radio 4 series called Paul Sinha’s History Revision. ( If you haven’t, and you listen to audiobooks I recommend it). 

In each episode he takes a subject and tells the story of how a series of seemingly unconnected events led to the world we have today. He includes stories of people who never made it into text books and shows their contribution to world history.

Take for example, football. If there’s one country in the world considered the Kings of World Football, who all the other countries would want to be it’s… Brazil!

In one programme he tells the story of how football became so huge in Brazil. I won’t give you the full tale, but Sinha takes that story all the way to back to 1415, when a Portuguese sailor called Henry the Navigator landed in Morocco, starting the era of European exploration and conquest. This led to the transatlantic slave trade, which massively increased the population of Brazil with people from lots of different countries.

It also brought coffee to Brazil, which became it’s biggest export. Around 200 years ago, when Brazil gained independence, coffee helped establish their economy as one of the fastest growing in the world.

But a rapidly expanding economy, in a huge country, needed a transport system. So in the 1870s they sent for a Scots railway engineer called John Miller. John fell in love with a Brazilian woman, they married and had a son, Charles. But John did not trust Brazilian education, so he sent Charles to school in Southampton, where he became obsessed with a pastime which was growing in popularity in English public schools.

Association Football.

On leaving school, Charles returned to Brazil with two footballs and a set of the rules. He taught the game to a couple of athletic clubs. And it really took off.

Brazil was a populus, diverse country, looking for a cheap, fun, communal activity to bring together it’s culturally, ethnically and economically diverse population. Football was a perfect fit.

So to this day, never mind what English people sang last summer, if you ask people around the world which country was really the home of football, they’d probably say Brazil.

But how did that come about? Well, it’s a long tale of violence and conquest, coffee, trains, love and public schooling.

Some parts are evil,, some are quite funny. Some are rather lovely. But they’re all part of the story.

We experience some of this in our lives. Some parts of our story are great. Others are not. Some bits we’re proud of, others we’d prefer stayed well hidden. The same is true of family histories. But it’s all those things, the good and the bad, the bits we tell and the bits we hide, that make us who we are today.

Now, why do I start like that?

Well, over the last few weeks we’ve been exploring the story of Samson. When people use words like ‘primitive’ and ‘barbaric’ to describe The Bible, this is one of the bits they’re talking about. You don’t go to Samson for great moral lessons, unless you’re looking for mistakes to avoid.

Throughout the series I’ve talked about how God taking the bits of the story we’d rather chuck in the bin of history, and bringing good out of them. This morning we reach the climax of Samson’s story.

I want to say it ends well, but, well, we’ve just read it.

 

I remember hearing the Samson story as a child. It must be one of my earliest memories. I can still picture the flannelgraph, the teacher and remember hearing Samson killed more people in his death, than he did in his life.

Part of me wants to have wondered and that’s a good thing because? but I’m not sure I even really understood it.

 

But now we live in an age of suicide bombers. For parts of the world that’s been a regular experience for many years. But in this century it’s come to the West. We’ve seen people hijacking planes or strap bombs to themselves and kill innocent people whilst taking their own lives. It’s happened in London.

And it’s been done in the name of religion.

 

Some would put Samson’s actions in the Temple of Dagon, in that category. I’ve seen it described as a selfish act by a mindless lout, killing indiscriminately.

Others go to the opposite extreme. They say Samson gave his life for his people. We should catch a glimpse of Christ in him. They claim that in prison he saw the error of his ways and repented of his sins. He was outraged at what the Philistines were saying about God. That’s why he did what he did at the temple.

All of which perfectly possible.

But we really don’t know.

We’re not told.

 

Others might think the whole story is best bypassed altogether. It’s one of those embarrassing bits best ignored. One of the bits we just don’t talk about.  Especially in the modern world. But it is part of the wider Bible and Christian story.

Which makes it part of our story.

So I’d prefer to wrestle with it.

I also recognise that I don’t necessarily read this from the same position as its original intended audience. I’m a 21st Century white, male British person. I’ve never known significant oppression or persecution. I might read this differently if I had. But I’ve generally found myself on the right side of history.

Even in Northern Ireland I was relatively sheltered from The Troubles, and I was part of the majority community. A few years ago there was a big row about whether Belfast council should fly the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall. I never even knew they did. Yet they had done so all my life. Had I grown up on the other side of the city that might have mattered a lot more.

It struck me as I prepared this was that although Samson is the one who is part of the great story of our faith, in some ways I have more in common with the Philistines. When I read this, I need to check my privilege.

Let’s have a look at the story, see what is really going on, and then make a decision on how we might understand Samson and his story.

Last week we left Samson grinding grain in a Philistine prison, having been betrayed by the only woman whom we’re told he loved. He’s been captured by his enemies.

If there are three things for which Samson is famous it’s probably his hair, his strength, and Delilah. By the close of last weeks reading, he had lost the lot.

But that wasn’t all he had lost. We also read how the LORD had left him and he had also lost his sight. The Philistines gouged his eyes out. This ensured he was incapacitated permanently and could never take revenge or escape. Samson, whose name meant sunshine, was left in utter darkness.

They thought he was finished.

Maybe Samson thought he was finished.

But last week’s reading ended (and this week’s began) with some words which hinted at a different possibility…

But the hair on his head began to grow again.

Samson has not been completely abandoned.

God was not finished with him yet.

 

We might wonder what became of Delilah. Perhaps she lived the rest of her life in luxury. After all, one guesstimate of the value of 5500 pieces of silver she earned for betraying Samson was £9m. Some suggest that she was at the temple that day and died with the Philistines. Some suggest Delilah was pregnant with his child. One, Jabotinsky, even suggests she brought the child to the temple and presented it to him that day, swearing to raise him to hate the Israelites. This, Jabotinsky suggests, incited Samson to destroy the temple.

Others go further. At the end of last week’s reading, Samson was grinding grain in the prison. Grinding was a Hebrew slang term for sex. They say that Samson was used as a stud. The Philistines sought to breed a superman race from Samson to keep the Israelites under control.  Again it’s possible, but we’re not told.

 

We pick up the story in verse 23. Some time later the Philistines are holding a celebration and offering a ‘great sacrifice’ their god Dagon. A huge crowd of ‘the great and the good’ gathered for the occasion. All the Philistine leaders who had paid Delilah to betray Samson were present. About 3000 men and women were on the roof, watching the action.

tell-qasile-excavations

We can get an idea of this scene. In modern day Tel Aviv, in an area which, in the time of Samson was Philistine territory they have excavated a temple.  It’s smaller than described here, but has the same structure. The roof was held up by two central pillars, made of wood, which has since rotted. This is the stone bases. But if the pillars were pushed from their bases, the whole building would crash down.

In one sense the Philistines are better than Samson. They give thanks to Dagon, for delivering Samson, their enemy, into their hands.

Our god has delivered our enemy into our hands,

the one who laid waste our land and multiplied our slain.

 

In chapter 15 when Samson had taken on and killed 1000 Philistines single handed, then sang a song. But his song praised Samson. It was all about him.

With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them.

With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.

 Even the prayer which followed was a bit self-entitled. It had a ‘look what I’ve done. You’re not going to just let me die, are you?’ attitude to it.

Whereas the Philistines capture one man and recognise it as a victory for their God. It might be a false God, but it’s still a step up on Samson.  He makes it all about him.

The celebrations are in full swing. Then they decide Bring out Samson to entertain us.

 The man who used to instil such fear, to whom they once sent at least 1000 men to capture him, now is led by out by a single boy.

If we’re to understand what follows, we need to understand what’s happening. Some other risqué elements I’ve highlighted have required reading between the lines. This one is rather more blatant. Samson’s not giving them a strongman show or some kind of Victorian ‘freak show.’

The word used for entertain and amuse is Letzahek. It occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament in Genesis 39. It’s the story of (Technicolour Dreamcoat) Joseph, in the house of Potiphar. Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt. But the LORD blesses Joseph, he impresses his boss, Potiphar, and soon he rises to a position of great responsibility.

But it’s not just Potiphar who is impressed with Joseph. Joseph is a good-looking lad and Potiphar’s wife takes a fancy to him. She tries to seduce him, but Joseph resists. Then one day, when they’re alone, she makes a grab for him, gets hold of his tunic, but Joseph wriggles free and runs away, leaving his tunic in her hands. Potiphar’s wife then uses the coat to falsely accuse Joseph of trying to force himself on her, or degrade her sexually. It’s the same word.

So Samson is being sexually degraded. He knows where this is going. This will turn to torture, then ultimately he’ll be killed. The great sacrifice to Dagon was, quite likely, going to be Samson.

So he’s been captured; blinded; enslaved; then he’s brought out and put in a depraved sex show; he’s in agony and he’s about to be tortured. He’s alone. His own people have forgotten him and he even feels God has abandoned him.

So is this just a mindless act of violence? Is Samson an 11th century BC equivalent of a suicide bomber, killing innocent people indiscriminately? I don’t think so.

But nor is he selflessly offering himself as a sacrifice for his people. Nowhere in the story do we read of Samson repenting, regretting or even understanding what he has done. His prayer, whilst more earnest that his previous attempt is hardly exemplary. It’s about personal revenge.

But even as I say that, I know I struggle to forgive a lot less than what he had endured.

 

Samson is a desperate man, in a desperate situation. He’s about to be executed, and he finds himself in a temple with the leaders of his enemies. He’s alone. In terrible pain.

He asks the young boy who has been leading him by the hand Let me touch the pillars that hold up the building. I want to lean on them.

 

Maybe the boy was too young to guess what might happen Maybe Samson just seemed helpless. I mean, look at him. What harm could he do?

Some criticise Samson, saying he only turns to God when he’s really up against it. As if none of us have ever done that. As if our prayers are always much purer than Samson’s.

But Samson prays

Sovereign Lord, remember me.

Please, God, strengthen me just once more,

and let me with one blow

get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.

Nowhere does Judges tell us that God answered that prayer.

In fairness, it might be assumed, but in previous parts of the story we read of the Spirit strengthening Samson. Not this time.

But Samson pushes with all his might.

The pillars topple.

And Samson brings the house down.

On himself

On the Philistine leaders

On the huge crowd.

And so ended a life which had such potential, yet ultimately achieved so little. He was a man of great power, but he didn’t lead anyone to victory. As far as we know, he didn’t even try. He won the occasional skirmish, occasionally made the oppressing Philistines looks stupid, but he got distracted by his own personal feuds. It never got beyond him.

But whether he intended it or not, Samson achieved in death what he never did in life. The angel had said it to Samson’s unnamed mother back in chapter 13 He will BEGIN the work of rescuing Israel from the Philistines. 

And he did. In one blow Samson took out the Philistine elite. Suddenly they were significantly weakened politically and significantly. Out of the rubble of that temple new possibilities emerged.

As it happens, Samson was not the only Nazirite in Israel at that time. They don’t sit side by side in our Bibles, but their lives overlapped. To the North and East of where Samson’s story took place lived a man called Samuel. In a sense although, to the best of our knowledge, they never met, and they were extremely different people, Samson was to Samuel what John the Baptist was to Jesus.

Samuel built on what Samson did. The period of Judges was at an end. Samson is the last in the book. It was a story with a downward trajectory. Even when, as with Samson, God raised one from scratch, it failed. Any ‘salvation’ they achieved was fleeting. A reminder that all our best endeavours to save ourselves fall short.

But a handful of years after Samson’s death that this period would give way to the days of the Kings. Beginning with Saul and then David. In time the Philistines would be overcome. Saul, Samuel and David get the credit. But Samson’s death played a big part.

And through David we will, in time, come to Jesus. Which, with a lot of water under the bridge, will bring the story to us. It’s part of the story which ultimately leads to us having the chance to live in relationship to God, through Jesus.

It’s violent, yes.

Primitive and barbaric, yes.

We don’t to approve of it, or justify it.

It’s one of the embarrassing bits we’d rather not talk about, maybe.

But Samson is part of the story nonetheless.

Jesus.jpg

In the Gospel reading this morning we read again of another incident in a temple, this time in Jerusalem at Passover. Jesus enters the temple and finds people selling cattle, sheep, doves, exchanging money, all the machinery that made up the sacrificial system in the Jewish temple. Jesus made a whip out of cords, drove the animals from the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers.

The leaders challenged him 

What authority do you have to do this? 

And Jesus responded 

Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it.

John tells us the temple Jesus was speaking of was his body.

 This week we’ll remember how they did destroy that body. Jesus was betrayed, deserted, denied. He had a crown of thorns jammed onto his head. He was mocked, flogged, slapped about, beaten, bruised and ultimately crucified.

But there was a difference.

The destruction of that temple, his body, was not to destroy his enemies, but to save them. As he hung on the cross, Jesus cried not for vengeance, but Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.

 As he breathed his last, the curtain in the temple tore from top to bottom, symbolising that all that would keep us from God had now been removed.

And out of the rubble of that temple, new possibilities emerged. For God was faithful. Thought they sought to destroy Jesus, in three days he was raised to new life.

Next Sunday we will be celebrating resurrection.

Because God is faithful. Just as he was, even to the faithless, in the story of Samson.

What are we to make of Samson? His story is one of the more embarrassing in the family album. He was called by God, repeatedly empowered by the Spirit, yet resisted being controlled by the Spirit. But then do we always use God’s blessings in healthy helpful ways. Do we resist the Lordship of Christ? I know, at times, I do.

Samson was greatly gifted, yet self-indulgent. There isn’t a lot of go thou and do likewise stuff. But then can I always say my life is a prefect example? Can you?

No, I don’t think God endorsed or approved of Samson’s actions, any more than he approved of the sins that led to the cross.

But God was faithful and his plan goes on, even when we fail.

Samson’s story doesn’t end in Judges 16. His name appears alongside other strange names in Hebrews 11, of those who, by faith, carried God’s story forward. Some are mystified that Samson’s name is in there. In a story full of riddles, perhaps the greatest riddle of all is that God can accomplish anything through someone like Samson.

But as I said a few weeks ago, God is the master upcycler. He goes to work on the rubbish dumps, he works in our mess, and in our good stuff, making it part not just of our story, but his story.

He works on the mixed bags of good and bad that we are with a grace that is way beyond our understanding. He takes our whole story, the good and the bad. The bits we’re proud of, and the bits we’d hide and uses them to make us his children. An he doesn’t give up on us.

God had room for someone like Samson amongst the heroes of the faith. Not because he was strong, but despite how he used his strength. That gives hope for all of us. Cos I know most of you. You’re not perfect. But even at your worst, you’ll struggle to mess up like Samson.

And if God can make room for someone like Samson, he can make room for someone like you

or someone like me.

Posted in Samson: A Weak Strongman (Lent 2019)

Samson: The Story of A Weak Strongman Part IV – Why, Why, Why, Delilah?

hair on floor

Reading: Judges 16: 1-22

NB: Earlier in service we had talked about the story of The Gingerbread Man and how it applied to Samson

Harry Houdini was history’s greatest escapologist. He was an international star, nicknamed The Handcuff King. Everywhere he went he would challenge police to strip him naked, search him for anything that would help him escape, then restrain him with shackles and lock him in their jails. No matter what they used, chains, ropes, handcuffs, straightjackets, they were no match for Houdini.

There was always a degree of trickery to his stunts, but there was also genuine risk. On one occasion he almost suffocated during a stunt in which he was shackled and buried under six feet of dirt.  His act included a famous Chinese Water Torture cell, in which he was suspended upside down in a locked glass and steel cabinet full of water. A couple of Hollywood films depict him dying, trying to escape from this.

But Houdini was actually killed by a punch he never saw coming. In 1926, college boxer, J Gordon Whitehead, asked if it was true that Houdini had claimed he could take any punch to the stomach. Houdini suggested that yes, this was true. At which point Whitehead punched him several times in the stomach before Houdini could prepare himself.

Initially Houdini brushed it off, but later he started to complain of stomach cramps. His doctor suspected appendicitis and told him to go to hospital, but Houdini insisted he had shows to perform. A few days later he struggled through a show but collapsed after the final curtain. He was rushed to hospital, where his appendix was removed. But peritonitis had already set in. He died a few days later.

He had defied death so many times and freed himself from every possible shackle, but was undone by a body blow he never saw coming.

During Lent we’ve been reading the story of Samson, which we find in the book of Judges in our Bible. Today we come to the most famous part of the story. Samson and Delilah is one bit of the Scriptures that many people are aware of, even if they’ve never opened a Bible. This tragic story of love betrayed has inspired art, movies, operas, pop songs, even a mid-90s Weetabix advert.

So far Samson has been a biblical Houdini. He has never found himself in a situation from which he could not escape. But he is about to encounter his surprise body blow.

Like the Gingerbread man I talked about earlier, until now Samson has always been able to outrun, or outfight trouble. But today he meets his fox and doesn’t realise the danger he is getting into.

 

Samson’s been a bit of a loner throughout his whole story and now he falls in love. But it proves to be his downfall.

However the warning signs were there. You see Samson has a couple of problems. And they sound quite similar.

Firstly Samson has a bit of ‘eye problem.’ His eyes keep getting drawn to good-looking women. Each of the three chapters which tell his life story start in much the same way. Each time Samson has only one thing on his mind. And it’s not the political situation in the 11th Century BC Middle East.

In chapter 14 he sees a woman in Timnah and decides he has to have her.

In Chapter 15, despite completely messing up his wedding, he returns to Timnah and straightaway tries to get into the bedroom.

And in chapter 16, even before we me meet Delilah, Samson has a sexual encounter with a prostitute.

Throughout the story Samson’s brain seems to be located a few inches south of his waist. Whatever his eyes fancy he has to have. That’s what I mean he has an ‘eye problem.’

But Samson also has an ‘I problem.’ Samson’s never found himself in a situation he couldn’t handle or get out of. From the lion in the vineyard, the jackals in Timnah, to taking on 1000 Philistines singlehanded when he had started out tied up, Samson’s always to come out on top.

He’s started to believe his own hype. He’s taking for granted that he’ll always be able to do that. He barely acknowledges God, or perhaps he just thinks it’s God’s job to help him get out of it.

As his ego grows, so do the risks. Samson seems to get a real buzz out of escaping tricky situations. It’s become something of an addiction for him. But that’s ok, he reckons. I can handle it. I’ll get out of it. I always do.

Pride plays a huge part in Samson’s downfall.

There’s a telling phrase that crops up again and again in Chapter 16. At every stage, as Delilah tries to coax his secret out of him, Samson says ‘if you do this, I’ll be weak like everyone else.’

 Tie me up with new bowstrings, and I’ll be as weak as anyone else.

 Tie me with new ropes, and I’ll be as weak as anyone else.

Weave my locks with a loom, and I’ll be as weak as anyone else.

If you use a razor on my head, I’ll be as weak as anyone else.

In Samson’s eyes other people are weak. But not Samson. He’s different. He can handle it. Always has. Always will.

But he’s never stopped to realise how God has been with him all along. That’s what’s kept him going and kept him escaping all this time.

But in chapter 16, something’s different. In chapters 14 and 15 we read several times of the Spirit empowering Samson. There is no mention of the Spirit in Chapter 16.

Samson is a strongman with an ‘I problem.’

All along, particularly in Chapter 14, Samson seems to consider himself invincible. Perhaps this sense reaches its height at the start if Chapter 16.

20 years have passed since the end of Chapter 15. We’re told Samson judged Israel for 20 years. But unlike other judges Samson has not brought about any real deliverance from their enemies. The Philistines still dominate Israel. We have no real knowledge of what Samson did in those 20 years.

At the start of Chapter 16 he goes to Gaza, sees a prostitute and decides to have her. Word gets out that Samson’s in town. They’ve wanted to get him for years. Now is their chance. But they’re not mad. They know what he’s capable of. They decide to wait until he’s exhausted himself and is asleep then get him.

It reads slightly confusingly but it seems they wait all day and Samson did not emerge. But as night fell, they locked the gates of the city and relaxed their vigil. The gates would hold him til morning.

But Samson expects an ambush. So he gets up in the middle of the night to make his escape. And he doesn’t go quietly. He doesn’t just smash through the gates. He uproots the gates, the posts which hold them in place, and the locks and walks off with the whole lot.

Then carries them from Gaza to Hebron.

That’s almost 40 miles.

Uphill.

I mean you’ve seen those nutters who do marathons dressed in chainmail or with a fridge on their backs. That’s nothing on this. Samson does 1½ marathons with huge city gates and posts on his back.

Samson probably saw it as a great prank. They thought they had him, but he has made the Philistines look weak and foolish.

But it reinforced his ‘I problem’, his sense that there was nothing from which he couldn’t escape.

Then he met Delilah.

There are a couple of things about Delilah that are different to the other women we’ve encountered in this story.

The first is we know her name. We’re never told what Samson’s mother, his wife or the prostitute in Gaza were called. We are given Delilah’s name.

And Samson loved her. That’s not even said about his wife. We’re told she pleased him, but all that meant was he found her sexually attractive.

 

Up until now there has only been one love in Samson’s life.

Samson.

But now he falls for Delilah. A lot of us, if we think back far enough, may have fallen for someone who was bad news for us. That one who broke your heart?

That’s where Samson is right now.

 

But there are a lot of things we’re not told about Delilah. Most writers assume she was a Philistine, but we’re not told.

Some rabbis who wrote on this story suggest that she was related to Samson’s wife, from chapter 14 and 15. Remember the prettier sister whom the father offered to Samson as a replacement for the wife that had been given to his best man? Some suggest that was Delilah and she resented Samson for rejecting her, or blamed Samson for her sister and father’s death. It’s possible, but we’re not told.

We know Samson loved her, but we’re never told if she loved him. Certainly their liaison lasted long enough to come to the attention of the leaders of the Philistines.

 

But very soon Samson became her lottery ticket. The 5 Philistine leaders each offered her 1100 pieces of silver. It’s a huge sum of money. Jeff Lucas guesstimates the deal was worth £9m.

There are remarkable similarities here to the incident with Samson’s wife and the riddle at his wedding. They ask her to coax a secret out of him. He resists for some time before giving in.

But there is an interesting little detail here. They want to know the secret of his great strength. You might remember a few weeks ago I asked how you picture Samson. I said you might think he was an Arnie or Stallone type figure. Ok, there is something superhuman about his exploits, but if he was someone like that, surely the secret of his strength would have been obvious. This is the one place we discover that Samson may not have been a muscleman.

  

Whatever, if you’re anything like me, as we read Chapter 16, there was probably one question running though your mind.

Just how stupid is Samson?

Does he not see where this is all heading?

Maybe he’s just blinded by love or lust.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking and he can’t see she’s just not that into him.

Maybe he is so full of himself he’s not really thinking what he’s doing.

Maybe it was a mix of the eye problem and the I problem.

Maybe he just saw himself as an 11th Century BC Houdini. There was nothing from which he could not escape.

Other people are weak. But not him. He’s Samson. He always comes out on top.

 

Until now.

This is another of those sections where Hebrew Bible writers are a lot less sensitive than modern churchgoers. This book is not certificate PG. In our age, from time to time, our tabloids report the bizarre sexual antics of the rich, famous and powerful. Something similar is happening here.

This is a story in which a man is repeatedly tied up by his lover. Samson would not be the first or last strong man to get a thrill out of being dominated. Delilah is using sex to dominate and control Samson to the point of exhaustion. We’ve seen Samson has come to love or even be addicted to risk.

To Samson, The Philistines are Coming is a sex game.

But the problem with any addiction is that you keep needing bigger and bigger hits to achieve the same buzz. So the risks get bigger and bigger.

Still, Samson thinks he can handle it.

Other people are weak. Not him, he’s Samson.

By the third round he’s getting a little too close to the truth. Weave my hair into the fabric on a loom, and tighten it with a pin I’ll be as weak as any other man.

 

But we know where this is going. After three failed attempts, the Philistines give up on Delilah. But Delilah’s not quitting.

Samson’s been here before and he hasn’t learned his lesson. You say you love me, yet you keep secrets from me she says. And he caves.

Finally his secret is revealed. I’ve been a Nazirite from the womb, dedicated to God. If my head were shaved I would be as weak as any other man.

 

Was there something in his voice which gave him away?

A greater depth or intimacy to his revelation?

He poured his heart out to her.

Did he, after all this time, just want to tell someone?

There’s something tragic about all this. Up to now Samson’s seemed an angry, tortured soul, constantly fighting not just against the Philistines but against the calling that’s been on him all his life.

Did he love her so much he wanted to share everything with her, whatever the cost?

This is the only point in Samson’s story when he seems at peace, at rest, on Delilah’s lap. And it comes as someone enters and shaves his head, leaving him balder than your pastor.

 

Delilah shouts Samson, The Philistines are upon you and he jumps up, confident that this time it is no different.

Why would it be? Samson’s never faced anything he could not get out of before. Samson always comes out on top.

But this time it’s different. He doesn’t know the LORD has left him and his strength is gone.

All along he’s taken God for granted. The strength which has always been a source of pride, has always come so naturally. He never really acknowledged where it came from, maybe never even knew where it came from.

Other people were weak. Not him. He was Samson.

But the last thing which set him apart has been shaved away.

It might even still be lying on the floor of Delilah’s bedroom.

Other people are weak.

And now, so is Samson.

As it turns out, there are no strong people.

Houdini met his sucker punch.

The Gingerbread man met his fox.

Samson met Delilah and the razor.

After all, he had just been an ordinary guy who had done extraordinary things.

Our reading ends where it began, with Samson going down to Gaza, but this time being led there. This was the scene of arguably his most superhuman feat of strength, but now he’s completely powerless.

He had an eye problem, but now they’ve been gouged out.

He had a I problem. But his pride’s been stripped away. He was left in a Philistine prison, going round and round in circles, grinding the grain. A job which is in his culture was always done by women.

What are the take-aways from all this?

Well maybe you have an eye problem. It might be a relationship with someone who is bad news for you. Perhaps the warning is quite as plain as it can be.

Maybe it’s just a friendship or friendships which lure you away from God. You might think you’re being salt and light but really their influence on you is far greater than your influence on them. Bit by bit, the things which make you different are slipping away.

Or maybe there is something in your life that is really not good for you. Maybe some kind of sin. A temptation to which you are such an easy target. Let’s be honest, we all have secret thoughts. All of us. Things deep down we know are wrong.

But we have a choice where to take them captive, stop them in their tracks, or indulge them. There is always the temptation to see just how far we can push things, how far can we go without getting hurt, how close to the fire without getting burnt.

It’s ok, you can handle it, you think. I always have before. Maybe God’s been guarding you and you don’t realise it. But if you keep making destructive choices, they will eventually prove destructive. Perhaps we need to heed the lesson of Samson and get out before it destroys us.

Or maybe we have an I problem. Not necessarily as arrogant as Samson. But self-reliant nonetheless. It might not be physical strength like Samson. It might be wealth, gifts, skills…

As I prepared this, I came across a couple of problems. One is the age-old problem that to someone with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Samson thought his physical strength could get him out any jam he faced.

Or like Samson we can lose sight of where it came from. I came across a story about a father whose children were praying at dinner one night. They gave God thanks for the food they were about to enjoy and the blessings they had in life. And the father got angry and asked the children what they were thanking God for. He had provided all that and worked hard to provide it.

If you are blessed, great. But don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s all gift. The problem with blessing is that we can become very independent. We think we can or should be able to sort everything out ourselves.

And it all seems fine.

Until we can’t.

That day when we can’t comes to some earlier than others.

It comes to some more often than others.

But it comes to us all.

 

But the lesson of Samson is that there are no strong people.

Only people who are strong in some areas.

We all have weaknesses.

We need each other.

And we need God.

But I want to leave on an up note.

Samson is blinded and bound, taken off to Gaza where he imprisoned and humiliated, grinding the grain. He thought he was Houdini, but had fallen to a sucker punch. He thought there was nothing he could not escape, but here he was.

He thought his story was over…

Then we see the last verse in today’s reading. But the hair on his head began to grow again, after he had been shaved.

As far as everyone else was concerned, perhaps even as far as Samson was concerned, Samson was finished.

But God wasn’t.

 

That’s the message I want to leave you with this morning.

However badly you’ve messed up, however far you’ve drifted from God a new start is possible.

You may have thought you were strong but come up short.

You may have wanted to be strong, but discovered you weren’t.

The good news is there are no strong people.

And we don’t have to be.

That was never the point.

That’s why God sent Jesus into the world.

That’s why we are invited to gather round this table.

Not because we’re good, we’ve made it and have got it all together.

Not because we’re strong, but because we recognise we can be weak.

This table reminds us that we’ve all messed up.

Some of us more than others, some of us worse than others.

But all of us have messed up.

But God’s not counting.

And God hasn’t given up on us.

When we were still far from God, Christ died for us. So we eat this bread and remember that we are broken. We drink this cup and we are reminded we need new life. We may have had eye problems and I problems, but whatever we’ve done and wherever our journey has taken us, the table is spread for us.

Even when others give up on us, or we give up on ourselves, God is not finished.

 

 

Quite a few bits of this, including most of the Houdini story, is from There Are No Strong People by Jeff Lucas.

Posted in Samson: A Weak Strongman (Lent 2019)

Samson: The Story of a Weak Strongman III: Drop the Jawbone

revenge cycle.jpg

Reading: Judges 15

You’ll have heard it said Don’t get mad. Get even. 

Psychologists suggest revenge is a natural instinct. When someone hurts us, most of us, even for a moment, want to hit back. That impulse has been located in the cerebellum, where our fight or flight response originates.

Revenge plays on our sense of justice. We use terms like getting even, settling the score, making them pay. We can believe that getting revenge or seeing someone who hurt us get what’s coming to them will make us feel better.

Yet the evidence suggests it doesn’t work. It not healthy or helpful for us. There’s been a range of different experiments in which people are snubbed or wronged in some way, but whilst some have the opportunity to retaliate, others don’t. And the results are quite interesting.

 

One is that any sense of feeling better is short-lived. Very short-lived. It feels good at the time, but even just 5, 10, or 45 minutes later, many report feeling worse than they did before they took revenge.

They certainly feel worse than those who never got the chance to seek revenge. By not retaliating they found other ways of coping, whereas, ruminating about getting even, just means obsessing about wounds, more obsessing and more raging. You get more of whatever you focus your attention on. it been linked to all sorts of health problems, some really quite serious.

Now, sometimes people wrong us, it is not our fault and I would never want to be accused of blaming or shaming victims of abuse. So I’m trying to be very careful about what I say. The desire for revenge also lowers our personal awareness. It makes us focus on what the other person did wrong. It stops us thinking about how we might have contributed to the situation. Which makes us more likely to make the same mistakes again and again.

 

That last one is very relevant for this morning’s Bible passage. Judges 15 is a classic, and grotesque case study on the subject of revenge.

During Lent we’re working through the story of Samson. So far we’ve not seen a lot of ‘go thou and do likewise’ stuff.

This morning is no exception. Amongst the shenanigans in Parliament this week, you probably missed a debate about the protection of animals, which included an accusation of landowner MPs allowing fox hunting to continue on their land.  I doubt even the most ardent supporter of fox hunting would defend Samson’s actions in this morning’s reading.

 

As we turn to this morning’s passage, I just want to remind you of something I said last time. The overarching theme of the Samson narrative is God taking stuff we might think best discarded, and redeeming it, bringing good out of it. Samson is careless and disobedient. But God still somehow works through what he does. That is not the same as God approving of it.

I also highlighted the difference in being empowered by the Spirit and controlled by the Spirit. God may bless us in many ways, but that does not mean we always use that blessing in healthy or Godly ways. If you want a bit more on that, listen to the last sermon on the website or read it in my blog.

This is one of those Old Testament passages that people describe as primitive and barbaric.

And they’re not wrong. That’s the point.

Cos revenge is primitive and can easily turn barbaric.

Sometimes looking at an extreme example helps us see how insane a course of action is. That’s what Judges 15 does with the subject of revenge.

What starts as a marital dispute spirals out of control and soon involves whole armies and a lot of dead bodies.

 

There is a lot in this passage this chapter. I’ll never cover it all. But something that bookends this chapter is that Samson has a real sense of self-entitlement.

The passage opens with Samson going down to Timnah to be with his wife. Last time I mentioned how Samson seems to keep his brain in his loin cloth. Well, time has passed. But Samson hasn’t changed.  At the start of Chapter 15, Samson still has only one thing on his mind.

Samson’s been gone some time. He was last seen walking out of his wedding, furious that his wife had betrayed him, costing him a drunken bet. He stormed off, killed 30 Philistines for their clothes, dumped the clothes at the wedding party, then went back home to his parents.

Time had passed. Perhaps months. Samson’s wife had, as was common practice in this culture, been given to his best man. So when Samson shows up, her father refuses to let him into the bedroom. Even Philistines have standards, Samson. You can’t just ditch your wife, then demand her back on a whim.

‘I thought you hated her…’ says the father. That terminology was the kind of legal language they used for divorce. Her father assumed that Samson had divorced his daughter.

In this culture that would have left her vulnerable. It would have been hard for her to marry again. I recognise this is a very different world. But I’m not saying he’s entirely blameless, but her father was simply trying to secure his daughter’s future, after her husband had abandoned her.

 

But Samson feels wronged. And his revenge instinct kicks in.

Notice Samson’s language here. 

This time I have a right to get even. 

This time. Maybe he realised Chapter 14 wasn’t his finest hour. Maybe he’d been told he was in the wrong, but hadn’t quite reached the point where he accepted that. Either way a sense of alright maybe I wasn’t perfect last time, but this time I have a right to do this…  He’s very aware of wrong that’s been done to him.

But hold on a second. Samson’s hardly innocent. Consider Samson’s part in all this. He throws a lavish, drunken, 7-day wedding party, which he ruins with a drunken bet and a huge argument; he storms out on his wedding night, just before the marriage was to be consummated.  He made a speech calling his wife a cow and accusing her of sleeping with the best man or, possibly even all 30 of them; he then kills 30 people and turns up with their clothes to settle the bet; then he leaves, not returning, possibly for months.

 

He’s very aware of what they’ve done to him. But he seems oblivious to his part in the whole mess.

Then, without warning, he turns up at the bride’s home, with a young goat, expecting to pick up where he left off.

The goat is an interesting detail. Some see this as an 11th century BC equivalent of a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates. The kind of peace offering a man might make his wife after a disagreement.

However, it’s not the only place in the Bible we read of a man bringing a woman such a gift. It’s not even the first time it happens at Timnah!

In Genesis 38 there’s a story about Jacob’s son Judah and a woman called Tamar. It’s easily overlooked because it interrupts the flow of the Joseph narrative.  But it’s a fairly sordid affair.

Tamar is badly treated by Judah’s family. She marries his first son, Er. But Er dies leaving her a widow with no children. One way in which widows in that culture were protected was that the next son would marry her and any children she bore would be considered sons of her original husband. Judah’s second son Onan marries her but putting it delicately he ensures she has no children. Then he dies. Judah sends Tamar away until his third son is of marriageable age but then he keeps putting off the marriage.

This leaves Tamar very vulnerable. So she disguises herself as a prostitute. Judah, not realising who she is, is in Timnah, where he sees her and decides to buy her services. The encounter leads to getting pregnant. And how does he purchase her services?

With a young goat.

Incidentally Tamar and her child turn up in the genealogy of Jesus. Another example of God bringing something good out of even the worst in us.

But back to Samson. However we interpret the gift, Samson has a massive sense of entitlement. He ruined everything yet somehow expects everything to just go back to how it was. He wants it all to be just forgive and forget.

We also see this self-entitlement again at the end of the passage. After the Battle at Jawbone Hill we see him praying. One of the few times he bothers with God at all.

In one sense that appears quite a positive move. But it’s a kind of Look what’s I’ve done for you, God. You just going to let me die?I don’t have time to go into it now, but there are echoes here of another story in Exodus, where God produces water from a rock.  The lesson they were to take from that story was not a positive one. It was about how God was faithful, even though they just grumbled.

Samson is a man with a sense of self-entitlement who feels he has been wronged. He thinks everybody should forgive him, but he’s not minded to do the same for others. In his obsession with what’s been done to him, he has no awareness of his part in how we got here. He is now an angry young man, with a skewed sense of justice.

 

If you want to see how it’s got out of proportion you just have to look at his words.

This time I’ve got a right to get even with the Philistines.

Woah, woah, woah, Samson… you’ve got a problem with a family. A father and daughter. Suddenly that’s about a whole people?

 

But the cycle of revenge has begun. What follows hardly shows a man keeping perspective. Our Bibles describe the animals as foxes. They were probably jackals. Hebrew uses the same word for both, and jackals are pack animals. Even so, think of the effort to catch 300. Then he ties them together in pairs. No mean feat. They’ll squirm and yelp, writhe, claw and bite. Then he ties a lit torch between them and sets them off.

And he does it 150 times.

 

It was quite typical of the guerrilla warfare tactics of the day. The Philistines entire economy was built on three things. Grain, grapes and olives.

All three destroyed by Samson.

Did he really think that was going to be the end of it?

What does he expect to happen?

Round and round the revenge cycle goes.

The Philistines naturally want to know who’s done this. They’re told it was Samson, because the Timnite gave his wife to another man.

Maybe they wanted to hit Samson  where it hurt. Maybe they just thought the wife and her father were a softer target. I mean have you heard about Samson?

But they fight fire with fire, quite literally, and, just as they threatened to do in chapter 14, they burn the father and daughter.

And it’s not over…

Samson says well, if that’s how they’re going to behave…

How they’re behaving? Samson, have you seen what you’ve done?

Samson takes his revenge by killing a whole load of them. The Hebrew’s a bit vague, but it sounds like a vicious slaughter.

And he thinks that’ll be the end of it.

But it’s not. The Philistines gather an army to hunt him down.  The people of Judah get into a panic cos now they have an army coming towards them.

So they send 3000 men to Samson.

 

Maybe for a brief moment Samson thought they were going to join him. But those hopes were dashed. There would have been a certain tragedy to those words don’t you know they rule over us? Why are you doing this to us?

This might be seen as another example of how the Israelites had all but given up. But there is a little background to this. We can read the Bible and think it is presented to us neatly and sequentially. Judges happens, then Ruth, then the books of Samuel. It’s not as neat as that. There is a little more overlap.

You can read a little of what is happening elsewhere around this time in I Samuel 4. The Israelites fight a battle with the Philistines. They’re utterly defeated and the ark of the covenant, which they believed to be the very throne of God was captured.

That’s the background.

 

They were being dominated by the Philistines. They clearly are aware of Samson. I mean, they send 3000 to capture one man. But they don’t think of looking to him to rescue them.

They promise not to kill him. Even as they agree to hand him over to the Philistines who intend to kill him!

But Samson breaks the ropes with which they tie him up, grabs a fresh jawbone of a donkey (again breaking his Nazirite vow) and kills a thousand.

 

So here’s a story that starts out about a man and his wife.

It then becomes about grain.

Then some people die.

Then more people die.

Then whole armies are involved.

This is a story where everyone is wrong and everyone is rationalising their actions. Everyone is aware of wrong done to them, but not by them.

Running through it all is one little mantra…

I only did to them what they did to me…

Both sides are playing the same game. Each protests their innocence. The other is over-reacting. I’m only doing this cos of what they did. I’m only doing to them what they do to me.

 

Really?

Then how has a marital disagreement involving three maybe four people, suddenly wound up with over a thousand people dead, all sorts of destruction, and armies marching against one another?

That’s the problem with revenge. It’s always cloaked with the conviction that I’m only doing to them what they did to me.

But revenge doesn’t just circulate. It escalates.

The cycle of violence doesn’t just go round and round.

It spirals and grows.

Sure, it’s a primitive, barbaric, grotesque story.

If you’re thinking that, good! You’re supposed to.

Cos it’s a warning about how revenge is like arson. What starts off small can build and grow like a forest fire, fanned by strong winds. Before long it’s out of control and we’re wondering how we got here.

All the while we become blind to our own part in the story, we become prone to the same mistakes over and over again.

It’s not just those against whom we want revenge who are hurt in all this. It harms us, and those we love get sucked into its path.

It keeps getting worse and it never ends well.

In fact it won’t end until someone drops the jawbone. Someone will have the means to keep the revenge in circulation, but will let it go.

Until someone stops the cycle and says ‘enough!’

 

So what are we supposed to take from all this?

Let me leave you with a few thoughts and questions. Most of us, I hope, won’t get trapped in the kind of revenge cycle that will grab headlines, or wind up in violence, certainly not this kind of violence.

But revenge can come in all sorts of forms. Bad mouthing that person who snubbed you, giving someone the silent treatment. Maybe even just wanting that person who hurt you to get what’s coming to them.

We think if we just pay them back, if we just get even, we’ll somehow feel better.

But let me ask you a couple of questions.

So you don’t want to get mad. You want to get even.

How will you know when you’ve got even?

How will you feel?

What will it look like?

 

This week I heard of a therapist who said whenever he works with clients who have been hurt and are desperate for revenge, he always asks them those questions.

No-one has ever been able to answer it.

Or here’s another question. Something people say is I’m going to teach them a lesson.

Really?

Have you ever been in the position where someone took revenge on you and thought ‘oh, that taught me. I’ll do things different now?’

Bet you haven’t. So what makes you think your teaching’s going to be so great?

Revenge just keeps the pain and hurt in circulation. It doesn’t take away your pain. It just keeps you reliving it. And it adds a bit more into the mix.

And it’ll keep going until someone drops the jawbone.

Until someone says this stops here. Enough is enough. No more. No more payback, no more they started it, no more they deserved it.

Enough.

The Bible has a word for the alternative.

It’s called forgiveness.

You can say, Andrew, you’ve don’t know how I’ve been hurt.

You’re right. Quite possibly I don’t. And I don’t minimise it.

I could do a whole sermon series on forgiveness. Sometime I will.  For something so central to the Christian story forgiveness is really misunderstood. And for now I want just want to highlight a few things.

Forgiveness is not saying what happened didn’t matter. If it didn’t matter, there would be no need to forgive.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. It’s not simply saying things go back to how they were.

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Reconciliation needs two people. Forgiveness only needs one. Forgiving someone may involve setting healthy boundaries between you and the who hurt you. You don’t have to let them hurt you again.

It doesn’t mean that is there are legal consequences, you just forget them. If someone has abused you, or committed another kind of crime against you it’s ok to take it to the police. That’s what the justice system is for. Forgiveness does not mean letting a criminal escape justice.

Forgiveness means acknowledging the hurt, not denying it. Saying I was wronged. But I won’t let that person and what they did control me.

Forgiveness isn’t easy. It’s costly. It’s painful. It hurts. Forgiveness is not fair. Forgiveness means you absorb the hurt, rather than pass it on.

But unless we do it, we’re never truly free. We’re owned by what they did to us.

It’s been said forgiveness is setting someone free, then realising that someone is you.

To forgive literally means let go.

To let go of the jawbone.

To drop it.

To let it fall.

And end the cycle.

But with it we not only let go of our right to get revenge. We let go of the responsibility to make it right. You let go of the need to play God.

Forgiveness is about entrusting them and the situation to God, who is much better at handling it than we are.

 

That leads me to why this story is appropriate for this season of the year as we consider Jesus making his way to the cross. Because that is the story of the cross. At the cross God drops the jawbone.  The cross is God’s way of declaring the end of violence. It’s God’s way of saying this stops here.

I’ve done all I can in this series not to make Samson too Christlike. But it’s hard to escape the link here between Samson and Jesus. For Jesus too was betrayed by his own, bound and handed over to his enemies.

But rather than break the bonds and take revenge on those who would harm him, Jesus breaks the cycle, with the words Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.

 On the cross Jesus drops the jawbone.

When Jesus cries his last with the words It is Finished one of the things that is finished is this endless cycle.

And he invites us to join him in doing that for others.

And for ourselves.

 

It isn’t easy.

But the alternative, to keep the cycle going isn’t good for us or for anyone else. The world doesn’t need more angry, vengeful people. They’re not in short supply.

We need more people who will say enough.

 We need more people who will drop the jawbone.

But we don’t have to do it on our own. We have a saying that to err is human, to forgive is divine. That’s more true than we know. It’s by his Spirit at work within us, we can begin that journey.

However hard-wired we are for revenge, we can find a different path, a healthier path, one that sets us free.

One that places ourselves and others in God’s hands.

One that breaks the cycle.

That drops the jawbone.

Posted in Samson: A Weak Strongman (Lent 2019)

Samson: The Story of A Weak Strongman II: Sweetness and Strength

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Reading: Judges 13: 24-25; Judges 14

Have you ever seen the TV programme Money for Nothing? Sarah Moore, a woman who gets unsettlingly excited about rubbish hangs around recycling centres, looking at what people are throwing away. Then she asks if she can have it instead.

She takes it to an ‘upcycling expert,’ suggesting what they might do with it. They tell her how much it’ll cost. Later she returns to see what they’ve done, then sells it on. Any profit made goes to the person who gave her the original item.

So she’s turned old homebrew demijars into lightshades; or old rugs into carpet bags. In one episode she took some old soil pipes and got a craftswoman to turn them into a lounger which sold for £1200.

She creates something beautiful and valuable out of someone else’s rubbish.

Now why talk about that?

Well, it’s a good way to understand the story of Samson, which we’re considering over Lent.

We can read about the Spirit strengthening Samson, his parents not knowing what God was up to, and can come away thinking God condoned or even ordered the things Samson does. Some of which are quite horrific. If you did them, then told me God told you to do it, I wouldn’t buy it.

No, an overarching theme of the Samson narrative is God taking stuff we might think best discarded, and redeeming it, bringing good out of it. Samson lives a careless, disobedient life, but God still somehow works through it. It’ll take a while to get to the good. But it’s there.

That doesn’t justify Samson’s actions. He shows little regard for God, Israel, or anyone but Samson. Just because God uses a circumstance doesn’t make him the architect of it. Just because God redeems something doesn’t make it ok.

As we dive into Samson’s story, I want to highlight that there’s a difference in being empowered by the Spirit and being controlled by the Spirit. Samson is certainly empowered by God in the story. But there is little evidence that Samson lived a God-controlled life.

God can bless us in many ways, but that does not mean we will always use what God has blessed us with well. For example, consider one of the best-loved passages in the New Testament. I Corinthians 13. It’s often used at weddings and funerals. It’s seen as a great love poem.

But originally it was actually a warning about how we use gifts of the Holy Spirit.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Paul’s saying you can be blessed with great gifts, yet use them in ways which bring no glory to God, and of which God does not approve.

You can be empowered by the Spirit, but not be controlled by him.

That’s not just true of “spiritual” gifts. In James we read that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Those gifts can come in many forms. You may be blessed with great speaking ability, then use it to bully people, or incite hatred. You may be blessed financially, yet use it for selfish ends, or even harm others.

There’s an old saying with great power comes great responsibility. Well, with great blessing comes great responsibility. Jesus said From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.

I’m aware of ministry colleagues who were blessed with great gifts. People I looked up to. Gifted people, empowered by the Spirit. But they’re not in ministry now. They fell into sin. It’s wasn’t enough to be empowered by the Spirit, if you’re not controlled by the Spirit.

 

That’s what‘s happening in the Samson story. The Spirit makes Samson powerful, but how does he use that power? Often to commit violence which serves no-one but him, and to break the Nazirite vows he was called to follow. Samson’s empowered by the Spirit, but he’s not controlled by the Spirit. 

I started this morning’s reading at the end Ch 13, because it contains something important for understanding what follows.

The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

There are two things in there, I’ll come to the first in a few moments. But look at  the opening of verse 25.

The Spirit of the Lord began to strengthen or stir him…

 

That’s an odd phrase. It occurs in two other places in the Old Testament. Once in the story of Joseph. Pharaoh is said to be troubled by dreams no-one can interpret. The other’s in the story of Daniel when Nebuchadnezzar can’t sleep, because his mind is restless or troubled. Same phrase.

The Spirit began to trouble Samson or to drive him hard.

The Spirit makes Samson restless.

 

Faith can be a blessing.

But it can also make demands on you. Faith can be challenging or unsettling. It can make you restless.

I’m reminded of a prayer by the Jewish character Tevye, in the film the Fiddler on the Roof.  On receiving bad news, he raises his eyes to heaven and says Dear God… I know we’re the chosen people, but once in a while, could you not choose someone else?

I wonder if that’s what Samson faced. Throughout his story he’s a troubled soul. The only time he seems restful is when he really shouldn’t be: when he’s asleep on Delilah’s lap.

Last week I wondered if Samson’s mother ever told him of his calling to begin the deliverance of Israel. Whether or not she did, his vow made him different. It placed expectations on him.

It is good, right, proper for us to raise children in the way they should go. But expectations and demands can make them resentful. I think of how few of the people I was raised with in church who are still part of faith communities, in part because they felt it was forced on them, with good intention, but without any real sense of them owning it.

I wonder if Samson resented his Nazirite vows. Yes, other people took them. But they were voluntary and temporary. Samson’s vows were lifelong and forced on him from before he was born. He does all he can to get away from them. He’s always pushing the boundaries, seeing how far he can push it, breaking them…

 

The Spirit began to trouble him…

When we think of the Holy Spirit we often liken Him to a dove, whispering peace and love into our hearts. Most of the time I would say that this is the case.

But the Spirit can also challenge us, compel us, stirs us. Agitate us. Helps us to see things that aren’t as God intended. And make us want to change things.

The world isn’t changed by the contented and complacent.

It’s the troubled or agitated who make a difference.

But that doesn’t always make us popular. It can makes life difficult. When you’re one of them sometimes you can find yourself thinking could you not choose someone else?

 Yet agitation needs to be channelled well. If it just results in anger it’s doesn’t end well. When the cause matters more than people, it’s a sign things ain’t right. Often horrible things are done in the name of religion or faith. The more noble a cause, the more people will do to defend it. And what’s more noble than God?

Samson was agitated by the Spirit, most likely about the Philistine domination of the Israelites. He was agitated by the Spirit, and strengthened by the Spirit, but he channelled it badly, because he was not controlled by the Spirit.

 

We get a sense that all is not well in the text. In chapter 14 there’s a phrase which occurs 5 times which is easily overlooked, but it’s a way the Old Testament often hints that the person involved is following a wrong path.

Five times we read Samson went down.

Samson went down to Timnah in verse 1. He does it again in verses 5 and 7. His father goes down to Timnah in verse 10. Samson then goes down to Ashkelon in verse 19.  In the next chapter he goes down to Etam. Later he goes down to Gaza and picks up a prostitute. And finally he‘s made to go down to Gaza by the Philistines when he is captured. That phrase went down is not just geographic. It’s spiritual and moral too. Each descent is taking him farther from God.

 

So Samson went down to Timnah where he saw a woman. We’re never told her name, but in Samson’s eyes this was a woman! The phrase used is not the normal phrase used for a young woman of marriageable age. It wasn’t just that his choice of woman was a Philistine. The passage suggests she was an experienced woman. Maybe that’s what attracted Samson to her. He’s got a bad case of the Mrs Robinsons’.

Could you not choose someone a bit more suitable his parents ask.

 

I want her, says Samson. Get her for me. She pleases me well. She is right in my eyes. If this had been happening today he might have said ‘she’s fit!’

Here’s the other thing about the end of chapter 13. He grew and the Lord blessed him…

I said last week that Hebrew writers were less sensitive than modern British churchgoers. The rabbis who wrote about this, noted that the Hebrew word used here for blessed was very similar to the word for a certain part of the male anatomy. I’ll leave it to you to work out one way they considered Samson was ‘blessed.’

That part of his anatomy lands Samson into all sorts of trouble, as it has for many men down through the ages.

When Samson tells his parents to get her for him, he hasn’t even spoken with this woman. He’s just seen her. It’s a brainless attraction. She is right in my eyes. I don’t care what anyone else says. I don’t care what God thinks. This is right for me. He’s only out for himself.

Samson’s thinking with the contents of his loin cloth.

 

It’s interesting that this comes right next to the reference to the Spirit stirring in him. Because it’s often in spiritual highs that we are most vulnerable to temptation. We are a mix of body, mind and spirit and they are all intermingled. When one gets heightened, others often follow.

When we feel close to God we can start to think we’re invincible. Our guard drops. And that’s when we’re prone to stumble.

That was what was happening to Samson. People tried to warn him, but he thought he was above that. She was right in his eyes. Who cared about anyone else? Who cares about God?

Samson’s sense of invulnerability emerges again the next time he goes down. The next scene, with the lion, is a bit odd. He’s supposedly travelling with his parents, but they’re not around when he encounters the lion. They don’t hear it, or even seem to have been nearby. Samson is alone.

But here is the question. I recognise that this was a grape growing region, but what is a Nazirite doing hanging round a vineyard? Remember the vow was to avoid wine, strong drink and grape products.

I’m reminded of an Andy Capp cartoon which begins with him promising his wife Flo he won’t go to the bookies. In the next picture he is outside the bookies. In the third picture he says Get thee behind me, Satan… before in the final one he’s walking through the door saying ‘and stop pushing!’

That’s the problem with rules and temptation. When we’re tempted by something we can’t have, or shouldn’t have, we can fall into the trap of seeing how far we can push things. I think it was the writer Rob Parsons who commented that in an adulterous liaison, the decision whether it’s going to happen isn’t taken in the bedroom, when the clothes are off and it’s all about to happen. It’s when the eyes meet across the room and you decide whether or not to walk across to the other person.

So Samson is in the vineyard. And what happens next? He hears a lion roar. It does not say the lion attacked him or was even coming at him. It roared.

Did the lion shake Samson out of his daydreaming and he realised where he was? Well  we read then the Spirit strengthened him.

The Spirit might have strengthened him to get out of there. Wake up to the risk you’re taking. But that’s not enough for Samson. He uses that strength to tear the lion apart. The fact that he decides I’d better not tell anyone about this suggests he knows it wasn’t the right response. But a terrible chain of events has started.

Cos the thing about temptation, is once you’ve given in once, it’s easier to give in next time. Especially if you think you’ve got away with it.

 

The next scene is one of the most telling of the whole narrative. For most of the rest of  Samson’s story it is one hair-raising (pun intended) escapade after another.

But not this one. He’s under no pressure. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, there are no roaring lions or marauding Philistines, no sexy woman to bother the blessed loin cloth, yet Samson still turns aside to go back to the vineyard.

Just as it’s often when our spiritual senses are heightened that we can fall, so it can be when we’re most relaxed and the pressure’s off temptation creeps in. When everything’s full on and you’re focussed on what you’re doing, your mind is occupied. But when you’re relaxed, and alone, thoughts wander. You’re more open to temptation. That’s where Samson is here.

He’s back in the vineyard, where he shouldn’t be. The lion could have been a warning that he shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But he didn’t heed it. He’d survived once. He’ll be ok again. In fact he can remind himself how invincible he is. He can go, see the lion.

But there are bees in the lion. And honey. He scoops up the honey and starts to eat it. In violation of the Nazirite vow. He’s come into contact with the dead. Then he gives some to his parents. Making them ritually unclean in the eyes of the Torah. Another link in the chain of events.

If he hadn’t been in the vineyard, he wouldn’t have killed the lion.

If he hadn’t returned he wouldn’t have broken the vow.

And he wouldn’t have made a stupid bet that ends in bloodshed.

Next we see him hosting a feast, which would have included lots of booze. Another Nazirite vow gone. Ok, maybe Samson abstained, but what follows suggest he didn’t.

It’s sad that Samson has no friends to share this with. His companions are a rent-a-crowd of 30 Philistines. The Message translation says it’s cos they are wary of him. Perhaps they wanted to keep an eye on this stranger. Perhaps they were trying to protect the bride against a testosterone charged Samson.

The feast was to last 7 days, after which the marriage would be consummated. A lot of alcohol can give someone an unrealistic sense of their invincibility. Ask our local Street Pastors or A&E doctors.

 

That’s how Samson feels. He overestimates himself. They’ll never get the riddle about Sweetness and Strength. How could they? They don’t know about the lion.

But they have worked out Samson. And how to get him. So they threaten his bride. They’re not about to lose a large bet.

Samson’s wife goes on and on at him to tell her the answer. I don’t care how strong he is, I winced when I read his answer.

I haven’t even told my parents? Why would I tell you?

 Yeh, that’s likely to end well.

But time’s running out. It’s the 7th day of the feast, when the marriage should be consummated. The blessed loin cloth is still doing Samson’s thinking. His planned night of passion is in jeopardy if she doesn’t stop crying.

So he tells her.

And she tells them.

Then Samson’s at the bedroom door, about to go in to consummate the marriage. Then they come to him. And their answer is telling.

 

What could be sweeter than honey?

What could be stronger than a lion?

 The answer is ‘love’ or at least passion.

They want him to know they’ve revealed his weakness.

He’s lost the bet because he was so desperate for sex.

Samson’s response is both derogatory about the woman who just 15 verses earlier had been so right in his eyes and suggests he believed she was unfaithful to him.

And again the Spirit strengthens Samson.

The alarm goes off. The Spirit wakes him up once more to the mess he is making.

But again, Samson spirals downwards. This time to Ashkelon, where he kills 30 people for their clothing. If you think God was endorsing this, bear in mind that settling the bet again involves him breaking the Nazirite vow. He has to come into contact with the dead to get the clothing.

Again Samson is empowered by the Spirit.

But whether he’s controlled by the Spirit is another matter.

Then he storms off in a fit of rage, back to his parents.

But here there is a shift in the story. For after a series of going down, Samson goes up to his father’s house. For the first time in the whole chapter, Samson’s going in the right direction.

 

When I read those words I was reminded of another part of the scriptures, this time a story Jesus tells, of a young man who, like Samson, had it all going for him, yet, like Samson, made destructive choices, and ended up in a right mess.

But, when he bottoms out, he comes to himself and says I will arise and go to my father.

I will go up to my father’s house.

Despite all Samson has done wrong, at the end of Chapter 14, he makes one right choice.

To go home.

For all that the Prodigal son has got wrong it’s not too late to make one right choice.

To go home.

 

If there is one ‘take away’ from all the sex and violence this morning, it’s this. Whatever you’ve done, however far you’ve spiralled down, the next choice is yours to make. You can still make one right choice.

Maybe you’ve been playing with fire. You’ve faced temptation, but rather than keeping well away, you’ve seen how close you can get to the flame without getting burnt.

Stop going downwards. Turn back. Arise and return to your Heavenly Father.

You might have slipped in the midst of a spiritual high, or in the midst of ease. At every turn you’re digging deeper and deeper.

Stop going downwards. Arise and return to your Heavenly Father.

You might feel you’re invincible and can handle this. You’ve got away with it once, twice, more. Perhaps you’ve got so used to it that it’s stopped registering on your conscience. Stop kidding yourself. Sin will catch up with you. Destructive choices will take their toll. But they don’t have to define you.

Stop spiralling downwards. Arise and return to your Heavenly Father.

You may have made a lot of bad choices. But it’s not too late to make one right one. Your Heavenly Father waits to embrace you, to welcome you, to help you rebuild and start again.

Stop spiralling downwards. Arise and return to your Heavenly Father.

And do not underestimate the material God can take to create something new and beautiful out of.

You might be all too aware of your mistakes. You might, like Manoah and his wife, be in despair at choices others you care about are making.

Don’t underestimate what God can work through.

We’re reminded in verse 4 that God was at work in all of this. Not approving it, endorsing it, or commanding it, but in it anyway.

That’s why I started with Sarah Moore in the rubbish tips, rescuing what others would throw away. For the story of Samson is the story of a God at work on the rubbish dumps. God is the master upcycler. He sifts through the junk of our lives and brings good out of it. Something beautiful, even valuable from it.

 

We see it in the life of Jesus. Of a God who refused to give up on us and sent Jesus into to the world.

Jesus was betrayed, denied, deserted. He was the victim of a fixed trial, mob rule of people who were very good at spilling blood. He was nailed to a cross in pain and agony.

Did God approve any of that?

No

Is God for injustice, for hypocrisy, for mob rule?

No

But did God work through it?

Absolutely.

God waded through the putrid stench of human wickedness and saved us in the midst of it. It was a stunning act of redemption. Atrocious human behaviour became the canvas on which divine love and grace were painted.

That doesn’t give us licence to blunder on in sinful and destructive ways. But nor does it mean we have to give up on ourselves. For God works on the rubbish dumps. He is at work in the disarray, in the mess, and even in the midst of the filth that is in us.

God is a master upcycler.

He takes the junk of our lives and make something beautiful out of us.

And he will.

If only we will allow his Spirit not just to empower us, but to lead us and control us.

 

Posted in Samson: A Weak Strongman (Lent 2019)

Samson: The Story of a Weak Strongman I: A Ray of Sunshine

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Reading: Judges 13

It ought to have been the happiest day of their lives.

How long had Manoah waited for his wife to say those words?

How long had she waited to be able to say them?

I’m pregnant

But months had given way to years and still no child had come. Perhaps over time the hope that it would ever happen began to fade.

Perhaps they had resigned themselves that this was how it was to be for them. This was their lot.

Perhaps this sense of resignation mirrored that of the people amongst whom they lived. Judges 13 opens with that familiar refrain which I mentioned a little earlier.

The Israelites sinned against the Lord again, and he let the Philistines rule them for forty years.

Forty years.

I mean, I don’t know what you were doing 40 years ago.

It was 1979.

I was 8 years old. This picture is not much more than 40 years old. That’s me in the middle.

me and two sissses

Some of you have been around here a long time. David Staple would have been your minister. This building didn’t even exist!

 

40 years ago, James Callaghan was sill Prime Minister.  Margaret Thatcher was about 2 months away from taking office. Since then we’ve had John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May…

Six Prime Ministers.

That’s the kind of timescale over which the Philistines had been dominating this people.

But something was wrong. If you were familiar with Judges, or even if you just listened to me about 20 minutes ago you might notice it. In that first verse you might recognise the beginning of the Judges cycle.

The people REBEL; REPERCUSSIONS follow…

But this time it’s different. This time there’s no sign of the third part of the cycle. The people don’t REPENT. There’s no sign even of being sorry at how things have turned out.

It’s like they just gave up.

Like they’ve accepted this is how things are.

This is how the world works.

Even so, it should have been the happiest day of Manoah and his wife’s lives.

He had waited years to hear those words.

She has waited years to say them.

I’m pregnant.

 

And yet… and yet… it just doesn’t feel like that.

If you’ve read enough Bible stories, you’ll recognise the pattern,.In the Bible great births often come to couples who struggle to conceive. Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Samuel, John the Baptist… Often announced by angels beforehand.

It’s possible to romanticise Manoah and his wife, whose name we’re never told. We can think of them as a godly but unfortunate couple a midst of a corrupt generation.

But there is nothing in the text to suggest that.

Quite the opposite in fact.

Some of the rabbinic commentaries of this story suggest that there were tensions in Manoah’s marriage. These days when couples struggle to have children there are ways of working out where the problems are. Maybe find ways round it.

Not in this era. The only way Manoah or his would have known would have been if one of them started sleeping with someone else.

The rabbis claimed that Manoah and his wife had quarrelled over this. The first it seems either would have been aware that Manoah’s wife was having trouble conceiving was when the angel spoke to her in verse 3.

But then he tells her that her longings are about to be realised…

You will soon be pregnant and have a son!

Manoah had waited years to hear those words.

His wife has waited years to say them.

I’m pregnant.

So why, when she breaks the news, is Manoah not ecstatic?

 

Well, there are a couple of things. One is in what she says.

Manoah’s wife comes to him and says

A man of God came to me. He looked awesome. Like an angel.

 

Manoah and his wife have been struggling to have a baby and now, after an encounter with a strange man, she announces she is going to have a baby.

Her description of the man is a little ambiguous.

He’s like an angel.

Is he frightening?

Or is he something else?

But it’s the word she uses to describe the encounter. The words she uses suggest that the encounter could have been more than just a chat.

The conversation runs…

I’ve been with a man out in the fields. I don’t know who he was or where he came from but the upshot is, I’m going to have a son.

 

Now there’s nothing to say Samson was conceived as a result of this encounter. But after years of struggling to have a child, his wife has an encounter with a strange man and suddenly she’s pregnant. Manoah was bound to be suspicious and his wife, it seems, was happy enough for him to be suspicious.

Then there was the whole Nazirite thing. Manoah would have known about those kind of vows. But what she was saying… well, that’s not how it normally worked. She can’t have got that right.

So aside, from being wary about what might have happened out in that field, did he wonder if the whole thing was just wishful thinking?

In probably the one mark of faith in the entire passage, it’s no wonder Manoah wants ‘this man’ to come back. He wants to hear it for himself.

But here’s the other thing that’s strange. The man does return. But again Manoah is not around. His wife rushes to tell Manoah, and then rushes back to the man.

How would you expect Manoah to react?

Well, Manoah seems in no hurry. He wearily trudges across to find out. Remember this is a guy who has waited years for a child. Yet the moment comes, and he’s weary and reluctant. No-one’s consulted him.

He talks of ‘this boy who is to be born’.

He never refers to Samson as his son.

It should have been the greatest day of Manoah’s life. But he seems reluctant to see it that way.

But nor is everything rosy for his wife. We can see it in what she does say and what she doesn’t. Let’s look at what the angel says to her…

You have never been able to have children, but you will soon be pregnant and have a son. Take care not to drink any wine or beer, or eat any forbidden food; and after your son is born, you must never cut his hair, because from the day of his birth he will be dedicated to God as a Nazirite.  He will begin the work of rescuing Israel from the Philistines.

 

What does she tell Manoah?

He told me not to drink any wine or beer, or eat any forbidden food, because the boy is to be dedicated to God as a Nazirite as long as he lives.

 

Except the Good News Bible doesn’t translate the Hebrew quite right. That last bit should read that the he would be dedicated to God as a Nazirite as long until his death.

 Is it just me, or is announcing a pregnancy a really odd time to be talking of death?

But there’s one thing she omits and one thing she adds. And I suspect they’re linked…

She misses out the cutting hair bit, though the Nazirite thing might cover that.

But she doesn’t mention that their son was to begin their deliverance from the Philistines.

She keeps that to herself.

The writer Jeff Lucas says it’s like her son’s been nationalised before he’s even born. He’s hers but not hers. He’s Manoah’s but not Manoah’s.

This deliverance malarkey. It’s all very well. But it’s messy and painful. It’d be better if it involved someone else’s boy. Not her boy.

And who could blame her?

Did she ever face up to that?

Did Samson ever know his destiny?

It should have been the greatest days of their lives, but for Manoah and his wife, that’s not the impression you get.

It is an unashamedly dark, bleak picture in Judges 13. The world into which Samson is a born is a world where to all intents and purposes people had given all but given up.

His people had lived under oppression for 40 years and don’t even appear to have been seeking deliverance.

How long had his parents yearned for this moment, yet when it arrives it is met with apprehension and reluctance.

But there is one person in the story who has not given up.

God.

And that makes all the difference.

In fact the picture presented in the story is of God desperate to break in.

Both into the heartbreak of this family and into the misery of this people.

 

And that is how the chapter ends. I don’t have time to go through the whole story, so we’ll move to the end. With God breaking into their story and into the story of their people, with the arrival of Samson. His name means sunshine. For he breaks into the bleakness of the story like a ray of sunlight.

The arrival of the new child is a mark of hope. So much potential lies ahead of him. What had seemed impossible has suddenly become possible.

This story we’re going to look at over a few weeks. It’s the story of a God who longed to rescue them, even when they had all but given up.

 

It’s the story of a God who longs to rescue us, perhaps even more than we long to be rescued.

Even perhaps when we have given up.

So as we prepare to look at it over the next few weeks, let’s ask ourselves a few questions…

What have you given up praying for?

What are you carrying around that you’ve got so used to, it’s become part of you and you’ve assumed it’ll always be this way?

In what areas of life have you given up hope?

What parts of you need an injection of hope, a ray of sunshine, new life, resurrection?

And one final question…

Whilst you have given up, might God be desperate to break in?

Ok, one more.

Might God want you to experience resurrection power?

Are you prepared to let him bring that to your life?

This is what makes Samson’s story appropriate for this season of Lent.

In our free church tradition we’re not big on Lent. We prefer to leave it to the Catholics or the Anglicans. I’m reminded of a friend who’s a Pentecostal pastor, who did a talk for some school kids. It must have been around this time of year, for one child asked him if he had given up anything up for Lent. My friend replied that he didn’t really do Lent.

This caused them great concern not for any religious reasons, but because they thought this might mean he missed out on what another of my friends has described as the greatest religious festival of the all – pancake day.

He told them there was no way he’d miss out on that! The result was that one child’s report on his visit to the Pentecostal Church read as follows: Pastor K doesn’t do Lent, but he sure likes pancakes!

We can be suspicious of church seasons. I know growing up, we just about did Christmas and Easter.

Yet there is something valuable to the seasons. We are created to live in rhythm: night, day, weeks, seasons. The rest of creation moves with it. Humans have circumvented subverted it with light and heat and 24/7 conditions to smooth out or level natural rhythms.

Not all bad. But should we be surprised if the result can feel like a treadmill?

Lent is a deliberately dark and mooted season, in contrast to Easter and resurrection. It’s a 40 day period and marks 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. That story itself echoes the 40 days Israel spent in the wilderness.

Both were intentional journeys.

That’s what Lent’s about. So much of life’s go, go, go. So often we suppress the negatives. Lent’s about acknowledging there is darkness and deadness within us. That parts of us need Christ to bring Resurrection and new life if we’re to be who he created us to be.

That could include sin which lies unresolved, or unconfessed, from which we have not repented.

It could be realising there are some things on which we are overly reliant and aren’t good for us, but without which we can’t cope.

It might be guilt, feelings of shame, fear or loss.

It might be hopes and dreams we have had for years, but time has passed and they have faded.

It might be stuff that has weighed us down for as long as we can remember, but has kept us in its grip.

It might even have lasted for 40 years or more, but we have just got used to it.

We have stopped thinking it could be different.

It’s just how things are.

 

Lent offers us space to acknowledge that. To name it.

We may not need a special season to mark that, but like so many things, if we don’t do it then, chances are we never will.

But it’s not there for us to wallow in it. Lent’s a road towards resurrection. We enter the journey with that assurance in mind. That even when we have given up, even when we think things can be no different, God is keener to reach us to us than we are to reach out to him.

God comes to us with the news that it does not have to be like this. He comes to break into the darkness we bring him with a ray of sunshine.

This Lent, whether you give up chocolate, wine, crisps, whatever… why not make space to deal with God?

To bring him all the broken hopes, dreams, the sin, the defeats, the things you struggle with, the stuff you bury, and may have given up hope….

Why not bring it to him?

He might be waiting to be break in with new life, new hope, with resurrection.

May we have the courage to bring him our darkness.

And may we look up and be able to catch a glimpse of a ray of sunshine.