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The Best-Laid Plans of Mice, Men and God

Sermon passage: (Judges 14:1-20) Spoken on: June 22, 2009
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges

Tags: Judges

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About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Sermon on Judges 14:1-20

In my sermon 2 weeks ago, I spoke of the minor judges Ibzan, Elon and Abdon. Like a commercial intermission between the main programs of Jephthah and Samson, they highlighted 3 key topics of the writer: the topics of children, marriage and assimilation. The issue of children is obviously linked to the story of Jephthah in his sacrifice of his only daughter, while the issue of marriage is linked to the story of Samson. We can see the recurring theme of marriage from the passage today which is about his marriage to a Timnite wife and in the following weeks we will come to the famous story of Samson and Delilah. But what about the topic of assimilation? Is it only applicable only to the stories after Samson? No, I believe the story of Samson is about the issue of assimilation.

This is why we observe a striking anomaly at the start of the Samson story. The Israelites did evil and the Lord handed them over to the Philistines. The narrator then immediately moves into the story of Manoah and his wife, Samson's parents. Where is the usual description of oppression from the enemies and the cries for help from the Israelites to God? This has become a core component of the judges’ cycles described in increasing detail from Deborah to Gideon to Jephthah, yet it is strangely missing in Samson. Furthermore, the Philistines ruled for forty years, almost an entire generation, which is more than double the rest of the other foreign powers which ruled between 7 to 20 years. The suffering should be more unbearable than the rest. Yet we do not hear any hiding or crying like in the previous cases. The silence is an ominous sign. I believe what likely happened is that there wasn’t much oppression in the 4 decades and the Israelites were rather comfortable with the Philistine rule. The scary reality is that after a generation, the Israelites became fully assimilated into Philistine culture. Why bother crying for help if you don’t mind staying status quo?

The assimilation of the Israelites was probably why the angel of the Lord had to give a specific reminder against unclean food to Samson's mother when such prohibitions on food laws should have been common practice. The Israelites at that point in time were so much like the Philistines that staying away from unclean food became comparatively unusual. In light of the situation, it is therefore no surprise that God’s plan of deliverance involved a Nazirite from birth. Why a Nazirite? To be a Nazirite was to be consecrated, a person set apart for God’s holy use. Such a person will live differently from the rest because of the special vows he has to keep. In a people fully assimilated by the Philistines, Samson the Nazirite was the only one preserved to be different for God. Through divine arrangement between God and Manoah and his wife, Samson the super-Nazirite was brought up to become the perfect antidote to the issue of assimilation. Personally, I think God’s plan is brilliant. To the problem of his chosen people becoming increasingly like the rest of the pagans, he intentionally designed one of them to be radically counter-cultural with the use of the Nazirite vow. Upon this one he blessed him with his Spirit, so that he has both the identity and the capability to be Israel’s deliverer. I have to say that this is a masterstroke of God, dealing with the problem at its very core.

In reading the bible, it is very important that we move along with the story according to the narrator’s pacing. Knowing the death and resurrection taints our appreciation of the struggle at Gethsemane. Knowing the Moses at the Red Sea clouds our perception of the Moses at the burning bush. Knowing the coming of the Flood diminishes the impact of Noah’s obedience when we come to the passage. So we must suspend our all too familiar version of the Samson we know from Sunday school and tread along with the narrator’s gradual unfolding of events. At this juncture, having revealed God's plan of deliverance from Philistine assimilation, we should be giddy with excitement. Not since the magnificent Moses has God personally intervened to create a deliverer from birth. Gideon and Othniel were raised and called because they were the bravest warriors available. But Samson was specially prepared from the beginning with the blessing of the Spirit. This was the best laid plan of God ever. Samson could very well be the judge to top all judges. Ehud killed 10 thousand, Barak destroyed 900 iron chariots, Gideon killed 135 thousand and Jephthah devastated 20 towns. I think the odds are very good for us to see something really spectacular.

So what happened in today’s story? In the spectacular deliverance of Israel, Samson lusted after a Philistine woman and during the wedding he killed 30 Philistines. Wow, 30! I know what you guys are thinking. You are mightily impressed because you imagined Samson accomplishing that with a flick of his chopsticks. That’s even better than the valiant little tailor who killed seven with one blow in the famous fairy tale. I’m sorry to inform you that Samson did it with God’s superhuman strength. And it wasn't like he planned the killing. Rather, he was forced to do it because he failed to scheme against the Philistines with his riddle. Many of you expecting great things from Samson must be feeling a little disappointed that his first mission ended with a failure to even do a riddle well. Perhaps it may comfort you to know that Samson also managed to kill a lion and destroyed the efforts of some bees. I am still checking those bees and the dead lion for Philistine DNA to properly count as a win for the Israelites.

In all seriousness, lest we be too harsh on Samson, the battle against the Philistines is not against military oppression but against cultural assimilation. The size of the military conquest is secondary to the preservation of the Jewish identity. Yet it is at this point that Samson failed most miserably. There are 3 main components to the Nazirite vow: 1. to avoid fermented drink; 2. to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean in touching a dead body and 3. to let the hair grow long. It is implied in the story that Samson had broken the first vow with the seven-day feasting with the Philistines at the wedding. Strike 1! Samson had also broken the second vow in not cleansing himself after he killed the lion. Not only that, he violated this vow even further when he later intentionally sidetracked to look at the carcass and to pick out the honey from the dead body. He also defiled his parents in giving them that honey to eat. Strike 2! It is no exaggeration to say that the final strands of Jewish uniqueness for all Israel was then hanging by the threads of Samson’s unshaven hair. 3 strikes and he would be out! Samson was supposed to be the chosen one to fight against assimilation, but so far it looks like he is almost fully assimilated himself.

How did it arrive at such a bleak state? Samson had everything going for him. His birth was intentionally planned by God. His parents made sure he was brought up the right way. Throughout his life, he had the blessing of God’s Spirit with him. It was the best laid plans of men and God. What happened? There is a saying: the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. This saying comes from a poem “To a Mouse” by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The poem denotes the poet ploughing his field when he cuts through a mouse nest. The poet shows regret and apologizes to the mouse before he goes on to reflect about life in general. The connotation is that even when you mean no harm and have pure intentions, you can destroy somebody else's well laid plans. This leads me to reflect on the plans of God.

God did not create a deterministic world where we are just robots going through the motion. God allowed for free will, even the free will of his created deliverers. And in this case, the character of Samson was his downfall. God planned for him to be the best warrior against assimilation. He was a Nazirite from birth, he was brought up to be different. Yet in the passage today, we see that Samson was fully motivated by his unbridled desires: the woman that he saw, the anger that he felt and the honey and wine that he wanted. The calling of God went distant when the temptations of the world came a-calling. In the process the plan of God went awry.

Taken in that sense, Samson becomes a reflection of Israel at that moment in history. Israel was also planned by God from birth. God made sure of the vow of covenant with the forefathers and a proper upbringing with the giving of the laws at Sinai. He blessed Israel with his Spirit through his presence and mighty deeds. The uniqueness of Israel was to be the blessing for all nations. It is not unreasonable to expect mighty things with such endowments from God himself. But the character of Israel failed God’s design. The Israelites coveted after the pleasures from the foreign gods of the Canaanites. By assimilating themselves into the exotic culture of the Philistines, they abandoned the call to be set apart for God’s holy use. Instead of a deliverance from sin, Israel became one of them.

But if we were to apply it today, we can see that Samson becomes a reflection of the Church as well. We have it all as well: the unique birth, the call to be different and the blessing of the Spirit. But have we manifested the deliverance that is expected of us? Can we claim to profess that the Christian community shows the way forward out of human depravity? No, in many ways we are assimilated. We have traded love and service for power and self-interest. We have surrendered compassion among the weak for self-actualization among the successful. We have prostituted our jarring truths for the comforts of acceptance and self-congratulation. Just like Samson, what we have accomplished so far is incongruent with the amount of work that comes from God.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. This we observe to be true even in the plans of God for Samson, for Israel and for the Church. But in the poem, “To a Mouse”, the poet does not despair just because life is unpredictable. The poet learns something from the mouse in cherishing the present moment while preparing for the unpredictable future. Things can still go awry, but in the words of a famous American baseball player, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” It is critical that at this juncture, the story of Samson isn’t over yet. The story of Israel isn’t over and the story of the Church most certainly isn’t over. The situation may certainly look dreary with the decadence of our hero, but perhaps this is only a necessary bad turn in the story so that we may appreciate the final triumph in the story. The bottom-line is that we just don’t know. There is more to the story and it ain't over till it's over.

As a story it is interesting to speculate on the ending of Samson. To quote a great Italian storyteller, ‘the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death.’ In the case of the story of Samson, it is about the life and death of his Israelite identity. Will Samson stay true to being an Israelite? Or will his uniqueness succumb like the rest to die in oblivion? Based on the impulsive character of Samson, it does seem like death is inevitable. From the looks of things so far, Samson may lose the battle and become fully assimilated by the Philistines. But let’s not be overly hasty to judge. Maybe the narrator is only getting us to be utterly disappointed in this fellow only to pleasantly surprise us with a fairy-tale transformation at the end. We know that it is certainly very much in God’s style to overturn a hopeless situation like the fall of Israel and the exile of the Israelites with a happy ending with the restoration through his son Jesus Christ. Against all odds, Samson may just end the story still a Nazirite.

But what is more profitable for us is to speculate on our own Christian life because the final outcome of this story very much lies in our own hands. The best laid plans of God have been done with the work of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of his Spirit. That is a good beginning. What comes next? We do not have the Nazirite vows like Samson. But we do know the common Christian boundaries of sexual purity and the essence of the ten commandments. We have been entrusted with the call to be the salt and light of the world. To show what it means to love your neighbors and to love God with all your heart, might, mind and soul. Yet the dangers of cultural assimilation are never far away. They tempt us with finding intimacy in flings, getting gratification through material goods and gaining respect by power. Why can't you be kiasu like the rest of us? Why don't you bend the rules a little? Everybody else does it anyway. I will admit and confess here that I also falter many times at the lures of the worldly ways. But it ain't over till it's over. Let us recall the plans of God for his kingdom laid out for his people. What is awry can be straightened. What is lost can be restored by the grace of God. Let us hold fast to our identity, till the race is finished and the battle won.