Sunday, August 27, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Nazirite, Samson: Part III"

Judges 16:23-31

The rulers of the Philistines gathered together to make a great sacrifice to their god Dagon and to hold a celebration. They cheered, “Our god has handed us Samson our enemy!” 24 When the people saw him, they praised their god, for they said, “Our god has handed us our enemy, the very one who devastated our land and killed so many of our people.” 25 At the height of the celebration,they said, “Call for Samson so he can perform for us!” So they called Samson from the prison, and he performed in front of them. Then they had him stand between the pillars.

26 Samson said to the young man who led him by the hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that hold up the temple, so I can lean on them.” 27 Now the temple was filled with men and women. All the rulers of the Philistines were there, and about three thousand more men and women were on the roof watching as Samson performed. 28 Then Samson called out to the Lord, “Lord God, please remember me! Make me strong just this once more, God, so I can have revenge on the Philistines, just one act of revenge for my two eyes.”

29 Samson grabbed the two central pillars that held up the temple. He leaned against one with his right hand and the other with his left. 30 And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” He strained with all his might, and the temple collapsed on the rulers and all the people who were in it. So it turned out that he killed more people in his death than he did during his life. 31 His brothers and his father’s entire household traveled down, carried him back up, and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of his father Manoah. He had led Israel for twenty years. (Common English Bible)

“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Eight

One of the two men is blind.

The other man has both of his arms amputated.

In rural China, where means for them to make a living are few, they have found a way forward together.

They plant trees.

Thousands of them, in fact.

The man with no arms, Jia Wenqi, guides the man with no sight, Jia Haixia. The man with no sight, in turn, is able to plant the trees and collect their cuttings, and, as the BBC conveys, these two men have made a colossal difference not just to each other, but to the entire village in which they live:

So far they estimate they have planted ten thousand healthy trees, and three thousand more which have died. While the work may not be fast, the three-hectare site is now covered with trees and attracts nesting birds.

When they began working together on the project, other villagers were cynical, Haixia explains. “They didn’t believe what we were doing was possible,” he says, “the whole riverbank had been bare for years and there were hardly any trees.” But after a few years the trees grew, the area became greener, and the villagers changed their attitude, choosing now to assist the two men.

“They help us to fix our tools, water the trees, and trim the weeds,” Haixia says. “They even brought us saplings to plant.”

For Haixia, recent news from doctors means his blindness could soon be reversed. He is currently on the waiting list for a donor, having been told he is a suitable candidate for a cornea transplant.

But if he does regain his vision, he is adamant he’ll carry on planting trees with Wenqi. “It doesn’t matter if my eyesight comes back or not, I’m going to continue my work until my last breath,” he says.

In a tradition—Protestantism—that traces back to a German monk who once said, “If the world were going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree,” it is very much worth considering whether we would still foster a future, no matter how abled or not we may feel. A lack of working eyes or arms has ceased to be an impediment for two remarkable men, but many of us without such concerns for ableness would still not sign up for sowing and planting the fruits that they have sown and planted.

For Samson, here at the end of Judges 16 held prisoner and blinded, he sees no such future. Which is itself a form of blindness. Can we see where Samson cannot—not just physically, but spiritually?

This is a (no longer altogether very) new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak. We heard in succession about three more judges—Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah, and we now come to our final week of three on the most well-known judge of all, and whose story the book of Judges goes into the greatest detail with by far: Samson.

Over the past two weeks, we read through the entirety of Judges 15 together, about the cycle after cycle of grievances and hurt feelings that ends up with a number of people—including Samson’s wife and father-in-law, plus a thousand Philistines—dead, prompting the lesson last week of putting down the jawbone that Samson used to kill those thousand Philistines.

But Samson, as we said last week, lives by the jawbone and dies by the jawbone. He lives violently, and here in Judges 16, he dies violently. Having been betrayed by Delilah, who had been bribed by the Philistines to render Samson vulnerable by cutting off the locks of hair which held his strength, Samson was captured and blinded by the Philistines, who now lead him out as a part of a religious celebration. Samson, though, collapses the entire complex, killing more people in one fell swoop with his death, the author of Judges says, than he did over the course of his entire life as a warrior.

Samson does this—collapsing the building upon the assembled people by pushing down its pillars—he says, in order to take revenge upon the Philistines for blinding him. It continues to fit Samson’s pattern in which he only is really interested in fighting not on behalf of Israel, but on behalf of himself: to avenge wrongs done to him personally, not wrongs done to Israel as a nation.

But blinding carried a particular weight as a punishment in the ancient Near East. Then, it was believed that light was generated inwardly and exited out of the body through the eyes, that the eyes were basically lamps for the body. Which of course sounds silly to us today given what we know about biology, but poetically, it should not sound so silly to us when we talk about, say, the eyes being the window into one’s soul.

So Samson has been robbed of that light, of that window into the divine. Yet one outward sign of divinity remains for him: his hair has slowly begun to grow back, giving him just enough strength to fell the pillars and end his own life along with the lives of thousands of others.

It is not a hopeful story. But truthfully, very little about Samson’s story has been hopeful. It is up to us to supply that hope, just as it is often up to us to do so outside of hearing the Scriptures as well.

Samson is reaping what his life has sown—as we said last week, he lives by the jawbone, and here he dies by the jawbone. It is not a hopeful biography, much as his destruction of thousands of Philistines would have given the Israelites who were there, or who later heard these stories, hope. But Samson’s story is incapable of something bigger than that precisely because throughout his story, he has always been incapable of, or unwilling to, embrace something bigger than himself.

The death of Samson, though, by no means represented the death of the ways of Samson. Indeed, those ways of vengeance and tit-for-tat escalations of violence have been as enduring as anything has ever been since the days of Samson over 3,000 years ago. Samson dies this way, I genuinely believe, because he feels that he cannot possibly redeem himself any other way—even though, as we noted just a few minutes ago, his hair had begun to grow back, meaning God’s presence in his life had never fully gone. Yet this is the only fate Samson can imagine for himself and his enemies.

If there can be any hope, then, from Samson’s demise, let it come from the fact that being blinded and robbed of your sight and your light ought not end in so dramatically painful a fashion. Instead of bringing down everything about you, listen to the story of Jia Hiaxia, and plant something and build something up instead.

Preferably with someone else. Goodness, much like its opposite number, misery, can often use the company.

Even if you feel spiritually nearsighted, farsighted, or altogether blind, where can you still help to plant a tree in the spiritual life of someone else, instead of tearing that life down pillar by pillar?

And where can you act to help that tree of righteousness grow?

Such work may not be anywhere near as dramatic as the blaze of glory in which Samson exits life. But sometimes, what God calls for is not the dramatic—it’s the steadfast, and the faithful, and the good.

May you have divine vision enough to see that truth abound in your own life, as God has made it known to you.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 27, 2017

Original photo: NPR

No comments:

Post a Comment