This sermon is about “Samsonitis,” our sinful tendency to take for granted the gifts that God has given us and believe that we’re mostly responsible for our success. Do you suffer from it? How can you prevent it?
Sermon Text: Judges 13:1-5, 24-25; 16:4-6, 15-31
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
Chapters 13 through 16 of the Book of Judges, of which we’ve only read a small part this morning, tell the story of Samson, the last “judge” of Israel before Israel became a monarchy, ruled by a king. In this period before the monarchy, Israel’s king was supposed to be God. They were supposed to love and serve him, be faithful to him, submit to his authority and his commandments. Then they wouldn’t need a human king. But the Book of Judges tells the story of how badly that worked out for Israel.
The sad, tragic refrain of Judges, is the following: “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Usually this evil consisted of idolatry, worshiping and serving the gods of other nations who lived alongside them in the Promised Land. God would punish them, usually by sending them a foreign army to conquer and oppress them. Then the people would repent and cry out to God. And God would raise up someone from among them who would be what the Bible calls a “Judge,” not someone in a black gown who presides over a court of law—but a mighty military leader capable of leading Israel in victory over their enemies.
In today’s scripture, Israel’s number one enemy is the Philistines, a race of seafaring Europeans who crossed the Mediterranean to lay claim to the same land that Israel laid claim to. For 40 years, scripture tells us, God gave Israel into the hand of the Philistines as punishment for their disobedience.
Except this time, Israel didn’t seem to mind being ruled by a foreign power. In fact, at one point in Judges chapter 15, an army from the tribe of Judah go to arrest Samson, their judge, and hand him over to the Philistines because Samson’s violent actions against the Philistines are threatening Judah’s political relationships with the Philistines.
And even Samson doesn’t object to the Philistines out of principle. True, he ends up slaying a thousand of them with the jawbone of an ass, but all his anger and violence directed toward them is about settling personal scores and taking revenge. Otherwise, Samson seems just fine with the Philistines. We see him party with them, marry them, sleep with them, and, in today’s scripture, fall in love with one of them—a woman named Delilah, who ultimately causes Samson’s downfall.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, some of you will remember the Star Trek spin-off series, The Next Generation. The number one enemy of the Federation was this part-human-part-machine race of people known as the Borg, and they assimilated their enemies—meaning, if they captured you, they turned you into a Borg; they controlled your mind; they robbed you of your free will; and they made you act and think just like every other Borg. Before this transformation happened, they would say to their vanquished foe, “You will be assimilated.”
And that’s exactly what’s happened to Samson and Israel: they have been assimilated with the prevailing Philistine culture. There wasn’t much to distinguish God’s people from other people in the surrounding culture.
Are we like them? When people see us disciples of Jesus Christ, do they see any difference in us versus those who don’t follow Jesus? Or have we been assimilated?
This question hit home with me recently. You see, I’ve been reading a book about John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded our Methodist movement in England in the 1720s, and the time he spent near here, in Georgia, as a pastor to General George Oglethorpe and the new British colony of Georgia. In fact, I received an advance copy of the book from the author in order to review it for my blog. Anyway, John Wesley and his brother Charles came to Georgia as missionaries with some other like-minded Methodists who sought to inspire the colonists to become holy people—people who were sold out to Jesus, people who were deeply committed to loving and serving the Lord.
That’s supposed to be who we Methodists are, and what we’re all about!
And here’s how the author of this book described the Christian discipline that characterized the lives of these early Methodists during their two-month journey from England to Georgia aboard a ship called the Simmonds:
They resolved to rise at 4 a.m. and spend the first hour of the morning in private prayer, the second in Bible study, and the third in reading ‘something relating to the Primitive Church.’ At seven they breakfasted and at eight had public prayers… At twelve they joined together for an hour of mutual accountability, prayer, edification, and exhortation… Evening prayer was held at four… An evening of private prayer was observed from five to six… At eight, the missionaries joined together to spend the last hour of their day holding one another accountable for what they had done that day.
Anyone feeling spiritually lazy about right now? I am! By my count, the Wesley brothers and their fellow Methodist missionaries spent about five hours a day spent praying—privately or together in public. Five hours!
Look, I know that life in the “real world” doesn’t permit us to live like that today. And it’s not like John or Charles Wesley were married with kids, for instance. But I don’t know… When I read these words, I can’t help but feel convicted. Because I know, for instance, that I’m not nearly as committed to prayer as I should be.
There’s a quote that’s often attributed to John Wesley, and he probably didn’t say it for all I know, but I’m sure he would agree with the sentiment. It goes like this: “I pray for one hour every morning before I begin my day. Unless I’m really busy. Then I pray for two.”
I pray. Except when I’m really busy, I pray less. And all that extra time I should be praying I instead spend worrying.
Tell me I’m not the only one who does that?
And the reason I do that—the reason I would rather worry than pray—is because, deep down, there is a part of me that has assimilated to our culture. I have a little bit of that Borg inside of me that believes, along with most people in our culture, that my success or failure in life depends on me… is up to me.
I’m a lot like Samson—you know, without the super-strength. See, Samson’s main problem, I believe, is that God blessed him and blessed him and blessed him some more—with all these amazing gifts, including the gift of his great strength. And God was always at work in his life, quietly, invisibly, always using him to accomplish God’s good purposes, always working to ensure the victory.
And Samson was completely oblivious to it. He had no idea… He had no idea that God was really the one responsible for all the blessings, all the gifts, all the accomplishments, all the victories. He thought he was the source of his great strength. He thought he was responsible for his success. He thought all the blessings and gifts and accomplishments and victories were up to him.
Maybe that’s what his culture told him; it’s certainly what our culture tells us. We are self-sufficient. We are self-made people. We must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
Samson didn’t understand that all these good things came to him as a gift of God’s grace. Maybe some of us don’t either.
Well, in case you didn’t know, it’s football season—my favorite time of year. Have you noticed how increasingly common it is for star players, once they score the game-winning touchdown or kick the game-winning field goal, to point heavenward as if to say, “God deserves the credit, not me,” or to fall on one knee and bow our head, as if to say, “Thank you, God, for enabling to do what I just did.”
I’ll be honest and say that I used to have a problem with this kind of public piety on the football field. First, there’s always a risk, as Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount, of a public act of piety becoming hypocritical, as if we’re “showing off” our faith before others. But I have no reason to think that that’s usually what’s going on.
Or I worried that these players were implying God somehow wanted their team to win. And that didn’t seem fair. If God is on your team’s side, well it’s safe to say that you have an unfair advantage! Of course, I now see that God can be on both sides at the same time.
But my biggest objection to these athletic acts of piety used to be that I didn’t think God had anything to do with these players’ success! They should leave God out of it!
But that’s ridiculous! God gave each of these players a set of gifts that they use on the gridiron, and it’s good to acknowledge that: God gave these athletes life, health, and breath; God gave them their amazing bodies, their hands, legs, and feet—along with the body’s ability to heal itself from injury; God gave them their parents, families, and coaches; God gave them their minds and their senses. And God gives them every new moment of life. Of course these athletes also chose to be disciplined and develop these gifts, but given all that God gave them first, the athlete’s contribution to the process was very small indeed. They’re gifted. They are blessed. It’s good to acknowledge that and be thankful.
It’s good to finally learn the lesson that Samson only learned during those moments of his life: when he prays that prayer—only the second one that we know for sure that he prayed—when he said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God.”
Please strengthen me only this once, O God. You see, God needed to remove his Spirit from Samson and take away his strength in order for Samson to realize that God was the source of all his gifts.
You know who always understood this truth? Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, who died last week at 93. As one of the world’s most successful businessmen, he was a prime candidate for “Samsonitis,” for believing that we’re the ones responsible for our success. That’s why some of the most successful people in the world are often the ones who are farthest from God.
Truett Cathy wasn’t like that. He was unusual in his commitment to put people ahead of profits and to put God above everything else. The corporate purpose statement was as follows: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”
I suppose anyone can say that they believe that God has entrusted them as stewards of everything they have; anyone can say they put God first; anyone can say that they put people ahead of profits. But Truett Cathy backed up his words in the most tangible way possible. In the face of tremendous financial pressure to do otherwise, Cathy insisted that his restaurants would remain closed on Sunday—so that he and his employees could put God first by worshiping God on Sunday.
According to one conservative estimate, this decision to be faithful to the Lord cost Cathy an additional $700 million in sales per year—or $210 million in profits per year. What kind of a businessperson turns down money like that?
What a powerful witness to his faith in Christ. Cathy showed the world that while it’s important to earn money and do honest work and make ends meet, treasure in heaven is worth far more than treasure on earth! I’m sure that his relationship with the Lord was worth everything to him, but he proved that it was worth at least $210 million every year. What an amazing example of faith!
My point is, Truett Cathy didn’t sell out. He didn’t compromise. He didn’t conform to his surrounding culture—which tells us that being closed on Sunday is crazy—not to mention bad for business. Which tells us that being a Christian is something we should keep to ourselves. Something you do in the privacy of your own home or church. Something that should make no difference whatsoever in the marketplace, or in government, or in education, or in sports, or in our neighborhoods—or anywhere else in the so-called “real world.”
What can we say about Truett Cathy? He was a faithful follower of Jesus who, unlike Samson and unlike us at our worst, would not assimilate.
A lot of us read the story of Samson and look down on him. Of all the judges, surely he’s the worst so far. But not so fast… Samson might be my favorite judge, not because of who he is, but because of the way his life and sacrificial death foreshadow Christ’s life and sacrificial death. Listen to the way one Bible scholar puts it:
Christian readers can hardly fail to notice a number of points of correspondence between the broad structure of Samson’s career and that of Christ: his annunciation by a divine messenger, his marvelous conception, his holiness as a Nazirite, his endowment with the Spirit, his rejection by his own people, his being handed over by their leaders, the mocking and scorn he suffered at their hands, and the way his calling was consummated in his death, by which he defeated the god Dagon and laid the foundation for a deliverance to be fully realized in a day to come. The correspondences are too numerous, and too germane to who Samson was, for what he achieved to be simply brushed aside as fanciful.
Samson may not have done many things right, but to his great credit, Samson willingly chose to sacrifice his life, stretching out his arms between pillars of this sanctuary, in order to defeat his enemies and rescue his people, just as Christ willingly chose to sacrifice his life, stretching out his arms on the hard wood of the cross, in order to defeat his enemy, Satan, and to rescue us.
Through his death Samson suffered the just penalty for sin that was due all of Israel. Through Christ’s death, he suffered the just penalty for sin that was due all of humanity.
But here’s one startling difference: in Samson’s death, he prayed, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” His death was about vengeance, retribution, revenge. Through his death he killed all of the people who were responsible for arresting him, binding him, mocking him, and beating him. By contrast, when Jesus was on the cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He prayed that his Father would forgive the very people who arrested him, bound him, mocked him, and beat him. Then by dying on the cross, he did something—taking his enemies’ sins upon himself and dying the death that they deserved to die—that made that forgiveness possible.
Samson intended his death to kill all of his enemies. Christ intended his death to forgive and save all of his—including Judas Iscariot, and Caiaphas the high priest, and Herod, and the Temple Police, and Pontius Pilate, and the Roman soldiers. If Christ’s death on the cross had the power to forgive and save all of these bad people who were directly responsible for putting him there, don’t you just know that the cross has the power to forgive and save you and me?
For all I know, we’re as big a sinner as Pilate and Herod and Caiaphas and Judas. But are we worse? If Christ died even to save them, well of course he can save you and me!
Paul writes, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”
Our sins separated us from God. Our sins made us enemies of God. Left to our own devices, we will face judgment, death, and hell because of our sins. And maybe even this morning, you’re still an enemy of God because of your sins. If so, hear the good news: Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, came into this world to make peace with you. Because he loved you that much.
Will you accept his terms? Will you surrender your life?
 Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 46.
 Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 418-9.
 Colossians 1:21-22 NIV