It is Too Wonderful

This sermon was written for Third Presbyterian Church, March 31, 2019.

Judges 13:2-25

I still catch myself in quiet moments, practicing odd things.  I will run through my Days for Girls presentation to be sure I have it down for the next event. I practice conversations (especially difficult ones) and I try to think of what responses I might hear and how I would respond to them.  I like to have a plan.  I’ve been told it’s strange that even when we go on vacation, I like to have a plan for what we will do each day, even if the plan is reading a book by the pool, I usually have a second book in my bag just in case I get bored with or finish the first one.  It’s difficult for me to have time that isn’t planned.  And I don’t like surprises, even good surprises.  So, I have plans for surprises, even unlikely events.

One of the odd things I practice and plan for is meeting an angel.  I would like to think if God sent an angel to me, I would be glad to hear the message. But probably, I wouldn’t react so well.  Best case scenario would be that I would have a lot of clarifying questions for the angel.  Hopefully, I wouldn’t say something outrageous to the angel, like “this isn’t going to fit into my five-year plan”.  It’s a good thing that God is more likely to love and forgive me (despite my flaws) than to throw lightning bolts my way. 

I like the story of Samson’s birth because his parents are both known as faithful people, and yet, they have different reactions to hearing God’s plan for their special son. 

As I researched this passage, it seemed that most commentators felt that Samson’s birth narrative reflects other birth narratives and gives hints as to what his life will be like. 

For example, the New Interpreters Bible Commentary points out that “the motif of the barren wife to whom God gives a child is associated with several famous female ancestors of Israel’s history: Sarah and her son, Isaac (Gen 11:30, 21:1-7); Rebekah and her sons, Jacob and Esau (Gen 25:21-26); Rachel and her sons, Joseph and Benjamin (Gen 29:31; 30: 22-24; 35:16-20); and Hannah and her son Samuel (1 Sam 1:1-28).”[1]  For these moms, the birth narrative reveals something about their own faith, as well as, how important their sons will be to God’s people.   

One unusual part of Samson’s birth narrative is that the angel tells his mother that he will be a Nazarite from birth to death.  Actually, he will be a Nazarite even before his birth, because of the special diet the angel gives his mother to follow.  The book of Numbers (6) describes the Nazarite vow as something adults do and only for short periods of time.  Samson struggles with this his whole life.[2]

The role Samson’s Dad plays is also reflective of other biblical men and is a little unusual. Manoah offers to feed the angel, to show some sort of hospitality the way Abram fed the angels that told him and Sarai they would have a child[3].  The angel refuses Manoah’s offer and tells him to give a burnt offering instead. 

It’s also a little unusual or unexpected that Manoah sort of inserts himself into the birth narrative.  The women’s bible commentary interprets this as a patriarchal move.  At best he is asserting his role as head of household and at worst this is a display of toxic masculinity. The commentator notes that we can see toxic behavior in Samson and perhaps he learned it from his father.  The systems that Samson and his father lived in perhaps allowed for this type of behavior in a way that modern systems would not.  I can see where they are going with this, but I want to balance that idea with scriptures telling us that both Manoah and his wife are faithful people.  We get the impression that they were chosen to be parents of a special child so maybe there is something redeeming about Manoah.  Perhaps I am hoping for a softer judgement of Manoah because I see myself reacting more like him than his wife.  He has clarifying questions.  He wants to be included in the plans.  It all seems too wonderful to be true.

So, I did a little more digging for Manoah’s sake and found a gentler rendition of the story in the book “All the Women of the Bible[4]”.  This resource gives dictionary like references about biblical women in the first half and in the second half, it reimagines biblical stories and fills in what the characters may have been thinking or feeling. 

I would like to share with you the story of Manoah’s wife and the wonder-son. Pages 265-267


Sometimes we believe like Samson’s mom.  Sometimes we have a few clarifying questions like his dad.  And both reactions are fine.  Both are examples of faithful people.  Both of them believed enough to raise Samson as a Nazarene. And they both made some mistakes with Samson.   Samson’s life reflects their love for him and God’s plans for him and all of the mistakes made along the way.  The struggle of discerning God’s will or doing God’s work is a struggle we all know.  Sometimes we believe joyfully and sometimes we don’t. 

Lent is a season in our Christian year that is a struggle.  It’s not filled with joy like Christmas but is filled with hard truths about the way in which Christ lived and died.  Lent is a season in which we struggle with what Jesus said and did and it is a season where we struggle with what his followers said and did or didn’t say and didn’t do.  It’s a season with a very harsh end, death, terrible death on a cross. And we struggle with the knowledge that it is for our sins that Christ died. 

And yet, we are people who believe that death is not the end.  That resurrection is not only possible but promised. That love has conquered sin and death and will continue to do so until the end of time.  Maybe lent does end in joy if we truly believe.  But it is hard to believe in these things that we have not seen and can not see. 

Maybe it is all just too wonderful to believe but I’m going to keep practicing talking with angels and meeting with God.  Maybe it’s all just too wonderful to believe but I’m going to pray to believe even when it’s too wonderful to be true.

More thoughts that didn’t make the cut:

Judges 13:2-25is the suggested scripture from “Remembering the Women” that goes with the Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C Lectionary passages. As with most sermons, some of the research and cool ideas doesn’t make the final draft. One small item that didn’t make the sermon was that Manoah’s wife/Samson’s mother, did have her name recorded. All the Women of the Bible (the one by Herbert Lockyer), states that, “The Talmud says that she bore the name of Hazeleponi or Zelelponi (see 1 Chronicles 4:3), and that she was of the trip of Judah. Zelelponi means “the shadow falls on me,” and Manoah’s wife was certainly one who dwelt under the shadow of the Almighty”. I thought there might be some overlap with the mother hen imagery for God because I was also doing research for the Chicken Sermon. But I didn’t have time to dig into that as part of the research stage of the sermon, nor did I have time in my delivery of the sermon to explain why she is nameless and sometimes has a name and still get the sermon done in 15 minutes…but I thought it was so cool that we might be able to know her name and it might relate to a female image of God protecting her like a mother hen.

I also wanted to spend some time with the angel’s response when asked for a name. “It is Too Wonderful”, the sermon title, came from that but I didn’t have time to explore it further in the actual sermon.

I did spend a lot of time on other events in Samson’s life and how he related to both of his parents but opted not to use that either. Instead, I told stories, because sometimes that’s what communicates examples of faithful people. It felt odd to use so much of someone else’s words in my sermon, but I’m glad I tried it anyway. It seemed that the congregation connected with the dramatic reading.

Other liturgy to go with this sermon:

Call to worship: Psalm 32:1-2, 6-7, 11

L:  Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

P:  Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

L:  Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

P:  You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

L:  Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

P: Let us worship God.

Prayer of Confession:

O Lord our God, you call us to proclaim the gospel, but we remain silent in the presence of evil.  You call us to be reconciled to you and one another, but we are content to live in separation.  You call us to seek the good of all, but we fail to resist the powers of oppression. You call us to fight pretensions and injustice, but we sit idly by, endangering the lives of people far and near.  Forgive us O Lord.  Reconcile us to you by the power of your Spirit and give us the courage and strength to be reconciled to others; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior.  Amen.

Hymns:#184 How Blest Are Those, #390 O Savior, in This Quiet Place and #84 In the Cross of Christ I Glory

Benediction:

Take your belief and your unbelief and lay them before the God, the God that loves you no matter what. Go out into the world and love others the way that God loves you.


[1] New Interpreters Bible Commentary Judges pp. 230-231

[2] NIB Judges

[3] NIB Judges

[4] By M.L. del Mastro

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